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LILY LAY FLAT on her back, her physical therapist pushing her leg up over her head as though she were a pretzel, telling her to "work it, Lily, stop whining and work it," while pain seared a fiery line from her ass to the very tip of her hair.
Lily would like to work him, all right — right into a bloody pulp.
Instead she gritted her teeth and told herself that this was the price she paid for stupidity.
No self-pity, she decided as she began to sweat like a stuck pig, her tank top sticking to her skin, her leg quivering wildly as she stretched her abused, injured muscles... Damn, she hurt.
Maybe retiring wasn't so bad. It wasn't as if it was the first time. From high school, she'd gone into expedition guiding, which she'd retired from to become a paramedic. And when she'd burned out scooping stab victims off the streets of Los Angeles, she'd retired again to become a wildland firefighter.
And she'd loved it. Thrived on it, actually, moving from fire to fire, exploring Montana, the Dakotas, Idaho, Wyoming...a perfect fit for her restless spirit.
Until she'd screwed up and nearly gotten herself killed. Nope, there was no sugarcoating this retirement; she was no longer a firefighter — because of injuries, not by choice. She felt weak and insignificant, and at the age of twenty-nine-and-three-quarters, she wasn't ready for either. She wanted to be back out there, damn it, doing her thing, going where she wished, doing something she loved and was good at.
But she couldn't have passed an agility test to save her life. Hell, she couldn't even touch her toes at the moment.
She squeezed her eyes shut and stretched harder, feeling her muscles pull and burn. And yet still, beyond the pain, she also felt...itchy. She needed to be on the move, working with adrenaline as her daily friend. It was a pattern in her life, an affliction. It was who she was, what she did.
Or who she'd used to be anyway — a terrifying thought because...who the hell was she now? "Damn it, ow," she said to her PT, a gorgeous man who resembled Denzel Washington.
Eric nodded in approval and backed off. "Was wondering if you even had a pain threshold there for a minute."
"Got it, and we hit it."
He smiled — because it wasn't his muscles they were torturing. "Wait here. I'm going to get you some ice."
She'd spent a lot of time in and out of the hospital since her Screw-Up. Major, life-threatening injuries did that to a person. But she'd still not learned to be a good waiter. In fact, waiting was for sissies who needed a minute, and she absolutely did not. She had things to do, places to go. Rolling over, she pushed up to her hands and knees, still trembling like a damn newborn.
Or a wildland firefighter who'd woken up in the middle of a full-blown flare-up, forced backwards by the flames, where she'd taken a fall off the cliff, hitting a few burning trees on the way down. Forty feet down. An ex-firefighter now, who couldn't move an inch. She collapsed to her belly, and lay there like a beached whale.
Okay, so maybe she did need a minute.
Around her the PT office buzzed with the low hum of voices, the whir of equipment. More people being pushed to the edge of sanity... Someone's cell phone rang. Lily hated cell phones. Truthfully, she wasn't crazy about anything electronic, which she supposed made her an outcast in her own generation.
But give her a wide-open space with nothing mar-ring the sound of a soft breeze any day. Thinking it, yearning, she looked out the window toward the Golden Gate Bridge. Unfortunately, San Francisco didn't have a lot of wide-open spaces. Not the way she liked them anyway, the kind that took three days of walking to get to civilization.
Nearby, something else beeped — someone's Blackberry, or a laptop — and she sighed, missing being outside. The mat beneath her smelled like the sweat and tears of all the previous patients Eric had worked over, and she crawled to one of the chairs lining the wall.
All around her were the injured and the hurting, and it depressed her enough to keep to herself. She scanned the stack of magazines. Fashion, gossip rags...then her gaze snagged on U.S. Weekly Review, and the cover article — "Adrenaline Rush."
Huh. Interested in something for the first time in too long, she risked the pain to reach for it. "Ow, ow, ow..." The magazine opened right to the cover article. Beneath the title was a single-line testimonial from the editor of the magazine.
This article changed my life, give it a try!
No article had ever changed Lily's life, and with no small amount of skepticism, she began to read. The author believed life was all about risk-taking, and how too few people actually risked at all, much less lived life to its fullest.
So far, Lily agreed. Hadn't she taken more than a few risks in her life, the latest of which had resulted in her being here right this minute? As for living life to its full-est...well, she'd done that, too. In all areas.
Okay, in all areas except maybe one, but she didn't want to think about her love life.
Or lack thereof. Men tended to come in and out of her world like the passing of a tide, no one having made a lasting impression. She knew what it said about her that she'd never had a real long-term relationship, and she didn't care. Her life wasn't conducive to long-term anyway, including men.
With a sigh, she went back to the article. "Jumpstart your life" it demanded, and went on to explain that a risk didn't have to be physical, it just had to be something off her own beaten path.
Well, since the path she'd been on had been a dizzying whirlwind of doctors and more doctors, she felt more than ready for different, thank you very much.
But how to do it? She was a mere shadow of her former self. How could she ever find the courage to risk again?
But...could she stand not to? "Ah, here you are," Eric said, returning with the promised icepack. He patted the mat next to him, and with a groan, she tossed the magazine aside and crawled back to work.
Two months later
LILY HAD HEALED just enough to be restless as hell. And frustrated.
And truthfully? Scared. It showed in the lingering nightmares of waking up surrounded by flames, it showed in her sudden dislike of being alone.
She could have called her mother, but her mother liked the idea of Lily "settling down,"
"acting her age." Lily had no siblings, and her father...well let's just say she was entirely too like him.
Or so she'd been told. Since he hadn't been around in years, she couldn't be sure.
It didn't matter. She was alone, and that's just the way it was. But for the first time in her life, she wasn't strong, and she hated that. She needed...something, something to show her she could become the person she'd been before her accident.
But more than that, she needed money. She'd been searching for a viable job for weeks now, and had found nothing to interest her. But funds were running low and the criteria was going to have to change from what interested her to what fed her.
She opened her paper to the want ads and her gaze immediately locked on one in particular. A trek guide was needed ASAP by an expedition company — Outdoor Adventures, to be exact.
Lily stared at the ad and felt a rush of emotion, along with a sense of deja vu. Outdoor Adventures, where she'd first worked as an eighteen-year-old guide, nearly twelve years ago. Jumpstart your life...take a risk... It was like a sign, right? She could start over, back at the beginning. Maybe she could become strong again. Become the person she'd once been.
Without letting herself think, she reached for the phone and called the number listed, though in truth, she somehow still had it memorized. A receptionist answered, and she heard herself ask for Keith Tyler, but when he came on the line with his low, almost unbearably familiar voice, she went still, bombarded by memories: climbing mountains, leading treks, being young and strong and...and nothing like she was now.
"Hello?" Keith said again, a hint of impatience in his tone now. "Anyone there?"
"Wow," she finally managed. "You sound the same." There was a pause. Then, "Lily? Lily Peterson?"
"How are you, Keith?"
"Thrilled to hear from you. I was just thinking about you not too long ago, wondering if you remembered me."
"Of course I remember. You were..." Would she say her first boss...or her first lover?
He merely chuckled. "Yeah, I always was hard to pigeon-hole. Still am, to be honest."
Lily lay back on her bed, closed her eyes, and was transported back in time. Having just graduated high school, she'd finally been able to give in to the wander-lust bug. She'd left Los Angeles, her mother and friends, and had gone to work as an expedition guide.
Keith's guide. Ten years her senior, he'd been gorgeously worldly, and of course, sexy as hell.All that long, hot summer, she'd worked for Outdoor Adventures, guiding hiking trips through the Sierras, teaching people about the outdoors by day, and by night...well, Keith had certainly taught her plenty by night, every night.
Until she'd moved on to her next adventure, and left him and all the memories behind.
But not too far behind, given the odd ping low in her belly just from listening to his voice. "I saw your ad in the paper," she said.
"And I saw you, not in the want ads though, but the front page. You had quite a fall."
After all these months, she still flinched. She hated that her mistake, her failure, had been so public. "Yeah."
"You broke your back. You...you're in a wheelchair now, yes?"
"But the article said you weren't expected to walk again, that — "
"I'm fine now." If fine meant a stupid limp and some serious lingering aches and pains that made her feel like an old lady all the time. "But not fine enough to fight fires?"
"And to think, once upon a time, I loved your characteristically blunt manner."
"Yeah, I guess I haven't changed much." There was a smile in his voice. "So you want to trek again? But..."
"I know I can do it." Okay, that was a little white lie. She knew no such thing. What she did know was that once upon a time, she'd been the fittest of the fit, and strong as hell. Her body had never failed her.
Until she'd failed it. "Just try me," she said, hating the desperation she could hear in her voice. Please just try me. She needed this, needed to be outside, needed to feel strong enough for something.
"You always were a great guide," Keith admitted. "I guess, if you're serious, I have a camping trek next week in the Sierras. It's high-altitude though," he warned. "And high summer. It's also seven to ten miles of walking for four days running."
"I can do it," she said quickly, even as she paled at the thought of pushing her body that hard.
"Well, once upon a time no one knew that area better than you," he admitted. "Should be right up your alley. Pre-trip meeting is in three days, my offices."
She smiled, and that alone felt...amazing. She would do this, and she'd feel worthwhile again, alive. "I'll be there."
"I guess a trip like this will be good for you, huh?" Good for her? Probably not.
But something to do, a direction to go in?
God, she hoped so.