The Victorio Peak treasure is the stuff of legends -- a heretic Spanish priest's gold mine, made even richer by the spoils of bandits and an Apache raider.
When Erin, a quiet history professor, uncovers a clue to a petroglyph map that may identify the lost treasure cave, she prepares for an adventure. But minutes after her discovery, a hit and run driver nearly kills her. The "accident" seems an unlikely coincidence, especially when followed by a series of break-ins and attacks. Apparently she's not the only one after the treasure. And is Drew, the handsome helicopter pilot who found her bleeding in a ditch, really a hero, or one of the enemy?
Erin won't give up an important historical find without a fight. She heads into the New Mexico wilderness with her brainy best friend Camie and an unusual orange cat named Tiger. They'll need Drew's help as well to track down the treasure, even though Erin isn't sure she can trust him with her heart. The wilderness holds its own dangers, from wild animals and even wild weather. Plus, the sinister men hunting Erin are determined to follow her all the way to the treasure, no matter where the twisted trail leads.
Just how far will Erin go to find the treasure and discover what she's really made of?
Erin could hardly believe what she was seeing. Could this be it? After all this time waiting, searching, had she finally, finally, found what she was looking for?
She forced herself to sit back and take a deep breath. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t rush into things. She wanted to leap up and scream her excitement, but years of academic training held. Slow down, double-check everything, and make sure you are right!
She leaned forward and ran her fingers over the grainy photograph. With that one image, everything seemed to fall into place. This was the clue. It had to be.
She fumbled in her desk drawer for a magnifying glass and studied the symbols in the photo more closely. At a glance, they looked like your standard Indian petroglyphs. You could find them throughout the Southwest, tucked away in caves or scattered among boulder fields. She’d been on a hike just a few miles outside of town which took her past a wonderful series of handprints and spirals, and what looked strangely like a robot.
But this was different.
If she was right—and she had to be right—these symbols were a map. A map that could lead her to one of the greatest caches of buried treasure ever.
Erin flipped back a few pages, to the first photograph, the one that showed an overview of the boulder field. She confirmed that it had numbers identifying the specific rocks that the book then showed in detail. She could see a few outcroppings that would help orient anyone searching for those petroglyphs. The book also had a map of the area, and clear directions. She would be able to find the carved map. If the landscape hadn’t changed too much the last century, anyway.
She pushed that thought aside, jumped up, and did a little dance.
She reached for the phone. In a few seconds a voice said, “Yeah.” Erin could hear the sound of some tool on metal in the background.
“Camie? I found it!”
The working sounds stopped. Camie said, “You’d better not be talking about that sweater you lost.”
Erin laughed. “No, I found the clue! I know where the treasure is—well, at least, I think I’ve found the first clue that will—”
Camie cut her off. “Forget the disclaimers. You really found something? You mean, we might actually do this?”
The two women screamed into the phone at each other.
Erin collapsed into her desk chair, her cheeks sore from smiling. “I’m so excited I can hardly breathe. Look, are you at work? I’ll come by. I can get out of here in, oh, fifteen minutes, so I’ll see you in half an hour?” She leaned over her desk and gazed down at the photo in the battered old book. “I want to show you where we’re going. We need to make plans.”
“I’ll be here waiting.” Camie’s voice purred, with a touch of twang. “Honey, we’re going places.”
Erin hung up and gazed at the book a moment longer. Who would believe she’d found the clue to one of the most fabulous hidden treasures ever, in a battered old library book? The book must have been sitting there for years, quietly hoarding its secrets. But she had found it. Six months of research had led to this.
In the beginning, it had been a whim. Something to distract her from the tedium of teaching history classes at a small science college where students didn’t value history. Researching lost treasures was fun, and she’d written a few articles about it for magazines. Reading the books on lost mines and buried treasures, you’d think the entire country was covered with them. The Southwest had more than its fair share, from miners who lost track of their remote gold mines, to prospectors who had buried bags of gold and never returned to retrieve them, to bandits who had hidden stolen loot and been killed.
But among all the legends, all the fact and fiction, one story stood out. The Victorio Peak legend had it all. A Franciscan priest and a swindler. Torture, murder, a government cover-up. Where was the truth, among all the stories? Erin wanted to find out. Over time, and with Camie’s encouragement, she’d started to take the treasure hunt more seriously. It wasn’t so much for the treasure itself—that would most likely belong to the government or the landowners. But from the start, she’d recognized the potential, should she ever unearth new information. Forget academic publications; this was the kind of story which could capture the general imagination and catapult her into success as a writer of popular nonfiction. It would make her reputation, open up new job opportunities—change her life in ways she hardly dared dream.
She touched the book gently. The pages were falling out; she didn’t want to risk carrying it around. Instead, Erin snapped a picture of the petroglyphs with her phone. That would be enough to show Camie for now.
She put the book back on her shelf among the hundreds of others she either owned or had borrowed from various libraries. Then she flipped through her stack of topographic maps and found the right one in southern New Mexico. She tucked the phone and the map into the small waist pack she used when biking around town.
Her stomach rumbled, a reminder that she’d been so caught up in her work she’d skipped lunch. She forced herself to stop and have a bowl of cereal. She ate standing up in the kitchen while her mind raced through the planning of the treasure hunt. The timing was perfect; she’d made her students’ final papers due the previous week, before finals. She just had to turn in grades and field a few tearful last-minute requests for extensions, and she’d be done for the semester. What better way to spend the summer, than hunting for buried treasure?
Erin shook her head. Who would’ve thought that she, the quiet, studious girl who’d spent her entire adult life in academia in one way or another, would be planning such an adventure?
She checked that the front door was locked, a habit left over from living in bigger cities, grabbed her bike helmet, and went out the back.
Erin wheeled the bike around the front of her house and mounted. At the corner, she paused and looked both ways. The long frontage road was dangerously narrow, with a cement wall on one side and a ditch on the other. Fortunately, traffic was normally light, and at this time of day the road lay empty. Erin pushed off, still grinning from her find. She rode on the right side, by the ditch, instead of facing traffic, because it was just too frightening to ride alongside the wall when a car passed.
She’d gone a block when she heard the hum of a car engine as it pulled out from a side street behind her. She rode along the very edge of the pavement, even though the car would have plenty of room to pass her without oncoming traffic.
Erin glanced over her shoulder. The black SUV 20 feet behind her hadn’t bothered to pull out into the road at all. Jerk. When would drivers learn to share the road with bicyclists? Erin pulled onto the two-foot wide gravel strip between the pavement and the ditch. She couldn’t stop without risking a skid, but she slowed so the SUV could pass.
The engine roared. Erin glanced back again.
Black metal bore down on her. Her heart lurched and the bike wobbled. This guy was crazy! She whipped her gaze forward, rose up in the seat, and pumped the pedals with all her power, skimming along inches from the ditch. He was just trying to scare her. She’d get his license plate and—
She felt the bumper hit her back tire. The bike seemed to leap into the air, and she went flying. The dried mud and weeds of the ditch seemed to rise up to meet her.
She didn’t even have time to scream.
Erin floated in darkness. Where was she? What was happening? Why did she feel like she would throw up if she tried to move?
Something was tugging at her waist. Hands? A vague thought floated through her consciousness—don’t move an accident victim. She tried to speak, though she wasn’t sure what she wanted to say. Call 911? Help? Maybe the hands were help. Somebody was there, anyway. She wasn’t alone. She tried to open her eyes, tried to ask what had happened.
The tugging at her waist stopped. She thought she heard a murmur of voices. The slam of a car door jolted her so she flinched. She only noticed the car engine when it revved up and moved away.
Silence. The air lay hot and heavy over her. The pain started to fragment into specific sensations—pounding in her head, a shooting pain in her neck, burning in her hands, knees, and one elbow, grass prickling her left cheek. She remembered the accident. She could hear the faint murmur of traffic on the highway, on the other side of the cement divider. But that was all.
What had happened to the person trying to help her? Had she imagined it?
Blackness threatened to draw her in. She had to resist it. Erin sucked in a breath and tried to focus through the pain. She’d had an accident. She was alone in a ditch. It could be hours before someone found her. She had to move, get up to the road at least. She shouldn’t move, but she had to.
She opened her eyes and saw a haze of yellow slashes. She blinked and tried to focus. The colors shimmered and would not turn into solid shapes. She blinked rapidly, tears threatening to blur her vision more. What was wrong with her eyes?
Finally she understood. Weeds were growing inches from her eyes, too close for her to focus. She lay on her stomach, head turned to the side. If she concentrated, she could feel the ground despite all the aches.
Erin flexed her right hand until she felt the ground beneath her. She waited until her brain understood where her arm was. She took a deep breath and gritted her teeth. With a groan, she pushed with her hand and rolled over. She lay gasping.
Had she said that? She didn’t think so. She forced her eyes open. She gazed up into a face, almost close enough to kiss. Blue eyes stared down at her. They seem to grow larger, filling her vision like the sky, drawing her in like a pool of cool water.
“Hold on,” a man’s voice said. “Don’t try to move. I’m calling for help.”
Help. Yes, help would be good. She closed her eyes with a sigh.
“Stay with me,” the voice demanded. Annoying. She wanted to sleep.
She heard more words, something about an accident, but didn’t try to make sense of them. Her head pounded.
A hand grabbed her wrist. “Don’t move.” Had she? She must have, her arm was in the air, her fingers brushing her head, although it felt strange, wrong, swollen and stiff and distant. Oh, right—she was wearing her bike helmet. She always wore her helmet. You never knew when you might have an accident.
The strange hand gently guided her arm down until it lay alongside her again. Erin whimpered. Rough fingertips brushed her cheek. “You’ll be all right,” the voice said. “Everything is going to be okay.”
Oh, good, Erin thought. That was all right then.
“Look at me. Stay with me.”
Erin blinked against the brightness until the blur above her resolved into those blue eyes. She could get lost in those eyes. She wanted to get lost and let everything else slip away.
The pain in her head started to shriek. No, it was something outside. A siren, wailing ever louder as it drew closer. Lights flashed in the corner of her vision. She moaned and closed her eyes against the pain.
The voice whispered over her, husky and gentle. “You’re all right now. You’ll be all right.”
Erin sat in her hospital bed, propped up by a couple of pillows. Her head still ached, her hands, elbow, and knees burned, and the side of her face stung. Her right middle finger, which she hadn’t even noticed while in the ditch, throbbed inside the metal brace that held it in a slight curve. But painkillers beat back the worst of it, and after resting for hours, her head felt fairly clear.
“You gave me a scare, you know,” Camie said.
Erin smiled. “Sorry. I’ll try not to do it again.”
Camie leaned back in the plastic visitor’s chair and shook her head so her blond curls bounced on her shoulders. “Just don’t ever tell me again you don’t want to go caving because it’s too dangerous. I’ve never been in the hospital.”
“That’s because you refuse to go even when you should. Remember your broken ankle?”
Camie grinned. “A minor detail. Anyway, it was still broken in the morning when I went to the doctor, so what’s the difference?”
Erin gazed at her hand, the splinted finger, the thick bandage over the heel where she’d torn up the skin. “It really isn’t fair. I’m the cautious one, the one who plays it safe, and look what happens.”
Camie shrugged. “Accidents happen everywhere. After I broke my ankle, people acted like, ‘Oh, you broke it rock climbing. Serves you right.’ And then they’d tell me about how they broke their ankle slipping in the shower or tripping over a curb or playing tag with the kids.” She rolled her eyes. “You never know what’s going to happen, or how much time you have left, so make the most of what you have, I say.”
“I have been trying new things,” Erin said.
Camie got up and perched on the edge of Erin’s bed. “You have, and I’m proud of you. Western riding, even rock climbing. You’re turning into quite the adventurer.”
“Thanks to you.”
Camie grinned. “I just love being a bad influence.”
Erin looked at her hand again. “I guess I won’t be doing anything too exciting for a while.” She wasn’t sure whether she felt disappointed or relieved.
“You’ll be giving people the finger everywhere you go,” Camie said. “And you’ll have a perfectly good excuse.”
“You mean like this?” Erin held her splinted finger toward Camie.
Camie touched Erin’s knee through the hospital blanket. “Seriously, you had a bad scare. Is it going to change what you’re willing to do?”
Erin hesitated, frowning. “I’m not sure yet. I’d like to say that I’m brave enough for it to make no difference.” The memories had blurred into one big jumble of confusion and pain. Even the thought of trying to sort them out left her feeling queasy. “But it was awful, and it’s still so mixed up in my mind. It might be hard for me to get on a bicycle for a while. And I don’t know how I’ll feel going past that place in the ditch.” She shuddered.
“It’s bad timing,” Camie murmured. “What with the treasure hunt.”
“I know.” Erin leaned back and closed her eyes. “I can’t think about that right now. I always loved exploration and discovery—in books. Real life is more complicated.” She opened her eyes and looked at Camie. “Don’t worry, I’m not giving up. It’s too important for that. I just... maybe I need a little time.”
“Yeah. Of course.” Camie rose and turned away. She took one step and stopped.
Erin followed the direction of her gaze and saw a man standing in the doorway. A handsome man, tall and lean in a black T-shirt and faded jeans. She didn’t know him, and yet he seemed somehow oddly familiar.
“Can we help you?” Camie asked.
The man’s gaze shifted to Erin. “Erin Hale?”
Erin nodded, suddenly aware of how she must look with her tangled hair and scraped face. At least Camie had brought her a clean shirt and shorts, so she wasn’t wearing one of those awful hospital gowns.
Camie took another step forward, positioning herself between Erin and the man. “Do you work here?”
“No.” He stepped into the room and moved to the end of the bed so he was in line with Erin again. “I, uh….” He looked from Erin to Camie and back. “I found you. In the ditch.”
“You’re the one who called the ambulance!” Camie exclaimed. She broke into a huge smile that had the man staring. “I could just kiss you for that.” To prove her point, Camie grabbed the man’s arms and planted a kiss on his cheek.
He edged back. “Uh, yeah, it was nothing.” He looked at Erin. “I just wanted to see how you’re doing. I didn’t come here for gratitude or anything.” He shrugged, looking uncomfortable. “I just got interested, you know. I know we’ve never met officially, but I couldn’t help wondering if you were okay.”
Erin could feel the warmth rising in her cheeks under his gaze. She tried to tell herself that no one expected her to look gorgeous in a hospital bed. And he’d already seen her in bad shape. But she wished she’d had a shower and a hairbrush, while at the same time wishing he would come closer, so she could get another look at those eyes.
As if in answer, he crossed the room and stood looking down at her, frowning, while his gaze traveled over her as if tallying up the damage.
Erin cleared her throat and tried to think of something to say. “I’m very grateful. I don’t know if I could have gotten out of that ditch on my own.” Her heart sped and she swallowed the acid taste that rose in her throat. It didn’t matter now. She was safe. She took a breath and forced herself to smile. “Maybe it sounds cliché to say that I owe you my life, but if you hadn’t come along, who knows when someone would have found me?”
“I can’t believe anyone would hit you and then just drive off!” Camie said. She paced the small room. “I’d like to wring his neck.”
The man opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it again.
“You know me,” Erin said, “and that’s my friend Camie.”
The man took the hint. “Drew Morgan.”
“I’d offer to shake but—” Erin held up her hand with the splinted finger.
For the first time, the man smiled. It was a good smile, one that started with a slow curve of the lips, then worked its way up into those eyes, blue as a desert sky on a summer day. He had a rugged face and tousled dark hair. Erin’s heart beat a little harder, though she doubted he was the type of man who would notice her under normal circumstances.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in town,” Camie said. “You new?”
Drew nodded. “I’ve been here a couple of weeks. It’s just temporary.”
“Doing what?” Camie asked. Not for the first time, Erin was glad her outspoken friend would take the lead.
“You know the ghost town the college bought, Silver Valley?”
“Sure, big news,” Camie said. “The college owning a whole town. Erin and I both work at the school.”
Erin remembered the local news stories from a few months before. The college, which specialized in the sciences, had an associated research group that did explosives testing. They were developing a program to train military, police, and search and rescue teams from around the world in antiterrorist training. Buying an entire ghost town a hundred miles away would give them a base for the training programs, complete with empty buildings for exercises.
“I fly helicopters,” Drew said. “I’ll be shuttling some of the brass from the college, local politicians, and so forth down there for tours.”
“Well isn’t that interesting!” Camie was all sunshine and warmth, the side of her that made most men stumble over their own tongues while they gaped at her golden girl-next-door beauty. Some might have thought Camie was flirting, but Erin caught the mischievous gleam in her friend’s eye.
“Why don’t you have a seat and tell us all about it?” Camie said, pushing the empty chair closer to Erin’s bedside. “Erin could use something to take her mind off the pain.”
Drew sat and gazed at Erin. “How bad is it?”
She shrugged, awkward under his steady gaze but unable to look away. “Right now, everything hurts, so nothing hurts worse than anything else. But the only broken bone is this one chip in my finger. Six weeks in this splint.” She made a face at it, wondering how she’d manage to type. “The only reason I’m still here is because I hit my head, and they wanted to keep me for observation.”
“It’s a good thing you had your helmet on,” Drew said.
“I always wear one.” Erin gave a wry smile, remembering all the times she’d scolded her students for riding without. “I like my brains inside my skull.”
Camie stood behind Drew, pointed at him, and mouthed the word “Hot!”
Erin struggled to keep a straight face and tried not to look at her friend. “So, uh, how do you like the town? Are you finding anything to do?”
Drew shrugged. “I play pool sometimes at the Black Dog. I’m learning to appreciate green chile.”
Erin nodded. “That pretty much covers your options. It’s not much of a town.”
“I’m used to that. I do a lot of my work in remote areas. Transporting equipment for mining or timber, dropping off hunters or fishermen. I worked tourism for a while in Alaska, based in a small town. I don’t mind.”
“That’s good.” Erin tried to think of something else to say.
Drew frowned and glanced around the hospital room. “Look, this accident. How much do you remember?”
“I don’t know.” Erin tried to think back. Her mind filled with the memory of black metal bearing down on her, the feel of flying through the air. She trembled and clenched her fists. Her broken finger screamed at the movement and brought her focus back to the present.
Drew was leaning forward, elbows on his knees. “I don’t mean to bring back bad memories. It’s just—” He hesitated and glanced up at Camie as she came to stand by Erin’s side. “Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this right now. But maybe you need to know.”
Erin stared at him as a feeling of cold lodged in her stomach. Camie’s hand squeezed her shoulder.
“I was jogging along that road,” Drew said. “I turned a corner and noticed a black SUV in the distance, pulled off to the side of the road—the wrong side. A man was coming out of the ditch. I wondered about it, you know? What he’d been doing. He drove away. When I got up to where he’d been, I started looking in the ditch. And I found you.”
Erin’s breath felt stuck in her lungs. She had a sudden memory of hands pulling at her waist, of thinking she had help, and then being alone. She stared into Drew’s blue eyes, but she no longer felt the warmth of a summer sky.
Drew frowned. “Are you sure this was an accident?”
Erin opened her mouth to protest but could think of nothing to say. She felt cold and tugged the hospital blanket higher.
“Erin!” Mitchell Broadwell strode into the room, looking as sharp as a lawyer in his expensive business suit. He pushed past Drew’s chair and bent to kiss Erin. “Hello, darling. I came as soon as I heard.” He straightened and glared down at Drew with his hand still on Erin’s shoulder. She had to crane her neck to see him. “Who are you?”
“Drew Morgan.” He didn’t offer his hand.
“He found me,” Erin said.
“I’ll thank you for that,” Mitchell said. “But you have no right coming here and spouting some conspiracy theory. Erin needs to rest.”
Drew leaned back in his chair and stretched out his long legs. “I’d say she needs to know the truth.”
Mitchell scowled. “The truth is she was the victim of a terrible accident. If someone hit her and drove off, it’s because he was scared. Probably drunk. It’s terrible, but there’s no need to turn it into something else.”
The men stared at each other, like two dogs ready for a fight. Erin struggled to catch up with the situation. She knew she should be pondering what Drew had said, but she was too busy blushing about Mitchell’s behavior. She had gone on a few dates with him, but she wished he hadn’t acted so possessive. Maybe she should have been flattered, but she still wished he hadn’t... not in front of Drew. It was foolish to think that the handsome stranger would ever have any more interest in her than what he’d said—curiosity about the fate of the poor creature he’d rescued from a ditch. But Erin had been enjoying his attention.
Mitchell squeezed Erin’s shoulder, causing her to wince against the pressure on her bruises. Mitchell’s gaze stayed on Drew. “Erin has been through enough today. She needs her rest. Goodbye.”
“Mitchell, really.” Erin tried to shrug off his hand. “He saved my life—”
Drew rose. “It’s all right. I’ll be on my way.” He held Erin’s gaze for a long moment. “I’m glad you’re all right.” He smiled at Camie and headed for the door, calling back over his shoulder, “I’ll see you ladies around.”
Erin sighed and looked down at her hands. “Honestly, Mitchell there was no need to be rude.”
He sat in the vacated chair. “I’m just looking out for you. And you can’t possibly believe there’s anything behind that ridiculous idea. Who would want to hurt you?”
Erin shook her head. She couldn’t imagine why anyone would. She wasn’t the type to make enemies. She worked hard and didn’t cause trouble. People were more likely to forget her name than to hold a grudge against her.
“You see?” Mitchell nodded. “He was just showing off, trying to impress you.”
That seemed equally unlikely, but Erin said nothing. Camie settled on the edge of the bed, across from Mitchell. She didn’t speak, but Erin noted the narrowing of her eyes and hoped she wouldn’t cause more trouble.
“Let’s just forget about it,” Erin said. She didn’t want to remember the details of the accident. It was horrible enough without worrying about what exactly the driver had done. Mitchell was probably right anyway. Some drunk driver had swerved and run her off the road. Maybe he’d stopped and gotten out, but then been so scared by what he’d done that he drove off. Nothing else made sense.
“Where were you going, anyway?” Mitchell asked.
“What?” Erin looked at him and tried to put aside her other thoughts. “Oh, to see Camie.”
Mitchell smiled. “Any particular reason?”
Erin frowned, trying to remember, though she couldn’t see why it mattered. Oh right, the clue. It seemed ages ago that she’d been so excited about her discovery. She tried to recapture the feeling, but it stayed out of reach.
“Do friends need a reason to see each other?” Camie drawled, sweet as honey.
“Of course not. I was just making conversation.” Mitchell turned his gaze back to Erin. He was awfully good-looking, with his sun-streaked blond hair and trim build in the well-tailored suit. Erin had been shocked at first when such a handsome man started flirting with her. But now she couldn’t help comparing his polished, professional look to Drew’s ruggedness and feeling a bit disappointed.
“Just trying to get Erin’s mind off of the accident,” Mitchell added. “So, how’s the treasure hunting? Any progress?”
Camie’s hand brushed Erin’s arm, a silent warning. Erin had talked about the treasure hunt with Mitchell, but she’d always been careful to keep specific details of her investigations secret. At the start, it has been mostly a game, as if she and Camie were little girls whispering secrets at a slumber party. She hadn’t believed it would ever matter. Then Erin had developed new theories, followed a fresh path. She knew well enough that if she was right, plenty of people would love to get their hands on the treasure. She and Camie had to keep their secrets, if they wanted to be first.
Erin gave Mitchell a smile she hoped was casual. “Oh, you know, you follow a lead and then it turns out to be nothing. But I’ll keep looking.” She held up her injured hand. “I guess I’ll have plenty of time for research while I recover.”
“Of course. Let me know if I can help. I’d enjoy seeing your research.” He leaned forward and stroked a hand down her arm. “Plus, it’s a good excuse to spend more time with you.”
She nodded. At times, she had wanted to tell Mitchell more, if only to show him that she could be interesting. She had even briefly considered inviting him to join her on the search. It would give them something to do together, forge a bond that went beyond the occasional dinner date, help her feel less awkward.
But it wasn’t just her project, it was Camie’s too. Erin might be doing the historical research, but Camie listened to her ideas and put things together. She was inventing a gadget to help them find the specific location, once Erin had the right area—a gadget to see through rock. And most important of all, she provided courage. Erin knew she would never have been able to take the hunt seriously without her friend’s encouragement. Sometimes it astonished Erin that she and Camie had become friends, when they were so different. But Camie was the best friend she had ever had, and she would never betray that. The details of the hunt were their secret. She smiled at Mitchell and wished he would go away, so she could let down her guard and rest.
Drew stood just outside the door, out of sight. He’d met enough scoundrels in his life to suspect that Mitchell was up to something. Was he really just possessive about his girlfriend and trying to protect her from worry? Drew thought he’d caught some other weird undercurrent in the room. Nothing he’d overheard since slipping out had changed his mind.
The treasure hunt intrigued him. Erin didn’t seem like the type. Of course, he’d hardly seen her at her best, lying injured in a ditch and then pale and bruised in a hospital bed. But the way she spoke, her voice soft and precise, the way she kept looking down at her hands, blushing under his gaze—it all suggested someone shy and serious. A bookworm, not an adventuress.
He couldn’t figure her out. He knew women who were rough and ready fighters, working in a man’s world and holding their own through sheer determination and guts. He could almost see Camie that way, despite her blond curls and soft curves. She’d been ferociously protective of her friend, and her movements were quick and confident.
Erin didn’t seem to fit that category. But she certainly wasn’t like the women who hung out at bars, just about the only place he met young, single women, in his line of work. Women threw themselves at him, and he knew why—he was good-looking, and he was a helicopter pilot, which automatically meant cool. He tried not to let it go to his head, and he didn’t go around breaking hearts, if he could help it. He was good at telling which women would be up for fun times with no strings attached. In his work, moving around every few months, it was safer to date women who wouldn’t put up a fuss when it came time for him to leave.
Erin was fairly young, not quite 30, he guessed. He thought she would be pretty once her scrapes healed and the exhaustion left her eyes. But he couldn’t imagine her flirting at a bar. She wore her dark hair short and tidy; her tailored T-shirt and denim shorts didn’t reveal much of the slim build underneath. She almost reminded Drew of the practical, middle-aged women who ran most of the company offices where he’d worked. The ones who knew every minute of the schedule and never made a mistake, yet didn’t seem to notice that they were underpaid and underappreciated. And yet, Erin didn’t quite fit that category either.
Drew shook his head. Why was he getting caught up in this? Of course he was interested in her welfare; after rescuing somebody, you wanted to make sure they really were okay, and if they were a great person who would go on to live a productive life, so much the better. Even when he was called on for search and rescue flights, he got interested in the victims. And when he had to retrieve a body, he felt a pang of regret for the person’s lost future and for the grieving family and friends.
But seeing Erin hadn’t sated his curiosity. It comforted him to know she wasn’t badly injured, but he still felt oddly protective. He didn’t like that. It was safer not to get involved.
He shook his head again, trying to tell himself it was just how pale and fragile she looked, and it didn’t matter—she had Camie to look after her. And that guy, for whatever he was worth.
The man was still asking questions about the treasure hunt, and the women were still dodging. It was funny how clear you could read between the lines when you only listened to the voices and didn’t see the faces.
“All right, that’s enough chatter,” Camie said. “Erin needs her rest.”
“Of course.” After a moment, Mitchell added, “Why don’t you take off, and I’ll sit here with her until she falls asleep.”
Drew could picture the fire in Camie’s eyes as she growled, “I’m not going anywhere until I can take Erin with me.”
Drew grinned. Now that was a friend worth having. He heard the chair scrape and Mitchell grumbling, so he slipped away down the hall.
Erin submitted to pokes and prods from the medical staff until finally they declared her fit enough to go home. When they returned her belongings, she told them they could throw away the ripped and stained shorts and T-shirt—she didn’t want to see them again. The sight of her waist pack brought a vague anxiety. She fumbled through it and found her wallet intact, complete with money and credit card, plus her keys, phone, and odds and ends like lip balm. She told herself she’d just felt nervous having it out of her sight for so long. If she still felt uneasy, it was probably the painkillers and the headache they couldn’t quite hide.
Twenty minutes later, Camie pulled her Jeep into Erin’s driveway. Erin gazed at her cute little two-story house and smiled. One of the advantages of small-town living was being able to afford a whole house all by herself. It might be a rental, but at that moment it felt like home. She wanted nothing more than to stagger upstairs and collapse in bed, safe and cozy, and forget about her aches for a while.
Camie opened her car door and then glanced back at Erin. “You need help?”
Erin sighed. “No. I just need the energy to move.” She reached for her seatbelt, wincing when the finger brace smacked the clip. She switched to her left hand and fumbled with the belt, then reached across her body to open the door. She had to injure her dominant hand, of course. She let herself out of the Jeep slowly, trying not to jar her aching body.
Camie rounded the Jeep and stayed by Erin’s side as they went up the walk. “Home,” Erin whispered as she dragged herself up the three steps to the porch.
Camie dug Erin’s key out of her waist pack and unlocked the door. She pushed it open with a grin. “Your castle, my lady.”
Erin took two steps through the doorway, glanced left into the living room, and froze. A pile of sofa pillows half hid the overturned coffee table. Soggy flowers lay in a mess of glass shards from a shattered vase. The little pictures and knickknacks from the fireplace mantel had been scattered across the floor.
Erin spun toward her office, to the right of the front door. Her vision blurred from the quick move and she staggered until she could grab onto the door frame. She blinked back tears as the room came into focus. Books had been pulled from the shelves, her desk drawers pulled out and emptied, the contents of her file cabinet dumped in a pile. The room was a mess except for the top of her desk, which was unnaturally empty.
Erin moaned and leaned against the door frame. Her house had been ransacked and her computer stolen.