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Smoky Mountains Ranger
The Mighty McKenzies Series (Book#1)
A dangerous mountain escape.
An attraction neither can deny.
Adam McKenzie’s protective instincts are on overdrive, but Jody Ingram is no helpless victim. She refuses to abandon the injured ranger who saved her life despite the mysterious gunmen hot on her trail. When their forced flight through treacherous mountain terrain leads to unbridled passion, Adam must decide if guarding Jody 24/7 is worth the risk to his life and his heart…
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Adam ducked behind a massive, uprooted tree, the tangle of dead roots and blackened branches his only cover on this wildfire-blighted section of the Great Smoky Mountains. Had the man holding the pistol seen him? He ticked off the seconds as he slid his left hand to the Glock 22 holstered at his waist. When half a minute passed without sounds of pursuit, he inched over to peer up the trail and moved his hand to the radio strapped to his belt. After switching to the emergency channel, he pressed the button on his shoulder mic.
“This is Ranger McKenzie on the Sugarland Mountain Trail.” He kept his voice low, just above a whisper. “There’s a yahoo with a gun up here, about a quarter mile northwest of the intersection with the Appalachian Trail. Requesting backup. Over.”
Nothing but silence met his request. He tilted the radio to see the small screen. After verifying the frequency and noting the battery was fully charged, he pressed the mic again.
“Ranger McKenzie requesting backup. Over.” Again, he waited. Again, the radio was silent. Cell phone coverage in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was hit-or-miss. It didn’t matter if someone was coming up from the Tennessee side, like Adam, or hiking in from the North Carolina border. Cell phones up here were unreliable. Period. Which was why he and the rest of the staff carried powerful two-way radios that worked everywhere in the park.
With one exception.
The Sugarland Mountain Trail, where the devastating Chimney Tops wildfire had destroyed a communication tower.
Budget cuts meant the rebuilding was slow and had to be prioritized. Rehabilitating habitats, the visitors’ center and the more popular, heavily used trails near the park’s entrance were high on that list. Putting up a new tower was close to the bottom. So, naturally, the first and only time that Adam had ever encountered someone with a gun in the park, it happened in the middle of the only dead zone.
There would be no backup.
If the guy was just a good old boy out for target practice, the situation wouldn’t even warrant a call back to base. Adam could handle it on his own and be on his way. But the stakes were higher today—much higher—because of two things.
One, the faded blue ink tattoos on the gunman’s bulging biceps that marked him as an ex-con, which likely meant he couldn’t legally possess a firearm and wouldn’t welcome a federal officer catching him with one.
Two, the alarmingly pale, obviously terrified young woman on the business end of Tattoo Guy’s pistol.
Even from twenty yards away, peering through branches, Adam could tell the gunman had a tenuous grasp on an explosive temper. He gestured wildly with his free hand, his face bright red as he said something in response to whatever the petite redhead had just said.
Her hands were empty and down at her sides. Unless she’d shoved a pistol in the back waistband of her denim shorts, she didn’t appear to have a weapon to defend herself. The formfitting white blouse she wore didn’t have any pockets. Even if she’d hidden a small gun, like a derringer, in her bra, there was no way she could get it out faster than the gunman could pull the trigger.
Did they know each other? Was this a case of domestic violence? Since the two were arguing, it seemed likely that they did know each other. So, what had brought them to the brink of violence? And what had brought them to this particular trail?
Neither of them was wearing a backpack. Unless they had supplies at a base camp somewhere, that ruled them out as NOBOs on the AT who’d gone seriously off course and gotten lost. Not that he’d expect any northbound through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail in the middle of summer anyway. Most NOBOs started out on the two-thousand-plus-mile hike around March or April so they could reach Mount Katahdin in Maine before blizzards made the AT impassable. But even if they were day hikers, they had no business being on the Sugarland trail. It was closed, for good reason. The wildfire damage made this area exceedingly dangerous. Now it was dangerous for an entirely different reason.
An idiot with a pistol.
So much for the peaceful workday he’d expected when he’d started his trail inspection earlier this morning.
He switched the worthless radio off, not wanting to risk a sudden burst of static alerting the gunman to his presence. The element of surprise was on his side and he aimed to keep it that way as long as possible, or at least until he came up with a plan.
He belatedly wished he’d dusted off his Kevlar and put it on this morning. But even though he was the law enforcement variety of ranger, as opposed to an informational officer, the kind of dangers he ran into up here didn’t typically warrant wearing a bullet-resistant vest. The heat and extra weight tended to outweigh the risks of not having a vest on since the possibility of getting into a gunfight while patrolling half a million acres of mostly uninhabited mountains and forests was close to zero.
Still, it wasn’t the bullets that concerned him the most. It was the steep drop-off behind the woman. One wrong step and she’d go flying off the mountain. The edge was loose and crumbling in many places, particularly in this section of the trail. The couple—if that’s what they were—couldn’t have picked a worse spot for their argument.
Sharp boulders and the charred remains of dozens of trees littered the ravine fifty feet below. Branches stuck up like sharp spikes ready to impale anything—or anyone—unlucky enough to fall on them.
Twenty feet farther north or south on this section of the Sugarland path would provide a much better chance of survival if the worst happened. The slope wasn’t as steep and was carpeted with thick wild grasses. Fledgling scrub brush dotting the mountainside might help break someone’s fall if they lost their footing. They’d still be banged up, might twist an ankle or even crack a bone. But that was preferable to plunging into a rocky ravine with no chance of survival.
The gunman and the woman were still arguing. But Adam couldn’t figure out what they were saying. Sometimes sounds carried for miles out here. Other times a person could barely hear someone a few yards away. It all depended on the wind and the configuration of mountains, rocks and trees nearby.
At the man’s back, a vertical wall of sheer rock went straight up to a higher peak. In front of him was the woman and the sharp drop-off. Sneaking up on him just wasn’t going to happen. Either by luck or by design, he’d chosen a spot that was impossible to approach without being seen.
As Adam watched, the man gestured with his pistol for the woman to head south, away from Adam. When she didn’t move, he stepped forward. She backed up, moving perilously closer to the edge. Adam drew a sharp breath. If he didn’t do something fast, this was going to end in tragedy. He’d have to approach openly, giving up his element of surprise, and hope that cooler heads prevailed.
He unsnapped the safety flap on his holster—just in case—and straightened. Keeping his gaze trained on the ground, he boldly stepped onto the path in plain sight and whistled a tune—AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” It seemed appropriate at the moment.
Continuing to look down and pretending not to notice the couple, his hope was to get as close to them as possible and appear nonthreatening—just a ranger in the mountains, doing his job. Most people didn’t realize the difference between informational officers and federal law enforcement rangers anyway. They’d assume the pistol holstered on his belt was for protection against bears or other dangerous wildlife. Usually, it was.
In his peripheral vision, he saw the man shove his pistol into his pants pocket. Adam kept moving forward, head down, increasing the volume of his whistling and tapping his thigh to the beat.
“You gonna run into us or what?” the man’s voice snapped.
Adam jerked his head up as if in surprise, stopping a few feet away from the couple. “Sorry, folks. Must have been daydreaming. Pretty morning for it, don’t you think?” He smiled and waved toward the mountains around them. “Even with the blight from the wildfires, it’s still beautiful up here.”
The man watched him with open suspicion as if sizing him up and trying to decide whether Adam really hadn’t seen the gun. The woman stared at him, her green eyes big and round behind matching green-framed glasses. But instead of seeming relieved to have help, she appeared to be even more terrified than before.
Adam struggled to maintain his smile. “I’m Ranger Adam McKenzie. You folks lost? Got to admit I’m a bit surprised to see you on this particular trail. Know why?”
Tattoo Guy seemed to come to some kind of decision and offered his own smile that didn’t quite reach his dark eyes. “Afraid I don’t. Why?”
“Because the trail is closed, for your safety. It’s because of the fires last season. You heard about those? Burned over seventeen thousand acres, ten thousand of them right here in the park. Killed fourteen people, too.” He didn’t have to fake his wince. The fire had been horrible, tragic. Innocent civilians—including children—had perished in the flames. Families had been destroyed. The community was still struggling to recover as best they could. But nothing could replace the precious lives that were lost.
The man glanced at the woman, his eyes narrowed as if in warning. “Can’t say that I’ve heard about that. I’m not from around here.”
“What about you, miss?” Adam grinned again. “Sorry. Where are my manners? I didn’t catch your name. I’m Adam McKenzie. And you are?” He held out his hand to shake hers, purposely leaving enough space between them so that she’d have to move away from the edge to take his hand.
She looked at the other man as if for permission, then leaned toward Adam, her hand out. As soon as she grasped his hand, he pumped it up and down in a vigorous shake, pulling her even farther away from the edge.
“Your name, ma’am?”
“I, um, Jody. My name’s Jody Ingram.” She shook his hand, eyes wide with fear.
“Pleased to meet you.” Adam let her go and held his hand out toward the gunman. “And you are?”
The man’s nearly black eyes dropped to Adam’s outstretched hand while he clearly debated his response. A handshake required that he use his right hand, his dominant hand, the one that had held the pistol earlier. He’d be giving up precious seconds of reaction time if he decided that Adam was a threat and he needed to draw his gun. Which of course was exactly why Adam wanted to shake his hand.
Adam was left-handed.
And his pistol was holstered just a few inches from where his left hand currently hung down by his side.
Come on, come on. Shake the clueless cop’s hand.
An awkward silence stretched out between them as no one moved. Adam pretended not to notice. He kept his hand out, waiting, a goofy grin on his face. From the corner of his eye, Adam saw the woman watching them closely, her gaze sweeping back and forth.
Finally, the man mumbled something beneath his breath that sounded suspiciously like “stupid hillbilly” before gripping Adam’s hand.
Adam yanked hard, jerking the man off balance. The man stumbled as Adam grabbed the butt of his gun in the holster. But Tattoo Guy was lightning fast. Even as Adam began to draw his pistol, the other guy was already drawing his and swinging it toward him.