By R.C. Ryan

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Rancher and mountain climber Josh Conway has never backed down from a challenge. So when a photographer disappears in the wilderness during a blizzard, Josh answers the emergency call and leaps into action. Yet he’s soon shocked to find the person in “distress” is doing fine-and she’s a gorgeous blond spitfire who’s as brave and bold as he is.

Sierra Moore will stop at nothing to capture the perfect picture, even if it means braving a snowstorm in the mountains. She’s not used to being rescued, especially by a ruggedly handsome cowboy who makes her heart skip a beat. Sierra can’t turn down Josh’s invitation to ride out the storm at the Conway family ranch-and she can’t resist his slow, steamy kisses, either. But this mysterious beauty is hiding a deadly secret. Now as a dangerous force closes in on her, Sierra fears it will destroy everyone she cares about . . . starting with Josh.


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Table of Contents

A Preview of Jake

A Preview of Quinn


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Conway ranch—Present Day

Hoo boy." Josh Conway, fresh from morning chores in the barn, shook the rain from his dark, shaggy hair before hanging a sodden rain slicker on a hook in the mudroom. He bent to wash his hands at the big sink, and stepped into the kitchen of the family ranch. "Rain's coming down out there like the storm of the century."

"That's what it looks like to me, boyo." Big Jim was standing by the window sipping coffee and watching dark clouds boiling around the peaks of the Tetons in the distance. Jagged slices of lightning illuminated the ever-darkening sky and turned the leaves of the cottonwoods to burnished gold.

Though it was early autumn in Wyoming, there was a bite to the air, hinting at what was to come.

"Do I smell corn bread? Now that ought to brighten my day." Josh made a beeline for the counter beside the oven, where Ela was cutting a pan of her corn bread into squares.

"Wait for the others." The old Arapaho woman rapped his knuckles with her wooden spoon, but she couldn't help grinning as he stuffed a huge slice in his mouth before turning away to snag a glass of orange juice from a tray.

Cole, who had been going over financial papers in his office, paused in the doorway just as Quinn and his new bride, Cheyenne, came striding in, arm in arm.

"Good," Quinn said in a loud stage whisper. "They haven't finished breakfast yet."

"Haven't even started." Phoebe, the family's longtime housekeeper, hurried across the room to hug them both.

After the disappearance of their mother, she had been hired to help Ela with the household and to help raise the three boys. A young widow herself, she'd sold her hardscrabble ranch and moved in to become their trusted friend and confidante, and their biggest supporter as they'd made the difficult journey through childhood and adolescence. Now, looking at the grown men she'd helped raise, she was as proud as a mother hen.

"And you just happened to be in the neighborhood," Josh deadpanned.

"That's right." Quinn helped himself to a cup of steaming coffee. "After morning chores at Cheyenne's ranch, we figured we'd amble over here and see if you needed any help."

"Amble? Bro, you had to drive a hundred miles an hour to get here in time for breakfast." Jake, their youngest brother, and the family prankster, stepped in from the mudroom, his sleeves rolled to the elbows, his hair wet and slick from the downpour.

Cheyenne shared a smile with her husband. "I told you they wouldn't buy the story that we just happened to be in the neighborhood."

"The only thing that happens to be in this neighborhood is Conway cattle," Big Jim said with a chuckle. "And maybe a few of Quinn's wolves and Cheyenne's mustangs."

"I'm betting they'd start a stampede for some of Ela's corn bread."

At Quinn's remark, they all laughed louder.

"That's one of the reasons we're here." Quinn turned to Ela. "Cheyenne and I have used your recipe, but it never turns out like yours."

Josh winked at his new sister-in-law. "I bet she left out a key ingredient, just so you'd always have to come back here to get the best."

"You see, Ela?" Jake was grinning from ear to ear. "I told you it would work."

They all joined in the laughter.

"Sit down, everybody."

At Phoebe's invitation they gathered around the big wooden trestle table and began passing platters of ham and eggs, potatoes fried with onions and peppers, and Ela's corn bread, as well as an ample supply of wild strawberry preserves, a favorite of Big Jim's.

Phoebe circled the table, topping off their cups of coffee.

Jake filled his plate before handing the platter to Josh. "Big Jim and I are heading up to the hills after breakfast."

"You're heading right into the storm," Josh remarked.

"Yeah. I've been watching those clouds." Jake nodded toward the window, where the sky had been growing murkier by the hour. "Want to come along, bro?"

Josh helped himself to eggs. "Sure. A little rain doesn't bother me. I can lend a hand. You doctoring some cattle, Doc Conway?"

Jake nodded. "Pretty routine stuff. But the work goes a lot faster with an extra pair of hands."

When Josh's cell phone rang, he idly glanced at the caller ID. His voice took on a businesslike tone as he answered. "Josh Conway." He listened in silence before saying, "Okay. I'm on it."

As he tucked his phone into his shirt pocket, he turned to Jake with a grin. "Guess I'll have to take a pass on going along with you and Big Jim. I'm needed on the mountain."

Cole shook his head. "I wouldn't want to climb those peaks in this storm. How come they never call on you to climb on a sunny day?"

"I guess because no fool hiker ever gets himself lost in good weather, Pa." Josh drained his cup and pushed away from the table. "I think it's some kind of rule of the universe that every careless hiker in the world decides to climb the Tetons just before the biggest storm of the century blows through."

He left the room to fetch his gear, which he always kept packed and ready for emergency calls. Through the years Josh Conway had built a reputation as a fearless, dependable climber who could be counted on to locate lost hikers who couldn't be found by the rangers.

When he returned to the kitchen, Phoebe handed him a zippered, insulated bag.

At his arched brow she merely smiled. "Something to eat on the drive to your mountain."

"Thanks, Phoebe." He brushed a kiss over her cheek before giving a salute to the rest of his family. "See you soon."

"Take care, boyo," Big Jim said gruffly as Josh turned to leave the room.

Big Jim listened as his grandson's footsteps echoed through the mudroom and out the back door and then glanced at his family gathered around the table. Though their conversation had resumed, it was muted. And though they never spoke of it, every one of them knew that there was no such thing as a routine climb. Not when the one doing the climbing was there because the professionals had already tried, without success, to find a missing hiker.

Josh was their last resort. The strong, capable loner who would never give up until the one who was lost was found.

See you soon.

Josh's parting words played through Big Jim's mind.

Funny, he thought, that ever since Seraphine disappeared all those years ago, none of them could ever bring themselves to say good-bye.

Maybe it was just as well.

Good-bye seemed so final.

"The missing hiker's named Sierra Moore." Mitch Carver, a ranger who had been working the Teton Range for over twenty years, tipped back his chair and idly tapped a pen against the desktop, the only sign of his agitation. "A professional photographer and veteran hiker. When she filled out the required backcountry use permit, she was warned of possible storms in the area, and she said she was hoping to capture them on film. I didn't think much of it until she failed to check in with our station. I tried her contact number, and she never responded. It could mean that she simply forgot to power up her cell. Or the storm may have knocked out any chance of a signal. But her lack of response could mean she's in trouble. And since she didn't fill out the names of any friends or family to contact, I decided to send Lee to track her. But she wasn't found in the area where she'd said she was heading." He glanced at the papers she'd filled out. "Midlevel, possibly climbing as high as the western ridge."

"Lee knows his stuff." Josh had worked with rangers Mitch Carver and Lee Haddon for years, and was comfortable that neither of them would ask his help unless they were convinced that they'd chased every lead they could.

Mitch returned to his pen tapping. "Lee found no trace of her. None of the rangers spotted her. So far she hasn't taken advantage of any of the rest areas or campsites, though they're all on alert to watch for her. It's like she just vanished."


Josh felt the quick little shiver that passed through him and resented the fact that even now, all these years later, the word could have this effect on him.

"Okay." He forced himself to relax. "We know she's somewhere on the mountain. And with the storm, she's probably hunkered down somewhere until it blows over. Mark all the places that Lee hiked, and I'll chart a different route."

Mitch handed over the map with a highlighted overlay.

Seeing Josh's arched brow, he grinned. "After all these years, I'm pretty good at anticipating what you'll ask for."

Josh studied the trail taken by Lee Haddon. It was the logical path to the area the missing hiker had indicated. That meant that she'd been sidetracked along the way, or had chosen to climb higher than she'd first planned. The latter seemed unlikely, considering the fierce storms she must be dealing with. But he had to consider every possibility.

He began making a mental trail of his own. Though most hikers came to these mountains once or twice in their lives, this was Josh's home turf. He didn't need a physical map to tell him where every peak, every dangerous dip, curve, and valley lay.

The storm changed everything, though. Here at ground level, he had to contend with only thunder, lightning, and heavy rain. If forced to climb to the higher elevations, that would change to snow and sleet and tremendous winds.

Josh picked up his gear and strode to the door of the ranger's office. "I'll be in contact."

"I know you will." Mitch Carver lifted his hand in a salute as the door closed.

Josh had been climbing steadily for hours. And though he'd found no trail, not even a trace of another human being, he continued on.

As he'd suspected, the rain had turned to sleet in the higher elevations and now had turned to a bitter snow driven by an even more furious, blinding wind. It whistled up the side of the mountain, flinging a sudden spray of ice and snow in his eyes, like a slap in the face.

He needed to stop for the day and make camp. His muscles were beginning to protest the extra effort it took to climb over slick, ice-covered rock. His fingers had long ago lost all feeling. Despite the protective glasses, his eyes burned from the constant buffeting of wind and snow.

When he arrived at a flat stretch of space between two towering peaks, he lowered his pack and used it as a seat while he fumbled with his cell phone.

Hearing Mitch's voice, he said, "Good. At least I have service here. I was afraid I was too high to get through."

"You're fading. I'll probably lose you any second now. Any sign of our hiker?"

"Not yet. I'm at the North Ridge."

"That high? You've been doing some serious climbing, my friend."

Josh laughed. "I'm going to call it a day. Make camp here, then start a horizontal tomorrow before deciding if I want to go any higher."

"Okay. Stay in touch."

"You do the same."

He tucked away his cell phone and began looking around for a spot to set up his small tent.

The wind had picked up to nearly gale force, kicking up snow in little funnels that were nearly blinding.

He blinked, wondering if his eyes were playing tricks on him. When he looked a second time, he knew that what he was seeing was real. A small white bubble tent was snugged up against a snow-covered peak, making it almost invisible. Had it not been for the extreme wind, causing it to shimmer with each sudden blast, it would have been impossible to see. Almost, he thought, as though it had been deliberately set up that way to deceive the eye.

At the same moment, a strange thought leapt unbidden into his mind.

Was this how his mother had been able to leave without a trace? Had she yearned for a new life, far from the demands of a husband and sons and the loneliness of ranching, using camouflage to make her escape across the mountains?

Almost as soon as the thought formed, he banished it from his mind. His memories of his mother, though distant and scattered, were happy ones. Seraphine had been a loving, though unconventional, mother. She neither cooked nor cleaned, but she had happily read to her sons, and played classical music, and directed them in plays and musicals for hours on end. When her boys grew weary and insisted on doing the things boys loved, playing outside or riding their ponies, she would simply take her books and music outdoors and watch them from a nearby hill.

Though she was athletic, with a lithe, sinewy dancer's body, she never took part in any of their outdoor activities that Josh could recall. That told him that she would have never resorted to climbing these mountains.

Josh had never seen her unhappy or moody or less than exuberant about life. She would often tell her boys that while she missed the thrill of dancing onstage and the adulation of the audience, she didn't miss the gypsy lifestyle, living in dingy hotel rooms, traveling from town to town. She seemed to genuinely love being a rancher's wife and their mother, and she had treasured being anchored by their big, comfortable home and the sprawling land around it.

But there had never been an explanation for the fact that she vanished without a trace. There had been only theories.

The code of silence that had descended upon the family prevented any of them from knowing just what Cole Conway believed to be true. Did he suspect desertion by an unfaithful wife? Foul play? An alien abduction?

Josh pulled himself back from the thoughts that had plagued him for a lifetime. He forced himself back to the present and the job at hand.

If, as he suspected, this was the tent of Sierra Moore, his task had just become a lot simpler than he'd imagined.

Hopefully the saga of the missing climber would have a happy conclusion, and by this time tomorrow he would be enjoying another helping of Ela's corn bread.


Josh got to his feet and hefted his pack before facing into the storm. At this elevation, it was much worse than it had been below. Wind whipped about, causing him to bend almost double as he crossed to the snow-covered wall of rock.

Outside the small tent he dropped his gear and cupped his hands to his mouth.

"Hello in the tent."

He paused a beat, hoping to hear a voice above the sound of the roaring wind. Hearing nothing, he unzipped the flap and stepped inside, bracing for the sight of a frightened and possibly injured female, cowering from the wrath of such a fierce storm howling around her.

With his first step he felt something shoved roughly between his shoulder blades, and a sultry voice that was barely a whisper above the roar of the wind.

"State your business. If you make any sudden moves, I'll shoot you where you stand."

"Hold on now." He lifted his hands, while his gaze swept the tiny space. There was a bedroll and a portable cookstove casting an eerie, flickering light. "I'm searching for Sierra Moore."

"Why? Who sent you?"

"Mitch Carver, chief ranger."

"Why would the ranger—"

He moved so quickly, the words she'd been about to speak were cut off as his fingers closed like a vise around her hand and he took her down in the same instant, sending her weapon flying through the air.

"Damn you…" Her muffled comments were lost in the sound of their fierce scuffle.

Josh gave a hiss of pain when she sank her teeth into his hand and another as her knee landed in his groin. Despite her furious attempts to fight him, she was no match for his size and physical strength.

He quickly subdued her, straddling her and locking her arms above her head in an iron grip.

"Now, as I see it, you have two choices." He was breathing hard. "You can keep fighting me, in which case you'll wear yourself out and I'll eventually subdue you anyway, or you can promise to hear me out without any more attempts at violence. After which, if you're not satisfied with my explanation, I'll be more than happy to leave." He stared down into her eyes, which were narrowed on him with utter contempt. "Your call."

From between clenched teeth she said, "I'll listen. But only after you let me go."

He eased his grip on her hands, and got carefully to his feet. When he offered her a hand up, she ignored it, and got to her knees, before standing and facing him.

She was dressed all in black, from her skintight leggings to the black turtleneck, revealing a reed-slender body and long, long legs. Straight, waist-length blond hair fell in disarray around a face that would have looked right at home in a toothpaste commercial, with high cheekbones, porcelain skin, and dark lashes outlining golden-flecked blue eyes that were, at the moment, staring daggers at him.

He saw the way she darted a glance downward, as though searching for her weapon. "Don't even think about going for it. I'm not here to hurt you."

She crossed her arms over her heaving chest and fixed him with a hateful look. Her voice was soft and breathy from their skirmish.

"If that's true, say your piece and leave me alone."

"Happy to." He indicated the tiny cooker. "That throws a lot of heat." He was sweating, and he wasn't sure whether it was because of the exertion from the fight, the heat of the tent, or the heat generated by this female.

She wasn't at all what he'd been expecting. She was the exact opposite of a timid, frightened female. Because of the rugged location, he'd assumed she would be athletic, and she was. Everything else was just a bonus, especially those eyes. Right now they were narrowed on him with such fury, he could imagine them shooting bullets through his heart.

"Whenever a storm hits, it's the job of the rangers to make certain that all the hikers in their district are safe."

He waited for her to say something.

Instead, she held her silence until he added sarcastically, "In case you haven't noticed, the mountains have been hit with a hell of a storm. Mitch Carver tried unsuccessfully to reach you by phone before asking his rangers to fan out to search for you. But as you know, you weren't where you said you'd be, and that caused alarm bells to ring in the mind of every ranger on this mountain."

She said nothing in her own defense, though her eyes had turned to pale icy chips.

"Mitch and his rangers take great pride in their work, even when careless climbers don't do their share. So he called on me to find you."

"You're a ranger?"

"I'm a rancher. I live in the area, and know these mountains."

"You must know them pretty well to be out hiking in this storm."

He arched a brow. "I see you noticed that it's storming. That's the reason I'm here."

She flushed slightly. "I told the ranger that I intended to get some good shots of the mountains covered in snow. When the storm started raging, I figured it was heaven-sent. The perfect opportunity to capture something that is rarely seen." She pointed to her camera. "I was just going over the shots I took, and some of them are really amazing. I could have never found these images anywhere else but here, right in the middle of it."

Josh could hear the thread of excitement and pride in her voice, a far cry from the tone she'd used with him moments earlier.

"I'm glad you got what you came here for. But that doesn't excuse the fact that you neglected to contact the ranger station to let them know you were safe. They've been trying to phone you since the storm first broke."

She glanced toward the phone lying on her bedroll. "I never thought to check in. Sorry. If they tried calling me, I have to guess my phone isn't working."

"Mine's working just fine." Josh's patience was wearing thin as he turned slightly and retrieved his phone from his pocket. "If you didn't want to be disturbed, all you had to do was file a report with the park rangers letting them know that you wanted to be left alone, no matter what the circumstances."

Feeling something under his boot, he bent down to retrieve the weapon he'd forgotten about until this moment.

He looked up at her with a quizzical grin. "A plastic spoon?"

A sly smile teased her lips. "It was all I had time to grab before you stepped in."

He managed to swallow his laughter as he touched the speed dial for the ranger station. "Mitch? Josh Conway here. I've located Sierra Moore. Yeah. She's safe. She's also a very resourceful woman. I'll let you speak with her."

He handed over his phone.

She kept her gaze fixed on him while she spoke into his phone in that same breathy voice. "Ranger Carver? This is Sierra Moore. Yes, thank you. I'm fine. I'm sorry you felt obligated to send someone to find me. I've been so involved in my photography, I guess I neglected to check in." She listened in silence, then added, "Of course. That works for me. I can be ready to leave here in the morning. I'll tell him. And again, I'm sorry for causing you any concern."

She handed Josh his phone. "I owe you an apology, too. I'm sorry you had to be dragged out in this weather. It never occurred to me that the rangers would be searching for me. I can't say I'm sorry for my"—she couldn't stop the grin from touching the corners of her lips—"unorthodox greeting. Since I'm alone and unarmed, I needed to take precautions with a stranger invading my space. But I had no right to treat you so badly." She took in a deep breath. "Ranger Carver suggested that if I have all the photos I need, and I'm ready to leave in the morning, he would feel better if I would make the descent with you. That works for me. That is," she added, "if you have no objections to having me along."

Josh gave a grudging nod of his head. He had to admit that she'd been resourceful when faced with an intruder. The fact that she'd been so quick to apologize to both him and Mitch Carver scored points as well. Without her apology, he'd have written her off as an ungrateful diva.

"That's fine. I'd like to leave at first light."

As he opened the flap, Sierra felt the sting of the frigid night air. "It'll be a tight squeeze, but if you'd like, you can share my tent."

He gave her a long look. "I have my own gear."

"Even so…" She gave a dry laugh. "Mine's already assembled and warm as toast. I don't think I'd sleep very well knowing that I was the reason for you assembling a tent in this weather, in the dark of night. Please feel free to share mine."

Josh shrugged. "Thanks. I'll take you up on it. I'll get my gear."

Minutes later he returned and zipped the tent against the bitter cold.

He removed his parka before opening his backpack and retrieving a bedroll and an instant cooker. When he pulled out a packet of freeze-dried food, Sierra smiled.

"Like minds, I see." She held up her own packet.

"Chicken or beef?" Josh asked.

"Beef stew. Why don't I use mine? There's enough for two."

"Okay. I'll try it."

He used his bedroll for a seat and watched as she dropped the packet into the instant cooker. Within minutes the tent was filled with the wonderful aroma of beef stew, which she divided between her bowl and his.

He opened a pouch containing squares of Ela's corn bread and offered some to her.

While coffee bubbled in his instant cooker, he sat back and enjoyed his first hot meal since taking to the trail.

Sierra relaxed, displaying a radiant smile. "I really needed some hot food. And that corn bread was an added bonus. Did your wife bake it?"

"Our cook, Ela." He returned her smile. "Ela is probably as old as these mountains. She's been baking corn bread since my grandfather first came to Wyoming. She's been with us since before I was born."


"My father, grandfather, and two brothers."

She looked startled. "You all live together?"

"Yeah. Except for my older brother, Quinn. He recently married, and he and his bride are spending time at both her ranch and ours. I guess sooner or later they'll figure out where they intend to plant roots."

"How about you?" She glanced at his ring finger. "Are you married?"

He arched a brow. "No. You?"

She shook her head. "No, thank you. I'm married to my career."

He nodded toward her camera. "Do you photograph weddings and fancy occasions?"

"That's not at all what I'm interested in capturing. I want to use my photography as art. I hope someday to see my photographs hanging in galleries and on people's walls." She chuckled. "I think that's a look of skepticism on your face."

"Sorry if that's what you think. I guess I'm just surprised that anyone would pay good money to view a photograph of a storm in the Tetons."

"That's because you live here and can see the real thing whenever you want. You'd be surprised what people would pay good money for." She grinned. "But to answer the question you're too polite to ask… I'm not a starving artist. I make enough to get by, and that's all I need."

He laughed. "Now that's what I call fancy mind reading."

"Oh, how I wish I had such a gift. I'm not a mind reader, but I've seen that look of skepticism before. There are a lot of people who don't consider photography art."

"Sierra Moore." He spoke her name aloud and searched his memory. "I'm embarrassed to admit that I'm not familiar with your work."

"Not many people are… yet. Actually, my photographs sell better in Europe than they do here in the States. But my agent hopes to change that, starting with the pictures I'm taking on this trip."

"Then I'm glad the weather cooperated and gave you such a photogenic storm."

They shared an easy laugh.

Sierra topped off his cup and then her own before sitting back on her bedroll. With so little space between them, they were barely able to stretch out their legs without touching.

"How often are you called on to find lost climbers?"

He shrugged. "Whenever there's a real emergency. Most of the time, the rangers can handle it. But whenever they need a hand, they know I'm available."

She studied him more closely. "What do you bring to the climb that they don't have?"

Again that negligent shrug of shoulders. "I've been climbing here since I was a kid. It's my playground. I was homeschooled until high school, and whenever I had any free time, I was climbing. How about you? Where did you go to school?"

"Boarding schools in England."

"That explains the accent. How do you go from boarding school in England to climbing the Tetons? And why now?"

"School was quite some time ago. As for the timing, it seemed right. I don't have any commitments. I wanted to catch the flavor of autumn in the Tetons and, hopefully, some fierce storms. My agent is hoping to get some American galleries to take a look at my work. If the images I captured today are as good as I suspect, his job just got a lot easier."

Josh lifted his cup in a toast. "Then here's to some great pictures and a big, fat contract."


On Sale
Sep 25, 2012
Page Count
368 pages

R.C. Ryan

About the Author

New York Times bestselling author R.C. Ryan has written more than ninety fiction novels, both contemporary and historical. Quite an accomplishment for someone who, after her fifth child started school, gave herself the gift of an hour a day to follow her dream to become a writer. In a career spanning more than twenty years, Ms. Ryan has given dozens of radio, television, and print interviews across the country and Canada, and has been quoted in such diverse publications as the Wall Street Journal and Cosmopolitan. She has also appeared on CNN News, as well as Good Morning America. R.C. Ryan is a pseudonym of New York Times bestselling author Ruth Ryan Langan.

You can learn more about R.C. Ryan and her alter ego Ruth Ryan Langan at:
Twitter @RuthRyanLangan

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