At Last (Lucky Harbor)Jill Shalvis
Table of Contents
A Preview of Forever and a Day
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To those who’ve ever been on a journey of their own.
May you find your own hope, peace, and heart.
Everything’s better with chocolate.
I’m not lost,” Amy Michaels said to the squirrel watching her from his perch on a tree branch. “Really, I’m not.”
But she so was. And actually, it was a way of life. Not that Mr. Squirrel seemed to care. “I don’t suppose you know which way?” she asked him. “I happen to be looking for hope.”
His nose twitched, then he turned tail and vanished in the thick woods.
Well, that’s what she got for asking a guy for directions. Or asking a guy for anything for that matter… She stood there another moment, with the high-altitude sun beating down on her head, a map in one hand and her Grandma Rose’s journal in the other. The forest around her was a profusion of every hue of green and thick with tree moss and climbing plants. Even the ground was alive with growth and running creeks that she constantly had to leap over while birds and squirrels chattered at her. A city girl at heart, Amy was used to concrete, lights, and people flipping other people off. This noisy silence and lack of civilization was like being on another planet, but she kept going.
The old Amy wouldn’t have. She’d have gone home by now. But the old Amy had made a lifelong habit out of running instead of taking a stand. She was done with that. It was the reason she was here in the wilds instead of on her couch. There was another reason, too, one she had a hard time putting into words. Nearly five decades ago now, her grandma had spent a summer in Lucky Harbor, the small Washington coastal town Amy could catch glimpses of from some of the switchbacks on the trail. Rose’s summer adventure had been Amy’s bedtime stories growing up, the only bright spot in an otherwise shitty childhood.
Now Amy was grown up—relatively speaking—and looking for what her grandma had claimed to find all those years ago—hope, peace, heart. It seemed silly and elusive, but the truth was sitting in her gut—Amy wanted those things, needed them so desperately it hurt.
It was harder than she expected. She’d been up since before dawn, had put in a ten-hour shift on her feet at the diner, and was now on a mountain trail. Still on her feet.
Unsure she was even going in the right direction, she flipped open her grandma’s journal, which was really more of a spiral notepad, small enough that it fit in the palm of her hand. Amy had it practically memorized, but it was always a comfort to see the messy scrawl.
It’s been a rough week. The roughest of the summer so far. A woman in town gave us directions for a day hike, promising it’d be fun. We started at the North District Ranger Station, turned right at Eagle Rock, left at Squaw Flats. And with the constant roar of the ocean as our northward guide, headed straight to the most gorgeous meadow I’ve ever seen, lined on the east side by thirty-foot-high prehistoric rocks pointing to the sky. The farthest one was the tallest, proudly planted into the ground, probably sitting there since the Ice Age.
We sat, our backs to the rock, taking it all in. I spent some time drawing the meadow, and when I was done, the late afternoon sun hit the rock perfectly, lighting it up like a diamond from heaven, both blinding and inspiring. We carved our initials into the bottom of our diamond and stayed the night beneath a black velvety sky…
And by morning, I realized I had something I’d been sorely missing—hope for the future.
Amy could hear the words in her grandma’s soft, trembling voice, though of course she would have been much younger when she’d actually written the journal. Grandpa Scott had died when Amy was five, so she couldn’t remember much about him other than a stern face, and that he’d waggled his finger a lot. It was hard to picture the stoic man of her memories taking a whimsical journey to a diamond rock and finding hope, but what did she know?
She hiked for what felt like forever on the steep mountain trail, which sure had looked a whole lot flatter and straighter on the map. Neither the map nor Rose’s journal had given any indication that Amy had been going straight up until her nose bled. Or that the single-track trail was pitted with obstacles like rocks, fast-running creeks, low-hanging growth, and in two cases, downed trees that were bigger than her entire apartment. But Amy had determination on her side. Hell, she’d been born determined. Sure, she’d taken a few detours through Down-On-Her-Luck and then past Bad-Decisionsville, but she was on the right path now.
She just needed that hope. And peace would be good, too. She didn’t give much of a shit about heart. Heart had never really worked out for her. Heart could suck it, but she wanted that hope. So she kept moving, amongst skyscraper-high rock formations and trees that she couldn’t even see the tops of, feeling small and insignificant.
She’d roughed it before; but in the past, this had meant something entirely different, such as giving up meals on her extra lean weeks, not trudging through the damp, overgrown forest laden with bugs, spiders, and possibly killer birds. At least they sounded killer to Amy, what with all the manic hooting and carrying on.
When she needed a break, she opened her backpack and went directly to the emergency brownie she’d pilfered from work earlier. She sat on a large rock and sighed in pleasure at getting off her feet. At the first bite of chocolately goodness, she moaned again, instantly relaxing.
See, she told herself, looking around at the overabundant nature, this wasn’t so bad. She could totally do this. Hell, maybe she’d even sleep out here, like her grandparents had, beneath the velvet sky—
Then a bee dive-bombed her with the precision of a kamikaze pilot, and Amy screeched, flinging herself off the rock. “Dammit.” Dusting herself off, she stood and eyed the fallen brownie, lying forlorn in the dirt. She gave herself a moment to mourn the loss before taking in her surroundings with wariness.
There were no more bees, but now she had a bigger problem. It suddenly occurred to her that it’d been a while since she’d caught sight of the rugged coastline, with its stone arches and rocky sea stacks. Nor could she hear the roar of the crashing waves from below as her northward guide.
That couldn’t be good.
She consulted her map and her penciled route. Not that that helped. There’d been quite a few forks on the trail, not all of them clearly marked. She turned to her grandma’s journal again. As directed, she’d started at the North District Ranger Station, gone right at Eagle Rock, left at Squaw Flats… but no ocean sounds. No meadow. No diamond rock.
And no hope.
Amy looked at her watch—six thirty. Was it getting darker already? Hard to tell. She figured she had another hour and a half before nightfall, but deep down, she knew that wasn’t enough time. The meadow wasn’t going to magically appear, at least not today. Turning in a slow circle to get her bearings, she heard an odd rustling. A human sort of rustling. Amy went utterly still except for the hair on the back of her neck, which stood straight up. “Hello?”
The rustling had stopped, but there, she caught a quick flash of something in the bush.
A face? She’d have sworn so. “Hello?” she called out. “Who’s there?”
No one answered. Amy slid her backpack around
to her front and reached in for her pocket knife.
Once a city rat, always a city rat.
Another slight rustle, and a glimpse of something blue—a sweatshirt maybe. “Hey,” she yelled, louder than she meant to but she hated being startled.
Again, no one answered her, and the sudden stillness told her that she was once again alone.
She was good at alone. Alone worked. Heart still racing, she turned back around. And then around again. Because she had a problem—everything looked the same, so much so that she wasn’t sure which way she’d come.
Or which way she was going. She walked along the trail for a minute but it didn’t seem familiar so she did a one-eighty and tried again.
Still not familiar.
Great. Feeling like she’d gone down the rabbit hole, she whipped out her cell phone and stared down at the screen.
Okay, don’t panic. Amy never panicked until her back was up against the wall. Eyeing the closest rock outcropping, she headed toward it. Her guidebook had said that the Olympics’ rock formations were made up of shales, sandstone, soft basalts, and pillow lava. She would have said they were sharp and craggy, a fact attested to by the cuts on her hands and legs. But they were also a good place to get reception.
Climbing out onto the rocks was fine. Looking down, not so much. She was oh-holy-shit high up.
But she had two bars now for her efforts. She took a moment to debate between calling her two closest friends, Grace or Mallory. Either of the Chocoholics were good in a tough situation, but Mallory was Lucky Harbor native, so Amy called her first.
“How’s it going?” Mallory asked.
“Taking a brownie break,” Amy said casually, like she wasn’t sitting on a rock outcropping a million feet above earth. “Thought you could join me.”
“For chocolate?” Mallory asked. “Oh, yeah. Where are you?”
Well, wasn’t that the question of the day. “I’m on the Sierra Meadows Trail… somewhere.”
There was a beat of accusatory silence. “You lied about meeting you for a brownie?” Mallory asked, tone full of rebuke.
“Yeah, that’s not exactly the part of my story I expected you to fixate on,” Amy said. The rock was damp beneath her. Rain-soaked mosses adorned every tree trunk in sight, and she could hear a waterfall cascading into a natural pool somewhere nearby. Another bush rustled. Wind?
“I can’t believe you lied about chocolate,” Mallory said. “Lying about chocolate is… sanctimonious. Do you remember all those bad girl lessons you gave me?”
Amy rubbed the spot between her eyes where a headache was starting. “You mean the lessons that landed you the sexy hunk you’re currently sleeping with?”
“Well, yes. But my point is that maybe you need good girl lessons. And good girl lesson number one is never tease when it comes to chocolate.”
“Forget the chocolate.” Amy drew a deep breath. “Okay, so you know I’m not all that big on needing help when I screw up, but…” She grimaced. “Help.”
“You’re really lost?”
Amy sighed. “Yeah, I’m really lost. Alert the media. Text Lucille.” Actually, in Lucky Harbor, Lucille was the media. Though she was seventy-something, her mind was sharp as a tack, and she used it to run Lucky Harbor’s Facebook page like New York’s Page Six.
Mallory had turned all business, using her bossy ER voice. “What trail did you start on and how long have you been moving?”
Amy did her best to recount her trek up to the point where she’d turned left at Squaw Flats. “I should have hit the meadow by now, right?”
“If you stayed on the correct trail,” Mallory agreed. “Okay, listen to me very carefully. I want you to stay right where you are. Don’t move.”
Amy looked around her, wondering what sort of animals were nearby and how much of a meal she might look like to them. “Maybe I should—”
“No,” Mallory said firmly. “I mean it, Amy. I want you to stay. People get lost up there and are never heard from again. Don’t move from that spot. I’ve got a plan.”
Amy nodded, but Mallory was already gone. Amy slipped her phone into her pocket, and though she wasn’t much for following directions, she did as Mallory had commanded and didn’t move from her spot. But she did resettle the comforting weight of her knife in her palm.
And wished for another brownie.
The forest noises started up again. Birds. Insects. Something with a howl that brought goose bumps to her entire body. She got whiplash from checking out each and every noise. But as she’d learned long ago, maintaining a high level of tension for an extended period of time was just exhausting. A good scream queen she would not make, so she pulled out her sketch pad and did her best to lose herself in drawing.
Thirty minutes later, she heard someone coming from the opposite direction she thought she’d come from. He wasn’t making much noise, but Amy was a master at hearing someone approach. She could do it in her sleep—and had. Her heart kicked hard, but these were easy, steady footsteps on the trail. Not heavy, drunken footsteps heading down the hall to her bedroom…
In either case, it certainly wasn’t Mallory. No, this was a man, light on his feet but not making any attempt to hide his approach. Amy squeezed her fingers around the comforting weight of her knife.
From around the blind curve of the trail, the man appeared. He was tall, built, and armed and dangerous, though not to her physical well-being. Nope, nothing about the tough, sinewy, gorgeous forest ranger was a threat to her body.
But Matt Bowers was lethal to her peace of mind.
She knew who he was from all the nights he’d come into the diner after a long shift, seeking food. Lucky Harbor residents fawned over him, especially the women. Amy attributed this to an electrifying mix of testosterone and the uniform. He was sipping a Big Gulp, which she’d bet her last dollar had Dr. Pepper in it. The man was a serious soda addict.
She understood his appeal, even felt the tug of it herself, but that was her body’s response to him. Her brain was smarter than the rest of her and resisted.
He wore dark, wraparound Oakley sunglasses, but she happened to know that his eyes were light brown, sharp, and missed nothing. Those eyes were in complete contrast with his smile, which was all laid-back and easygoing, and said he was a pussy cat.
That smile lied.
Nothing about Matt Bowers was sweet and tame. Not one little hair on his sun-kissed head, not a single spectacular muscle, nothing. He was trouble with a capital T, and Amy had given up trouble a long time ago.
She was still sitting on the rock outcropping, nearly out of sight of the trail, but Matt’s attention tracked straight to her with no effort at all. She sensed his wry amusement as he stopped and eyed her. “Someone send out an S.O.S.?”
She barely bit back her sigh. Dammit, Mallory. Out of all the men in all the land, you had to send this one…
When she didn’t answer, he smiled. He knew damn well she’d called Mallory, and he wanted to hear her admit that she was lost.
But she didn’t feel like it—childish and immature, she knew. The truth was, her reaction to him was just about the furthest thing from childish, and that scared her. She wasn’t ready for the likes of him, for the likes of any man. The very last thing she needed was an entanglement, even if Matt did make her mouth water, even if he did look like he knew exactly how to get her off this mountain.
Or off in general…
And if that wasn’t the most disconcerting thought she’d had in weeks…
“Mallory called the cavalry,” he said. “Figured I was the best shot you had of getting found before dark.”
Amy squared her shoulders, hoping she looked more capable than she felt. “Mallory shouldn’t have bothered you.”
He smiled. “So you did send out the S.O.S.”
Damn him and his smug smile. “Forget about it,” she
said. “I’m fine. Go back to your job doing…” She waved her hand. “Whatever it is that forest rangers do, getting Yogi out of the trash, keeping the squirrels in line, et cetera.”
“Yogi and the squirrels do take up a lot of my time,” he agreed mildly. “But no worries. I can still fit you in.”
His voice always seemed to do something funny to her stomach. And lower. “Lucky me.”
“Yeah.” He took another leisurely sip of his soda. “You might not know this, but on top of keeping Yogi in line and all the squirrel wrangling I do, rescuing fair maidens is also part of my job description.”
“I’m no fair maiden—” She broke off when something screeched directly above her. Reacting instinctively, she flattened herself to the rock, completely ruining her tough-girl image.
“Just the cry of a loon,” her very own forest ranger said. “Echoing across Four Lakes.”
She straightened up just as another animal howled, and barely managed not to flinch. “That,” she said shakily, “was more than a loon.”
“A coyote,” he agreed. “And the bugling of an elk. It’s dusk. Everyone’s on the prowl for dinner. The sound carries over the lakes, making everyone seem like they’re closer than they are.”
“There’s elk around here?”
“Roosevelt Elk,” he said. “And deer, bobcats, and cougars, too.”
Amy shoved her sketch book into her backpack, ready to get the hell off the mountain.
“Whatcha got there?” he asked.
“Nothing.” She didn’t know him well enough to share her drawings, and then there was the fact that he was everything she didn’t trust: easy smile, easy nature, easy ways—no matter how sexy the packaging.
If God had meant for us to be thin, he wouldn’t have created chocolate.
Matt loved his job. Having come from first the military, then Chicago SWAT, the current shortage of blood and guts and gangbangers in his workweek was a big bonus. But his day as supervisory forest ranger for the North District had started at the ass crack of dawn, when two of his rangers had called in sick, forcing him to give the sunrise rainforest tour—a chore he ranked right up there with having a root canal.