Off the Map (Winter Rescue #2)

Off the Map.jpg
 

Scott Richardson is one superstitious bastard.

After a decade of training rescue dogs to weather the worst storms, Scott has seen it all. Good luck, bad luck—he knows that a large part of survival is being in the right place at the right time. Which is why he’s determined to stay in the right place…as far away from his cursed ex-girlfriend as possible.

Carrie Morlock is a disaster waiting to happen.

An inveterate risk taker and skilled helicopter pilot, Carrie lives life on the edge. It’s her job to push boundaries and take chances—and it’s a job she does well, even if her ex fails to appreciate it. Too bad Scott won’t have much of a choice when one of his beloved dogs goes missing on a rescue mission. As danger rises and their luck runs out, she’s the only one willing to risk her life—and her heart—to save them.


 
 

Chapter One

“Please say you called and reminded her not to come tonight.” The unmistakable sound of Scott’s voice drifted out an open window and to Carrie’s rapidly numbing ears. Even though the air contained a chill of ten degrees, a suspension of icy breath held by Mother Nature herself, the men inside that house would always keep a window propped open to the elements. They thrived on subzero temperatures, built castles on top of snowdrifts.

“Called who? You mean Carrie?”

This time, it was the unmistakable sound of Scott’s groan that drifted out. “Goddammit, Max. Of course that’s who I mean. You promised to tell her I got poker night in the breakup.”

Carrie’s feet crunched to a stop on the snow-covered walkway. In the absence of something warmer and cuddlier to ease the sting of those words, she clutched the six-pack of microbrews to her chest. She also leaned closer to the window in hopes of hearing more. It was wrong to eavesdrop—she knew that, the same way she knew never to read the comments online or Google her medical symptoms after midnight—but that didn’t stop her from making the attempt.

“C’mon, Scott. Be realistic. What was I supposed to say?”

“Oh, I don’t know. You could have tried ‘You can’t come because Scott doesn’t want to see you.’ Or ‘Maybe it’s time you found your own friends.’ Even ‘I have the flu’ might have worked in a pinch.”

Carrie almost gave her position away in a squeak of protest. Even though she was the one who’d been dumped—and therefore had a right to all the breakup sympathy points—she could hear how exasperated Scott was at the prospect of having to share a room with her for a few hours.

Which was no surprise, really. Exasperation was the Scott Richardson default mood these days. Never mind that their relationship had kicked off eight months ago with all the sex and fireworks two people could possibly ask for. Sometime in the past month or so, dating him had become less like a Fourth of July celebration and more like tossing around a ticking time bomb.

When she touched his things without his permission, he got a twitch in his right eye.

Tick.

When she reprogrammed his ancient DVR to record her favorite reality TV show, he got a twitch in both eyes.

Tick tick.

And when she washed his lucky vest because the thing was so disgusting it was starting to support its own ecosystem, he skipped the eye twitching and went straight for the breakup.

BOOM.

It seemed that turning up for the Wednesday night poker routine she’d started was another one of those things that made him get all explodey inside. How was that even fair? Before she came along, the three men inside that house sat around on weeknights wondering why their lives were so boring. Now they had excitement. And poker chips. And clean clothes.

“It’s a lot harder to say that to someone than you think,” Max said. “I can’t just un-invite her.”

“Yes, you can. It’s easy. Hand me the phone and I’ll call her right now.”

“Can’t. She’s already on her way.”

Scott swore. “Fantastic. This is what I get for asking you to do it. I was trying to be tactful.”

Tactful. Right. That was what he was being right now. Never mind that his incredibly understanding and not-at-all bitter ex-girlfriend was standing in the freezing cold with her arms full of beer, doing her best to bury the hatchet. He had tact. His tact didn’t want to have to compromise.

“We might not have to worry at all,” another male voice suggested. That one belonged to Ace, the fourth in their poker night and, despite his name, the worst at playing cards. She’d made almost forty bucks off him last week. “Maybe the snowstorm will keep her away.”

There was a pause before all three voices fell into a shared laugh. “I wish,” Scott said, clearly reluctant at having to say anything positive about her. “Carrie may have ruined my life, but she wouldn’t let something as insignificant as a blizzard prevent her from going anywhere or doing anything she has her heart set on.”

“Did she really ruin your life?” Max asked.

“Yes.” Scott’s tone brooked no argument.

Well, no argument inside the house. Out here on the sidewalk, the tip of her nose about to freeze off, wishing she had the willpower to shut both her ears and her heart, Carrie had plenty to say. She hadn’t ruined anything. She’d washed an article of clothing. A vest. An ordinary red vest—and one that was composed of perfectly washable materials. She’d checked the tag first and everything.

“What’d she do, anyway?” Ace asked.

Even all the way outside, she could feel the weight of Scott’s pause. “It’s complicated.”

“Threw-out-your-baseball-card-collection complicated, or saddled-you-with-gonorrhea complicated?”

She snorted. She almost wished she had given him gonorrhea. He deserved it.

“Let’s just say she doesn’t always think through the consequences of her actions,” Scott eventually said. “She’s not known for making particularly good choices.”

No. No, no, no. That wasn’t true, and she had to clamp her lips shut to keep from releasing the cry that had been lodged in her throat for the better part of the week, slowly choking her from the inside. Bad choices were things like ordering a third Long Island Iced Tea or visiting an animal shelter when you had PMS. What she made were mistakes. Ordinary, forgivable human mistakes.

The first of her horrific transgressions had been to move a full-length mirror from his bathroom to the bedroom ceiling a few weeks back. The woman at the hardware store had promised it would be easy to mount up there—and that the results would be well worth the effort, wink, wink, nudge, nudge. But Carrie had dropped the mirror trying to screw in one of the brackets, and the glass had shattered into a hundred pieces.

Scott’s anger would have made sense if she’d been sliced open or he was lying under it at the time, but he hadn’t been home and she’d been careful to clean up every shard. She’d even replaced the broken mirror with a better one, but you’d have thought she’d stuffed a dead body in his mattress for how much he overreacted when he found out about it.

At the time, she’d thought it was kind of cute, the superstitious way he put so much stock in a broken mirror, the same way he hated it when Friday fell on the thirteenth, or how he’d freaked out when she’d accidentally recorded over some kind of magical ten-year-old baseball game he’d saved on his DVR. But when he’d discovered his lucky vest cleaned and folded and put away a few days ago, she’d been forced to acknowledge that cute wasn’t the right word for it.

Serious. He was one hundred percent serious.

Max sighed. “If that’s the case, then I’m sorry, Scott. I really am. I didn’t know what to say without hurting her feelings, so I decided not to say anything. She’s always been so nice to me.”

“She’s nice to everyone. She has to be, or we’d all banish her with the sign of the cross and holy water.”

“She’s not that bad.”

“Yes, she is. That woman is a walking, talking disaster. Everything she touches ends up destroyed—and I’m not just talking about the hundred-thousand-dollar pieces of aeronautic equipment she runs into the ground.”

Carrie stared at the window, her tiny bit of amusement freezing like an icicle lodged in the middle of her chest. Scott knew better than to throw her recent accident around like that, as if it were nothing more than a way for him to win an argument about the sometimes unlucky turns her life took.

Okay, so nearly demolishing a helicopter had been unpleasant—painfully so—and subsequently getting fired from her job as a medical flight pilot had been even worse. But the fact that she was currently under review by the FAA and there was a good chance her license would be revoked? Yeah. That was a continual blow to her gut, a never-ending gnawing that she was fully willing to admit caused her to make a few more DVR-erasing and vest-washing mistakes than she might have in the past.

One would think that the constant strain of not-knowing, of having her future hanging in the balance like that, would win her some generosity from the man she was dating.

One would be wrong. Scott had been nothing but pissed off since the accident happened. Pissed off and withdrawn and mean. She could forgive those first two, but the mean part still had her reeling. The love of your life was allowed to be moody sometimes. He wasn’t allowed to hold your heart in his hand and squeeze.

Ace, bless him, came to her defense. “She saved that lady’s life, bro.”

“She also unnecessarily endangered it,” Scott retorted. “And it’s more than that. It’s everything, and it’s all the time. Crashes, accidents, always being in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think she might be cursed or something.”

That was true. She was cursed with horrible ex-boyfriends. Behold the evidence.

“Yeah, but I can’t ignore everything she’s done for me,” Max said. “She really helped me out when I was trying to get partial custody of Tina. I couldn’t have managed it without that lawyer she knew.”

“And she always has those spare concert tickets lying around,” Ace added. “I’m still thrumming from how close I was to Sammy Hagar. I actually tasted his sweat. If I close my eyes, I can still remember the salty tang of it on my lips.”

“Can’t you guys see? That’s how she does it. She bursts in like a tornado, you get caught up in it, and then…bam. It’s over, and you realize you had no idea how big of a mess she managed to make of your life in such a short time. Believe me—I know. I’ve spent the entire past week wading through the pieces.”

Him? His life was shattered? He was the one struggling to find his way in the aftermath?

In that moment, Carrie made up her mind. She’d been perilously close to walking away, to leaving the beer on the doorstep and heading home for the night so she could wash as many vests as she wanted with her unshed tears, but, no. Not now. Not like this.

Scott didn’t have a monopoly on friendship with these men, and he didn’t have a monopoly on despair. She would go in there and show him exactly how little their breakup had affected her, even if she had to perjure her heart to do it.

Hoisting the six-pack and what remained of her confidence, she finished the walk up to the front door and breezed through.

“So sorry I’m late!” she called, sounding for all the world as though she’d just arrived. She even added a hint of breathlessness for good measure. It was possible she overdid it on the theatrics, but the three men were far too busy coughing and taking a profound interest in the texture of the ceiling to notice. Even if she hadn’t overheard them on the way in, she’d still have known she was the topic of conversation here—no group had ever looked more ashamed or less pleased to see her, and that was a combination she had some experience with. “I would have been here a while ago, but there was an accident on the highway. A car spun off and got stuck in the snowdrift.”

“Oh, that’s terrible,” Max murmured.

“Damn,” Ace said with his usual eloquence.

“Let me guess—you were there when it happened.” Scott was the last to recover from her grand entrance, his voice rough. “I’m sure you had no choice but to stop and offer to pull them out.”

She turned a sweet smile his way. At least, she meant for it to be sweet, but it might have come off as slightly deranged. Deranged was the most a girl could hope for when coming face-to-face with the man who’d unceremoniously destroyed all her hopes and dreams. Especially when the man happened to be the most gorgeous scrap of flesh to grace humankind.

In a fair world, a just world, ex-boyfriends wouldn’t get to look so good after a break up. They’d be all scraggly and unkempt, their eyes rimmed red from trying—and obviously failing—to hold the tears back. While Scott could hardly be said to have dressed up for poker night, he didn’t look the tiniest bit scraggly. But then, he’d never had to put in much effort to make his clothes look like the hardest-working pieces of fabric in the world. Take that poor, put-upon jean shirt of his as an example. It had to hug his shoulders and keep all that chest contained. It had to spend all day basking in the glory of his skin.

“Of course I stopped to help,” she said, holding on to her sweet, deranged edge as if her life depended on it. “You know how much I love that kind of stuff. Besides—that’s what decent human beings do. We forgive others for messing up, and then we do our best to help them get back on their feet again.”

She knew, without getting too close, that he would smell slightly canine, even though his dark brown hair curled damply at the ends to signal he’d had a recent shower. Scott always retained a scent of the dogs he trained for rescue missions no matter how many times he bathed.

In that fair world of hers that didn’t exist, walking around wearing eau de dog would detract from a man’s overall appeal, but of course it didn’t. Scott was currently working with a family of German shepherd puppies that made him smell like nature and cuddles, of cold wet noses and an eagerness to please. It was an intoxicating aroma—evidence of the love Scott was willing to lavish on the four-legged females in his life.

Men were the worst. Whenever she’d come home after spending the night at his house, people asked if she recently spent time in a kennel. But Scott, rolling around on the floor with his dogs, a bag of pork products in his pocket, was nothing short of a god.

He frowned, and somehow managed to make that look good, too. If she had to pinpoint why, she’d say it was the dark stubble grazing his jaw, the droopy eyes that always made him seem like he’d just been rudely awakened after a long, exhausting night between the sheets. Or under the sheets. Possibly even tied up in them.

“Maybe they didn’t want your help.” His frown deepened. “Did you ever stop to think of that?”

Dammit. Irritability suited him. It always had. That was part of the problem. Even at their most electric—their arguments ringing loud into the night, Scott’s sleepy eyes daring her to push him one step further—her attraction to him was a visceral response. Pavlovian, if she was willing to push the dog metaphor that far.

“Did I stop and consider that a mother driving a minivan with three small children might prefer to sit in the cold while she waited for a tow truck to find its way out in this weather? No, Scott. I didn’t. It was too good of an opportunity to burst in and make a mess of someone else’s life.”

Scott’s eyes flashed in recognition of her words, and she realized she’d just given away her earlier eavesdropping. To avoid another unpleasant conversation—which was pretty much guaranteed at this point—she turned her attention to the two other men in the living room. Both were volunteers at the same local Search and Rescue group where she’d met Scott, and they all shared the same adrenaline-fueled blood. They were happiest in the heat of the moment, always driving themselves a little bit closer to the edge, heedless of pesky things like consequences.

In other words, her kind of people. And it had only taken her twenty-seven years to find them.