Out of reach (Winter Rescue #3)

Max Stafford lives on the edge.

When it comes to mountain rescues, Max is the man everyone wants on their side. The brave and bearded DILF is willing to climb virtually anywhere to save the day. No peak is too high; no crevasse too low. Unless, of course, it comes to his seven-year-old daughter. She’s the one thing he’s unwilling to put at risk.

Elena Villanova is scared of her own shadow.

Anxiety is a way of life for Elena, but it’s a way of life she’s learned to embrace. So what if she can’t board a plane or snowshoe through the forest? She’s great at being a nanny for the Stafford family. She’s even better at loving Max, even if the hot older man refuses to see past her age. With two weeks of isolation at a remote mountain cabin planned for the holidays, she’ll have all the time she needs to prove him wrong. But with a storm coming and danger on the horizon, time might be the one thing they don't have.

 

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Chapter One

The sound of singing chipmunks woke Max well before dawn.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he grumbled as he rolled over and fumblingly reached for the bedside table. “What fresh hell is this?”

The chipmunks sang louder in reply.

Through the bleary-eyed fog of sleep, Max managed to make contact with his phone and bring it to his ear. “Tina, honey? Did you unlock the parental controls and change the ringtone on Daddy’s phone again? We talked about this, remember? Literally anything but chipmunks. I’m begging you.”

“Good morning, Max” came the reply. The voice was distinctly feminine but didn’t belong to his seven-year-old daughter. “I hope I didn’t wake you.”

He pulled the phone away from his face and blinked at it. His ex-wife was seriously asking him that question at five-thirty in the morning? “Um. Yes, yes you did.”

“Well, it’s an emergency.”

All pretense of sleepiness fled. Max shot upright in bed, pulling away the blankets and reaching for the stack of work-worn clothes always waiting for him in the top drawer of his bedside table. Some people kept fun sex toys there; he kept outdoor attire. Life was a funny thing. “Is it Tina? What’s happened? Where is she?”

“Calm down,” Quinn said in a voice that showcased what she thought of his quick transition to emergency mode. It was terse, annoyed. “This isn’t one of your rescues. It’s not that kind of emergency.”

Max paused in the act of pulling his jeans up over the top of his pajama pants, plenty terse and annoyed himself. Adrenaline had fully taken hold by now, both his mind and body on alert. Twenty years as a search and rescue climber meant that he was capable of waking in an instant…and staying that way. All day.

He would have liked to point out that it would have been just as easy to gently break the news so he had a chance at sleep again, but knew better than to be the least bit antagonistic toward his ex-wife. She didn’t like emotional displays of any kind—positive, negative, or anywhere in between.

“What’s the emergency?” he asked instead and seated himself on the edge of his bed, his torso bare and his pants half-buttoned. He also ran a hand wearily over his jaw, the familiar scrape of his beard abrading his palm. “If it’s not Tina, who is it?”

Her long pause didn’t bode well for the conversation to follow.

“Quinn?” he prodded.

She sighed as though he was the one who’d woken her up only to sit silently on the other end of the phone. “You wanted her for Christmas,” she said, stating the words as an irrefutable fact. It was her usual way of interacting with the world—one hundred percent confident of her place in it and unwilling to give so much as an inch. “You fought me every step of the way when I said I wanted to have Tina this year.”

“I did,” he said, his voice neutral.

“You said it wasn’t fair for me to disrupt the schedule after we worked so hard to come to mutually agreeable terms.”

Actually, what he’d said was that it wasn’t fair to keep yanking their daughter around like she was a sock monkey, but Quinn liked to put a thin veneer of legalese on everything she touched. It was part of her charm.

“The schedule was your idea,” he said, still neutral and treading warily. Contractually speaking, it was his turn for holiday custody of their daughter, but it wouldn’t do to point that out. He’d learned long ago that playing hardball was something Quinn delighted in. “Has something changed since we last talked?”

The pause came back. This time, he didn’t make a move to fill it.

“Samar proposed last night,” she eventually said. There was a hint of excitement in her voice, rendering her almost girlish. “He asked me to marry him, and I said yes.”

Max wasn’t sure how an ex-husband of several years’ standing was expected to react to that piece of news—joy, jealousy, regret—but he doubted Quinn would appreciate that all he felt was monumental relief. And the relief was monumental, there was no doubt about that. He didn’t know Samar very well, but he seemed like a nice enough guy, not to mention financially stable and good to Tina. He also doted on Quinn—a thing Max might not understand, but that he appreciated more than anyone knew.

Thank everything that’s good and holy. He can have her.

“Congratulations, Quinn,” he said and meant it. “I’m happy for you both.”

“Yes, well.” She sounded slightly annoyed again. “We want to elope. Hawaii, you know.”

No, he didn’t know, but he could see why Hawaii might appeal, especially this time of year. There was enough snow piled outside to carve a complex network of snow tunnels that reached to the street. He was only about halfway so far, since he could only work on it every other weekend when Tina was over. For some reason, his neighbors didn’t look kindly on thirty-eight-year-old men who dug extensive snow tunnels by themselves. Who knew?

“That sounds nice,” he said blandly.

The small, exasperated sound she made indicated that his answer was the wrong one. “Well, we can hardly take Tina with us, can we? Not on such short notice. She doesn’t have any summer things that fit, and the nanny is afraid of flying. Have you ever heard of such a thing?”

“Fear of heights?” Max had to hold back a laugh. “Yeah. It’s come up in my line of work once or twice.”

He wished the words back the moment they crossed his lips. His line of work, as he so casually referred to it, had been a point of contention for as long as he could remember: in their marriage, their approach to parenting, their divorce…virtually everywhere their lives intersected. These days, ninety percent of his time was spent teaching beginners at Crazy Climbs, an indoor wall-climbing facility and about the lowest rung on the professional climbing circuit a man could get. The pay was crap and the prestige was low, but it had been the only way to get Quinn to agree to shared custody in the first place.

Stable, she called it. Unlike everything else in your life.

In other words, it was the price he paid for the other ten percent of his time, which found him hanging off the sides of mountains in search of people gone missing in the wilderness. As a woman who didn’t like emotional upheaval of any kind, Quinn had found marriage to a professional climber and search and rescue volunteer a heavy burden. Every time he’d ventured out with his pack slung over his shoulder, she’d been sure it would be the last.

“I’m not talking about risking life and limb for a chance at scaling some stupid mountain face,” Quinn said, her voice cold. “I’m talking about flying to Hawaii. It’s a perfectly natural thing to do. Thousands of people go every year, and I don’t see why Elena can’t just take a Xanax like a normal person.”

He knew the answer to that: because their daughter’s young nanny feared the side effects that might occur as a result. As far as he could tell, Elena was afraid of everything. Prescription drugs, crowds, small spaces, snakes… Probably mountain climbing, too. She was a strange choice for a caregiver, but she knew all the words to every Harry Styles song and was therefore considered by their daughter to be infallible.

“Did you try offering her a bribe?” he suggested.

Quinn released a soft huff. “You’ll take her for us, right?”

For a moment, Max thought they were still talking about Elena, and he reared back in alarm. He made it a point to have as little to do with the nanny as possible. Most of the time, it was easy enough to do—she was Quinn’s employee, not his, and the girl only worked part-time anyway. But it was inevitable that their paths would occasionally cross, and when they did…

“You’re joking, right?” he asked, panicked. “I can’t possibly—”

“I know it’s short notice, but Tina would rather spend the holidays here than Hawaii,” Quinn said, cutting his words—and his panic—short. Ah, yes. Tina. That made much more sense. “Samar and I leave early tomorrow morning and will be back after New Year’s. You could pick her up around lunchtime, if that’s okay with you.”

This time, it wasn’t panic that filled him so much as a deep, heavy regret. Two days ago, he’d have been all over this plan. There was nothing he wanted more than to spend the holidays with his favorite person in the world, and he’d have bent over backward to make sure Tina enjoyed every minute of their time together.

Today, however… Despite his determination to keep things emotion-free, he swore.

“I’m sorry, Quinn,” he said at her tsk of annoyance. “That wasn’t directed at you. It was directed at myself. I can’t take her this year. I already made plans.”

“You already made plans? How? You don’t have any family.”

He ignored the sharp slice of her words. “I know, which is why I promised to take over the ranger’s cabin up at the Colville National Forest.” Family he might be without, but friends he had in abundance—most of whom were affiliated with forests and ranger’s cabins in some way. “Nate, the guy who normally works it, wanted to spend some time with his fiancée for the holidays. And since you were taking Tina…”

He let the words trail off, even though he knew it was manipulative. After all, it was nothing more than the truth. As much fun as it would have been to sit at home in front of the television eating an entire holiday turkey by himself, he’d decided that a trip up north to take over the ranger duties was preferable. No one really visited during the winter holidays, but there was usually plenty to do between the regular patrols and clearing the roads.

“So take her with you,” Quinn suggested with unprecedented warmth. “Tina would love all of that. Snowy cabins, a roaring fire, toasted marshmallows, the whole show.”

Dammit. She would love that, except for one small thing.

“I’ll be working, Quinn,” he said. “If it snows or there’s an emergency, it’s my job to take care of it. It’s pretty remote out there, and it’s not like I can strap Tina to the back of the snowplow and hope for the best.”

“So ask someone else to do it this year.”

“I am the someone else.”

Even among his search and rescue associates, there weren’t many people flying solo anymore. Fletcher and Lexie, Scott and Carrie…everyone was going off in happy, contented pairs these days. Even Ace, his oldest friend and the most likely candidate to take over for him, had gone out of town a week ago with a mysterious plan to strike it rich. Next to making bad jokes, making money was that man’s favorite thing to do.

But if Quinn noticed the censure in his voice, she didn’t comment. “So take Elena, too. She was already planning on being with us for Christmas, and it’s not as if you’re flying up there, right? She’s not afraid of cars. At least, I don’t think she is. You never know with that girl.”

“Absolutely not.” The words were out before he could stop them.

Quinn ignored him. “It’s perfect. Tina will get to enjoy her holiday in the snow, you can pop out of the cabin anytime you need, and Elena won’t have to go near an airplane. I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before.”

“But Quinn, I can’t—”

“You’ll barely notice Elena’s there,” she added. “She never gets in my way. In fact, she does a lot of the cooking for us, which you know you’ve never been great at.”

“We can eat granola bars,” he protested, though he knew it fell on deaf ears. Quinn was in full lawyer mode, making arguments like she was pounding nails in a coffin. His coffin.

“And think of how fun it’ll be to wake up with Tina on Christmas morning,” Quinn added, pounding away. “You get to watch her open all her presents. That’s always been your favorite part.”

Max scrubbed a weary hand over his eyes. Playing Santa was his favorite, but that wasn’t the point here. The point was that an isolated one-room cabin in the woods was the last place he wanted to be trapped with Elena Villanova, Harry Styles fan and nanny extraordinaire. Not because she was young—and, at twenty-four, she was definitely that. And not because she was beautiful, either—another undeniable fact to anyone with eyes in his head and blood in his veins.

Oh, no. The problem was that she was young and beautiful and, for reasons he couldn’t even begin to understand, unapologetically in love with him.

“Quinn, I can’t. You know she has…”

“A crush on you?” Quinn laughed. “Of course I know. I think it’s cute.”

Max groaned. Why was he the only one who saw how weird this was? The one thing a man should be able to count on from a straitlaced, emotionless ex-wife was for her sense of propriety to shield him from the hot young nanny. He blamed Samar and fucking Hawaii. They must have put Quinn in a good mood.

“It’s not funny,” he grumbled.

“It’s a little bit funny. To be honest, I have no idea what she sees in you. She’s terrified of her own shadow, and it’s not like you lead a quiet life.”

He bit back a bitter laugh. Quiet was exactly the kind of life he led. Quiet and slow and, although he’d never admit it out loud, a little depressing. But that was the price of adulthood, of parenthood, right? Burying the adventures of the past for all things stable and staid?

“You’ll still do it, right?” Quinn asked. “I know it’s last minute, and I know you don’t care for Elena, but you’d really be helping us out. It’s only for two weeks.”

His resolve weakened.

It cracked entirely when she added, “And when we get back and settled in, maybe we could all sit down and renegotiate the parenting plan. Samar thinks it might be good for you and Tina to spend more time together. Please?”

And that was it. He was done for. Renegotiate the parenting plan might sound like feeble bait to an outsider, but he’d had to fight tooth and nail to get any custody in the first place. Next to a weekend climb up Mt. Hood, an offer of more time with his daughter was the thing Max wanted most in this world. 

Quinn knew it, of course. She was an excellent lawyer.

“Fine,” he said, resigned. He only hoped he wouldn’t live to regret it. “I’ll take Tina and Elena up to the cabin with me. But you have to warn them to pack lots of warm clothes because it’s going to be freezing up there.”

“I will.”

“And remind them that there’s no cell service or cable. Their phones and tablets will be useless.”

“I’m sure they won’t mind.”

“And if I have to go out on a call, it could mean I’ll be gone for hours at a time.”

“Elena will be able to handle it,” Quinn promised with such certainty, he was forced to believe her. “And I’m sure she’s gotten over her little crush by now. After all, what is there in an aging, underemployed rock climber to attract a girl like that?”

Max didn’t bother answering her. Even as an aging, underemployed rock climber, he knew when he’d been beat.