The earth shook, and the air stirred.
Sounds other than the usual chirping of cave crickets and the incessant drip of water intruded on the sleeper’s dreams, echoing down the cavern. Voices, laughter, feet scraping over stone.
The sleeper opened his eyes and found that, for once, the exercise wasn’t futile. A sliver of grayish light penetrated the gloom.
He stretched, willing blood to quicken through his body, to heat and ease muscles that had remained dormant too long.
Then a new scent—musky, warm-blooded, human—entered his tomb. He rolled to his feet.
Then gathering his strength he roared up the cave wall.
* * *
Lani Kimmel drove over the cattle guard onto the gravel road that marked the beginning of rancher McKelvey’s property. She followed the ridgeline of the steep, oak and cedar-covered hill, bouncing in her seat despite her truck’s heavy-duty shocks. The tires churned in caliche, the fine sandstone gravel pinging on the wheel wells.
She tried to keep her mind focused on the task of keeping her pickup on the rough road and away from the reason she climbed to the remote spot. But her stomach already burbled, her palms grew moist, and that little voice in the back of her mind—the one that sounded like her father’s—taunted her, What do you think you’re playin’ at, little girl? You aren’t strong enough.
As she rounded a curve, a long line of parked vehicles forced her to pull onto the shoulder to continue forward. Further along, she passed an EMS unit, two county squad cars, and the trucks and SUVs belonging to other members of the volunteer fire department. Parking in a narrow space between two vehicles, she had her door open before the engine finished chugging to a halt. Heat blasted her, and she grabbed her volunteer’s baseball cap to shield her eyes from the bright afternoon sun. Then she slid her duffel from behind her seat, kicked a booted heel against the door of her truck, and headed toward the mouth of the unnamed cave.
She nodded to the EMS team crouched beside two boys huddled beneath blankets, shivering despite the late afternoon heat. Compassion could have swamped her, but she quickly tamped down the emotion. If she thought too much about it, she wouldn’t be able to get through the next few hours. Their buddy likely lay on the bottom of the cave floor, and it was her job to bring him up.
Lani approached the group standing in front of a narrow black hole. Stones and gravel were already piled to the side as the men worked at widening the opening. She took a deep breath to calm her nerves. “Has anybody looked inside yet?”
Cale Witte, the captain of the volunteer fire department, turned and gave her a crooked smile that creased his suntanned face. “Glad you could make it, Lani. Did you bring your vertical pack?”
Lani lifted her duffel. “Got it here, boss. So, we have a drop-off? Anyone hear from the kid inside?”
He shook his head, his grave expression telling her he expected the worst. “Those skinny runts shimmied through that hole carrying ropes and Maglites,” he said, sounding disgusted. “Said they didn’t know there was another level until their friend dropped out of sight.”
Lani swore under her breath.
Cale spat a stream of chewing tobacco. “A couple of us crawled in. The entrance is blocked with loose-packed gravel and stone. It’s pretty unstable, but the cave opens wide once you’re through the mouth. About twenty feet inside, it bottoms out. We shined our lights around, but it was too deep to see much. We need to climb down.”
“Well, that’s what I’m here for, huh?” Lani said, willing confidence into her voice.
He nodded. “No one knows caves like you do—that’s a fact. You better have a look for yourself.”
Randy Brandt, another member of the department, leaned on his shovel. “Think we’ve got this hole wide enough for your butt now?” His grin stretched across his handsome face.
Not for the first time, Lani thought Randy’s lean, muscled frame and sun-tinted brown hair belonged in a firemen’s calendar. “Better put your back into it.” Lani gave him a teasing glance. “Gotta make room for that big head of yours, too.”
The men chuckled.
Lani took no offense. She’d long ago figured out she was one of the team when the men included her in the insults they traded. Besides, the banter helped drown out the voice that ate at her composure. The sooner she was in the cave—her world—the sooner she’d be in control.
“How are you, Lani?”
Lani stiffened at the low-pitched voice, rough as sandpaper. She didn’t turn. “Just fine, Sheriff,” she said, her own voice gruff as she forced the words past her frozen vocal chords. She’d known sooner or later their paths would cross in the line of duty but had hoped for more time to steel herself against the pain. “Give me a minute to get out my gear, and I’ll see about bringing up that boy.”
His hand fell on her shoulder, and she finally turned to meet his gaze. No one else was close enough to see the heat in his angry glare. If anyone did look their way, all they’d note was his usual hard-edged mask. Only she could see the turmoil roiling in his eyes. Why was he making this so damn hard?
“You’re not thinking of going down alone, are you?”
“Probably.” She lifted her chin. “I do my best work in the dark, don’t I?” she said softly. No way could he miss the sarcasm in her voice.
His expression didn’t change, but his hand tightened.
Lani shrugged him off and stepped away. She slung her duffel to the ground, ignoring him and the slight tremor in her hands as she unzipped the bag. From the corner of her eye, however, she was aware of every breath he drew, of the tension that stretched his tan and black uniform taut across his shoulders, and of the strength of his tall, hard body.
A body she knew too damn well. One she’d clung to in the darkness.
Randy came up, squatted beside her, and reached inside the bag for webbing and a carabiner clip. “I’m gonna anchor the rope around that oak.” He pointed toward the tree just to the right of the cave entrance.
Lani nodded and swallowed to ease the dryness in her mouth. “Be sure to make two loops around the base with the webbing.”
“Think I don’t know what I’m doing? Maybe I should make it three since it’s your ass going down there.”
She forced a grin and shoved at his shoulder. “Just make sure you don’t tie it off with a slip knot, rookie.”
As Randy walked away, the sheriff’s long shadow fell across her gear. “The kid’s name’s Matt Costello. He’s sixteen.”
Lani’s stomach tightened. “What the hell were those three doing out here on private property, anyway?” Determined not to let him rattle her further, she kept her gaze averted.
“Having fun. Danny McKelvey hired them to move his cattle to the last stock pond he has with any water in it. They were wrangling livestock on this hill yesterday. Someone nearby was dynamiting—it shook the ground and opened up that cave.” His booted feet shifted in the sand. “Matt and his friends decided to make an adventure of exploring the cave today.”
Lani drew out her vertical pack and stuffed a first aid kit inside. “Some adventure. Let’s hope Matt isn’t already dead.” Then she pulled out a long length of new kernmantle rope and threaded one end through the metal slats of her brake bar rack, leaving a tail to tie off the rope.
“Lani…” His voice dropped—intimate, tight.
She didn’t want to look up, didn’t want to see the accusation in his dark eyes. “Can we leave this ’til later?” The pain of their last parting was still too raw.
“Dammit, when will ‘later’ be?” he said, his voice hard-edged and bitter. “You don’t answer my calls.”
“Later,” she said, the word sounding like a curse. She needed time and distance to remind herself why it had to be this way. His husky voice and warm, spicy scent tended to steal her resolve. If she closed her eyes, she could still remember how it felt to lie inside the circle of his strong arms—cherished, safe.
“Fine, but I’m going inside the cave with you,” he ground out.
She jerked up her head. “You hate caves. You won’t go ten feet without breaking into a cold sweat.”
A flush colored his sharply defined cheekbones. The man didn’t like betraying his weaknesses any more than she did. “I won’t get in the way.”
His tacit admission to his failing found a chink in her armor, but she hastily reminded herself she needed to push him away for his own good. “Well, I don’t need to worry I’ll have to rescue your ass, too.”
His jaw tightened. “You’re a stubborn cuss, you know that?” He took a step toward her, forcing her to tilt her head to look up his long body. “I’ll only go as far as the drop-off. This case is my jurisdiction.”
“But it’s not your rescue.” Angry at the flare of panic his intimidating stance produced, she bent and shoved the rope, carabiner clips, rope climbing devices, and a spare harness into her pack. It wasn’t his fault—the man hadn’t a clue how his large, rigid body affected her.
Pretending indifference, she stood, stuffed gloves into her pocket, then unbuttoned her overshirt and let it drop to the ground. Any object or clothing that might get bunched up or caught in her rigging had to go. Next, she removed the leather belt from the loops of her uniform pants.
The hiss of his indrawn breath brought an unwanted reminder of just how easily he could be aroused—by her.
Worse, she was reminded how close to the surface her own unwanted desire remained. Sweat dampened her T-shirt, and it stuck to her skin. Her nipples tightened, visibly pushing against her sports bra.
His gaze flickered over her chest, and his mouth thinned.
Wishing her long-sleeved tee was thicker and appalled at her body’s betrayal, Lani reached for her seat harness and stepped into it, jerking it up her hips. She adjusted the loops around the tops of her thighs and cinched it closed around her waist. Then she picked up the vertical pack and slid her arms through the straps.
When he reached for the strap at her waist, she forgot how to breathe. Pulling it tight, he buckled the ends together and the backs of his knuckles grazed her belly.
So close now that his lips were level with her gaze, Lani swallowed.
“Later,” he whispered.
After one step backward and a deep, ragged breath, she turned sharply on her heels and headed back to the cave.
She wanted to resist his command, but she halted and looked over her shoulder. Her yellow helmet sailed toward her, and she grabbed it.
“I’ll be right behind you,” he said, his dark gaze steady and his square jaw clamped tight.
She turned away and tipped her baseball cap back, letting it fall to the ground, and then slammed her helmet on her head and adjusted her chinstrap.
“Hey, was Sheriff Chavez hittin’ on you?” Randy stood so close she jumped.
“Course not,” she lied, flashing him an incredulous look. “He thinks he wants to go down there with us.”
His blue eyes narrowed. “Let me know if you want him to make an air rappel.”
Relieved Randy was there to buffer her anxiety, Lani dug her elbow into his ribs. “You can’t push him over a ledge. He’s too damn big to carry back up.”
She made a quick inspection of the anchor wrapped around the tree, and then followed the line to the cave entrance, looking for abrasions and dirt—anything that might compromise the strength of the rope she’d dangle from.
Randy dogged her steps all the way to the mouth of the cave. “It’s all good, right?”
“Perfect.” Lani picked up the coiled end of the rope and flipped on the lamp on her helmet. “Get the Stokes litter and some blankets and follow me down.” With one look at the sheriff who trailed behind them, and a nod to the crew who’d keep watch from outside the cave, Lani knelt and crawled through the opening.
Inside, she stood and flung the coil in front of her. She tugged on her gloves, and then lifted the rope and let it feed through her hand at her side as she moved forward, the gravel and sand shifting beneath her feet.
Once she stepped beyond the meager light that spilled through the opening of the cave, she paused, listening to the silence, breathing in the cool, moist air that wrapped around her like a blanket. Already, she felt the tension in her shoulders release. She stood taller, stronger—comforted by the darkness beyond her lamp. And free.
Lani knew some cavers did it for the thrill, but to her the dark, confined spaces meant comfort, peace. She lived for the moments she clung to a rope, descending into a black pit or wriggling through a narrow opening on her belly, clawing at rock and dirt to inch her way to the next dark hole.
Humid, musty air, inky darkness, spaces so tight the sound of her breathing couldn’t echo. Except for the chill, like a mother’s womb.
With no time to savor her environment, Lani kept moving until she’d reached the end of the spill of rock and gravel. Some long ago cave-in had likely closed the entrance behind her. The solid rock beneath her feet and the surrounding formations that glistened like ghostly pillars where her light touched were very different from the debris around the mouth of the cave.
The walls of the cavern to her left and right were curtained with calcified rock that rippled like drapery. Stalactites hung like icicles, and curved pedestals of rock on the cavern floor reached toward the ceiling.
She continued forward, filing her observations, already planning return trips to this underground wonderland. But for now, she had a boy to find.
The shuffle of rock behind her reminded her she wasn’t alone. Another step and she stood poised on a ledge that overlooked a deep, black abyss. Needing a stronger light, she unclipped a flashlight from the side of her pack and shined it downward. The light barely penetrated the gloom, like it was sucked into a celestial black hole.
“Matt!” she shouted, but her voice didn’t echo back. The sounds of her feet scraping rock, even of her breath, hung in the air next to her.
“Lani!” Randy called.
She turned, surprised again by how close he stood.
He dropped the Stokes on the ground. “I was shouting at you. Didn’t you hear me?” The sound of his voice was muffled as if her ears were stuffed with cotton.
She shook her head. “Sound doesn’t seem to carry in this place.”
Randy’s forehead scrunched. “Weird place. Have you heard of anything like this before?”
Lani shrugged, puzzled herself. “No. It’s like the cave is…super-insulated.”
He stepped to the edge of the drop-off. “Man, I can’t see the bottom.”
Lani’s gaze slipped beyond Randy’s shoulder to the sheriff. His swarthy skin was sickly pale. “You shouldn’t have come.”
“I’m fine.” He nodded to the pit. “That’s where you’re going?”
“Looks like it.”
His jaw tightened. “We need more men down here.”
“Probably, but first I need to find the boy and assess what equipment we’ll need.”
Lani didn’t like the look of the sweat beading on his forehead. He looked ready to puke or pass out. “You better sit.”
“It’s so damn…close in here,” he said, tugging at his collar.
“Dammit, Rafe,” she said. “Just sit down.”
One corner of his mouth lifted in a crooked smile.
Did he think her saying his name was some kind of endearment? She stared, feeling as though her heart were lodged in her throat. Hell, she did care. But she couldn’t love him. He deserved better than her.
Lani turned away and removed her pack. Time to get to work.
Randy, under her direction, formed a loop at the end of the rope and knotted it, and then clipped on a carabiner.
Lani pulled out the other rope with the brake bar rack, attached it to the carabiner clip, and tossed the end over the ledge. Then she removed extra rigging from her pack, attached it to her seat harness, and clipped it to the rope. She stuffed an ascender device into a side pocket of her pants. “Randy, drape a blanket over the edge beneath the rope.”
“Sure you don’t want me to belay you down?” Randy asked.
Lani didn’t want to wait to attach the extra hitches and pulleys. Besides, she preferred to control her own descent. “You go ahead and prepare the hitches we’ll need for the belay when I take the basket down. I’ll be faster making this trip on my own.”
Randy shrugged. “You’re in charge. Got your whistle?”
Lani tugged the cord from beneath her shirt. “Yeah, I’ve got it.” Backing up to the edge, she leaned against the rope to test for any give in her equipment. She took another step backward, gave the two men a nod, and leaned back into the air. Then she bent her knees and simultaneously pushed off the edge, releasing the lock on her descending device to glide slowly downward into the darkness.
Once over the lip of rock, the wall receded, and she lost the advantage of a solid surface against her feet to control the direction of her descent. She twisted in a slow circle, her helmet lamp touching pale, limestone wall, a series of slanting ledges, a cavern so deep radiance found no boundary, then back again to the wall.
Deeper she descended, directing her light downward. She wondered whether she had enough rope to reach the bottom and despaired for the fate of the boy. She doubted there was any way in hell he’d survived the long fall.
Around and around she slowly spun, when suddenly her lamp caught the glitter of something shining from a rock ledge. She braked on the rope and waited another turn, until the light glanced upon a figure perched at the edge. When she spun away, she blinked, sure she’d only imagined what she’d seen.
One more full turn, and her breath stopped. Hunkered on all fours stood a large golden mountain lion, dark eyes gleaming like mirrors reflecting the lamplight. Beside him lay the still body of the boy.