Gracie sank down into the tiny pink bathtub, draped her feet up over the ledge, and laid her head back on the daisy foam pillow she’d snagged for a nickel at a garage sale—a steal deal for which she’d secretly congratulated herself for days, clucking contentedly to herself like a hen who’d laid two dozen eggs.
Steam from the scalding water writhed upwards, fogging up the mirror and one small window. A glass of chilled Pinot grigio sat on the bathtub ledge.
Gracie studied her mottled legs. “Cover up those dirty knees, Gracie Louise.” She could still hear her mother’s voice. “Why can’t you be more of a lady like Lenora?”
“Miss America, you never were, Kinkaid,” she said aloud, enjoying how sonorous her voice sounded in the tiny bathroom. “And still aren’t.”
She counted the plum-colored bruises on her legs. “Five, six, seven.” She lifted her head to inspect a particularly large one, still an angry maroon. “That’s a doozy. How’d I get that one?” She moved to the other leg. “Eight, nine. I do remember this one. That really hurt. Stupid rock.”
She laid her head back on the daisy, wiggled her toes, and contemplated the chipped remnants of toenail polish.
Some women might consider fifteen men to one woman on a team a to-die-for ratio. But Gracie found that working in close proximity with so many Manly Men for so many hours, sometimes days at a time, often took its toll. She could take only so much crotch arranging, and fart and blonde jokes before she began to crave a bubble bath or, in this case, painting her toenails search-and-rescue orange.
She splayed her fingers in front of her face. Ragged nails. Torn cuticles. An Orion’s belt of scabs across the back of one hand. “Holy cow,” she whispered. “Maybe you should get a manicure. Right. With what money? You spent your last paycheck on a new ice axe. Remember?”
Her mother would be so proud. She’d been taking a lot of baths lately. But then, a hot bath was part of her post-search ritual and she’d been on a lot of searches lately. In fact, it seemed like all she was doing was work and search, search and work.
“You need to get out more, Kinkaid. Ya know, socialize. You should call Ralphie.”
Ralph Hunter, Search and Rescue teammate, best friend, the man she’d been avoiding. “Because you have been. Avoiding him.”
After last month’s team after-meeting meeting at The Saddle Tramp saloon, Ralph had walked her out to her truck as he always did, then surprised her by kissing her good night. Once. On the lips. Very chaste. Very non-threatening. “No tongue even. And you’re acting like a 6th grader who’s just been felt up for the first time. Or are they doing that in 4th grade now?”
Ralph was her only real friend, the one person on whom she leaned, the one person she trusted to never let her down.
She knew Ralph loved her. And she loved him. But did the kiss mean he love loved her? “Cuz if that’s what it means, that’s huge. Huge!” Ever since the kiss, outside of searches, she had been avoiding him. “Maybe you should actually try to figure out why.”
Because she had also said ‘no’ to Rob Christian, big (big) British movie star, the man whose life she had saved on a search six months earlier, with whom, in the dark, cold confines of a snow cave, she had made the most exquisite love in her life, who made every nerve ending in her body come alive, the man whose presence brought the world into focus in all of its Orrefors-clear glory.
Ralph had kissed her, letting her know he was willing to take their friendship to the next level. What had she done? Avoided him. “Chicken shit.”
Rob had asked her to run away with him, a fairy tale invitation if there ever was one. What had she done? “You said ‘no!’ Stupid chicken shit.” She sank lower in the tub. “What the hell were you thinking?”
Beep! Beep! Beep! The piercing tones of Gracie’s Search and Rescue pager sounded from out the kitchen.
“Dammit!” Gracie heaved herself up from the tub, wrapped a frayed Sponge Bob beach towel around her and ran into the adjoining room where her pager lay on the counter. She grabbed it up, pressed the readout button, and squinted at the miniscule screen.
“Search for missing juvenile.”
In the laundry room doubling as a closet, Gracie yanked bra, panties, and sock liners from the clothes line. From the dryer, she pulled her orange uniform shirt, socks and camouflage army surplus pants, the back pockets still wet.
“Here we go again,” she said and began pulling everything on.
You can read more about Gracie in Zero-Degree Murder, the first book in the new “Search and Rescue” mystery series, published by Berkley Prime Crime. Books are available at retail and online booksellers.
GIVEAWAY: Comment on this post by noon EST on January 4, and you will be entered for a chance to win a copy of Zero-Degree Murder. One winner will be chosen at random. Unless specified, U.S. entries only.
Meet the author
M. L. Rowland was raised in the Midwest. Her years on a Search and Rescue team were spent in the mountains 100 miles east of Los Angeles at an elevation of 7000 feet. She now lives with her husband, Mark, and their chocolate lab, Molly, at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in south-central Colorado. “Zero-Degree Murder” is her first novel.
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