Sage Magnolia stood in front of the weathered sign that read, “Welcome To Wild Blue Springs, Colorado.” She lifted her camera and took a picture with the rugged landscape blurry in the distance. Up above the snow-capped mountains, dark gray storm clouds gathered around the peaks. The smell of rain penetrated the cool breeze whispering through the spruce and fir trees.
Sage adjusted the strap of her camera draped around her neck. Two days ago, her boss, Rick Mathison, had sent her an email asking if she would be interested in hiking into a remote mountain community in need of good press. She took the assignment without hesitation. She was grateful to spend a few days hiking and camping in the forest, anything to get away from the chaos her personal life was currently in.
She had accepted a job offer to become a traveling writer for the Outdoor Times for a variety of reasons. The position offered a salary that financially supported her on her own. The benefits, a retirement account and health insurance, were another bonus.
It also gave her the opportunity to travel all over the United States.
And it also made it that much harder for her ex-boyfriend to track her down after he came back to their apartment a few weeks ago to find all her things packed up and gone within a matter of hours.
The imprint of Rhett’s hands were still all over her body in old bruises. Her ribs, now finally on the mend, were no longer sore from the torn muscles and fractures from their last fight that ended with her in the emergency room.
An entire year of her life had been wrapped up in a man who had worked his way into her heart through spoiling her with attention and affection, only to beat it senselessly anytime he felt it needed a reminder of who was in charge of it.
Thunder rolled through the steep valley. The hair on the back of Sage’s neck stood on edge from the static charge of a powerful storm filling the air.
She squatted down to unzip her camera bag and pulled the strap over the back of her neck. She clipped the lens cap in place before setting the camera inside the waterproof bag she had bought years ago to keep her camera protected from the weather.
The trail was steep and rocky as it curved down the mountainside in the direction of Wild Blue Springs. She spent the entire flight from Miami to Denver researching the various trails and recreational activities around the small town that had started during the gold rush. It was a popular tourist attraction and a place outdoor enthusiasts flocked to during the summer, or when the ever-changing weather permitted.
Two years ago, the mountains had seen a continuous season of heavy snowfall followed by over 200 avalanches that had wiped out parts of the forest and clouded the trails with debris. Then, the year before, a tourist had arrived with a contagious virus that spread through the entire town of 1,000 full-time residents. Which prompted a series of emergency health orders and banned entrance to anyone who didn’t live in the town.
The town was hurting to attract tourism again now that the emergency health orders were set to expire at the end of the month.
Sage shouldered her camera bag along with her hiking pack. She started down the trail and let her thoughts wander to how blissful it would feel to rent a room followed by a steamy hot—
The deep baritone of a male voice from the trail above startled her. The rubber heel of her hiking boot slipped on a rock, a twinge of pain shooting through her ankle and up her leg.
She glanced up at the trail in annoyance while shaking out the pain in her leg. A tall and handsomely rugged man dressed in charcoal gray khakis, thick black boots, and a long-sleeved black shirt strode down the trail in her direction.
A fluttering sensation filled the center of Sage’s chest as he approached with an air of authority and purpose. His hair was a rich black color and buzzed short with the faint scruff of a beard along his strong jawline. Beneath dark eyebrows, his eyes were guarded and the color of rich honey. A stony and determined expression filled the hard lines around his sharp face.
“What are you doing?” He demanded when he reached her. “Did you not see the sign back there?”
Words knotted in the center of Sage’s throat. The man stood in front of her, muscles straining against the shirt clinging to his broad chest and shoulder, towering easily over her. A handgun sat at his right hip and a rifle was strapped to his back. All easy to grab in a split second if needed. She took a step back with a pang of uneasiness.
“The sign,” he repeated with an air of impatience. “Did you not see it up there?”
She managed to find her voice. “What sign are you talking about?”
“The sign at the trailhead above here. The bright orange one that says, “No Hikers Allowed.”
She did see it while coming down from the forest. Rick had assured her that the town would welcome her in despite the tourist ban that was set to expire in a month. The fines from what Sage had read online were hefty and meant to dissuade traffic in and out of town unless for essential reasons.
Sage gripped the straps of her backpack. She fought back the urge to shrivel beneath the hard weight of this man’s stare. His presence wasn’t threatening, but it demanded attention and respect. Her eyes landed on the gold star stitched into the fabric of his shirt.
“You’re one of the Sheriff’s in Wild Blue Springs?” she asked, tentatively.
“Yes.” His eyes flicked down to the same spot her eyes had been. “I’m one of the Sheriffs.”
“Okay. I know that—”
“There is a ban on non-essential travel into Wild Blue Springs,” he finished for her. “It doesn’t expire until the end of the month.”
“I realize that but—”
“Do you have your license on you?”
Her irritation levels ratcheted up a few notches at being interrupted again. There had been a few grumblings on a couple of internet forums about the Wild Blue Springs Sheriff’s Department being a bit coarse with visitors coming to town, but she never expected it to be true, let alone experience it for herself.
His eyes narrowed when a few seconds ticked by. “Do you have a drivers license?”
“Yes,” Sage muttered, shrugging the straps of her backpack down her arms. “It’s in my backpack.”
He took a step closer to watch her crouch and yank the zipper of her backpack open. The faint smell of clean soap clung to the air around him. Mindful of the extra set of clothes had packed and his eyes focused on the contents she was digging through, including clean underwear and a bra, she managed to find her wallet at the bottom of her backpack.
Sage pulled her license from the front slot of her wallet and handed it over. His fingers grazed over the top of hers. Enough of touch for her to feel the warmth of his calloused skin.
She curled her fingers up into a fist, willing the tingling heat away. Thunder cracked again in the distance. Unperturbed by the gathering storm clouds, his eyes scanned the front of her license. A disapproving frown settled along his face.
“You shouldn’t be out here on your own,” he stated. “You’re a young and unarmed woman hiking alone.”
Sage bristled at his condescending tone. “I’m twenty-three years old, so I’m not that young. My boss sent me out here to write about your town.”
She waited for a trickle of recognition, but his face remained blank and stony.
“Your boss doesn’t care about your safety if he sent you out here alone and to a town where there is a ban against tourism at the moment.”
“I was assured that I could be here,” Sage said in exasperation. “Look, if you’re that concerned about it, then you can call my boss and talk to him.”
“I’m not writing your boss a ticket. I’m writing you a ticket.”
Her jaw dropped open in shock as he reached into the back pocket of his pants and pulled out a pad.
“You’re seriously writing me a ticket?!”
“You violated a public health order,” he said, calmly clicking a pen. “And if you were telling the truth, I would know about you coming into this town. It’s that small.”
Hot anger flooded through Sage in hypersonic speed. Maybe it was the past few months stewing inside of her and the ache in her ribcage from her healing ribs, but she wanted to strangle this man despite how strong and armed he appeared to be.
“I can’t believe this you pr—”
“What is going on, Sheriff Stone?”
Sage tore her furious gaze away from him at the sound of approaching footsteps. A woman dressed in jeans, hiking boots, and a flannel shirt came up the trail. Her curly brown hair was streaked gray and pulled up high in a messy bun.
“Go along, Maisie,” he said, flatly. “This doesn’t concern you.”
Maisie. As in Maisie Rae.
Relief filled Sage to see the woman who had sent her an email with directions to hike down into town. She owned the only small lodge in a town called Maisie’s House and was in charge of the tourism in the town.
“I assure you it does, Sheriff,” Maisie said, ignoring his attempt to brush her off. “This is the woman coming to write a feature article about our town to help bring back all the tourism you’ve effectively scared off.”
He didn’t stop scribbling on the pad with Sage’s driver’s license in his hand.
“I took an oath to keep our town safe until the order expires at the end of the month.” He shifted his gaze to Sage who glared at him. “No special treatment of any kind. It sets a bad example, Maisie.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. The mayor invited her to come into town. I booked her a special room even.”
“The mayor didn’t mention anything to me.”
“Maybe you should talk to him about it,” Maisie countered. “Don’t waste a piece of paper on something you know Judge Billing will throw out when she fights it.”
A scowl tugged at his lips at Maisie’s words. With visible reluctance, he handed Sage her license back and then tore the ticket free from the pad. He folded it, tucking the paper inside of his pant pocket.
“I’ll be sure to talk to the mayor about this,” he said through clenched teeth. “If I find out you’re lying, Maisie…”
Maisie folded her arms over her chest. “Or what? I’m not lying.”
The wind ripped through the swaying spruce trees while a long and tense moment passed. He strode past Sage without a second glance. The crunch of rocks beneath his boots echoed in the late evening air as he left them behind on the trail.
“Forgive Sheriff Stone,” Maisie said, rolling her eyes. “He hasn’t dropped the tough city cop attitude quite yet and adapted a friendlier one.”
Sage willed the adrenaline pumping in her veins to slow back down to a normal pace.
“Is that normal?” she asked. “For the Sheriff’s to walk along the trails like that?”
The smile on Maisie’s faltered a bit. She opened her mouth to reply, but the boom of thunder stopped her.
“We should go before it downpours. You don’t want to be caught out here when lightning starts and hail. Plus, I can imagine that you’d like to have a hot shower and a good meal.”
Sage nodded. Food, a hot shower, and an actual bed to sleep in sounded like pure bliss. “More than anything at the moment.”
“I’ll fill you in about everything as we walk,” Maisie said, cheerfully. “I promise you will enjoy your time here in Wild Blue Springs.”
Only if I avoid Sheriff Stone, Sage thought sourly as she followed the other woman down the same trail he had disappeared down. Her time in Wild Blue Springs would be enjoyable then.
Copyright @ Hope Carter 2020