Hot as Sin Page 31

She moved toward him, coming close enough that he could pick up the soft, floral scent the breeze blew off her hair.

“You were trying to protect me,” she said slowly. “I can’t believe I needed you to spell it out. Especially when shielding people from pain is what you do, is what you’ve always done, whether it’s keeping your brother out of your parents’ cross fire or saving strangers’ lives as a hotshot.”

She was gravity and he was falling. But just because they were starting to break down some of the walls between them, he couldn’t make the mistake of falling back in love with her. Not when it had f**ked him over so royally the first time around.

“It’s good we’ve talked this through,” he finally said, “but I think we should get out on the raft and concentrate on the river.”

She quickly nodded, her relief evident that their discussion was over. “How far will we go by water?”

He smoothed the map down over a large rock. “We’re here,” he said, pointing to a spot on the map, “and we need to head here. We’ll be on the river for about ten miles.”

“And then we’ll hike the rest of the way?”

“That’s the plan.” He left out the rock-climbing part of the equation for the time being.

She looked up into the mountains. “Fun.”

That little bit of sarcasm in the face of a difficult task was so much like the girl he’d known that as he headed back over to the raft and got to work inflating it, it took everything he had to keep his focus on finding April, rather than all the reasons there were to fall back in love with her beautiful sister.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

SAM HANDED her a life jacket and helmet, donned his, then picked up the front of the raft and pulled it onto the bank of the river. Dianna’s mouth was dry and she had the beginnings of a headache, so she drank some water from a bottle clipped to the waistband of her pants.

Living in Lake Tahoe she’d watched enough tourists suffer from altitude sickness to know the signs. She could feel her heart working harder just standing still, so she drank more water before carefully stepping into the raft. The last thing she needed was to be laid low by a migraine or nausea. After a decade of living at sea level, Dianna knew the risks of being at 8,000 feet again.

When she was a kid and needed to escape—if her mother was on a bender or a really gross guy had moved in to the trailer and they were doing it all the time—Dianna would go out to the woods, hike to a mountain lake, swim in the frigid water, and pretend she was someone else, usually a normal girl with perfect parents and brothers and sisters she could play with.

Now that she was about to paddle down a dangerous river on a quest to rescue her kidnapped sister, those childhood dreams felt like they belonged to someone else.

“Getting your balance is the hardest thing,” Sam said as he eased them into the water with his paddle. “Once you figure that out, you’ll be fine.”

His matter-of-fact tone was soothing, almost as if what he was really saying was, “Don’t worry. Everything’s going to be all right.”

After torturing herself all night over what a bitch she’d been, it was a huge relief to know that he wasn’t holding a grudge against her. Even better, she felt as if they’d made some headway.

Was it too much to hope that they’d cleared away the worst of the tension that had been crackling between them? All she wanted was some breathing room to push forward together to find April.

At the same time, as she watched the muscles of his arms and legs flex next to her on the raft and rivulets of water ran down his chiseled jaw, she had to face facts: Yes, they’d overcome their anger, but the sexual tension hadn’t disappeared.

If anything, the new understanding she had for what he’d done only made her want him more, damn it.

Turning her focus back to the river, working hard to stay upright on the edge of the raft, her thighs immediately started to burn from the strain, and her shoulders and neck stiffened until they were rigid.

She wished she’d gotten more sleep the night before, but her dreams had been so dark and intense, it had almost been a relief when Sam woke her up. She’d had similar dreams in the first few weeks after losing the baby where she felt as if she were trying to reach the light at the end of the tunnel against the force of the quicksand pulling her deeper.

Sam’s warm voice broke into her thoughts. “Try to keep your limbs loose and your grip on the paddle relaxed.”

He was a good teacher, knew exactly how to tell her she was doing it all wrong without getting her back up. How could she have forgotten that about him, that he was so strong and yet so gentle at the same time? Instead of making her feel like a fish out of water, rather than highlighting the fact that she was the queen of TV instead of outdoor wonder girl, he saw how hard she was trying and was being incredibly supportive.

So even though her brain was telling her not to loosen her grip on the paddle or she’d die, she followed his directions to relax and quickly found that he was right on the money. As soon as she stopped trying to control the water, she expended a great deal less energy.

“You’ve got it,” he said encouragingly.

His patience meant a great deal to her. Not only did she want to prove to herself that she had what it took to ride the rapids, but foolishly she wanted to impress Sam, too.

Unfortunately, just as she was starting to feel at ease, the water turned white and frothy. They bumped and banged over the water and it splashed into her face again and again, quickly soaking her from head to toe.

She guessed she looked like a drowned rat, with freezing cold water streaming off her nose and chin. And it bothered her, even though only Sam could see her—and he’d seen her look much worse.

“Our first drop is coming, about a hundred yards ahead. You ready for it?”

“You bet,” she fibbed, wondering what the heck a “drop” was, but knowing that saying no wasn’t an option.

The water started churning faster, harder, and it took every ounce of her concentration just to stay seated on the raft.

“You’re doing good, Dianna. Keep paddling, just like that.”

And then, suddenly, they hit a wall of white water and she felt like they were in an elevator whose lines had been cut, falling down, then hitting bottom so hard, she choked on her own saliva and nearly bit her tongue.

Dianna did everything she could to stay on the raft, but the water was tougher than she was, and the next thing she knew she was flipping over the edge of the raft. Holding her breath, she tried not to panic as she bobbed up toward the surface, the strong rapids continuing to push her downstream, over the rocks that were scratching up her legs and arms something fierce.

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