|Ava Stanton jumped when a bevy of quail scattered as she got out of the car, snow whisking in tiny puffs under their feet. One shot her a beady-eyed look as if to ask why in the world a woman would be out on the remote mountain road by herself, especially as another wave of winter storms rolled in across the Sierras. Ava wondered the same thing, pulling her knit cap farther down over her short blond hair. The family of quail left a profound silence behind as they moved away. In the distance, she caught the sound of skiers on the slopes of the neighboring Gold Summit Lodge which butted up against Whisper Mountain Resort property.|
Won't be our property much longer.
The thought sent a wave of despair through her. She shook it off. Too much coffee. Too little sleep. She was fatigued mentally and physically from the extra skiing classes she'd been teaching in Westbow, a town about twenty miles away where she rented a room. A useless effort. Hadn't made a dent in the debt that buried Whisper Mountain.
The sky was cloudy and ominous. Shadows shifted on the lumps of snow that had collected on the steep slope overlooking an iced-over Melody Lake at the periphery of the Whisper Mountain Resort property.
She did not know the real name of the lake, only the nickname given to the small body of water by her uncle the day they'd scattered her mother's ashes there, accompanied by the mournful singing of the birds. Melody Lake. How often she'd visited, watching the seasons morph from summer to the white cocoon of winter, the water gradually sealing over like her own grief. Sealed over, but still just as present.
The delicate cover of ice sparkled at her.
How appropriate. Whatever her uncle Paul was involved in this time, he was no doubt teetering on the edge of another disaster. There was hardly much left to lose. Whisper Mountain was officially defunct, closed at the cusp of the ski season because there was no longer money enough to maintain the slopes and lodge. They'd kept the toboggan run open the past several years, but now there was not even money to keep that going. Thanks in part to Uncle Paul's penchant for disastrous get-rich-quick schemes, the land would have to be sold without further delay. Looking along the graceful peaks adorned with white-crusted fir trees, her heart squeezed painfully. It was still Stanton-owned, at least for a few more months.
Again she looked toward the distant slopes of Gold Summit, partially owned by the wealthy Gage family. The rumor mill held that Luca, one of the sons, and his sister were visiting. Luca's green eyes and infectious grin twirled in her memory. She'd read that he'd started a treasure hunting business. The perfect job for a guy perpetually in motion. When times were better, her father had frequently hosted marshmallow roasts attended by Wyatt Gage and his then-teen children. Happy days. Long gone.
She got back into the car to check her phone. She reread Paul's old text, replete with errors.
Found my purl. Meet me at yer mothers lake. Secret.
What was it this time? Uncle Paul referred to his "pearl" for as long as she'd known him, a term applied to every treasure in the long list he'd pursued over the years. A new stock market tip? An undiscovered platinum mine that would save their bankrupt Whisper Mountain Resort? His latest woman? During his last phone call, he refused to talk other than to say he'd contact her soon. Not like the jovial Uncle Paul, the trickster, the showman.
She caught the sound of a set of boots crunching down the road. Uncle Paul appeared, wild black hair threaded with silver curling from under his red knit cap. He saw her and waved, looking around carefully before he marched down the slope to meet her.
He clasped her in a bear hug, cold cheek pressed to hers. "Avy, honey. You get more gorgeous every time I see you." He pulled away to look into her face. "It's those blue eyes. Like perfect lapis lazuli. Remind me of a set of stones I picked up in Myanmar."
She could not resist the flattery and bestowed a kiss on his cheek. "All right. It's only been a couple of months since we were together, so you don't need to go overboard. I didn't even know you were back in California." She looked for her uncle's ever-present shadow. "Where's Mack Dog?"
"In the truck."
Uncle Paul pointed to the top of the hill. She could just make out a glimmer of his dented pickup.
"He's getting old now. Doesn't like snow in his paws." He sighed. "Me, too, getting old. Been thinking about a lot of things lately."
The edge of melancholy in his words was so unlike him. "Where have you been? Why did you want to meet me?" She shivered and pulled her scarf tighter. "If you're going to try to talk me out of selling the place, it won't work. I've been the legal owner since I turned twenty-five two years ago."
"Yes, I am, but not for the reason you think." His eyes flickered over the frozen lake below them. He sighed, long and low, a sound so mournful that Ava felt a sudden twinge of dread.
"We don't have any choice but to sell it," she began, readying for yet another argument. "Dad thinks so, too." Her father had thought so for years and hadn't been shy about his opinions. She wished he was here now, but the winters were too harsh for a paraplegic in his condition.
He cut her off with a wave of his mittened hand.
"Ava, I know I messed up. Your mother left this place to us, and I took advantage. I blew it. Took money out figuring I could make it back and then some, but I never did."
She hated the tone of defeat in her uncle's voice. "You meant no harm. I know that."
He shook his head, sending a sprinkling of snow loose into the air that mingled with the flakes just starting to fall. "In my mind I knew I could make Whisper sparkle by the time you were old enough to take the reins, to bring it back to the days when there were people all over the mountain and wagon rides and campfires at midnight. You remember?"
"I know I was a wedge between your father and mother. Maybe if I'd stayed away, been more responsible, things would have turned out differently."
"My father would still be disabled from the wreck, and Mom would still have given up." She heard the bitter edge in her own words.
Uncle Paul heard it, too. The lines around his mouth deepened.
He flicked a glance toward the ridge above them where clouds massed in fantastic formation. "This time I really found it." He moved closer and took her by the shoulders. "As soon as I get it authenticated, we're going to have enough money to save Whisper Mountain with plenty left over."
Ava knew enough not to feed into her uncle's pie-in-the-sky notions. Even though she was barely twenty-seven, she had to be the mature voice of reason. "Whatever you think you've found, leave it where it is. I'm selling. I've got no choice."
He looked behind them at the stretch of road that meandered up to the top of the next hill separating Whisper Mountain from Gold Summit, immediately to the west of them. A lacy curtain of snow had begun to fall, the flakes blown around them by a frigid wind.
"Why did we have to meet here?" she demanded again.
He shrugged, but she thought she saw a shimmer of fear in his eyes. "Proper thing, to tell you here that Whisper Mountain is saved. I come here to pray all the time and you used to, didn't you, Ave? Do you still come?"
She shook her head. "Not anymore." Whisper Mountain was a place dead to her, buried in the past. The only reason she'd returned from Westbow was to sell it. Snow settled onto her lashes and she brushed it away.
She'd lost too much because of her mother's suicide ten years before. Ava's own life would forever be bisected by her mother's decision, into the time when she had been a normal, happy teen and after, when the world became an uncertain place. The source of her pain was right here on this piece of snow-covered world, and she was finally going to let it go.
"Uncle Paul, tell me" she broke off as he started visibly, body tense.
"Did you hear that?"
"What?" she said, trying to pinpoint the source of his concern.
"I thought I heard Mack Dog. He must have gotten out and gone wandering again."
They both stood motionless, listening. The sound of an engine floated through the air and a snowmobile appeared at the bottom of the slope.
Paul's eyes narrowed in suspicion.
"Who is that?" she asked.
The snowmobile took off in their direction, gaining speed as it went. Ava stood frozen as it barreled toward them. Surely, the driver would stop, slow down as he approached.
He didn't. Incredibly, he seemed only to increase his speed. Paul shoved Ava away. "Get in the car."
"Wait," she screamed as Paul took off heading for the trees.
The snowmobile roared closer, changing course to target Uncle Paul.
"Get away, Ava," Uncle Paul yelled over his shoulder. "Get away now."
Luca looked over the pristine slope, skis poised to begin the descent. He could not keep from turning his gaze to the valley down below, ringed with hills. He remembered his high school winter breaks spent skiing here. His heart replayed the memory of the young woman who was so at home on the snow she seemed to fly over it, like a hawk skimming over the crystal world below. He was proficient on skis but never as good as she was, not even close. He wondered if she ever visited here, now that her property was closed up. Everything had changed her senior year after the car accident crippled her father and her mother committed suicide six months later.
"Hey, there," Stephanie said softly. "Lost in thought?"
He avoided looking at his sister. Even though he was elated that she and her high school sweetheart, Tate, had reunited in the course of their last treasure hunt, the happiness that shone on her face reminded him that he had just ended things with a woman he'd dated casually. There was no spark there, no spring of devotion like he'd seen in the eyes of his sister when she talked about Tate. "No, just remembering how good the runs were on Whisper Mountain."
She didn't answer, pushing a strand of her short dark hair back under her ski cap, gazing into the distance at the empty slopes. "It's a prime piece of real estate. Do you think Dad will buy it?"
He nodded. "I think he'd be a fool not to. Anyway, let's get some slope time before Victor lines up our new mission." Victor was the eldest Gage sibling and recently married in a double wedding along with Tate and Stephanie. It was fitting, as their last job at Treasure Seekers had turned up an eighteen-million-dollar violin and nearly gotten them all killed at the hands of a psychopath. They were all due for some good times.
Stephanie shivered, and he knew she was reliving the memories of their near escape, too. "Let's get back. Tate's probably missing us."
Luca grinned. "Missing you. We're still not best buds."
"That's because you're both stubborn gorillas."
"True, but he's your stubborn gorilla now, and he looks at you like he can't believe you're really his."
She blushed. "It drives him crazy that his bum leg keeps him down there while I'm up here, so I suspect he's strong-armed someone into giving him a pair of skis. I'd better get back before he thinks he's ready for the expert slopes."
"You go on," Luca said with a chuckle. "I'm going to take it slow. Meet you down there."
"Take it slow? Since when?" Stephanie cocked her head and gave him that look. "Sure?"
"All right, but don't do anything crazy on the slopes. There's a storm coming in. Remember, you're a treasure hunter, not an Olympic athlete." She swished away down the hill, skis gliding smoothly over the sparkling ground.
She was right, he was a treasure hunter at heart and it had been his idea to form the Treasure Seekers agency in the first place. He'd told himself it was to help his brother Victor deal with his first wife's sudden death, but it was more than likely a way to soothe his constant restlessness. In the off season when he wasn't piloting a helicopter for the U.S. Forest Service, there was not enough to keep him busy and busy was the only thing that kept him sane. He was the kid in grade school who could never seem to stay in his seat. Some things hadn't changed.
He and his siblings had found treasures, all right, everything from lost masterpieces to priceless stamps, yet he always experienced a letdown after each case, as if the treasure, rich though it was, was somehow not the prize he was meant to be looking for.
"Earthly treasures aren't going to satisfy," he could hear his father say. But he felt so alive when he was deep in the throes of a search, however dissatisfying the ending might be.
He shook the thoughts away and pulled his goggles into place.
One more run.
He shouldn't be skiing here, so close to the shut-down Whisper property. He puzzled over why the fond memories of his past there felt so strong. Idly he wondered what Ava would do after her family's property was sold. At least the sale might afford them some security. That's what Luca's father believed when he proposed buying it pending Luca's report.
Head out of the clouds, Luca.
He mentally picked out the path he intended to take down the mountain and readied himself to push off. A streak of black caught his attention. He jerked toward the movement, thinking he had imagined it until the shape zinged again through the white-robed trees finally coming to a stop on a flat rock that protruded above the snow. The dog barked, a loud, agitated sound that cut through the quiet of the snow-covered hollow.
Luca stared at the animal. Even though he could not figure out what a dog would be doing alone out here on the slopes, he was far more surprised by one particular detail. The animal was big, a scruffy black-and-tan creature that spoke of German shepherd parentage with something fluffier mixed in, but the strangest thing about him was his left ear, the top of which had been cut off somehow long ago, leaving a flattened tip.
Luca had known a dog with just such an ear, but he could not believe it. Ava's dreamer of an uncle owned a critter that answered to the same description, but it could not be one and the same. Uncle Paul, last Luca had heard, was lying low to escape a group of unsavory folks from whom he'd borrowed money.
"Mack Dog?" Luca yelled out, amazed that he remembered the name.
The dog jerked as if he'd gotten a shock, stood up and wagged a tentative tail in Luca's direction.
A noise from over the hill made them both tense. Luca was not sure but it might have been a shout or maybe just the echo of some agitated bird.
Mack Dog leaped from the rock, floundering in the snow before he began an awkward journey in the direction of the noise, bulldozing his way through the frozen piles, standing every few feet on his rear legs to get his visual bearings.
Luca watched the dog in amazement.
How could it be Mack Dog?
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