‘Til Death Do Us Part

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The cold refreshing mountain air made Vicky Golden feel alive.

Vicky pushed hard cresting the ridge, near-freezing wind chilling her lungs with every inhale. Watching her footwork on the snow and ice, she used her peripheral vision to scan the landscape ahead.

She loved Mt. Shasta. She could spend days—and often did—hiking alone, basking in the serenity above ten-thousand feet.

Not today.

“Dean,” Vicky said into the two-way radio clipped to her shoulder. “You and Steve head south. Come up around the east side of the accident site. Brian and I will continue in our current direction.”

Static crackled over the radio.

“You’re the boss,” answered her business partner and fellow rescue team member. “How many people are we looking for?”

“Three. Duff, the pilot, plus two passengers.” Shadows appeared on the terrain as yet-another wind shift played with the clouds. Vicky tightened the drawstring on her hood. Strong blast. Could be what downed the helicopter.

“Let’s get a move on, boys,” she said. “This storm’s coming in faster than predicted.”

“Roger that. Dean out.”

Vicky’s breath steamed in the cold air as she and Brian picked up the pace down the ridge, slipping a few times on the soft, mushy snow at the lower elevation.

To the east, about a hundred yards, a dark speck against a white background caught her eye. She confirmed her suspicions with high-powered binoculars. A small copter lay upside down in a crater, having tumbled about a thousand feet down the slope.

Not far from the wreckage, Duff walked erratically. She recognized the Celtic cross on the back of her friend’s jacket weaving left and right.

Toward a deep crevasse!

Vicky sprinted, Brian hot on her heels. She gasped as she covered the distance, digging the toe points of her crampons into the slick surface. The gear bag on her back slammed against her spine in rhythm with each stride.

Pieces of sheered rotor blades stuck up in the snow. She weaved around them while keeping an eye on Duff. Another few feet and the crazy Irishman would drop into the crevasse. She sprang from her position to grab his legs before he stepped off into air.

Her pulse pounded in a combination of exertion and apprehension as she pulled him to safety. He sluggishly raised his head to look at her.

Piercing blue eyes. Long, straight nose. High cheekbones. Stubborn jaw. All revealed a European aristocratic lineage.

Not Duff. A face she hadn’t seen in eight years.

The last face she expected to see.



Her blood ran cold.

After what he’d put her through… what he’d taken from her… what he’d done to her, she should push him into the crevasse herself.

And let him die.

Christiaan’s body began to shake violently, gasping for air. He was going into shock.

Dean’s voice crackled over the radio. “Steve and I are at the crash site. We’ve got Duff and one guy still strapped into the bird. No sign of a third.”

“I’ve got him.” Vicky forced herself back into rescue mode. “Radio Rescue Air One that it’s too soft to land here. They’ll need to drop a rescue harness.”

“Got it.”

Christiaan struggled for air.

“Slow, deep breaths,” she instructed. “In through your nose, out through your mouth.”

“You…” He reached up and touched her cheek. “You’re…” The seductive Dutch accent made her knees weak. The memory of lying in his arms tore through her like a bolt of lightning.

Ice crystals kicked up by the arriving rescue helicopter cut at Vicky’s face. She covered Christiaan with her body to shield him from the razor-sharp pieces.

In less than a minute, the crystals blew off and Vicky focused on getting this man as far from her as possible.

She grabbed the rescue harness dangling above, pulled the device over the semiconscious Christiaan, then secured it around his waist and legs. She signaled “go ahead” to the winch operator. Only after jerking the harness tight did Vicky notice her husband staring at her.

The cable pulled taut. He rose into the air, screaming “Brianna.”

No. She’s dead.


Christiaan floated in and out of a conscious dream state, the boundary between reality and fantasy blurred.

Clad only in black lace, Brianna came to him. She topped him, pulling at his clothes like they were on fire. His hands explored the hard lines of her back, her waist, her hips. She sat up and removed her bra, her fingers skimming the sides of her breasts before throwing the garment aside.

Her hard nipples teased him. He reached to touch them, but she forced his hands to her hips. She purred for him to remove her thong and follow her lead. He pushed her back, slipped the fabric down her long legs, then tossed it aside. Her long brown hair glowed like muted fire. Passion burned in her gray eyes.

He positioned himself above her. “Minj minnaar. My lover. Tell me what you want.”

Her firm lips parted against his own. “Yo, Chris,” erupted from her throat.

His precious Bri faded.

“Yo, Chris,” a man’s voice said. “Rise and shine, boss.”

Sunlight streamed through the bedroom window, robbing Christiaan of the first erotic dream he’d had of his wife in a long while. Forced to confront the intrusion, his eyes soon adjusted and scanned the room.

Although luxurious, the king-sized bed barely accommodated his six-foot, four-inch frame. The clothes he’d dropped on the floor last night after checking out of the ER were gone. His briefcase lay closed on top of a dresser. The clock on the nightstand registered 1:00 PM.

Potverdomme! How long had he been out?

Reaching under the covers, he ripped the now-very-warm ice bag from his sprained knee and pitched it into the corner of the hotel penthouse.

Enough rest. He needed to get back to work. He had to save his company.

Yanking the covers off, he leaped out of bed. But freedom had its price. His head began to pound, his right knee buckled, and every muscle in his body throbbed.

Scratch the ten-mile run from today’s to-do list.

“Whoa.” His best friend Baz Yager caught him before he hit the floor. “Doc said you need to rest for the next several days. Several means more than one, boss.”

“I’m fine.” At least Christiaan thought so. He remembered everything up to being thrown free when the helicopter bringing him from the airport veered out of control. Nothing else until he awoke in the ER.

“Unfortunately, that’s all the get-well time I can afford,” he said. “I can’t get this project back on track lounging around in bed.”

“Serves you right. I told you you didn’t need to fly all the way over here. Everything is under control.” Baz helped Christiaan back onto the bed. “You listen to me about as much as you did Duff when he told you to buckle up.”

“If I’d known falling out of the sky was on the itinerary, I would have.” Christiaan snickered then winced as bruised ribs protested. “I’m taking a nice, safe taxi back to the airport. How is Duff, by the way?”

“Pissed about his broken wrist, kicking himself for loaning you his good-luck jacket.” Baz dropped into a nearby chair. “Swears that’s why we went down. So much for the luck of the Irish, huh?”

“What about you?” Christiaan asked.

“A little sore, but ready to work. However, you could use some serious recuperation time. Why don’t you head back to Amsterdam? Let me do my job. I’ll email you daily updates.”

“I’m not going home until I’m satisfied the Mineral Springs project is on track. The future of VL Holdings depends on it.” I refuse to lose another precious thing because I failed to take action. Christiaan pointed at the dresser. “Hand me my briefcase, please.”

Baz shook his head. “Not ‘til you promise that once you’re satisfied everything is under control, you’ll leave it all to your more-than-capable VP of development… moi.”


Baz dropped the briefcase onto the bed then disappeared into the living room.

Christiaan spun the combination on the lock and flipped the case open. He grabbed his smartphone and scrolled through messages, stopping only to read and reply to ones marked “Urgent.” Unfortunately, the majority were marked “Urgent.”

“ShastaWatch isn’t letting up,” he said. “I’ve got messages from at least twenty U.S. government officials telling me the group is bombarding them with phone calls, emails, and letters. I guess if the environmentalists aren’t happy, nobody’s happy.”

“Oh, they’re definitely not happy.” Baz reentered the room and tossed the local newspaper in front of Christiaan. “Check it out.”

Christiaan glanced at the front-page headline. “Summit Energy to Rape Mountain for Profit.”

He shook his head at the media’s audacity. “What? No room to add ‘and Pillage’?” He read aloud. “Environmental group ShastaWatch condemned the President’s administration for approving the development of a controversial geothermal project at Mineral Springs near Mt. Shasta. The group denounced the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service for giving the go ahead to a project that threatens the area’s already-fragile environment. Officials contend the approval was justified due to increased demand for renewable energy. An anonymous source within ShastaWatch vows to do anything to stop the injustice.”

“Good thing we established Summit Energy here in the States to manage our expansion into North America. Imagine what the tree huggers would be screaming if they knew a foreign company was involved.”

“Yeah, the headline would read ‘Dutch Conglomerate to Turn Greenspace into Greenbacks’.” Christiaan tossed the newspaper aside. “Let’s keep it Summit Energy as long as possible.”

“Hey, your call. You’re the big man in charge.”

“Of a nearly bankrupt company.”

“Hey,” Baz said. “Who knew the ethanol market would collapse?”

Obviously not me.

Christiaan breathed deep and rubbed his temples. He still wasn’t sure what happened. Normally, he saw business opportunities like a psychic. But somehow, he’d underestimated operating costs and was now bleeding millions a month.

The Mineral Springs project had to be fast-forwarded soon. He was running out of cash.

And time.

Thanks to shortsighted… uncooperative… uncompromising tree huggers.

“So tell me about this group, ShastaWatch.”

“Not much to tell,” Baz answered. “No names, no office, no website, no phone.”

“And no clue who runs the show.”

“Not a one.” Baz shook his head. “Even Lou couldn’t find a trace.”

Christiaan arched an eyebrow. “Wow, that means something if a former CIA agent can’t dig up any info. But, this is a small town, and small towns don’t have secrets. Somebody, somewhere knows something. We just need to find that somebody.” And fast.

“But first…” He carefully swung his legs over the side of the bed. “I need to get dressed.”

“Here.” Baz grabbed a faded running shirt and worn sweatpants from a nearby dresser.

“Thanks.” Christiaan let out a short snort. “Remember growing up how you could sweet-talk the nanny into telling us where my Christmas presents were hidden?”

“Ah, the Yager charm,” Baz said with a twinkling eye. “Never met a woman I couldn’t win over.”

Christiaan cocked his head to one side.

“Okay, there was one.” Baz tossed the clothes at his friend. But I never had a chance with Brianna ‘because she only had eyes for you.”

For one awful moment, the memory of Bri’s death flickered. The weight of the small gold wedding band on a chain around Christiaan’s neck hung heavy.

He cleared his throat and refocused on the present.

“How about using the Yager charm to get some information out of the front-desk clerk?” Christiaan slid the sweats on, grimacing as he pulled a pant leg over his swollen knee. “The one who waves her ample chest every time we walk by.”

“Or the hotel maid who wanted to give ‘his majesty’ her personal turn-down service. Or the ER nurse that offered to make a special house call to the Baron van Laere?” Baz shrugged. “I’ll give it a shot. They may throw themselves at the clean-cut, button-down aristocrat, but they’re always willing to let the ponytailed, rough nobody catch them.”

Christiaan studied his best friend. He wished he could enjoy the attention women forced on him. It had been a long time since he’d enjoyed female companionship. But that would require tapping into the well of emotions bottled inside.

And that well was closed, permanently. He owed Bri that much.

“By the way, who rescued us yesterday?” Christiaan asked before pulling on his shirt. He winced as he bumped a couple of sore ribs.

“A local crew.” Baz smirked as he leaned against the doorway. “And get this, according to the paramedics that brought us to the ER, the leader is a woman. A real hottie named Vicky Golden.”

“We should track them down and thank them.”

“Dibs on the hottie,” Baz said. “Hey, you hungry?”

“Starving, but I’ve got too much work to catch up on to go out. Let’s do room service.”

“Lobster? Veal? Filet mignon?”

Christiaan raised a brow.

“Cheeseburgers it is.” Baz headed toward the living room.

Next on the agenda… bathroom.

Christiaan struggled to stand and managed to knock his briefcase off the bed.

An old photo of a young woman sitting on a picnic blanket fell to the floor. The image of the summer sun highlighting her long brown hair made him start. In shorts and a t-shirt, she posed for the camera, toasting the photographer with a drink.

Christiaan caressed the picture with his eyes. He’d snapped it a week after meeting Bri. The next day, he’d asked her to marry him.

Thank God she said yes.

Pain flared in his heart. As fresh as the day he lost her. He fingered Bri’s wedding band.

Hot tears stung his eyes. I’m sorry, mijn minnaar. It was my fault. All my fault.

Bri—and his heart—died again.