Better Together

Chapter 1

 

“No way am I going in there.” Harper Bright took a second look at the yawning black hole in the mountain in front of her and crossed her arms over her chest. She didn’t need her doctorate degree to know this was a bad idea.

“Did you know this tunnel was on Hitler’s charts during World War II? If he ever made it stateside, it was one of the places he planned to bomb.” Wyatt Fernandez planted his feet and crossed his arms over his chest. His dimples flashed but he spoke in the tone of voice that said, “I hear you, but I’m ignoring you”.

He used the same tone every time he dragged Harper on some crazy adventure or another.

She walked toward the openmouthed hole. Despite her family having owned the ground around the tunnel all her life, she hadn’t known about this small spot in Central Pennsylvania being on Hitler’s map.

The looming mountain that shot up around the ravenous cavity blocked the sunlight. Leafy green trees waved in the warm June breeze. Harper squinted up. “You know, someday, we really ought to start acting like the mature adults we are.”

“Gimme a break, Harper. The only time you ever spend two seconds not acting like an adult is when I strong arm you into it. Like now. This is going to be fun.” Wyatt flashed that irresistible dimple and his brown eyes twinkled. Harper wasn’t exactly short, but she still had to crane her neck to look at him as he walked beside her. His lanky frame had filled out in the decade since high school. Actually, now that she thought about it, he’d filled out very nicely. Broad chest, wide shoulders, and long, muscular legs. A flare of heat unfurled in her stomach. She straightened her spine. This was Wyatt. Her best friend.

They reached the orifice of the mountain. Cool air blew from its depths. It smelled heavy and sweet, like rotting soil. Their next steps took them inside. The hair on the back of Harper’s neck poked straight out. She scooted closer to Wyatt.

“I’m not seeing the ‘fun’ part.” Her voice echoed off the cavernous walls. Water dripped hollowly, echoing in the blackness.

Wyatt kept walking. “This isn’t supposed to be fun. It’s research. Do you want to find it or not?”

Harper bumped Wyatt’s arm with her shoulder. “You know I do.”

She wanted to see if the old stories were true, but couldn’t help shivering as she looked around at the stone walls arching above. The farther in they walked, the darker it got. At this point, she could barely see Wyatt’s outline. She pushed back the fear threatening to break loose in her head. It wasn’t that walking in the tunnel was particularly dangerous. It was more the idea of the dark unknown and being trapped in a small space with an angry locomotive.

As if Wyatt could read her mind, he said, “There isn’t any danger if a train would actually go through while we’re in here. Although, I have heard that there could be a bit of air suction.”

She planted her feet. “What?”

“Kidding.” He pulled on her arm. “Come on.”

She started walking again. Slowly. “What did you mean by air suction?” Wyatt had always been better with hard science. All she’d cared about was finding the family heirloom that her great-grandmother had told her was hidden in the deepest depths.

Wyatt tapped her head with the hand that wasn’t dragging her toward the tunnel. “Well, since you’re the brain in this relationship…”

She swatted his hand and continued to drag her feet, even though she’d already decided to go along with his nutty scheme, the way she always did. After all, not only did she want to find the ring, but this could be the last time Wyatt and she went on an adventure together. She’d gotten the call yesterday that her tenure vote was scheduled for the end of summer. It was the one last thing she had to cross off the list of career goals she’d made the day she had graduated from high school.

“Quit it. You’re smarter than me, and we both know it. I just happen to be able to stay in one place long enough to get a degree.” It wasn’t that she was so smart. She was simply willing to work hard. Plus, she liked to study. She’d enjoyed every second of the last ten years. Which led her to the vexatious question that had plagued her since the phone call: what now?

“Ouch.” Wyatt placed a hand over his heart.

She shrugged. Too often she’d wondered that maybe what she’d been working toward all this time wasn’t what she really wanted anymore. More likely she had become overly comfortable with achieving her goals, ticking each accomplishment off of her internal checklist. “It’s true.”

“Yeah, well, you had a nice, secure home all your life.”

And he hadn’t. Never really knowing or being wanted by his father, losing his mother in a tragic skiing accident, being sent to live with an uncle he barely knew. Of course, if he hadn’t come to live with the man her mother eventually married, she would never have gotten to know him. She bit her lip. “I’m sorry.”

“Hey, not a problem. I’ll only rub it in if you change your mind and turn around.”

They walked far enough into the tunnel that the light behind them faded, and Harper could no longer see the road under her feet. Dread balled and rolled in the pit of her stomach. She reached for Wyatt. Big and strong with rough calluses, his hand enfolded hers with an ease born of familiarity.

How could she have forgotten how easily Wyatt’s touch could calm her? All the numerous phone conversations and thousands of text messages couldn’t replicate the comfort of his touch. The miles between them had always multiplied Harper’s anxiety. The pictures he sent hadn’t helped. Standing at the top of some snow-covered mountain with only clouds and sky in the background, or his arms outstretched, moments before he leapt from a who-knows-how-high cliff with only a thin bundle—hopefully a parachute—strapped to his back. Of course, she wasn’t sure which was worse, the pictures, or the times when she didn’t hear from him for days. He always warned her when he might be adventuring out of service areas, but that was one instance when knowledge wasn’t power, as her ragged bloody nails could testify.

“Do you think we’re halfway?” she asked.

“Why are you whispering?”

She shivered—she hadn’t noticed she was whispering. “Just in case there’s a bear hibernating in one of those alcoves you talked about.”

“It’s June.”

“Maybe it’s waking up late this year.” Even to her ears it sounded asinine. Her cheeks heated. She looked over, but they were so deep in the mountain that she couldn’t see a thing. The darkness hid her flush. Lifting her chin, she tried to focus on the stories she’d heard as a child. If they found what they were looking for, it would be worth facing her fear.

“I can’t believe someone has actually hired you to teach college students.” He squeezed her hand, and she didn’t need a light to know he smiled beside her.

“I revert to my inner child when I’m scared spitless.”

Wyatt activated his cell phone light. “There.” He pointed it at the wall. Sure enough, just ahead an arched area was chiseled into the side of mountain. “Maybe three feet deep, three feet long and,” he looked up, “seven or so feet high. We’d both fit in there easy.”

“Us and the serial killer that eludes the cops by hiding in here.” She tugged on his hand. “Come on. Faster.”

“Didn’t you ever hear you gotta enjoy the journey?” Harper could hear the grin in Wyatt’s voice, but he did speed up a notch. For her. Heck, this was child’s play compared to the stuff he normally did.

But it was Wyatt, and she didn’t have to pretend to be brave. “I’ll enjoy it once we’re out of here.”

“It’ll be over then.” He chuckled. “Oh, except we have to walk back through.”

She stopped so fast her feet probably left skid marks. But she wouldn’t know since it was darker than sin, and she couldn’t see a blasted thing except for the far tunnel opening which didn’t seem to be getting any closer.

“We only have to go to the middle hidey hole. That’s where it’s supposed to be. No one said anything about walking through.” Fear had turned her backbone into an icicle. “I know you’re an adrenaline junkie, but I’m allergic to the stuff.”

Wyatt snorted. “If it weren’t for me, you’d be moldering under your books and lab rats. How many times have you left the state?”

“Three. And it was three too many. I like being home. I like moldering.” She kept her eyes fastened to the circle of light on the ground from Wyatt’s cell phone until he put it away.

“I like being home, too. But being home is sweeter after you’ve left it for a while.” His thumb moved lightly over her knuckles.

A little of her tension eased. “I always assumed you had itchy feet like your mom.”

“A little, I guess.”

“If that’s not it, why not come home? You know Fink and my mom would love to have you back helping out on the farm.” She’d love to have him back, too. Gosh, she missed him. She hadn’t realized how much.

Even though he’d been away more than home the last few years, she still considered him her best friend. They had always told each other everything.

Well, except anything that even hinted of romance. Growing up, she’d always been very aware that her mother had gotten pregnant with her at fourteen. Harper had determined not to go down the same path, closing herself off to the very idea of boys or boyfriends. Studying instead of dating. She supposed, at twenty-eight, it was probably okay to crack that protective shell.

“Come on, Pickles. We’re almost half-way. The next hidey-hole is probably close.” His deep voice rumbled above her.

She smiled at the nickname he had gifted her with years ago.

Light cut through the darkness parallel to the ground—the wrong angle for Wyatt’s cell phone—just before he tensed beside her. The rumble in the air and the vibration under her feet confirmed what her brain had suspected. She turned to be sure. The entire mouth of the tunnel was blocked out by the massive shape of a train engine. Like a flesh-eating bacteria, magnified, with teeth bared, it bore down on them.

Acid shards cut through her trembling body. She barely felt Wyatt yanking on her arm. She couldn’t get her feet to move. The engine powered closer like a black avalanche, chewing up the distance between them.

He swept her up in his arms and jogged the two steps to the nook, flattening himself against the side wall so his back was toward the train. The roar of the engine and the squeal of metal on steel reverberated throughout the stone walls. The vibration seemed to be alive, monstrous, so close and big and loud she could almost see it. She pulled her body into a ball and pressed against him. She wrapped her arms around his head, wanting to protect him, too.

Her breath came in short gasps. Panic rolled through her like a bowling ball heading toward the king pin.

She closed her eyes tight, until it was only Wyatt’s solid, comforting warmth pressing into her and the deafening noise all around. He cradled her and bent over slightly. The tangy, heavy stench of diesel exhaust filled the air around them, burning Harper’s nose.

Eventually the engine noise faded away and, although the train was still loud, the cars passing had a more rhythmic feel. Loud clack-clack, then fading out before coming back combined with the occasional earsplitting screech of metal on metal.

Wyatt’s stubble rubbed her cheek. She closed her eyes and moved her cheek back over his. Her chest tingled. She froze and her eyes snapped open. This was Wyatt. Her best friend. She would not allow their friendship to be ruined because she all of a sudden had some wild ribbon of desire winding through her. No matter how delicious it was.

His breath warmed her ear as he said, “Now we know there’s no air suction.”

“I’m going to poison the next meal I make you,” she hissed into his neck, only half-joking.

“I’ve heard that before.” His heart beat steady and strong against her. The dratted man wasn’t even scared.

The last of the cars went by. The noise faded.

She loosened her arms from around his head. She didn’t know what she was trying to protect him from anyway.

It was probably time to remember she was a grown-up. A professor up for tenure vote at the end of the summer. But Wyatt’s warmth and strength were alluring. She didn’t want to pull away from the hardness of his chest or lose the comfort of his touch. But she couldn’t let him stand here holding her forever.

“Okay, put me down.” She lifted her head and smacked his shoulder lightly, pretending she hadn’t been clutching him like two oxygen atoms on a hydrogen, and praying her knees wouldn’t buckle when he complied.

She wiggled to prompt him to move, but a new sound echoed in the darkness and she froze. A hiss. Followed by a rattle.

“Holy crap.” Her arms tightened around Wyatt’s neck. “Is that what I think it is?”

“Yeah. Someone’s practicing the maracas.” She could feel his head tilt in the darkness. “They’re pretty good.”

Her teeth rattled together, but she snorted a laugh. “That’s a rattlesnake. It sounds close.”

“I don’t think we need to worry. I thought it was a stick when I first stepped on it, but sticks don’t typically wrap themselves around your leg.”

Chills raced up Harper’s spine. Her mouth opened, but it took a minute to make her voice work. “You’re standing on the snake?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The sound like stones shaking in a tin can echoed throughout the tunnel again.

She ignored the note of sarcasm in his voice. “What are we going to do?”

“You’re the one with the doctorate. How about I keep standing on the snake while you think?”

Her throat slammed shut. She struggled to swallow. “I study nutrition. In a lab. That’s what the doctorate is for. Food.”

“Branch out a little.”

Despite Harper’s all-encompassing fear, she smiled. “Okay.” She took a deep breath. If he wasn’t worried, if he thought it was funny, well, she could do humor, too. “I’m thinking about white sandy beaches, relaxing waves, warm sun…”

“Try again.”

She grinned—still petrified, but Wyatt exuded calm. “Hey, that was helping.”

He snorted.

Ideas were not exactly filling her mind. Her brain had diverted all her blood flow to the areas that made her want to pee and run at the same time. She went with the only plan she could think of. “How about I grab your cell phone out of your pocket. I’ll shine the flashlight down at your feet…”

“Um, close your eyes while you do it, just in case…”

Harper twisted gingerly in his arms and felt for the phone attached to his belt, not wanting to make him lose his balance, although he seemed rock solid. Funny, because she still pictured Wyatt as a gangly teen instead of the unflappable man holding her in his arms and not even breathing hard. “Just in case what?”

Silence.

“Wyatt. Is there something you’re not telling me?”

“Not really.”

Not really? That meant there was something. What could be worse than a rattle snake? “If there was a bear in this hidey hole, I’d have figured it out by now.”

“I’m sure you would have, Pickles.” He shifted ever so slightly. “Would you just shine the light down?”

She paused with the phone in her shaking hand. “What does ‘not really’ mean? You’re standing on the snake, right?”

“One of them.”

“Holy crap. Holy crap. Holy crap.”

He gave her the password to his phone. She pulled up the flashlight app with shaking fingers. Something caught her eye in a crack in the stone behind Wyatt’s head. Her racing heart jumped. She squinted to see more clearly. She’d forgotten the reason they were in the tunnel in the first place.

“Harper? Tell me you’re not playing Candy Crush.”

“Uh. No. Of course not.” She juggled the phone to her other hand. Once they got the snake figured out, she could examine the crack more closely. There was definitely something there. Faded blue fabric, maybe?

She shone the light at the ground, keeping her eyes trained on the wall. Now that she knew something was there, she could see the shadow that marked the spot.

Wyatt shuddered. “Eh, I was wrong.”

“Thank God.” Cool relief flooded her. Her fingers lifted and skimmed the smooth surface of the stone.

“There’s three.”

She tensed.

Then yelped.

She dropped his phone.

Wyatt jerked.

With her free hand, she slapped at the wall. A small object landed in her palm.