A Necessary Deception

By: Lucy Farago

Chapter 1

His ax came down hard, splintering the wood dead center. The crack echoed into the mountain valley, as if mocking his dire predicament. Using his boot, Monty kicked the two separate chunks off the stump and grabbed another log. He hadn’t signed up for this survival bullshit, and when he made it out of here, someone would pay. And they’d pay dearly.

Something nudged his foot. A log. He picked up the chopped wood and tossed it back onto the pile, now a good four feet tall. Had he been out here that long? Considering the sun was now low in the sky, he was drenched in sweat, and his right arm hummed, he guessed so. And whoever said physical exercise relieved stress was a moron. He was no less angry than when he’d started. In fact, probably more so, as his boss’s head had been his inspiration for working through the stack of wood.

“Vacation my ass. If I need time off…” He swung the ax. “I’ll take time off.” The log shattered as the blade embedded itself into the chopping block.

Loading up his arms with the firewood, he made his way back. He’d been to Alaska a few of times but never stayed at this cabin, one of the many safe houses. The assholes had made the generators inoperable, but at least the well was clean, and he didn’t have to boil water. How was roughing it a vacation? He tossed his load on the front porch and discarded his wet T-shirt into the basket of laundry he’d have to drag to the icy creek to wash—by hand. For that alone, he’d make his boss beg on his hands and knees for the passcode to his server. He’d bog it down with so much crap that Mr. Ryan Sheppard would regret this supposed favor everyone was doing Monty. “Assholes.”

The scream hit his eardrums before his hand reached the doorknob. “What the hell?”

It came from his right. He dodged into the woods, tree branches nicking his bare torso as he ran. He was miles from anywhere. That had been the reason Ryan had dumped him here. Without a plane, there’d be no returning to civilization. So who else was here? And why had she screamed? He slowed but saw no one, only heard the trickle of the creek that ran behind the cabin. What if she was now unconscious?

This wasn’t his expertise. His specialty was computers, not damsels in distress. At least he could triage and perform first aid. He once considered going into medicine—then he’d realized it involved far too much human interaction. But first he had to find her. The mountains reverberated the tiniest of sounds up here. Could he have gone in the wrong direction? He stopped. Listened…and heard splashing. He reached the top of the steep embankment overlooking the creek…and found her.

A woman struggled to get up and out of the water. He’d learned the hard way that the rocks were slimy, and so had she as she fell, landing on her butt, waist deep in babbling brook. Wasn’t Mother Nature grand? No one was around to be help, so he assumed she was alone. Odd. Besides a small scrape on her temple, she didn’t look hurt…or happy. On the shore, he spotted one of those purses that doubled as a knapsack and guessed from her disheveled appearance she’d lost her footing and rolled down the hill. Given it had snowed last night, an experienced hiker would know the decline was slippery. He made his way down. As she continued her efforts, he kept quiet, not wanting to catch her off guard and cause her to slip again. It didn’t matter. Down she went. He checked his watch. The sun would disappear soon and the temperature would drop.

“I know it’s cold, but why don’t you just stay there and wait for me?” he said, far more exasperated than necessary. She was already wet.

The button on the sleeve of her oversize jacket caught in the long blond hair she’d been attempting to brush off her face. With a painful grimace, she yanked and freed it, along with several strands of hair. “Who are you?” she demanded, holding up a hand to fend him off.

Why did people do that? Reflex, he guessed. Because if somebody wanted to harm you, one little hand wouldn’t stop them. “I won’t hurt you. I’m staying at the cabin just over this ridge. You’re kind of a long way from civilization.” How the hell had she gotten here? If she had a way off this mountain, he’d convince her to give him a ride out of this nature-infested vacation Ryan had forced on him.