Winning Back His Wife

By: Melissa McClone

CHAPTER ONE

DR. CULLEN GRAY trudged through the Wy’East Day Lodge, his sore feet entombed in climbing boots he couldn’t wait to remove. His muscles ached after two grueling days on Mount Hood. But whatever he’d been through was worth it.

A climber had been rescued.

That trumped a night spent in a warm, comfy bed, a hot shower in the morning and a homemade breakfast complete with scrambled eggs, chicken-apple sausage and buttermilk pancakes with huckleberry syrup.

The smell of coffee wafted in the air, the aroma tickling Cullen’s cold nose and teasing his hungry, grumbling stomach. A jolt of caffeine would keep him going long enough to survive the rescue debriefing and the short drive home to Hood Hamlet.

Twenty feet in front of him, members of Oregon Mountain Search and Rescue, OMSAR, sat at a long cafeteria table with coffee cups in front of them. Backpacks, helmets and jackets were scattered on the floor.

Almost there.

Cullen was looking forward to taking off his backpack and sitting, if only for the length of the debriefing.

He passed a group of teenagers, students at the Hood Hamlet Snowboarding Academy, who laughed while they took a break from riding. A little girl, around six years old and dressed in pink from her helmet to her ski boots, wobbled away from the hot-chocolate machine holding a cup with both hands.

A few hours ago, a life had hung in the balance, cocooned inside a rescue litter attached by cables to a hovering helicopter. But down here, lower on the mountain, everything had continued as usual, as if what run to take on the slopes was the most important decision of the day. He much preferred being up there, though not because of any element of danger or adrenaline rush. He took only calculated risks to help others and save lives.

Cullen lived simply in the quaint, Alpine-inspired village of Hood Hamlet. Work and the mountain comprised his life. Sometimes it was enough, other times not even close. But days like today reminded him why he did what he did, both as a doctor and as a volunteer mountain rescuer. Satisfaction flowed through his veins.

A successful mission.

It didn’t get much better than that. Well, unless the climber hadn’t fallen into the Bergschrund crevasse to begin with. But given the distance of the fall, the climber’s serious injuries and the technical nature of the rescue, Cullen thought Christmas magic—something Hood Hamlet was famous for—had been in play even though it was May, not December.

Either that or plain old dumb luck.

Cullen preferred thinking Christmas magic had been involved. Luck seemed too...random. He might be a doctor, but living here for almost a year had opened his mind. Not everything could be explained and proven scientifically. Sometimes patients defied their diagnosis and survived with no logical explanation.

As soon as he reached the table, he shrugged off his backpack. Gear rattled inside. Carabiners clinked on the outside. When the straps left his shoulders, relief shot straight to his toes.

The pack thudded against the floor. The sound echoed through the cafeteria and drew a few glances from the skiers, riders and tourists.

Let them look. Complain even. Nothing, not even his tight muscles or tiredness, could ruin this day.

He removed his black parka with the white block letters spelling RESCUE on the sleeve, tucked it under one of the outside straps of his pack, then sat. His feet felt as if they were sighing in delight at not having to support any weight.

“Nice work up there, Doc.” Bill Paulson, another volunteer with OMSAR, sat on the opposite side of the table. He passed Cullen a cup of coffee from the extras sitting between them. “What you did in the Bergschrund to save that guy’s life...”

Cullen bent over to loosen his boots. He didn’t like anyone fussing over what he did, let alone another mountain rescuer. He didn’t want the praise. The result—a life saved—was payback enough. “All in a day’s work.”

“Maybe in the emergency department, but not down inside a crevasse.” Paulson raised his cup. “I’m buying the first round at the brewpub tonight.”

A beer was in order after this mission. “You’re on.”

Zoe Hughes, the pretty wife of OMSAR team leader Sean Hughes and an associate member herself, stood behind Cullen. “Want anything?”

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