He was lost.
Jared Murdock didn’t need a map to tell him that he’d been lost for a very long time. But sitting here on this steep, rain-drenched North Georgia mountain road brought it all tumbling toward him, like a mud slide unleashed. “It wasn’t supposed to rain this hard,” he grumbled as he once again put his right foot on the gas pedal of the sleek black Escalade. Jared pressed firmly, but the big tires on the SUV kept right on spinning deeper and deeper into the mud hole in which he’d managed to get himself stuck. “So much for four-wheel drive,” he said out loud, hitting his fist against the leather-encased steering wheel.
He knew he was close to the cabin his travel agent had rented for him on one of the foothills of Dover Mountain, but with the darkness and the storm, Jared couldn’t tell if he’d made the right turn or not. Apparently not.
It had been such a long time since he’d been here. At least twenty years. That had been the summer before Jared had headed off to the University of Georgia. He’d come here to hike and fish with his grandfather before football and studies took up all of his time.
And then there had been so little time to get together after that. Wishing now he’d taken the time, Jared stared out into the angry night.
Maybe he’d been lost ever since, Jared mused now as he watched the storm’s violent slashes of rain and wind descend over the ominous-looking woods and hills. The crash of thunder and lightning rumbled over the earth, shaking the windows of his vehicle.
Jared saw a flicker of dancing fire rushing out of the heavens, and then a tree deep in the forest split in half. “That one hit too close for comfort.”
There was only one thing left to do. He’d have to walk the short distance up the steep mountain road to the cabin. That would have to be better than sitting here in the rain and dark inside his vehicle, an easy target for a tree to land on. He’d find the cabin, get a roaring fire going, get some sleep, then come back for the Escalade in the morning.
Things always looked better in the morning. Wasn’t that what his grandmother used to say? “The light comes after the darkness, Jared,” she would tell him. Grandmother Mur-dock had passed away while Jared was in college.
And his grandfather had passed away a couple of months ago. The grief of that washed at him like the rain hitting his windshield, fast and furious.
Jared turned off the motor and got out to go around the SUV, water and mud sluicing against the treads of his hiking boots. The downpour would have him soaked to the bone in minutes, but he didn’t have much choice. Lifting the hood of his leather jacket, he opened the back door and got out his duffel bag. At least he’d dressed warmly and he had warm clothes to spare in the aged leather bag—if he could keep it dry. And there should be some food waiting in the cabin, according to the travel agent. At least coffee and soup, if nothing else.
Trying to remember what the woman had told him earlier, Jared searched the road and woods as he trudged up the ever-winding incline. It had been so long since he’d been here and the mountain refused to give him any clues.
Nor had the perky travel agent, who’d wondered over the phone why Jared wanted to stay at such a down-andout tourist spot as Dover Mountain. “It used to be the place to go for a quiet retreat, but now it’s fallen on hard times. It’s awfully isolated there, Mr. Murdock. Certainly off the beaten path.”
“Just find me a cabin,” he’d growled into the phone.
She’d called back a few minutes later, her enthusiasm back in full force. “There are several to choose from. Some of them are privately owned now, but some of them are rentals. Yours is the second one on the left, back off the road.”
Or had she said the second one on the right?
Jared was too bone weary to remember what she’d said, or which cabin he’d always shared with his grandfather. But he hoped he’d guessed the right one when he’d tried to describe it to the confused agent. It didn’t really matter now, anyway. He’d been too frustrated earlier to care whether or not the woman found him the same cabin. He only knew that he wanted to come back to this spot, this mountain, maybe in honor and celebration of his grandfather, maybe out of a sense of duty and guilt.
Tired. He was so tired. And he’d only wanted to get away. Lately the events in his life had just about worn him to a frazzle. And besides, he did his best thinking when he was alone, with no distractions.The adventurer in him liked the solitude of climbing rock faces and hiking through dense woods. But tonight his soul was crying out for something more, for something he’d lost the day his grandfather had died.
Actually, he’d lost part of himself long before Grandfather Claude had died. Meredith had seen to that.
During the next month, Jared intended to think his way out of having to end a fifteen-year partnership with his friend Mack Purcell. Well, at least now he didn’t have to come up with a plan to save Murdock and Purcell Media Consultants; his ex-partner owned the company outright.
Now Mack would have to decide what to do about expanding the company in a strained economy. Jared was out of the picture. Completely. Once he’d signed the final papers earlier today, selling out his shares to his partner, there had been no turning back. Jared should have felt relief, but instead he’d just felt drained and sick. Old and washed-out. Empty and betrayed.
We took too many risks, Jared thought now as the wind and rain whistled around his dark hair. And Mack had taken the one risk that had ended their friendship forever. Only, that risk had nothing to do with business. It had been strictly personal.
Nothing like a best friend stealing a fiancée right out from under a man’s nose to bring that man to a crashing midlife crisis.
“I’m too young for this,” Jared reasoned as he battled the cold wind and the even colder water hitting his face. Too young for a crisis, but too stupid to see what had been so clear and right in front of his eyes.
Well, he could see now. Or at least by the time he’d trailed all the hills and bluffs of Dover Mountain, he’d have it all figured out.
The cold air caused Jared’s eyes to tear up and his nose to turn red. It was a wet spring night, unusually cold for April. Not a good night to be out on a lonely mountain road. Instead of helping him get his mind off things, being here only brought home the problems he’d left behind in his fancy Atlanta penthouse and the memories he’d tried so hard to leave behind in his mind. Maybe he should just turn around and go back to the city. But he didn’t want to turn around. Jared’s failures were chasing him up this mountain as surely as the driving storm was chasing at the trees.
He turned to the right and saw a single light shining from a cabin up the lane.
Always leave a light burning.
His grandparents had taught Jared that. Always leave the door open for hope, they’d said. Jared had come back here in hopes of finding some of the faith and strength his grandparents had tried to instill in him. And maybe finally to face his own shortcomings. He wondered if he’d be able to conquer those shortcomings.
Or even to make it up this drenched mountain to that beckoning light.