What is he waiting for? Charley ached to move into him, but Drake was holding back. Maybe he didn’t see her that way. Was she the only one feeling an attraction? If she went up on her toes and kissed him, would he step back and set her away from him? She didn’t think she could handle the humiliation. Then she remembered Heidi and moved back on her own.
The awkward moment ended abruptly when a raucous unkindness of ravens burst across the sky directly overhead. They both looked up at the deep whoosh of their wings beating the air. Their frantic squawks were unsettling.
Visually tracking the fleeing birds, she said, “I wonder what that was all about.”
His posture rigid, Drake’s nostrils flared. He frowned. “What is that? Do you smell it?”
Lifting her nose, she inhaled deeply and her eyes bulged in alarm. “It’s smoke. I smell smoke. Come on!”
She took off, leading him higher. They circled the peak and stopped short at seeing the wall of smoke and red flame bearing down on their perch from the northwest. It grew and undulated as they watched.
Charley grabbed her head with both hands and whimpered in horror. “My truck!”
Drake pulled out his phone. “No signal. Think we can we make it down there in time?”
“No way.” She gnawed uneasily at her ragged thumbnail. “Bad idea. Even if we could reach it, we’d be trapped down there with the fire. The road goes right into it. See that?”
She pointed west. It was hardly visible through the smoke.
He followed her finger as she explained, “We came in over there, which means we’re cut off. There aren’t any other roads.”
Two pines towering above the canopy went up like torches in front of them as the nightmare unfolded in the distance.
“It’s coming right at us,” he said. “We have to get off this mountain or we’re going to be in serious trouble.”
Charley looked at him, her stomach in knots. “The only way we can get down safely is the way we came up, going straight into it.”
“Then we have to head toward the lake from the other side.”
She shook her head emphatically. “Absolutely not. No. That’s not an option. I’ve seen it from that side. A fair part of it is sheer cliff.”
“Well, what do you suggest?” he snapped with irritation. “We can’t stay here and we can’t go back. I don’t see a lot of options, do you?”
“Have you done any climbing?”
“I was a boy, remember?”
“I’m talking climbing. Without the proper gear, we’re not going to make it.” She grabbed him by the front of his shirt and shook him. “Listen to me. The only reason you want to head down that way is because you haven’t seen it. I have. Trust me, its suicide.”
He covered the hands clutching his shirt and gave them a calming squeeze. “Charley, staying here is suicide. We have to reach the lake.”
She turned to look back to the inferno building to the northwest and was hit by an even stronger belt of smoke. The front was moving steadily closer, the plumes whipping like a wicked storm. Another flock of birds screamed overhead. They convinced her.
Unable to control the tremble in her voice, she said, “I don’t like this.”
“I thought you didn’t mind heights.”
“I’m fine with heights. I’m not crazy about falling, and I know how insane this is.”
Her answer prompted a fatalistic smile.
“Come on.” Drake went back to where they’d eaten lunch and grabbed his bag off the ground. “Where to from here?”
She stared at him. “I said I’ve seen this cliff from the south. I didn’t say I memorized it.”
His eyes rolled shut as if he were fighting for patience. Good luck! When he looked at her again he was calm. “Give me something—please.”
After an uncomfortable pause, she managed an uneasy decision. “I think we should head around to the right.”
Drake nodded. “Let me go first.”
This was one time Charley wasn’t going to argue.