Chapter OneFrom Taylor's Book of Rules:
Be prepared. Always pack antacids and an eyelash curler.
Taylor looked south to the distant sprawl of San Francisco. Why had she ever decided to take up rock climbing, especially when it involved hugging a granite slab two hundred feet above the ground?
The simple answer came first: She was preparing for a new book. Authors did crazy things when they were testing a new story, desperate to chisel out the reality of a new character.
But the truest answer was subtle and far more unsettling. You did dangerous things when your life changed and you lost every anchor you'd taken for granted while you were growing up.
When you found out your childhood was a lie.
Taylor wiped sweat off her top lip and sighted up the cliff. Four feet to the next ledge.
She took a breath and crouch-walked up the angled slab, ignoring the pain in her arms and shoulders.
"Watch your moves below that next bolt." Her climbing instructor, a buff twenty-something from Santa Barbara, stood below and uncoiled rope as she called out orders. "You won't have much of a foothold, so stay balanced and dig in hard with your sole."
"Got it, Candace." Taylor was glad for the warning when her foot began to slip. Panting, she leaned away from the rock to restore traction, then pulled herself to the next hold, yanked up the slack on her rope, and caught a loop in her teeth before clipping into the bolt.
Cold wind snapped across her damp face. She tried to remember exactly what Candace had been discussing.
Right. Help with a cheating boyfriend. "If he's cheating, forget him, Candace."
"I can't just walk away. I need to know what's happening to us and why. Harris has been pretty stressed lately because he's working a lot of overtime at his lab on some gonzo project he has to oversee personally. But we always worked things out before." Her voice wavered. "Now he's different. It's almost like he had a personality transplant."
"People change," Taylor called as she tractioned up the steep rock face. "These things happen, Candace."
"Not like this. And I can't stop thinking about him, Taylor. Everything used to be so wonderful," she said wistfully.
Taylor thought longingly about the thermos of Starbucks Caramel Macchiato out in her car.
Don't look down.
Don't think of anything but the rock.
She stretched out a kink in her shoulder. "So what turned your friend Harris into Frankenstein all of a sudden?"
"That's just it--I don't know. None of it makes sense." The gusting wind toyed with Candace's voice, making the words drift and fade. "One day he said he wanted the whole deal--life with me, a big house, and a mortgage. He swore he was going to leave his wife, father my children, start being responsible. All that heavy stuff."
Taylor turned her head to look at Candace. "You didn't tell me that Harris was married!"
"He was up front about that, Taylor. He never lied about her. He explained to me how they've been having all these problems over the last year. He's been making plans to tell her about us."
Taylor got ready for her next move, trying hard not to hate Candace for thinking this was an easy route for Taylor's first outdoor climb.
They had met several months before, when Taylor had noticed her neighbor carrying climbing equipment onto the elevator in their apartment building. Immediately plot ideas had begun to stir. After writing a dozen books, Taylor knew a story kernel when she saw it. The two women had become friends over coffee and croissants at a local bakery, where Taylor grilled Candace about every detail of climbing. As the book's plot took final shape, Taylor realized she would have to make a climb herself to nail down the rich details of the experience, white knuckles and all.
Which was how she came to be standing on an unforgiving piece of cold granite, obsessing about how it must feel to crack your spine in two.
She pushed away the gory vision of her death and cleared her throat. "I still don't understand how I can help."
Candace frowned, playing out more rope. "I can't afford a private investigator. Even if I could, it would feel . . . sleazy. Harris and I have been through a lot together, and he deserves better."
Taylor clipped in at the next bolt and stopped to catch her breath. "Candace, I still don't--"
"We may have had our problems, but I love him, Taylor. I need to find out if he's seeing another woman or if he's in some kind of trouble." Her voice sounded shaky. "I know it's a lot to ask, but could you follow Harris for me? Maybe if I know he's with someone else, I can finally break free." Candace gave a wan laugh. "Of course, then I might have to kill them both."
"Murder is just a little illegal, remember?" Taylor dug into the canvas bag hanging off her hip and worked chalk dust over her fingers. She didn't think Candace's friend was worth all this angst and soul-searching, but everyone saw love differently, she supposed. Meanwhile, she was trying hard to forget the opening scene in Cliffhanger, where a frightened climber plunges to her death. All Taylor's climbing friends had assured her that a buckle couldn't really snap during a climb, and that the movie was a complete howler, full of ridiculous errors.
Tell that to my racing heart.
Taylor took a deep breath and sighted upward. "Climbing," she called out grimly.
As wind whipped off the rock, Taylor forced herself to breathe slowly, well aware that hyperventilating could trigger bad judgment and serious accidents. She picked out her next foothold, calculated her reach, then swung her weight fluidly over the granite face.
Stay calm. Stay balanced. It's supposed to be fun, remember?
Gritting her teeth, she tractioned a few more steps up the slope, then stopped to rest. "What's the other problem you wanted to discuss?"
"I'm afraid, Taylor. I need some ammunition in case things get . . . difficult."
Taylor worked her way over the slab, cursing the day she had ever thought of writing a book focused on a rock-climbing heroine. "Difficult how?" she panted. "Are you taking Harris for palimony?"
Candace laughed weakly. "Hardly. I get by just fine with my temp work and my private climbing lessons. But I'm afraid Harris could be in some kind of trouble. Last week three men followed us. They had guns, Taylor. They yelled at Harris and pushed him back against the car, searching all his pockets. Harris looked really scared and gave them something. When they finally left, he looked shaken. I mean, really, really shaken."
"Have you ever seen those men before?"
Candace shook her head.
"What do you think they wanted?"
"I couldn't hear. Harris told me to wait in the car."
Taylor blinked into the wind, trying to concentrate. She'd seen Candace's friend Harris Rains around the apartment building before, but the man hadn't seemed particularly interesting. "Do you think they want money?"
"No." Candace smoothly belayed the rope as Taylor found the next bolt, pulled slack, and then clipped in. "When I asked Harris what they wanted, he . . ." Her voice caught.
"He knocked me around."
Taylor froze, her head snapping downward. "Harris hit you?"
"A little." Candace's voice wavered.
The crud. The utter, creeping scum.
Taylor revised her plan to promise anything, then vanish as soon as she set foot back on terra firma. "How bad, Candace?"
"A few bruises." She stared off at the Golden Gate Bridge, glinting like a city of dreams to the south. "One tooth got knocked loose," she said softly.
"The miserable, scum-sucking bastard."
"Look, I'm okay. But Harris was different after that. He told me to forget what I saw or we'd both be in serious trouble. Now I think someone's following me, and I don't know who else to ask for help, Taylor. You write about this kind of thing and you're always so in control. That's why I thought you could tell me what I should do next."
"Leave the rat."
"I can't, Taylor. Not until I understand what's happening."
Taylor rested, catching her breath, trying to think clearly. "Then you need professional help. These men sound dangerous."
"No." It was a flat, worried sound. "I don't want to hurt Harris."
Taylor sighed. "I suppose I could speak to some people at the local precinct."
"You mean the police?" Candace sounded startled. "Harris would be furious."
"I don't think you should be worrying about what Harris thinks. Besides, these are friends. They'll do what's right for you."
The younger woman blew out a breath. "Okay, fine. Do whatever you think is best. I'm really sorry to bother you about this, Taylor, but I can't just pack up and leave Harris. At the same time, I'm completely spooked."
Taylor's resolve hardened. Candace knew things were sour, but she was still afraid to leave the relationship. Right now she needed all the support she could get. "When are you supposed to see Lover Boy next?"
"Nothing definite. He said he'd call me Friday for dinner." Her voice fell. "Meanwhile, I could swear there's a silver Lexus SUV trailing me whenever I go out."
"Did you get a plate number?"
"Gee, I never thought--should I write it down next time?"
"That would be a start." Taylor studied the cliff to her left, where she would have to make a slow ascent, moving almost horizontally. She hated traverses. They demanded perfect form as you worked sideways, with footwork that required constant focus.
She felt herself begin to hyperventilate and took a deep breath. "Climbing."
"Climb on" came the immediate answer.
Taylor stepped out and skimmed the rock, shifting her center of gravity until she snagged a new handhold. She took a breath of relief as she clipped into the next bolt. "You checked all our gear? No broken buckles, right?" The question was half-joking.
"You're fine, Taylor. Trust me, I've never blown a bolt and all my gear is brand-new. Forget about that rot in Cliffhanger. Things like that don't happen in real life."
Taylor grunted, praying her young neighbor was right. Suddenly something tugged at her rope. "What's wrong? I felt the rope snag."
"Slow down. It's just a tangle." Candace's voice seemed far away. "Funny, Harris was fiddling with my stuff last night. The idiot was trying to figure out how it works." Her voice wavered, and then she took a sharp breath. "Look, you're fine. I checked all the lines myself this morning. Just watch your footwork at the end of that traverse. Even if you do wipe out, it's no big deal. That's why we have ropes, right?"
Taylor forced herself not to look down. "Sure."
Don't think about falling ninety feet. Don't think about broken bones and copious amounts of spilled blood.
"Climbing." She swung her weight sideways, ready for the final moves of the traverse, as wind gusted off the summit. Somewhere, a bird cried shrilly, and Taylor blinked as grit and dust blew in her eyes, breaking her concentration.
Her toe slipped on its ledge, the rope jerking against her leg. She worked her feet hard, fighting for traction, but her balance was blown and she snapped sideways into a free fall, spinning wildly.
Rock and sky ran together in a terrifying blue-gray blur as the rope jerked again, then tore free from the wall. Taylor screamed, tumbling out of control.
The last thing she saw was the cliff wall spinning up to meet her.Chapter Two
Limping to the elevator, Taylor pushed the up button.
It was a complete miracle her bones weren't scattered over the bottom of a cliff. After more than four hours in the E.R. with Candace, she was queasily aware of how lucky they had been. Her neighbor had taken a tumble and now sported a nasty gash along her back, while Taylor had received four stitches above her right knee, a cut on her face, and about a thousand bruises.
But they were both damned lucky the fall hadn't been worse, and Taylor was pretty sure it was no thanks to a bottom-feeder named Harris Rains.
Under the influence of two Darvocets, Candace had come up with the only humor of the evening: "It never Rains, it bores. . . ."
Wincing, Taylor shuffled off the elevator and dumped her climbing bag on the floor outside her apartment, searching for her keys. Only then did she register the amazing smells of food emanating from the nearest apartment--which was very odd since her neighbor was a Cal Tech geek whose idea of a well-rounded diet was a blonde in a thong and two six-packs of Dos Equis. The man probably hadn't opened his oven in months.
Taylor took another lingering sniff.
Lasagna with really good cheese. The spice smells could be pumpkin pie. She closed her eyes in silent homage to the unknown chef.
Despite her growling stomach, she resolutely ignored the open door. With a new book in progress, eating came at odd moments when the words weren't flowing. Even at the best of times, Taylor was no cook. Scrambled eggs and coffee tested the limits of her skill. Her favorite kitchen utensils were a telephone and a take-out menu.
Another whiff of tomato sauce with fresh basil and oregano drifted down the hall. Taylor felt like weeping.
But she had a can of soup inside. She'd shower and heat something up. For dessert she'd have the smashed protein bar left over after the climbing trek from hell.
Behind her, boots scraped on bare wood. A long rail of unfinished pine shot out of her neighbor's doorway.
And holding it steady was the most amazing, delicious, outstanding male body she had ever set eyes on.
Taylor watched in stunned silence. Van Damme shoulders. Kung-fu torso.
Could you have a hot flash at thirty-five?
The geek must be doing an apartment makeover. His handyman clearly had a girlfriend happy to throw together a six-course meal on short notice.
With a body like that, the man could have any food group he wanted, anywhere he wanted.
He studied Taylor as he hefted the board easily onto one hip. "You live in 7B?"
Taylor realized she was staring. Staring glassy-eyed. "Uh . . . yeah. That's me."
"I hope the noise isn't bothering you. I'm putting in a new kitchen cabinet today."
"I didn't hear anything." Taylor cleared her throat. "I--I just came in."
"Jack Broussard. I'm your new neighbor." Mr. Fixit held out a hand covered with sawdust. "Pleasure to meet you."
Taylor swallowed. Her eyes kept drifting down that muscled chest to lean hips. "Taylor O'Toole. What happened to the prior tenant?"
Excerpted from Hot Pursuit by Christina Skye. Copyright © 2003 by Christina Skye. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.