Book #4 in the Three's Allowed SeriesTwo’s company. Three’s a…temptation. A hike to the bottom of the Grand Canyon isn’t supposed to be an erotic adventure. Dr. 'Gabe' Gabriel is more than a little turned on by the young couple he meets on the trail but he doesn’t do threesomes anymore. Someone always gets hurt.
Not everything is what it seems and despite a close encounter of the intimate kind, Uriah and Diane are here for a reason. Leaving any possibility of romance behind, they head to the inner canyon and the isolation they need.
Reunited by chance, the threesome’s mutual attraction is hotter than the scorching Arizona desert in the middle of August. Still, secrets have a way of chilling the strongest passion, especially a secret holding a gun, and a heart cold enough to pull the trigger.
The doors opened with a whoosh and Dr. Richard Gabriel pushed through, blasted by the baking heat of a late summer night in Phoenix. The sirens growled to a stop, and blue and red flashed from the vehicles in the drive. Orders were shouted, emergency gurneys snapped into position, and the tense EMT at his side murmured updates even as the hospital staff rushed to take possession of the patients.
“Gabe? Doctor Gabriel! Did you hear me?” Toby, one of the older paramedics yelled over the commotion. Grabbing Gabe’s arm and tugging, he brought Gabe’s focus to the stretcher and the young man who needed his help.
“He hasn’t regained consciousness. Blood pressure is still dropping. Had to wait for Fire Rescue to cut him out. Right leg looks to be just about gone,” Toby reported tersely as they ran toward the treatment room in the ER.
“What happened?” Gabe asked.
“Dust storm on I-17. No idea how many cars. This kid was in an accordion. Name’s Kirk Garland. Sixteen, on his way back from a weekend baseball tournament in Tucson. Fuck.”
“Carter,” Gabe called to the head triage nurse. “I need this one to go straight up to OR—”
His words cut off as the heart monitor went from an erratic pattern to a steady tone. There was a momentary a lull and all faces in the crowded emergency room turned in his direction. He saw the looks: anxiety, pity, grim determination. Then the other ER staff went on with their own crises, and prayed the same thing wouldn’t happen to them.
“Crash Cart, Code blue,” Gabe snapped. “On three, transfer.
Toby locked the wheels and the staff surrounding the kid used the edges of the sheet to shift him to the more stable ER bed.
Everything happened according to the way they practiced. Bare chest. Paddles. Clear. Spasm. Stethoscope. Nothing. Paddles. Clear. Spasm. Stethoscope. Nothing. And again. And again. Until hands pulled him and the voice penetrated his saturated brain.
“He’s gone. Kirk is gone and we’ll never get him back. You fucking killed my son! You drunk son of a bitch, you killed my son!”
With a startled gasp, Gabe woke, feeling disoriented, lost in the nightmare.
A quick flare of orange told him exactly where Melody stood in the dark room. He heard her hard pull on the cigarette, then the prolonged exhale. As his head cleared, the fuzzy realization hit that she had been standing there watching him fight his demons and had done nothing to help.
Two hours later, Gabe shoved the final box into the back of his SUV and slammed the cargo door. He wished he could close the driver-side door with the same finality and leave, but good manners demanded otherwise.
“You don’t have to go back, you know,” Melody said. For perhaps the hundredth time in the past two weeks.
“Yes, Mel, I do. You know I do. Look, we’ve been over this. We both knew this was a temporary gig for me. Just a way to get out of the Phoenix heat for the summer. I have to get back to my practice.” Gabe climbed the steps to the singlewide trailer that served as employee housing for the transient medical staff of the clinic in Grand Canyon National Park. He took the petite blonde’s face in his hands and felt the slight trembling of her body. After their short eight weeks together, he realized what she would try to disguise as pain or passion was nothing more than rage at her status as dumpee rather than dumper. Knowing made the goodbye much easier. He just wanted to be finished.
“Look. We agreed, Mel. Neither of us was looking for something permanent. Don’t make this any harder. I’m not going to change my mind.”
“Well, God forbid! I wouldn’t want to make anything too hard for the self-important Dr. Richard Gabriel. Go ahead, Gabe—go back to your life, to your boy toys, your kinky club, to your bottle. I’ll be watching for the headlines when you crash and burn!”
“Wow. The real Melody Case just showed up to the party, huh? I thought we had a chance to remain friends, even though we both knew we wouldn’t stay lovers. Guess I can just add this time with you as yet another of my failings. Good to know.” With a wave of his hand and without a backwards glance, Gabe climbed into his SUV and backed out of the small lot.
After a quick stop at the small market, Gabe was ready for the final two weeks of his summer hiatus. He parked as close to the lodge as he could and made one last phone call.
“Marcus! I’m checking in before I head down…as I promised,” Gabe told his old friend.
“Hey, Gabe, all packed? And did you dump the old bag?” Marcus and his partners Jolynn and Max had visited the Grand Canyon for a long weekend and been less than impressed with Melody. Now that his three friends were in a committed relationship, they’d forgotten what it was like to be lonely. It was galling to admit they were right.
“Yep. You were right; she didn’t take it well. Anyway, my boxes are in the Suburban. I sent my full pack and sleeping bag down yesterday with the supply mules. I’ve got a cabin at Phantom Ranch for two days, then I’ll be in the backcountry for the rest of the week. My hiking plan is on file with the permit office. Quit worrying, Marcus. I saw enough hiking and heat related injuries working at the clinic this summer. Believe me…I know how to stay safe.”
Gabe tucked his phone between his ear and his shoulder so he could stuff the fifth of whisky into his daypack. He slipped in a couple of smaller bottles. Just in case. He wasn’t going to mention his last minute purchases to Marcus. With a jolt, he suddenly realized his friend’s concern might be related to After Hours, the ultra-private BDSM club owned by Max and Marcus. Gabe served as the club’s on-call physician, in the rare instance someone got hurt, despite the rules and the member screening.
“Dr. Jerome is still covering for me, right?” he asked.
“Don’t be an ass, Gabe. We miss you. We’re worried about you. Not the club.”
“Well, stop. I’m not one of your subs, Marcus.” He laughed at the thought. “I’m just going on a hike. I’m looking forward to finally getting to the bottom of this big ditch and see what I’m made of.”
“All right, Gabe, but you call me the minute you get back to the top next week. Stay sober, babe. See you soon.” Marcus sounded especially serious when they ended the call, and guilt washed over Gabe. He made a silent promise to stop drinking after he finished the bottles he’d just tucked away.
“If you tell me to hurry up one more time, Uriah Wadsworth, I’m going to push you off the next available ledge.” The harsh words snapped off with the precision of gunfire, but the woman’s voice was soft southwest layered with maybe a little bit of Texas. Considering they were at Indian Garden, with another three miles of descent before they reached the floor of the canyon, it wasn’t exactly an idle threat.
“Fuck off, Diane. Pick up your damn pack and let’s go. We’re over halfway to the bottom. You know what they say…it’s all downhill from here.” The male’s sneering counterpoint sliced across any further comment the woman might have made. Without waiting to see if she followed, the man loped off down the trail, leaving his companion scrambling to her feet from the small wooden bench in the shade.
Huh…Uriah Wadsworth and Diane. Gabe watched the little skirmish with interest. He was an unashamed voyeur of everyday life…and other things. These two definitely tweaked his interest. Talk about a match made in hell.
With a little grunt, the woman bent to pick up her pack from the dirt. She managed to get the bag onto her shoulders without help, but Gabe could see her strap was twisted, and the tube from her hydration pack swung uselessly behind her back. As she tried to steady the bag with one hand, she flailed the other hand behind her, trying to locate the tube that ran through her pack to the lifesaving water she would carry deeper into the canyon.
Gabe stood a little too quickly, ignoring the protest of his thighs at the sudden movement. Contrary to popular belief, it was the downhill portion of a hike in the canyon that was the hardest on the body. “Let me,” he said. He caught the rubber mouthpiece and threaded the tubing back through the plastic clips. He turned the pad and smoothed the nylon shoulder strap so it rested comfortably.
“There you go,” he said. He gave the woman’s shoulder a friendly pat as she fastened the waist strap. Her movement drew his attention to the damp T-shirt that clung to high, tight breasts. A good looking woman who nearly matched him in height at just a couple of inches less than six feet, with long, honey legs that seemed to stretch forever below her hiking shorts. Her long hair was matted with sweat and the color obscured by dust, but judging from her skin tone and hazel eyes, he thought she might be a dirty blonde. He bit back the laughter that threatened. Dirty blonde. God, I crack myself up sometimes.
“Thanks, sugar,” she said, but her gaze was turned toward the trail. Looking for her companion…or husband? Although he’d only gotten a quick glance, the man had seemed a little young for her. Maybe it was his attitude. Or maybe it was the long hair and rakish bandana he’d wrapped around his head to keep the sweat from his eyes.
With another shrug of her shoulders, the woman turned back to look at Gabe. “I’m sorry. You deserve my full attention. Thank you for the help,” she said. Her eyes crinkled at the corners as she flashed a broad smile and straight, white teeth. The dimple on the lower left side of her mouth gave Gabe interesting ideas. He shook his head. It must be the heat.
“No problem. Can’t have you wandering any further down the trail without access to your water.” He bent and hefted his own pack onto his shoulders and turned his back to her. “Maybe you could return the favor?”
“Sure. I’m Diane, by the way. Diane Wadsworth.” Ahh…same last name—wife then.
“Nice to meet you, Diane. I’m Gabe. Is this your first trip to the Grand Canyon?”
“Yes. First time to northern Arizona. I had no idea this part of the state was so different…beautiful.“ Her gaze turned briefly back toward the trail, then she looked around the shaded rest stop. The area was an unexpected riparian oasis, a narrow slice of green surrounded by miles of red rock, white stone face, and jutting buttes.
For a moment they stood in companionable silence, and he imagined she was as overwhelmed as he was by the sheer walls, towering cliffs, and steep switchbacks. Day hikers appeared like ants as they moved up and down the top third of the trail. Smart tourists stayed close to the top, where the air was cooler, and the promise of a cold drink was only as far as the rim lodge. Only the serious…or seriously demented…hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon in the killing heat of August.
The muted palate of the canyon consisted of every shade of limestone, sandstone, and shale. A man could read the history of the earth from these walls. The thought made him feel small, a flat character in one of those pop-up picture books, and the world towered above him. For just a moment longer, his gaze swept over the pinyon and juniper that lined the rim. The deep greens seemed to crash against a sky so blue it made Gabe’s throat tight. He swallowed hard. “Nearly heartbreaking.”
“Things often are,” she answered. He’d not even been aware he’d spoken aloud.
They looked at each other for a moment, and Gabe wondered if her husband was the cause of the sad smile and the pain reflected in her hazel eyes.
As if by mutual agreement, they started down the trail together, enjoying a brief respite from the blazing sun as they walked along a small creek shaded by cottonwoods. They met up with her husband at the last of the shaded corridor. Judging by his tight mouth and crossed arms, he was clearly annoyed. Diane dropped back and turned toward the man, shoulders hunched beneath her pack.
Gabe slowed his steps, but when no introduction appeared to be forthcoming, he gave a brief nod, and then kept going. He wasn’t about to get involved in whatever tension already existed between the two of them. The trail was broad enough for him to pass without any further awkwardness, so he put one foot in front of the other, and kept moving. He was already hearing the call of the cool shower and cold beer at Phantom Ranch.
Uriah. You didn’t meet many men named Uriah. This particular one would probably clean up well. His black hair was pulled back, which highlighted the sharp cheekbones, long straight nose, and full sulky bottom lip that stuck out in a clear pout. His bronze skin hinted at Native American blood, and he moved with considerable grace and strength under the large backpack. The dark glasses hid his eyes, but Gabe bet himself a dollar they would be deep, dark brown. A damn sexy number if you went for the tall, dark, and brooding sort. A hot, young stud with a shitload of attitude was like a fucking aphrodisiac. Damn.
In the way of hiking, Diane and her husband passed Gabe and then he passed them, back and forth along the trail, until they reached the bridge that crossed the Colorado River. Gabe lost sight of the young couple as he moved with embarrassing slowness over the dusty trail to stop at the Phantom Ranch Ranger Station. He’d made some friends over the summer with many of the park employees, especially the EMTs, and he wanted to say a quick hello. After a few minutes of the rangers’ good-natured ribbing at his shuffling gait and complaints of sore muscles, Gabe was ready to hobble to the canteen to register and get the key to his cabin. As he walked, several of the mules brayed and huffed, and Gabe slowed his pace to watch as the wranglers turned the sure-footed animals loose in the corral, their workday finished now that the visitors and supplies had been safely delivered. Wishing he was as steady on his feet as the mules, Gabe continued along the meandering path and hoped that after nine miles downhill, he had enough stamina to go the last five-hundred steps.
This whole place is like stepping back in time. Hidden at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, Phantom Ranch was a bit of a misnomer, since it wasn’t actually a ranch but a circa 1920 picture of a camp-style resort. There were no roads, no easy access, and all supplies came by mule, including most of the tourists, who paid big money to stay in the cramped cabins or dormitories.
Located just north of the Colorado River, Phantom Ranch consisted of an assortment of small, wood-framed and stone-fronted buildings spaced unevenly throughout the compound. The cabins, dormitories, crew houses, and bathrooms sprouted from dust and native grasses, the entire area a riparian oasis with giant cottonwood trees shading the Bright Angel Creek and campground. It was a charming and eclectic mix of historic and utilitarian and wild.
Gabe was still smiling when he entered the canteen. He stepped into the small multipurpose antechamber that served as a one-stop shop for the lodging business, including the check-in counter, post office, and a small store stocked with the sundries one might need at the bottom of a canyon…bandages and cold beverages chief among them.
To his right there were closed swinging doors that he assumed led to the kitchen. On his left a large open doorway led to a family-style dining room, complete with seven or eight rows of tables with picnic bench seating.
“Sweet blessed Jesus but that air feels good,” he sighed. The clerk looked up from thumping a stack of mail with a rubber stamp and matched his grin.
”Don’t it just? Welcome to Phantom Ranch. How may I help you?” She was probably in her mid-sixties, dressed in khaki shorts and a green polo shirt, skin as brown and wrinkled as a lizard.
“Richard Gabriel, checking in.” He eyed the glass-topped freezer behind the counter, trying to decide if he wanted an ice cream sandwich now or after his shower.
“Hey, Doc! Nan said you’d be checking in today.” She turned away from the counter and grabbed a key from a row of hooks. He noticed most of the hooks were still full. There would be a lot of achy heads around the table at dinner if people were hiking in the late afternoon heat.
When she turned back, she had a key and two cans of beer. “She also said to give you these for your room, but to remind you to drink your water, too. Can’t stay hydrated with just the alcohol,” she said, her laugh braying out like one of the mules. “Okay, Doc, you head on to your cabin, and we’ll see you for dinner. Reservation says today you got the steak dinner and tomorrow night you got the stew. That means you get the early seating tonight.”
With a map in hand, Gabe pushed out of the door and swung left, as directed. His gaze was immediately drawn to the woman sitting alone in the shade. Her backpack lay on its side in the dust, and it looked as if there might be tear tracks on her cheeks.
“Diane? Is everything okay? Are you hurt?” The doctor in him was ready to spring into action.
“What? Oh no, I’m not hurt. It’s just…there was a mix up. They thought we cancelled our reservation when…” She shook her head and then took a deep breath. Speaking quickly, she said, “They gave away our reservation. Of course, now all the cabins and dorms are booked. The campground is full. I’m not sure what we’re going to do…” Her gaze drifted back in the direction of the river.
“Uriah thought we could wait until some of the campers arrive later and then see if someone was willing to share a space. We do have a back county permit, but it’s not valid until Wednesday. We have to…have to— It’s just…” She looked more lost than ever. Tears welled again and threatened to spill.
There was no conscious thought process. They were at Phantom Ranch, at the end of a nine-mile hike, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. The temperature was at least twenty degrees hotter than it had been at the top, and he knew it would soar to close to one hundred and twenty degrees before the afternoon heat was finished with them. Why in the hell hadn’t her idiot of a husband confirmed their reservation before they left the rim? The cabins were booked more than a year in advance.
Not that he’d actually waited that long himself and wasn’t that the irony of the situation? Being the assistant soccer coach over the summer had netted him at least one benefit. His friend Nan had put him on the waiting list for a cabin shortly after he’d stitched up her son’s foot after a soccer mishap. When they’d gotten a last minute cancellation, his name had been at the top of the list. Now he was faced with a couple whose room reservation had been cancelled.
Sharing was the only decent thing to do.
“It’s just the two of you, right? I‘ve got this handled, no problem,” he said. “You’ll stay in my cabin.”
“Look, I know we don’t know each other, but I’ve been the doctor assigned to the clinic here in the park all summer. The rangers can vouch for me. And you can give them your names to keep on file. That gives us each a little bit of protection, just in case you’re a homicidal axe murderess.” He glared down at her, made his mouth a frown. “You’re not, are you? An axe murderess, I mean. You don’t look like a killer, but God knows, I couldn’t run away from a tortoise right about now.”
“No, I haven’t killed a stranger all week,” she said. There went that dimple again. He’d hoped to make her smile, and wasn’t disappointed. But it was a good damned thing he was so sore and too tired to move, because between her and her fucking pouty-lipped husband, he was going to be hard all night.
Gabe held out his hand to pull Diane to her feet. “Come on, killer. Let’s go find the cabin and get out of the heat for a while. Then you can tell me—“
He stumbled forward with the force of the blow that landed between his shoulder blades. He’d have gone down to the ground if he’d been wearing his pack. As it was, he staggered sideways, and turned to find himself staring into the nearly black eyes of one very large and very pissed off Uriah Wadsworth.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing? Get your goddamn hands off her!” He stood tall over the sandy-haired man who’d been holding Diane’s hand. “Diane, you are not going to do this to me, again. Not now.”
For just a moment, two faces stared back at him and judging from their wide eyes and open mouths, they hadn’t expected him to return so soon. That's just too fucking bad.
“Stop, Uriah. Stop right now. You have no right—“ Diane started to say.
“Shut up. I have every right, and you—“ His own words choked off when the stranger he recognized from the trail stepped right up to him. Uriah rolled his shoulders and glowered down. He was a good four inches taller and twenty pounds heavier, yet the other man hadn’t backed off. Instead, he’d stepped closer, until they stood just a few inches apart. With his arms hanging loose by his side and hands fisted, the man was clearly willing to take Uriah on. Something not many men were willing to try.
“Stop it!” Diane said and tried to push her way between the two men. “Goddamn you, Uriah! Quit acting like an ass. He’s the doctor here at the park…his name is Gabe, and he’s just offered us a place to stay. Or at least he did until you went all caveman.”
“Is that right?” he asked, never breaking eye contact the man…with Gabe. “And who’s gonna fix your ass up after I teach you some respect…Gabe?”
Instead of backing off, Gabe smiled at him. It was a look that made Uriah feel like the other man knew something…something he shouldn’t. Then hips pressed against hips, chest against chest, and the smell of hot sweaty man surrounded both of them.
Gabe spoke in a low, smooth voice that fucking grabbed at Uriah’s balls. “Oh, I think we both know who needs to be taught respect.” And still Gabe smiled.
Uriah stepped back and cleared his throat. “Come on, Diane. Let’s go talk to the rangers. There’s gotta be something we can do….”
“You go talk to the rangers. I’m done. Gabe, I’m sorry. If the invitation is still open, Gabe, we’d love to take you up on it.”
Joe Yazzie’s stomach churned and he wiped his palms on his khaki shorts. With a quick tilt of his head, his long black hair swung down, creating a curtain through which he could watch the big man at the counter of the Phantom Ranch Ranger Station. The man looked like a hulking bear, dwarfing Sue Petrie, the petite blonde ranger on desk duty.
Squeezing his hands into tight fists, Joe dug his nails into his palms and closed his eyes so he could focus on what was being said. The wind was rushing in his head again, making it hard to hear. He thought the spirits were talking, but he would answer them later.
“My reservation for a cabin was mistakenly cancelled and I need a spot at the campground,” the familiar voice growled.
“I’m sorry, sir. That’s just not possible. We’re booked full—“
“Shit. Shit, shit, shit,” the big man muttered before the ranger even finished speaking. Then the door banged shut, and Joe thought it might be okay to look up again.
“I wonder how many more will—“ Sue began, but Joe didn’t wait to listen the ranger’s frequently uttered frustration at the number of people who arrived at the bottom without a place to stay. He followed the other man out the door.
Keeping a safe distance, Joe tried to hear beyond the wind and wondered if this was one of the Diné ancestors come to call. The man he followed stalked with the grace of a mountain lion moving through canyon, intent on his prey. Joe watched as he knocked once on the door of a cabin and then entered without waiting. Spirits do not knock and they do not slam doors.
Joe pressed his fingers to his eyes, and then looked again. He fought through the noise in his head and found reality. His lover hadn’t killed himself—hadn’t planned on coming to be with him. What the fuck is he doing here? The wind whispered and Joe knew the truth. His lover was here to steal what he’d promised to protect.
The man was a liar. A cheat. Not dead. You couldn’t excuse that type of behavior. Someone had to put a stop to it.