her tongue along dry lips, she tried again. Her left arm came unwrapped and dangled like over-cooked linguini at her side.
“I need a minute here,” she croaked to her rescuer. “I can’t seem to feel my arms.”
“All right, it’s all right.” The gruff voice above her gentled. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Easy for you to say,” Sydney muttered to the piñon, her eyes on the rope a tantalizing few inches away. Suddenly it jounced up and out of sight.
“Hang on, I’m coming down.”
He pulled off his hat and looped the rope around his waist. Within moments he was beside her. Black hair ruffled. Blue eyes steady and encouraging in a tanned face. Shoulders roped with reassuringly thick cords of muscle. Altogether he looked big, strong and wonderfully solid.
On second thought, Sydney wasn’t so sure big and solid were desirable characteristics in a man whose only connection to terra firma was a length of twisted hemp. Swallowing, she said a silent prayer for the sureness of his lifeline while he propped his boots against the canyon wall. With a cowboy’s one-handed ease, he shook out a loop in the length of rope he’d left dangling behind him.
“Bend your head. Let me slip this over you.” He spoke slowly, his deep voice calm, confident. “I’m going to lift one of your arms. Got a grip? Okay, now the other. Easy, easy.”
The noose tightened around her waist, cutting off most of her breath. The taut, muscled arm the stranger slid around her cut off the rest.
“I’ve got you. I’m going to swing you in front of me. We’ll walk up the cliff face together. Ready?”
Even with the rope and her rescuer’s muscled arm around her, it took a considerable leap of faith to let go of the sturdy little piñon. Swallowing hard, she let him lift her from the tree.
“I’ve got you. I won’t let go.”
She managed a shaky laugh. “Promise?”
“I’m a man of my word,” he assured her, his breath warm in her ear.
She hoped so. She certainly hoped so.
She gulped. “Ready.”
They crab-walked up the cliff, her bottom nested against his stomach, his arms caging her ribs. Five steps, seven, eight, then a palm on her rear and a heaving shove.
Sydney went over the rim belly down. Panting, she crawled on hands and knees until the ground felt firm enough for her to turn and try to help her rescuer over the edge. Her arms were still so weak she gave up after the first useless tug.
Not that he appeared to need any assistance. With a smooth coordination of brawn and grace, he hauled himself up. Once safely away from the crumbled rim, he untied his lifeline and strode to the Jeep that had anchored it. Sydney gave a little croak of delight when he hunkered down beside her a moment later, a plastic bottle of spring water in his hand. She downed a half dozen greedy gulps before coming up for air. After another swallow or two, her throat had loosened enough to talk without croaking.
“Thanks…for the water and the rescue.”
“You’re welcome.” He picked up his hat and dusted it against his thigh before settling it on his head. “Sure you’re not hurt?”
“Just a little weak from hanging on to the tree all night. I collected a few dents and scrapes on my way down, but nothing that won’t heal or cover up.”
His blue eyes raked her over from the top of her dusty head to the toes of her dusty boots, performing their own assessment. Evidently he agreed with her diagnosis.
“I saw the wreckage at the bottom of the gorge. What happened?”
“There was a boulder in the road. With the rain, I didn’t see in time and swung too sharply. I got out of the Blazer before it went over, but the rim crumbled beneath me. I thought…I was sure…” She substituted a wobbly smile for the shudder she wanted to let rip. “The piñon broke my fall. How does that poem go, the one about never seeing anything as beautiful as a tree?”
“Beats me.” He studied her from under the brim of that beat-up hat, his expression noticeably less comforting and reassuring now that they were back on solid ground. “You’re a lucky woman.”
She started to point out that not everyone would classify someone who went over a cliff as lucky, but his next comment buried the thought.
“And damned stupid.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Most people would have more sense than to drive along a narrow canyon rim road late at night in the middle of a thunderstorm.”
Sydney had come to the same conclusion herself just before she went bungee jumping without a bungee, but she didn’t particularly enjoy hearing it from someone else. Still, he’d plucked her out of her eagle’s nest. She owed him, big-time.
Ordering her arms and legs to do their thing, she pushed herself to her feet. Her rescuer had to shoot out a hand and catch her before she whumped back down on her rear. Shaking off his hand, she tried to sound grateful.
“Thanks. Again. I’m Sydney Scott, by the way.”
“I know who you are.”
She flushed at the drawled response, feeling even more stupid than he’d implied earlier. If he was part of a search party, of course he’d know who he’d come looking for.
“And you are?”
“Oh.” The straw Stetson that shaped his head as if made for it had led her to assume he was a local. “You’re the dam engineer.”
From the way his eyes narrowed, she must have put a little too much emphasis on dam. Either that, or their exchange of terse faxes had annoyed him as much as it had her.
“When you didn’t show for our meeting this morning,” he said curtly, “I called your assistant and woke him up.”
So much for the massive search-and-rescue effort Sydney had assumed Zack set in motion!
“The kid told me you’d driven out to the canyon. He seemed to think you might have fallen into an artistic trance and gotten lost.”
“I don’t fall into artistic trances,” she said with another smile, slightly strained but still trying hard for grateful.
One black brow lifted in patent disbelief.
“All right,” she admitted grudgingly, “I did leave a pot of red beans and rice on the stove a couple of months ago while I was working a treatment, but the fire didn’t do any real damage.”
When he only looked at her through those cool blue eyes, Sydney gave Zack a mental kick in the shins. How much had her assistant told this guy, anyway?
“Maybe I did start out for San Diego last week and didn’t realize I was going in the wrong direction until I passed Santa Barbara,” she said defensively, “but I was outlining a script in my mind and sort of got caught up in it.”
With a little snort that sounded suspiciously like disgust, her rescuer strolled back to the Jeep to untie the rope. “Is that what you were doing last night when you drove off a cliff?”
“I was not in any kind of a trance last night.”
Well, she amended silently, maybe she had let her imagination go for a while, particularly when the wind whistled eerily through the canyon and raised goose bumps all over her body. Henderson didn’t need to know that, though.
“As I told you, there was a boulder in the road, a chunk of sandstone. I swerved to avoid it.”
“If you say so, lady.”
Gratitude was getting harder and harder to hang on to. Sydney folded her arms across her now-scruffy yellow T-shirt.
“I do say so.”