Burke was up before she awakened, but she was soon jerked from sleep by all the clatter and banging coming from outside. It was a good thing they were the only people camped at this site, as the noise he made was enough to arouse the dead.
Fighting grogginess, she crawled out of her bedroll and peered through the tent flap. The day was brightly sunny, the temperature cool. A gorgeous day. Too gorgeous to remain in the tent, even though she would have loved to have had another half hour or so of rest. Resigned, Maren adjusted her clothes, donned her jacket, slipped on her shoes, and went to see what was going on.
A small pot of water was boiling over the fire. The skillet contained two eggs and several slices of bacon, the smell of which caused her stomach to growl.
“Oh, hey! You’re up!”
She turned around to see him approaching from the river. Rather than chastise him for waking her, she managed to weak smile. “Breakfast smells good. Is there a chance I can wash my face before we eat?”
“Yeah, sure! Go ahead.”
She pointed to the pot. “Is that water I can use?”
“That’s for your tea, but if you’d rather wash with it, have at it.” Which meant she’d have to wait for another pot to boil before getting her morning caffeine.
Maren quickly waved it off. “Never mind. The cold water will be better at waking me up. I promise I won’t be long.”
She hurried down to the river’s edge. Kneeling near a small eddy, she splashed her face with the freezing cold water, wiping her hands on her jeans. She was tempted to cup some of the chilly liquid in her hands and take a few swallows, but common sense prevailed. There was no telling what kinds of microscopic germs she might ingest if she did.
When she returned to the fire, he was making toast by grasping it between two forked twigs and holding it over the flames. She took that moment to go over to where the truck was parked and hunt through her purse for her cell phone.
“It won’t work down here,” he admonished her.
He was right. The dreadful NO SERVICE words sat at the top of the screen. “What if we have an accident? Or need help? What if a bear or something attacks us during the night?”
“There are ranger stations all up and down this river. If something should happen, it won’t take but a few minutes to reach help.”
She looked around. “How? By boat or by truck? If something should happen to you, I wouldn’t know what roads to take to get back up to that station where we got our passes.”
His face darkened with his aggravation. “Nothing’s going to happen to me. Just don’t worry about it, will you? Put that phone away and come divide up what’s in the skillet. This is almost done.”
Shoving the phone back into her purse, she hid the bag underneath the seat and returned to the campfire where she saw two pieces of toast already sitting on one plate. Grabbing the pan, she gave them each an egg and half of the bacon, then made herself some hot tea while he finished browning the last two slices.
“What’s our agenda for today?” she inquired.
“We’re going rafting right after we finish eating.” He dumped the toast onto his plate, then grabbed his plate and fork where she’d set it on his folding chair and took a seat.
“Yeah. Why? What’s wrong with it?”
“I thought we’d go hiking a bit. Take a look around. Take some pictures.”
“We got plenty of time to do that. I want to get on the river and check out what’s further downstream.”
“How are we going to get back here?” Maren indicated the fast-flowing water. “Won’t it be difficult to try and row our way back?”
“That’s why we bought that lightweight raft,” Burke informed her. “We’ll hike our way back, carrying it between us.”
It sounded feasible. And considering how much more of an experienced camper he was than her, she didn’t question his decision any further. If he wanted to go rafting, then they’d go rafting. She already knew it was useless to try and change his mind. “How far down were you planning on going?”
“Hell, I don’t know. I guess until I figure it’s time to turn around and come back.”
There it was again, that belittling tone of voice. Maren recalled telling her father about Burke’s attitude after one particular night when they’d fought, and he’d stormed out of the apartment. He hadn’t come back until late the next day. When she’d asked him where he’d spent the night, he told her he’d gotten a motel room, but for one very good reason she hadn’t believed him.
He’d been wearing sweats when he’d left, but he’d come back home in work clothes.
She didn’t dare ask him where he’d gotten a change of clothes, or where his sweats were. She feared she wouldn’t like the answer.
“Couples fight, sweetie,” her father reassured her. “It’s a fact of life.”
“I don’t remember you and Mama ever fighting.”
“That’s because we made sure you weren’t around. We didn’t want to drag you into our quarrels.” His calm and consoling voice soothed her ruffled feathers. “Don’t take things so personally,” he’d continued. “So Burke’s a little rough around the edges. Give him time. I’m sure things’ll work out after you’re married.”
She stared at her fiancé as he bolted down breakfast. After three years of living together, he had yet to commit to a specific date to tie the knot, exclaiming, “Why the big rush?” She glanced down at her left hand. She didn’t even have an engagement ring, even though he’d assured her they were engaged, without specifically popping the question. “Aww, baby, everyone knows we’re a couple. You’re such a stickler for details. So what would you rather do? Spend money on an engagement ring? Or save that money for our honeymoon, and settle for a nice wedding band?” Once more, he’d made sense, even though her heart remained set on a ring. Even a simple one with a small stone would satisfy her.
“Are you done?”
Startled, she glanced up to see him standing over her, his hand extended to take her paper plate and utensils. Taking the last piece of bacon and rolling it into a slice of toast, she handed them over.
“I need to pee,” she informed him.
“Then go. Meet me at the raft when you’re ready.”
By the time she was finished, he was waiting for her by the river’s edge. She noticed he’d already put on one of the orange life jackets and was holding out the other one to put on her.
“Hold out your arms.”
She did, and he slipped the vest over her head. Immediately, her eye caught sight of the seams running down the left side. Checking the right side, she noticed the same thing. Both seams appeared to have been re-stitched with a different color thread.
“Why does this one have the seams redone?” She pointed at them with her fingertips.
“Oh, this is the one I tried to take back the other day, but the store couldn’t swap it out. They didn’t have any more of this style. Don’t worry. It’s still perfectly good.”
She watched as he buckled it on her, then took the remaining tail of the strap and retied it around the buckle. When he was done, he gave it a little jerk. “There. Nice and snug. Don’t want it to come loose in case you go overboard.”
Maren raised an eyebrow at him. “Why would we go overboard? Is it going to get dangerous further down?”
He answered her with a little shrug. “You never know what kind of white water we’ll encounter. Always pays to be extra careful, right?”
His offhand remark gave her a funny feeling in her gut, as if there was something he wasn’t telling her. Or maybe it was her woman’s intuition, letting her know something was about to happen. He noticed her hesitation.
“Are you getting in or not? Make up your mind, for crissakes.”
She climbed into the raft as Burke kept it away from the rocks. Giving it a little shove, he jumped inside with her, took his position behind her, and picked up one of the aluminum oars.
“You stay up front and paddle on the right side. I’ll take the left,” he instructed as they began to drift away from their campsite.
Taking the paddle, she sat cross-legged the way he was and faced forward as they left the campsite. For one of the few times in her life, she was truly terrified of what was about to happen, and she had no idea why she felt that way.