When Smith Ryland develops a sudden, pathological fear of heights, he seeks professional help. A lifelong animal ecologist, he can no longer climb trees or trek through rainforests to follow the bird colonies he’s studied for eleven years. He takes a job looking after wild animals in the oddly named Timtuk Canyon Ranch, in the middle of California’s Mojave Desert. He’s astonished to find the ranch is in the mountains. How can he handle this unusual assignment? And what’s up with Jones, Just Jones, the mysterious, magnetic owner of the ranch?
Jones has secrets. Smith intrigues him because Jones is the caretaker of numerous animals most people don’t even know exist. Smith is comfortable with all the animals, including the ones that aren’t part of the…everyday world. Jones senses Smith needs the ranch as much as Timtuk needs him. Can Jones trust this newcomer? Something is changing, bringing with it…magic, but also the threat of lethal danger to Timtuk Canyon Ranch.
“You can do this. You got this!”
Smith glared at his best friend, Adele, and shook his head. Why was she pumping her fists that way, as though he was about to climb Mount Everest? Why was it so damned hot in here? He wiped his brow and realized his hands were shaking. “No. I don’t got this. I’m taking off this gear. I’m going home.” He tried unbuckling the harness that had started to cause an unpleasant wedge in his…
“Are you kidding? You’re really gonna embarrass me this way?” She grabbed his T-shirt by the collar and muttered in his ear, “Not to mention yourself?”
He frowned. “Yeah.”
“Smith. Seriously? Look at this place. I just posted all about it on Instagram. We can’t go running off now.”
“You don’t have to. I’ll get an Uber.”
“No, you won’t,” she yelled, stamping her foot. The rest of the class fell into a hushed silence. It didn’t help that the sound system in the place was stuck on the same song. It seemed designed to humiliate Smith over and over.
“Look. This is the easy room.” Adele was trying so hard to be a good friend, but he still hadn’t gotten over the fact she’d submitted him for a job as a ticket-taker for the Museum of Failure. She thinks I’m a loser. The knowledge still galled him. His only saving grace was that the downtown-area museum was closing soon, and they no longer needed a ticket-taker. Thank God. Guess it’s a failure, too. Like me. Though it pleased him that she couldn’t push him to take the job, it annoyed him plenty that she didn’t think he’d injured himself enough for one day.
“These walls are perfectly designed for a fraidy-cat like you,” Adele said. “Nice soft landing pads…”
Snickers behind them made Smith tense even more, and he cringed, realizing Adele worked hard not to laugh. She was a great friend, though her inclination to be judgmental had only risen to the surface in the last couple of months. She could have been Judge Judy except she was blonde, blue-eyed, and well-stacked.
He pulled at the restraints around his legs, thighs, and uh-oh, somehow squeezing his twig and giggle berries. I always wanted to be a soprano.
“Honestly. Are you that scared?” She seemed astonished. Flicking her hair over her shoulders, she got to her knees as though she was about to undertake some delicate operation. She picked at the bindings, trying to release him from the safety harness. Adele glanced up at him and muttered, “Big baby.”
It had been a nightmare since the moment he’d walked into Rock Me, the indoor climbing facility. Everybody else seemed so excited, but Smith couldn’t shake the feeling of dread. He’d endured a gruesome attempt at climbing the gym’s alleged, easy rock wall in one room, where music pumped out at shocking decibels. The old disco classic Lady Bump had people dancing as they climbed. But not Smith. It had further dented his wobbly ego as he slipped at the very moment Penny McLean crooned, “Just the music gets me high.”
High? Why did she have to mention height? He peered down and lost his footing. Though he scrambled to hold onto one of the wall rocks, he shot down fast, crashing into a couple tying their shoelaces at the moment of impact.
Smith had been given some brief instructions on how to fall before the climb. That was when he’d started to panic. Fall? He was gonna fall? The instructor had told them all, “When you slip off the wall, relax your body. Stay loose and hit the mat toward your heel. Don’t resist it. Just roll onto your back.”
The words had sunk in, and the technique sort of worked. Smith landed on a back. It was just somebody else’s.
The class instructor had given him a sympathetic smile, taken him by the hand and brought him in here. Smith had grimaced through a throbbing pain in his left ankle after hefting himself off his butt—the same one being squeezed right now.
He’d limped into the second room, promising himself he’d do better there. Adele had been so encouraging. Now he wanted to kick her up a mountain, or preferably down it. The teacher claimed this was the room with the easiest climbing walls.
Ha! Look at that overhang. It’s like a huge wave. I could fall.
The big, white walls with fake rocks jutting from them might as well have been Everest.
“How’d you get that thing stuck up your ass?” Adele asked as she worked away beside him.
Way to go, Adele. Shout it to the world, why don’t you?
“Well, I guess it was designed for kids, after all,” she murmured.
Behind them, wild laughter erupted, as her efforts tightened the bindings even more.
I’m in my own personal version of Fifty Shades of Grey without the cute guy. Smith turned and glanced at the pint-sized critics, all harnessed-up and ready to go. They stood, staring, in various stages of fury and boredom. Some of them had their arms folded in front of them, hatred in their eyes.
How can little kids act so mean? Easy for them to climb a rock wall.
Adele turned to the teacher. “Congratulations. Nobody could ever get out of this thing. Even if they wanted to.” She cursed under her breath.
One of the mothers sitting at the back of the room rushed over and covered her daughter’s ears with her hands.
Now the adults hate me, too. Smith fretted as the harness bindings became almost unbearable.
Adele looked up at him. “I can’t undo it. Maybe you’re really meant to go through with it. Climb, baby, climb.”
“No. I can’t even walk.” He blinked at her as panic caught at his throat. “My balls are in agony.”