Falling Free

By: Evelyn Adams

MICHAEL DEAN GAZED UP AT the woman moving like a ballet dancer across the gentle curve of Stone Mountain and tried to puzzle out how he was supposed to climb the smooth rock face. She moved effortlessly over the surface—strong and graceful—her climbing so far out of his skill set he was going to have to come up with a new word for it.

The mountain looked nothing like the vertical pitches he’d climbed at the gym. His guide called the route Rainy Day Women, and she’d tried to warn him away. The 5.10 didn’t scare him. He’d had no trouble muscling his way up higher rated pitches at the gym. He’d been training, and he never backed down from a challenge. It was his thing. Not backing down. His sisters used to tease him about being like one of those dogs that would grab a Frisbee on a rope and swing from it by his teeth because he was too tenacious to let go. They said stupid, but he heard tenacious.

He had the upper body strength to hang from the rock until he found a toehold, but there just didn’t appear to be any hand or toeholds on the rock in front of him. The mountain had a deceptively shallow slope, which should be easy, until he scanned the face and realized there was nothing to hold onto. Aside from a few gentle divots that looked like the indents of giant raindrops, the sheet of granite was smooth.

Making sure to keep his grip on the rope running through the carabiner clipped to his harness, Michael focused on the guide and tried to concentrate on where she put her hands and not on the way her butt looked as she worked her way up the rock face. He should have gotten a guy to guide him. It would have been much less distracting than the brown-haired beauty who’d asked him more than once if he was sure he wanted to attempt the climb. He was a grown man. He needed to do better. His sisters would beat the crap out of him for even thinking about switching guides because she was a woman. He wasn’t all that happy with himself.

Amanda Southerland was one of the highest rated guides in the area, and in a few minutes, she was going to reach the top of the pitch and expect him to follow her. He had no idea how he was going to do that. He couldn’t see what she was using as holds. Keeping her body off the face of the rock, she curled her fingertips around an imaginary grip and smeared her foot against the rock. She’d told him about that before she started up the pitch, but he hadn’t understood what she meant until he saw her do it. Stretching her leg in a move that reminded him of a dancer, she pressed her toes against the granite.

He’d never be able to do that. In a million years, he’d never be flexible enough to stretch his leg like that. He might be a whole lot stronger than her, but it wouldn’t give him any advantage at all. An image of him sliding down the surface of the mountain like a bad cartoon character jumped to the front of his mind, and he fought the shudder. There was no way he was getting out of this situation with his pride intact. He ran through every excuse he could come up with to get out of making his own attempt, but there wasn’t anything that didn’t make him sound like a quitter. And he needed to beef up his climbing skills. He’d just gotten a contract to coach a new corporate client and rock climbing was part of the course.

Amanda dipped her fingers into the bag of chalk clipped to her belt and grabbed an invisible hold. Extending her leg over the surface of the rock, she reached with her toe for something he couldn’t see. It was beautiful, graceful, and completely beyond his ability. He was having serious regrets at ever insisting she take him up this climb when she swung her body up the rock, reaching for the edge of one of the shallow divots. Her fingertips skimmed the surface, fighting for purchase as the pebble-sized knot she’d been standing on broke free.

“Falling!” she shouted.

He had just enough time to tighten his grip on the rope linking them together before watching helplessly as she slid down the rock face. Even the way she fell was graceful. He hadn’t understood why she’d made him tape his palms until he watched her skim the surface of the rock, using the taped heels of her hands and the toes of her climbing shoes to keep from getting brush burned as she fell. She looked like one of those water bugs that somehow managed to stay afloat on the surface of the water.

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