The cable descended with a treble hook seat rather than a basket. Wade hefted Sunny onto the seat and strapped her in before she could ask for help. Much like his mom, who had found it faster to do something herself than to explain. Now his mother could barely feed herself because of her battlefield injuries.
Thoughts of how he hadn’t been there to help those closest to him threatened to rattle his focus, and he of all people knew how important attention to detail was in his job. Wade hooked himself to the same cable, facing Sunny. He grabbed the dog by the collar and hauled him into his lap, arms around the furry beast.
The cable yanked, went taut.
He looked down, the ground spinning below but clear enough to see the gunman scrambling to take cover near a snowmobile. Wade hooked his arms tighter around the dog, his grip slipping, slick.
Slick with blood.
Sunny huddled in a blanket in the belly of the helicopter while some guy in cammies pulled off her boots and rubbed her feet back to life. Her frostbitten skin flamed with returning sensation as she sipped the lukewarm cocoa someone else had thrust in her hands.
Still, her teeth chattered in the aftermath of their ordeal, the cold—being shot at. The sheriff’s deputy had raced away on a snow machine. So far as she knew, there wasn’t anything they could do to catch him, and she doubted he would be moseying into work, not since he must have seen them hauled up into the military chopper.
Her hand fell to rest on her dog’s head, taking reassurance in his presence. Chewie stayed tight against her side with a blanket draped over his back, covering all that gooey mud she’d only briefly seen on his side before they’d hauled her in.
She’d never ridden in a helicopter before. She had vague memories of riding in a plane before her parents moved to the Aleutian Islands, but that had been so long ago and perceived in a child’s mind as a smooth bus ride through the clouds.
This… This was loud, musty—and invigorating. The rotors overhead roared as they cut the air.
And the men.
A half dozen men in military survival gear packed the back of the aircraft. They appeared to all know each other. He’d said he was a pararescueman—a PJ—for the Air Force. Could this motley crew be his team?
An odd assortment. Not quite what she would have expected. They had a ragtag quality until you looked closer and caught the laser-sharp eyes, the obvious strength and agility. Still, different… She squinted in the shadowy confines for a better look at each of the men, people who could well decide the future of her family. But nobody wore a blazing red sign blinking “Weakest Link.”
Wade shouted over the roar of the engine. “Mark the spot. There are two dead bodies down there.”
“Say again?” The oldest of the group leaned forward, his face hardening.
“Two bodies. Under the ice.”
Sunny wrapped the blanket tighter around her as images of Madison and Ted’s waxy death masks marched through her brain.
The older man, who seemed to be in charge, swept a hand over his face before continuing, “There’s nothing we can do for them now except find their families and make sure they get a decent burial.”
“Appears they were murdered.”
“Damn. Okay, location noted. But we need to get you patched up first.” The guy waved over a lumbering hulk of a guy. “Franco, you got this?”
“Roger that, Major,” Franco answered, peeling off gloves and cracking open a first aid kit more tricked out than anything she kept at the gym. “Cuervo, could you rig me some light?”
A guy wearing a name tag that said Jose James leaped to his feet, and suddenly a spotlight clicked on, clamped to one of the pipes running along the side. The blazing illumination pointed at Wade revealed…
She saw the dark stain on the shoulder of his parka. She gasped, horrified. She reached out to touch his knee, surprised at how automatic her response was. But they had bonded on that mountain, no doubt. Wade had saved her butt all too thoroughly for her to pretend she didn’t care what happened to him now.
Although what exactly had happened, she didn’t know, and clearly there were others here better equipped to tend his injury. Why hadn’t she seen it before? Her mind raced back to the dark ooze she’d seen on him and Chewie and just assumed it was mud. Guilt pinched. She’d been so busy thinking of her own survival she hadn’t even noticed.
She yanked the blanket off her dog and frantically searched through his fur, checking him over for any sign of injury. Chewie pawed her hand and tried to shove his nose into her drink. Finally, satisfied there was nothing she could detect, she shifted her attention back to Wade.
Across the helicopter, Franco snapped on gloves, setting out what looked to be antiseptic, clamps… and she couldn’t tell what else, because her stomach started roiling. She wasn’t the queasy sort. It had to be the adrenaline dump on top of her exhausted body, but she couldn’t imagine going to sleep now.
Especially when she didn’t know the severity of Wade’s injury.
Franco held his gloved, sterile hands up for a second. Then proceeded to peel away the thick snow gear one layer at a time, until Wade sat bare chested. Her breath hissed inward at the expanse of muscled strength—and his unflinching expression. Perspiration and empathy trickled down her spine. His jaw might be tight, but otherwise he showed no reaction to the blood oozing from what appeared to be a bullet wound in his shoulder.
Cricking his neck, Franco tossed aside the scissors, hacked-up parka, and shirt at his feet. “Looks like the bullet just grazed you, but I’m going to need to check to be sure. Are you up for that now or do you want me to slap a bandage on until we can get you to an ER?”
“Take care of it now,” Wade growled without hesitation.
His muscles flexed and tensed. She’d seen a lot of men who took care of themselves in her line of work at the gym, but Wade’s body was a honed, peerless machine. And as gorgeous a specimen as he was to look at, she’d experienced the benefits of all that training firsthand, so she wasn’t looking at him like some ordinary groupie might. She admired him with a fierceness as raw as the rest of her emotions today.
Given her wound-up condition, she burrowed deeper in her seat to make sure she didn’t fall over if she passed out. The last thing she wanted was to divert any attention—any help—away from him. The next part happened so much more quickly than she’d expected. At a time like this, she could easily picture these guys working a medical crisis in battle under fire. Fast. Cool. Efficient.
He’d told her they were medic trained. But seeing that in-the-field training in action was another story.
The guy—Franco—pulled out forceps and gauze, then proceeded to swab the injury with copious amounts of antiseptic.
Unbidden, the memory of their kiss blasted into her brain. Hot. Needy. Far too urgent for her liking. She’d never responded to a man on such a visceral level before. It made no sense. This whole nightmare made no sense. But the reality of it still made her tremble, and that kiss was like the stable core of an ordeal that had thrown her hard off course.
Tamping down the memories, she focused on Wade.
Franco pulled out two syringes and began making injections around the wound. Numbing and antibiotics, most likely. Sunny’s fingers dug into the empty cocoa cup, anticipating the hurt even though it wasn’t her own.
Seconds later, the military medic picked up some other silver tool that looked a little too torturous for her piece of mind. “I’ll make this check as fast as I can.”
“Stop explaining and start doing.”
“Roger that. I’ll start on three. One. Two.” He probed with gentle yet lightning speed, fresh red blood trickling down Wade’s chest.
Franco slapped a wad of gauze on Wade’s shoulder, clearing away the fresh blood. He then looped two stitches through before Sunny’s heart rate even returned to normal.
“Done, pal. Now quit your whining around the pretty lady. She’s going to think you’re a wimp.” Franco sank back on his heels, peeling off his bloodied gloves and pitching them on top of the bloodied gauze. “You’re lucky it’s so cold out. That slowed the bleeding.”
In comparison to Madison and Ted, they were. But she kept thinking of that bullet tearing through Wade’s shoulder, an injury that happened because he’d been protecting her. She was so used to looking out for others, this felt… strange.
“Ma’am?” A masculine voice pulled her eyes off Wade. “My name’s Major McCabe. You can call me Liam, or some folks call me Walker, like Walker, Texas Ranger, because I used to be an army ranger. Now isn’t that convoluted?” he said with a smile meant to put a person at ease, to distract from the horror of how close Wade had come to having a bullet pierce his heart. “Here’s more cocoa for you and water for your dog. Can I get you anything else?”
Her brain turned sluggish from exhaustion and she scrambled to think. Her stomach grumbled an answer for her. “Some kind of PowerBar would be good, if you don’t mind.”
“Coming right up. It’s military issue, which means it tastes like crap on cardboard, but it’ll do the job.” McCabe hunkered down in front of her, blocking her view of Wade. “Are you okay?”
“One of your buddies asked me that right after you pulled me up. I’m all right. Shaking, but okay.” Her brain cleared and she realized she needed to let them know. “There was a third person with Ted and Madison. A sheriff’s deputy.”
“Yes, Wade told us.”
“He did? I don’t remember…”
“You’ve been drifting in and out. You’ve been through a lot. You should rest for the next hour until we land. There’s nothing more you can do.”
And she realized he’d handed her the perfect out. She could pretend to be addled by altitude sickness. For the first time in her life, she would be the helpless one. And there was only one person in this new world full of strangers she could even consider trusting.
Her eyes fell on Wade, pale but steady. If only she could be so sure she could trust herself when it came to him.
Towel wrapped around his waist, Wade stepped out of the shower at the squadron locker room. Back at Elmendorf Air Force Base for only a couple of hours and already the mess on that mountain seemed a world away.
Sunny seemed a world away even though she was only next door in the women’s locker room. In the shower. Shit.
He worked his aching shoulder on the way toward the lockers, past the stalls, sandals slapping against the slick tile. The low hum of voices echoed in the steamy space, water still running behind him from McCabe finishing up. As he approached, the voices stopped.
Team members were scattered around the room, familiar as ever. As was their curiosity. They all could have been dressed and gone by now, since their part of the mission was complete. He, on the other hand, still had briefings left with the base officials. Jose “Cuervo” James pulled on a marathon T-shirt. Marcus “Fang” Dupre, already dressed, worked a Sudoku puzzle, not even hiding the fact that he was killing time waiting to grill him. Only Gavin “Bubbles” Novak halfway managed to hide his interest—grim as ever. But then he always stayed more on the periphery, packing and repacking his gear, cleaning his gun.
Wade plunged deeper into the room to his locker and grabbed a fresh camo ABU—airman battle uniform—crisp and new, replacing the BDUs they used to wear. Good God, how much money was spent every time the uniforms got changed. Again.
And yeah, he was cranky.
He still faced at least a couple of hours’ debriefing on what he and Sunny had uncovered out there. “What? Are we in high school or something? You guys all but said, ‘Hush, here he comes.’”
Chuckling, Franco reached into his locker for a pullover sweater, his part done for the day, no need for his uniform. “Did you keep your shoulder dry like I told you?”