“I went to the same medic training for six months at Fort Bragg just like you did, smart-ass.” He stepped into his ABU pants, for once grateful that he spent so much time at the base, he had uniforms to spare in the squadron locker room. Reaching back into the locker, he almost managed to suppress a wince at the tug to his shoulder. A T-shirt was definitely out of the question. He yanked off the button-down blouse—why the hell did they call it a blouse? Like it was some silky woman’s shirt rather than a camouflage jacket.
Battle boots next. He dropped to the bench, glad for an excuse to sit so the room would stop spinning. “I know how to take care of myself.”
“Then next time you can patch yourself up, princess.” Franco sat next to him, lacing up his own hiking boots. “Hardship duty, dude, being holed up with her for two days.”
He kept his mouth zipped. His old man would be proud of his self-control these days.
Jose slammed his locker shut. “Ah, he’s embarrassed. It was chillier than usual. This cold-ass tour of duty can be hell on a guy’s ego, what with shrinkage and all.”
If only that had been the problem. It may have been cold as hell out there, but that hadn’t stopped him from almost losing his objectivity over a woman he barely knew. Sliding the last button through, he flinched at his own lack of control.
Laughter fading, Marcus closed his Sudoku puzzle book, studying him through narrowed eyes. “You hurt yourself out there worse than you’re saying?”
“Jump out of a plane, you’re gonna be sore.” He dismissed the worry fast. “But then you guys wouldn’t know that, since you were back here playing Xbox.”
Gavin looked up from cleaning his gun, one eyebrow raised. “Cranky, cranky, are we?”
And he was. Not because of the injury. Or because of the bodies they’d discovered, although that definitely cast a huge dark cloud over the day all on its own.
He was edgy and cranky because he was all but chewing nails over how bad he wanted a woman who’d so far refused even to tell him her last name.
Marcus set aside his Sudoku book. “Maybe you should give that last girl you dated a call, the one who worked at that diner across from your place. What was her name… Katie… Kimmy…”
“Kammi,” Jose sighed reverently, hitching a Nike running bag over his shoulder. “That was one smokin’ hot babe. Still don’t understand why you let her get away.”
Wade smiled tightly. “Feel free to ask her out anytime. I hear she’s working the lunch shift now.”
Not that he was keeping tabs on her or any of his other exes. He just wasn’t the get-serious kind. Most women he’d gone out with over the years didn’t have the patience for his kind of workaholic devotion to the job.
A door across the room creaked open, and he welcomed the distraction from discussion of his dating history. A fresh recruit airman stopped just inside. “Sergeant Rocha?”
Wade pushed to his feet, buttoning the cuffs on his uniform. “That would be me.”
“The lady from the mountain, Sunny Foster, she’s asking for you.”
Whistles and wolf calls came from his buds, but he didn’t even rise to the bait. He was too focused on what the airman had said.
Funny how one word could change everything. Her name was Sunny Foster. Apparently the pimply faced airman had better luck getting her to talk than he had.
Of course now that the authorities were involved, her secretiveness would have to come to an end. A good thing. Except he could only think of the flash of terror in her eyes he’d seen, once she was inside the helicopter. Only a quick moment of vulnerability, but he hadn’t doubted what he saw. He didn’t know why, but he knew he couldn’t leave her alone and defenseless.
The urge to protect powered his feet double time across the tiled floor.
As Sunny waited in the small conference room, walls lined with framed lithographs of military aircraft throughout the years, the full impact of her situation washed over her.
She was at least six hundred miles from home. She had no clothes. No money. No way to contact her family, other than the Internet. And she couldn’t leave without Chewie, who was currently being looked over by the base vet who took care of military dogs.
Even her clothes were borrowed, jeans and a sweater loaned to her by a female clerk in the squadron who was close to the same size. The jeans fit, although the sweater was snugger than she was accustomed to. Homesickness enveloped her like the track suits she wore to work. She missed her home, her job, her routine. Most of all she missed her family.
They must be freaking-out worried by now, especially Misty. And there wasn’t a thing she could do about it.
Sunny tugged the lip balm from her pocket—yet another thing she’d had to accept for free—and slicked it across her cracked, dry lips. God, it sucked to be so at the mercy of others. She was an independent businesswoman in her community. None of which apparently meant a thing outside her boundaries. Now she had to figure out how to get back, a logistical conundrum.
It wasn’t as if she could say, “Hey, could I hitch a helicopter ride back home?”
Round and round she turned her Styrofoam cup of coffee on the table in front of her. A dozen black office chairs—the kind that spun—were placed around the table, all empty except for the one she sat in. Waiting.
A computer sat on a lectern and a telecon screen hung from the ceiling, but they weren’t any good to her with their blank screens, certain to have security codes.
The door clicked, giving a second’s warning someone was about to enter. Spinning her chair toward the entrance, she held her breath, not sure what to expect from this evening. She’d asked to see Wade…
And there he was, filling the doorway with his familiar broad shoulders and indomitable will. But Wade also looked different, more unreachable. It had to be the uniform, because his eyes were the same.
He wore camouflage pants tucked into combat boots, a maroon beret tucked in his thigh pocket. His hair was shorter than she’d realized before, but then he’d worn his hood most of the time. And he was clean shaven now. He’d been magnetic, virile, commanding during their survival trek, but now she saw—holy crap—he was poster boy handsome.
A lean face with strong cheekbones, perfectly sculpted like some hard-as-stone statue. Yet his perfection was offset with just the right masculine rough edges, his windburned skin, even his callused hands, gave him the appeal of a man who could protect, survive.
Her eyes settled on his mouth, chapped like hers, yet somehow that hadn’t hampered him in the least when he’d kissed her on the mountain. The time seemed so surreal now, a world away.
The air went heavy and awkward. She hated feeling out of her element. She searched his face for signs that he might be downplaying his injury, the memory of all that blood still too fresh in her mind. Dark circles marked under his eyes, but other than that he seemed steady, focused. On her.
She gripped the arms of her chair. “How’s your shoulder?”
“Sore, but livable.” He wheeled out a chair and sat beside her. “I won’t be jumping out of planes for a while, but I should be back to work in the field in a week or so.”
“Good, I’m glad to hear that.” Her fingers itched to touch him, just his knee, so close to hers. “I wouldn’t want you to suffer because of me.”
“I’m just glad that deputy is a crappy shot.” A smile crinkled the corners of his intense brown eyes.
“The day could have ended so much worse.” She tugged at the hem of her sweater, swamped with memories of what it had been like in the cold and snow with Wade lying on top of her. Praying they would make it out of there alive.
She shook off the wave of intense feelings, focusing on more practical concerns. “About tomorrow… I need some help in figuring out how I’m going to get back home.”
“Major McCabe is looking into that now. It may take a few days to find a mission already slated to go to that region, but once we do, we can put you on the aircraft. You’ll just need someone to pick you up. Or you can arrange for private transportation faster. Your call.”
Leave tomorrow or wait around for days? Days when her sister could be planning to leave. “I think I need to look into those speedier arrangements. And what about that deputy who shot at us?”
“Authorities here have notified the sheriff there, his boss. They’re already sending a scouting party for him and the bodies. They’ll want to take your statement over the phone today before you leave.”
“Of course. Whenever they’re ready.” She struggled to push aside years of suspicions hammered into her head, the mantra repeated by her parents to be careful who she trusted. There were people out there who would shut down their community if they could, would take away their home and shuffle them back to a more congested area where it was “easier” to track their activities. But what other option did she have if she wanted justice for Madison and Ted than to talk now?
“Afterward, I can help you make arrangements to fly home.” Wade continued, “I could drive you to an airport.”
Now wouldn’t that have made things easier? Too bad there would be no record of her existence in any bank in the world, let alone access to a credit account. “I was only planning to go on a mountain hike. There aren’t exactly any places that call for a MasterCard or Visa there. And my family doesn’t have reliable phone service. Um, sorry, but where I live is pretty remote.”
“As are a lot of places in Alaska.” He leaned back in the chair, watching her as if waiting for her to say more. When she didn’t, he continued, “So? What’s the plan?”
“I don’t know,” she finally admitted. “I don’t know who to trust and what’s the right decision.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”
“I’m sorry.” She shook her head, sweeping her hair back, the length still damp from her shower.
His eyes tracked her, stayed on her hair. She forced her hands back to her lap.
“Can I trust you?”
“I don’t know. Can you? On the one hand, I did save your life. And on the other, I’m a guy you’ve just met.”
Somehow the way he left the decision up to her put her more at ease. “For now you’re a better option than some folks I’ve known a lot longer.”
Like the deputy who’d played duck shoot with them earlier. My God, she needed to warn so many people in her community who trusted that man.
“It would help if you told me what you’re talking about.” He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, muscular arms straining the sleeves of his uniform.
She stared into Wade’s eyes, the same steady gaze that had gotten her safely off a mountain and away from a madman. Taking a deep breath, steadying herself, she needed to reach out to him again if she wanted any chance of warning her sister.
“Call me a paranoid, off-the-grid kook who sees conspiracy theories everywhere, but I just can’t shake the weird feeling that the deputy’s actions have to be a part of something bigger.” She didn’t trust the local sheriff’s department now, not when she knew how many friends Rand had back home. The corruption had to go deeper. And if it did, the military’s phone call to his boss wasn’t going to save Misty. “Otherwise it just doesn’t make sense for him to kill two people.”
She hoped he wouldn’t think she was crazy. She needed him to believe her. And sitting so close to him and confiding her deepest fears, she realized she needed him. All those raw feelings he’d stirred inside her back on the mountain came roaring to life again now, like frostbitten toes recovering sensation with a vengeance.
“He could have had the hots for the woman.” His shoulders shrugged, his chair nudging closer until she could almost feel the body heat radiating off him. “It could have been an assault situation gone over the edge. Then he came after us because we found the bodies. He was probably trapped out there in the storm the same way we were.”