Sunny yanked her gloves on and scrubbed the tears from her eyes before they froze, clearing her view of the path to the tiny plane with a propeller on each low wing. A Cessna 303, her brother had told her in his email. As if that even mattered to her now, but she was desperately grasping at minute details to help fill up the gaping hole in her gut over walking away from Wade so abruptly. She’d really thought he would come with her.
Instead he’d only pushed for her to stick around on his terms.
She hefted her backpack into place, the weight somehow heavier than when she’d started out a few days ago. She couldn’t turn her back on Phoenix, her sister, everyone in her mountain village. She had to make sure, in person, that he understood how important it was that he leave Alaska. Leave the U.S. with his family and start over in Canada, and if he’d chosen that option long ago, life would be so much simpler now. Why was he so damn set on staying in Alaska? She had to make everyone understand how important it was not to naïvely think they could block out the rest of the world through limited contact.
Now that she’d stepped out, she realized how foolishly they’d limited themselves in communicating during a crisis.
At least she’d gotten the email from her brother about the wire transfer of the money and how he’d arranged this flight. She didn’t know how he’d worked that miracle and she didn’t care. She just hoped her own warning to him and the community made it through.
She needed to get a move on fast and quit letting the good-bye with Wade tear her up. She would see him when she came back to get Chewie. She would tell him… something. She didn’t know what yet, which of course only served to remind her of his words. Of how he knew she was holding back. He would know in the future too and she couldn’t see how to get past that.
Time. She just needed time to figure out a way to straddle these two worlds.
The pilot stood beside the plane, waiting with a clipboard in his hands. Wearing Nomex coveralls that added bulk to what appeared to be a wiry frame, he jotted notes. With the earflaps down on his snow hat, he didn’t hear her coming until she stopped almost in front of him. He looked up fast, aviator shades covering his eyes and a groomed beard shading his jaw.
“Are you Ms. Foster? Sunny Foster?”
“Yes, I’m here, just me though. My, uh, friend couldn’t join me after all.” Her throat closing with pain, with regret, she resisted the urge to look back at Wade. She juggled her backpack more firmly behind her so she could thrust out a hand. “Thank you for making this flight on such short notice.”
“My pleasure, ma’am. This is how I make my living.” He clasped her gloved hand in his. “My name’s Brett.”
His cell phone buzzed in his pocket.
Eyes locked on Sunny talking to the Cessna pilot, Wade ignored the call. He’d taken a week of leave to watch out for Sunny and he wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone. He would check the number and message as soon as the plane was airborne.
And he was inside it, planted right beside a certain infuriating woman.
Wade reached behind him for the backpack of survival and overnight gear he kept packed in the truck. Countless times he’d landed from one mission only to have the next waiting. And survival gear was a must in Alaska, where a broken-down car could be a matter of life and death.
The cell hummed again, any sound drowned out by the wind roaring down from the mountains to tear across the flat airport. Damn. It could be something about the deputy or those other bodies. He couldn’t afford to ignore it, especially when it could affect Sunny.
He tugged a glove off with his teeth and fished for his phone. “Sergeant Rocha.”
“Rocha, it’s McCabe,” the major said with clipped efficiency. “OSI just passed along some more information on your friend Ms. Foster and I thought you would be interested.”
Wade’s eye zipped back to the plane as Sunny passed over her backpack. He exited the truck and thumbed the automatic lock. “Your tone doesn’t sound great.”
Foreboding crept through him, but he needed every ounce of information he could scavenge, especially with Sunny still holding out on him.
“That’s because the news isn’t good,” McCabe answered unceremoniously. “She and her family had a reason for falling off-the-grid.”
Possibilities raced through his head—criminal ties topping the list. If she was on the run from the law, that was it. His time with her was over. Except she said she’d been in the community for fifteen years, just a teenager. Still… “Details?”
“She has a sister and a half brother. That brother—Phoenix Foster—joined the army straight out of high school.”
Brother in the army. Family slipping away, out of the mainstream. Into hiding. Ah hell, he could already guess at the deserter scenario about to unfold.
“He went AWOL the night before a deployment. He and his entire family haven’t been heard from since.”
Shock, then the bitter taste of bile hit him.
Her brother was a deserter. Her brother had abandoned his brothers in arms when they needed him in battle. Brothers and sisters in arms like his teammates… like his father…
Like his mother, who lived with nursing care round the clock because she couldn’t even dress herself anymore.
What a helluva time to learn the person Sunny had been protecting was the same sort of person who’d turned his back on everything Wade believed in, worked for, was willing to die for just as the pararescue motto declared.
That others may live.
And that very same brother had a lot more reasons for making sure no one left the mountain than the deputy ever had. That didn’t explain the deputy shooting at them, but then little about this had made sense from the beginning.
Charging across the lot, he shrugged his backpack more securely in place along with his resolve. “McCabe, can you do me a favor?”
“Sure. Anything. Ask and it’s yours.”
“Keep checking on Sunny’s dog. Make sure he’s okay. Sunny and I are going, uh, hiking. This could take longer than I expected—”
“No problem. That’s all I need to know. Besides, it’s not often that I get to hang out with a dog.”
Their jobs made having a pet virtually impossible.
“Thanks. I owe you.” He ended the call.
His resolve clicked into place faster than an icicle snapped under his boots as he charged toward the aircraft. He knew. Whether or not she was complicit in any of her brother’s dealings, he couldn’t just walk away. He was in for the long haul, following her to what many would label the ends of the earth, the place that God forgot. But he wasn’t going unarmed. He had a beacon in his boot. And inside his gear, he’d packed a military-level GPS tracker. She might hate him for it later, but her home wasn’t going to be a secret black hole any longer. He couldn’t risk it.
He couldn’t let her risk it.
Wade zipped his parka and tugged on his gloves, eyes homed in on the tiny airplane just visible through the haze.
With Sunny preparing to board.
While the Cessna’s engines warmed up, Sunny buckled her seat belt in the back seat. Or at least she tried to, but her hands were shaking and she was totally about to lose her shit. All because a guy she’d known for a few days refused to follow her on what truly was a reckless trek.
To make matters worse, she was freaking out over not even having her dog beside her. Was the cosmos ganging up on her, telling her to turn back? She’d been taught for so long not to trust the outside, to trust only her judgment, lean only on her family.
Protect her family.
She pressed her hand to the window, staring at the mountains in the distance. The snowcapped peaks called to her. Would her sister delay leaving? God, she hoped so, but couldn’t count on it. Not any more than she could brush aside what had happened between her and Wade.
How would he react when she came back? Because she would come back, damn it. Even if that meant she couldn’t return home—oh God, her heart squeezed—she couldn’t abandon Chewie. To be honest with herself, she also couldn’t leave things the way they were with Wade.
She let her head sag back against the seat, staring at the back of the pilot’s head for a few seconds before closing her eyes.
“What the—” The pilot’s curse was cut short by the sound of the door opening.
Sunny bolted upright just as Wade filled the gaping portal.
“Got room for one more?” he asked simply.
Disbelief stunned her quiet, followed by a sunburst of joy. He was coming with her. She didn’t have to face this journey, the fears, alone.
The pilot cranked around in his seat, pushing the mic on his headset away from his mouth. “Sir, ma’am, do we have a problem?”
Her heartbeat double-timing, Sunny held up her hand. “No problem at all. I mentioned there might be an extra passenger and he made it after all.”
The pilot—Brett—just shrugged and turned back to the control panel. “Fair enough. Come on board.”
Wade dropped into the seat beside her. His huge backpack thudded to the floor with what had to be an eighty-pound thump.
“What are you doing here?” Her voice came out breathier than she’d intended, but she was so damn glad to have a bright spot in this horrible day, to have someone to lean on.
“I’m taking you home.” He snapped his seat belt over his lap and tightened the strap. “I thought since I’d compromised you and all, it’s time to meet your family.”
A laugh lodged in her throat. “Thank you.”
“Good luck getting rid of me.” He smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes.
Maybe it was her imagination. Her emotions were in such a tangle. So much had changed so fast. Finding her dead friends, being shot at, leaving the mountain for the first time in fifteen years.
Then there was Wade. Here with her. Here for her.
The propellers spun, engines powering up louder just before the small plane lurched forward. She gripped her armrests nervously as the Cessna surged down the narrow runway, faster and faster until the nose lifted along with her stomach. She couldn’t help herself. She clutched Wade’s arm.
Warm awareness seeped in and tingled through her body. They were connected by her touch, by this journey. By the attraction that crackled between them even with layers of clothes between them.
And they were airborne.
The roar of engines eased as they flew out over the bay. How strange to be this afraid of a simple flight when she thought nothing of kayaking down icy rapids or hiking through a mountain blizzard. But those were familiar. Air travel? Not so much. During the helicopter ride, she’d been too stunned, too distracted, for nerves.
Now, it was just her and Wade, winging away from the rest of the world. “Are you okay with work, coming with me?”
“No worries. I took care of it before getting on the plane.” He shifted in his seat, the setting sun at his back so she could no longer read his face. “Did you email your family about your plans?”
“I tried. But email can be spotty around here, like cell phone service.”
He straightened, brow furrowing. “You sent an email letting them know you’re going to be out alone?”
“I had to let them know I was coming in order to get the money, and I had to be sure they had a heads-up to be careful. That’s reasonable. And I’m not alone now. I have you with me.”
“Thank God for that.” He scratched a hand over his close-sheared hair. “No use getting worked up over what’s already done. But could you try to keep a low profile from now on?”
Given the life she’d led for the past fifteen years, that should have been easy. Guilt tugged at her for bringing him into her problems. Life was moving so damn fast, with little time for second-guessing as she ran full out just to stay even a step ahead. “Were you able to get in touch with the people at work before you joined me? Major McCabe… Or was his name Major Walker?”