The plane cranked into a turn, streaming sunlight over Wade’s face. His eyes said he wanted to press her for more information about contacting her family, much as he had pushed in the truck. But then his gaze shifted to the pilot for a second before settling on her again.
He leaned forward in his seat to shrug out of his parka, revealing his camo uniform. “My team leader’s name is Major Liam McCabe, but his call sign is Walker.”
“Call sign?” She settled into her seat, realizing this was the first time in nearly a week when she’d actually had the luxury—the security—of doing nothing. She could indulge herself in simply getting to know Wade.
“Nicknames,” he said. “Like aviators have. Did you ever see the movie Top Gun?”
“Of course.” Hadn’t everyone? “I’m not that cut off from the world.”
“Call signs are used by military members other than aviators, like say, in a special ops unit.”
“And the PJs, pararescuemen like you, are special ops?”
“Yes, we are, about four hundred of us scattered around the globe at last count.” He nodded simply. “And when we’re in the field on a mission, call signs level the field. They keep ranks from getting in the way in a life-and-death decision moment.”
She’d shut out her memories of her brother’s time in the military so carefully in the need to make his new cover story a reality for her brain. But now, talking to Wade, a few old stories drifted up through that carefully constructed barrier. She hadn’t remembered anything about call signs from Phoenix. He’d spoken more about the loss of control over his day-to-day life. “I thought what the officer said was always the bottom line.”
“In essence that’s correct. But different career fields have different dynamics. In those extreme situations that are a part of a special ops duty, I need to feel free to give my input without stumbling over a multitude of protocols and chains of command. There just isn’t time when you’re tiptoeing through a minefield.”
“Tiptoeing through a minefield?” His words reminded her of the story he’d shared in the cave about his friend Franco parachuting in to save a downed airman as a part of his everyday job. A part of Wade’s everyday job. “You’re freaking me out a little.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Then I guess I’d better hold back on the story about my buddy Walker pulling a NASA astronaut out of a school of sharks after landing.”
She hadn’t thought about the rescue-swimmer aspect of the PJ profession. The frigid waters of the Bering Sea below them took on new dimensions as she envisioned Wade plunging into those depths to save someone he didn’t even know. For the first time, she considered that she’d gotten a fairly skewed view of the military from Phoenix.
Angling closer to Wade, she soaked up details of his job with fascination, with admiration—and with a little envy. What would life had been like if she’d been the one to enlist rather than her brother? Maybe she would be traveling the globe by now, pulling downed astronauts out of the open sea. Plucking stranded climbers from mountains.
Even saving wounded soldiers in the middle of a battlefield.
Wade stretched his booted feet in front of him, linking his hands over his stomach. “There are also more practical reasons for the call signs. We speak over the radio to each other and to towers and command centers. Call signs help disguise our identity, our unit, even our mission.”
She thought back over exchanges she’d heard between him and his friends as they transferred Chewie into McCabe’s care. “And you’re called Brick.”
“As in brick or rock, for Rocha.”
“And?” She leaned forward, sensing a bit more than he was sharing. “Isn’t there usually a story to go with a call sign?”
“Top Gun has given you a wealth of knowledge about our world, I see.” He tapped his temple. “I’m a rock head, thickheaded as a brick, immovable once I’ve set my mind to something.”
“I would say that sums you up about right.”
While some might find stubbornness a negative trait, she saw how he’d channeled that into a determination that saved lives. A loyalty to his team and his uniform. Admirable.
And a serious problem once he learned about her brother, because she just couldn’t see Wade understanding the choices her brother had made. Would he consider her whole family guilty as well because of their silence?
Her own sense of honor demanded she tell Wade the truth. The whole truth. She owed him the chance to turn back if he chose, because as much as she needed his help, she couldn’t trick him.
She would have to trust her gut to know when the time was right to tell him everything. But she also knew that time would have to come soon. “What about your friends?”
“Hugh Franco, the big lug of a guy who sewed me up on the helicopter. We call him Slow Hand, because he plays the guitar and he’s a bit of a player in other arenas as well.”
“And why is Major McCabe called Walker?”
“He used to be an army ranger before he became a PJ. So we called him Walker, Texas Ranger, like the old television show, and it became shortened to Walker. He also does a great Chuck Norris impression. But please, don’t ask him about his jokes or you’ll get the whole stand-up routine.”
“A guy with a sense of humor.” Especially after a day spent working in a school of sharks. She reached for his hand. “I’ll bet that comes in handy sometimes.”
He linked fingers with her, but the walls stayed up in his eyes. “Insightful comment. Yes.”
“What about the other guys?” She strengthened her grip. Such a simple pleasure to hold hands. Yet somehow this felt more intimate than anything they’d shared. Her stomach lurched again even though the plane continued to power smoothly through the darkening sky.
“You want to know about them all? We could be here a while.”
“We have a while before we land, probably an hour.” Not nearly long enough. “How about you tell me names for the other ones in the helicopter, the ones you’re obviously close to.”
He thumbed her wrist. “Jose ‘Cuervo’ James, self-explanatory. Ironic though, since he doesn’t drink.”
“Oh, and let me guess about the guy that scowls in the corner cleaning his gun all the time, never speaks.”
When had she turned sideways in her seat until their feet almost touched? “His must be something dark like Dracula or Darth Vader.”
“Not even close.” A smile flickered, lightening his beard-stubbled face. “We call him Bubbles.”
She laughed. How could she not? “Oh my God, that’s great. Too funny. I never would have pegged you all for much of a sense of humor.”
“We can read and cipher too, ma’am.”
Preconceptions were rude, and unwise. She should remember that. For the first time she questioned how much of her perceptions of the military may have been skewed by her brother’s experience. “What happens if Bubbles wants to change his call sign?”
“For the most part names don’t change. Well, other than Fang, which stands for ‘Fuck, another new guy,’ who keeps that name until a new ‘Fang’ comes in. But back to your question, if someone like Bubbles insists on a new call sign, then we’ll throw a keg party and give him a new name.”
Didn’t sound like much fun for Jose. Then she caught a nuance in Wade’s words. “Give Bubbles a new name? He doesn’t get a say in it?” She held up a hand. “Forget I said that.”
“There are three rules to the call sign system that are universal in the different services and units. Number one, if you don’t have a call sign by the time you’re assigned to your rescue squadron, you will be given one by your pals. Rule number two, you almost certainly will not like it. And rule number three, the most important of all, if you piss and moan about it, we will promptly give you a new call sign that you will hate even more.”
“All righty then. I’m guessing Bubbles has learned to live with it.”
“How would we ever know?” His big shoulders shrugged. “He doesn’t talk.”
She looked at him, really looked at him, sprawled in the airplane seat in his uniform, but cracking jokes to calm her in spite of his obvious reservations about being here. Wade the warrior merged with Wade, the man who cradled her injured dog so carefully.
Wade, the tender lover.
She clasped her other hand on top of his, needing to deepen their connection. “You’re so different than I expected when I first saw you.”
“You’re not what I expected either from a tree-hugging granola girl.”
“Wade…” She leaned across, closer, until a simple jostle of the aircraft would have had her mouth against his. “You’re being so un-PC my teeth hurt.”
His mouth curved at her whispered taunt.
“I could distract you from your pain,” he offered confidently.
“I’ll bet you could.”
“And yet I can’t get you to answer the simplest of questions. How damn ironic is that?”
The sensual thread between them snapped. She saw in his chilly eyes that he hadn’t for a moment lost sight of his focus on finding out more about her life. She’d won her victory by getting on the plane.
Now she owed him the truth once they landed.
With the Cessna cruising on autopilot, Brett kept one eye on the darkening sky and the other on the strategically placed mirror that allowed him to monitor the two passengers behind him. He searched the horizon, clearing for other aircraft. With so many seaplanes zipping through the skies, it wasn’t unusual to skip filing a flight plan.
That made his trip easier to hide, but did require extra vigilance piloting. The landscape filled with shadows, the water, the valleys and canyons going pitch-black well ahead of dusk because of the mountains hiding the setting sun.
His eyes dropped back to the instrument panel for a quick check of altitude, air speed, heading. He was organized. In control.
Intercepting Sunny Foster’s email to her brother had been a piece of cake. And Sunny’s email to her brother sure as hell hadn’t gotten through. Setting up this flight was even easier since, like most Alaskans, he had his pilot’s license.
If only he’d gotten it before, he could have rushed Andrea to medical help faster. That crucial hour could have given her full use of her arms, or even more.
He thumbed the pain building between his eyebrows. In control. In control.
Blinking away the red haze, he scanned his instrument panel. He did need to adjust his plans now that Rocha was on board along with Sunny Foster. Disposing of one female would have kept things cleaner and easier. But he wasn’t the kind of person to let a setback derail him.
Already he’d put together pieces of a world-changing event—anonymously. He was smarter than either of those two sappy lovebirds behind him.
Definitely smarter than the pansy-ass deputy who’d choked when it mattered most.
How hard was it to walk up a couple of flights of stairs and pop two people in their sleep? It wasn’t as if the guy hadn’t killed before. Except now Rand Smith was dead, and that had brought a crap-ton of attention from law enforcement with military resources at their disposal.
Now he was stuck cleaning up the mess. Having to deal with Sunny’s bulky military pal too made things a little trickier, but he could handle it. He tucked the lone parachute farther out of sight, tucking away the memory of jumps with Andrea before her accident. Change of plans, now that he had two passengers instead of one. Originally, he’d intended to parachute from the plane, leaving it programmed to fly into the side of a mountain. With so many aircraft in the skies, it wasn’t unusual for one to crash.