“Everybody knows.” She snorted dismissively. “Stand underneath Ryker’s open window and you can almost get high off the smoke.”
Or maybe it was because her sense of smell was so much stronger these days. Regardless, she was so angry and confused, she couldn’t even focus.
“Ryker will be crushed.” Flynn leaned a hip against the sink, towels tucked against his chest. “He likes to think he’s a badass.”
“Yes, beautiful?” he answered, without taking his eyes off her for even a second.
“Put the towels down and leave.”
“Right.” He dropped them on the sink before reaching for the doorknob.
“And turning your head away may keep me from understanding what you say, but I know you can hear me. You shouldn’t have come in here.”
He glanced over his shoulder, his smile cranking back up to killer wattage. “So you want me to look at you?”
Squealing, she yanked the shower curtain in front of her again. “That’s not fair. Now go.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He turned to leave, his hands behind him, twitching.
“I have missed you.”
With the first rays of sunrise spoking in the distance, Wade strapped the backpacks into place on the snowmobiles—or as Sunny and other Alaska natives called the vehicles, snow machines.
His calls to McCabe and the OSI last night had netted nothing new that would be pertinent to them. McCabe had said the murders were actually being shuffled over to civilian police as the base went on high alert on another security matter altogether. He hadn’t been able to go into detail over the phone, but Wade had gotten the gist. Spy satellites were picking up a new flurry of activity in Russia.
Meanwhile, it was up to Wade to keep Sunny safe. “All right, then, everything’s locked down tight. We should make the most of the daylight.”
From what she’d told him, they should be able to make good time with the snow machines. As long as the weather held. At least the skies looked clear, vast and brilliant blue like he’d never seen anywhere else in his travels around the world. No wonder Sunny loved her home state so much.
She gripped his wrist. “I know this is going to sound crazy after how hard I pushed for you to come with me. But you don’t have to go the rest of the way. I’ll tell you where I live. I realize that can’t be a secret anymore. I know I’m going to have to fill in the blanks, but you don’t have to do this for me.”
“You’re a little late with your willingness to pony up your life story, Sunshine.” They were in a kind of limbo land here now, between her world and his, and once they finished? Likely it would signal an end to things between them.
“I believe it’s never too late to make things right. You can go back now.”
Not true. Some things in life were irrevocable. There was no going back for his mother. And there was no way he could walk away from Sunny, with her life in danger.
He was fast wondering how the hell he was going to walk away from her at all. “Are you trying to get rid of me?”
She exhaled a long puffy cloud into the chilly air. “I don’t want to bring trouble down on your head at work because of my brother.”
“Because of your brother, the deserter.” He couldn’t resist shooting straight to the heart of what they were talking about. It loomed between them like a purple elephant dropped right into the middle of the parking lot alongside the moose loping past.
She jammed her hands into her pockets. “The words sound so stark when you say them out loud, but I understand you’re right. That doesn’t stop me from loving my brother.”
“Then you’ll do whatever it takes to make sure nothing bad happens to your sister or brother, and right now, I’m your best bet for a bodyguard. So let’s go.”
Cupping her waist, Wade dropped her onto her seat. He kissed her once, hard and fast and not daring to linger longer, or they could end up inside again.
He pulled down the faceplate on his helmet and tapped the mic. “Test, test.”
“I’m here.” Her voice caressed his ears, velvet smooth like her hands on his body.
Sleeping with Sunny complicated things. Seriously. He should be honorable and call a halt to all sex between them until this was settled. Except he couldn’t see his way clear to a solution for two such mismatched lifestyles. The end of the road for them waited somewhere up that mountain, and Sunny seemed to realize that as well. Knowing that—even if he couldn’t bring himself to accept it—fueled the need to make love to her, touch her, claim her every chance he got.
And those chances were fast running out unless somehow they could pick their way through a path to each other, a path far more treacherous than anything Mount Redoubt had to offer up.
He revved the engine and lurched forward full speed. He maxed the machine, peeling out of the parking lot.
Wind tore at Sunny’s parka as she steered the snow machine open throttle over the ice and snow. The powerful engine roared beneath her, eating its way up the mountain. Carrying her closer to home.
She knew every crest and valley, every stretch of water rolling in the distance, broken up by the ice just starting its melting retreat. Short trees dotted the way ahead, kept from growing any taller by powerful wind surges snapping off the tops. The higher they drove, the less wildlife they saw. And the more she missed the comfort of her dog.
Life was so similar and so radically different all at once.
Wade kept pace alongside her, the path flattening out and widening for at least another five miles, if her memory served. And she knew it did. Even with the sheer drop off to her left, there should be enough width to ride the rest of the way in. She worked with the Everett brothers and their snowplow to keep the route clear for those departing and in case of extreme emergencies.
They’d even prepared for the possibility of the volcanic mountain erupting. But who could ever have foreseen something like this?
With each mile blurring past, Sunny found herself more and more needing the reassurance of Wade’s voice in her ears. Even knowing she should focus on the treacherous landscape, conserve her strength, she couldn’t stop pushing for him to talk. Pushing for a way to strengthen the connection between them. A connection that hadn’t been given a fair chance or time to solidify.
She stole a quick glance at him keeping a steady pace beside her. “How do your stitches feel?”
“Not a problem.”
The helmet mics delivered crisp sound, the nuances of Wade’s clipped tone coming through loud and clear.
“Would you even tell me?”
“There’s nothing to know.”
Right. He would probably keep his mouth shut and her first sign would be blood seeping through his parka.
She surged ahead, guiding him into a turn, snow spitting behind them. “You’re taking this military hero stuff pretty far. Do you spend all your free time helping damsels in distress?”
“What can I say?” his voice rumbled through. “The call to serve is in my genes.”
And somehow she’d managed to bring them right to the purple-elephant subject between them. Family members and military service.
Well, she’d wanted him to talk, and now was as good a time as any to go there. They might not have another chance. “Your father and your mother both served, right? They’ve retired to Arizona with a pack of photos of the grandkids. Seems like a great choice for their golden years.”
Sounded like a great way to celebrate a life together. She envied them that, especially right now, when she couldn’t even envision what tomorrow might look like with her world ready to fall apart at any second.
He hesitated so long she wondered if he was going to ignore her question altogether.
“Wade?” she asked, sneaking a quick glance at him, big and bold against the expansive blue sky.
“Retirement wasn’t a choice actually.” His voice went huskier, downright gravelly with emotion. “My mom took a medical retirement and my father retired to take care of her.”
The rockier ground jostled her in her seat, surprising her almost as much as his words. “Were you all three on active duty at the same time?”
“It’s not that unusual for two generations to serve at once. Guess you could say I joined the family business.” Darkness tinged his voice, but his driving stayed steady. The man was a brick, steady on, nothing seemed to rattle him.
“Medically retired?” She sifted through his words that left so many unanswered questions. “But I thought you said she worked on medical flights.”
“She did, on C-130s outfitted to be a hospital. She was a med tech. They flew into some hot spots overseas to pick up wounded. She was in a Humvee sent out to stabilize and transport wounded back to the plane. They hit a roadside bomb…” His voice trailed off, each breath heavier, like running a marathon. “She suffered a traumatic brain injury.”
“Oh my God, Wade, I’m so sorry.” She’d read an article about how even if a body stayed intact, the force of the explosion made the brain swell, causing permanent damage. Due to the roadside bombs, so many were coming home in one piece, but not at all whole.
And to think of that happening to Wade’s mother…
She wished she could touch him, comfort him, but hopping over to his snow machine wasn’t exactly an option. “And you feel like you should have been there.”
“We all serve where we’re called to be,” he said starkly, almost like an automaton.
Snow swirled around them from the shifting winds, the powder they kicked up whirling right back toward them like an icy dust cloud.
“But no matter how many mothers, fathers, family members, children you save for others, it’s never enough.” She felt the same responsibility to her brother right now all too well.
“She’s alive, and I know to be grateful for that.”
“And still?” She tightened her grip as the steering tugged left, working to gain traction along the snowy path. The rented machines didn’t handle as smoothly as sleds she’d ridden in the past, but she seemed to have it under control again.
He exhaled so hard the vibration rubbed against her ears.
“My mother shouldn’t have been working that day. She was pulling a shift for a guy with the call sign Seagull. You know why they called him that?” Wade bit out angrily. “Because he was like a Seagull. You damn near had to toss rocks at him to get him to fly. That day, supposedly he had the flu. Third time in a month.”
His frustration, his pain, his anger were all understandable. She agreed, even understanding it must make looking at her, seeing her family, all the more difficult for him.
He eased back on the power to stay alongside of her as she fishtailed again. “Hell, I realize it would have still happened and the pain would have been hell for Seagull’s family, but it was his shift to pull, the duty he signed on for. He cashed the paychecks, accepted the benefits, and then left my mother out there to take his place. My mother out there”—his voice cracked—“and I’m over here.”
“You feel like you should have been the one to help her? Wade, you have to know you can’t be everywhere in the world.” What a heavy load to carry, the life of so many people on his shoulders.
“Saving people is what I do. Seems damn ironic I couldn’t help my own mom.” His breathing came through the headset heavier, emotional.
“Wade, I am so very sorry,” she said again, knowing it could never be enough.
Her grip tightened further, fighting against the whine and drag as she all but willed her machine around a boulder-size chunk of ice that narrowed the path to single file. She shot ahead and left, determined to conquer at least one obstacle in her world where the insurmountable seemed to be piling up faster than she could kick her way through.