He shot a quick glance at Franco, suited up now as were the two pilots. Those suits were crucial gear when flying over the life-sapping cold waters of the Bering Sea. Without the suits, someone in the water would be dead within just a couple of minutes.
Sunny would be dead.
Never had the speed of his mission been more important.
“Ready in front. How’re we doing in back?” crackled over Wade’s helmet.
Franco nodded, eyes a little crazier today than normal, but Wade welcomed that edginess now more than ever.
He shot a thumbs-up to the pilots and replied, “Ready in back.”
The pilots turned their attention to starting engines, running a checklist in a professional call-and-response manner that always seemed to bring Wade into the zone. The singsong of the pilots focused him in on the mission ahead. Finally the rotors began to turn, the grinding whine growing louder, faster.
The copilot called for clearance to take off and track down the fleeing fishing boat. The chopper rotors whomp, whomp, whomped overhead in a deafening drumbeat as they flew out over the icy bay. Wind roared beyond the open side hatch, snow flurries picking up speed, a storm brewing.
The chopper banked hard and fast, flying balls-out toward the open bay. With the boat hauling ass, they could be out in the Bering Sea all too soon. The Coast Guard had been alerted, but would be at least five minutes behind them in responding. Minutes were everything in this climate.
He and Franco were Sunny’s best chance of coming out alive.
The copilot began tweaking the radar to spot boats. “I would say that we look for a boat going mach-snot and perform a close flyby to see if we can identify it. But extra eyes are welcome.”
Wade didn’t need to be told that one twice. He sensed Franco sliding into place as well. They’d worked as a team for so long, he didn’t even need to check.
“Moving over twenty-five knots.” The copilot’s voice piped low and calm over the air waves. His New England accent growing thicker betrayed the only sign of any nerves. “Let’s give him a look-see first. Come thirty degrees right, target is about three minutes out.”
Less time than a damn commercial break, but in waters like these, that was more than enough time to freeze to death.
Wade craned his neck to search out the starboard-door window. He kept his eyes trained on a speck speeding away in the distance, weaving a reckless hell-bent path around floating segments of ice, some bigger than the boat itself. Hand locked around a handle bolted by the door, he got the okay to open the hatch and swung out farther into the whipping wind for a better look. God, why had he been such a jackass to waste time with her, fighting? It wasn’t as if he’d accomplished a damn thing. He wasn’t going to change her. In fact, he’d only succeeded in pushing her away from him when, if anything, they should have been sticking closer together.
But then the last thing she’d wanted was his protection. Well, after this, he couldn’t imagine letting her out of his sight. Which would be damn tricky once he was in Afghanistan.
Clear the brain of distracting thoughts. Focus on the mission.
His headset hummed to life. “Target in the camera,” the copilot barked. “Target in the camera. I have our boat in sight. And—what the hell? It’s not moving.”
The implications of “not moving” were like a sledgehammer on Wade’s back.
Swinging back into the chopper, Wade launched himself through the hold and behind the pilots. Eyes narrowing, he scoured the radar display, scrambling for every detail he could find, anything that would help him haul Sunny out of this alive.
He braced his hands hard against the pilots’ seats to keep from shaking. He watched the radar, desperate for any sign of life on that boat. The airwaves went silent, the helicopter flying closer, the image growing clearer, larger, as they neared.
Wade pointed, refusing to believe he could be mistaken. Again, he caught the hint of motion as a person rolled to their knees on the deck, slowly uncurling and standing. Alive.
He looked up through the windscreen as they neared, his view of her clearer. Long dark hair streaked behind the woman. Sunny. It had to be her. Relief nearly took out his knees until he straightened with the infusion of a new sense of purpose because he would save her.
Hang tough. He willed her to hear his thoughts as he charged back into the belly of the chopper, to the open hatch. He would winch down into the boat in another two minutes, tops. If she could just hold on, he and Franco would be there.
As he looked down, she staggered toward the rail of the boat and his gut lurched. No, no, no. If she went in the water she would be dead before the helicopter could get close enough for him to go in after her.
The boat listed left. Sharply. She stumbled again, her feet splashing in pooling water inside the craft.
“Holy shit,” he shouted into his headset. “It’s sinking. We need to get there now.”
Planting his feet on deck, he gripped the handle, leaning farther from the chopper, snow stinging his face. He willed the aircraft to fly faster.
The fishing vessel was taking on water fast, sunlight glinting off the ripples gushing into the craft. Sunny grappled along the rail, her arms flailing toward something he couldn’t make out.
She jumped up and he held his breath, certain she would go tumbling overboard. Her hand connected and she yanked.
A burst of yellow shot away from the boat, a life raft inflating and settling onto the choppy sea. Good God, she was saving herself. She was getting away from the boat and whoever else was on board.
Sunny leaped from the edge, airborne for what felt like an eternity as he watched the life raft tossed about on the churning waves. She landed in the raft, tumbling against the side and almost pitching over. She held fast.
Relief raced through him again along with a ridiculous hint of pride in her fast thinking. God, she was an amazing, strong woman. She wasn’t in the sea. And most importantly, she wasn’t in the sinking boat.
Now, rather than winching down into the sinking boat, he would drop into the water with survival gear, keep her safe from exposure or tipping until they could haul her up.
Wade sank down onto the cabin floor and started to put on his swim fins. “Get the basket on the line. I’ll go out and get her. Franco can lower into the boat with the winch to check for any other survivors.”
“Roger that,” the pilot answered.
Franco keyed up the radio. “Got your back, Brick. Will clear the boat.”
The helicopter began a slow turnaround, nearing the drop site. Sunny waved, clutching with her other hand as the raft kicked up on waves, each swell threatening to pitch her out. Rotor wash pushed the sea into higher swirls as the MH-60 hovered as close as it dared.
Wade pulled his goggles and snorkel on, and stepped back into the open hatch. He sat with his legs dangling out the door, put one hand over his mask, and slipped out of the helicopter. He floated through air for what always felt like the longest glide of his life until abruptly…
Freezing water swallowed him. Actually, freezing didn’t even come close to describing the walls of ice encasing his body. Through his mask, he kept his eyes fixed on the raft above him, the tiny inflatable holding his entire world. That woman had come to mean more to him in a few days than anyone in his life. So much so, he couldn’t imagine his life without her.
Pumping his feet, he surged upward, bubbles streaming past in the murky underwater until… He burst free from the icy clamp of the underworld. He bobbed to the surface and gave a thumbs-up to the helicopter overhead.
Slicing through the sea with stroke after stroke, his body rode waves as he swam. Needing to see her. Hear her. Hold her vibrant, alive body so he could stop the shaking inside him that had started the second he’d learned she was taken.
His palm slapped the edge of the rubber lifeboat and he grabbed hold with his other hand as well. He peered up and found Sunny looking down at him, shivering and drenched, with her lips turning blue, but alive.
“Wade, I can’t believe it’s you.” She grabbed his arms and tugged. “You’re here.”
The raft lurched, nearly pitching her out, rolling water splashing her in the face. Her grip loosened, her legs sliding around on the rubber raft until she nearly tumbled into the churning ice below.
“Let go,” he ordered, “and back to the other side of the raft so I can bring myself in.”
If she got dumped into the water without an antiexposure suit it would be bad, beyond bad. Carefully, as if his life depended on it—and it did, since Sunny’s life was in the balance—he hefted himself into the raft. Her teeth chattering, she wrapped her arms tight around him.
“You’re okay, you’re okay,” he said, more to reassure himself than her, wanting to hang on, rooted in the knowledge that she was alive and whole.
But with regret, he pried her off him. He needed to get her covered.
He unstrapped the survival gear from his back and whipped free the Thinsulate blanket. He held it open just as she fell into his arms. He wrapped her and he gathered her to his chest, against his pounding heart.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a cable from the chopper lowering Franco into the boat. Franco would search while they raised Sunny back up into the helicopter in a metal basket. He would have to let Sunny go, and that was going to damn near rip his heart out when he’d only just got her back, but Franco might need his help.
“Sunny?” He squeezed her gently. “How many people are still in the boat?”
“One man alive, stabbed and t-t-tied up,” she chattered. “T-two dead, he shot them. He shot Astrid and Ryker.” Her hazel eyes turned murky and haunted. “Their bodies are both in the water.”
He ticked through his memories of the people in her community. Ryker was Flynn’s brother. Astrid was her brother’s wife. Innocent victims, or had they been caught up in the bomber’s plan? They must have been, given how unlikely it was for anyone in that community to be here. Now.
What the hell had she been though? “Are you hurt? Do you need medical attention?”
He picked up her hand where he saw blood on it. No wound. Just a long streak up her arm. Under her nails. Dear God, she’d been the one to do the stabbing. He placed his fingers on her wrist to measure her heart rate.
“N-not hurt,” she murmured through her chattering teeth. “J-just possibly going into shock.”
She blinked up at him, eyes wide. And wasn’t that just like her to assess her situation with a cool head even as her pulse slowed, her skin frighteningly pale? But she would be okay. He kissed the top of her head, where icicles formed in her hair.
Sunny burrowed closer, tighter, and he braced his back for a swell to keep the water off her while he waited for the helicopter to return with the basket. Until then, Sunny would be safe with him.
“J-just don’t let go.” She shivered against him. “Please God, don’t ever let me go.”
That was a request he intended to honor with every fiber of his being.
With Flynn standing tall beside her, Misty stared up at the landing helicopter, almost afraid to hope what Lasky had told her could be true. That Sunny was safe, inside that descending military chopper.
Wind from the rotors stirred up a swirling snowstorm as the MH-60 landed in the parking lot. With her sister inside. The pilot had called in the successful rescue to Agent Lasky, but Misty wouldn’t be able to breathe freely until she saw Sunny with her own eyes.
What a difference an hour could make. Her sister had been saved. The bomb had been defused. And the power plant had been declared clear.
Now the authorities would be turning their attention to questioning Brett Livingston, once he got his gut stitched up from the stab wound Sunny inflicted. And they would work to locate and retrieve Astrid and Ryker’s bodies. She slid her hand into Flynn’s. His face was stoic. But she knew him well enough to sense he was shell-shocked and hurting underneath. Her heart ached for him.