“I don’t. And I’ve eaten rabbit eyeballs and bugs, which were only marginally worse than the MRE—meal ready to eat—I have packed away in my gear. This will be manna from a goddess.” He also had glucose tablets and protein bars, but he would save those for later. He trusted his rationing skills better than those of this woman he didn’t know.
She passed one to him. “Rabbit eyeballs and bugs? Interesting. And gross. We can definitely save your MRE for later, if we absolutely need it. Tell me more about yourself.”
The storm howled outside while he thought about her none-too-subtle attempt to change the subject. He chewed the homemade granola—not bad, although it could benefit from some chocolate and marshmallows. No harm in telling her why he was here today. It would be a cold-ass, long night if neither one of them talked.
“I’m a pararescueman with the Unites States Air Force. You may have heard the job referred to as a PJ, since we used to be called parajumpers.”
“I’ve heard of it, and I guess the job title says it all, with the rescue part.” She stared over her peanut butter snack solemnly. “And in case I haven’t said so yet, thanks for risking your life for me.”
“Even if you didn’t need saving.” He could be sacked out in his apartment right now instead of quizzing an evasive woman he didn’t have time to date anyway. Besides, if he had this much trouble prying her first name out of her, a phone number was likely out of the question.
“Do you have a husband? Maybe he was with you today?” That would explain a lot about her standoffish attitude. He should have thought of it before now.
“I’m not married.”
Okay then. He’d pushed for her age and her marital status. He wasn’t fooling anyone, not even himself. She was hot and he was interested in learning more about her, not just to pass the time.
“What happened to separate you from your climbing group?”
Sunny hesitated for a second too long and she knew it.
She should have had an answer ready, but she’d allowed herself to be soothed by the rumble of his voice, a raw sort of sound, as if someone had taken sandpaper to his throat. Unique. Not some generic broadcaster’s type, but rather the weather-worn timbre of a man who spent most of his time outdoors in rough and untamed places.
Or up late in someone’s bed.
Damn. She shifted under the blanket, too aware of the crinkly coverlet against her nearly bare skin already tingling to life again. She almost blurted how the sorta-afghan felt so different, so alien in comparison to the organic fabrics she was accustomed to.
She should just go to sleep rather than risk saying anything more that could reveal the existence of her community or her reason for being out today. Thank God she’d already made the transfer with the sheriff’s deputy. Her two charges would be safely away by now. Unlike her.
The real answer to Wade’s question about why she’d been stuck out here? She’d let her emotions get the better of her and indulged in a useless crying jag. Frozen tears had wasted time, costing her precious seconds, which left her here rather than at home in her ordinary, happy loft apartment over her survival guide business.
Happy for how much longer? The fabric of her community, of her family, was fraying faster than the fire ate up the tiny pile of timber.
For the past two years, she’d escorted people off the mountain, people who’d appealed to the town council to leave their small off-the-grid community. Theirs wasn’t a cult. People could go.
They just couldn’t return or discuss where they’d been. Residents of their little town valued privacy.
For the most part, they were self-sustaining. Wild game and fish were plentiful. Every house had a portion devoted to growing fresh foods in a tiny solar-powered greenhouse. They shared, which usually worked well. Other than the winter where somehow they’d ended up with more canned salsa than anything else.
Money wasn’t needed often, but when necessary it came in an assortment of ways over the years—from selling Internet articles to savvy stock market investments that supported green living. Funds went right back into bringing supplies to the community, most of the time with her leading the way for the transference of goods.
And if the council gave the thumbs-up? Her next guide trek would be for her sister’s departure. She and the rest of her family would never see Misty again.
Sunny bit her lip hard. She’d let her selfish grief distract her once already today. She scrambled for a simple explanation that would fit what Wade already assumed about her being a part of the climbing group his PJ team had rescued, while still covering her butt if he later learned she wasn’t connected at all.
“The snowstorm hit out of nowhere. It’s easy to get disoriented.” That much at least was the truth. “Tell me more about your job.”
And stop asking about her life. Helping her forget the fact that they were both nearly naked under this blanket would be nice as well.
He eyed her over the top of Chewie’s head, his cocked eyebrow making it clear he wasn’t buying her diversion for a second. And it hit her.
Wade was a good-looking guy. His shoulders stretched the blanket they shared with Chewie between them. The thermal underwear he wore didn’t leave much to the imagination. She’d seen hard bodies making use of her workout equipment, but this guy had pumped muscles that couldn’t be earned with free weights. He was in prime condition, honed to the max.
As if God hadn’t already gifted him with enough, Wade had the face of a fallen angel—black hair, dark stubble. Even his nose was long, straight, and perfect.
Apparently he’d never lost a bar fight.
She swallowed down a lump of granola bar and passed him the rest. “Really, I want to know about your job. What pushes a guy to jump out of an airplane into a blizzard? And by the way, how do you learn to do that?”
Eyeing her over the dog’s head, he bit off a chunk and passed the nutrition bar back. “We do basically the same training as SEALs, plus we’re also trained medics. Our focus is on rescue, military and civilian, in any situation.”
It sounded exciting and studly and altruistic, all rolled up into one. She couldn’t help but wonder how her brother’s life might have been different if he could have been a part of this arm of the military instead…
She shoved away the thought she wasn’t even allowed to think, much less say. “What do you mean by ‘any situation’?”
“We rescue downed pilots in a war zone. We jump into the ocean to assist astronauts’ landings. We work with SWAT teams, the FBI, and such, providing medic support during their training exercises.”
“Not as bad as jumping into a minefield, like my buddy did last year.”
“My pal Franco was dropped onto a mountain in Afghanistan to rescue a Green Beret with his legs blown off in a minefield. We couldn’t risk the rotor wash of a landing helicopter setting off another mine that would take out the whole aircraft and everyone in it. So Franco parachuted in alone. He used his medic training to secure the patient, then the helicopter hoisted them both up.” He shook his head. “He didn’t even break a sweat.”
She considered herself pretty fearless after numerous treks around the mountain alone. She taught courses in survival and wilderness trekking. Yet even thinking about what he described sent her stomach freefalling.
The fact that he told a hero story about his friend rather than bragging on himself impressed her all the more. “Do you and your buddies try stuff like that on a regular basis?”
“It’s a kick-ass rewarding job with a kick-ass high,” he said dismissively. “What made you come to Alaska?”
The laser focus of his coal black eyes told her he hadn’t been fooled by her diversionary questions for even a second. Once he got off this mountain, he would learn there wasn’t an unaccounted-for woman in the climbing team. She certainly didn’t want to leave him with so many unanswered questions that he started poking around.
If he did, she wanted him to be looking in the wrong direction, to protect the community’s location. And most important of all, to protect her brother’s identity.
“Guess I should come clean with you.”
It was a clean kill.
Flat on his belly, he adjusted the arctic adapter over his NVGs for a better look at Sunny and her military rescuer. Tough to do in this storm, even with the high-tech gear. But he needed to monitor them from the cover of the tiny snow igloo he’d carved out after offing Ted and Madison.
He didn’t want to kill Sunny and the guy as well—unless he had to. It was one thing to take out a couple no one would report missing. Even Sunny’s death could be hidden, since nobody in the outside world would miss her.
However, it was another thing entirely to murder a member of the military who couldn’t so much as go on vacation without permission. The big guy’s disappearance would bring on a full-scale search party where there were too many secrets dumped down the fissures and crevasses of Mount Redoubt. But these next five days were crucial to his mission. Five days until the big payoff for his real boss over on Bristol Bay. Five days until some of that payoff came his way, more money than he was making at the sheriff’s department, and a helluva lot more than he ever could have dreamed of making as a cop writing speeding tickets in backwoods Oklahoma.
Sunny and her “savior” seemed occupied for the moment, hunkered down with the dog between them. His fists clenched around his NVGs.
He really hated her f**king dog.
The beast had never so much as growled at him. But he could see in that canine’s creepy almond-shaped eyes—one blue and one brown—how much it wanted to go for his jugular. Someday, he would take care of that freaky beast for good.
Content Sunny wasn’t going anywhere for now, he sank back on his haunches and pulled off his NVGs. Might as well make the most of his time tonight and take care of some clean-up.
He scooped his hunting knife off the ground and swiped the jagged blade through the snow. Blood stained rusty red through the slush. At least this landscape made for a more forgiving killing field than most. Blizzards, combined with repeated thaws and freezes, dispersed evidence. Already, snowflakes muted the splashes from crimson to muddy brown.
Rushing to get back into the pit he’d carved for himself in the snow, he dried the blade that had sliced through flesh just an hour ago. He’d slashed Ted’s neck first, taking out the stronger of the two. Madison had fought harder than he’d expected. If she’d been his first kill, she might have actually hurt him.
Instead he’d used the tools at his disposal, sliced her up quickly, then pushed her into a deep crevasse. Her screams had been swallowed by the howling roar of the storm. He’d pitched Ted’s body in after hers.
He should have been back at the police station by now, but the storm had trapped him as effectively as it had Sunny. Right now, survival was all that counted. He needed to swap out and hide his bloody clothes before they froze to him. Nobody would come looking for him. He knew the rules. He’d signed on with a secret society of his own that shot deserters. No trial. No questions asked. And his assignment had shifted, once that military guy parachuted into the picture.
Now, he needed to make sure Sunny stayed true to her society’s rules and returned to where she’d come from, none the wiser about her friends’ fate. She could live a little longer, as long as she stayed on Mount Redoubt and played her part in keeping secrets.
But under no circumstance would she be allowed to leave this mountain alive.
Wade was a skeptic.
When somebody said they were going to come clean, that usually meant they were about to lie again. So Sunny’s vow to share all now—well, he wasn’t feeling it.