He leaned forward to warm his hands in front of the small fire—and get a better view of her face around the panting dog between them. “I’m all ears.”
They had until morning for her to spin her stories. All night. Alone.
Damn, the flickering firelight showed more than her face. The blanket was stretched to the max from being shared by two people and a dog. The edge gaped, giving a clear shot of creamy cleavage.
Who would have thought a freezing, dank cave could have ambiance? His eyes shifted to her mouth, full lips that Hollywood types would pay a bundle for. Although he would bet his left nut that the mouth on this granola girl was 100 percent natural.
Those lips were also moving as she shared more of her so-called truth, so he needed to tune in to her rather than his blood surging south.
“I wasn’t part of that climbing group.” Her braid slid forward over her shoulder, swaying. The sapphire stripe danced like the hottest flames lighting the cave. “I live in Alaska and am a bit of a hermit when I’m not working.”
“You live out here? Alone?”
Her plait kept swaying and swishing. He couldn’t look away from that glistening blue stripe.
“I like time by myself. If I lived in Australia they would call my trips a simple walkabout. Nobody’s going to miss me for a few days, and on the off chance anyone does, they will know I can make it out here on my own.”
He filed that piece of information away. She wasn’t part of the group they’d rescued—that much of her story rang true. Why hadn’t she said so at the start? And it didn’t escape his notice she still hadn’t given her last name.
None of which should matter to him. He’d accomplished what he set out to do. He’d ensured she found shelter through the storm. Another successful day on the job. Another step closer to a Middle East deployment in two weeks. They’d been training hard with mountain exercises in preparation for the rugged and high-altitude terrain of Afghanistan.
Still, Sunny set off alarms in him beyond the sexual draw—which was fierce enough on its own. Could she be a part of something illegal? That would explain her evasiveness. All the more reason to stick to his guns. This mission wasn’t complete until he saw her safely deposited into official hands.
“This isn’t a walkabout kind of place. You know I can’t just leave you here alone. There are rules of safety, and if I leave you here, chances are another rescue group will have to be launched before you make it home.”
“You underestimate me.”
“I’ll be sure not to do that again.”
Her braid swished just shy of a stray ember from the fire. His hand shot out to clasp the plait before it reached the glowing coal.
“Careful,” he warned himself as much as her.
The rope of hair was softer than he’d expected for someone who spent so much time outdoors. He’d thought it would by dry and weather worn. Instead it felt as silky as the parachute he’d lost over the mountainside.
He rubbed his thumb along the woven bumps. Touching her this way, such simple contact, shouldn’t be so powerful, but it was. His body heated with an internal fire blazing higher than the one in front of them.
“Mine.” She grabbed her plait just above his grip and tugged lightly.
“Yes, yours.” Still, he held on. He burned to wrap the braid around his hand and draw her closer. To taste those lying lips of hers.
But he wouldn’t. Couldn’t. “You should get some sleep. I’ll take the first watch, then you can tend the fire while I rest.”
Wordlessly, she stared back at him as he continued to hold her hair. The fire crackled with settling logs, hissing at the damp tinder. He’d spent hundreds of nights with complete strangers in barracks around the world. This shouldn’t be any different. But he couldn’t lie to himself.
She tugged her head lightly. “Thanks. I could use some rest before it’s time to leave. Now if I can have my hair back?”
He opened his fist and the plait slipped against his palm as she pulled away, silk against his chilled skin. He tucked his hands back under the blanket, now wary and turned on. Great.
But damned if he would let anything distract him from his job. The mission was everything to him. He used to be a hardheaded fuckup, right up until the day when he was seventeen, standing on the flight line, pissed off at his mom for making him watch another air show. His dad had been flying in a formation of army helicopters, the same as he’d seen more times than he could count growing up.
Except that time, it had gone all wrong in a blink. One of the choppers crashed in front of all the spectators. In front of him. His mother and sister had started screaming along with everyone else. He hadn’t even known he was running toward the flames until hands tore at him, holding him back.
Someone else’s father had died that day, not his. His father had landed safely minutes later, but Wade changed. He grew up. No longer could he plow through life doing whatever the hell he wanted. Never again would he be forced to stand helplessly at the sidelines.
He was a rescueman now. And like it or not, this woman was his mission tonight.
Even if he closed his eyes after she woke to take her turn at keeping watch, no way in hell was he going to sleep.
Sunny had stared at Wade’s closed eyes for what had to be at least an hour. His breathing was even as he rested his head against his arms crossed on his bent knees, sleeping sitting up. This guy was obviously a pro at catching a nap anywhere, anytime. She’d struggled to get any rest at all, leaning against Chewie.
Wade had apparently learned the skill from his military training. She couldn’t sit that still even when she was awake. Her brother had told her once that a fifteen-minute nap in flight could be a matter of life or death.
One more check of Wade’s breathing, and she decided to make her move. The sun was just starting to splinter the inky sky. He would wake soon.
It was now or never.
She rested her hand softly on Chewie and signaled for him to stay quiet and still. One careful step at a time, she eased out from under the blanket and into the frigid cave. She shivered at the slap of cold air after the warm cocoon they’d created.
The fire had burned down to a few glowing coals that radiated little heat or light. Rays fingering through the opening gave her just enough illumination to gather her clothes, ease each piece on one leg, one arm at a time. She tiptoed back over to Wade and inched the blanket off Chewie.
God, this was trickier than she’d thought, tucking it against his side before he noticed the canine furnace move away. Wade shuffled, his breathing hitching once, twice, before he settled back to sleep again. Hopefully he was out for the count. She couldn’t risk him following her to her home and learning about her brother. And if she went with Wade back to the outside world, authorities could make the connection between her and her brother. This was the easiest way.
Wriggling her toes in her dry but stiff wool socks, she stuffed her feet into her boots and motioned for Chewie to join her. Once they made it out the cave door and melted into the mountainside, it would be impossible for Wade to find her again.
While she had a birth certificate, a social security number, she didn’t have utility bills—and neither did her neighbors. Neither did her brother. There wasn’t any record of her since her family had moved to the self-sustaining community when she was in junior high school.
There was virtually no paper trail to their town. Some came for the more natural style of living. But she knew all too well that others came to hide. Like her brother. She couldn’t let someone she’d only known a few hours make her forget the importance of family loyalty—no matter how compelling that man might be.
If only he would let her just walk away. But this man had come to rescue her off the mountain and she knew he wouldn’t stop until he delivered her lock, stock, and barrel into the military’s custody.
The sun was rising. The storm had passed. The time was now.
She couldn’t resist glancing back for a final look at Wade. His unshaven face sported heavier stubble the same dark shade as his long lashes against his cheeks. Her fingers itched inside her gloves to touch him, test the texture of those lashes the same way he’d obviously lingered over the feel of her hair in his hand last night. She swallowed hard. Damn inconvenient time to find a guy who turned her on, after a three-year dry spell. But delaying would be a frivolous indulgence that would cost her too much. She would not risk losing the chance to say good-bye to her sister.
Steeling her will, she turned away, hand on her dog’s head.
Wade’s question stopped her short.
She looked back sharply. Wade stared back at her, wide awake, his muscles bunched.
Her heart lurched. She glanced around the cave quickly, took in his clothes still drying on rocks and stalagmites. It would cost him at least a couple of minutes to dress and he couldn’t plunge outside in his thermal underwear.
Decision made, she ran.
Okay, more like she plodded and slid and even skated down the snowy path, Chewie loping alongside. She had to get away. She’d told Wade she would be safe. He’d seen her ability to take care of herself. Why couldn’t he accept she could survive out here on her own? She refused to feel guilty for ditching him, but she couldn’t climb on board his military helicopter and answer all their questions.
Questions that could lead them to her brother, lead her brother to a court-martial.
Tears stung her eyes for the first time since she’d seen Wade parachute through the storm. She listened for footsteps behind her, but the huffs of her panting dog filled her ears. How far had she run? She’d lost track and was relying on instincts from years of exploring. But she knew better than to let her attention wander. Something she should have thought of yesterday.
Her foot slipped.
A scream burst past her lips before she could hold it back. She scrambled for balance on a loose rock under a knee-deep bank of snow. Her arms flailed for something to grab hold of, but trees were small, scrubby. Not to mention, few and far between. She landed hard on her hip against an icy boulder. An arctic fox darted out and away. The hackles rose along Chewie’s back.
She rolled to the side and fell on her butt. Snow edged into a gap in her bib overalls where her coat had ridden up. A critical mistake.
Keep moving. Don’t stop. She braced a hand on Chewie’s back, found her balance again, and plowed forward.
Every frozen breath stabbed at her lungs, already hungry for oxygen. She glanced over her shoulder. Wade trekked after her, surefooted and gaining fast. As seasoned as she was navigating this region, he was far more adept.
Most would have given out at this altitude long ago. But not him. She had a serious problem on her hands.
The rocky path narrowed ahead. Yes, she was racing in the opposite direction from the pass that would take her to the valley where she lived, but she refused to lead him to her brother’s doorstep. And if she remembered correctly, there was another cave to duck into a couple of miles away, which in these conditions could mean walking for hours, but she couldn’t dwell on that. Focus instead on the hot springs in the cave ahead, bubbling waters heated from a volcano, which could provide warmth through to her cold core.
Her guilty core.
A stitch started in her side. She forced her feet to move, one in front of the other, even when the stitch turned into a stab. Her legs felt like lead—
Wade tackled her from behind. She slammed into the ground. The weight of him pressing against her back knocked the breath from her. Rock and ice chunks bit into the exposed patches of her face. God, he was solid as a tank.
Chewie’s growl echoed lowly in the distance, but for some reason her dog didn’t lend a helping paw. The traitor.
“Let me go, damn it.” She bucked underneath him, desperate for air and freedom. “I’m not your prisoner. You can’t force me to stay here with you.”