Authors: Catherine Mann
Wade pushed to his feet, buttoning the cuffs on his uniform. “That would be me.”
“The lady from the mountain, Sunny Foster, she’s asking for you.”
Whistles and wolf calls came from his buds, but he didn’t even rise to the bait. He was too focused on what the airman had said.
Funny how one word could change everything. Her name was Sunny Foster. Apparently the pimply faced airman had better luck getting her to talk than he had.
Of course now that the authorities were involved, her secretiveness would have to come to an end. A good thing. Except he could only think of the flash of terror in her eyes he’d seen, once she was inside the helicopter. Only a quick moment of vulnerability, but he hadn’t doubted what he saw. He didn’t know why, but he knew he couldn’t leave her alone and defenseless.
The urge to protect powered his feet double time across the tiled floor.
As Sunny waited in the small conference room, walls lined with framed lithographs of military aircraft throughout the years, the full impact of her situation washed over her.
She was at least six hundred miles from home. She had no clothes. No money. No way to contact her family, other than the Internet. And she couldn’t leave without Chewie, who was currently being looked over by the base vet who took care of military dogs.
Even her clothes were borrowed, jeans and a sweater loaned to her by a female clerk in the squadron who was close to the same size. The jeans fit, although the sweater was snugger than she was accustomed to. Homesickness enveloped her like the track suits she wore to work.
She missed her home, her job, her routine. Most of all she missed her family.
They must be freaking-out worried by now, especially Misty. And there wasn’t a thing she could do about it.
Sunny tugged the lip balm from her pocket—yet another thing she’d had to accept for free—and slicked it across her cracked, dry lips. God, it sucked to be so at the mercy of others.
She was an independent businesswoman in her community. None of which apparently meant a thing outside her boundaries. Now she had to figure out how to get back, a logistical conundrum.
It wasn’t as if she could say, “Hey, could I hitch a helicopter ride back home?”
Round and round she turned her Styrofoam cup of coffee on the table in front of her. A dozen black office chairs—the kind that spun—were placed around the table, all empty except for the one she sat in. Waiting.
A computer sat on a lectern and a telecon screen hung from the ceiling, but they weren’t any good to her with their blank screens, certain to have security codes.
The door clicked, giving a second’s warning someone was about to enter. Spinning her chair toward the entrance, she held her breath, not sure what to expect from this evening. She’d asked to see Wade…
And there he was, filling the doorway with his familiar broad shoulders and indomitable will. But Wade also looked different, more unreachable. It had to be the uniform, because his eyes were the same.
He wore camouflage pants tucked into combat boots, a maroon beret tucked in his thigh pocket. His hair was shorter than she’d realized before, but then he’d worn his hood most of the time. And he was clean shaven now. He’d been magnetic, virile, commanding during their survival trek, but now she saw—holy crap—he was poster boy handsome.
A lean face with strong cheekbones, perfectly sculpted like some hard-as-stone statue.
Yet his perfection was offset with just the right masculine rough edges, his windburned skin, even his callused hands, gave him the appeal of a man who could protect, survive.
Her eyes settled on his mouth, chapped like hers, yet somehow that hadn’t hampered him in the least when he’d kissed her on the mountain. The time seemed so surreal now, a world away.
The air went heavy and awkward. She hated feeling out of her element. She searched his face for signs that he might be downplaying his injury, the memory of all that blood still too fresh in her mind. Dark circles marked under his eyes, but other than that he seemed steady, focused. On her.
She gripped the arms of her chair. “How’s your shoulder?”
“Sore, but livable.” He wheeled out a chair and sat beside her. “I won’t be jumping out of planes for a while, but I should be back to work in the field in a week or so.”
“Good, I’m glad to hear that.” Her fingers itched to touch him, just his knee, so close to hers. “I wouldn’t want you to suffer because of me.”
“I’m just glad that deputy is a crappy shot.” A smile crinkled the corners of his intense brown eyes.
“The day could have ended so much worse.” She tugged at the hem of her sweater,
swamped with memories of what it had been like in the cold and snow with Wade lying on top of her. Praying they would make it out of there alive.
She shook off the wave of intense feelings, focusing on more practical concerns. “About tomorrow… I need some help in figuring out how I’m going to get back home.”
“Major McCabe is looking into that now. It may take a few days to find a mission already slated to go to that region, but once we do, we can put you on the aircraft. You’ll just need someone to pick you up. Or you can arrange for private transportation faster. Your call.”
Leave tomorrow or wait around for days? Days when her sister could be planning to leave. “I think I need to look into those speedier arrangements. And what about that deputy who shot at us?”
“Authorities here have notified the sheriff there, his boss. They’re already sending a scouting party for him and the bodies. They’ll want to take your statement over the phone today before you leave.”
“Of course. Whenever they’re ready.” She struggled to push aside years of suspicions hammered into her head, the mantra repeated by her parents to be careful who she trusted. There were people out there who would shut down their community if they could, would take away their home and shuffle them back to a more congested area where it was “easier” to track their activities. But what other option did she have if she wanted justice for Madison and Ted than to talk now?
“Afterward, I can help you make arrangements to fly home.” Wade continued, “I could drive you to an airport.”
Now wouldn’t that have made things easier? Too bad there would be no record of her existence in any bank in the world, let alone access to a credit account. “I was only planning to go on a mountain hike. There aren’t exactly any places that call for a MasterCard or Visa there.
And my family doesn’t have reliable phone service. Um, sorry, but where I live is pretty remote.”
“As are a lot of places in Alaska.” He leaned back in the chair, watching her as if waiting for her to say more. When she didn’t, he continued, “So? What’s the plan?”
“I don’t know,” she finally admitted. “I don’t know who to trust and what’s the right decision.”
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean.”
“I’m sorry.” She shook her head, sweeping her hair back, the length still damp from her shower.
His eyes tracked her, stayed on her hair. She forced her hands back to her lap.
“Can I trust you?”
“I don’t know. Can you? On the one hand, I did save your life. And on the other, I’m a guy you’ve just met.”
Somehow the way he left the decision up to her put her more at ease. “For now you’re a better option than some folks I’ve known a lot longer.”
Like the deputy who’d played duck shoot with them earlier. My God, she needed to warn so many people in her community who trusted that man.
“It would help if you told me what you’re talking about.” He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, muscular arms straining the sleeves of his uniform.
She stared into Wade’s eyes, the same steady gaze that had gotten her safely off a mountain and away from a madman. Taking a deep breath, steadying herself, she needed to reach out to him again if she wanted any chance of warning her sister.
“Call me a paranoid, off-the-grid kook who sees conspiracy theories everywhere, but I just can’t shake the weird feeling that the deputy’s actions have to be a part of something bigger.” She didn’t trust the local sheriff’s department now, not when she knew how many friends Rand had back home. The corruption had to go deeper. And if it did, the military’s phone call to his boss wasn’t going to save Misty. “Otherwise it just doesn’t make sense for him to kill two people.”
She hoped he wouldn’t think she was crazy. She needed him to believe her. And sitting so close to him and confiding her deepest fears, she realized she needed
. All those raw feelings he’d stirred inside her back on the mountain came roaring to life again now, like frostbitten toes recovering sensation with a vengeance.
“He could have had the hots for the woman.” His shoulders shrugged, his chair nudging closer until she could almost feel the body heat radiating off him. “It could have been an assault situation gone over the edge. Then he came after us because we found the bodies. He was probably trapped out there in the storm the same way we were.”
“That all makes sense, I guess.” She held ultrastill. A move away could well relay how much his presence affected her, and she wasn’t sure if she wanted to take that step or not.
“Actually, I didn’t come up with the theory myself. That’s what his boss seems to think happened. Apparently Rand Smith had been talking about the woman around work for quite a while.”
Could be, but it still felt… off. She’d been with Ted and Madison when they’d met with the deputy and she hadn’t gotten that vibe at all. Of course nothing felt normal right now, and Wade’s presence scrambled her already shaky senses. “I should give my statement while things are still fresh in my mind—and before I pass out. Are they coming in here or do I go somewhere?”
“You’ll call from here. It’ll be a video-con, so it will be like a regular face-to-face interview.”
She drew in a shaky breath. “Okay, I can handle that.”
“Afterward, I’ll make sure they give you quarters to stay in for the night.” He reached into his pocket. “You’ll need some cash for incidentals.”
“No!” She placed a hand on his arm. A jolt of awareness sparked up her fingertips, tingling all the way into her arms. Ignoring him wasn’t working, but that didn’t mean she would lose sight of what she needed to accomplish tonight. “Can we please just go somewhere else?”
His body tensed. Their eyes locked. Heat spiked in the room. Or was it just in her bloodstream?
“Honestly, after all I’ve been through recently, I really don’t want to stay here alone.”
She tried to think of a reason why she wouldn’t take the offer of a free room just because it happened to be on a military base that totally freaked her out. She downplayed it with “Gotta confess, the base is rather overwhelming. I’ve had a scary couple of days and thought… Maybe I could stay at a hotel. I’ll pay you back with interest. But I need to get off base. All the noise and people are like a steamroller to my senses when I’m used to the closest neighbor being a mile away.”
He shook his head. “Those close-by people also bring security, and until I know what the hell was going on with Deputy Smith, I’m not going to feel comfortable with you out there unprotected.”
“How about I stay with you then,” she blurted in desperation.
His eyes blinked wide for a second before his expression went neutral. “How do you know I don’t live here on base?”
“You’re not married, so you can’t have one of the base houses… Well, unless you’re a Catholic chaplain—then you could live on base alone.” She couldn’t help but grin. “Are you a priest?”
“Not by a long shot.” Leaning back in his chair, he folded his hands over his chest, his smile a hint wicked.
Heat singed her ears. “Didn’t think so.” God, she liked his smile. “And since you’re not a freshly recruited E1 airman, you can’t live in the airman’s dorms. So I can only conclude you do not live on station. Have I covered everything?”
“You know a lot about base life.”
Her insides chilled. Why was it so easy to lower her guard around this guy? She would do well to remember that around him, and without question, he was her best bet for a ticket off this base until she could figure out what to do next. So she needed to rein in the rogue attraction where he was concerned. “I had an uncle in the service. So can I stay at your place or not? I saved your butt on that mountain, after all, by showing you that cave.”
“And I saved your butt when the guy was shooting.”
“That you did.”
He angled forward again, so close she thought for a second he was going to kiss her.
Which would only complicate things.
“I didn’t mean—”
“I know,” he said simply. “Yes, you can stay at my place if you wish. It’s small, but there’s a bed and a sofa.”
A sigh shuddered through her long and hard, her relief almost overriding her body’s reaction to watching his lips wrap around the word
. One hurdle taken care of. And if she could keep her wits about her, she had a place to stay and access to a computer that was less likely to be monitored. And although that kiss still hovered unspoken in the air between them, he’d offered a sofa rather than assuming she wanted to jump in bed with him.
Now if she could only be so sure she could hold strong against sliding into the comfort of his arms to calm her soul and fears.
Brett fought the urge to fling his BlackBerry across the room, smack between the eyes of the mounted reindeer head.
How in the hell had that deputy—Rand Smith—screwed up so completely? It was such a simple job. Take out two people with an entire, deserted wasteland to dispose of the bodies. He’d thought having someone from the local police department on his payroll would make things easier, not harder.
Pacing, Brett restored order to his office, to his world. He dropped a stray pen into the pewter holder, thumbed a fingerprint from a glass whale paperweight his wife had given him to commemorate their fifteenth anniversary. Everything he did was for her, and had been since the day he fell hard and fast for the flame-haired, fiery-tempered woman on a charter fishing boat.