Authors: Catherine Mann
Climbing group, from California? He must think she was a part of some other group.
Relief burned through her like frostbitten limbs coming to life again. He didn’t know about Ted and Madison or the sheriff’s deputy, and he had no idea at all why she was really out here today.
She couldn’t afford—her relatives back in their community couldn’t afford—a single misstep. There were careful procedures for people who left, methods to protect their location.
“I’ve had better survival training than the average person.”
And she would need every bit of that training to ditch this hulking big military savior when the time came to escape.
He’d risked his neck for a woman who could teach a survival course at the base.
Wade jabbed a stick into the small fire, stoking it to life. Tough to believe a half hour ago he’d jumped out of an MH-60 with the intent of saving her. Crackling flames created a bowl of warmth and light in their little eight-by-eight cave. Damp logs weren’t ideal. They smoked thicker and reeked. But bits of bark and tinder they’d collected off the earthen floor worked.
At least they didn’t have to worry about snakes in Alaska—no reptiles, period, because of the cold.
She—whatever her name was—knelt beside her big old dog, brushing icicles from the mutt’s fur. He would have offered a hand, but she didn’t appear to need his help on any level. He couldn’t help but be fascinated by her skills and poise in a situation that would scare the pants off most people.
Too bad they hadn’t found her before the storm picked up speed and limited their options for extraction.
His other team members had loaded up the stranded climbers. He’d thought he was in the clear for finding his bunk. Then the infrared cameras had shown another person moving nearby.
They’d tried to get information out of the four rescued men, but they were nearly unconscious and completely incoherent. Franco and McCabe had their hands full administering first aid. There hadn’t been more than a second to decide if that additional warm body on the screen was human or not.
A second was all he needed.
Even the slim chance another person was alone and defenseless down there meant he had to try. With the worsening storm, rescue options had been slim.
Seconds after he’d parachuted in to rescue her,
to this fissure in the mountain wall, with sure and expert footing. Their Alaskan grotto wasn’t exactly the Anchorage Hilton, but it beat the time he would spend freezing his tail off, carving out a tiny snow igloo.
So now he would hang out alone with this silently efficient woman for the night, possibly longer if the storm didn’t lift. The time would pass a lot faster if she spoke. But tension radiated off her in waves thicker than the black smoke spiraling toward the cave’s opening.
Granted, they were total strangers forced into close proximity. It was one thing to spend the night protecting an exhausted victim. Another entirely to bunk down with a healthy female who didn’t need anything from him. The long, dark hours stretched in front of him. Awkward as hell if something didn’t break the tension.
The stick in his hand glowed. He held it over his head like a lighter.
“‘Free Bird,’ ‘Free Bird…’” He chanted the concert mantra, thinking back to his partying teenage years.
“Pardon?” She glanced at him over her shoulder with blank eyes.
Hazel eyes that shifted from dark brown to golden green in the firelight. A
sharp—unwelcome—jolt of anticipation stabbed through him at the thought of seeing more of her.
He pitched the stick back into the flames. “‘Free Bird.’ The song. If you hold up a lighter and request the song, it’s concert code for an encore… Okay, never mind. Explaining a joke doesn’t work.”
“That’s what I hear.” She gave him a small, obligatory smile.
Standing, she shrugged out of her yellow and black parka and shook the melting snow free with efficient snaps of the wrist. She spread the coat out flat near the fire to dry, dropping her ski mask alongside. Behind her, the mouth of the cave was an opaque sheet of swirling dark, as if they’d been sucked into a black hole. Just the two of them. And her dog.
And her survival knife, which he’d noticed she never once let out of reach.
She tugged a long braid from the bib of her snow pants. Now that he looked closer, she was younger than he’d initially thought, somewhere in her twenties. Younger than his own twenty-eight. The thick snow and her confidence in such an extreme setting must have led him to jump to conclusions. The wrong ones.
He’d expected her to be tougher, more muscular, rather than a thin and wiry gymnast sort. Her face was pale and narrow with creamy skin and a full mouth that didn’t need lipstick to draw his attention. The dim firelight glinted off a long, sapphire blue streak through her brown hair.
Not what he’d expected at all.
“My name’s Wade.” And he should start ditching his gear to dry too. Should. Would.
“And you are?” he asked. Not that she answered. She just kept her back to him as she unzipped her black snow pants, revealing… a hot pink wind suit? Now that was another surprise.
He shrugged out of his parka and draped it over his survival pack. “I thought we should at least know each other’s names before we strip out of these wet clothes.”
“I promise not to so much as peek.” She peeled the outer gear past her bulky boots.
Holy crap, those legs of hers went on forever and ever. He looked away. “Just trying to make some chitchat to pass the time.”
“People who come to this part of Alaska aren’t here for the conversation.” Draping her clothes, she drifted into his sight line again.
“You have a valid point. Talk about a last-frontier kind of place. I can see the appeal of a getting away from it all for vacation.” Except now that he looked closer at her, he wondered if perhaps she had some Inuit heritage… or in this region of Alaska, perhaps Aleut or Yupik.
Maybe she’d come from California because of a family tie? His curiosity was piqued.
And yeah, it had something to do with her legs in pink track pants and that funky sapphire stripe in her braid.
What other surprises did she have bottled up inside that killer body of hers? “I’m not asking for a birth certificate or blood type. Just your name.”
“Excuse me for being concerned about survival rather than niceties.” She tugged off her boots and pulled the liners out to dry.
She was carrying this avoidance a bit far.
Unease shifted inside him. He wished the airwaves were clearer so he could radio back to the base, ask some questions about the mystery woman. But he wouldn’t get a clear signal up here until the storm passed.
At least the GPS was working. “You’re surprisingly calm.”
“Panic is a waste of valuable energy stores. As are tender sensibilities. We both should strip down to our underwear and let any perspiration on our clothing dry.”
She unzipped her pink shirt, revealing gray thermal, which went up and off too. Leaving a body-hugging synthetic Under Armour that clearly outlined lush breasts in a sports bra. Then she peeled away her pants and thermals, revealing silky leggings that left zippo to the imagination, God help him.
His mouth dried up. His hands went on autopilot, adding his gloves to the drying gear.
Yeah, he was all about the rescue. He was a professional. But he was also male. And breathing. And wondering what she wore on the bottom. His polypro long johns weren’t going to make for much cover if he stared at her any longer.
“Yeah?” He looked away and draped his wool socks over a pair of stalagmites.
“I have a blanket in my pack. I assume you have one in yours. We should double up and share.” She clipped out orders like a drill sergeant. “And don’t worry. Your virtue is safe with me.”
“Thanks.” An unexpected smile curved his mouth. Ms. Drill Sergeant had a sense of humor. Who would have thought that? “We can sit on your blanket and wrap up in mine.”
“Actually”—she folded her blanket in half and draped it on the ground—“we should sit on either side of Chewie. He’s a furnace and a mighty protector of virtue.”
Sitting, she whistled once and Chewie lumbered over from his perch by the opening. The dog settled on his haunches beside her.
Wade eyed the alert canine cautiously as he dropped down beside the hairy beast. “It’s not my virtue I’m concerned about.”
“Don’t tell me you’re a cat person.” She reached past to secure the crackling blanket around her shoulders with a shiver.
Warmth from Chewie began to heat up their cocoon. His toes started to burn as
circulation sped up, reminding him how not funny, not sexy, this night was. Well trained or not, he couldn’t afford distraction. Having her turn out to be so competent surprised him. And surprise wasn’t good. Her evasiveness began to set off alarms in his head.
He slid a hand free and tossed a small branch onto the fire—their tinder was limited. He didn’t want to start from scratch again. “You weren’t even winded out there. Most people who come here don’t even make it up this far. Work out much?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.” Her head lolled against her dog. “I run a, um, gym.”
“And where’s that gym in California?”
Her mouth snapped shut, her teeth clicking.
“You act like a local, and you have your dog with you. Most everyday folks don’t travel here with their pets.” The pieces began to come together in his mind. He’d probably pissed her off with his assumption she was a part of the group. “I’ll bet you’re a guide rather than a tourist.”
Looking away, she fished in her pack and pulled out a granola bar that appeared
homemade. “You’re a regular detective. Maybe I should just stay quiet and you can guess. Yes, in fact, I think that’s a great way to pass the time.”
“Under one condition.”
“That’s rich, considering I don’t have to tell you anything.”
Something was off about this whole discussion. As a teen, he’d quibbled often enough, and his military parents had seen right through it most of the time, not that he’d cleaned up his act until life smacked him upside the head. He’d been hardheaded back in those days too.
Still, he couldn’t pinpoint exactly what about this woman didn’t ring true. His brain must be numbed by the altitude—or testosterone. “I risked my ass to save your life. You can toss me a bone here. At least tell me what I should call you.”
She hesitated for an instant, almost imperceptible. Almost. Her fist clenched around the unopened granola bar. “My name is Sunny.”
“Sunny, huh?” Ironic, given her dark and evasive ways. Pointing that out would be counterproductive. He accepted the victory, even if she hadn’t supplied a last name. “So, Sunny, back to that whole ‘Free Bird’ joke of mine, are you not a big concertgoer or am I just that much older than you?”
And why did he want to know her age? Maybe because he didn’t want to find out he was hanging out under a blanket nearly naked with a teenager—who happened to also be a mountain guide.
“I’m twenty-seven,” she answered simply.
An adult. Thank God. “Chewie’s an interesting name choice. Should I keep my boots out of his reach?”
“Actually, he’s named for Chewbacca in
.” She combed her fingers through the dog’s coat. “Steven Spielberg patterned Chewbacca’s vocalizing after his malamute. Mine’s an Alaskan malamute and Siberian husky mix, and I can hear it every time he ‘talks.’”
“My boots are safe then.”
Chewie “answered” with a garbled howl.
So she wasn’t into concerts but enjoyed old movies. Interesting.
Sunny peeled away the wrapping on a second granola bar. “Here. My hand should have thawed it some by now. It’s full of peanut butter, so if you have a nut allergy…”
“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.