Authors: Catherine Mann
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.”
He clamped his hands around her wrists. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing or who you’re running from, but we can’t keep playing this game of freeze tag.”
The hell they couldn’t. She forced herself to go slack beneath him, making the most of the second to catch her breath, to rest up for her next move. “You’re right. It was silly of me to try to get away.”
Holding her breath, she listened to him breathing against her ear. The heat of him seeped into her like a furnace against her back, made all the hotter in contrast to the ice under her stomach. They were out here alone at the ends of the earth. No people. Rocky landscape with sparse, low trees. Nothing but miles of barren horizon stretched over water, with hovering clouds threatening and this exasperating man—a
, exasperating man who had the uncanny knack of pushing her buttons, which pissed her off all the more.
“Listen, Wade,” she gasped, pushing aside the Gore-Tex hood that covered her mouth,
“please just let me leave. I do
want to be rescued.”
“Are you on a suicide mission?” he growled.
“I only want to be left alone.” She wriggled beneath him until she faced him, their bodies sealed chest to chest.
His hand gravitated to his hip—to his sidearm. “Are you running from the law?”
Could she bring herself to take the gun she felt strapped to his leg? She shivered. No.
There had to be another way for her. She couldn’t risk the weapon accidentally going off. She couldn’t risk shooting him. He hadn’t done anything wrong, only tried to save her.
She thumped his shoulders, once, twice, and again even harder until finally he let her slide out from under him. Not that he took his hard, wary eyes off her for even a second.
Sitting, Sunny dusted off her snow pants. “I am
“Does someone think you are?” he snapped back.
She weighed her words carefully. “No one in any law enforcement agency is on the
lookout for me.” Her brother, however… “Please stop wasting your time on me. Aren’t there people out there who need the skills you have to offer more than I do?”
“As a matter of fact, there are. But I don’t have the luxury of choosing where I go.” He planted his hand on the snow, leaning toward her. “Right now,
are my mission.”
He studied her intently as a caribou strayed from the herd in the distance. The sun slashed across the sky, reflecting off the snow, and she realized she was seeing him fully for the first time. Yesterday had been overcast with the storm, and the cave had been shadowy at best. The impact of his undiluted stare sent a quiver of awareness down her spine, a gush of longing through her veins.
What if they’d met in a normal setting, on equal footing? What if he’d walked into her business, a newcomer to town looking for a guide to familiarize him with their mountain?
A rustle behind her gave only a second of warning to brace herself before Chewie
barreled into her shoulder. His bulk showered a sheet of snow into her face. The frigid splash brought her back to reality. Daydreaming was dangerous. She was a practical woman, damn it.
She refused to be swayed by a hot body and intense eyes. And she might not have another chance to escape.
Before she could weaken or second-guess, she shoved to her feet and ran her heart out. A rational part of her brain insisted that she stop, conserve her resources, come up with another story that he wouldn’t believe but that would buy her more time. And yet, she couldn’t stop running. Something inside her had snapped, until she felt like a frantic ground squirrel on the run from a red fox.
Chewie loped beside her. Her pulse drummed in her ears. A long shadow stretched over her, a man’s shadow, closer, closer still. Chewie stopped, howling. But still she ran.
The ground fell out from under her.
Screaming, she clawed at the icy wall. Her feet backpedaled, seeking purchase on ground giving way. Distantly, she heard Wade shout from above. Oh God, she was going to die. Frozen chunks of earth battered her body as she plummeted downward while her stomach rose to meet her throat. There was no way to see the bottom, to know when she would die, to prepare for—
Pain splintered through her body. Sparks danced in front of her eyes like a northern lights show on speed swirl. Blood filled her mouth as she bit her tongue. The metallic tang saturated her taste buds with the reminder that thank you, God, thank you, God, she was still alive.
She stared up at the circle of light overhead, not all that far, but whew, how it was spinning. Blurring. Then finally it slowed and she saw Wade.
He scaled down the side without any formal climbing gear.
Holy crap. She’d lived in this area for fifteen years and still she was stunned. Like Spider-Man in camo, Wade worked his way down with just a rope around his waist anchored into the ice above. Closer, closer still, he moved until he dropped the rest of the way, landing beside her with surefooted grace.
His face cast in shadows, he leaned over her. “Are you okay?”
Why hadn’t she checked herself over instead of lying here mesmerized by him? She must be more dazed than she’d thought.
She wriggled her toes, her fingers, then sat up cautiously. Chewie whined from above at the edge of the drop-off. The world bobbled, then settled. “I think so. Just stunned.”
His head tipped, his face bathed in sunlight again. Fury burned from his eyes as he leaned over her. She scrambled backward without much success, her braid coming loose from her jacket as her head swam.
“Don’t try to get up yet, not until I can check you over more fully,” he commanded.
She’d forgotten about his medic training. Wow, they could use a guy like him where she lived. The silly, unattainable thought made her realize just how scrambled her brain really was by the fall.
Silent, brooding, he knelt beside her, his face taut with anger. He stripped off his outer gloves until he wore what appeared to be thin pilot’s gloves. One limb at a time, he moved her legs and arms, working them back and forth, side to side. The feel of his hands on her body, even through layers, unsettled her, stirred her. Sure, he was doing the whole medical thing and no doubt he was mad as hell. He wasn’t doing anything different from how she checked people over during a trek if they pulled a muscle.
Still, somehow she knew. This was different.
He ended by placing his hands on either side of her face and staring into her eyes.
Checking to see if her pupils were even and not blown, undoubtedly, but still the fierce focus on her made her ache in a way that had nothing to do with the fall.
Wade leaned closer. “No more running. This insanity stops here, now.”
“What are you going to do?” she gasped out in tiny bursts of white, most of the air still punched from her lungs after the fall. “Toss me across your shoulder and carry me down the mountain caveman-style?”