Authors: Tara Janzen
|Steele Street |
|Random House Publishing Group (2009)|
Only the most dire emergency could send paleontologist Regan McKinney racing across the West in search of a man. But her grandfather has mysteriously vanished, and Quinn Younger could be the missing link. What the bad-boy-turned-American-hero is doing in the deserted tumbleweed town of Cisco, Utah, is an even bigger mystery…until danger trails Regan right to his front door and the sexy ex–air force pilot becomes her sole hope of survival.…
Quinn figures things can’t get worse than being stuck in tiny Cisco on an impossible special-ops mission. Then the dinosaur doc’s granddaughter roars into town with bad guys on her tail. Once, Quinn was on the fast track to a life of crime…until Regan’s grandfather rescued him. Now Quinn owes it to them both to find the old guy. But throw in a deadly terrorist and some hot dinosaur bones, and a man could get himself killed. Because facing down danger with this revved-up lady is one endless adrenaline-rush of pleasure—especially when they’re falling crazy in love… and hanging on for dear life.…
O THE LOVELY AND GENEROUS
LORALEE FOR CREATING CHM
AND FOR SHARING HER
ENTHUSIASM FOR ALL THINGS
MP WITH DIGNITY, GRACE,
AND HUMOR. NOTHING IS FORGOTTEN.
Anyone familiar with the beautiful city of Denver, Colorado, will notice that I changed a few parts of downtown to suit the story. Most notably, I took Steele Street and turned it into an alley in lower downtown, a restored historic neighborhood in the heart of Denver known as LoDo.
ROPPING A SEALED MANILA ENVELOPE
on the desk, General Buck Grant eased himself into his chair and stretched out his bad leg. If he'd been a horse, they would have shot him two years ago. Instead they'd stuck him in a windowless office in a nondescript annex about a thousand light-years from the Pentagon and a good three thousand miles from the nearest action. Some days, he thought the horses had the better of it.
But maybe not today. He tapped his fingers on the envelope, took a breath, then bit the bullet and broke the seal.
UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE
Office of the Honorable William J. Davies,
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict
To: General Richard “Buck” Grant
Re: Special Defense Force, SDF
Mission: Classified/Official Orders to Follow
You wanted them. You've got them, though God only knows what you can do with them. The only thing the first two are good for is larceny. The only thing they've proved good at is saving their own butts.
—your wild card. There is no record of his existence before the age of sixteen, when an arrest warrant was filed by the Denver, Colorado, police for grand theft auto. The next time he shows up is in Leavenworth, compliments of the CIA. He was there less than twenty-four hours before someone high up at the State Department intervened and secured his conditional release—the condition apparently being that he sign his life over to us. All I can say is, it must have been someone damn high up. All I can guess is that this “damn high-up someone” is the same person who got this thing thrown on my desk and picked you as this guy's new jailer.
—an ex-con who spent two of his formative years in the Colorado State Penitentiary in Canon City for murder. His conviction was overturned when another man confessed to the crime. Prior to the murder charge, he had one arrest for grand theft auto. Both his and Hart's arrests were related to a chop shop at 738 Steele Street in Denver, Colorado.
Staff Sgt. J.T. Chronopolous USMC
Sgt. Creed Rivera USMC
The reassignment of the two Marines to your team will depend entirely upon the success of your first mission. Should Hart and Hawkins obtain their objective without getting themselves killed, or worse, getting caught, due consideration will be given to your request. Though both Rivera's and Chronopolous's juvenile files were sealed, I did note that both men grew up in Denver, and both, at various times, listed 738 Steele Street as their address. I don't know how you found these guys, Buck, or why, but I hope to hell you know what you're doing. Which brings us to your last request.
Captain Quinn Younger USAF
—Are you out of your ever-loving mind? The man is a national hero, a legend, the standard by which all other fighter pilots will be judged for the next forty years. Do you really think he'd be willing to sacrifice a brilliant career to get involved with a couple of misfits like Hart and Hawkins on a black ops, special reconnaissance team whose chances of surviving their first mission are zip and none? No way in hell. His record is as pure as the driven snow. A lot of people worked damn hard to get it that way, and they don't want you digging up dirt. So don't.
A word to the wise, Buck—there's a reason your office is next to the boiler room in a hell-and-gone annex. Don't let these guys be the excuse the brass needs to finally force you out, and, yes, that includes me. I know you got a rough deal over that Iraqi “mishap,” but you know the old saying, if you can't save your ass, at least save your pension.
Remember, don't call us. We'll call you. And good luck—you're going to need it. The betting pool is running a hundred to one against your SDF team obtaining their objective.
Buck set the papers back on the desk and found himself grinning. He'd take that bet. He knew Dylan Hart. He'd met Christian Hawkins and he'd been to 738 Steele Street.
His grin broadened. Larceny? Hell, the Honorable William J. Davies didn't know the half of it. The two Marines, Chronopolous and Rivera, were as good as his, and Younger? Hell, Younger would be begging to get on the team. Hart and Hawkins would “obtain their objective” all right. He didn't have a doubt about it. The only doubt he had was whether they could do it and get back out alive—but that was why the “damn high-up” man at the State Department had chosen him. He'd made mistakes, chain of command mistakes that had cost him his third star and landed him in the hell-and-gone annex, but he'd never made mistakes with the lives of the soldiers under his command. He knew how to train men to win, how to train them to survive no matter the situation, the conditions, or the odds.
Misfits, soldiers, or heroes, it didn't matter. By the time he got finished with them, they'd all be shooters and looters. They'd all be warriors. They'd be the heart and soul of an elite team of special forces operators code- named SDF.
EIGHT YEARS LATER
in the shimmering heat.
Regan McKinney thought, staring over the top of her steering wheel at the most desolate, dust-blown, fly-bit excuse for a town she'd ever seen. The place looked deserted. She hadn't seen another car since she'd left the interstate near the Utah/Colorado border, and that had been a long, hot hour ago.
, the sign at the side of the road said, confirming her worst fear: She'd found the place she'd been looking for, and there wasn't a damn thing in it. Unless a person was willing to count a broken-down gas station with ancient, dried-out pumps, five run-down shacks with their windows blown out, and one dilapidated barn as “something.”
She wasn't sure if she should or not. Neither was she sure she wanted to meet anybody who might be living in such a place, but that was exactly what she'd come to do: to find a man named Quinn Younger and drag him back to Boulder, Colorado.
Quinn Younger was the only lead she had left in her grandfather's disappearance, and if he knew anything, she was going to make damn sure he told the Boulder Police. The police never had believed that Dr. Wilson McKinney had disappeared. Since his retirement from the University of Colorado in Boulder, he'd made a habit of spending his summers moseying around the badlands of the western United States, and according to the results of their investigation, this year was no different.
But it was different. This year Wilson hadn't checked in with her from Vernal or Grand Junction, the way he always did, and he hadn't arrived in Casper, Wyoming, on schedule. She'd checked. It was true he was a bit absentminded, but he'd never gone two weeks without calling home, and he would never, ever have missed his speaking engagement at the Tate Museum in Casper.
He loved nothing better than to rattle on about dinosaur fossil beds to a captive audience and get paid for doing it. At seventy-two, nothing could have kept Wilson from his moment of glory—nothing except some kind of trouble.
she mused, looking over the collection of broken-down buildings. Sheets of tar paper flapped on every outside wall, loosened by the wind. Half the shingles on the roofs had been blown off. The two vehicles parked in front of the gas station were ancient. Over fifty years old, she'd bet—a pickup truck with four flat tires, and some kind of rusted-out black sedan up on blocks.
If Quinn Younger did live in Cisco, he was stuck there, and nothing could have made less sense. He was a former Air Force pilot, for God's sake, a national hero. He'd been shot down over northern Iraq enforcing a no-fly zone and made the covers of
and the front page of every major newspaper in America. His survival behind enemy lines and daring rescue by the Marines had become the stuff of contemporary legend. He was a one-man recruitment poster for the United States military.
Not a bad turnabout for someone who at sixteen had been on a fast track to juvenile hall and probably the state penitentiary, until a judge had put him in her grandfather's field crew for a summer of hard labor digging up dinosaur bones. Wilson had been damn proud of the young man, one of the first to be pulled off the streets and out of the courts of Denver and given a second chance with him. Outlaws all, Wilson had called that first crew of boys, but over that long, hot summer, he'd begun the process of turning outlaws into men—and at least in Quinn Younger's instance, he'd felt he'd succeeded.
Regan wasn't so sure. Not anymore. She'd met Quinn Younger once that summer, if one awkward encounter constituted a meeting, and despite his subsequent rise to fame and glory, the image of him as a shaggy-haired sixteen-year-old car thief with coolly assessing eyes and a slyly artful grin was the image lodged in her brain. Looking at Cisco did little to change the impression. Neither did the cryptic entry she'd found written on her grandfather's desk calendar, the entry with Quinn Younger's name in it that had brought her to this nowhere spot in the road in Utah.
With an exasperated sigh, she returned her attention to the buildings. The town was eerie, damned eerie, but she'd come a long way, and the least she had to do was check the place out. If Wilson or Quinn Younger was there, or had been there, she was going to know it before she left.
Ignoring her unease and a good portion of her common sense, she put the car in gear and pulled back onto the road, heading for the gas station.
stopped in front of Burt's old place,” Peter “Kid” Chronopolous said, looking through his scope.
Quinn glanced up from under the hood of the '69 Camaro parked in the barn and wiped the back of his hand across his mouth. “Stopped?”
All kinds of people drove by Cisco. Every now and then somebody pulled over to the side of the road and got out their map to figure out where in the hell they'd gone wrong. Damn few people pulled into town and stopped—with good reason. Out of the seven buildings still standing, not a one of them looked anything less than forbiddingly deserted. Other than the shop and living space the SDF team had built into the barn to use as a safe house, the buildings were deserted.
“Yep.” Kid's gaze was still trained on the gas station through the scope. “And now she's getting out and going in.” The younger man's voice stayed calm and steady, but Quinn sensed his heightened sense of readiness. Most lost tourists, especially lost
tourists, would not go wandering into Burt's place. Most, however, wasn't all, and Quinn wasn't inclined to jump to conclusions. Not one damn thing had happened in Cisco in the two weeks he and Kid had been stuck there. A woman in Burt's didn't mean their luck was changing or that the action was picking up, not by his standards.
“Take her picture and send it through the computer,” he said, returning his attention to the Camaro's engine. The car was barely street legal as it was. Changing out the pulleys to work with the boost had pushed it right to the edge. Kid could have his fancy Porsche. Quinn was putting his quarter-mile money on the Chevy.
“I'm on it, but I think you better take a look,” Kid warned.
Quinn lifted his head again, looking over the engine at the twenty-three-year-old ex-Marine. Kid—who for numerous reasons was also known as “Kid Chaos”—was the newest member of SDF and he was definitely jazzed. His eye was glued to the scope; his body was tense and alert. Of course, the boy had been roughing it with Quinn since the middle of June. Possibly it was merely the sight of a woman, any woman, that had gotten his juices going.
Or maybe Roper Jones, the man currently at the top of General Grant's Most Wanted list, had tracked them down.
Setting aside his wrench, Quinn straightened up from under the hood, testing his left leg before trusting it to completely hold his weight. He limped across the shop floor and turned on the laptop Kid had rigged up to half a dozen cameras around Cisco.
Despite a serious addiction to fast cars, extreme sports, and general mayhem, Kid was a certifiable electronics wizard—an electronics wizard with way too much time on his hands since they'd been holed up in the desert, waiting for the heat to die down in Denver. Kid had wired the ghost town to within an inch of its life for twenty-four/seven surveillance. Getting hurt in their line of work came with a few interesting consequences, the least of which was Kid watching over him like a mother hen, and if lately Quinn had been feeling like he'd washed up on the wrong side of thirty with not much to show for it but a friggin' barn to live in and a busted leg, well, he had no one but himself to blame. He'd made some bad choices—especially that last damn choice he'd made in the rail yards on the west side of Denver when he'd gone up against Roper and his goons.
Quinn typed in a couple of commands, activating the cameras in the buildings. When the camera in Burt's came on, the image of a woman filled the screen.
His brow furrowed. The only female assassin he'd ever seen had been sleekly fit and buffed on steroids. She'd also moved with the prowling gait of a hungry panther. Not this woman. She was randomly picking her way through the dust and the tumbleweeds inside the gas station, peering over countertops and around half-fallen beams. A broken chair caught her unawares in the shin, and she swore under her breath.
Quinn thought, his lips twitching in a brief grin.
Definitely lost tourist material.
No trained hunter would swear because of a measly shin hit. No truly trained hunter would have run into the chair in the first place. After rubbing her leg, she continued on, looking around with curiosity and caution, but not with deadly focus—and not with a weapon in her hand or visible anywhere on her body.
In short, she did not look like a killing machine. What she looked like was a schoolteacher—the luxury model. And oddly, to someone who didn't know many schoolteacher types, she looked faintly familiar.
Her honey blond hair was piled into a ponytail on the top of her head, but a lot of silky swaths had tumbled back down, giving her a mussed-up, just-out-of-bed look. She wore a soft-looking lavender shirt and a pair of jeans, both of which appeared to be standard mall issue, and both of which revealed a perfectly average, if decidedly nice, and very nicely endowed, female form.
Plenty there for Kid to get excited about,
Quinn thought. Maybe even something there for he himself to get excited about, if he'd been in the market for that kind of excitement, which he wasn't. The only female in Cisco that Quinn was interested in fooling around with was the one he'd named Jeanette, she with the supercharged 383 LT1 stroker under her hood. The smartest move the woman in Burt's could make would be to get back in her car and get out of town.
“Have you got that picture yet?” he asked Kid, who had moved to the computer in the back of the shop.
“Running it through now, Captain.”
Quinn let the rank slide, though he hadn't been a captain since a surface-to-air missile had taken him and his F-16 out over northern Iraq. Still, he had been a captain in the U.S. Air Force for a hell of a lot longer than he'd been a cripple holed up in Cisco.
Dylan Hart, his boss at SDF, couldn't expect him to lay low forever. Quinn could only take so much sitting around listening to the wind blow through this nowhere town—Roper Jones was still out there, and Quinn needed to be out there, too. He needed to be back in the game.
He rolled his shoulder. It was healing. His leg half-worked. And he had a fucking vendetta with Roper Jones's name written all over it.
On the screen, the woman picked up a dusty pile of papers and looked them over, giving him a better view of her face. She was fine featured, with a dusting of freckles across her nose. She was pretty in a quirky way, not elegant, but cute, her eyebrows surprisingly dark in contrast with her hair. Her chin was delicately angled, but definitely set with determination. Her eyes were light, the color indiscernible on the screen. At odds with her all-American looks, her mouth was lush, exotically full, and covered with a smooth layer of plum-colored lipstick.
Okay. She was nice. Very nice.
The whole package was nice.
“Not a known felon,” Kid said from the back of the shop.
Quinn absently nodded. He would have been damned surprised if the woman's picture had matched that of a known criminal, especially given the kind of wiseguys in Kid's current files.
“Try the official database,” he said, knowing it was another long shot. Despite his niggling sense of familiarity, the chances of the woman in Burt's being part of an officially sanctioned U.S. government service were exceedingly damn low. And she sure as hell didn't belong to SDF, the very
sanctioned group of Special Forces operators that he and Kid were part of. General Grant, the two-star who deployed them, would never hire a woman for fieldwork.
“Already on it,” Kid confirmed.
Quinn kept his gaze glued to the woman. Where in the hell, he wondered, had he seen her? He didn't forget faces. He didn't dare, and he knew hers.
Or had known her.
“Son of a bitch,”
Kid swore behind him, showing more emotion in the one small phrase than he had in the whole two weeks they'd been camped out in the desert.
“You've got a match?”
“No, but it looks like we've got more company,” Kid said, striding back toward the scope.
Quinn looked through the far window and saw what Kid had seen, a blue SUV coming off the top of a rise in the highway—and slowing down, way down.
“Two men, no visible weapons, but they don't look happy,” Kid said from his position at the scope. Quinn watched him quickly scan the rest of the horizon and come back to the SUV. “They're checking out the woman's Ford . . . and . . . they're . . . well, hell. They're heading out of Cisco. What do you make of that?”
“A coincidence? Or maybe Cisco has just gotten real friggin' popular.” Quinn limped back to the Camaro and picked up the Beretta 9mm he always kept close by.