Authors: Susan May Warren
General Nazar. The big dog in the Hayata fortress. A big dog with juicy secrets. And his daughter was running for her life in the wilds of northern Minnesota. She held the key not only to her father's defection but thereby to the list of terrorist clients stationed around the world.
A list the U.S. and a few other in-the-loop countries needed their hands on. Rumors had popped the Homeland alert status to yellow, and if HS didn't wrestle out precious confirmation fast â¦ well, Will wasn't about to dig through rubble again, dreading to find more familiar faces.
“Will,” Jeff said quietly, “Nazar also told us that he knows the date and place of Hayata's next attack, but his offer has an expiration date.”
Why? Because either Nazar or
wouldn't be around if they didn't get him in time? Will's chest tightened, feeling the possibilities. “I'll find her, sir.”
“You do that. And stay in touch. We're sending another agent up your way, so we'll need you to check in every twelve hours or so.”
“Roger that.” Will had clicked off the line, wide awake, regrets souring his thoughts. He jumped in the shower again, not quite sure where to start hunting, and after a quick stop at the Java Moose, headed straight to the sheriff 's office.
It couldn't be mere coincidence that the one person who might find a lost child in a million-acre woods just walked out of the building.
He shot a glance heavenward and started his truck, pulling out after Dani, far enough behind to be dismissed but close enough to keep her in his sights.
She headed up Highway 66 toward the Canadian border, driving the speed limit like a good little search-and-rescue citizen. Cutting north into a rest area, she drove back a quarter mile to a wilderness nook with outdoor biffies and picnic tables.
He stopped just outside the area, watching her but careful to keep his distance so Missy wouldn't pick up his scent. The last thing he needed was Dani spotting him and thinking he might be after a hot lead. Or worse, a stalker. He wondered if she carried a tranquilizer gun in that supply box in her pickup bed.
She pulled on her jacket and added an orange vest with a white cross that identified her as rescue personnel. Opening Missy's box, she freed the dog, who trotted around, stretching. Will couldn't help but appreciate the way Dani watered her partner before she dressed Missy in her own orange vest and her trailing harness. He imagined her voice, soft and sweet, as she rubbed behind the dog's ears. Too easily he remembered her smile, the way she'd called him Cowboy. He tightened his hands on the steering wheel in an attempt to focus on the essentials.
Just because God had brought her back to his horizon didn't mean he could let his daydreams take hold again. So she had a cute smattering of freckles, beautiful eyes, and an authentic smile. Her last memory of him included his wry admission of guilt.
A guy in his shoes didn't have time to figure out what mysteries prompted her cutting exit from the cafÃ©. Still, he couldn't deny the desire for a second chance someday when this mission was over, and he could introduce himself simply as Will Masterson, national soldier or just a cowboy from South Dakota and add a lazy Western smile. Maybe she'd smile back, like she had before, and he could take her out for a steak, perhaps spin her a few back-home stories of life on the prairie. â¦
Okay, he was definitely not operating with all synapses firing. Even if they did get past the ugly ending of last night's nondate, Will's lifestyle didn't lend itself to investing in a relationship.
Unless, of course, it was just a friendship. Slow. Comfortable. Nothing that might get him into trouble. Then maybe â¦
It felt like years since this feeling of hope had welled in his chest.
Will watched Dani walk with Missy down to a scenic overlook, where a scattering of picnic tables sat. Will climbed out of his pickup and followed her, thankful he was downwind. She didn't unhook Missy's lead but walked slowly along the perimeter of the picnic area. Missy's snout raised windward, and Dani watched the dog. Will had often wondered about the symbiotic relationship between dog and handler. He'd read that while a dog had over one hundred million olfactory receptor cells versus a human's paltry five million, it couldn't talk. So it took a handler with astute understanding to reason out the clues from her K-9's behavior.
Will stole closer when Dani and Missy disappeared on the northern edge of the rest area. He hid behind a trio of birch trees and peered out, wondering if his thundering heartbeat could be heard by Missy's floppy ears.
Was Dani looking for Amina? Yes, they were technically only a couple of miles from the farm, as the crow flew, but she could be out training Missy or looking for someone else.
Yeah, there was a regular epidemic of lost kids in the woods. No, his gut told him that Dani was on the hunt for his missing package. At least he'd have a jumping-off spot when he returned and resumed his search.
Missy barked and bounded from the forest.
Will felt a rush of fear. He shook his head in self-disgust. He'd been on so many clandestine trails, he should be used to feeling naked and vulnerable, accustomed to the possibility of discovery.
Only, for some reason, he couldn't bear the thought of cementing all Dannette's presuppositions about him: the local predator.
More barks, and suddenly Missy appeared, running full tilt after a soaring Frisbee. She jumped, her body contorted, and caught it.
Will froze, feeling sick.
Missy looked in his direction, her ears pricked. Then, tail wagging, she sprinted over.
Will cringed but dropped to his knees and accepted her welcome. “Hey there, girl. You know, in about ten seconds I'm dead meat.”
“Sooner than that.”
He closed his eyes, winced. “Hi.”
“What are you doing here?” Dani's voice held no warmth.
He looked at her, gave Missy a final pat, then rose.
Dani had her hood pushed back, the wind raking her cropped hair, her gaze dark and hot with suspicion. “Are you still digging for information on your murder suspect?” She narrowed her eyes. “I'm sure Fadden would be more than happy to let you quiz him. I've already been interrogated.”
He held his hands up in surrender. “Whoa, okay, so I know I didn't score any points last night, but I'm not the embodiment of evil here.”
“Who says?” She patted her leg. Missy trotted over and sat, dropping the Frisbee.
He glanced past her into the fold of forest where Dannette had disappeared. “What's the Frisbee for?”
She picked up the Frisbee, tapped it against her leg. “It's a reward.”
“For finding something?”
She shook her head, sighed. “Can't you leave well enough alone?”
He looked at her and saw a flash of pain behind her expression. For a second it swept any response right out of him. Pain, as if his presence actually dredged up an ancient agony. He felt like a jerk when he forced the next words out. “By any chance are you hunting for a teenage girl?”
He could have knocked her over with a seagull feather. She paled, glanced behind her, back at him. “What?”
“A teenage girl, lost in the woods. That's why you're here, right?”
She took a step back. “How did you know that? Fadden didn't do a call-outâ”
“I â¦ have my sources.” Wow, it hurt to say that. For the first time in about three years, his chest actually spasmed as he dodged her question. He stepped toward her. “Did you find anything?”
She narrowed one eye. “Maybe.” Then she turned and strode back toward her pickup.
Missy followed her, looking back twice at Will.
Will opened his mouth. Maybe? “Hey, Dani, wait!”
She shot him a dark look over her shoulder. “It's Dannette, thanks. And I'm not waiting.”
He caught up, despite the fact that she'd quickened her pace. “I want to help.”
“Yeah, sure you do.” She reached her truck, opened a supply box on the bed, and pulled out a Ziploc bag. She didn't look at him as she shoved a piece of light blue fabric into the bag.
“That's a part of her coat, isn't it?”
She glanced at him, her brow furrowed. “Go away. Please. No one needs your kind of help.” She tucked the bag into her pocket, opened the kennel for Missy. She hopped in.
“What do you have against reporters?” He shoved his hands into his pockets. “Can't a guy just want to help out?”
She closed Missy's door. “Yeah, right.” She gave a burst of disgust. “You'll have her grieving family on the cover of one issue and the next be blaming them for her disappearance.” She shook her head as she headed for her driver's door. “Good-bye, Mr. Masterson.”
about? Only he didn't have time to unlock her meaning. If Hayata didn't already know Amina had escaped, they would soon. He suddenly heard the sounds of screaming, explosions. Saw friends, soldiers â¦
“Listen, I'm on your side here.”
Dannette reached for the door, but he braced his hand against it, feeling panicked and not a little angry. Excuse me, but did he have
tattooed on his forehead? Not every reporter hoped to unearth the dirt that destroyed reputations, soured lives.
And why was he even bothering to defend his non-profession?
She froze, stared at his hand like it might be a bomb. “Get out of my way.”
What was it about her that churned up his desire to see respect in her eyes? In fact, she might be the first woman who didn't respect him. Or at least admire him.
That was probably a good thing.
Still, he could strangle her with his frustration. “Why don't you go ahead and string me up from that white pine over there? I mean, after all, I've committed a couple of capital crimes hereâ taking you out for dinner and wanting you to think I am a nice guy. In fact, I pretty much deserve to be shot at high noon.”
She stared at him, wide-eyed. She had very pretty eyes.
“I don't know what you have against journalists,” he said, aware that he'd probably put too much regret into his previous words. “I'm only out to make a living, just like anyone else.”
“No, not like anyone else,” she snapped.
He opened his mouth to retort, but words clogged in his throat when he saw her eyes glisten.
Way to go, Will, make her cry
“Other people live to help people,” she said, voice trembling, “not destroy them. Other people don't dig around in a person's life, hoping to find enough dirt to eviscerate them. Other people think about the consequences of their words.”
He felt sick.
So much for wanting to make friends. Not only had he offended her but he was smart enough to figure out that he'd somehow treaded over all sorts of buried wounds.
She turned away, as if embarrassed, and for a second he had the urge to wrap an arm around her. To hold her close, run his hand through that unkempt hair, and tell her that he was sorry. He'd make it better.
Yeah, right. He was a pro at making things better.
He backed away from her, feeling brittle and not a little like the town bully. “I'm â¦ sorry, Dani. I didn't mean toâ”
She turned back and stared at him, wariness in her eyes. “I'm not telling you anything, Will. I'd rather â¦ have my tongue nailed to a table with a fork. Just â¦ go away.” Her hand shook as she reached for her door.
He couldn't help it. Something about the hurt in her voice made him touch her arm.
She jumped, yanking it away as if she'd been burned. She held her arm, eyeing him with fear.
“I'm really sorry,” he said quietly, and slightly rattled. “I'm not trying to hurt you here. But I have to know what you found.”
Confusion filled her eyes. Then, slowly she edged back, shoved her hands in her coat pockets. She lifted her chin. “I might look like easy prey, but believe me, I know how to defend myself.” But fear had pinched her voice high and thin, and she looked about two seconds from snapping.
What kind of scumbag did she think he was? How exactly did this morph from a little look-see at her morning fun into an encounter that she might term as an assault? He backed away and purposely added kindness to his voice. “That's not what I meant.”
She glared at him.
He shook his head. “I promise, hurting you is the furthestâI just â¦ need to knowâ”
She lunged at him, swinging a Maglite she'd hauled out of the pocket of her over-sized jacket. It clipped him across the temple. Okay, she wasn't kidding about being able to defend herself. His head rung. He fell to one knee, reached out to her. “Don'tâ”
But she dived for the door. “Stay. Away. From. Me!” She slammed the door, locked it before turning the engine on, and popped the truck into drive. As he blinked back little black splotches, she floored it.
Ten feet away she stopped, cracked her window. “If you come near me again, Mr. Masterson, I'll introduce you to the German shepherd side of my dog.”
Her tires squealed as she peeled out of the rest area.
Will rubbed his head, feeling a bump. So much for trying to get on her short list of friends. He returned to his truck, picking up Missy's Frisbee along the way. At least he knew where to start looking for Amina.
He glanced at the sky, remembered the pain prowling Dani'sâDannette'sâeyes.
Okay, God, I know I'm not so good at being Your man, but I really, really blew it this time
. He shook his head, hardly believing he'd somehow turned into a terrorist in Dannette's eyes.
Please forgive me for scaring her, even though You know that wasn't my intent
. He could probably forget starting over with her.
He turned, stared into the woods.
And if Amina is out there, I'd sure appreciate Your help in finding her