Way of the Warrior 

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Eight passionate love stories about amazing heroes by eight bestselling authors. To honor and empower those who’ve served, all author and publisher proceeds go to the Wounded Warrior Project. IN PLAIN SIGHT By: Catherine Mann Tech Sergeant Gavin “Bubbles” Novak isn’t known for a sparkling wit, but his steely eyed focus on the job has […]

Free Fall 

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FREE FALL
“Elite Force” book 4
By Catherine Mann
Prologue

Horn Of Africa

When Interpol operative Stella Carson was eight years old, her mother rented the movie Out of Africa so Stella could envision where her mom lived when she left Tallahassee for Peace Corp trips. Those images had helped through the first night alone saying her prayers. And through a summer with her brothers as babysitters while their father drove his UPS route.

In the fall, a photo of her mother went in her backpack, helping Stella hold strong during a rocky start of third grade when she landed in the principal’s office for a playground fight. Nobody would make fun of her daddy’s efforts to send his baby girl off to school, even if her braids were lopsided with mismatched bows. Stella knew how to punch like a boy, thanks to her three older brothers.

Her siblings had failed to mention the importance of saving the infamous Carson left hook for the walk home, off school grounds.

But she’d survived the principal’s punishment, as well as her father’s disappointment, by envisioning her mom dispensing medicine and mosquito nets to needy kids. The school wouldn’t suspend her anyway because they needed Stella’s perfect scores on standardized tests. Tuning out the principal’s lecture, she’d stroked one of the mismatched ribbons between her fingers, tabulated the number of pinholes in the ceiling tiles and pretended she didn’t need her mother.

When Stella was fifteen her mom died on one of those annual aide trips. She had a tough time understanding why Melanie Carson chose to leave her family to help other families in a foreign country. It didn’t make sense to a grieving teenager, and Stella craved answers. Understanding. Order.

By college, she’d realized if she didn’t decipher what really happened that day her mother died and find peace for the restlessness inside her, there would be no building a family of her own. Something she desperately wanted. So she’d changed her major to criminal justice, landed a job in Interpol’s American office as a code breaker, and poured all her energies into wrangling an assignment in Africa.

Here. Now. In a country every bit as magnificent as in the movie Out of Africa and tumultuous as her feelings about the place that stole her mother.

Finally, she could piece together her mom’s last days. Find answers about her mother’s mysterious death. And if not answers, at least gain closure.

Although her whole quest would be moot if she didn’t squeeze more life out of the sleek boat she was steering at breakneck speed along the Arabian Sea into the Gulf of Aden.

Stella thumped the already maxed throttle, the metal so hot to the touch it damn near blistered her palm. Logic told her the engine didn’t have anything more to give. Still she calculated angles to take the choppy sea faster. She stayed well clear of the other vessels just as they stayed away from her. Everyone kept their distance in these lawless waters.

The hull’s nose popped over a wave and slammed back onto the churning surface. She bit her tongue. The metallic taste of blood filled her mouth. The motor revved and muffled, catching hold of the water and shooting forward again. Seconds counted. Timing was everything.

A team of Navy SEALs and a pair of Air Force pararescuemen were counting on her to be in place for the pick up if things went wrong with their helicopter rendezvous. Sure, those special operations dudes could swim for miles, but even the most elite of the elite warriors didn’t relish hanging out in shark infested, pirate riddled waters.

Sea spray stung her overheated face as the sun melted downward in the sky. She gripped the steering wheel tighter, her eyes on the sonar and radar screens feeding images of the SEALS and pararescuemen – also known as parajumpers or PJs. Six SEALs and two PJs were diving, about to “count coup” on a suspected pirate frigate, a stealthy tap and go.

The mother vessel was towing four faster skiffs for overtaking their targets once they reached the open sea. Except today the US forces were under water disabling the smaller crafts, something the Somali pirates wouldn’t discover until they were out in the middle of the sea ready to prey on others. Those four malfunctioning boats, clearly dismantled right under their very noses, would screw with their heads.

Never underestimate the power of psychological warfare.

As a field operative for Interpol, she’d been sent to assist with the investigation into stolen artifacts by pirates off the Horn of Africa, to decipher the codes and patterns to their movements. Local government officials in the region had requested international help. Those stolen treasures brought major bucks on the black market, money then used to fund separatist groups and local warlords that increased criminal chaos. Groups responsible for instigating ruthless uprisings. Rampant looting where women were brutalized. Young males, barely teenagers were being pressed into service. At least one of those child soldiers was on that main vessel today.

Another reason the PJs had been tapped to participate – for the safety of the kid as well as the SEALs if things went to hell. PJs received the same SEAL training needed to carry out the mission, but with additional medic skills to make a house call behind enemy lines. PJs were like Supermen with EMT bonus powers.

There hadn’t been any PJs around for her mom. Melanie Carson died here and her family had been given sketchy details along with her body to bury. Authorities had written off the injuries as results of a car accident. Stella hadn’t believed them then, any more than she believed them now. She’d worked her entire career with Interpol with one goal: To find the truth about her mother’s death. Finally, she had her chance and she wouldn’t allow anything to derail her plans.

Today’s launch of her mission was everything.

A helicopter had dropped the SEALs and PJs in the water five miles out from the pirates. Afterward they were supposed to swim five back where the chopper should be able to pick them up. But as a failsafe, she and four heavily armed CIA operatives stayed nearby in the speedboat.

She’d plotted contingencies, and more contingencies for the contingencies, because logic was her strength, her secret weapon even. It was all about back up plans–

Pop, pop, pop.

The unmistakable sound of gunfire carried across the water. Stella braced, sweat chilling under her bulletproof vest. She looked over her shoulders at her four CIA teammates aiming MP5 submachine guns.

“Is it pirates?” she shouted over her shoulder, wind tearing strands of hair loose from her braid.

“Don’t think so,” an operative known only as Mr. Smith barked back, scanning distant horizon where two fishing boats bobbed. Of course CIA agents were always Smith or Brown. Or if working in a pack like today, Jones and Johnson joined in. “They seem to be shooting in the air, partying maybe.”

His buddy Mr. Brown squinted into the scope on his gun. “The place is littered with these bastards. I’m not trusting that party spirit.”

Mr. Jones hitched his weapon higher. “We can outgun them.”

Stella eyed the horizon. A whale arched just ahead, then slapped its tale in a majestic display so at odds with the turmoil playing out on the water’s surface above them. “Or we can stay cool and keep moving closer in case the chopper needs to bail out.”

An explosion in the sky sent shockwaves across the water. The CIA dudes dropped to their knees. So much for keeping cool.

Stella steadied the boat and studied the radar. Her heart punched into her throat. Had the pirate ship blown up? Had the PJs and SEALs been injured in the raining debris and flames?

No.

The radar offered plenty of details.

But the news?

Bad.

As bad as it got.

“The chopper exploded,” she announced, forcing her voice to stay flat, calm. Professional.

Now that she knew where to look, debris rained in the distant sky, a splash spewing on the horizon. The crew she’d briefed this morning was almost certainly dead, and if not, a different contingency was in place to search for them – a second PJ pair. Just the thought delivered a sock in the gut as she thought about another child hearing the news her mom or dad wasn’t coming home.

But she had to push through the feelings threatening to
suck her under. Her role now? Crystal clear.

“We have to get our guys out now rather than waiting for them to swim closer. Those look like dolphin fins out there, but if I’m wrong… We need to move.”

Nailing the throttle again, she compartmentalized. Later, she would climb up onto the embassy roof alone and mourn the aircrew. At this moment, her focus had to be on extracting the men in the water.

How far had the special ops men swum from the vessel? How close would she have to sweep by the known pirate frigate? And the unknown bad guys in these waters? Who had launched that rocket at the chopper?

She took a read off the sonar beside the radar, homing in on the blips. Beacons sent signals from her pick up targets. Men. Swimming. Closer. She eased back on the horsepower. Searching the surface for the slightest… ripple.

“Got ‘em,” Mr. Smith announced with conviction an instant before she saw what snagged his eagle eyes.

The barest perceptible cuts through the water. The pirate vessel was a surprisingly distant shadow in the sunset. Good God, how had the men made it so far so fast? Even if the other boat was speeding away.

She cut the engine back to idle. Her four CIA field agents went into action while she kept the boat as steady as possible. They didn’t talk much – but dudes from the agency rarely spoke. One at a time they hauled sleek bodies in wet suits into the deck. Her muscles burned as she gripped the wheel straining to spin free.

Man after man rolled onto the deck. Six, seven… eight.

The final guy whipped off his facemask and pinned her with piercing brown eyes and an intense focus that kept people alive beyond the odds. The air snapped in an indefinable way that defied the logic she embraced.

Adrenaline.

Had to be.

Right?

He nodded once, giving her a thumbs-up. “Go, go, go!”

Done.

Shaking off the momentary distraction, she revved the engine to life again. Her brain cycled to contingency twenty-freaking-two, a cave cut into the mountainous shore line. Minutes passed in a blur as she drove and watched the screen, monitoring traffic. Pathetically few officials policed the area. A boat racing across at a reckless speed wouldn’t appear at all out of the ordinary around this place.

Even as the yawning entrance to the cave came into sight, she refused to relax her guard. She pulled back on the throttle. Entering slowly, she scanned while her quiet companions held their MP5s at the ready. Would an Interpol operative, four CIA agents, six SEALs and two PJs be enough to face anything that waited inside? The low hum of the motor echoed like a growling beast in the cavern, one light strobing forward into the darkness.

Illuminating a waiting U.S. fishing boat.

Her final contingency.

Her plan had to work, otherwise, she would screw up her hard earned chance of working in Africa before the mission barely got off the ground. She flung open the door to the small forward cabin of her speedboat. The clang of metal hitting metal echoed in her mind like the closing of her mother’s coffin. Melanie Carson’s daughter would not give up on day one.

Digging around in the hull, Stella pulled out small duffel bags, one after the other, tossing them to each of the men in wet suits.

“Change, gentlemen. We’re about to become American tourists on a sightseeing excursion. Mr. Jones,” who could blend in best with the locals and even spoke a regional dialect thanks to his mother, “will be our guide. We’re swapping boats, then splitting up at the dock. Blend into the crowds. Report at the embassy. You’ve got a duress code if you need to call in. Any questions?”

Only the sound of oxygen tanks and gear hitting the deck answered her.

“Good.” Her heart rate started to return to something close to normal again.

The sound of zippers sent her spinning on her heels to take care of her own transformation. She unrolled a colorful rectangular cloth, an East African kanga, complete with the standard intricate border and message woven into the red and orange pattern.

It would be hot as hell over her black pants, top and bulletproof vest. But a little dehydration was a small price to pay for an extra layer of anonymity.

“Need help?”

She turned and there were those coffee dark eyes again. Static-like awareness snapped when she looked back at the intense gaze that had held hers earlier as he’d lifted his facemask. Except now he was more than eyes and a wet suit. He was a lean, honed man in a pair of fitted swim trunks he must have worn under the diving gear. He was glistening bronze with a body trained for survival anyplace, anytime.

The boat rocked under her feet from a rogue wave. At least she thought it was a wave.

“Uh, no, I’m good. Thanks. You should get dressed. We need to haul butt out of here.” And his current state of undress definitely didn’t qualify as “low profile.”

“I meant, do you need help with the cut on your temple?” He gestured to the left side of her face, almost touching. “You brought along two PJs for a reason, ma’am.”

Her skin hummed with a sting that her brain must have pushed aside earlier for survival’s sake. She tapped the side of her forehead gingerly.

“Ouch!” Her fingertips were stained with blood as murky red as her hair.

“A bullet must have grazed you,” he said with a flat Midwestern accent. A no-accent really, just pure masculine rumble. “Could have been much worse. This was your lucky day, ma’am.”

“Stella.” For right now she could be more than Miss Lucky Smith.

“They call me Cuervo.”

Call him.

Call signs.

No real name from him for now. Understandable and a reality check to get her professional groove back on. “Do I need stitches?”

He tugged a small kit from his gear, a waterproof pack of some sort. “Antiseptic and butterfly bandages should hold you until we can get someplace where I’ll have time to treat you more fully.”

We.

Her brain hitched on the word, the answer to who she would be partnering with as they escaped into the crowd. She wasn’t saying goodbye to him – to Cuervo – at the dock. Irrational relief flooded her, followed by a bolt of excitement.

“Thanks, Cuervo. Blood dripping down my face would definitely draw undue attention at an inopportune time.” She forced a smile.

Still, his face, those eyes, they held her, and while she wasn’t a mystical person, she couldn’t miss the connection. Attraction? Sure, but she understood how to compartmentalize on the job. This was something that felt elemental. Before she could stop the thought, the words soul mate flashed through her head.

And God, that was crazy and irrational when she was always, always logical. Her brothers called her a female version of Spock from Star Trek.
Still, as those fingers cleaned her wound, smoothed ointment over her temple and stretched steri strips along her skin, she couldn’t stop thinking about spending the rest of the day with him as they melded into the port city and made their way back to the embassy.

Damn it, she could not waste the time or emotional energy on romance or even a fling. Right now, she could only focus on working with the Mr. Smiths and Mr. Browns of her profession. She needed to make peace with her past, then move on with her life. Then and only then she would find Mr. Right and shift from the field to a desk job so she could settle down into that real family dream she’d missed out on.

Yet those brown eyes drew her into a molten heat and she had the inescapable sense that Mr. Right had arrived ahead of schedule.

***

Chapter One

East Africa: Six Months later

Five years, eight months and twenty-nine days sober.

Staff Sergeant Jose “Cuervo” James flipped his sobriety coin over and over between his fingers as he reviewed the satellite feed on the six screens in front of him. If he and the multi-force rescue team around him didn’t save Stella Carson in the next twenty-four hours, odds were his coin would end up in the trash.

The cavernous airplane hangar echoed with the buzz of personnel calling directives into headsets and the low hum from each image on the dozen screens. Techies gathered information for the eight man rescue team – two Air Force pararescuemen, eight Navy SEALS and five CIA operatives. The volume on the speakers increased whenever something of specific interest captured their attention about Stella and the eleven college students who’d been kidnapped with her during a foreign exchange trip.

Only one screen interested him. The one showing Stella being held hostage by separatists in some concrete hell hole south of the Horn of Africa. His eyes ate up the image of her – alive – for now.

She wore jeans and a black tank top with gym shoes, looking five years younger than her twenty nine years and just like the exchange student she was pretending to be. Her titan red hair was half in, half out of a ponytail. A long strand stuck to blood on her cheek from an oozing gash in her eyebrow that made him think of the scratch on her head from the bullet that grazed her the day they’d met. The day she’d saved his ass.

Right now, she was dusty, strained, and bruised. But still keen eyed, pacing around her cell, nothing more than concrete walls with a pallet and bucket in the corner. A table filled another corner with a scattering of artifacts and relics. Frustration knotted his fists as he held back the urge to reach through the screen and haul her out. To hell with the objectivity and the logic she worshiped.

Usually his job as a pararescueman gave his life focus and stability. But today’s assignment was more than just a mission. Stella Carson was more than an Interpol agent to pluck out of a sticky situation. She was the only woman he’d ever loved.

She was also the woman who’d dumped him four weeks ago.

He prayed to every saint he’d memorized in parochial school that the captors bought her cover story of being an over privileged student studying overseas on Mommy and Daddy’s nickel. He couldn’t even let himself think about all the atrocities committed against women in this region. He could only focus on willing her to stay alive. God help her if they figured out she was a top-notch intelligence operative with an uncanny aptitude for code breaking.

God help them both if he failed to get her out….

Copyright: Catherine Mann 2013

Under Fire 

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UNDER FIRE by Catherine Mann
“Elite Force” book 3
Sourcebooks Casablanca
May 2012

Chapter One

Patrick Air Force Base, Florida

“Kill one. Screw one. Marry one.”

Major Liam McCabe almost choked on a gulp of the Atlantic as his pararescue teammate’s words floated across the waves. Today’s two-mile swim was pushing toward an hour long. A light rain pocked the surface faster by the second. Still, there was no reason to think one of his guys had gone batty.

Liam sliced an arm through the choppy ocean, looking to the side. “Wanna run that by me again, Cuervo?”

Jose “Cuervo” James swam next to him, phrases coming in bursts as his face cleared the water. “It’s a word game. Kill one. Screw one. Marry one. Somebody names three women…” Swim. Breathe. “And you have to pick.” Swim. Breathe. “One to marry. One to kill. One to-”

“Right,” Liam interrupted. “Got it.”

He would have sighed and shaken his head except for the whole drowning thing. At moments such as these, he felt like a stodgy old guy more than ever.

“So, Major?” Cuervo stroked along and over the rippling waves. Storm clouds brewed overhead. “Are you in?”

On monotonous swims or runs, they’d shot the breeze plenty of times to take their minds off screaming muscles. The distraction was particularly welcome during intense physical training.

This word game, however, was a first.

A quick glance reassured him the other six team members were keeping pace with him and Cuervo. Each held strong, powering toward the beach still a quarter of a mile away.

Feet pumping his fins, Liam shifted his attention back to the “game.” His body burned from the effort, but he had plenty of steam left inside to finish up. He was their team leader. Their commanding officer. He would not fall behind.

“How about I just listen first?” Water flowed over his body, briny, chilly. Familiar. “Let one of the others start off.”

“Sure, old man,” huffed Cuervo, spewing a mouthful to the side. “If you need to save your breath to keep pace. Okay, Fang, you’re up.”

Fang, the youngest of the group and the one most eager to fit in, arced his arms faster to pull up alongside. “Bring it on.”

“Topic for first three. Brad Pitt’s women,” Cuervo barked. “Gwyneth Paltrow. Jennifer Aniston. Angelina Jolie.”

“Jennifer’s hot.” Fang spewed water with his speedy answer. “I would do her in a heartbeat.”

Liam found an answer falling from his mouth after all. “I’d marry Angie.”

“Too easy.” Cuervo snorted. “You’ve been married three times, Major, so that’s not saying much for Angie.”

Which just left… poor Gwyneth.

But then he’d always had a thing for brunettes. And redheads. And blondes. Hell, he loved women. But he really loved brunettes. One brunette in particular, the one he hadn’t married or slept with or even made it past first base with, for God’s sake.

Focus on the swim. The team.

The damn game. “Cuervo, are we playing this or not?”

“Next trio up… topic is singers,” Cuervo announced. “Britney Spears. Christina Aguilera. And Kesha.”

Huh? “Who the hell is Kesha?”

“Are you sure you’re not too old for this job?”

“Still young enough to outswim you, baby boy.” Liam surged ahead of Cuervo. Swims were a lot easier on his abused knees than parachute landings or runs. But a pararescueman needed to be ready for anything, anywhere. Any weather.

Thunder rolled like a bowling ball gaining speed, and his teammates were the pins.

All games aside, this little dip in the rain was about more than a simple training exercise. More than team building. He needed his pararescuemen in top form for a mission they usually didn’t handle-the external security for an upcoming international summit being held at NASA. Not normal business for pararescuemen, but well within their skill set to act as a quick-reaction force if anything went down. After all, isn’t that what a rescue was? A quick reaction to something going down? Trained and prepared to fight back enemy-combatant forces if necessary to protect their rescue target.

This made for a tough last assignment. His final hoo-uh, ooh-rah before he said good-bye to military life. Since he was eleven years old watching vintage war movies on a VCR with his cancer-stricken mama, all he’d wanted was to be that man who took the hill and won the woman. His mother had lost her battle. But Liam had been determined to carry on the fight by putting on that uniform.

Damned if he would go out with a whimper.

Fang slapped the water. “Can we get back to the fuck-me game?”

“Hey,” Wade Rocha’s voice rumbled as deeply as the thunder, “no need to make this crude.”

“Oh, excuse me,” Fang gasped. “Now that you’re married, you’re all Sergeant Sensitivity.” Gasp. Stroke. “I guess we’ll call this… kill one, marry one…” Gasp. Stroke. “Make sweet, flowery love to one.”

Rocha muttered, “You’re just jealous, smart-ass.”

Fang chuckled and spluttered. “Not hardly. Monogamy until I’m in the grave?” He shuddered. “No thanks. Not into that.”

But Liam was.

He’d tried his ass off to make the happily-ever-after thing work. Tried three times, in fact. Problem was, he had a defective cog when it came to choosing a woman to spend his life with. Didn’t help that he’d always put the mission first, something that hadn’t sat well with any of his wives. A small fortune spent on marital counseling hadn’t been able to fix the relationships or him.

And still, he couldn’t get that one woman-that one brunette-out of his mind, no matter how many times he chanted, “Old patterns, not real, get over her.”

He was a romantic sap who fell in love too easily. He kept looking for that classic silver-screen ending. Guy gets girl. Roll credits.

If only he could have persuaded Rachel Flores to go out with him once they’d returned to the States. They’d worked together rescuing earthquake victims in the Bahamas six months ago. Had become good friends, or so he’d thought. After they got back, she never returned his calls.

Sure, if they had dated, the relationship would have self-destructed like all the rest. Then he could have walked away free and clear, no regrets, no lengthy explicit dreams that woke him up hard and unsatisfied. Now he was stuck with images of Rachel rattling around in his noggin until he wouldn’t even notice another woman if she were waiting on the beach ahead wearing nothing but body glitter and a do-me smile.

Except there wasn’t anyone on the beach. Just a stretch of sand and trees and a five-mile hike waiting to set his knees on fire after he hit the shore.

His life had been about training and service since he’d joined the army at eighteen. Became a ranger. Then got his degree while serving, became an officer, and swapped to the air force and pararescue missions.

Training. Honing. Brotherhood.

He’d sacrificed three marriages and any social life for this and would have kept right on doing so. Except now his thirty-eight-year-old body was becoming a liability to those around him.

One week. He had one week and a big-ass demonstration left. Until then he would do his damnedest to keep his team focused and invincible. He wasn’t going to spend another second fantasizing about a particular sexy spitfire brunette with as much grit as his elite force team.

Liam narrowed his eyes against the sting of salt and the pounding rain pushing through the surface like bullets. “I’ve got a new game, gentlemen. It’s called Pick Your Poison.” Stroke. Breathe. “If you’ve gotta die in the water…” Stroke. Breathe. “Would you choose a water moccasin? An alligator? Or a shark?”

***

Rachel Flores learned to break into cars when her mom rescued animals from locked automobiles. But she’d never expected to use that skill to lock herself and her dog inside a vehicle.

Checking over her shoulder, Rachel searched for military cops or a suspicious passerby around the tan concrete buildings on Patrick Air Force Base. The dozen or so camo-wearing personnel all seemed preoccupied with getting out of the Florida storm and into their cars at the end of the workday. Everyone was in too much of a hurry to spare a glance at her. Or maybe she was just that good at pretending she and her dog belonged here. Even though they totally didn’t.

Death threats offered up a hefty motivator for her to circumvent a few rules.

Raindrops slid down her face, her hair and clothes slicked to her skin. She’d wasted valuable minutes trying to pick the lock, but the car was darn near pickproof. Which was actually a waste of technology, when combined with a vulnerable ragtop.

One way or another, she would get inside Liam McCabe’s vehicle….

Hot Zone 

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HOT ZONE

Chapter One

The world had caved in on Amelia Bailey. Literally.

Aftershocks from the earthquake still rumbled the gritty earth under her cheek, jarring her out of her hazy micro nap. Dust and rocks showered around her. Her skin, her eyes, everything itched and ached after hours—she’d lost track of how many – beneath the rubble.

The quake had to have hit at least seven on the Richter Scale. Although when you ended up with a building on top of you, somehow a Richter scale didn’t seem all that pertinent.

She squeezed her lids closed. Inhaling. Exhaling. Inhaling, she drew in slow, even breaths of the dank air filled with dirt. Was this what it was like to be buried alive? She pushed back the panic as forcefully as she’d clawed out a tiny cavern for herself.

This wasn’t how she’d envisioned her trip to the Bahamas when she’d offered to help her brother and sister-in-law with the legalities of international adoption.

Muffled sounds penetrated, of jackhammers and tractors. Life scurried above her, not that anybody seemed to have heard her shouts. She’d screamed her throat raw until she could only manage a hoarse croak now.

Time fused in her pitch black cubby, the air thick with sand. Or disintegrated concrete. She didn’t want to think what else. She remembered the first tremor, the dawning realization that her third floor hotel room in the seaside Bahamas resort was slowly giving way beneath her feet. But after that?

Her mind blanked.

How long had she been entombed? Forever, it seemed, but probably more along the lines of half a day while she drifted in and out of consciousness. She wriggled her fingers and toes to keep the circulation moving after so long immobile. Every inch of her body screamed in agony from scrapes and bruises and probably worse, but she couldn’t move enough to check. Still, she welcomed the pain that reassured her she was alive.

Her body was intact.

Forget trying to sit up. Her head throbbed from having tried that. The ceiling was maybe six inches above where she lay flat on her belly. Again, she willed back hysteria. The fog of claustrophobia hovered, waiting to swallow her whole.

More dust sifted around her. The sound of the jackhammers rattled her teeth. They seemed closer, louder with even a hint of a voice. Was that a dog barking?

Hope hurt after so many disappointments. Even if her ears heard right, there had to be so many people in need of rescuing after the earthquake. All those efforts could easily be for someone else a few feet away. They might not find her for hours. Days.

Ever.

But she couldn’t give up. She had to keep fighting. If not for herself, then for the little life beside her, her precious new nephew. She threaded her arm through the tiny hole between them to rub his back, even though he’d long ago given up crying, sinking into a frighteningly long nap. His shoulders rose and fell evenly, thank God, but for how much longer?

Her fingers wrapped tighter around a rock and she banged steadily against the oppressive wall overhead. Again and again. If only she knew Morse code. Her arm numbed. Needle-like pain prickled down her skin. She gritted her teeth and continued. Didn’t the people up there have special listening gear?

Dim shouts echoed, like a celebration. Someone had been found. Someone else. Her eyes burned with tears that she was too dehydrated to form. Desperation clawed up her throat. What if the rescue party moved on now? Far from her deeply buried spot?

Time ticked away. Precious seconds. Her left hand gripped the rock tighter, her right hand around the tiny wrist of the child beside her. Joshua’s pulse fluttered weakly against her thumb.

Desperation thundered in her ears. She pounded the rock harder overhead. God, she didn’t want to die. There’d been times after her divorce when the betrayal hurt so much she’d thought her chance at finally having a family was over, but she’d never thrown in the towel. Damn him. She wasn’t a quitter.

Except why wasn’t her hand cooperating anymore? The opaque air grew thicker with despair. Her arm grew leaden. Her shoulder shrieked in agony, pushing a gasping moan from between her cracked lips. Pounding became taps… She frowned. Realizing…

Her hand wasn’t moving anymore. It slid uselessly back onto the rubble strewn floor. Even if her will to live was kicking ass, her body waved the white flag of surrender.

**

Master Sergeant Hugh Franco had given up caring if he lived or died five years ago. These days, the Air Force pararescueman motto was the only thing that kept his soul planted on this side of mortality.

That others may live.

Since he didn’t have anything to live for here on earth, he volunteered for the assignments no sane person would touch. And even if they would, his buds had people who would miss them. Why cause them pain?

Which was what brought him to his current snow-ball’s-chance-in-hell mission.

Hugh commando crawled through the narrow tunnel in the earthquake rubble. His helmet lamp sliced a thin blade through the dusty dark. His headset echoed with chatter from above – familiar voices looking after him and unfamiliar personnel working other missions scattered throughout the chaos. One of the search and rescue dogs above ground had barked his head off the second he’d sniffed this fissure in the jumbled jigsaw of broken concrete.

Now, Hugh burrowed deeper on the say so of a German Shepherd named Zorro. Ground crew attempts at drilling a hole for a search camera had come up with zip. But that Zorro was one mighty insistent pup so Hugh was all in.

He half listened to the talking in one ear, with the other tuned in for signs of life in the devastation. Years of training honed an internal filter that blocked out communication not meant for him.

“You okay down there Franco?”

He tapped the talk button on his safety harness and replied, “Still moving. Seems stable enough.”

“So says the guy who parachuted into a minefield on an Afghani mountainside.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” Somebody had needed to go in and rescue that Green Beret who’d gotten his legs blown off. “I’m good for now and I’m sure I heard some tapping ahead of me. Tough to tell, but maybe another twenty feet or so.”

He felt a slight tug, then loosening to the line attached to his safety harness as his team leader played out more cord.

“Roger that, Franco. Slow and steady man, slow and steady.”

Just then he heard the tapping again. “Wait one, Major.”

Hugh stopped and cocked his free ear. Tapping for sure. He swept his light forward, pushing around a corner and saw a widening cavern that held promise inside the whole hellish pancake collapse. He inched ahead, aiming the light on his helmet into the void.

The slim beam swept a trapped individual. Belly to the ground, the person sprawled with only a few inches free above. The lower half of the body was blocked. But the torso was visible, covered in so much dust and grime he couldn’t tell at first if he saw a male or female. Wide eyes stared back at him with disbelief, followed by wary hope. Then the person dropped a rock and pointed toward him.

Definitely a woman’s hand.

Trembling, she reached, her French manicure chipped, nails torn back and bloody. A gold band on her thumb had bent into an oval. He clasped her hand quickly to check the thumb for warmth and a pulse.

And found it. Circulation still intact.

Then he checked her wrist, heart rate elevated but strong.

She gripped his hand with surprising strength. “If I’m hallucinating,” she said, her raspy voice barely more than a whisper, “please don’t tell me.”

“Ma’am, you’re not imagining anything. I’m here to help you.”

He let her keep holding on as it seemed to bring her comfort—and calm—while he swept the light over what he could see of her to assess medically. Tangled hair. A streak of blood across her head. But no gaping wounds.

He thumbed his mic. “Have found a live female. Trapped, but lucid. More data after I evaluate.”

“Roger that,” McCabe’s voice crackled through.

Hugh inched closer, wedging the light into the crevice in hopes of seeing more of his patient. “Ma’am, crews are working hard to get you out of here, but they need to stabilize the structure before removing more debris. Do you understand me?”

“I hear you.” She nodded, then winced as her cheek slid along the gritty ground. “My name is Amelia Bailey. I’m not alone.”

More souls in danger. “How many?”

“One more. A baby.”

His gut gripped. He forced words past his throat clogging from more than particulates in the air. “McCabe, add a second soul to that. A baby with the female, Amelia Bailey. Am switching to hot mic so you can listen in.”

He flipped the mic to constant feed, which would use more battery but time was of the essence now. He didn’t want to waste valuable seconds repeating info. “Ma’am, how old is the baby?”

“Thirteen months. A boy,” she spoke faster and faster, her voice coming out in scratchy croaks. “I can’t see him because it’s so dark, but I can feel his pulse. He’s still alive, but oh God, please get us out of here.”

“Yes, ma’am. Now, I’m going to slip my hand over your back to see if I can reach him.”

He had his doubts. There wasn’t a sound from the child, no whimpering, none of those huffing little breaths children made when they slept or had cried themselves out. Still, he had to go through the motions. Inching closer until he stretched alongside her, he tunneled his arm over her shoulders. Her back rose and fell shallowly, as if she tried to give him more space when millimeters counted. His fingers snagged on her torn shirt, something silky and too insubstantial a barrier between her and tons of concrete.

Pushing further, he met resistance, stopped short. Damn it. He grappled past the jutting stone, lower down her back until he brushed the top of her—

She gasped.

He looked up fast, nearly nose to nose now. His hand stilled on her buttock. She stared back, the light from his helmet sweeping over her sooty face. Her eyes stared back, a splash of color in the middle of murky desperation.

Blue. Her eyes were glistened pure blue, and what a strange thought to have in the middle of hell. But he couldn’t help but notice they were the same color as cornflowers he’d seen carpeting a field once during a mission in the U.K.

Hell, cornflowers were just weeds. He stretched deeper, along the curve of her butt, bringing his face nearer to hers. She bit her lip.

“Sorry,” he clipped out.

Wincing, she shrugged. “It was a reflex. Modesty’s pretty silly right now. Keep going.”

Wriggling, he shifted for a better path beyond the maze of jagged edges, protruding glass, spikes…

“Damn it.” He rolled away, stifling the urge to say a helluva lot worse. “I can’t reach past you.”

Her fingers crawled to grip his sleeve. “I’m just so glad you’re here, that everyone knows we are here. Joshua’s heart is still beating. He’s with us and we haven’t been down here long enough for him to get dehydrated, less than a day. There’s hope, right?”

Less than a day? Nearly forty-eight hours had passed since the earthquake occurred, and while he’d participated in against all odds rescues before, he had a sick sense that the child was already dead. But alerting the woman to her own confusion over the time wouldn’t help and could actually freak her out.

“Sure, Amelia. There’s always hope.”

Or so the platitude went.

“I’m going to hang out here with you while they do their work upstairs.” He unstrapped the pack around his waist and pointed his headlight toward the supplies. “Now I’m gonna pull out some tricks to make you more comfortable while we wait.”

“Happen to have an ice cold Diet Coke? Although I’ll settle for water, no lemon necessary.”

He laughed softly. Not many would be able to joke right now, much less stay calm. “I’m sorry, but until I know more about your physical status, I can’t risk letting you eat or drink.” He tugged out a bag of saline, the needle, antiseptic swabs, grunting as a rock bit into his side. “But I am going to start an IV, just some fluids to hydrate you.”

“You said you’re here to help me,” she said, wincing at a fresh burst of noise from the jackhammers, “but who are you?”

“I’m with the U.S. Air Force.” Dust and pebbles showered down. “I’m a pararescueman—you may have heard it called parajumper or PJ—but regardless it includes a crap-ton of medic training. I need to ask some questions so I know what else to put in your IV. Where exactly did the debris land on you?”

She puffed dust from her mouth, blinking fast. “There’s a frickin’ building on top of me.”

“Let me be more specific. Are your legs pinned?” He tore the corner of a sealed alcohol pad with his teeth, spitting the foil edge free. “I couldn’t reach that far to assess.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I thought you were checking on Joshua.”

“I’m a good multi-tasker.”

“My foot is wedged, but I can still wriggle my toes.”

He looked up sharply. If she was hemorrhaging internally, fluids could make her bleed out faster, but without hydration…

The balancing act often came down to going with his gut. “Just your foot?”

“Yes. Why? Do you think I’m delusional?” Her breath hitched with early signs of hysteria. “I’m not having phantom sensations. I can feel grit against my ankle. There’s some blood in my shoe, not a lot. It’s sticky, but not fresh. I’m feeling things.”

“I hear you. I believe you.” Without question, her mind would do whatever was needed to survive. But he’d felt enough of her body to know she was blocked, rather than pressed into the space. “I’m going to put an IV in now.”

“Why was it so important about my foot?”

He scrubbed the top of her hand with alcohol pads, sanitizing as best he could. “When parts of the body are crushed, we need to be… uh… careful in freeing you.”

“Crush syndrome.” Her throat moved with a long slow swallow. “I’ve heard of that. People die from it after they get free. I saw it on a rerun of that TV show about a crabby drug addict doctor.”

“We just need to be careful.” In a crush situation, tissue died, breaking down and when the pressure was released, toxins flooded the body, overloading the kidneys. And for just that remote possibility, he hadn’t included potassium in her IV.

Panic flooded her glittering blue eyes. “Are you planning to cut off my foot?” Her arm twitched, harder, faster until she flailed. “Are you going to put something else in that IV? Something to knock me out?”

He covered her fingers with his before she dislodged the port in her hand. “There’s nothing in there but fluid. I’m being honest with you now, but if you panic, I’m going to have to start feeding you a line of bullshit to calm you down. Now you said you wanted the unvarnished truth—”

“I do. Okay. I’m breathing. Calming down. Give me the IV.”

He patted her wrist a final time. “I already did.”

Blinking fast, she looked at the tape along her hand. A smile pushed through the grime on her face. “You’re good. I was so busy trying not to freak out I didn’t even notice.”

“Not bad for my first time.”

“Your first time?”

“I’m kidding.” And working to distract her again from the rattle overhead, the fear that at any second the whole damn place could collapse onto them.

She laughed weakly, then stronger. “Thank you.”

“It’s just an IV.”

“For the laugh. I was afraid I would never get to do that again.” Her fingers relaxed slowly, tension seeping from them as surely as fluid dripped out of the bag. “The second they uncover us, you’ll make Joshua top priority. Forget about me until he’s taken care of.”

“We’re going to get you both out of here. I swear it.”

“Easy for you to claim that. If I die, it’s not like I can call you a liar.”

A dead woman and child. He resisted the urge to tear through the rocks with his bare hands and to hell with waiting on the crews above. He stowed his gear, twisting to avoid that damn stone stabbing his side.

“Hey,” Amelia whispered. “That was supposed to be a joke from me this time.”

“Right, got it.” Admiration for her grit kicked through his own personal fog threatening to swallow him whole. “You’re a tough one. I think you’re going to be fine.”

“I’m a county prosecutor. I chew up criminals for a living.”

“Atta girl.” He settled onto his back, watching the hypnotic drip, drip. His fingers rested on her wrist to monitor her pulse.

“Girl?” She sniffed. “I prefer to be called a woman or a lady, thank you very much.”

“Where I come from, it’s wise not to be nitpicky with the person who’s saving your ass.”

“Score one for you.” She scraped a torn fingernail through the dust on the ground. Her sigh stirred the dust around that shaky line. “I’m good now. So you should go before this building collapses on top of you and keeps you from doing your job for other people.”

“I don’t have anywhere else to be.” He ignored a call from McCabe through his headset that pretty much echoed the woman’s words. “The second they give the go ahead, I’m hauling you out of here, Amelia Bailey.”

“And Joshua. I want you to promise you’ll take care of him first.”

“I will do what I can for him,” he answered evasively.

Her wide eyes studied him for seven drips of the IV before she cleared her throat. “You don’t think he’s alive, do you? I can feel his pulse.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’m not imagining it, damn it.” Her hand flipped and she grabbed his arm, her ragged nails digging deep with urgency. “I can feel his pulse in his wrist. He’s a little chilly, but he’s not cold. Just because he’s not screaming his head off doesn’t mean he’s dead. And sometimes, he moves. Only a little, but I feel it.” Her words tumbled over each other faster and faster until she dissolved into a coughing fit.

Ah, to hell with it. He unhooked his canteen. “Wet your mouth. Just don’t gulp, okay? Or they’ll kick my butt up there.”

He brought the jug to her lips and she sipped, her restraint Herculean when she must want to drain it dry. Sighing, she sagged again, her eyes closing as she hmmmed, her breathing evening out. He freaked. She needed to stay awake, alert.

Alive.

“Tell me about your son Joshua.” He recapped the canteen without wasting a swallow on himself.

Her lashes fluttered open again. “Joshua’s my nephew. I came with my brother and his wife to help them with the paperwork for their adoption. They don’t want any legal loopholes. What happens to Joshua if they’re…?”

She bit her lip.

His brain raced as he swept the light along the rubble, searching for some signs of others. Although there hadn’t been a helluva lot of survivors in the vicinity. All the same, he made sure they heard upstairs, by speaking straight into his mic as he asked her, “Where were your brother and sister-in-law when the earthquake hit?”

“They were in the street, outside the hotel. They left to buy lunch. They waited until Joshua was asleep so he wouldn’t miss them.” Her voice hitched. “I promised I would take care of him.”

“And you have.” He pinned her with his eyes, with his determination, the swath of light staying steady on her face. “Keep the faith. Hold steady and picture your family in one of the camps for survivors right now going nuts trying to find you.”

“I’ve read stories about how babies do better because they have more fat stores and they don’t tense up or get claustrophobic.” Her eyes pleaded with him. “He’s just napping, you know.”

The force of her need pummeled him harder than the spray of rocks from the jack hammered ceiling. The world closed in to just this woman and a kid he couldn’t see. Too clearly he could envision his wife and his daughter, trapped in the wreckage of a crashed plane. Marissa would have held out hope for Tilly right to the end too, fighting for her until her nails and spirit were ragged.

Shit.

The vise on his brain clamped harder, the roar in his ears louder, threatening his focus. “I’m changing your IV bag now, so don’t wig out if you feel a little tug.”

She clenched her fist. “You must get pretty jaded in this line of work.”

“I’ve got a good success rate.” He didn’t walk away from tough odds. Every mission was do or die for him.

“About my foot,” she started hesitantly, “am I imagining that it’s okay? Be honest. I won’t panic. I need to be prepared.”

“The mind does what it needs to in order to survive. That’s what you need to focus on. Surviving.”

Not that any amount of determination had mattered in the end for Marissa or Tilly. They’d died in that plane crash, their broken bodies returned to him to bury along with his will to live. A trembling started deep inside him. His teeth chattered. He dug his fingers into the ground to anchor himself into the present. Amelia Bailey would not die on his watch, damn it.

But the trembling increased inside him. Harder. Deeper. Until he realized… The shaking wasn’t inside, but outside.

The ground shuddered with another earthquake.
***
HOT ZONE
by Catherine Mann
Sourcebooks Casablanca
December 2011

Cover Me 

cover_me

From CHAPTER ONE:

A wolf-like snarl cut the thickly howling air.

Kneeling in the snow, Sunny Foster stayed statue-still. Five feet away, fangs flashed, white as piercing icicles glinting through the dusky evening sunset.

Nerves prickled her skin covered with four layers of clothes and snow gear even though she knew large predators weren’t supposed to live at this elevation. But still… She swept her hood back slowly, momentarily sacrificing warmth for better hearing. The wind growled as loudly as the beast crouching in front of her.

She was alone on Mount Redoubt with nothing but her dog and her survival knife for protection. Cut off by the blizzard, she was stuck on a narrow path trying to take a short cut once her snow machine died.

Careful not to move too fast, she slid the blade from the sheathe strapped to her waist. While she had the survival skills to wait out the storm, she wasn’t eager to share her icy digs with a wolf or a bear. And a foot race only a few feet away from a sheer cliff didn’t sound all that enticing.

Bitter cold, at least ten below now, seeped into her bones until her limbs felt heavier. Even breathing the thin mountain air was a chore. These kinds of temps left you peeling dead skin from your frostbitten fingers and toes for weeks. Too easily she could listen to those insidious whispers in her brain encouraging her to sleep. But she knew better.

To stay alive, she would have to pull out every ounce of the survival training she taught to others. She couldn’t afford to think about how worried her brother and sister would be when she didn’t return in time for her shift at work.

Blade tucked against her side, she extended her other hand toward the flashing teeth.

“Easy, Chewie, easy.” Sunny coaxed her seven year old Malamute-Husky mutt. The canine’s ears twitched at a whistling sound merging with the wind. “What’s the matter boy? Do you hear something?”

Like some wolf or a bear.

Chewie was more than a pet or a companion. Chewie was a working partner on her mountain treks. They’d been inseparable since her dad gifted her with the puppy on her eighteenth birthday. And right now, Sunny needed to listen to that partner who had senses honed for danger.

Two months ago Chewie had body blocked her two steps away from thin ice. A couple of years before that, he’d tugged her snow pants, whining, urging her to turn around just in time to avoid a small avalanche. If Chewie nudged and tugged and whined for life threatening accidents, what kind of hell would bring on this uncharacteristic growling?

The whistling noise grew louder overhead. She looked up just as the swirl of snow parted. A bubbling dome appeared overhead, something in the middle slicing through…

Holy crap. She couldn’t be seeing what she thought. She ripped off her snow goggles and peered upward. Icy pellets stung her exposed face but she couldn’t make herself look away from the last thing she expected to see.

A parachute.

Someone was no-kidding parachuting down through the blizzard. Toward her. That didn’t even make sense. She patted her face, her body, checking to see if she was even awake. This had to be a dream. Or a cold-induced hallucination. She smacked herself harder.

“Ouch!”

Her nose stung.

Her dog howled.

Okay. She was totally awake now and the parachute was coming closer. Nylon whipped and snapped, louder, nearer. Boots overhead took shape as a hulking body plummeted downward. She leapt out of the way.

Toward the mountain wall–not the cliff’s edge.

Chewie’s body tensed, ready to spring into action. Coarse black and white fur raised along his spine. Icicles dotted his coat.

The person–a man?–landed in a dead run along the slippery ice. The “landing strip” was nothing more than a ledge so narrow her gut clenched at how easily this hulking guy could have plummeted into the nothingness below.

The parachute danced and twisted behind him, specter like as if Inuit spirits danced in and out of the storm. He planted his boots again. The chute re-inflated.

A long jagged knife glinted in his hand. His survival knife was a helluva lot scarier looking than hers right now. Maybe it had something to do with the size of the man.

Instinctively, she pressed her spine closer to the mountain wall, blade tucked out of sight but ready. Chewie’s fur rippled with bunching muscles. An image of her dog, her pet, her most loyal companion impaled on the man’s jagged knife exploded in her brain in crimson horror.

“No!” she shouted, lunging for his collar as the silver blade arced downward.

She curved her body around seventy-five pounds of loyal dog. She kept her eyes locked on the threat and braced for pain.

The man sliced the cords on his parachute.

Hysterical laughter bubbled and froze in her throat. Of course. He was saving himself. Nylon curled upward and away, the “spirits” leaving her alone with her own personal Yeti who jumped onto mountain ledges in a blizzard.

And people called her reckless.

Her Airborne Abominable Snowman must be part of some kind of rescue team. Military perhaps? The camo gear suggested as much.

What was he doing here? He couldn’t be looking for her. No one knew where she was, not even her brother and sister. She’d been taught since her early teens about the importance of protecting her privacy. For fifteen years she and her family had lived in an off-the-power-grid community on this middle of nowhere mountain in order to protect volatile secrets. Her world was tightly locked into a town of about a hundred and fifty people.

She wrapped her arms tighter around Chewie’s neck and shouted into the storm, “Are you crazy?”

“No, ma’am,” a gravelly voice boomed back at her, “but I am cold, although don’t tell my pal Franco I admitted as much. My buddies can’t fly close enough to haul us out of here until the storm passes.”

“And who are these buddies of yours?” She looked up fast.

No one else fell from the clouds. She relaxed her arms around her dog. He must be some branch of the military. Except his uniform wasn’t enough to earn her automatic stamp of approval, and she couldn’t see his face or read his eyes because of his winter gear and goggles.

He sheathed his knife. “Air Force pararescue, ma’am. I’m here to help you hunker down for the night to ride out this blizzard safely.”

All right then. That explained part. It was tough to question the honorable intentions of a guy who would parachute into the middle of a blizzard–on the side of a mountain–to rescue someone.

Still, how had he found her? Old habits were tough to shed.

“Uhm,” she squinted up at the darkening sky again, “are there more of you about to parachute in here?”

He shifted the mammoth pack on his back. “Do you think we could have this conversation somewhere else? Preferably after we find shelter and build a fire?”

That much, she agreed with.

Staying out here to talk could get them killed. For some reason this hulking military guy thought he needed to save her. She didn’t understand the whys and wherefores of anyone knowing about her presence in the first place. However simply walking away from him wasn’t an option.

Easing to her feet, she accepted the inevitable, sheathed her knife, but kept her hand close to it. Just in case.

She would not be spending the night in a warm shelter curled up asleep with her dog. She would have to stay awake and alert. With too many secrets, she couldn’t afford to let down her guard around anyone, and sprinting away wasn’t exactly an option.

Her uninvited hero was already taking charge. “We need to find the best location to minimize the force of the wind, then start digging out a snow pit.” He had some kind of device in his hand, like a GPS. “I’ll keep the instructions simple and you can just follow my lead.”

“Excuse me, but I’ve already located shelter. A cave only a few yards away.” She knew every safe haven on this pass. She had a GPS too, although it hadn’t come out of her case since she’d left her small mountain community this morning. “But you’re welcome to work on that pit if you prefer.”

“Oooo-kay,” he said with a long puff of fog. “Cave it is.”

“Follow Chewie.”

“Chewie?”

“My dog.” She pointed to her Malamute mutt now sniffing his way westward along the ledge.

The man hefted his gear more securely on his back–a pack that must weigh at least fifty or more pounds. “Looks like a pissed off wolf to me.”

“Then perhaps you need to get out those fancy night vision goggles you guys use.” She felt along the rock wall, marbleized by the elements. “Sun’s falling fast. Don’t lollygag.”

His steps crunched heavy and steady behind her. “You’re not the most grateful rescuee I’ve ever come across.”

“I didn’t need saving, but thank you all the same for the effort.”

He stopped her with a hand to the arm. “What about your friends? Aren’t you worried about them?”

His touch startled her, the contact bold and firm–and foreign. She came from a world where everyone knew each other. There was no such thing as a stranger.

She gathered her scrambled thoughts and focused on his words. “My friends?”

How did he know about what she’d been doing today? She’d been on her own escorting Ted and Madison to a deputy from the mainland who would take them the rest of the way. He worked for a small county along Bristol Bay and arranged for transportation by boat or plane, even bringing in supplies for them in an emergency.

Had something gone wrong after they’d left her? Ted and Madison were seasoned hikers, physically fit. They’d been frequent patrons of the fitness equipment she kept at the cabin that housed her survival and wilderness trek business. She couldn’t imagine there would have been any problem with their trek off Mount Redoubt to rejoin the outside world.

“The rest of your group. In case you were worried–which apparently you’re not–they’re all toasty warm with dry blankets up in the helicopter on their way back to the resort cabin, probably wishing they’d stayed in California.”

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.
***

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