The Impossible Alliance
The Impossible Alliance
One agent is already missing, and now the U.S. government’s most confidential secret is in danger of falling into a power-hungry dictator’s hands.
The top-secret agents of ARIES
are the world’s only hope.
Agent Jared Sullivan: The ex-search-and-rescue specialist thought he’d left his high-risk world behind, but when unexpectedly reunited with a face from the past, he found himself wrapped in a web of danger more perilous than he’d ever imagined.
Samuel Hatch: The wise ARIES director knew that only one man could bring his agent home alive and solve the mystery of the stolen gems. He would do whatever was necessary to convince Jared Sullivan to take the mission. Even withhold the truth…
Dr. Roman Orloff: Officially, the American-educated neurologist had returned to Rebelia to heal the countless wounded victims of General DeBruzkya’s brutality. But he was also part of an intricate ARIES plan to save their agent—and possibly the world.
Dr. Alex Morrow: The missing operative has finally been found, but what dangerous secret is the good doctor hiding?
This month we have something really special in store for you. We open with Letters to Kelly by award-winning author Suzanne Brockmann. In it, a couple of young lovers, separated for years, are suddenly reunited. But she has no idea that he’s spent many of their years apart in a Central American prison. And now that he’s home again, he’s determined to win back the girl whose memory kept him going all this time. What a wonderful treat from this bestselling author!
And the excitement doesn’t stop there. In The Impossible Alliance by Candace Irvin, the last of our three FAMILY SECRETS prequels, the search for missing agent Dr. Alex Morrow is finally over. And coming next month in the FAMILY SECRETS series: Broken Silence, our anthology, which will lead directly to a 12-book stand-alone FAMILY SECRETS continuity, beginning in June. In Virginia Kantra’s All a Man Can Be, TROUBLE IN EDEN continues as a rough-around-the-edges ex-military man inherits a surprise son—and seeks help in the daddy department from his beautiful boss. Ingrid Weaver continues her military miniseries, EAGLE SQUADRON, in Seven Days to Forever, in which an innocent schoolteacher seeks protection—for starters—from a handsome soldier when she mistakenly picks up a ransom on a school trip. In Clint’s Wild Ride by Linda Winstead Jones, a female FBI agent going undercover in the rodeo relies on a sinfully sexy cowboy as her teacher. And in The Quiet Storm by RaeAnne Thayne, a beautiful speech-disabled heiress has to force herself to speak up to seek help from a devastatingly attractive detective in order to solve a murder.
So enjoy, and of course we hope to see you next month, when Silhouette Intimate Moments once again brings you six of the best and most exciting romance novels around.
Leslie J. Wainger
Executive Senior Editor
The Impossible Alliance Candace Irvin
For Sarah Ashley, my own little angel on Earth. Happy Birthday, honey! Acknowledgments: As usual, I was out of my depth when I started this one. My deepest gratitude to the following friends for lending me their expertise so that I could tread water long enough to write it:
Captain Norton A. Newcomb, U.S. Army Ret., Special Operations Intelligence Dr. Lori Krupa, Ph.D., Brilliant Chemist & Rock Hound Extraordinaire Dr. (Major) Michael J. Hoilien, U.S. Army, Special Operations Combat Medic Course Director Priscilla Pittman, Alzheimer’s Association, Central Arkansas Chapter
I’d also like to thank Melissa Endlich and Allison Lyons for their wonderful editorial insight and for encouraging me to take chances. Finally, as always, a huge thanks to my awesome critique partner, CJ Chase. CJ, writing wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without you to share it with.
Being the daughter of a librarian and a sailor, it’s no wonder Candace’s two greatest loves are reading and the sea. After spending several exciting years as a U.S. naval officer sailing around the world, she decided it was time to put down roots and give her other love a chance. To her delight, she soon learned that writing romance was as much fun as reading it. A finalist for both the coveted RITA® Award and the Holt Medallion, as well as a two-time Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award nominee, Candace believes her luckiest moment was the day she married her own dashing hero, a former U.S. Army combat engineer with dimples to die for. The two now reside in the South, happily raising three future heroes and one adorable heroine—who won’t be allowed to date until she’s forty, at least.
Candace loves to hear from readers. You can e-mail her at email@example.com or snail mail her c/o Silhouette Books, 300 East 42nd Street, New York, NY 10017.
The thunder of an incoming chopper shattered the early-morning calm. Jared Sullivan eased up on his punishing stride and stared out over the rolling hills, instinctively searching the swath of red just beginning to bleed up into the distant sky. As he caught site of the chopper, apprehension locked in. Despite the fact that private aircraft occasionally drifted out of the designated flight lanes to and from Austin, he knew damned well this was no accidental flyby.
That bird was headed straight for the ranch.
Straight for him.
Not only was the growing silhouette a dead ringer for a UH-60, official U.S. military-black-ops paint job still intact, but today was Sunday. There was only one type of Company that came calling at the crack of dawn on the Lord’s day—and only one man who’d dare to set foot on his ranch without an engraved invitation. And only one reason.
Resigned, Jared resumed his morning run, sprinting the final quarter mile of pasture separating the barbed-wire fence line from the granite steps of the three-story mausoleum he’d inherited by default. By the time the Black Hawk landed, eight miles of exhaustion had almost dissipated.
Jared tugged off his T-shirt and used the ratty gray fabric to soak up the sweat dripping from his face. He hooked the shirt behind his neck, clamping onto the ends, as the chopper’s side doors slid open. Sure enough, he recognized five out of six members of the subdued but hypervigilant security detail that bailed out to fan out around the bird as the engine powered down. He exchanged a brief nod with two as he waited for the ARIES director’s stocky frame to lumber forth. Seconds later it did, the trademark rumples of Samuel Hatch’s suit already creased firmly in place despite the hour.
Due to the gravity of the situation, Jared suppressed his welcoming grin. Hatch had no such compunction as he clapped his palm into Jared’s outstretched hand and hauled him close for a brief, bone-jarring hug that belied the man’s years. “Great, son, you’re home.”
As if the man would have traveled all the way to Texas from his office at Langley without making damn sure he was. Jared’s grin broke though. “Good to see you, sir.”
“Damned good, son. Damned good. But I thought I told you to call me Sam last month.”
He had. But then, they’d forged several agreements that day, hadn’t they? The most significant of which was about to dissolve almost before the ink on his resignation had a chance to dry. Hoping to delay the inevitable, Jared gestured toward the main house. “Breakfast? The cook makes a mean skillet of huevos rancheros.”
The first rays of day glinted off Hatch’s balding pate as he shook his head. “Wish I could, but I’m on a tight schedule. I’ll just cut to the chase. I’m sure you know why I’m here.”
Jared sighed. “At least come inside.”
He’d be damned if he’d send Sam Hatch away with his hat in his hand in front of his own men. He had too much respect for his old mentor, as well as the men standing by, discreetly marking time. To his surprise, Hatch nodded.
This was bad.
Jared led the way to the house. He shoved the double doors wide and stepped inside the marble foyer, wincing as his former boss openly cased the place as they crossed the room. Damn, but he had to get a decorator in quick—before someone knocked over the succession of vases and transformed the precious Sullivan heirlooms into a pile of ceramic shards.
He shrugged. “See something you like, take it with you.” It would save him the trouble of hosting one hell of a garage sale.
Hatch shook his head. “I’ll pass. Rita left me enough dust collectors as it is.”
Jared reached the end of the hall and pushed open the door to the one room he’d decided not to change. He headed for the hand-carved walnut desk that dominated the center of the dimly lit room. His esteemed grandfather’s desk and now his. But never his father’s. He tossed his saturated T-shirt onto the leather blotter and nodded toward the matching armchairs.
Evidently conversation was out, too, because an uncharacteristically uncomfortable silence locked in. Out of respect, Jared waited.
The old man finally sighed. “Something’s come up.”
Jared hooked his thigh onto the corner of the desk, bringing his gaze down to his mentor’s. “Figured as much.” He drew a deep breath. “Sir, while I appreciate the courtesy—”
“Then at least hear me out.”
Jared straightened instinctively. It wasn’t the edge to the man’s voice that gave him pause. He’d heard that plenty of times. It was something else. Something he’d never heard before. Desperation. He studied Hatch’s carefully schooled gaze and nodded.
Hatch sighed. “Look, son, I don’t want to be here, either. But I need you. This job’s right up your alley.” Hatch glanced at the armchairs, obviously reconsidering his initial refusal. He skimmed his hands over the cropped silver hair ringing his head as he sat, then dropped them into his lap. “An American geologist by the name of Alex Morrow disappeared while attending an environmental conference in Europe.”
Jared stiffened slightly as the name registered, then forced himself to relax before Hatch picked up on it.
Distracted or not, the man would. Rumpled suits and normally laid-back manner notwithstanding, Sam Hatch hadn’t made it to the position of director of ARIES without surpassing damned near all the agency’s operatives in cold, clear and calculating intellect.
After all, if someone the agency had flagged was missing, why waste time tracking down a former agent like him when there were any number of active and capable search-and-rescue operatives at the CIA’s disposal—SAR operatives he’d helped Hatch train?
“Because this isn’t your standard rescue op. Morrow’s one of us. Disappeared while on assignment.”
Regret seared through him. Hatch was right. That did change things. Unfortunately it didn’t change enough.
Still, the irony of it.
That his mentor would show up on behalf of Alex Morrow, of all men. He wasn’t surprised to discover Morrow was ARIES. The CIA often used scientists and businessmen to keep tabs on their respective communities. What better way to head off the transfer of potentially deadly information and valuable technology to the world’s more heinous regimes? Hell, he should have made the connection when he crossed paths with Morrow three months before in Hatch’s home—with Hatch out of town, no less. He would have, too, had he not been so rattled by that damned phone call.
For a split second, he wondered if Hatch knew.
He discarded the suspicion just as quickly. If Hatch knew he and Morrow had connected, however briefly, he’d have used it as leverage. As it was, Jared didn’t need to hear more. He couldn’t afford to. Not with the guilt already kicking in.
To his surprise, Hatch lurched to his feet. “The hell you can’t. I’m here asking. You can. Dammit, I need a one-man insertion on this job and you’re the best singleton I’ve got—or had.” Before Jared had a chance to react, much less open his trap, Hatch spun on his heel and stalked across the study in a steady, clipped line to the still-shuttered eight-foot windows on the far wall. He stopped short at the first and twisted the wooden slats. The now full-blown sunrise flooded in, chasing the dank shadows, as well as his grandfather’s ghost, from the room. The stark light revealed the determination in Hatch’s eyes as he turned. “Have you kept up since you left?”
“With General DeBruzkya?”
Again, he nodded. It didn’t take a State Department stooge to keep abreast of Bruno DeBruzkya. The Rebelian dictator had led the nightly news since the day he’d murdered the entire Rebelian royal family five years earlier. Since then, the scourge of Eastern Europe had surpassed the world’s current collection of ruling thugs in cunning and brutality.
To his surprise Hatch turned to the windows, stepping up to twist the second set of slats open. He stared out at the pasture and herd of Texas longhorns. “Before disappearing, Morrow received a message from a scientific colleague in Delmonico stating that DeBruzkya intended on spreading his tyranny and greed across the rest of Europe. This colleague also swore the general had come up with a viable plan to accomplish his goals.”
Jared shifted his weight against the desk, his interest piqued despite his better judgment. If DeBruzkya had a plan, it had better involve the Midas touch. As far as he knew, there wasn’t a village left in the war-torn nation the general hadn’t already plundered, pillaged or razed. Jared waited for his former boss to turn around.
Odd. What was Hatch hiding?
“Morrow was supposed to link up with a colleague under the guise of an environmental conference in neighboring Holzberg. We know they connected at least once. Morrow’s initial communiqué revealed that for several months, DeBruzkya has been ordering his thugs to steal on his behalf. There isn’t a continent or a country that hasn’t been hit. Diamonds, emeralds, rubies—you name it, he’s stolen it. When Morrow failed two successive comm checks, we sent in a recon agent.” Hatch lifted the rod that controlled the blinds and snapped them shut, then flipped them open once more. “The agent discovered Morrow’s colleague was dead. Murdered. Morrow had vanished.”
“How long since last contact?”
“Twenty-one days, six hours, forty-five minutes.”
“I know what you’re thinking. You’re wrong.” Hatch continued to face the window as he shut the blinds a third time, then opened them. “Five hours ago one of our operatives learned Morrow was still alive and is being held in DeBruzkya’s private compound. A renovated castle located in the north of Rebelia. Heavily fortified and heavily forested. Mountains. This one won’t be easy—even for you.”
“Proof of life?”
“You do have it?”
Hatch slammed the control rod against the window and spun around. Something Jared had never seen before flashed through his old mentor’s eyes as the wooden slats continued to slap against the glass panes, and this time it wasn’t desperation.
“Alex Morrow is not dead.”
For the fourth time in ten minutes, silence locked in.
No matter what Sam Hatch claimed, this was more than some deep-cover agent trapped out in the cold, possibly for good. Jared waited until the blinds stilled, until the fire smoldering in Hatch’s dark-brown eyes cooled. Despite the fact that he no longer worked for the man, he owed Hatch more than he could ever repay and they both knew it. For that reason alone, he chose his words with care. “You want to tell me what’s really going on?”
“Can’t. Not now.” Hatch shrugged. “Later, perhaps.”
Hatch expected him to risk his hide, Morrow’s, as well—if indeed it was still in one piece—on a flimsy ‘perhaps’? Jared stared into that iron gaze once more and held it. He knew better than most how hard Hatch took the loss of an agent. But ten-to-one Morrow was already dead and they both knew it. As a military general, DeBruzkya had subscribed to the school of slaughter first, ask questions later. Since his graduation to dictator, the bastard had taken the motto to new heights—and even grislier horrors.
Dammit, Morrow was dead.
But what if he wasn’t?
Despite Jared’s efforts to slough off the insidious whisper, it continued to cling. The doubt refused to surrender. Another minute, and he could feel his resolve buckling beneath it. Christ, why not? A one-man op, Hatch had said. Screw the odds. He’d be in and out before DeBruzkya even knew he was there. If he did get caught, so what? It was a better way to go than the path the good Lord had already carved out for him. Besides, if he did succeed, he’d kill two birds with one stone. Repay two men. Sam Hatch and Alex Morrow.
The geologist had obviously kept his word. It was time for Jared to return the favor. While he still could.
His decision must have shown on his face, because Hatch launched into the mission brief before Jared so much as nodded. “Good. You’ll leave with me. I’ve got a C-141 standing by at Lackland, secure comm link already on the plane. Decide on what you need in the air and call it in. It’ll be waiting for you by the time you touch down in Germany. Once you extract Morrow, you’ll need to hole up for a few weeks. Let things cool off before you risk executing part two of the mission.”
Hatch nodded. “You’ll team up with Morrow and complete the original mission. We’ve added a few more pieces to the puzzle since Morrow’s disappearance. At first we assumed DeBruzkya was stealing gems to boost his coffers. It turns out he’s also obsessed with an ancient Rebelian legend regarding some mysterious “Gem of Power.” You can memorize the file on the flight and fill Morrow in. If there’s a kernel of truth behind this legend, I want you two to find it. And then I want you both to stop this bastard.”
Just like that, Jared’s decision reversed itself. “No.”
Hatch stiffened. Blinked.
“I’m sorry, sir. I can’t accept the—”
“Dammit, son, you just did. I could see it in your eyes.”
That was before he knew this was more than a simple grab and bag, and the old man knew it. “You didn’t let me finish. I’ll do the snatch. But immediately after, I leave. I can’t hang around.”
“What if Morrow’s injured?”
Crap. His gut had been clenched so tightly since the moment the chopper had set down, he hadn’t considered that. See? He was already slipping. If Morrow was alive, the man was bound to be injured—beaten and tortured within an inch of his life. Why else was Hatch so desperate that he do the snatch?
“You can have another medic standing by.”
“I want you standing by. I also want you to see the rest of this mission through.” When he refused to answer, Hatch stalked back to the windows. “Dammit, son, what else have you got waiting for you? A bunch of goddamned cows? You’ve owned this ranch for eight years now, so don’t rehash that half-assed line of garbage you dumped in my house about it being time to turn in your ARIES credentials and settle down. It stunk the first time.”
Jared jerked up from the edge of the desk as the last punch landed square and low, deep inside his gut. “If you were so sure I was lying, why’d you let me go?”
The man just stared. Breathed.
That steel-gray brow finally arched.
Horror congealed along every square inch of Jared’s body. A split second later, his stomach bottomed out as acid seared up his throat. Shame followed, hot and roiling. Hatch knew.
The man’s slow nod confirmed it.
Jared sucked in his air. Swallowed the bile. “Then how the hell can you even ask?”
“Because I know you.”
“Then you also know I’d do it if I could.” Hell, he’d still do the snatch. But not the follow-on mission. A mission that had the potential to drag on for weeks, months…or longer. “Find someone else. Someone who can see the job through. Please.” He didn’t care that he was begging. He couldn’t afford to.
“I’m asking you. I trust you.”
Jared slumped against the desk and clenched his fingers beneath the edge, dimly aware of the air ripping through his lungs as he worked to keep the tremors from racking his body. Of his heart hammering against the wall of his chest. Of the ice-cold void closing in as his remaining dignity died.
“I’m sorry, son. I know Janice shouldn’t have called me, but she did. Even then, I’d hoped—”
“Yeah. Me, too.”
Terse silence locked in once again. But this time, it was his. And this time, he was the one who finally broke it.
“All right. I’ll do it.”
The world had gone dark again.
No…it was her. She remembered now. Her eyes, they were closed. She tried opening them, but her lids refused to cooperate. She was still so very tired. She forced herself to fight the exhaustion deep within her bones and gather the dregs of her strength. It seemed to take forever, but she finally managed to pry her eyes open, to focus. The world wasn’t dark. It was light.
And it wasn’t silent.
She could make out the constant hum and occasional clicks of machinery. The high-pitched, steady whine of electronics. A door opening and then closing somewhere in the distance. Voices. Muted and conversing in a clipped, guttural language she didn’t recognize, but voices nonetheless.
Thank you, God.
She searched the white and finally realized she was staring at portable, floor-to-ceiling curtains. That’s right. She remembered those, too. If she turned her head to the left, she’d be able to see the rest of the hospital room. Unfortunately moving her head took so much effort. So much energy. Energy she couldn’t seem to muster.
Somehow she did—and gasped softly. The man was still there, handcuffed to the safety rails on the bed beside hers. He’d been beaten. Viciously. He was unconscious to boot. Or was he sleeping? She hoped so. She opened her mouth to call to him, to find out, but nothing came out. She tried again. This time, she managed a hoarse rasp. Evidently she still couldn’t speak. But at least someone had removed the oxygen and feeding tubes from her throat. She wet her lips, wincing as the saliva caused her flesh to sting. Her lips were as dry and raw as her throat. Cracked. Desperate to make contact with the man before she lost consciousness again, she tried whispering.
An explosion greeted her. Then another…and another.
In a hospital?
Sweet mercy, what was going on? Just where was she? And how long had she been here?
More importantly, why couldn’t she remember?
She traced the intravenous line from the distended vein on the back of her left hand to the bag of clear fluid hanging upside down beside her bed. Disappointment swamped her as she realized she couldn’t understand the handwriting on the label.
Another explosion rocked the room. The blast was so intense the resulting vibrations caused the steel frames of the curtained walls to separate and roll several inches apart. She forced her stare to the foot of her bed, horrified as the musty odor of bargain basement sanitation sealed her suspicions. The tangled roll of expended, bloody hospital gauze. The pile of soiled bed linens. Half a dozen bags of IV fluid, all empty. The nest of discarded needles and syringes.
This was not your typical hospital.
She shifted her right arm. Two inches later, it jerked to a stop. Bemused, she stared at the gleaming cuffs locking her own wrist to the rails on her bed. The heck with sanitation—this was not your typical hospital restraint. She flinched as another, louder, explosion reverberated through the walls of the room, hammering through her skull. The curtains parted another foot, affording her a partial view of a scarred slab of wood.
Where did it lead?
Before she could ponder the possibilities, much less gather the strength to find out, she heard the voices again, jangling keys scraping against the lock.
The other patient.
She swung her head to the left as another explosion rocked the room. The man’s eyes were still closed, but he shifted, moaning softly as he twisted his battered body toward the side of the bed. Toward her. Her lips stung as she opened her mouth—but the door flew open, as well. She slammed her eyes shut instinctively. Dizziness swirled in along with the dark. She eased her lids up. Just a crack. It was enough. She watched as two men she didn’t recognize shoved the hospital curtains aside. Two more men followed them through. All four wore camouflage fatigues.
Perhaps. But not American.
Americans wouldn’t be brandishing Romanian Kalashnikovs rifles. One of the thugs shouted something to his buddies as he raised the barrel of his AK-47. The thug then sighted the automatic rifle in on the battered head of the man in the opposite bed and shouted again. She had no idea what he’d said, but the dialect wasn’t Romanian. The largest of the two thugs dragged the woozy man from his mattress, wrenching his arm behind his back as the smallest thug unlocked the steel cuffs. The man groaned in protest as his shoulder popped. He received a fresh bash to his skull in return. His glasses flew off, landing at the thugs’ boots with a slap. A distinctive crunch followed.
Crude laughter filled the room.
Another thug shouted above the din as they dragged the now moaning man from the room. Yet another responded. As before, she had no idea what the men had said, but a split second before the door slammed shut and silence reigned within, she caught several mangled syllables she did recognize.
She stiffened, the implications of that memory alone giving her the strength to bring her free hand to her face. Dizziness and shock gave way to searing confusion as her fingers collided with the thick swaths binding her head.
That pile of expended, bloody gauze was hers?
Was that why she couldn’t remember where she was, much less how she’d gotten here?
She searched the contours of her face, hoping for clues. Desperate for answers. But all she gained was another question. And this question burned more deeply than all the others combined. If the man those camouflaged thugs had just dragged from the room was Alexander Morrow—
Who the hell was she?
“Four minutes to the drop zone!”
Jared adjusted his oxygen mask and flashed a thumbs-up toward the plane’s crew chief. He double-checked his parachute and gear one last time before latching on to the succession of safety straps dangling from the overhead as he worked his way down the belly of the CIA-modified C-130. Wind colder than a penguin’s ass slammed into him as he reached the plane’s yawning tail ramp, ripping through his pressure suit.
He ignored it.
This high up, he could take in ninety percent of the Rebelian countryside through the blanket of intermittent clouds, as well as all four major cities. Cities that were woefully dark despite the midnight hour. Hell, from here light pollution bleeding up from the destitute capital city of Rajalla put out less wattage than the subdued altimeter strapped to his wrist. Jared lowered the night-vision goggles from his helmet and locked them over his jump lenses. Seconds later the crew chief’s voice flooded his earpiece.
Jared flashed another thumbs-up. The second he bailed out of this bucket of bolts, the pilot would swing the plane’s nose due west and hightail it back to Ramstein. By the time the droning C-130 reached German air space where he and Hatch had established a command post, he’d be knocking on DeBruzkya’s door. Or rather, his DeBruzkya. Jared muscled his way into the icy crosswinds, stopping when the tips of his boots were flush with the lip of the plane’s ramp. One predetermined electronic signal from the transmitter in his pocket and a well-timed blitzkrieg from the CIA team on the ground—artfully disguised as a renewed rebel offensive—would provide the necessary cover and concealment for the remainder of his objectives.
Jared grabbed on to the familiar, heady adrenaline surging through his veins and harnessed it, using it to beat down the unexpected flash of panic. The doubt. Dammit, Hatch trusted him to see this through. Hatch also knew the situation, understood the risks. Mentor or not, surely the man would have tapped someone else—hell, anyone else—for Morrow’s snatch if there was a chance of him screwing up, however unintentionally.
But there was a chance he might slip, wasn’t there? The worst part was he’d never see it coming.
Or was that the best?
Pull it together, Soldier.
The decade-old taunt worked. Two years with Army Special Forces, five more in Delta Force, another eight with ARIES. He hadn’t botched a snatch yet. And he’d never lost a package.
He wasn’t about to start now.
Jared pressed his fingers to the gold medallion beneath his pressure suit for luck and tipped his helmet toward the crew chief, vaulting boots first into the icy void before the sergeant could return his nod. Three breaths of canned oxygen later, he popped his chute. The dark-gray canopy billowed out, jerking his spine into perfect alignment as the C-130 roared off into the night. A minute later there was nothing but eerie silence and overly bright stars. Then the chilling frost creeping across his goggles…and ten long minutes to kill. Determined to banish the doubt from his brain, he ran through the coming mission. He embraced the hope.
Unfortunately, all three converged on one man.
Just let him be alive.
His trusty medic’s bag would do the rest. Hell, ten seconds after he stabbed Morrow with the pre-filled amphetamine injector, he’d have trouble keeping up with the nerdy, myopic geologist, bashed body and broken bones notwithstanding. Jared studied the inky blackness as he continued to float down. The feeble lights of Rajalla had long since passed behind him. Even with night-vision goggles, the remaining flickering pinpricks were few and far between. Though he couldn’t yet make out the closing mountainous terrain, he already knew the only hazards between his silk chute and DeBruzkya’s private compound were the thousand and one massive pines crowding the jagged crags.
Years of whizzing through the clouds warned him he’d passed the halfway point, as did the gradually warming air. A quick glance at his altimeter and his watch confirmed it.
Ten thousand feet, 2410 hours.
Time to lock and load.
He slipped his right hand inside his pressure suit and retrieved his MP-5, automatically flicking the safety off with his thumb as he reintroduced the submachine gun to the night air. He reached inside his suit again, this time punching the kickoff button with his left hand. A high-pitched tone followed.
One covert transmission sent.
His confirmation arrived five seconds later as the terrain below came to deafening—and blinding—life.
Minutes later, as fellow ARIES operative Marty Lyons and his band of masquerading marauders lobbed half the CIA’s local arsenal at the northern facade of DeBruzkya’s compound, Jared’s own boots slammed onto the granite roof of the castle’s southernmost tower. He rolled with the force, ignoring the shards of glass that ripped into his pressure suit. He severed the lines of his chute as he came to his feet. A quick snap of his wrists deflated the billowing silk. He expended precious seconds whipping the fabric into a tight ball, then raced across the roof, stopping to cram the chute into the first ventilation shaft he hit along the way.
Jared hit the deck as the trail from a stray rocket lit up the night sky. The moment the explosion died out, he was up and running again. Marty and his men continued to pound at the northern facade of the castle as he tore into his rucksack and yanked out the waiting coils of rappelling rope. He dropped the bulk of the nylon to the roof and used one end to form his seat, threading the other through a makeshift pulley. Seconds later he scrambled over the granite ledge, his face and chest, as well as his submachine gun, front and center as he bounded down the wall Australian-style, face-first toward the now unguarded basement door at the base of the southern tower.
He left his ropes dangling in the breeze and tore into his ruck again, this time snagging a block of C-4. He molded the plastic explosive to the array of dead bolts, then played out enough time fuse and pre-rigged the caps. He ripped off his night-vision goggles and glanced at his watch as he sought cover in an identical recessed doorway ten feet away.
He jerked the ring on the fuse igniter.
Ten seconds later, the C-4 blew the locks off the door. Jared wrenched the metal slab open and scrambled down the stone steps. He was already halfway down the main corridor by the time the smoke cleared, night-vision goggles firmly in place as he compared the doors and secondary corridors he passed against the floor plan ARIES agent Robert Davidson had managed to obtain before he was forced to evacuate Rebelia. The hair on the back of Jared’s neck snapped to attention as he passed the first door that didn’t belong. And then the second.
He slammed the demons down as he swapped his goggles for the thermal imaging scope stashed in his ruck. A solitary heat source glowed within. It wasn’t moving.
Though the scarred slab separating them was three doors away from the one Davidson’s source had pegged, Jared’s instincts locked in. They wouldn’t budge. Unfortunately neither would the door.
If he blew this door, the resulting internal vibrations would announce his presence within the castle with all the finesse of a fragmentation grenade chewing through a sheet of rice paper. He double-checked his watch. What the hell—five minutes from now it wouldn’t matter. He was almost out of time and definitely out of options. He grabbed another block of C-4 from his ruck, this time rigging half of it. Seconds later, the locks on the wooden door followed the explosive fate of the outer metal one. With them went his sole chance at culling enough time to execute a quick search for DeBruzkya’s cache of purloined jewels before the exfiltration chopper arrived.
Jared vaulted into the room and shoved a set of portable hospital curtains aside. Bypassing the empty bed, he leaned over the occupied one and peered through the darkness and still swirling smoke. The man’s eyes were closed, but Jared recognized him instantly, despite the bandages and missing glasses. He leaned closer and checked the man’s breathing. Prayed.
Razor-sharp steel kissed Jared’s throat.
His estimation of Morrow shot up a notch. The man wasn’t unconscious, after all. Not with those eyes wide open.
“Name’s Jared Sullivan, ARIES. We met three months ago in a guest room in Director Hatch’s house.”
Recognition flooded brown eyes as the scalpel clattered to the floor. Morrow’s relief was palpable. Humbling. Unlike many Jared had served with over the years, it wasn’t the adrenaline or the toys that had kept him coming back for more.
It was that look. It made it all worthwhile.
It made this particular job worthwhile.
He saw Morrow’s mouth open, heard the air rip past his lips. “Where?”
“Later. Can you stand?”
He caught the man’s answering nod—and tore into his medic bag, anyway. Given the wobble punctuating the motion, Morrow needed the boost the amphetamines would provide. Jared scanned the makeshift hospital room as he snagged the syringe from his bag, biting back a curse as he recognized the array of machines and monitors. There was no way he could risk shooting Morrow up with speed now. He pitched the syringe, still capped, to the floor and leaned down to heft Morrow over his shoulder, clearing the still-smoldering doorway before the man could argue.
“W-wait! There may be someone else. A—”
“No time. Sorry.”
He truly was. But he had his orders—and his package. He carried the former engraved in his brain, the latter locked over his shoulder as he headed for the basement’s main corridor. DeBruzkya’s goons would be arriving soon. Even the stash of gems estimated to rival the contents of the main vault at Fort Knox would have to wait for another day. Another opportunity.
Yesterday morning Morrow had clearly been Hatch’s priority. Today the man was his.
Unfortunately Morrow opted to struggle. “Dammit, you’ve got to—”
Jared deliberately clipped the geologist’s head into his shoulder to muffle the rest, relieved when the sudden motion also caused the man to pass out. Right now he didn’t need the distraction. Especially when he rounded the basement corner and spied the two camouflaged goons examining the remains of the outer door he’d blown on his way in. He was about to receive distraction enough as it was. The first goon raised the barrel of his rifle.
That was as far as he got.
Two quick bursts from his own submachine gun knocked the men down and swept their AK-47s across the stone floor. Jared shouldered Morrow up the moldy basement steps and into the shadowy night, then dumped the geologist at the base of the ropes he’d left dangling down the wall. Thirty seconds later, he’d attached the risers and hefted Morrow again. The moment he locked his boots into the risers, the man’s body jerked to life.
“Goddammit, you just can’t leave the—”
A massive explosion rocked the castle walls.
Jared blessed Marty and his team once more as he used the rappelling ropes and risers to quickly scale the remaining thirty feet of granite separating him and his living package from the roof. That chopper had damned well better be waiting by the time they arrived. Halfway up, gunfire riddled the night air, along with the length of the castle wall.
Someone must have discovered the bodies and sounded the alarm. Jared instinctively tightened his hold on Morrow with one hand as he jerked his other to his face, ripping his night-vision goggles off in the nick of time. Seconds later a hundred floodlights exploded around them, illuminating the castle, the grounds, the rooftops and the walls…illuminating them.
He and Morrow cursed and flinched together. Fortunately the thugs were in the same boat.
The soldiers recovered quickly, however, because a second spat of gunfire, this one more vicious and closer than the last, riddled the wall. Jared bit back another curse as fire ripped across his left hamstring. Fortunately it felt like a flesh wound, not a direct hit. He twisted his body, instinctively shielding Morrow’s as another spray rent the air.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Another hit. This time, his right biceps. He glanced down to confirm it, spotting the dark stain rapidly spreading across the black fabric of his sleeve. Flesh wound or not, that one stung. He sucked in his breath and forced himself to move past the ache.
Hand over hand, Soldier.
Suddenly they were there. Six beautiful inches from the ledge of the roof. His already surging adrenaline must have kicked up another notch, because he no longer felt the pain in his arm or his leg. He could, however, hear the blessed pulsing of a chopper’s blades in the distance. Their chopper.
Morrow protested as he braced his good arm against the wall to boost the geologist up first. Jared silenced the man with a terse glare as he locked his fingers to the man’s suit belt, not bothering to question why Morrow hadn’t been stripped and placed in a hospital gown. He was too busy blessing the leather strap and the anchor points it afforded. But as he shoved Morrow up, the buckle slipped, then parted altogether. Before Morrow’s body followed, he shifted his grip and gave one last, all-out heave, barely noticing as his right hand slid squarely up between the man’s legs, right smack into his groin.
Oddly enough, Morrow wasn’t the one who stiffened.
Unless he was severely mistaken, half the world’s diamonds, emeralds and rubies weren’t the only gems that were acutely, inexplicably missing. The good doctor also lacked jewels. Those of the family variety. Either that or Alex Morrow wasn’t a man.
But a woman.
Of all the ways she’d imagined her cover being blown, this was not one of them. Alex dragged her gaze down to the man whose oversize paw was still locked to the most intimate part of her body, praying with every fiber of her being.
She needn’t have bothered.
The irony of Jared Sullivan discovering one of her most fiercely guarded secrets this way scorched the remaining fog from her brain. Ice-cold terror replaced it. Terror that now that he knew the truth, he’d be able to see straight through her and divine the rest. If Sam hadn’t already told him.
No, Sam wouldn’t have.
A spray of gunfire ripped her thoughts back to the terror at hand. Bullets tore into the ledge beside her head. Either the thugs that had been chasing them had improved their aim, or they’d managed to close the distance. A swift glance down past Jared’s boots confirmed the worst. One of the men had reached the base of the tower. If his AK-47 hadn’t jammed, her brain would have been seeping through the sieve of her skull by now. The thug cursed his malfunctioning rifle and pitched it, opting to grab the end of the nylon rope and scurry up the wall before his buddies caught up enough to cover him.
It was a mistake.
Jared’s hand—MP-5 submachine gun attached—snapped downward as he popped off the remainder of a thirty-round banana clip. She didn’t need to understand the local language, much less catch the thug’s shocked grunt to know Jared had scored a direct hit. She shot a round of thanks heavenward—until she spotted six more thugs bringing up the rear, all armed.
Jared heaved her frame over the ledge as the squad opened fire. Thankfully the spray was haphazard at best. She reached back over the wall, but from the terse shake of his head, it was clear that Jared didn’t trust her strength. He hooked his right boot up on the ledge as the bullets continued to fly, the men rapidly closing the distance and, unfortunately, improving their accuracy. To her horror, the heel of Jared’s boot hit a crevice in the rock and slipped. She reached over the ledge again, this time ignoring the man’s fierce frown as she grabbed his forearm, pulling with all her might as his boot swung up again. His body cleared the ledge a split second before the next spray of bullets trimmed the granite down by inches.
“Don’t mention it.” She jerked her chin toward the thundering chopper drawing closer and closer to the roof. With no less than three floodlights shining directly into her eyes, she had no idea what model the chopper was, much less which country it hailed from. All she knew was that each pulse of those blades drove a thousand daggers into her ear and straight through her brain. She’d forgive the pilot—as long as he was one of theirs. “Just tell me that bird is ours.”
Moments later a sentry on a parapet sixty yards away turned and spotted them. He opened fire as she and Jared hit the roof. Before Alex could draw her next breath, Jared had dumped the expended clip from his submachine gun, locked in a fresh magazine and rose slightly to spray the parapet with bullets.
The sentry pitched headfirst over the wall.
Its flight path clear, the chopper ate up the remaining distance. But the moment the bird moved in over the roof, the roar shot off the scale, damned near shattering her eardrum. The pain was so intense she didn’t even notice Jared kneeling again until his kneecap slammed onto her hand.
“Christ. Sorry, I didn’t—”
“Please. Just…get me…on that…” She couldn’t finish, much less move.
It must have shown.
With no time to cut the rappelling ropes still dangling over the ledge, Jared hooked his arm around her waist and hauled her to her feet. He dragged her toward the chopper, probably chalking up her stumbles to her coma—at least, she hoped so. Five steps later she no longer cared. Just as long as he didn’t let her go. If he did, she knew in her soul that she’d dive straight back down to that roof and this time she’d crawl beneath it.
Anything to get away from that goddamn noise.
She’d been ruthlessly pummeled by sound before, ambushed by the relentless depravity of a malfunctioning hearing aid—but never like this. Just when she thought she couldn’t take another step—with or without support—a steel cable, complete with twin harnesses attached, spilled out from the chopper. Jared shoved her in front of him, sheltering her six-foot frame with his taller, more massive body as a vicious onslaught of lead chewed up the roof directly behind them.
The thugs had reached the ledge.
She felt Jared twist to return the spray. Seconds later several screams punctuated the rotor wash. Jared dragged her to the waiting cable as they died out, but it was too late. The sound waves were ricocheting directly off the flat roof now, their intensity magnified beyond endurance as they slammed back up into her ears. She couldn’t help it; she cowered into Jared’s shoulder, unable to control her body long enough to grab one of the suspended harnesses, much less hook her arms through.
“Dammit! I can’t—”
He jerked the cable close and hooked both her arms inside a harness before she could finish, supporting her with one sinewy arm, then the other as he donned his own harness. He clipped the submachine gun with its expended magazine to his web gear and shoved his medical pouch aside as he hauled her against him, this time anchoring her entire body to his as the chopper swept them up into the air and off into the night. There was no escaping him.
Or the noise.
But at least that began to ebb as the chopper gained altitude. Desperate to ignore the thunder still hammering in her ear, Alex dragged her thoughts together and forced herself to concentrate on her other senses—on any other sense—finally latching on to the only one strong enough to sear through the pain. Touch. She focused on the iron arms banded about her chest, on the cords of taut muscle welded to her belly and her thighs. On the fiery heat smelting every embarrassing inch in between. Jared Sullivan’s touch.
Jared Sullivan’s heat.
Alex gathered her strength and her nerve and lifted her chin, pushing through the noise to stare into those dark amber eyes. Though she’d seen them in person but once before and not nearly this close, that unusual, simmering glow had already managed to work its way beneath her defenses. Since that fateful day, those eyes had managed to gain the power of night, slipping into the intimacy of her bedroom, stoking her illicit desires, setting fire to her resolve. Setting fire to her.
If only in her dreams.
So much so that when she’d risked opening her eyes in that damned makeshift hospital cell and found herself staring into this gaze, she was certain she was hallucinating—until he spoke.
Even now, with the icy wind slicing into the back of her tattered jacket and trousers, with that god-awful racket still reverberating through her skull, that steady amber gaze worked its magic, unnerving her to her very core. But this time, she welcomed it. It seared through the thunder and the cold until, gradually, she was able to notice the rest. This close, despite the camouflaged greasepaint he’d smeared into his face, she could make out the majority of Jared’s striking features.
The rest she filled in from memory.
Those stark, dusky cheeks. The clipped lines of his square jaw. The thin scar that teased the center of his chin, puckering the flesh when he forgot he didn’t smile. And those full, dangerously sensual lips. Even with Alex Morrow’s male physique still firmly in place, her fingers itched to reach out and smooth the exertion beading above the upper curve. Startled that the man had affected her so deeply even now, she shoved her gaze up to the black knit cap Jared had donned for the mission. It rode low on his forehead, butting into and blending in with his thick, midnight brows. Brows that matched the long, inky hair he’d inherited from his Mexican mother.
Was it as soft and silky as it looked?
She shoved that forbidden fantasy aside as well, but not soon enough. Just like that, she could feel the blistering intimacy of the man’s touch as he’d hefted her over the ledge of the castle roof. Still recall the shocking warmth of his hand tucked firmly between her legs. She made the mistake of glancing into those hot amber eyes once more and knew—so did he.
As if the dreams weren’t bad enough. As if hanging here, trapped beneath some viciously bellowing bird in this man’s arms wasn’t worse, now she’d have that humiliating memory to torture her resolve when she least expected it. She sucked in her breath as the chopper pitched suddenly and swerved to the left, then swooped down fast and low. The memory disintegrated. The thunder slammed back. The pain.
She ripped her gaze through the icy night. As the chopper’s altitude whittled down to a nauseating rotor’s breath, she realized that she and Jared weren’t racing over the tops of a few pine trees, but many.
The chopper whipped their harnessed torsos and dangling legs between two, insanely close, sheer cliffs before swooping down to hug the rocky riverbed below. Shock punched the breath from her lungs as, once again, the pulsing thunder ricocheted directly off the hardened terrain before lashing back up, lashing into her. It was if some depraved construction worker had locked the steel bit of his massive jackhammer into her skull and slammed the machine into overdrive. Pulse after pulse splintered through her head. Her eyes began to water. She began to whimper. Any moment now she was going to drag her hands up through the filthy mop on her head and rip her ear off.
She didn’t get the chance.
Before she could stop it, the darkness flooded in, the cold, the nauseating dizziness. Until suddenly, incredibly, the noise began to ebb. And then there was nothing.
Nothing but blissful silence.
His package had passed out.
At least, he hoped that was all that’d happened.
Jared leaned forward, automatically shielding Morrow’s body from the freezing rotor wash. From the sudden shift in the chopper’s flight plan, he knew DeBruzkya’s radars had finally started pinging like a bat screaming straight out of hell—especially when the chopper plummeted precariously low, hugging the pitch-black Rebelian terrain in a last-ditch, all-out attempt to remain undetected. He readjusted his grip as the next rise and dip caused their nylon harnesses to shift, locking his arms around Morrow’s now limp body. But as the pilot swerved to avoid another cliff, Jared also knew that despite his iron determination, he was losing his package.
The next whiplashing turn sealed his fate—and Morrow’s. He didn’t give a rat’s ass how much ground the chopper had been able to cover. He had to get the pilot to set them down. Now.
He kept his gaze fused to the shadowy terrain, hoping to anticipate the next swerve as he slid his right arm down to hook it around Morrow’s waist. He locked his hand to the man’s—no, make that woman’s—belt before carefully releasing his left arm. The second he was sure his modified grip would hold, he snapped his free hand up and ripped the emergency strobe off his web gear. He popped off a succession of red flashes straight up into the yawning steel belly, then immediately lashed his left arm back down around Morrow. To his relief, the crew chief returned the emergency signal within moments.
There was nothing to do now but wait. And pray.
Had he put enough distance between them and the castle?
Unfortunately the same dense cloud cover that had aided his initial insertion into DeBruzkya’s stronghold hampered him now. He wouldn’t know where they were until they hit the ground and he got a reading from the handheld global-positioning unit. But that was the least of his worries. Right now he needed to find out why Morrow had lost consciousness. From the moment he’d spied the machinery clustered between the beds in that makeshift hospital cell, he knew he was dealing with his worst-case, live-package scenario. Something or someone had knocked Alex Morrow into a coma. Head trauma or drugs—given their current precarious position, he couldn’t be sure which. Much less who had caused it. But he would. Just as soon as this bird landed.
The chopper veered sharply again.
This time he was relieved. The moment those pounding blades changed pitch, he knew they were headed even lower. A quick glance at the shadowy, rapidly closing terrain, confirmed it. The pilot had located a clearing large enough to set them down in—but not large enough to land the bird.
Moments later his boots slammed into loose rock.
He let go of Morrow and ripped off his harness, recapturing the woman’s still-unconscious body moments before it hit the ground. He cut her harness loose and scooped her into his arms as the chopper’s crew chief kicked out several extra ammo clips. His battered hamstring and bicep burned in concert as he leaned down to snag the banana clips. He ignored the seeping wounds and carried Morrow into the shelter of the trees. He’d seal the gashes later. Just as soon as he examined his package.
His army medic training kicked in to high as he tossed the fresh ammo onto a bed of pine needles before laying the geologist’s body out at the base of a tree. Within seconds he’d pulled his rucksack from his shoulders and dumped it along with his weapon, plowing through the ABCs of first aid as he leaned over her and gently removed her old bandages. Airway—clear. He lowered his head until his right cheek grazed the sparse, formerly hidden mustache above Morrow’s lips. Breathing—shallow but mostly regular. He moved on to circulation, automatically sliding his fingers up his patient’s exposed neck to seal them to her carotid artery.
Damn. Much too slow. Bradycardic and thready.
Jared tore through the medic’s pouch at his hips, grabbing his stethoscope with his left hand and hooking it around his neck as he pressed his right to Morrow’s sternum.
Only…it wasn’t there.
If his palm wasn’t still smoking from that blisteringly intimate introduction at the castle’s ledge, he’d have panicked. Instead, he thumped the barrier. Solid rubber. Prosthetic. No doubt designed to flesh out the disguise.
It would have to go.
He grabbed the collar of her shirt and jerked his hands down and apart. Buttons flew off, smacking into pine needles, the tree trunk and his own jaw as the once-white fabric gave all the way to Morrow’s waist. An extremely convincing masculine chest lay beneath, meticulously crafted from broad shoulders and moderately muscled pectorals, right down to the sparse thatch of hair embedded within the shadowy, textured skin. A quick sweep of his fingers assured him it was definitely synthetic skin.
The disguise was so good that for a moment there, he’d wondered if he wasn’t losing ground more quickly than he feared. For all Hatch’s reassurances, where would he and Morrow be then?
Jared crammed the insidious doubts back into their box and locked the lid as he ran his fingers up the right side of the prosthetic chest, locating the row of hooks that sealed the edges of the molded rubber together, as well as the second set hidden along the ridge of her shoulder. He popped both rows almost as quickly as he’d popped the buttons on that grimy men’s dress shirt, biting back an instinctive whistle as he cracked the false chest open and pushed the phony pecs to the side.
Any doubt he had left vanished at the sight.
What lay beneath was definitely all woman.
Generously so. Right down to the stiff nipples crowning the twin ivory swells. Swells that had captured the intermittent starlight filtering through the pines of the Rebelian forest to gleam softly amid the shifting shadows. He ignored his body’s sudden, inappropriate reaction to the sight and leaned down to press the disk of his stethoscope into the upper curve of the woman’s left breast, blocking out the nocturnal symphony around them as he focused on the gradually strengthening heartbeat pulsing through his ears.
Relieved, he withdrew the scope.
He lifted the woman’s shoulders and slipped the stethoscope between the rear of the prosthetic and her equally bare back, timing the rise and fall of her lungs as he evaluated their capacity. Satisfied, he withdrew the scope and hooked it around his neck. But as he settled that mop of matted brown hair into the pillow of pine needles, his fingertips brushed across a row of tiny, tightly spaced bumps tracking up the woman’s scalp, mere millimeters inside the hairline, just behind her right ear.
Possibly the cause of that coma? Before he could lean down close enough to find out, the body beneath his shifted. Stiffened.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
He stiffened. Unfortunately he also dropped his gaze. Stared. And damned if he didn’t flush. He ripped his gaze from those taunting swells, hoping the darkness would conceal the damning tide rapidly spreading up his neck. The moment he met the dark-brown fury leveled on him, he knew it hadn’t. He eased his chest up from the woman’s exposed breasts. “I beg your pardon. I was…examining you.”
Given the circumstance, her dry sarcasm shouldn’t have stung. But it did.
Why he even gave a damn what some nerdy, hermaphroditic geologist thought was beyond him. He’d saved the man’s hide, for Christ’s sake. Jared shifted to his haunches as that same geologist sat up and closed the prosthetic over those firm, telling breasts. Okay, he’d saved the woman’s hide. Didn’t that earn him at least one get-out-of-a-faux-pas free card?
What it earned him was an unobstructed view of the woman’s entire torso as she scrambled to her knees, the false chest swinging wide as she swayed suddenly. He reached out to steady her, but the fury cutting through the coke-bottle lenses that had somehow survived their harrowing flight stopped him cold. He anchored his hands to the ends of the stethoscope at his neck and settled back onto his haunches, ignoring his burning hamstring as he noted the raw edges of the intravenous needle site on the back of the woman’s hand.
She hadn’t been out of that coma for long. It was best not to push her. At least, not until she’d had a chance to regain her balance and her bearings.
The agent in her kicked in sooner than he’d expected, because the moment her balance steadied, she pushed herself.
He watched, ready to grab her if need be, as she peeled the filthy shirt off what turned out to be her own sinewy arms, not the prosthetic’s. She removed the rubber chest and dumped it onto the pine needles, those distinctly feminine curves gleaming amid the shadows as she retrieved the shirt once more. She slid the dingy sleeves up her arms, finally pausing as she hooked her fingers to the shirt’s edges—and the row of missing buttons.
The woman’s muddy brows arched as she lifted her chin. “Been a while, has it, Soldier?”
Damned if the fire didn’t return to his neck.
He thought about apologizing, but he didn’t. There was no way in hell he was telling anyone just how long it had been, much less this woman. Still, her pointed brow succeeded in scoring its second point.
Despite her wobbly balance, he could have turned away.
Before he could answer, she knotted the trailing ends of the shirt around her waist, then brought her hands to her face, peeling off that sparse mustache, then those thick, muddy brows, leaving smoothly arched wisps behind. Dark blond, light brown, he couldn’t quite make out the color. There were too many shadows between them.
Evidently there were still too many angles, as well.
The hard edges of her jaw melted away next as she tucked her fingers inside her mouth and removed a set of temporary dental implants that had obviously been designed to alter the shape of her face. Her cheeks stood out pale and high in the dim light. Without the implants squaring her chin or the fake mustache drawing attention from her mouth, her lips were now full, almost lush.
Jared unhooked one of the canteens from his web belt and set it on the ground between them, knowing she’d be needing it soon enough, just as he knew why she’d decided to pull a Victor/Victoria out in the middle of the Rebelian forest. DeBruzkya and his goons would be tracking two men. She was turning them into one man and one woman.
In fact, damned clever.
That, combined with her increasing steadiness, told him she’d come out of that coma with the brilliant brain Hatch had raved about still intact. He reached into his rucksack and pulled out the pair of work boots. He’d learned years ago that more often than not, a package was imprisoned sans shoes to lower morale and prevent escape. Morrow was no exception. He dumped the boots at her feet and added a pair of black socks.
“No problem. I need to get a fix on our position. As soon as I get back, I’ll finish examining you. Then we need to talk.” He waited for her nod, then stood to retrieve the handheld global positioning unit from his jumpsuit as he headed for the clearing. Now that he was reasonably confident she’d survive the night, it was time to focus on other pressing concerns. Like where the hell they were. And how much ground they had left to cover before they arrived at their designated safe house.
Jared fired up the GPS unit as he reached the clearing.
His breath eased out. The chopper had ferried them farther than he’d thought, but still not far enough. Morrow might be steady now, but her weakened state had already caused her to pass out once. With this much ground to cover, there was a good chance it would happen again before the night was over.
The original plan had been to have the chopper cleave to the riverbed as long as possible. Three-quarters of the way up the river, the bird was supposed to have slowed just long enough to cut them loose. Then it would have resumed its breakneck speed, eventually veering west to head straight for the Rebelian-Gastonian border, DeBruzkya and his radar twidgets never knowing he and Morrow had been left behind.
All that’d changed the moment Morrow passed out.
Once the chopper was forced to hover, the stalled blip on the scope would have afforded even DeBruzkya’s inept twidgets a chance to pinpoint their modified infiltration site. Jared flicked off the GPS and shoved the unit into his pocket, then lit up the dial on his watch. Twenty minutes had passed since they’d set down. Just about long enough for DeBruzkya to scramble one of his own choppers and send it after them. He had to act quickly.
Jared retrieved his flashlight and lit up the gash on his biceps first. The ragged edges of the wound appeared black beneath the red beam streaming from his mini Maglite. So did the blood clot already filling in the center of the furrow. Even better, there was no sign of the bullet. This one could wait.
He swept the beam down to his left hamstring.
Unfortunately that one couldn’t.
He twisted his torso to get a better view as he lit up the wash of black spreading down his left leg. Damn. He lowered his hand, biting down on a second curse as he probed the gash. The wound was twice as long as the rip across his biceps, but again, no bullet. Nor did it require a tourniquet.
He retrieved a dark-green cravat from the first-aid pouch on his hip and stuffed the fabric into the tear in his pressure suit. Satisfied the makeshift bandage would do for the moment, he headed back into the pines, determined to get a look at the bumps he’d discovered in Morrow’s hairline. Not to mention a better grasp on her vitals. He snagged the stethoscope from his neck and raised the flashlight, illuminating her form as he reached her. She finished tying her second boot and stood.
Sweet Mother above. He managed to retain his hold on the flashlight, but the scope hit the forest floor. If his leg burned as he leaned down to retrieve it, he didn’t notice.
Damned near all he could discern was her.
As he’d anticipated, she’d used the water from the canteen to drench that unruly mop of hair. But the slicked-back result drew attention to more than a high forehead and smooth cheeks. Much more. The sleek style combined with those missing dental implants to highlight the curve of her now heart-shaped chin, drawing his gaze straight down her unusually long, graceful neck. Straight into the gaping V in that tatty shirt. All the way down to the knotted tails resting a bare inch above the riveting navel crowning her sleek belly.
“Well? I’m fresh out of lipstick and mirrors. Will I do?”
He must have taken too long trying to come up with a suitable answer. The unexpected awkwardness that flashed through her eyes as she waited killed the sultry effect and—thankfully—his body’s powerful reaction to it. Her tongue slid across her bottom lip as he lowered the Maglite. He recognized the motion for what it was. A nervous habit.
For a split second he was reminded of Morrow, the man.
Carnal sex and awkward, nerdy innocence?
It didn’t make sense. Then again, what part of the entire transformation did? Beyond a copious list of professional qualifications, Jared hadn’t been able to glean much from the personnel file Hatch had provided. But he had discovered that Dr. Alexander Morrow had been connected to ARIES for the past six years. What kind of woman was willing to suppress the essence of her being this completely, for that long? And why?
Dammit, it was none of his business. She was none of his business. He had a patient to heal. An agent to return to active duty. A joint mission to complete. And despite what his mentor thought, he also had a ranch and a life to return to.
For a few years, anyway.
Jared stiffened as the stunning realization slammed into him from out of nowhere—and then from everywhere.
“What’s wrong? Do I look that bad—or are we that far off position?”
He dropped his gaze to the fingers that had made their way to his forearm. Fingers that were long and tapered but also, now that he thought about it, noticeably feminine. He dragged his gaze up to those murky eyes and stared into them, ignoring the growing concern as he searched the shadows that were probably as phony as the rest of her, furious at their boss and furious with her. But most of all, furious with himself.
In the heat of their escape, he hadn’t even noticed the most insidious deception of all.
The lie of omission.
“Why the hell didn’t he tell me you were a woman?”
He didn’t know.
Alex sucked in her breath as the relief crashed through her, buffeting her tenuous hold on equilibrium. Desperate to maintain it, she closed her eyes. It was a mistake. The undertow snagged her balance and she went down—until his hands came snapping up to grab her arms and steady her.
If anything, the raw husk in Jared’s voice caused the world to churn faster. She sealed her eyes shut and dug her fingers into his forearms, waiting for the dizziness to ebb before she dared to open them. Before she dared to face that piercing amber stare—and that dangerous question.
The world steadied and she opened her eyes. Relief swamped Alex again, but this time she held fast. Jared had dropped the flashlight to grab her. With the crimson glow at his feet, his dusky features were safely cloaked within the shadows, his black jumpsuit and knit hat helping him blend in with the forest and the reigning night.
Her brain was still rattling around in her skull after that fiasco of a chopper flight. While the faulty microphones hardwired to her hearing aid were still magnifying every nocturnal buzz, drone, trill and chirp within a two-mile radius with fanatical precision, she could at least hear herself think. Even so, she did not need to stare into this man’s shrewd gaze. Not until she’d had a chance to regain her composure.
She released her fingers. “I’m fine now. You can let go.”
“I swear, I won’t faint on you.”
He continued to hold her arms for several moments, silently assessing her before he, too, released his grip. She waited as he leaned down to retrieve the flashlight. But as he straightened, she caught the glimmer of metal in his hands, plastic tubing.
Apprehension crawled through her, elbowing out the relief. “I said, I’m fine.”
“I’m sure you are. But I need to get a look at your scalp.” He shifted the scope and flashlight to his right hand and reached out with his left. “I think you’ve got—”
She jerked her head out reach. “I know. I found the stitches earlier when I removed the gauze someone had smothered my head and face with. They’re fine.”
“They may also be connected to your coma. I’ll need to examine them.”
The hell he did. She didn’t care if those stitches were knitted across a six-inch, seeping gash, that hand wasn’t getting anywhere near her hearing aid. She took another step. “I just told you, I examined them. They’re fine. I’m fine. The cut has already healed.” She took a third step, stopping when the back of her shirt snagged against a tree, trapping her. “Shouldn’t you be filling me in on the plan? When’s the replacement chopper due?”
He stood there for several moments, then sighed. She eased her breath out as he finally hooked the stethoscope around his neck and switched off the flashlight. Evidently he’d decided not to push the issue—for the moment.
She grabbed the reprieve gratefully.
“There isn’t one.”
She blinked. “I beg your pardon?”
“Replacement chopper. There won’t be one. Not for several weeks. Perhaps longer.” He tipped the end of the darkened flashlight toward her ear. “Which goes back to why I really do need to examine you. There’s been a change of plans, Agent Morrow. You have new orders. We both do.”
She sucked in her breath, swallowed her curse. He might not have been briefed about her gender or the hearing aid, but he did know who she really was. Or rather, whom she worked for. Wait a minute. “We have new orders?” She clamped down on a fresh surge of dizziness as she waited for him to respond.
“We’ll be working together on this one.”
No bloody way.
“That’s impossible. I signed on as a singleton. I always work alone. Always. Sam knows that. Dammit, he wouldn’t—”
The rasp might have been deceptively soft, fused with the barest hint of the Texas drawl of his youth, but it was also rife with speculation.
This time, she swallowed an entire string of curses.
And then she nodded.
She didn’t have much of a choice. She knew what he was thinking. What any agent who knew Samuel Hatch as well as Jared Sullivan knew him would be thinking.
She was on a first-name basis with the director of ARIES. A director who’d just risked an international incident to free her from that damned makeshift hospital cell. A director who’d risked the life of another agent—an agent Sam loved and trusted more than he would his own son if he’d had one. But he obviously didn’t trust that agent enough to tell him she was a woman. He had to suspect that she’d slept with the man. She didn’t care.
It was better than the truth.
She sealed her fate with a single, telling shrug and damned herself to hell in the process. “Since Rita died, Sam and I have become…close.” It was the truth. But she also knew Jared would misconstrue it. Especially when she felt his gaze drop to the yawning gap in her shirt and linger there.
He dragged it up. “I’ll just bet you have.” His shadowy shrug was pointed. Insolent. “Too bad Sam has chosen to ignore your desires—and passed you off to me.”
Alex sucked up her pride as each of her forbidden fantasies about this man crumbled beneath reality. She should have caved in to temptation and engineered another meeting with Jared months ago, that one as herself. It would have saved her far too many sleepless nights. As it was, she still had to deal with this night. With him. The real Jared Sullivan and not some erotic figment of her imagination.
The silence between them thickened until it succeeded in deafening the constant nocturnal cacophony ringing through her ear. She should wait. Force him to break it.
To her astonishment, he did it on his own.
He reached up and pulled the knit cap from his head as he sighed. “Look, I was out of line. I have a lot of respect for Samuel Hatch. He’s a good director. A good man. What he does on his down time is his own business. Let’s just say I’m a little pissed to find out he sent me on a job without giving me all the facts. But I shouldn’t have taken that out on you. It’s not as if you knew I was coming.”
But she had concealed that same damning fact from him, hadn’t she? Not tonight, but three short months ago. Though she now knew this man would never, ever, bring up that brief, piercingly uncomfortable meeting, she could feel the accusation hanging between them—thrumming with betrayal.
He might not know that she’d overheard half that call, but he did know she’d come out of that bathroom in time to discover tears trickling down the face of the Man of Stone himself, just before she’d dared to offer her own awkward sympathy. Never once mentioning that she was a woman.
Maybe it was the convoluted effects of that blasted coma. Maybe it was the escape. Maybe it was the constant, distracting racket in her ear. Hell, maybe deep down she was really just a coward at heart. Because she’d just discovered that she didn’t have the nerve to address that night at Hatch’s house out loud, either. Much less confess that she knew why he’d been so devastated. So she addressed the only part she could. “You’re right. Sam is a good man.” The best. But he was also more.
At least to her.
Unfortunately, if Sam hadn’t confided their relationship to Jared, then it wasn’t her place to share it, either. To do so would shatter the bargain she and her uncle had struck years before and, whether or not she believed Sam, would also risk both their careers, as well as her life. A life Sam had entrusted to the man waiting patiently to see if she’d accept his apology.
She should. Truth be known, she owed Jared an apology, as well, for her behavior when she’d regained consciousness in his arms. Behavior she still didn’t understand. She knew full well the man hadn’t been copping a feel. From the few but telling comments Sam had dropped regarding this particular operative through the years, Jared Sullivan was not a rutting stag. The opposite, in fact. Hadn’t she overheard proof of that herself?
She sighed. “Look, Agent Sullivan—”
Alex stared into the dark, searched the shadows shrouding the man’s imposing body, especially the ones obscuring the equally imposing planes of his face. She finally gave up. He was just too far away. What she’d have given to have superhuman sight to go along with her souped-up hearing. Or at the very least have the nerve to snag that flashlight and shine it on that razor-sharp gaze. To know for certain if those eyes were glowing from the extension of an honest-to-goodness olive branch—or gleaming with open speculation.
He’d offered his real first name. What was hers?
She reached for the branch—and ignored the guilt. She extended her hand. “Dr. Alexandra Morrow.”
Even a detailed check into her background from someone at his level would support her claim. Whether or not he believed her, he extended his hand as well, the hard warmth engulfing hers. Heat slid up her arm. Her breath came out in rush.
He frowned. “You okay?”
“I’m fine.” She tugged her hand from his grip as quickly as she dared and forced a smile. “Still a little woozy, I guess.”
How long could she abuse that excuse?
His frown cleared as he nodded. “It’s because of the coma. I’m surprised you’ve held up as well as you have. You’re one for the medical books, you know that?”
She might. But he didn’t know the half of it.
She returned his nod, anyway. “I admit there was a moment there when I didn’t think I’d make it. If you hadn’t slung me into that harness…” She trailed off, wincing in memory—and then in reality as the magnified screech of a hoot owl somewhere overhead ripped through her skull. Even so, that owl had nothing on that thundering iron bird. “You saved my life back there. I’d like to thank—”
He shook his head, cutting her off. “It’s not necessary.”
“Yes, it is.” She risked the dizziness and captured his hands, squeezing them quickly. “Thank you.” She breathed her relief as the roiling vertigo remained at bay—until an unmistakably erotic pull replaced it as he squeezed back.
She swore she could feel the air between them warm. Thicken. She did not want to know if he felt it, too.
Leave it to her blasted hyperactive hearing aid to pick up the masked whoosh of his own breath. This time, it was his hand that executed a discreet retreat. His entire body withdrew several steps, too. He turned and dropped his stethoscope, flashlight and black knit hat beside the rucksack and machine gun he’d left at the base of a tree. He unhooked his web gear next, adding the nylon harness to the pile. His first-aid kit followed. Moments later his massive chest blocked her view as he hunkered down. It didn’t matter. The vibrations from the zippers at the legs of his jumpsuit ripped across her eardrum as he released the rows of metal teeth just above his boots. They died out as he stood to peel the insulated coveralls down and off his boots, boots that until that moment she hadn’t realized were more lumberjack than Airborne Ranger. A second later the jumpsuit joined the pile of gear. She watched, intrigued, as he tugged the rubber band from his hair. The shadows obscuring his features deepened as the thick silk slipped past his shoulders to settle around his face.
She nodded approvingly as he stepped in front of her. Evidently she wasn’t the only quick-change artist around. With his hair flowing freely and that matching cable-knit turtleneck toning down his massive chest and arms, in addition to his dark jeans and nondescript jump boots, Agent Sullivan looked more like a local woodsman out for a midnight stroll than a finely honed ARIES operative on the prowl in the backwoods of…
“Where are we?”
He stilled. “You don’t remember?”
Before she could answer, he turned back to the pile of gear, leaning down to retrieve something. She stared at the disk of that gleaming scope as he returned.
She steeled herself as he moved in close, determined to ignore his scent and his warmth as he tucked the cool disk into the curve of her upper breast. “I don’t have a blessed clue where we are. The last I remember, I was attending a conference in Holzberg. I’m not even sure how long I was out. I woke up a couple of days ago…I think. It’s hard to say, since I kept falling back under. Twice I saw someone else. A man. He’d been beaten severely. I think he was a doctor or at least a nurse assigned to treat me.”
He slipped the scope from the gap in her shirt and tucked it beneath her collar, sliding the disk far enough down her back to listen to her lungs. “Why?”
“He was wearing a white lab coat.”
“I don’t suppose—”
“No. I didn’t see a name. I didn’t hear one, either. Except for my own.” She breathed easier as he withdrew the scope and hooked the tubing around his neck—until he lit up the face of his watch. The dial glowed softly as he captured her wrist and timed her pulse. She willed it to slow.
Was that a good “hmm” or a bad “hmm”? She decided on the former, easing out her breath as he withdrew his fingers altogether, then headed for the pile of gear. He headed back, sans scope—but with a mini flashlight in his right hand.
“The man spoke to you?”
Her panic revved as Jared turned on the flashlight.
She dragged her gaze to his. She’d been right to worry earlier. Those amber eyes might be mesmerizing, but they were also much too shrewd for her peace of mind. She could almost feel her ear throb beneath them. He was waiting.
What had he asked her?
She shoved the panic down and cleared her throat. “Excuse me?”
“The man. You said you heard your name. Did he speak?”
“No—yes.” She shook her head, shook off the panic. “No. He wasn’t the one who called my name. But, yes, he did speak. The first time I came to, he was leaning over me, talking softly, as if he thought someone might be listening. At least I think so. At the time I was woozy, confused. I couldn’t understand the language. It could have been Rebelian, but I can’t be sure.” She’d been pretty out of it. “Anyway, by the time he switched to English, I’d passed out. The next time I awoke, he was handcuffed to the bed beside mine. At first I thought he might be sleeping—or dead. But then a couple of armed thugs entered the room. He’d been beaten into unconsciousness. They dragged him out, probably for another round of torture.” She fell silent as Jared sighed. The sound was heavy, rife with regret
“I’m sorry. I had my orders.”
“I know.” She also knew he truly hadn’t had time to search for the man when they left. In the end, neither of them had. If Jared had bowed to her demands and gone back, all three of them would be dead by now.
“I’ll put out the word. See what I can find out. Maybe we’ll get lucky. Hell, maybe he did.”
She flinched as Jared slid his fingers beneath her chin. He had to have noticed, but he didn’t comment on it as he gently turned her head and tipped it slightly. She forced the panic down again, forced herself not to pull away as he bathed the side of her face with the red glow from his flashlight.
“The thugs, did they say anything?”
She didn’t dare move, much less nod. “Yes. But again, I can’t be sure about the dialect. I do know they were carrying AK-47s. The rifles sported Romanian forward pistol grips.” No surprise there. The Romanian black market had been thoughtfully arming the goons of Eastern Europe for years. She dug her fingertips into her palms as he probed the line of stitches behind her right ear.
Don’t move. Keep him talking.
It just might keep him distracted enough.
“So…where exactly in Rebelia are we?”
It worked. He withdrew his fingers and switched off the flashlight before tucking it into the back pocket of his jeans. “Fifty-one kilometers inside the northeastern corner of the Hartz forest. Two days ago, another ARIES operative by the name of Robert Davidson and his fiancée Lily Scott discovered you were being held in General Bruno DeBruzkya’s stronghold, Veisweimar—a medieval castle that served as a makeshift prison in World War II. As you discovered for yourself, DeBruzkya has since turned the castle into a fortress. The information came from the general himself. He told Lily you were alive, but he never said you were unconscious. Hatch sent me in to pull you out.”
It made sense. The last thing she knew, she was supposed to meet a colleague. To discuss DeBruzkya and his threats to— Nothing. The memory stopped there.
“What is it?”
“My head.” More specifically, her memory. “It’s just not there.” She dug her fingers into her temples, but the impromptu massage didn’t help now any more than the previous hundred desperate kneadings had. “No matter how hard I try, I just can’t remember what happened.”
Thanks to her hearing aid, the base curse he’d meant to keep beneath his breath reverberated through her ear.
He sighed. “Don’t be. It’s not your fault. In fact, it’s extremely common. Most coma patients don’t remember the events directly proceeding their trauma. It’s called retrograde amnesia.”
Just what she didn’t need to hear.
Her curse echoed his.
“What do you remember? According to Hatch, the last he heard you were about to meet with a Delmonican colleague. A man by the name of Karl—”
“Weiss.” She nodded. “That much I do remember. I also remember why we were supposed to meet. Karl and I first met years ago, shortly after I joined ARIES. It took a few years to develop him, but he’s turned out to be one of my more reliable sources. He’d contacted me a couple of days before, asking me to meet him in Prague. But he was nervous. Karl said he’d stumbled across something regarding General DeBruzkya, something I would find fascinating…and frightening. I asked him to meet me in Washington, D.C. since I was scheduled to deliver a paper before the Congressional Subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards. Karl refused.”
She shrugged. “He didn’t say. But I got the distinct impression he was afraid he was being followed. Terrified even. And you have to know Karl—he’s a big man.” She flicked her gaze to Jared’s massive shoulders. “Almost as big as you. Karl doesn’t scare easily. But trust me, he was then.”
“So you agreed to meet on his turf.”
She nodded. “The conference in Holzberg was perfect. Karl’s a physicist who spends much of his spare time devoted to regional environmental issues, and I—”
“Received dual doctoral degrees in environmental geology and chemistry. You graduated with honors.”
She blinked. “How did you know that?”
“I read your dossier on the flight.”
She could have sworn he flushed.
It must have been the shifting shadows, the sliver of moonlight filtering through the slowly parting clouds. She shrugged it off and sent out a silent thanks to her former ARIES mentor for pounding home the first rule of undercover work six years before. Stick to the truth, honey, whenever and wherever possible. It’ll save you from getting bit in the ass when you least expect it. Good ol’ Aiden Swift. No doubt about her memory there.
She wished she could say the same for Karl. “I remember checking in to the hotel, but that’s it.”
“Nothing else at all? We know you arrived, because you sent an initial message. Try picturing yourself at the conference, seeing Karl, shaking his hand, sitting down to catch a lecture with him, even a meal. Try—”
“Dammit, I told you. I don’t remember. It’s like the whole conference was sucked into a black hole. There’s nothing to picture because there’s nothing there. I can’t remember if we were supposed to meet in my room or in his. Hell, I don’t even remember if we met at all.” She pushed her fingers to her temples and growled. But again, it didn’t help.
“Take it easy. It’s okay. If the memory’s not there, don’t force it. You’ll only lock yourself up more.”
She lowered her hands and sighed. “Is it permanent?”
“Loss of the final traumatic event that caused the amnesia can be. But given enough time and rest, you may be able to recall the memories leading up to it.”
May? She was stuck in the middle of Rebelia with no idea of who’d smashed in the side of her skull and dragged her across the border, and all Jared could do was tell her she may eventually remember? She turned and stalked over to the pile of gear he’d left at the base of the next tree, resisting the sudden, almost overwhelming urge to kick his rucksack back to Holzberg. And when those damned hands settled over her shoulders, their calming warmth sparked the opposite effect than the one he’d obviously intended, ratcheting her anger up another level.
She spun around. “Relax? That’s easy for you to say. You’re not the one with a great big blank where part of your life should be.”
He shrugged. “Like I said, it’s normal.”
“Normal.” She snorted, unable to let go of the inexplicable fury despite his soothing voice, or maybe because of it. She crossed her arms and glared at him. “You’re awfully calm for someone who just learned his partner has a hole in her brain.”
Another one of those infuriating enigmatic shrugs.
She was a split second from exploding when her fury simply…evaporated. Stranger still, she wasn’t as stunned by that as she was by the intense urge to weep that supplanted it.
No way. She did not cry. Dammit, she’d cried a total of three measly times in the past fifteen years. The first when her father died. The second when her aunt Rita had passed away. The third pity-fest had taken place four months later, halfway through graduate school, the day she’d discovered just how much the love of her life wasn’t in love with her. She hadn’t cried since.
So why the devil was she blubbering now?
“It’s the coma.” He tipped her chin. To her utter humiliation, he reached up and smoothed the tears from her cheeks.
“I swear, I never—” She sealed her shame with a violent, shuddering hiccup.
“I know. I told you, it’s the aftereffects of the coma.” He pulled her close and guided her head to his shoulder, stroking his hands up and down her back as she continued to sob for all she was worth, drenching the inky strands of his hair along with the wool sweater beneath. “Shh. It’s okay. The anger, the crying jags, the mood swings. They’re normal, I promise. They’ll pass.”
Eventually they did. At least this one did. Unfortunately, by that time she managed to pull herself together, the shame had set in. She tried backing away, but his arms stopped her.
She flinched as he tucked her hair behind her ear. She was simply too raw to prevent it. “Please. Let me go.”
“No.” His fingers slipped beneath her chin. “Look at me.”
Why? It was too dark.
Except it wasn’t. Not this close. Not anymore. The blanket of clouds had thinned even more, spreading apart to leave a generous three-quarter moon and a broad swath of stars behind. The twinkling lights studded the canopy of the pine forest, allowing her to make out that tawny gaze with painful perfection. She didn’t want to see it. To see him. And she certainly didn’t want him seeing her. Not like this. She’d hadn’t felt this exposed in her entire life. In less than two hours, under the obscuring cover of night, this man had managed to see far too much.
God only knew what he’d see in the harsh light of day.
“Are you okay now?”
Not by a long shot. “Yes. Will you please release me?”
They both breathed easier.
She stepped away from the pile of gear as he hunkered down, fully aware that she was affording herself room, rather than him. He dug through his ruck and pulled out a dark T-shirt. Before she could stop him, he’d stripped the sweater from his chest and he held it out.
“Put it on. We’ve got a decent hike ahead of us.”
“No, you keep it. Since you’ve read my file, you know I did my grad work in Colorado. I doubt I’ll even notice the cold.”
“You’ve also been in a coma for three weeks. Trust me, you’ll notice.”
Three weeks? Just like that, the vertigo returned. She swallowed the nausea that came with it. “That long?”
He nodded…and held out the sweater.
This time she took it. Evidently he was right about the mood swings, because she couldn’t muster the brazenness she’d ridden earlier as she’d stripped the prosthetic from her chest in front of him. She left the filthy shirt tied beneath her breasts and pulled the thick turtleneck on over it. His tantalizing scent swirled through her, suffocating her. Worse, the sweater still carried his heat.
Somehow she managed—until she glanced up and caught the glimmer of moonlight slipping across that seriously sculpted, dangerously dusky chest. A moment later the rippling muscles disappeared beneath the T-shirt. Disappointment warred with relief as he tucked the hem into his jeans, then leaned down to repack his rucksack. But at least her lungs had kicked in. She breathed deeply as she pushed up the sweater’s sleeves.
Shock yanked the air right back out.
She raised her right arm and fingered the damp stitching again, the raw edges of the rip. She leaned closer, this time sniffing the knit fabric, and cursed.
“You were shot.”
He nodded as leaned down to tuck his jumpsuit into the ruck. “Grazed.”
“Let me take a look.”
“I already did.” Before she could argue, he reached into his first-aid kit and pulled out another cravat. He flipped the green fabric over itself and wrapped the resulting triangle around his right biceps as he stood. “But you can tie it off for me.”
Alex retrieved the ends as he stepped in front of her, avoiding the man’s steady gaze as she pulled the fabric snugly against the muscle bulging beneath the bandage. His subtle, smoky scent swirled through her. Dammit, he was fantasy fodder, nothing more. A figment of her dreams. She secured the knot quickly and stepped back. “How far?”
His dark brows rose as he glanced up.
“The hike,” she clarified. “I assume we’re headed to a safe house.”
“We are. Four kilometers.” He flipped his thumb over his right shoulder. “That way.”
“And this new assignment? It has to do with Karl and Bruno DeBruzkya, doesn’t it?”
Jared took a step back, as well. But he said nothing.
He was holding out on her. She could feel it. The air between them had changed. Grown cool, distant. Almost wary. Like him. For a man who’d been tasked with a mission, a mission he’d already told her she shared, he was suspiciously closemouthed. Why? All she’d done was ask about DeBruzkya and—
Jared reversed his direction, this time stepping toward her. Still guarded, still wary. If anything, even more so. His body language sealed it. Her memory might not have been functioning up to par, but her instincts were. She took a deep breath, sucked up the pain and regret and just said it. “He’s dead, isn’t he?”
Jared nodded slowly. “When ARIES lost contact with you, they went searching for Karl. He wasn’t there. Not in your room or his. He didn’t settle his hotel bill, nor did he attend his own lecture scheduled for the following day. He just vanished. Our recon team found traces of blood in his room. His type. A week later his body turned up on the outskirts of town. It wasn’t pretty.” He reached out and cupped his hands to her shoulders. “You okay?”
“No. He was a contact, but he was also my friend.” She grimaced at the irony of it. At her pathetic self. Karl might have been her friend. But he hadn’t even known she was a woman.
“H-how—” She swallowed the tears that threatened for the second time. She refused to give in to them. Nothing would be gained by it. Karl would be better served if she focused on finding the bastard who murdered him. She pictured her friend. His shaggy blond hair. His awkward, hulking body. That damned goofy grin. The passion that radiated off him when he spoke about his true love, physics.
The tears dried and the pain in her heart eased, if only slightly. But at least she could think about Karl without that stifling sense of suffocation that had clamped down onto her lungs since she awoke. She could even see him at the conference, in his hotel room— “That’s it!”
“You remember seeing him?”
“Yes. We were supposed to meet in his hotel room. We did. I was furious, too.”
“Because he’d had me fly halfway around the world to rehash some wild Rebelian legend about the Gem of Power.”
“The Gem of—”
“Power.” She nodded. “I know. As wacky as it sounds, it’s true. It has to do with some ancient regional story about a jewel that was supposed to give one man the power to rule the world. Can you believe it? Karl Weiss was a contender for the Nobel prize in physics three years ago, and he’s wasting my time on some pile of hokey drivel. I was pissed as hell and I told him so.” Poor, driven, didn’t-get-out-much, Karl.
Maybe that’s why they’d hit it off.
“You’re sure it’s hokey?”
She blinked. Surely Jared wasn’t referring to Karl’s tale? She studied his face in the moonlight.
Good Lord, he was.
“What did you say your degree was in?”
“I dropped out before high school. Eighth grade. I have a GED.” Shame burned through her as he stepped away and turned to busy himself with tucking the spare ammo magazines into the side pockets on the rucksack. Except for the prosthetic chest, the remnants of her disguise followed his gear into the main pouch.
He pulled the flap down and tugged it tight.
Way to go, Alex. Open mouth, insert foot. Chew.
“Why?” He shrugged. “I’m not.”
She opened her mouth, but his gaze cut her off. A gaze that unfortunately, despite the two feet of forest between them, she could see quite clearly. Steel wasn’t gray, it was amber.
Dark, cool amber.
He swung the ruck onto his shoulders, then grabbed the machine gun and prosthetic, effectively ending the conversation as he turned to take the lead position through the sparse but shadowy forest undergrowth. Maybe he was right. Maybe it was best to let it drop. At least for the moment.
She turned to follow him. Alex took exactly five steps—and stiffened.
Either Jared’s hearing was as good as hers or his instincts were better, because he swung around. “What is it? Are you still feeling dizzy—”
She held up her hand.
He fell silent. Unfortunately the forest didn’t. The sounds were faint, but they were definitely there. Snarling, yapping. Yelping. She definitely heard it. Heard them. An entire pack of them.
Dogs. Worse, she could make out the faint bellows of their handlers as well. Adrenaline surged through her. “Run!” She lurched forward and grabbed Jared’s arm, managing to drag his massive body a good eight feet before he jerked the both of them to a halt. “Move, dammit! I hear bloodhounds.”
And they were racing toward them.
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