An excerpt of Beyond the Rules

By Anna del Mar


Chapter One

Nina

I was close to my destination when the plane caught fire. Smoke streamed from the nose of the Cessna Skyhawk I’d rented in Kalispell. My guess was that one or more bullets had hit the single engine during takeoff and caused a smoldering fire that was gaining traction. I’d been training to fly for a few months, but now the instrument panel was going haywire and the propeller sputtered, hacking as if it suffered from a terminal disease.

I was going down. No doubt about it. My best hope was to land the two-seater right away. It was a hard call to make. The training program I’d been learning on rebooted automatically after you crashed. What were the chances that would happen in the real world?

Don’t panic, Nina, keep it together. I ignored my heart’s frantic pounding and clutched the control wheel as if I could keep the plane in the air by the sheer force of my grip. I’d never attempted an emergency landing. Now I wished I’d forked out the dough to do so with an experienced pilot by my side.

I scanned the terrain below. The peaks of Montana’s Absaroka Range looked pretty jagged, like can openers to the Skyhawk’s flimsy fuselage. I spotted a little meadow ahead, a crooked ribbon of grass. Huge mountains and dense forests hemmed it on both sides and a brook meandered in the middle, a crack in the landscape. Not ideal, but what the hell. I steered the plane in the meadow’s direction and checked my cell’s GPS. As the crow flies, I was less than fifteen miles from my destination. So freaking close.

The smoke in the cabin choked me as it turned darker and thicker. I coughed, then hacked, forcing myself to think through the fear squeezing my throat. My cell. It was my lifeline. I snatched it from the holder and stuffed it securely in my bra. Next I reached over and grabbed my laptop. I’d be shit out of luck if I lost it. I slung the padded case over my shoulder and tightened it until it was snug against my side. Out of my window, I spotted a red flicker running along the fuselage. Holy hell. If the flames reached the gas tanks, it was done and over.

I aimed for the clearing, applied another ten degrees of flaps and turned the knob to decrease power. I banked the ailerons to correct for crosswinds and pressed on the foot pedals to align with the clearing. In my business, it paid to go for it. So I went for it.

The clearing came at me in slow motion, but the ground collided against the landing gear at brain-rattling speed and the plane careened into the woods and wedged into a cluster of pines. I turned in the seat and grabbed for my duffel, but like the plane, it was also on fire. The flames singed my hands, sending pain screeching through my body.

Forget the duffel. Get away. I pushed open the door and leapt out, but I was much higher than I expected. I hung in the air for a second too long before I hit the ground. My ankle buckled and a sharp jolt shot up my leg. Crap. I dropped on all fours and crawled as fast as I could.

The explosion echoed in the little valley. A hot rush of air gusted over me and shoved me face first into the ground. I braced on my arms and kept going, laptop beating against my hip, hands hurting and knees stinging as I tumbled down to the edge of the creek. The second explosion hit just about then, another thunderous boom that reverberated for miles on end.

I may have lost consciousness. When I came to, I was sprawled on my back and a black column of smoke obscured the sky. My vision flickered. I blinked to clear my eyes and sat up with a groan. My hands throbbed. I looked down and winced. My palms and most of my fingers were red, swollen, and blistered. This was going to be tricky.

My laptop. I had a moment of panic. Where was it? I groped with my forearms and found it secured against my side. I let out a shaky breath. Okay. I was still in play.

Move. Fast. Find Ulysses. My head ached and my ears rang with a ferocity that stunned me. Time. I had none to waste. It was only a matter of hours before Dimayev’s thugs caught up with me. I tried to stand up. My head spun and my ankle hurt so badly that tears sprang from my eyes. Okay, sit for a minute. I eased myself onto a big, flat chunk of granite. Think.

The ringing in my ears became a rumble and then a roar. The earth trembled and, before my brain registered the cause, an ATV climbed over the opposite bank and stopped. A lean, muscular man dressed in cammies and an olive jacket straddled a Polaris. The ATV’s paint job matched the driver’s green woodland fatigues. He focused his mirrored shades on me. My heart shot up to my throat. Had they found me already?

No, they couldn’t possibly be on the ground so fast. Well…maybe. The back of my trembling hand rubbed reflexively around my neck, where a set of yellowing bruises proved that anything was possible. But I’d disabled the only other aircraft in the hangar and made sure they couldn’t follow me. Who was this man?

My pulse pounded in my ears. The cool fall weather filtered through my bewildered senses and became a cold, clammy embrace that iced my bones. Keep it together. This guy wasn’t shooting…yet.

“You okay?” the man asked, face shadowed by a baseball cap. “You need help?”

Yeah, I needed help. No, he shouldn’t give it. I’d say all that, if my throat decided to work and my body stopped shivering. If I could somehow figure out if he was my enemy or not.

“Ma’am?” He slipped the shades up and perched them on the rim of his hat. A pair of mossy green eyes assessed me from above. No murderous glee in his stare. Calm. So calm. Methodic even. “Was there anyone else in that plane?”

I shook my head and managed speech. “Me… Only me.”

“Stand by.” He grabbed the radio attached to his belt. “I’m gonna call this one in.”

“No, please!” The words just burst out. “I’m fine. Don’t call the police.”

“Sit tight. It’s not the police I’m calling.” He kept his stare on me and clicked on the radio. “Rogue, this is Eagle, do you copy?”

“This is Rogue.” A deep bass echoed from the radio. “We copy. What was that about?”

“I’ve got a situation at the meadow,” he said. “I might need an assist.”

“Be there in a sec. Rogue out.”

“Okay, let’s do this.” The guy tucked away the radio and gave me a confident smile, a flash of bright white against olive skin that felt oddly soothing to my senses. “You’re gonna have to be patient, so don’t pass out on me. I’m not exactly up to speed, but I’m coming down.”

I fought a wave of dizziness, bent over my knees and, rocking back and forth, tried to function through the haze. Find Ulysses. It had to be my priority. Find Ulysses and maybe survive. I looked down at my singed hands and my throbbing ankle. How the hell was I going to do that now?

The guy revved up the engine and maneuvered the ATV down the muddy bank, clearing the crumpled boulders and splashing across the stream. He edged the ATV next to me and parked. The olive green fleece stretching over his pecs matched the color of his eyes exactly, playing up the luminous browns that deepened his skin. It was a little odd, but he picked up his left leg and, rotating on the seat, brought it over to the right side.

“Made it.” Another dazzling, devastating, self-assured smile. “I’m slow but reliable.”

He grabbed a backpack out of the ATV’s cargo net and slung it over his shoulder. Then he reached for a pair of aluminum poles, lengthened them and locked them in place with a few strategic clicks. Crutches?

I wasn’t sure if I could trust my eyes, or my brain for that matter. I felt pretty woozy at the moment. As he pushed off the seat, he looked too fit to need crutches. Regardless, he fitted his buff upper arms in the cuffs, clutched the handgrips and maneuvered his way to me.

The darkness hit me without warning. A flash of the old nightmare smacked my senses. The water closed in over my head and the cold dark pulled at my feet like a silent monster. I couldn’t breathe. I was drowning again, sinking into the chilling depths of a cavernous ocean. My brother’s blurry face hovered just beyond the surface, a ghost reaching out from the past. His hand broke through the watery wall. I reached up, but my fingers slipped through Daniel’s. In that instant, he was gone. I sank down, ears popping, head pounding, the last bubbles of air escaping from my mouth and rising toward the refracting sunlight.

“Hold on.” Another hand crashed through the waves and caught me. “Come on, girl. I need you awake. Stick with me.”

I opened my eyes and found myself back in Montana. No ocean trying to drown me here, no flashback, only the mountains surrounding me, and the striking hunk who held me in his arms. The steady sound of his heartbeat filled my ears. The scent of him, fresh cut wood, loam, and insect repellent filled my lungs. He looked down at me, green eyes alert as he did a quick check—pupils, pulse, breathing.

“You’re back.” His smile lit up his eyes and raised a pair of devilishly arched eyebrows on his forehead. “Looks like you hit your head pretty hard, but no worries. I’ve got you.”

The man’s confidence, his attitude, his poise—everything about him reassured me.

“I’m Tanner Vasquez,” he said in a soft, melodic voice as he helped me sit up. “Do me a favor. Can you move your toes and fingers for me?”

I did as he asked. Things felt achy and rusty, but everything worked.

“Excellent.” He stretched his fingers before my face. “How many do you see?”

“Three?”

“Ding, ding, ding. Right answer. You win.”

My prize was more of his smile. “Are you like a doctor or something?”

“No, but I trained as a corpsman. Does that count?”

Trained as a corpsman? That meant Navy. Or the Marines. Good news. My luck might still hold up. Something about this guy reminded me of my brother. His rapport. It was as if he was used to finding plane-wrecked women in his backyard every day.

“Let’s take a quick look.” With a gentle hold, he turned my hands around. The single line between his eyebrows deepened. “Ouch. This looks like it could hurt a little.”

He grabbed a bottle from his pack and poured some water over my palms. The shock hit me full on. I’d crashed. Crashed! The shakes ramped up, the sobs rose up from the bottom of my lungs, and a surge of scalding tears stung my eyes.

“Hey, hey, look at me, sweetheart.” He tilted up my face and met my gaze. “That’s right. Eyes on me. Let’s get you warm.” He took off his jacket, put it over my shoulders and rubbed my arms, working up a measure of heat into my limbs. “You’re okay. What’s your name?”

“Nina,” I mumbled and then gave myself a mental kick in the ass for using my real nickname.

“Pretty name.” He pulled out some wipes from his backpack and ran a cool, clean-smelling towel over my face, soiling the white tissue with brown and red smudges. “Can you take a few deep breaths for me?”

I focused on his eyes and took a breath and then another.

“Good, keep breathing.” He ran his fingers over my body in a practiced trajectory that told me he was assessing me for head, neck and spine injuries, then moved on to palpate my torso for internal bleeding. He made a move to pull the strap of the laptop case over my head, but I clung to it.

“Hey, no problem, you can keep it if you like.” His hands worked around the case. “You’re on the ground now. You’re safe.”

Safe? No, not really, not yet, but he didn’t know a thing about that. His competence convinced me that he was indeed a trained corpsman. His kindness toward a total stranger astounded me. Where I came from, people got beaten up and left for dead in the streets and no one cared. One other thing. A guy with a smile like his? He couldn’t be a ruthless, violent thug like the ones who’d been chasing me. No way.

I flinched when his hands probed my lower leg.

“Sorry.” He flashed me a reassuring glance before he continued with a light, delicate touch. “It’s probably a sprain. The hospital will figure it out.”

“No hospital,” I snapped.

“I’m very good, sweetheart.” His mouth curved into that delicious grin. “But I don’t have X-ray vision.”

“I can’t go to the hospital. No police either. Understood?” I spoke quickly, too quickly, thinking about the brutes hunting me, of what they would do if they found me, of what they would do to this Good Samaritan if they found him with me. “I think you should leave.”

“Leave?” His forehead furrowed into a puzzled frown. “And abandon you here? In the middle of nowhere? After you’ve been in a plane crash?”

“Yes, leave.” It was his best option. “And forget you ever saw me.”

He ripped open a tiny packet and shook some tablets onto his palm. “Open up.” He dropped the pills in my mouth and tipped a bottle to my lips. “Take a drink.”

The water felt good to my throat, new life to my parched body. I drank some more, greedy mouthfuls that helped offset the shakes. Keep it together. Get to Ulysses.

“You know, Nina,” Tanner said while spraying my hand with an antiseptic lotion. “I’ve seen all kinds of shit hit the fan, but never before has anyone in need of help sent me away. This is a first. For sure.”

“I know you think I’m in shock and can’t think straight,” I said, fighting to suppress the hysterics sharpening my voice. “Some of that might be true. But I’m telling you. You need to leave. Hanging out with me? Not safe.”

“What about you?” he asked, wrapping some loose bandages over my hands.

“I have a place I need to be,” I said. “And I’ll get there.”

His eyebrows touched the rim of his baseball cap. “And how exactly do you plan to get away from here with your hands scalded and your ankle out of commission?”

He made a very good point. I wasn’t thinking exactly in a straight line. On the other hand, this was my mess and he didn’t have to die for it. “I’ll figure out a way, I always do. Please, leave now, before it’s too late.”

“Sorry, Nina. No can do. Leaving is not my style. I’m thinking you’re in trouble. You’re either crazy or scared shitless and I’m betting on option two.”

He was right, but I wasn’t going to tell him that. He was also stubborn, I could see that in the glint of his eyes and the set of his mouth. His lips were long, smooth, and succulent, with the lower wider than the upper. I don’t know why—maybe it was a moment of misguided gratitude—but in that instant, I really wanted to kiss him. I wanted to nibble on his mouth, run my tongue along the seam of his silken lips, and breach the boundary.

Uh-oh. Intruder alert. This guy had trouble written all over him. His face. His kindness. His competence. His body. Oh, yeah, his body and the way his biceps rippled beneath his sleeves. He was kind of…scrumptious.

Scrumptious? I gave myself another mental kick in the ass. What was wrong with me?

A concussion. That had to be it. The hit to the head had clobbered me silly.

“Hey, Nina?” He gave my arm a little squeeze. “You seem a little dazed. Are you okay?”

“Probably not.” I blinked away my crazy thoughts and pressed the back of my hand against my forehead, wondering if I had a fever. “I’m thinking brain damage.” It was the only way to explain my completely inappropriate reactions.

“You really may be in shock,” he offered.

“Yup, I’m in shock, for sure.”

Focus, Nina. I was in the wilderness of freaking Montana, running from a deadly enemy, in search of the only person who could help me. I didn’t have time to ogle a stranger who looked and smelled like a full-throttled male, a breed I’d been familiar with once upon a time, a rare and reclusive species.

And he wasn’t just looks either. I recognized the brain behind the brawn in his gaze. I spent most of my waking time with my laptop, but I was a fairly good judge of character. This guy wasn’t about to be persuaded to leave right now. Plan B, then. Speed this up and get him out of danger while getting to Ulysses.

“If you won’t leave,” I said, “then I need you take me somewhere.”

“Wow.” His lips turned up into a lopsided smirk. “And now she wants to be the boss of me?”

“I mean it. This is important. Can you take me where I need to go?”

He studied me closely. “And where would that be?”

“I have an address.” I winced when I went to retrieve my cell out of my bra. My hands were not amenable to grasping anything at the moment. I let out a frustrated huff and pointed my thumb to my cleavage. “Hands. In here.”

He arched a sharp brow and flashed me a roguish grin. “Very tempting, sweetheart, but we just met.”

He was funny. And sexy. But I had no time for laughs. Or for flirting. “There’s a cell. In my bra. Take it out. Now.”

“You are a bossy thing.” He leaned over my chest and dipped his hand beneath my T-shirt. “Pardon my reach…”

His hand was both gentle and firm as he groped for the cell. His touch sent tingles all over my body. God, I wanted my brain back! I closed my eyes and tried to think clearly. I needed my head scanned. He was hot, no two ways about it. In a different setting, he would’ve been trouble for sure. But not here, not now.

“Success.” He held up the cell. “Extraction accomplished.”

I went to grab the cell from him, but as soon as I drew my fingers together, I ended up smarting again. Dammit. My fingertips were my connection to the world. I depended on my devices for everything. I was helpless without the use of my hands.

“Let me do it.” Tanner clicked on the screen and brought up the security prompt. “Do you have a password?”

I pointed at my eye. “Retinal recognition.”

“Awesome.” He held the scanner to my eye until it locked on my pupil and beeped. “You’re up on your tech, girl.”

If he only knew how much. “I do like my gadgets.”

He brought up the main screen and showed it to me. “What do you need?”

“Punch the U icon,” I said. “Yeah, that’s good. Bring up the GPS. Look at the coordinates. That’s where I need to be.”

His gaze lingered longer than necessary on the satellite map I’d programmed into my Ulysses app. He turned the cell one way, then the other, as if checking his bearings before his stare homed in on me with telescopic intensity.

“And you need to go there…why?”

I was about to invent a new story, one he would buy, but thrashing came from the woods, along with the unmistakable pounding of boots on dirt, a sound that had me bolting to my feet.

“What’s wrong?” Tanner said.

What was wrong was not explainable in the short time we had left to live. I peered over the bank and caught sight of two figures bursting out of the tree line at a full run. My pulse skyrocketed. The newcomers wore fatigues and carried packs and heavy weapons strapped to their backs. Their speed and form screamed hired muscle. A wave of raw fear crashed over me and wiped out my reason. There was only one thing to do.

Run.

I bolted to my feet, took a step, and almost screamed from the pain. My ankle caved in. I went down, but Tanner reached out and caught me.

“Easy now.” He settled me back on his lap. “I don’t think you’re going anywhere fast.”

“They’re coming!”

“Who?” he said with mind-boggling equanimity. “Who’s coming?”

My mouth worked the air. My pulse pounded in my head. I wasn’t going to be the only casualty. They were going to kill Tanner. He would die. For no reason at all. They’d shoot him. Just like they’d killed the hangar attendant.

“You need to go.” I twisted in his arms and began to elbow myself away from him, looking for a place to hide among the boulders. “You’re a nice guy. So get your ass on your ATV and go.”

“Slow down.” He caught me by the waist and hauled me back without much effort. “If I’m such a nice guy, why are you in such a rush?”

“They’re coming!” I fought to get free. “Right now. They’ve got guns!”

To my horror, the outline of two men broke the bank’s uneven horizon. They looked giant to me, broad-shouldered, muscled, and tall. No way could I outrun them. Or fight them. They loomed over us, powerful chests rising and falling, nostrils quivering with the force of their breaths, shrewd eyes taking us in with the sort of systematic precision that chilled my soul.

“It’s too late.” I muttered under my breath. “When they ask, tell them the truth. You’ve never seen me before. You don’t even know my name.”

Tanner’s confused gaze shifted between me and the men. “But—”

“Not a word,” I snapped under my breath. “Stay behind me and remember. You know nothing about me.”

I took a deep breath, pushed myself up from Tanner’s lap and, interposing myself between the thugs and him, challenged the men with a glare. I wasn’t going to let them kill another innocent. I just wasn’t. 



Chapter Two

Tanner

The woman I’d found wrecked in the meadow was terrified. I didn’t have to be one of the world’s busiest personality profilers to know that. When she glanced back at me, a spark of panic lit a pair of golden-hued irises that echoed the desert at dawn. Her wide-eyed stare revealed she’d seen things capable of shaking a bright mind and brave soul.

How I knew she was smart was a no-brainer. She was looking for Ulysses. And she’d made it this far. That in itself was as improbable as it was impressive. One quick look at her app and I didn’t need to draw on a lifetime of training as a human intelligence operative to know she was kickass spanking brilliant.

How I knew she was brave was also a piece of cake. From the moment I’d set eyes on her, she’d been fighting her reactions and working through her shock with impressive grit. Hell, I’d seen veteran operators shaken over a hard landing and crying over contact burns. She’d been in a plane wreck and wasn’t even complaining. Top all that with the fact she’d just tried to shield me with her body, and the profiler in me was captivated.

She was on the run. Pretty obvious, though she wasn’t about to admit it just yet. The injuries she’d sustained wouldn’t kill her, but she had to be sore. The high dose of ibuprofen I’d given her would ease the pain, but still, she needed help.

The face that had emerged after I wiped off the blood and soot was nice to look at. A pair of upraised lips formed a small but sumptuous mouth that seemed perpetually suspended in a pucker. Or a kiss. Oh, yeah, a kiss from that mouth would be nice. Plush. Sensual. The mental image of her mouth closing around the tip of my cock made me hard. Fuck. I didn’t need a hard on right now. Stick to your profile, Vazquez. Even the best profilers were not immune to their subjects.

Her gaze shifted between me and the guys on the ledge, glittering with bewitching intensity. Fair, arched eyebrows punctuated her thoughts. The brow/eye combo were a profiler’s dream, an open window to her mind. The little glances she stole at me were signed and sealed confessions.

Lots of personality on that face. Lots of choices made to underscore who she was and who she wanted to be. Like the tiny diamond stud perched on the corner of her small, slightly upturned nose. Or the blunt angles cut into her short platinum mane. Or the little tattoo I’d spotted at the bottom of her wrist, the skeleton of a tiny frog ringed by a telling reminder: Hack the happy today.

Had I been a hundred percent, she’d be patched, packed up and under way. She’d be safe and feeling so. But these days, I was a human snail and it would’ve taken me a hell of a long while to get her down the mountain by myself. Adapt. I could hear the doctor’s voice in my head. Adapt my ass. Get on the ball, Vasquez.

I smirked at the men on the ridge. “What took you so goddamn long?”

“It was uphill the entire fucking way.” Zar assessed Nina with his keen, blue-eyed gaze.

“The old man was gonna keel over from a heart attack,” Aiden offered quietly in his New England accent, his brown eyes bright and alert as he took in the situation. At thirty-seven, Zar was by no means ready for the cemetery, but we always gave him shit about his age, since he was two years older than me and four years older than Aiden.

“Bullshit.” Zar swiped Aiden with his icy glare then returned his attention to Nina. “What the hell do we have here?”

“Do you know them?” Nina’s gaze wavered between them and me. Her chest rose and fell in shallow gasps that pushed the top of her small, round breasts against her T-shirt. The panic in her eyes tore up my guts.

“Yeah, sweetheart, I happen to know these two.” I put my arm over her shoulder and gave her a reassuring squeeze. “We came out here hoping to bag some elk today. The ugly guy with the boonie hat is Balthazar Flint, but he goes by Zar. That giant, long-haired hippy with the man bun and the scruff on his face is Aiden Black. His barber sucks.”

Aiden pulled up half his mouth into a semblance of a smile, an effort I appreciated. Zar was Zar. His stare roamed over Nina, the meadow, the smoldering wreck, and back to Nina. He wasn’t liking any of what he saw.

“Sit-rep?” he demanded.

“This is Nina.” I toned it down for her benefit. “She just tried to shield me from the bullets she thought you guys were gonna put into me. She was in a plane crash and she doesn’t like the police. Or hospitals. Or guys with guns.”

“Is that so?”

I didn’t like the glint in Zar’s eyes. Aiden went real still. I had some convincing to do and they didn’t even know the most interesting part yet.

“She’s been hurt.” I glared at both fools. “She needs help.”

“Actually, no, I don’t need any help.” Nina raised her little square chin in the air and steeled her voice. “All I need is a lift. I need to get somewhere. Quickly.”

Her expression might’ve been defiant if she didn’t look so battered and exhausted. Enough with the talking. I needed to take care of her.

“So?” Time to put this to a vote. “What’s the verdict?”

“She’s a bossy one,” Aiden observed, lifting his split eyebrow high on his forehead.

“Hey!” Nina protested.

I shrugged. “Can’t argue with truth.”

“And where does she want to go?” Zar asked, from the depths of his tactical mind.

I still had Nina’s cell in my hand, so I lifted it up. “May I?”

Not that she had a lot of choice in the matter, but she nodded and I tapped on the U app and tossed the cell over to Zar. He caught it as a rumble of thunder rattled the earth, sounding a lot closer than I liked. Aiden leaned over Zar’s shoulder and together they looked at the GPS satellite pics. Nary a wiggle of the eyebrows from either one of them. Their faces came up to meet my gaze, blank as whiteboards.

“Well?” I said. “What is it gonna be?”

“Hospital,” Zar spat, non-committal.

“No way,” Nina said.

The shiver shaking her body made me mad as hell. “She doesn’t want to go to the hospital.”

“I heard.” Zar flashed his fangs. “Why is that?”

“Do we really have to talk about that shit now?” Couldn’t he see that she was hurting and exhausted and making a huge effort to hold it together?

“Lots on the line,” was all Zar said.

He wasn’t wrong about that.

“Look, I realize this all sounds really bad,” Nina said, demonstrating she had balls, ’cause Zar was an intimidating son of a bitch and she had to be burning fumes in her tank. “But the longer we linger here, the worse it is. For everybody. Right now, your lives are in danger. Because you’re with me. If they come, we’re all going to be in deep trouble.”

“Why are you telling us this?” I asked, aiming to show Aiden and Zar the kind of person we were dealing with. “You could’ve told us a lie or something.”

“And get you killed for no reason at all?” She shook her head. “Uh-uh. I don’t think so.”

I looked at the guys and gave them a mental “there you go.”

Zar was in no mood for mercy. “Who’s ‘they’ and what do ‘they’ want with you?”

“Can’t tell you, for your own good.” Nina held her ground. “Got that?”

“Yeah.” Zar glared. “I got it all right.”

Aiden let out a sigh, dropped his load at the top of the bank, and picked his way between the rocks on his way down to us.

“Where the hell are you going?” Zar asked.

“Well,” Aiden mumbled, jumping across the creek from one boulder to the next. “When she puts it clear as mud like that, I’m gonna take her where she wants to go.”

Zar’s glare found a new target on Aiden. “Seriously?”

“We can’t leave her here.” Aiden clambered over to us.

Zar growled. “Why the hell not?”

“She’s wearing a Global Mayhem T-shirt.”

“So?” Zar’s gaze shifted to the emblem on Nina’s pink shirt and so did mine.

“Means she’s cool.” Aidan came to stand next to us on the slab of granite, his large, tall body casting a long shadow over Nina. “She’s gotta be. Not too many of her.”

She craned her neck and met Aiden’s gaze. “You know Global Mayhem?”

“Swedish. Alternative rock. Dig it.”

Her mouth went a little slack. “I’ve never met anyone who knew about them.”

Aiden actually smiled. “You and me, kiddo.”

It was more words than I’d heard from Aiden all week, hell, maybe even all month, and they included a smile, his genuine one. It also made the vote two against one, so we had our marching orders.

“We need to get moving,” I said. “The storm is closing in and we’ve got some clicks to cover.”

“I’ll take a look at the wreck while you get her ready,” Zar grumbled, the sore loser. He took off, moving swiftly uphill, on the lookout.

I grabbed my crutches. “Shall we do this?”

“Okay,” Nina mumbled, “but whatever happens, don’t tell me I didn’t warn you.”

“Roger that,” I said, helping her up.

As soon as she stood, she sucked in her breath through her teeth.

“Hey, Aiden?” I said. “Her ankle is shot.”

Aiden considered the situation for a moment, then bent over, leaned his shoulder into Nina’s middle and scooped her up, hauling her into a fireman’s carry.

Nina’s eyes went wide with surprise. “Boy, it’s high up here.” She shifted on his shoulder. “How tall are you?”

“Six six, last time I checked.” Aiden tucked his hand under her knee and secured his hold on her.

“I feel like I’m up in the stratosphere.” She let out a short, nervous laugh, a belly-powered giggle that lightened my mood and echoed in the little valley. “Thanks for the lift.”

“My pleasure.” Aiden gave her another smile and stalked up the bank, long legs powering the climb and easily negotiating the boulders.

Hell, this was getting good. I hadn’t caught Aiden flirting with anyone for a long while. And make no mistake about it, by his standards, Aiden was flirting. On any day, he was really stingy with both his words and his smile. He was okay with us, but he rarely ever engaged with strangers. For Aiden, this was milestone territory.

“Watch her hands,” I called out, engaging in the slow-as-fucking-a-virgin process of getting back on the ATV.

“You need help?” Zar hollered from somewhere afield.

“Hell, no.” I didn’t need help. I just needed time to grow old while I shuffled over, secured my backpack and, after leaning on the ATV, helped my lazy left leg over the seat, ignoring the jolts of pain shooting up and down my spine.

It was a depressing process and I might have dwelled on how fucking depressing it was, except I was busy considering the days’ facts. Nina’s unexpected arrival. My initial profile of her. My observations on my own reactions toward her. Aiden’s positive reactions.

Adding all of these factors together made me think of the possibilities. After all, that’s what I did for a living. I watched and observed, gathering history, info and intel, in order to come up with individual personality frameworks that told us who someone was and how they thought and operated in life. Once the profile was ready, I projected my analysis forward to predict future behaviors.

I only had a rough sketch on Nina so far, but it was an encouraging one. I had a lot more work to do, but the best news was that I was itching to get to it. As to the three of us, I had our profiles down. Hell, we’d lived and trained together, survived seven deployments and ten days on a deadly Syrian ridge. We had our battle-forged bond and our oath to each other, which held us together, helped us cope, and transitioned us in and out of the worlds we inhabited. Only one aspect of our pact had proven difficult and, although we hardly ever talked about it, the social scientist in me knew that each of us—individually and collectively—struggled with it.

Could Nina be the key to bridging the gap? I shook my head and fired the ignition. I was jumping the gun, but the indicators were so goddamn promising. Could she be the fit we were looking for?

I was intrigued. A new sense of guarded optimism came with the novelty of Nina’s sudden arrival and shook up the exhausting, dull discipline of our daily grind. Perhaps Aiden was intrigued, too. Zar…not so much. I needed to ramp down the hope and turn on the brain. Zar was a tough nut to crack and not always helpful to himself. I had to remind myself that there were a lot of variables in this equation.

I drove the four-wheeler out of the gulley, a ride that was safer with only one person on board. Once out of the creek bed, Aiden helped Nina to straddle the seat behind me. She was pale and looking wobblier by the moment, so we secured her to me by a couple of straps.

Aiden buckled on his backpack and clutched his rifle against his chest. “I’ll take point.”

Zar prowled out of the forest, carrying his weapon in the ready low-forward position. “I’ll bring up the rear.”

It’d taken a little doing, but the guys were solid and now we were in business.

Nina’s voice came over my shoulder, trembling and uncertain. “Do you guys always carry ginormous guns wherever you go?”

“We were hunting, remember?” I glanced at her over my shoulder and reassured her with a smile. “And this is Montana. We like our firepower out here.”

“Ah, yes, I’ve heard about the wild, wild west.”

Her attempt at humor spoke volumes about her, but I really needed to get her squared away and rested. I revved the engine, allowed Aiden to jog ahead, and prepared for the long trek down the mountain. Time to get this show on the road.

“Thanks for helping me.” Her voice was soft and weary against my ear and her arms were coiled around my waist, bandaged palms facing up. The feel of her breasts pressing against my back was gonna drive me insane the whole way down. Mind out of the gutter, Vazquez.

“No need to thank me,” I said. “It had to be done.”

“Believe me, if I make it through this, one day, I’m coming back to thank you properly.”

“Oh, I believe you.” And I was going to make damn sure she made it. She didn’t know it yet, but there was a lot to sort out. I was open to creative gratitude that went both ways and, for the next few days, she wasn’t stepping out of my line of sight. 


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