"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Anton Chekhov


Saturday, March 28, 2015

No Place To Hide - Chapter Twelve

Kate crawled beside Ace where he hunkered at the edge of the trail.  His growl was a low, continuous rumble as she stared down into the trees.  Mitch quietly asked, “Can you see them?”

Shifting back, she crouched beside him. “I spotted two on foot, the sniper makes three.  Let’s get your jacket on, I’ll tell you where to go, then you and Ace head out and I’ll be right behind you.”

“Not a chance.  I’m staying and you’re going—”

Her hand shot out and clamped over his mouth.  She leaned in, fire in her eyes. “I understand you’re finding this hard to accept, Cartwright, but try to focus on the facts here. You’re hurt, I’m not.  You need medical attention, I don’t.”  She glared and tightened her fingers when he tried to pull away.  “I know you’re used to doing things your way, controlling every situation, but that is not happening right now.”  She dropped her hand, grabbed his jacket and began to carefully work his arms through the sleeves as she spoke.  “I have to be lead dog on this one, Mitch, and you’re going to accept it.  I’m not going to die on this mountain today because you’re too stubborn to let someone else take charge.”  Adjusting the jacket across his shoulders, she said impatiently, “And if I have to order Ace to drag you out of here by your hair, believe me, I will.”

He stared, enthralled.  She was so damn hot when she got riled.  “Is it totally wrong that I want you right now, hard and fast and deep?” he growled.

Kate blinked, then one side of her mouth curled up and she shook her head, anger dissipating as fast as it had come. “Not wrong, just bad timing,” she said with a grin.  Grabbing the rifle, she moved back to the bluff and carefully scanned the lower terrain through the scope.  She could see two men trying to make their way toward the ridge, the attempt more one step forward, two back as they fought against the landscape of fallen trees, loose shale and underbrush.  “Where are you?” she whispered, panning through the trees for the sniper.  “Remember the muzzle flash,” Mitch murmured. “Start there and work out.”

Picturing the spark of light that had gleamed for an instant in the dark forest below, she aimed the rifle down the ridge and within moments had located the tree and the shooter, who was slowly making his way to the ground.  Kate carefully gauged his descent, took a deep breath and fired.  The branch shattered under the man’s feet, his rifle flying as he lost his grip and abruptly dropped out of sight.

Scuttling back from the edge, she met Mitch’s gaze.  “You get him?”  He hated that she had to do this, he didn’t want another monster haunting her nightmares, but they had no choice now.  Still, when she smiled and said, “Killed the branch he was standing on,” Mitch grinned back at her with relief.

Setting the rifle aside, Kate called Ace to her, strapped his saddlebags around his bulk, then quickly secured the two packs she and Mitch were carrying.  When his felt too heavy, she bent to switch some items to her own pack, but he took it from her.  “It’s okay, the weight won’t matter.  I’ll carry it over my good shoulder.”

“I’m more worried about your head.  You could get disoriented, lose your balance, compromise your vision.”  A memory teased.  Mitch riding the Harley up her drive, his aviators an irritating impediment.  “Where are your sunglasses?”

Using the boulder to steady himself, Mitch slowly got to his feet, though he swayed for a second, then held a hand over his eyes while he fought to stay upright. “Sunglasses?  I don’t remember.”  He frowned.  “Was I wearing them?”

“No, not this morning.”  She bent to her pack.  “Mine will work, if they fit.”  After rummaging in a side pocket, she found the case, snapped it open and handed him a pair of Ray-Bans.  “The lenses are really dark and should help with your light sensitivity.”  She polished them with the hem of her tee shirt, then stood in front of him and slipped them on. “Better?”

He groaned at the soothing absence of harsh sunlight.  “Much better.”  Then he pulled her against his uninjured side and held her tight for a moment before saying, “Okay, what’s our next move?”

“Use Ace, for balance and support.  Stay on this trail until you come to a large tree on your right that was struck by lightning.  It’s split down the middle and burnt to a crisp on one side.  That’s your signpost.”  Turning to face him, she met his eyes. “I won’t lie, the hike is short, but it’s a bitch.  There’s a narrow track behind the tree, follow it until you reach a fork, go left and hike until you get to the top.”  She paused, eyes roaming over his face, noting the flush on his cheeks, the tight clench of his jaw muscles. “Ace and I have easily done it in under an hour, but you’re hurt so take your time, go slow, stop and rest.  I’ll meet you at the summit.”

Mitch put his hands on her shoulders and scowled down at her.  “You fucking promise that you’ll be right behind us, and I’ll go.”  His fingers griped hard.  “Otherwise, you’re coming with me now, no arguments.”

“We need to know what we’re dealing with.  I know these woods, they don’t.” She raised her hand to stop him when his mouth opened to argue.  “It’s simple surveillance, Mitch.  I’ll be careful, find out where we stand, and muddy our trail.  When I’m done, I’ll be right behind you.”

He tried to shake his head, but a bolt of pain shot through his temples, stabbing into his brain. The best he could do was growl, “Hell no.”  His voice sounded raw, like the words had scraped his throat on the way out.  “I thought you were just going to bring up the rear, watch our backs or something.  No way you’re stalking a hit team by yourself.”

She moved away from him without speaking and knelt beside Ace, wrapped her arms around his neck and whispered in his ear, “You keep our guy safe, okay?  Don’t take any chances or try to be the hero, Ace.”  After a quick hug, she straightened, picked up Mitch’s pack and slid it up his arm to hang over his good shoulder. Eyes burning a path across her face, fueled by anger and helplessness, he snarled, “Im not going to let you do it, Kate.”

Smiling ruefully, she shook her head.  “Still trying to boss me."  When his scowl deepened, she said, Look, Mitch, I know what I’m doing. Four years on the run, dodging death at every turn, remember?  I got this.”

“But you shouldn’t do it on your own, and definitely not without me at your back.”

She gave him a searching look, then said softly, “Would you question anyone on your team, Mitch?  Ever have this conversation with Mike?  And when did I give you the impression I can’t handle myself?”

He scowled, opened his mouth, snapped it shut, then hissed angrily, “Just because you can handle yourself, doesn’t mean you should do this.”

“You’ve made it clear we’re in this together, Mitch, so prove it.  Trust me to do this while you go with Ace.”  She shrugged into her pack, adjusted the rifle strap over her shoulder and ran a quick scan around the area to make certain they weren’t leaving anything behind, then lifted her eyes to meet his.  Was he looking feverish, or just furious?  “Stop and rest every fifteen minutes or so and drink plenty of water.  If you feel sick or faint, find a place to lay low and I’ll find you.  Just don’t deviate too far off the route, I don’t want to lose you in the wilderness.”  She gave him a small smile.  “And be sure to stay under the pines as much as possible so you can’t be tracked.”

“For fuck’s sake, Kate.  You know what I do for a living, right?”

“Sorry,” she snorted, “until you, I’ve been used to a male who actually listens to me. I tell Ace what to do,” she shrugged, “and he does it, no arguing, no debate.”

There was a moment of silence, then he laughed, low and deep and her breath caught.  She wanted that sound to belong to her, wanted to surround herself in the warmth and never be cold or afraid again.  If only.

“Kate, I…”  He swallowed, then tipped sideways when Ace bumped into his leg.  Putting out a hand to steady him, Kate said softly, “Hold that thought.  We’ll talk tonight when we’re far away from here and not dodging bullets and bad guys.”

“I swear, woman, if you’re not wrapped around me tonight, safe and sound, I will tear this fucking forest down, tree by tree until I find you.”  Pain carving deep furrows beside his mouth, he barked, “You understand me?”

“Yes, sir.”  After a mock salute, she moved closer and got serious.  “And if you aren’t at the summit when I get there?  Same goes.”

He pulled her hard against him and she knew it had to hurt, also knew he wouldn’t care. His kiss was intense, almost brutal as he took her mouth, heat and power rolling off him.  He smelled of spice and sweat, blood and fury.  Lifting his head, he murmured against her lips, “We’ve got things to settle between us, baby.”  Forcing himself to step back, he said soberly, “I’d better see you soon.”

“You will.”  She took a deep breath to clear her head, hitched her pack and readjusted the rifle.  “Now go.  At this rate, I’ll get there before the two of you.”  Reaching up, she cupped his cheek. “Stay safe,” she whispered, then quickly turned away and moved silently into the trees before the haunted look on his face changed her mind.

Mitch waited until she was out of sight before gesturing to Ace.  The dog walked beside him on the left, his body between Mitch and the rugged drop-off, every so often lightly nudging Mitch back on track when he stumbled.  Several minutes later, however, Mitch dropped his pack and rushed behind a tree to throw up everything he’d ever eaten since the day he was born.  At least that’s how it felt when he found himself on hands and knees, weak and exhausted, head pounding, shoulder throbbing and his gut aching.

When he could move, he crawled several yards away and collapsed on his back with a low moan.  Ace sat next to him, whining softly.  “I’m okay, boy.  Just need a minute.”  Christ, he sounded like he needed last rites.  Without opening his eyes, he fumbled in Ace’s saddlebag for water.  Slowly, carefully sitting up, he took a long pull on the bottle and swished out his mouth before taking a drink. He had a queasy urge to retch when the water hit his empty stomach but with slow even breaths, the moment passed.

He had to get his shit together.  For some reason he couldn’t quite remember, he’d actually agreed to Kate’s stupid plan.  It was almost impossible to think around the piercing headache, but that was no excuse for letting her take charge, and no way was he leaving her to deal with three men, possibly more, who’s only objective was killing or capturing her.  He had to get back in the fucking game. In tiny increments, he cautiously raised his eyelids, thankful the intense pain he’d experienced earlier had been lessened by the sunglasses.  It seemed his sight had improved, too.  Maybe barfing helped, because he’d gone from a nauseating vision of fours, to just doubles now.  It was pure dumb luck that he’d managed to kiss Kate on the mouth instead of her ear; a fluke that he’d picked the real Kate from the four weaving in front of him after he’d cracked his head. He took another drink of water, feeling slightly better.  All he needed now was a minute to recuperate and he’d be ready to go after her.

Gunfire erupted in the distance, bringing Mitch to his feet. Too fast, head spinning, he fell back against a tree and fought the gathering shadows, his sight narrowing to a pinpoint focus of two enormous dogs, two narrow, dusty trails, two bright orbs dancing over two jagged peaks in the hazy distance.  Mitch slid down the rough bark and sank into the darkness.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

No Place To Hide - Chapter Eleven

An hour later, taking a break beside the trail on a huge boulder overlooking a long, narrow valley that cut a brilliant green swath through a sea of pines, Mitch leaned back against the stone and sighed contentedly.  Before Kate, he honestly couldn’t remember when he’d had such a feeling, but finding her three days ago had altered his world, filling it with colors and flavors and scents he’d never imagined.

Since leaving the cabin, she had tormented and badgered him to explain his plan. Hed turned it into a game, responding to her endless questions with foolish and ridiculous answers until she was either scowling or trying to hide her laughter.  He bit into a protein bar and watched her twist the cap off a bottle of water, the early morning sun lighting up strands of her hair in a striking fusion of reddish hues.  He loved her hair, the texture, the color, the way it felt tangled in his fingers

“So,” Mitch said hoarsely.  He cleared his throat, tried again.  “So, when’s your birthday?”

Kate froze, the water bottle halfway to her mouth.  “What?”  She looked over at him, a troubled unease in her gaze, her distrust at the question was immediate.

“Looking forward to the day I can just ask a simple question and it won’t freak you out.” He bumped her shoulder with his own.  “It was just an innocent question, Kate.  I want to know about you.”  He had to tread lightly, too bad that wasn’t one of his skills.  “Just wondering if I’m robbing the cradle,” he smiled wide, “or you are.”

Her smile was small, tense, then she met his gaze, her eyes searching for hidden motives, hoping for sincerity. He could almost see the analytical gears grinding in her head, hear them weighing his words, probing the meaning behind his question, judging his reason for asking it. He was disappointed when she looked away.

Okay, that didn’t work for him.  Time to lay it out and hope he wasn’t about to step on his dick.  “Kate,” he said quietly, “we need to get a few things straight between us.”  He grabbed her hand, rubbing his thumb gently over her knuckles in a gesture he hoped was soothing.  “I took this job as a favor for my brother.  I didn’t want it, had things at home to deal with, but I did it, for Mike.  I expected to find a woman willing to listen, to accept the help.  I figured I’d locate you then hand you over to Mike and Lisa and it would be back to business as usual.”  He tugged on her hand until she raised her head and met his eyes.  He grinned down at her.  “But instead, I find a wild woman, gorgeous and tough, holding me at gunpoint, never once showing an ounce of weakness, and I know how my size can intimidate.  Being a gorilla helps in my line of work.”

“Gorilla,” she snorted.  “When you climbed off that Harley, I saw Kodiak bear.”  A small corner of her mouth curved up.  “Kodiak trumps gorilla any day.”

He chuckled.  “Either way, it helps that I’m a big, scary guy with few regrets and zero tolerance for fucked up losers.  My point is, I’ve never met a woman like you.  You’re brave and audacious and skilled, and you had me at ‘you speak English?’  Which I gotta tell you, baby, was the funniest thing I ever heard.”

“You didn’t laugh,” she said softly.

“How could I laugh?  You’d just handed me my balls.  I’m a guy, I had to save face.”

Her laughter was a thing of beauty.  It animated her face, gave her eyes a bright gleam, chased away the fucking shadows that haunted her…and him.  He flung an arm around her shoulders and yanked her close.  “You owned me.  Right then, in the blink of an eye, and you didn’t even realize it.”  He kissed the top of her head and murmured into her hair, “I don’t think you understand yet how far down the rabbit hole I’ve fallen, baby.  I’m still reeling, if you want the truth of it.”

She looked up at him.  He was either a consummate actor, or he meant every word.  She thought of Mike and Lisa—good, decent people who’d been kind to her—and the bond Ace had with Mitch, something that wouldn’t be possible if he were a cruel man. 

“Just before Thanksgiving,” she murmured, “I’ll be 32.”

He squeezed her tight for a moment.  “See? That wasn’t so hard, was it?  And just so you know, I’ll be 36 in January.”  Quietly, his words like soft kisses against her skin, he murmured at her temple, “I want so much to make things right for you.”  He sighed with reluctance and shifted so she could stand.  “And that means, we need to get moving.”  He kissed her quickly, not allowing himself to linger, then stood and turned to gather his pack and the rifle, resting against a boulder.

She bent to her own pack and was stuffing the empty water bottles into an outer pocket when Ace suddenly growled.  Her head spun, eyes zeroing in on her dog, rigid and quivering with tension as he stared down the ridge.

“What do you see, boy?”  She knelt down beside him and put an arm around his neck, lining her face up with his as she tried to gauge the distance and direction of his line of sight.  Was that something there, off to the left, glinting in a beam of— “Mitch,” she shouted, “get down!”

The reverberation from the shot cracked down the valley, but she’d already seen the muzzle flash and dropped to her belly, tugging Ace down beside her.  “Mitch!  Hand me the rifle, I know where the shooter is!”  Expecting to find Mitch armed and dangerous beside her before the words had left her mouth, she turned toward him and snapped, “Give me the damn—”  Kate froze in disbelief and rising horror to see him lying motionless on his side next to the boulders.

“Oh god, oh god, oh god,” she babbled, scrambling on her hands and knees toward him.  Everything around her fell away, sounds died, leaving behind a silence that was so crushing, her heart faltered.  “Mitch?”  Gently rolling him to his back, her hands darted frantically over his face, his neck, down his chest.  She couldn’t see an injury at first, then a dark stain began to spread across his tee shirt and her breathing accelerated into a thick, painful rhythm that nearly choked her.

Yanking open his jacket, she saw the bloody hole, high on his left shoulder. Cursing, she grabbed the wide lapel on his leather jacket and carefully pulled, raising his shoulder just enough to slide her hand beneath it.  She found the ragged exit hole, relief making her head swim.  Straight through, and from a bullet that didn’t tumble and tear, shred or mangle.

“Ace,” she ground out, “stay low.  Guard.”  She didn’t spare him a glance, knew he’d dropped flat to the ground and would warn her instantly if there was movement from any direction.  Shaking with her need to hurry, she reached for her pack, tore the first aid kit out of a large side pocket, opened it and grabbed a thick wad of gauze pads.  Up on her knees and using both hands, she pressed them hard into Mitch’s shoulder, incredibly pleased to hear his low moan. “Hey, big guy, need to see those eyes. Come on, Mitch.”

His eyelids fluttered, his gaze unfocused.  She needed him to wake up, needed to get the bleeding stopped, needed to make sure he was all right. Needed him.  A sob broke through her control, making her bite down hard on her bottom lip.  Digging deeper into her pack, she found a tee shirt, folded it several times and applied more pressure against his wound.  This time he hissed and slapped at her hands as he tried to sit up.  “Mitch, honey, lay still.”  He settled at the sound of her voice and slowly lifted his eyes, met hers.  “What the fuck…” he croaked, his voice weak and confused.

“Mitch, I need to get your jacket off.  Can you help me?”

Dazed, he stared at her for a long, anxious moment, eyes racing across her face.  His body spiked with a violent rush of adrenaline when he saw the blood on her hands, smeared on her jacket.  He jackknifed straight up, dragging his gun out of its holster on autopilot.  Then, “Jesus,” he hissed, falling back, the pistol limp in his grasp.  Eyes closed tight, he took several deep breaths against the pain, then rasped, “Blood on you.  Hurt?  Ace?”

“No.  Ace and I were down, but you, you’re a really big target.”  She helped him sit up when he tried again.  Leaning back against the boulder, he winced as she gently pulled one arm then the other out of his jacket sleeves.  “The bullet went clean.  I can bandage you, slow the bleeding, but we need a doctor.”  She cut his tee shirt open with her knife, grimaced at the wound. 

“Who did this, Mitch?  Is it the men from my house?” She gave him a bleak look, one he didn’t like seeing. “So, the bounty isn’t to find me, it’s to kill me?”

“Nobody’s going to fucking kill you,” he said heatedly, “but somebody’s for sure gonna die after this shit.”  He glanced at the first aid kit, met her eyes again.  “Fix me up, but do it quick, we have to get out of here.”

“You’re not looking so good, Mitch.”

“I can make it.  Been shot before, been in worse shape.”  He jerked when she applied a stinging ointment, then hissed as agony roared through his brain.  “Though don’t remember a bullet splitting my head in two.”

Kate stopped taping a thick gauze pad over the entry wound and palmed his jaw, lifting his face to meet her eyes.  She narrowed them when he threw up a hand to block the weak morning sun.  “Look at me, Mitch.”

“Can’t. Too bright.”

“Shade your eyes and look at me,” she ordered.  His eyes were dilated.  Damn.  “Close your eyes now and let me feel around your head.”  Calmly, tenderly, she ran her fingers lightly over the back of his skull until she found the gash.  He groaned as the pain lanced like a blade through his head. Her stomach clenched.

“Mitch, we’re kind of in trouble here.  Bullet wound is one thing, but you hit your head when you fell and I think you have a concussion, maybe even a fracture.”  She finished taping the second gauze pad at his back, then began to wrap his whole shoulder with a long roll of gauze.  “You can’t hike with a concussion.  You’ll be dizzy and nauseous and you could pass out, fall down and I won’t be able to get you up.”  Tying off the gauze, she turned to dig in his pack and pulled out a heavy wool shirt.  Using her knife, she cut off his tee and carefully got him into the new shirt, fingers flying as she quickly buttoned it.

He kept his eyes on her, soaking in every nuance, every beautiful inch of her face. “Is there anything you can’t do?” he asked softly.

“Yes, resist you.  Now hold still and let me finish.”

A smile touched his mouth before a look of resignation, followed by a deep regret crossed Mitch’s face.  “Leave me,” he ordered.  “You can make it to Bear Claw, get the car and hightail it straight to Montana.  Mike will keep you safe and I’ll catch up when I can.”

She didn’t even acknowledge his ridiculous words.  “We’ve got two choices,” she mumbled, more to herself than to him.  “Hour back to the cabin, hour ahead into town.”  Her eyes roamed over Mitch, assessing.  “I’m not sure either option will work, not with a head injury on top of your shoulder wound.”

“Goddamn it, Kate.  You will grab your pack and the dog and get the fuck away from here.  Right fucking now.”

Kate frowned at him.  “Are you done being an insufferable, overprotective ass?” she snapped.

“Am I dead?” he growled, his glare fierce.

She glared back, but before she could speak, he barked, “Then no, I’m not done.”

Ignoring him, she looked back the way they’d come then turned to look further along the path in the other direction.  Narrowing her eyes, she surveyed the landscape above the trail.  “There’s another place, closer, though the hike will be harder.”  She folded a smaller piece of gauze and pressed it to the back of Mitch’s head, instructing him to hold it while she tore off strips of tape.  When he started to argue again, she leaned close, met his eyes and said with a sharp edge, “If our positions were reversed, if it were me hurt, would you leave me behind?”

“Of course not.” Outrage flashed in his eyes. “I would carry you out.  Keep you safe.”

“Which is exactly what I intend to do,” she said, stowing the first aid kit in her pack.  “Minus the carrying you part.”

When he started in again, she pressed two fingers against his lips. “Stop arguing.  We stick together.  Drink this water, take these aspirin and rest for a minute while I get things sorted.”  She gently touched his face, then leaned in and softly kissed him.  “I’ll keep you safe, Mitch.  I swear it.

Behind her, Ace began to growl.  The sound rumbling up his throat was so dangerous, the hairs on the back of her neck rose in primal warning.