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, “I’m 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.