The lack of bars on her phone mocked her and as soon as she got back to a road and civilization Erika Alberts vowed to write the cellular company, because no, she couldn’t hear a damn thing without a signal. Of all the times for her truck not to start. It had run this morning—no problem. She’d driven out to the ridge, staked out a place for her camera, decided to return at dusk because that’s when she’d spotted the wild horses there. Now, the truck sputtered and coughed when she tried to start it, and she had a bad feeling that maybe she’d gotten some bad gas at that little station she’d stopped at before reaching town. Except, if that had happened then the truck should have died before now. She muttered under her breath about not being a mechanic and checked her phone for what seemed like the millionth time. Nope, no signal.
She kept hiking aware that sunset painted the landscape with hues of pink and orange that made her long to stop, break out her camera, and snap a few shots. Except, if she took the time to do that she wouldn’t reach the road before dark. She guessed she had about half an hour left to walk, maybe even a full hour. She picked up the pace. She’d packed the best she could with a jacket, water, some granola bars, a flare gun, a can of pepper spray and her long knife in her pack. Her trusty multi-tool hung from her belt in its holster next to her Swiss Army Knife. Aside from a firearm, which she hadn’t thought she’d need before now, she packed as smart as she could considering she was leaving her vehicle in the middle of nowhere and had no idea if, or when, she’d see anyone along the main road.
The sense of being watched prickled the hair on the back of her neck. She stopped and glanced around, seeing no one. She hated this feeling, had experienced it since making camp a few miles away. She’d chalked it up to an over active imagination. She hadn’t seen any wild horses, or much other wildlife out here for that matter, let alone any people. In fact, right now, she’d welcome a stranger. It would mean she’d get help for her car, or maybe just to somewhere she could get a signal on her phone. She’d been in more remote locations with better reception; she had no idea why there was none here.
Something bothered her about the sounds her truck had been making. She’d heard them before; she just wished she could remember where. If she wasn’t mistaken, it sounded like the fuel filter was clogged, but that seemed odd. Sure, it happened with age; she’d had all maintenance done on her truck. The usual culprit was someone putting something in the tank, except she hadn’t seen anyone. And who would want to do that anyway? Pranksters? She doubted it. Out here most people recognized the importance of being able to get back to civilization and wouldn’t leave a lady stranded.
The evening, just cool enough to make hiking long distances not uncomfortable, was clear with no rain in sight. At least she had that going for her. With each step the issues with her truck bothered her more and more. She wouldn’t tell the guys at 2 Hearts Rescue about this, though. They’d just feel bad for sending her up here to take photographs and she didn’t want them to feel burdened. She’d get through this. She’d certainly dealt with far worse in her time.
~* * *~
He didn’t like the fact that Erika was walking alone to the road, seemingly unable to get cell signal. His phone showed ample bars, but maybe she was on a different carrier. Some of them could be fickle out here in the country. He’d heard the sputter of her truck, saw her pop the hood, cuss and even kick the tires a couple of times. The last time he’d seen her, she’d had the same fire. He was glad to see she hadn’t lost it.
Logan “Mustang” Ryder peered through the binoculars. The order to keep his distance chafed against his sense of chivalry. He should have driven his ATV over to her, offered a ride to town or called a tow truck with his cell. That he couldn’t, that he’d been given strict orders to not let her know he was watching over her, bothered him. A lot. Didn’t matter. He followed orders and as one of the newer recruits with the Brotherhood Protectors, played it straight. He wouldn’t go against Hank’s wishes—not this time.
A flash on the other side of the road caught his attention. Sunlight glinted from a lens. He recognized it from his time in Libya, the way sunlight played against concave glass. Who the hell was out there? And why were they watching Erika?
He scanned the horizon. Nothing. His position behind a low hill along the road concealed him from view and when he brought his night vision gear into play he saw only an empty rock formation and hills. The flash had come from that direction and right now Erika was between them. Until she was gone, he couldn’t come back and search for clues. By that time, whoever was there would no doubt have cleansed the site. It’s what he would have done had he been on the other side.
Damn. He sent a quick text. Truck disabled. Target on foot. Think she’s being watched. Request permission for reveal. Those guys at the rescue had been adamant he not show himself to her, and they didn’t even know about the steamy week he’d spent with Erika the last time he’d been on leave. His groin ached just thinking about the R&R spent mostly with Erika beneath him and those long legs wrapped around his hips.
His phone vibrated. Permission granted. Protect the mission.
He released a breath. Finally. Hopping on the ATV, he headed toward the road and Erika. Now to think of his cover story.
~* * *~
Erika stopped and turned in the direction of the engine. An ATV was headed toward her. For a moment she sagged with relief. Maybe she wouldn’t have to walk all the way to the road. Except she’d seen the flash in the rocks to her left. She’d dismissed it as sunlight hitting a mineral, nothing to worry about. With the vehicle barreling towards her, she didn’t know. She reached into her bag and closed her hand around the can of pepper spray.
The vehicle slowed. The man, face obscured by a helmet, wore jeans and scuffed boots. A chambray shirt was buttoned halfway up, revealing a navy t-shirt with some kind of military seal on it. His broad shouldered, narrow hipped build reminded her of Logan, except as far as she knew he was off in some Middle Eastern country fighting for freedom Or rather rescuing the men fighting. He’d been a parajumper and she’d told him she couldn’t handle the unknowns, so they’d parted. She still missed him.
Her heart pounded. “Hello?” She said when he was near enough and dropped the idle on the engine so it was low enough to talk over. “Can I help you?”
He lifted the helmet and for a moment her breath caught in her throat. From the short, sandy brown hair to the cheekbones a model would kill for and the twinkle in his chocolate brown eyes, he was a sight for very tired eyes.
“Fancy meeting you out here, Erika,” he said. “Need some help? Or just taking some photographs?”
“Boy do I need some help. My damn truck won’t start.” She sighed, then kicked herself for wanting to throw herself into his arms like some kind of fairy tale heroine looking for her prince. “You got signal on your phone? I have no bars and I need to call a tow truck.”
“Sure”. He swiped on his phone and handed it to her. “Should have good signal.”
“Thanks.” She dialed the number she’d saved in her contacts, just in case, and got the dispatcher on the line. She gave her location and promised she’d stay with the vehicle. Once the call was over, she handed the phone back. Their fingers touched, and for a moment she let the sensation of touching him flow through her veins. Her lips parted. She held her breath, half expecting him to lean over and kiss her. Instead, he dropped his phone back into the holster on his waist, and she fought disappointment. He was all business now. “Can I ask one more favor? Would you mind taking me back to my truck?”
“Not at all.” He flipped on the headlight; it’d grown dark enough for him to need it, and she climbed onto the back of the ATV behind him. “Hang on.” He glanced over his shoulder and gave a curt nod.
“Of course. Sorry I don’t have a helmet for you.” No sooner had she slipped her arms around his torso, delighting in the feel of firm muscles beneath her touch, and pressed herself against his back to fit on the seat, did he put his helmet back on, throttle up the engine and took off back down the road.
They couldn’t talk, not with the wind in her hair and the roar of the engine. She wasn’t sure what to say, except to ask what he was doing out here. It seemed like a bit coincidence—when had he even gotten out? Was he on leave or completely discharged? And why? He’d told her he would jump until he was no longer able to. If he was here, no longer active duty, then something had happened. She didn’t want to think about what that might mean, the horrors he may have seen. He jumped into some horrible places, he’d told her, the middle of fire fights to rescue brave men and women. Had he been injured? And if he was just on leave, why here rather than anywhere else in the world? Too many questions and not enough answers chased them as he brought her back to her camp.
Her blue truck sat where she’d left it. The hood wasn’t up anymore. She frowned. She was sure she’d left the hood up on the vehicle. Her tent flap was open, rustling in the breeze. She always zipped her tent, had learned that the hard way when some eager macaque monkeys had gotten into her food stashes in India during a photo shoot. She scanned her campsite, not seeing anything else amiss. She tapped Logan on the shoulder.
He’d taken his helmet off and hung it on the handlebar. He glanced back at her.
“Someone’s been here.”
“How do you know?”
Was he doubting her? Just because she didn’t jump into dangerous situations didn’t mean she couldn’t read her own camp. It wasn’t like the places she went were all tea and honey cakes. She had to be aware of insurgents and poachers as much as the animals, most of the time. “I left the hood up on my truck and my tent is always fastened closed.”
Logan nodded, suddenly all business. He swung his leg over the ATV and there was no mistaking the pistol in a holster at his side. She’d tried to ignore it during the ride, wasn’t that big of a fan of guns though she knew they were necessary, but now, with the possibility someone was in her camp, she appreciated it. She also appreciated the tight ass in those very well fitting jeans.
“Stay here. If I tell you to go, ride like hell for the road.”
“Okay.” His words worried her. Maybe it was a troublemaker, some kids out camping. Except she knew better.
He moved with such precision, that she had no doubts he’d done this before—checked for enemies. He knelt by her truck, touched the ground, then pulled out his cell phone and took a couple of pictures. He moved to her tent, checked inside, making her hope she hadn’t left a bra draped over a tent pole or something embarrassing like that, he stepped out of the tent, zipped it up and nodded to himself. A few more minutes of searching and he came back to the ATV.
“I took pictures of some prints. Looks like your tent may have been rifled through. I can’t tell if anything has been taken. I saw a couple of tracks leading off toward the mountains. I’d think you ought to call the sheriff.” Logan leaned a hip against the front fender of the ATV.
“Call the sheriff?” That sounded quite serious, and if this were just a couple of pranksters, it seemed a bit over the top, too.
“Things can escalate quickly out here. You have anyone you think might want to cause trouble? And why are you camped out here in the middle of nowhere on the edge of Federal lands.” He didn’t move, but crossed his arms over his chest.
Full on military mode, she thought, and she didn’t need him barging into her business. “I’m taking pictures of wild horses for my friends’ fundraising calendar for their rescue.” She paused. Her breakup with Jaime had been rather difficult, and he’d been kind of an ass to her since, but surely he wouldn’t do anything. He’d tried a few things, but he also had a restraining order against him and he wasn’t stupid. At least she didn’t consider him that stupid.
“Anyone who would want to cause trouble?” Logan asked again, clearly not buying her silence.
“There’s an ex-boyfriend,” Erika admitted. “He wouldn’t do anything. Not since I had to put a restraining order against him.”
“A restraining order? Sounds serious.” He moved closer to her, so close she could feel the heat from his chest. “Call the sheriff. You’ll have things on record if he tries to cause trouble.” He handed her his cell phone.
“This isn’t a 911 style emergency. We’re fine. I’m going to call the dispatcher,” she said, trying to take back control of the situation. He still hadn’t told her what he was doing here, and things were starting to seem just a little too coincidental. Jay and Cody had talked about finding security; they were worried about her ex. She thought she’d talked them out of it. If they’d hired Logan… She dialed the phone to distract herself from the direction of her thoughts. When this was done, maybe when he was giving her a ride to pick up her truck, she was going to get the answers. All of them.
She spoke with the dispatcher, quickly stating what had happened from her truck not starting to her camp having been disturbed. The dispatcher promised to send a deputy out as soon as possible. She handed the phone back to him.
Night had fallen, leaving them illuminated only by the quarter moon. “Let me get my lantern.” She swung her leg over the ATV and realized Logan hadn’t moved. She passed close to him, her arm brushing against his. Tingles radiated from the touch. She scurried to her tent, gasped at the state of the destruction and found her lantern tipped over by a now-deflated air mattress. She growled under her breath. That air mattress had survived the jungles of South America and a trek across Mongolia. For it to be ruined now seemed almost obscene. She flipped on the lantern and carried it back to the ATV. Logan hadn’t moved.
“We’re waiting for both the tow truck and the deputy. So spill. Why are you here and how’d you find me?” She stepped away long enough to grab her camp chair and sit. Logan could figure out his own arrangements.