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The Phoenix Agency: The Sum Is Greater (Kindle Worlds Novella) by M. L. Buchman (1)

1

“You call this here mess an extraction?”

Jesse looked over at the sarcastic pair of boots that were addressing him. These boots had real personality to them—black army boots that had been battered and worn in ways that took a lot of time and would never pass a barracks inspection—so he did his best to address them respectfully.

“Sure I would, if y’all call this being right ways up.” He was still harnessed into the seat of his Little Bird MH-6 helicopter, but the boots appeared to be buried in a red dirt sky—literally dirt, and it was definitely red. The legs strapped into them dangled downward—dimly lit by a combination of moonlight and the wash of the small cabin light he’d turned on.

The night was quiet except for the lazy ticking of hot metal cooling slowly.

A face bent up to look at him. It was a slim, fresh face with long blond hair that rose in a tangled wave toward the dirt-y sky rather than dangling downward as it should have. The eyes were hidden by night-vision goggles. Blue eyes would go well with that face. Hazel too.

He wondered if the eyes would be more or less sarcastic than the boots.

“Well, you’re alive. That’s something.” Sarcasm levels roughly equal.

“It is my preferred condition.”

“As opposed to being dead?”

“Absolutely.” Something was puzzling Jesse about this whole conversation, but he was having trouble putting his finger on exactly what.

“And the upside-down part of this lame excuse for an extraction?” The face smiled at him—just a frown turned upside down. That was Momma talking, but he was fairly sure she wasn’t here. Actually, Momma had died on the same operating table where he’d been born, but he often held conversations with her in his head. At least when he was younger he had. The echoes of them had stuck with him.

He looked around. Nope, she wasn’t here—another proof that he was still alive. He didn’t expect to meet her until he hit the pearly gates that Sunday school had promised him. Also, the way he’d always imagined her, she didn’t have one of those smooth Tennessee accents. Unless they’d relocated San Antonio while he was otherwise distracted, which was a possibility. But

Oh! He’d missed that he was the one who was upside down, dangling from his seat harness—rather than the boots hanging from the red dirt sky. Which actually made far more sense now that he thought about it. Then he remembered having his helicopter’s tail rotor shot out and the tumbling fall. The skidding, rolling (a couple times end-over-end he seemed to recall) crash landing came back on instant replay and he wished it hadn’t. Near-death experiences weren’t much more fun in memory than while they were actually happening. He slapped the seat harness release and crashed down onto his head. Thankfully, in a crumpled Little Bird, that wasn’t very far.

It would have hurt less if he’d still been wearing his helmet.

Oh. That explained the problem he’d been puzzling at when the sarcastic boots arrived—though he’d forgotten about it until just now. He’d taken his helmet off—after the crashing and rolling bit had been done with—and set it atop the cyclic joystick just the way he always did at the end of any mission. Then the helmet had taken off like a rocket and banged into the ceiling. Except it wasn’t the ceiling anymore because his helicopter was upside down. Gravity, not a mysteriously jet-powered helmet trying to launch into orbit. Made much more sense now that his world had righted itself once more.

He untangled himself, found his helmet, and crawled out of his helo to face the sarcastic boots and the smiling (or frowning) visage that he expected to find at the other end of the equation. The projection of tactical information on the inside of his helmet’s visor had died along with his helo. He tossed the helmet back inside, then folded his hands over the rifle slung across his chest with the stock folded.

Now he was sitting in the dirt—rather than crouching under it—much better. Standing didn’t work so well however because his knees were proving their uncertainty with the sudden change in orientation. To pass the time, he inspected the boots. Right-side up made them look far more sensible—at least as sensible as non-cowboy boots ever were.

He eased the collar of his flightsuit against the pounding humidity of the jungle. Now he could hear the jungle even if he couldn’t see where it lay beyond his tiny pool of light. Animal noises, lots of them, sounded from one tree to the next—though they tapered off even as he listened.

Back to the boots. Legs in jungle camouflage now rose from them in a perfectly normal manner. But then the whole image went sideways again.

“Several possibilities,” he said aloud. “Either I knocked my head right hard, the moonlight is playing some strange tricks on this country boy, or you’re a person of the female persuasion.” He’d been told to extract a Delta Force operator doing deep recon in the Colombian jungle. But Delta didn’t have women that he knew about.

“Door Number Three.”

“Okay, ma’am. I guess I’ll take your word for that.” What he could see for himself by the limited reach of the dim cabin light supported her claim. A vest filled with multiple magazines and a pair of handguns—one in the unusual gut-center holster of a Delta operator. An HK416 sniper rifle over the shoulder. Eyes still hidden by the NVGs that cast a light green glow on her cheeks—atypically, it tinted her skin glorious-elf rather than ghoulish-zombie. The long blonde hair brushing past the operator’s shoulders wasn’t a giveaway either, as Delta Force often wore it that way—frequently with beards as well, though maybe not in her case, what with being a woman and all.

That’s when he remembered that he had a backup set of NVGs himself. He reached up and found them in the pouch beside his upside-down seat. Definitely female was the first thing he noticed when he pulled them on—armed to the teeth, but no male operator had curves like that.

“Can you walk?”

“Maybe,” he wasn’t sure that it was something he wanted to test at the moment. His knees were still shaking from just how close he’d come to dying in the last few minutes. “Why?”

“Because the guerillas who shot down your helicopter are bound to be coming to see who came with it. They’re very heavily armed as a habit and I expect you wouldn’t be real glad to meet them. This group is particularly twitchy because they aren’t supposed to be here…which is why I’m here. Except I don’t want to be here anymore, which is why you’re here. However, we can just sit here jawing if that’s the way you want go down.” Sarcasm levels were high. Wasn’t that supposed to be “confidence levels were high?” Maybe not.

He was right about the Tennessee, though. Reese Witherspoon would look good in that accent. Of course Reese looked good in just about anything.

“We’d best be moving along, you hear?”

“Oh. Right. Hang on, ma’am.” He crawled back into the helo.

The FARC had been seriously bad news. The guerilla revolutionary army of Colombia had financed itself with drugs and kidnapping and were never known for kindness to strangers—especially not military ones. When the FARC leaders had made peace with the government after fifty-two years of fighting, certain elements were very upset. The worst of them had formed the Nuevo Ejército Revolucionario Colombia—New Revolutionary Army of Colombia or NERC.

“How are you at counting to thirty?” Jesse called back to Ms. Could-pass-for-Reese-in-military-gear. Jesse knew he couldn’t trust his own abilities at the moment, just in case he had been concussed.

“Just fine. Why?”

“Start counting.”

He yanked the safety pin and pressed the trigger on the self-destruct charges on the Little Bird and then patted it on the console hanging from the floor turned into ceiling.

“So long, buddy,” he whispered to his helo and crawled back into the open. Jesse made it to his feet and felt much steadier than his first attempt.

“Five,” she announced.

“Which way do we go?”

She pointed west into the darkness; the direction he’d flown in from.

“I have a suggestion,” he took a deep breath to steady himself, which was of depressingly little help. No time for another one.

“What’s that? Ten.”

“Let’s run.”

* * *

Hannah cursed, grabbed the pilot’s upper arm, and broke into a sprint. He wasn’t particularly steady on his feet, but his long legs helped him keep up.

She should have realized that he knew enough to destroy something as sensitive as a Night Stalkers helicopter. The US Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment flew very specialized and valuable equipment—none of which could be allowed to fall into the rebels’ hands. But he might have been a little clearer in warning her before pulling the pin.

“Fifteen!” She should be counting down, not up.

They sprinted back up the furrow his crash had dug through the small jungle clearing. When she’d seen the RPG take out the tail rotor on her ride home, she’d never expected to find anyone alive. Any normal, merely human pilot would have signed paid-and-delivered with that kind of damage. But he wasn’t any mortal human, he was a Night Stalker. Somehow he’d salvaged the situation enough to live to tell about it. Hadn’t crashed his sense of humor either—something far too rare in men.

“Why this way?” He seemed to be finding his stride and she had to hustle to keep up with his long legs in their race for the tall trees.

“Ten!” She was counting in the proper direction now. “They won’t expect you to backtrack toward the people who shot you down.” She aimed straight for the NERC camp, which lay less than a kilometer away. It was the best deception she could come up with. The guerillas would rush blindingly to the crash site, hoping for a hostage. Not finding one, they’d assume the pilot had continued to run away from the point of attack. They’d never guess that they’d be hiding out on the same side of the clearing as their own camp.

“Toward?” His voice came out in a squeak.

“Five!” She did her best to reinforce that it was far too late for questions.

“My hat!” The pilot spun on his heel.

Because she hadn’t let go of his sleeve—four—as they sprinted, she was spun around and almost flew aside. Three. Her grip held and she continued the spin to drag him back in their original direction despite his greater height and mass—two—and slammed him to the ground behind a tree.

One.

The jungle blew up!

White light sheeted into the trees, which chopped it into searchlight beams momentarily brighter than sunlight.

No need for her NVGs, she pulled them off—a massive fire now lit the entire clearing brilliantly as the helo’s fuel torched off as well with a second gut-punching thump!

Silhouetted against the glow were a half dozen NERC who had rushed into the clearing from just fifty meters past their own exit point. The force of the explosion was enough to tumble the guerillas to the ground, but they’d been too far away to do her the courtesy of dying.

Hannah unlimbered her rifle as a secondary explosion breached a fuel tank and the helo really shredded. Two of the NERC were down from shrapnel. In moments she’d shot the two standing farthest away—one male, one female. Didn’t matter. Their troops were typically a third female, and most of them made the men look mild.

As soon as the roar of the explosion had washed by—while bits and pieces of helicopter were still whistling by, catching tree trunks with harsh thwaps—the Colombian jungle roared awake. Birds, parrots (a whole separate class of animal way cooler than mere birds—she loved to watch them play when she was stuck immobile in some strategic hiding spot), shrieking monkeys (a whole class of animal she could do without), even a roaring jaguar (a beast she never wanted to meet in person), created a cacophony that would mask any sound. Not that her silenced rifle made much more than a soft click when fired.

Hannah took advantage of the distraction to drop the next two farthest guerillas. They’d think the shooter was over on the opposite side of the clearing, taking out the nearest targets.

There was a sharp clack of metal close beside her. The pilot had just unfolded the stock of his FN-SCAR combat assault rifle.

“No!” She slapped down on the barrel as he fired.

Instead of sheeting out a gout of muzzle flame to tell the rebels their exact location, the round blasted into the dirt close in front of them. Both of them spent the next few seconds spitting out the blown-back powdery dirt—thick with the taste of loam and the high iron content that turned it rust-red.

“Not without a flash suppressor, you idiot, unless you want them to see us,” she shouted over the ongoing jungle madness. “Don’t you have any survival instincts?”

“Sorry, ma’am,” he reached into a thigh pocket and slipped on a suppressor that would also nearly silence the weapon. “S’pose I’m still just a touch rattled.”

“Lie still. Don’t do anything until I say.”

They lay in silence and watched as the lone remaining NERC wandered about the clearing. He checked his comrades. The two who had gone down during the explosion weren’t getting back up. Then he found the first of the bodies, each with two holes in his head and one in the heart. That captured his attention.

Jolting up, he began scanning the firelit far side of the clearing just as she’d planned.

Hannah could feel the pilot staring his question at her.

She just shook her head. Some itch kept her from dropping the last man. The guerilla had no night-vision gear, so there was no chance of him spotting them.

Then, a flashlight’s beam swung by less than three meters beyond their barrels. It was soon followed by a NERC patrol.

This was so not good.

* * *

Jesse held his breath and wondered how much it hurt to die. He could hear the crunch of leaves beneath their boots. Whispered Spanish. Animals still screaming up in the trees…a whole world away.

At a soft sound to the right, the flashlight beam—which had been arcing toward them—slashed away. There was nothing over there that Jesse could see, but it definitely held the guerilla’s attention.

The guerillas flowed around them to both sides. The two of them were horribly exposed; no ghillie suits that snipers used for hiding themselves, not even leaves and branches piled over them. All he could do was lie still and pray.

Somehow, in all his years of service, the enemy had never been so close he could touch them. Could smell them going past—from both the long sweaty day and the highly spiced meal that he must have so rudely interrupted by getting shot down.

Jesse’s stomach had the temerity to growl—he really needed to remember to eat before a mission—but thankfully his fire chose that moment to find something else to blow up as the helicopter continued through the stages of its immolation. The guerillas were far more intent on what was going on in the clearing than right at their feet.

Another light swung in from the left, but again veered aside to track a soft click barely loud enough to hear. Each time a light came toward their wholly exposed position, there was always some sound to distract them away.

Their accents were so thick as they shouted above the ongoing explosions—both mechanical and arboreal—that he could only catch a word here and there. That, and his Spanish was much worse than his Farsi. Regrettably his Farsi sucked almost as badly as his Arabic. Helicopter pilots weren’t usually worried about blending in down on the ground and his last three deployments had been in Afghanistan.

The Delta operator shoved her rifle down into the leaves accumulated around the tree they were lying beneath. He did the same. It hid the potentially reflective metal, though they both kept their safeties off and their hands on the stocks.

Once it was obvious that the guerillas were all in the clearing and cautiously searching the far tree line for “the pilot’s escape route,” he risked a whisper.

“The ghosts are definitely on our side tonight.”

“Ghosts?” She didn’t take her attention off the guerillas. There was now a full platoon-strength force of thirty bad-asses in the clearing. About a quarter of them were some of the bad-assedest—most bad-ass? fiercest-ever?—women he’d ever seen, if he didn’t count the Tennessean Delta operator at his side. Taking them on would definitely be a no-win scenario.

“Do you have a better explanation?”

“For what?”

“For the sounds that kept distracting their attention sideways every time they came close.”

“I didn’t hear anything.”

“They weren’t loud, but I heard them just fine.” Jesse puzzled at that. Delta operators weren’t known for missing details. He still felt disoriented by the events of the last fifteen minutes, but he wasn’t concussed. No headache. No blurred vision. The sounds that had distracted the guerillas’ attention to either side of their not-so-much-a-hiding-place position had definitely been real.

“There are a lot of strange sounds in the jungle,” she dismissed his concerns with a whispered shrug. The noises from the burning helicopter were diminishing and he could start making out more of the Spanish being bandied about the field. They kept yelling to find the shooter, but their attention was still on the far side of the clearing. Mostly.

Because the fire was dying back from bomb to bonfire, he pulled his NVGs back down and spotted two nasty-looking NERC easing around the clearing perimeter, circumnavigating it just inside the tree line. On their present course, they were going to walk right over his and the Delta’s butts, which was going to be uncomfortable on several levels.

He pointed them out to her and she pulled down her goggles as well.

This time he was listening for it and heard the “ghost” distinctly—it sounded like a cross between a voice and a cracking tree branch. It was farther into the jungle and drew the search team deeper into the trees, circling behind their own position before continuing out the other side.

“Surely you heard that,” he whispered when they were well clear.

“Not a thing. You trying to freak me out?”

“Hey, I’m not the one being protected by ghosts.”

She turned to him. Maybe light brown eyes rather than blue hid behind the NVGs…they didn’t feel any less sarcastic than the boots.

“I’m not imagining things. Seriously, there are a lot of very convenient sounds in this jungle tonight.”

She turned back to watching the others. “I’ve always had good luck hiding on patrol. I was just hoping that you didn’t jinx that.”

“Bet you were top of your SERE class.”

Her silence didn’t deny the charge. Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape training was a brutal course designed to humble Special Operations soldiers about how poor their survival skills actually were if stuck behind enemy lines. The thing he’d hated most was the Resistance phase—not giving away critical information under interrogation. The instructors weren’t paid to be kind, but he’d bet that the guerillas would be much worse.

“How do you do it?”

“What?” She kept her attention on the NERC who were fanning out to move off into the jungle on the far, eastern side of the clearing.

“Create your ghosts?” Their whispered conversation was definitely getting surreal. The patrol that wanted to kill or capture him—though they were now headed in the opposite direction. The sounds. The female Delta operator who still hadn’t said her name—which might be because he hadn’t asked—thinking he was insane.

The first of the guerillas shifted into the far trees. Damn those things were big. Unlike anything he’d ever seen before, though Texas wasn’t known for its thick jungle.

Of course she hadn’t asked his name either. “I’m Jesse Johnson. Most folks call me Outlaw. And you’re?”

“Pissed.”

“Hi, Pissed. Pleased to meet you. I’m guessing that your parents either had it in for you at the start or that they were drunken Brits—that’s what they call getting drunk over there, you know.”

She snarled as quietly as one of her ghosts. Apparently she already knew that.

Jesse kept an eye on the departing guerillas. The clearing was slowly emptying as they fanned out to the far side of the clearing. Exactly as “Pissed” had said they would.

One circled the helicopter as the flames died down. He squatted down to peer into the cabin before shouting to his comrades, “Sin piloto!”—No pilot. Then he picked up something from the ground. Nothing valuable should have survived.

Mirame!”—look at me! He shouted it out.

The guerillas not quite into the trees turned and did so as he lifted Jesse’s cowboy hat out of the grass and tucked it onto his head.

Nobody, but nobody put on another cowboy’s hat.

Jesse shot him.

The guerilla screamed before he collapsed and died beside Jesse’s equally dead helicopter.

“What the hell!” Now the female Delta operator lying beside him wasn’t pissed anymore; she was livid. The guerillas were streaming back into the clearing. “What were you thinking? You idiot. We were almost in the clear.”

“Dang!” He hadn’t been thinking. They’d already wrecked his helicopter, one that had been the best ride a cowboy could wish for. They’d killed his “horse.” His hat—that Daddy had given him and his Momma had made the hatband for while she was pregnant with him—had been one violation too many.

“Any other bright ideas?” She sounded bitter and he couldn’t blame her. Any sweet teasing while she’d been hanging from her boots clinging to a grassy sky was gone.

“Well, we could use a really, really loud ghost right about now. Over there,” he pointed toward the north side of the jungle.

“Shit!”

* * *

Hannah wondered if her first shot should be in “Outlaw” Jesse’s head. No point in introducing herself now—they were going to die in short order. Their position was too exposed to rise from. It might be the middle of the night, but the entire NERC platoon of thirty men and women was streaming back into the clearing. There was no way that the two of them—no, the one of her; because she wasn’t going to count on Jesse for shit even if his single shot had been dead clean—could take on that many and survive.

He was right. They absolutely needed a big noise in the trees off to one side.

“Do it! Do it now!”

She turned to him. His face was now inches away. His face was as close as a lover’s—which was the dumbest thought she’d ever had before an imminent firefight.

“Now!”

“How?” In her peripheral vision she could see that the guerillas were already halfway back across the clearing, but she was having trouble looking away from him. A man didn’t get to his position without being exceptional. Maybe he had just screwed up. Too bad his one goof was going to get them killed.

“I dunno how you do it,” he squinted hard for a long moment. “Imagine them…suddenly being distracted.”

She tried…and Jesse glanced away for an instant in exactly the right direction. She hadn’t heard a thing.

“No! A big sound,” he gripped her shoulder. His grip was powerful. How did a goddamn air jockey get so strong?

Hannah could feel the strength of him. There was an intensity to his strength. A focus.

“Better!” He didn’t glance aside this time.

She could see a number of the NERC hesitate and aim their weapons to the north side of the clearing, but they weren’t moving.

“What?” Jesse could apparently see the worry on her face.

“I don’t know how to make it any bigger.”

“Maybe the trick is you’ve really got to feel it.”

“Any suggestions, Mr. Know-it-all?”

Jesse glanced at the NERC, many of whom were still coming their direction. Though almost a third were paying attention to the north woods.

“Running out of time here, Outlaw.”

“Okay,” he turned to face her. “This is probably going to make you even angrier at me than you already are, ma’am, but it’s the only idea I’ve got so don’t be pitchin’ a hissy. Take whatever you’re feeling and, for now at least, don’t aim it at me. Focus it and pump it to the north.”

“What are you

He shoved aside both their NVGs. Snagging a hand around her neck, he dragged her in like a macho asshole and kissed her—hard. Not like a first-time peck. Nor a soft, sensual test. It was a kiss between lovers who had been surviving too long apart on a starvation diet of phone sex. The shock of it jolted into her as hard as the round that had punched a hole in her hip in the Bolivian coca fields.

Anger at him tore one way, but it had been a long time since she’d felt a real lover’s kiss and it ripped her body in another direction as well. As one of the few Delta Force women, her best course of action had been to behave like one of the guys. Just fit in and do her job. Which left out relationships for any number of reasons. Even dating a civilian would signal that she was open to such things. Equality in the military? Not even close. Guys got to smile and brag about their conquests. Women had to hide it completely or abstain.

Jesse’s kiss smashed through all that like a hammer blow. The heat that flooded into her awakened a deep, primal need that she’d long since forgotten. Or perhaps never knew.

She—who didn’t need anyone—could lean on a strength like that. Could feel it in her. It built inside until it was so big she couldn’t contain it anymore. It spilled out like

Jesse jolted, then broke off the kiss as if he hadn’t been doing anything more than slapping a breaching charge into her hand.

“Hey!” Hannah kept her voice low. It was a damn poor way to end a kiss of that caliber—even under threat of imminent death.

“Look,” Jesse nodded toward the clearing. The entire platoon spun aside to stare off into the north side of the jungle. They stampeded through the trunks and vines—racing deep into the jungle. In moments, she and Jesse were alone, lying along the clearing’s west side and looking at the seven bodies and the last flickers from the burning helicopter.

“What did they hear?”

“You really didn’t hear the gunshots and shouts?”

Hannah could only shake her head. She hadn’t had a girly moment since her step-pa had celebrated her sweet sixteen in the most horrific of ways. “There. Now ya know what women are good for.” All of her Prince Charming dreams had flown away that night to never return. After that she’d always slept with her hand around the handle of a butcher’s knife—something he’d learned to respect right fast.

But the only thing she could hear now was the racing of her heart and the after-hum of Jesse delivering perhaps the best kiss ever. No perhaps about it, actually.

“Well, that was one powerful ghost. Let’s get out of here. We can figure this out later.”

She nodded, but was having trouble pulling herself back to the task at hand. She felt oddly drained. Not tired, but more as if her wits had just departed into the night leaving her to wander about lost and alone.

This time it was Jesse who took Hannah’s arm to steady her. They yanked on their NVGs—the helicopter’s fire now fading into red embers no longer enough to floodlight the area. He raced them into the clearing.

“Their camp is behind us to the west,” he explained. “They’ll return from the north—perhaps through this clearing, perhaps not—and head west. River to the south. I’m right particular about not swimming with crocs. So we go east.”

She nodded as she ran beside him, but didn’t try to shake off his grip. Jesse had a steadying influence. At least her knees weren’t being all wobbly—that would be too girly for her.

“I’m Hannah Tucker, by the way.” First time she’d ever been kissed without someone at least knowing her name. “And if you call me Hannah Montana, you’re a dead man.”

“Noted. Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma’am,” he held out his other hand and they managed an awkward handshake while they sprinted.

It was hard not to laugh. Even if his deep accent hadn’t given him away as being from the heart of Texas, his politeness most certainly did.

She focused on their escape. Straight across the clearing wasn’t a bad tactic. Sometimes the best evasive course was the unexpected straight line.

At least that’s what she assumed Jesse’s reasoning was until they reached the midpoint and he slowed for just a step, almost unbalancing her when he bent down to snatch something from the ground.

Then he tugged on a black cowboy hat as they continued their sprint side by side.

“You must really love that hat.”

“Daddy gave me this hat when I turned sixteen. It’s a damn fine hat and we’ve been through a lot of miles together. Momma made the hatband.”

Unable to reconcile the differences between their sixteenth birthdays—his family all happy together and gathered around a cake with candles versus her step-pa proving how awful a man could be and her own ma doing nothing to stop him—Hannah sprinted for the far side of the clearing.

* * *

They were five meters from the safety of the jungle wall when a lone guerilla stepped out of the trees smack in front of them, looking to see where his teammates had gone.

Jesse’s rifle was over his shoulder so that he could hang onto Hannah’s arm with one hand and grab his hat with the other. Being emptyhanded at this moment was a bad mistake.

The NERC didn’t hesitate.

The round slammed into Jesse’s shoulder—the hard impact enough to slam him to the ground.

His grip on Hannah’s arm pulled her down on top of him.

In his NVGs, he could see the heat trail of the second shot that passed through where her head had been moments before.

Thankfully Hannah generated a “ghost call,” which had the NERC twisting left. While he was distracted, she placed three rounds in him at point blank range with her handgun.

Jesse lay on his back with his ears ringing from the loud rounds from the guerilla’s AK-47—and the inevitable secondary explosion of screaming monkeys. Hannah’s Glock 23 had been silenced, making little more than a click as it ejected each spent round and chambered the next.

She lay full on him and he could feel both her strength and her slender waist that his arm had somehow snaked around.

“You feel good.” Even when he ran his hand up her back and ran into her rifle, she felt good—female curves, warrior strong, and armed to the teeth. And her kiss. He’d expected a fist to his jaw for that trick, instead it was a smooch that even Veronica’s best efforts after the senior prom couldn’t match. They’d ridden out to the swimming hole on his daddy’s ranch and she’d made sure that he had the best sendoff to the Army a Texas cowgirl could provide. Sorry, Veronica, not a patch on a Delta warrior from Tennessee.

“You feel good too. Are you okay?”

“Sure,” he buried his face in her hair and enjoyed the smell of her. Beneath the rust and jungle, she was rich, warm like a Texas sunrise on a fall day, and sweet like the scent of honey from a nearby hive.

“Weren’t you shot? It looked as if you’d been shot.”

“I think I was,” he seemed to remember that too. But it was hard to care with that soft cascade of blonde hair brushing down over his face below his NVGs.

Then he shrugged.

“Yikes!” His shoulder seared with the pain as if punched with a massive fist.

In moments she was kneeling over him, drawn in a hundred shades of magnified green and heat-outlined infrared. The NVGs were so sensitive that he could still see the remnant traces of his kiss on her lips and his nuzzle on her neck.

Her fingers found the wound and it was all he could do to not yelp again. Hannah yanked on something, none too gently, and a few seconds later she held up his radio. Or at least the remains of it. Thankfully, he’d attached the oversized battery pack, which the bullet had severely deformed but not punched through.

“You took a shot straight to the comm gear.”

“That isn’t usually fatal, is it? What about the rest of me?”

She poked a finger around his shoulder, a little gentler this time—though it still stung like crazy—then held it up for both of them to inspect. No bright wash of hot blood in the NVGs. “You’re going to live this time, cowboy. Next time? Maybe not so much.”

He lay his head back against the soil in relief. “Guess I won’t be phoning home anytime soon. How about you?”

“Both my radios are trashed. I snuck into the guerillas camp and used one of theirs to call for an extraction, which you were nice enough to totally bungle.”

“You, a Tennessee blonde, snuck into a camp filled with mean and nasty guerillas all of Latino coloring to call for an extraction? And I thought E.T. had a hard time of it. He just had to ride through the sky in a bicycle basket.”

“You don’t happen to have one on you? I’d take even that as a ride out at the moment. Otherwise we’re back to Plan B of walking out of here.”

“Sorry, ma’am. Seem to have left my magic bicycle in my other flightsuit.” Though he wished he hadn’t. Walking out from the middle of the Colombian jungle through hostile territory didn’t sound fun.

“Spare radio, perhaps?”

“That was my spare. I blew up the regular ones along with my helo. Not as if us pilots plan on doing much walking under normal circumstances.”

She rose to her feet, grabbed his hand (on his good side thankfully), and pulled him up. “The guerillas will have heard those AK-47 shots.”

“And the monkeys, don’t forget the monkeys.” They were still overhead, chattering up a storm of protest.

“If only I could. Let’s move.”

Once on his feet, he tested his shoulder carefully. It still hurt, but he could use it. If actually being shot was worse than this, definitely don’t sign him up.

He picked up his rifle and slung it over his shoulder, “Dadgum it!” Jesse switched the rifle to his other shoulder.

“You are a wonder, cowboy. How did you ever make Outlaw talking like that?” Hannah just shook her head at him.

His hat!

He found it knocked aside, picked it up, and tugged it down over the NVGs’ elastic straps.

“Any decent cowboy watches his language around a lady, whether or not he’s a bona fide outlaw.” He waved her toward the safety of the jungle. “Ladies first.”

“South,” she said. “It’s the last option open to us.”

“The river,” Jesse groaned. He’d rather take a horse or a helicopter than a boat any day. Assuming they could find a boat. He definitely wasn’t going to try riding any crocs.

Hannah led the way.

Jesse didn’t complain about her leading. In addition to her Delta skills guiding them to safety, even in full military gear and through his NVGs, Hannah Tucker provided an exceptional view.