Fugitive Heroes: Topaz Unit #2
November 30, 2021
Alaskan Christmas Escape
With a death squad in pursuit a fugitive needs the help of a wounded warrior.
An elite CIA kill squad has located hacker Zenobia Hanley’s Alaska wilderness hideout. With commandos hot on Zee’s heels, she’s saved from capture by her neighbor John Lowry. Zee has kept her yearning for the SEAL, who has a disability, in check to shield him. But, despite her secrets, John’s determined to protect Zee regardless of the risks. Because there’s more at stake this Christmas than just their lives.
You’re a fugitive, Zenobia Hanley reminded herself. Getting in any deeper with this man, regardless of how amazing he was, would only end in disaster. Might even get him killed.
“Thanks for the wonderful meal,” she said, washing the last plate and handing it to John.
“All I did was cook the roast.” Drying the dish, he smiled, a charming flash of white teeth that never failed to make her heart flutter. “You made everything else, and it was excellent as usual.” His grin grew wider and that flutter inside her spread deeper.
Taking the wineglass from her hand, he brushed his fingers across hers. Their gazes caught and held. His grass-green eyes sparkled in the warm firelight of the room.
Zee struggled to keep her thoughts silent, but they leaked out like the water running through her fingers. “We should do this again tomorrow.”
His smile faltered. He turned, putting the dishes away. “Two days in a row?” He gave a low whistle. “When we started this arrangement, you made it clear that once a week, for a game of chess, was more than enough. I’ve respected that.”
Chess had turned into lunch. Lunches into dinners.
“I was being careful,” she admitted. “A city girl, alone, in the remote wilderness. I didn’t want to give you the wrong impression.” To show any hint of weakness, no vulnerability, especially to a man who had a coiled readiness to him, reflexes honed to a razor-sharp edge. “That was before we became friends and I got to know you.” Now she was confident he was one of the good guys. Even though he had secrets and a past, too. None of which he wanted to discuss any more than she did. “It’s the holidays. Besides, we see each other three or four days a week as is.”
“While trading, my goods for yours. A shared cup of coffee in between. Fishing when the weather is good. Not this.”
Something inside her sank. Their time together was starting to change. Evolve. Their get-togethers felt less casual and more romantic each time. That wasn’t healthy for either of them.
“You’re right.” She dried her hands on a towel. “Sorry for suggesting we break a rule I set.” But she liked this. She liked him. A lot. Despite her best intentions, she’d grown to rely on John, for far more than game meet and chopped firewood. “Let’s forget it.”
Grabbing her coat from the back of a chair, she turned to leave, which was for the best.
“Don’t misunderstand me.” John put a hand on her shoulder, turning her around. He stared at her, really studying her, as if what he was about to say next mattered. “It is the holidays.” He dropped his hand. “I’d love to do this tomorrow. I’ll make venison stew. How about we do it at your place?”
She had changed the boundaries, and now he was testing to see how far they could be stretched. She slipped on her parka. “Is it okay if we hang out here again?”
Being able to make a graceful exit whenever she needed was important. No hurt feelings. No pressure.
His brow furrowed as he raked a hand through his shaggy light brown hair. “Why don’t we ever spend time inside your house?”
She shrugged. “Your place is cozier.” She glanced around at his framed photos of family and friends hung on the walls and at the hand-stitched quilt that his mother had made for him draped on the back of the sofa.
John was shrewd and if he spent enough time in her place, he’d eventually notice that she lived like a ghost. Not a hint of anything personal in the space. Her cabin was a sterile showroom that would make him uneasy after a few hours. Cause him to ask questions.
There were countless reasons why they didn’t need to hang out in her cabin.
“Okay.” He flashed an easy grin. “But come the New Year, we should shake things up.”
She’d worry about that next year. “Let’s make a whole day out of it. Begin with scones or maple pecan sticky buns.”
“I love those fancy biscuits, but I want the sticky buns.”
“Fresh rosemary bread to go with the stew. For dessert, I can make apple pie.”
“My mouth is watering already, but you’re spoiling me.”
“I’m doing no such thing. You hunt and chop the wood. I go into town for essentials you can’t forage, and I ply you with all the home baked goods you can handle. That’s our deal.”
Fishing was as far as she was willing to go to become a wilderness woman while John wasn’t much for baking and avoided going into Fairbanks at all costs.
“At the irresistible rate you’re going, I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep my willpower in check and my waistline from expanding.” John put a hand to his taut belly that was in no danger of getting flabby anytime soon.
“You have nothing to worry about.” Zee patted his chest without thinking, and he covered her hand with his, holding her palm there. The isolation, the great expanse of wilderness got to her sometimes, had her craving the barest physical contact. So, she allowed herself to enjoy the hard contours beneath his turtleneck as he tensed and leaned into her touch. He had a heavily muscled frame. Up close he was imposing, in a sexy way. “You look great.”
Warmth from the hearth curled around them. The soft amber glow played over his features. The term ruggedly handsome didn’t do this man justice.
But she had made a horrible mistake once in getting involved with the wrong guy. A gross error in judgment that haunted her to this day, making her doubt whether a normal relationship was possible.
John was different, on a cellular level, from the monster who had hurt her, but it didn’t change the fact that she was on the run. Her situation alone made any relationship impossible.
Stop courting disaster. “It’s late.” Already after eleven.
She lowered her hand and put on her gloves. John followed her to the door.
Smiling down at her, he took the wool cap hanging from her pocket and tugged it over her curls that she’d corralled into a ponytail. As he lowered his hands, he grazed her ears and cheeks. The contact was light and brief, and more than enough to make her breath catch and belly tighten.
“I can walk you home,” he said, his voice gravelly and low.
“No need.” Her place was less than a quarter mile cutting through the woods on foot. Not to mention she had the loaded Beretta she carried everywhere in her coat pocket. In Alaska, it was odd if you weren’t always armed. One of the reasons she’d chosen to hide out up here. “It’s snowing again. I remember the weather makes your leg ache.”
He dropped his gaze and stepped back. “My leg only aches when rain and trouble are coming.” His tone turned flat and dry. “For some reason, the snow doesn’t bother me too much.” He cracked the door open, letting in a bitter December breeze. “I’ll see you tomorrow. I’m looking forward to it. To the sticky buns. You’re an amazing cook.”
Zee’s heart shriveled like a dried prune and she knew it wouldn’t plump back up until she saw John’s smile again. “You’re too kind,” she said, equally flat, regretting that she’d chosen a humdrum word for the most captivating man she’d ever met.
He pulled up her faux-fur-lined hood over her head. “If you need me for anything, just give me a holler on the radio.”
“Sure.” She kept her two-way radio on her nightstand within easy reach. “Good night.” She felt like a hug—a platonic one; some simple gesture was in order, but she stuffed her hands in her pockets, curling her fingers around the hilt of her gun instead.
“`Night, Zee,” he said with a tip of his head.
She hurried out, and when she glanced back, the door was closed.
Bracing against the brutal slap of the cold, she ran down the porch steps and trotted through the snow, taking the same path she followed several times a week.
Had the comment about his leg triggered the abrupt goodbye? She simply hadn’t wanted him to go to the trouble of walking her home in this snow.
When had showing consideration become a faux pas?
She’d gleaned he was ex-military from the way he carried himself and fluidly used military jargon and guessed that it wasn’t his choice to leave the service. He never talked about it. Or how he had injured his leg. He had an easy, self-assured gait and no hint of a limp unless he’d been sitting for a long time. Even then it disappeared after a minute or two and he was a good runner. Though she suspected the act brought him some discomfort. One night after too much wine, he’d made a comment about his disability check and she’d put the pieces together.
But like John, she had too much respect to pry. There was also the fact that asking questions invited the tables to turn. Her answers would only expose him to unnecessary trouble.
On her porch, she stomped most of the snow off her boots. She hurried inside, then shut the door behind her. The knifelike chill that had settled in her bones started to drain as she soaked in the festive glow of the Christmas lights that she’d strung up in the living room.
She longed to be with her family. How she missed them. All of them.
Peeling off her coat, she removed her gun from the pocket. She tossed the parka onto a chair and slipped the weapon into the back of her waistband.
In the kitchen, she got a drink of water to combat having too much wine with dinner.
Her gaze fell to her laptop on the table and she cursed her talent. Her gift.
Hacking wasn’t something she did, it was who she was, and it posed the biggest danger to her, but it might be the only way to clear her name. She’d give anything to have her life restored.
Her entire team had been forced to flee. Zee might be able prove their innocence if given the chance. Already she’d risked everything by digging where she shouldn’t. She’d found important breadcrumbs. Now she had to follow the trail and see where it led.
She trudged into her bedroom and plopped down on her bed. Glancing at the handheld radio on her nightstand, she contemplated calling John. Have him come over and make her forget about her troubles. In a different universe, she would, but in this one, she was a fugitive who needed to be ready to run at a moment’s notice.
If she slept with John, gave him her heart and then had to bolt later, she’d be tempted to say goodbye and offer some brief explanation. Not simply disappear without a word. The time it’d take, two minutes, ten, to say farewell could mean the difference between life and death.
Ryker Rudin wasn’t a patient man, but it was more efficient to wait for his team to round up all the civilians on the premises before he got down to the business of killing.
Give his spiel once and then the first bullet would have the biggest impact. This boiled down to professional expediency.
The back outer door of the hackerspace opened, letting in an Arctic gust of late-night air that tasted of pine. His man, Delta Three—code names only on a mission—hauled in the last person here tonight. Officially the 24/7 lab was a community space for like-minded people with common interests such as computers, technology and digital art.
Unofficially, it was a space for hackers. The name was a bit on the nose in his opinion.
Delta Three shoved the sobbing woman who had made a run for it down to the floor. With her palms raised, she crouched beside the others, all trembling together in a huddle.
Ryker, known as Delta Prime for this CIA assignment, crossed his legs and swung the muzzle of the gun toward the group.
The five technophiles shrank back, cowering as if a bullet might fly at any second.
Eyeing them one by one, Ryker withdrew the sound suppressor from the pocket of his leather trench coat and attached it to the threaded barrel. “Whether or not I kill you is your choice. Tell me what I need to know and I won’t shoot you. I’m looking for a woman. Zenobia Hanley,” he said, and a knee-jerk spike of lust tangled inextricably with the ever-constant rage flowing through his veins.
A flurry of memories flashed like lightning. Holding her in bed, their sweat-covered bodies pressed close. The look in her eyes, once filled with affection for him. Her unthinkable betrayal that had left him gutted. Furious.
Ryker swallowed the bitter taste in his mouth. “Light brown complexion, brown eyes, long, dark curly hair. Slim build. Hers is not a face you’d soon forget.” Maybe never regardless how hard you tried. He gestured to Delta Seven to show her picture. “I need to know how often she’s been here and where I can find her. She may be going by a different name. Might prefer to be called Zee.”
The twentysomething blond guy lowered his head and squeezed his eyes shut, jaw clenching before he was shown the picture. He was the one they needed. Blondie knew her.
Ryker stood and stalked closer. Aimed his weapon at the woman who had been brought in last. “Someone better start talking, or I start shooting.”
One. Two. Three. He pulled the trigger. A single bullet spat from the end of the long black barrel, and the woman collapsed. The others screamed and sniveled, clutching one another as if there were safety in numbers. There wasn’t.
Ryker stepped in front of the next person. Lowered the muzzle to his forehead.
“Wait!” Blondie said. “Please, stop. She goes by Zee. No last name. She was in here earlier and yesterday, too. Over the past nine months or so, she comes in every two or three weeks. Except for this month. She started coming in several times a week.”
“Why the change?” Ryker asked.
“I think she was close to finding something big. But she was scared to dig. Afraid to stay online too long for any given period.”
Fear was a survival instinct, and when heeded, it kept you alive. Her fear had been justified. She had dug too deep for too long.
The CIA had caught her yesterday and unleashed Ryker’s team for cleanup—a palatable euphemism for assassination. He wouldn’t rest until he reclaimed what she’d stolen from him.
Then he would kill her. Slowly. Brutally. Preferably with his bare hands. His vengeance had been a long time coming. “Does she ever come in with anyone or only on her own?”
“Where can I find her?”
“I don’t know.” Blondie shrugged. “I swear.”
Ryker pulled the trigger, executing a redhead.
“Please!” Blondie raised his palms. “Don’t do this. She’ll be back in a few days. Just stick around and wait.”
What a brilliant idea. His team could cram into the local hotel and roast marshmallows while twiddling their thumbs.
“We’re on a tight schedule.” Ryker clasped his wrist in front of him and tapped the sound suppressor against his leg. “She may not have told you the name of the town she lives in, but I assure you she’s given you enough information to help us zero in on her residence.” Zee was a natural chatter, made friends wherever she went. Being on the run, separated from the rest of her old team, she would be inclined to strike up conversations with regular faces. “She lives in a town with no internet, correct?”
Blondie nodded. “Yes, yes. That’s why she comes here.”
She didn’t want the constant temptation of being able to get online. Smart. “How long is the drive for her?”
“Uh, an hour in the summer. With snow it takes her longer. Last time, she mentioned maybe an hour and a half.”
“Does she own or rent?”
“She rents, I think. A small cabin.”
“Did she ever mention a particular route she takes, the 2 or 3?”
“I don’t know.” Blondie cried. “Please.”
They always became whiny, falling back on useless entreaties. Ryker lowered to a knee and cupped the man’s face in his leather-gloved hand. “Shh. Calm down. Think. Route 2 or 3.”
Blondie sucked in a shaky breath. “She complained about the late plow of a road once. The 2, I believe. Yeah, that was it.”
“That puts her north of Fairbanks,” Ryker said to his team, and Delta Ten continued inputting all the information in their shared database with the agency. Their designated intelligence analyst was working this in real time. They would collate the data, scan rental records, date of occupancy, owners who accepted cash on a month-to-month basis, and cross-reference it with roads and terrain to pinpoint the needle in the haystack. The more data the better. “What does she drive?”
“A silver pickup. Old. Ford.”
Good. A vehicle parked outside a residence was useful when verifying the location on satellite imagery.
“Did she ever mention a view where she lives?”
“It’s Alaska—everyone has a view.”
Ryker sighed. “A particular mountain. A lake. River. Campground. Forest.”
“Yeah. A neighbor taught her to fish. She’s in walking distance to a large pond or a lake and a river. The Chatanika.”
Fishing? Zee wasn’t an outdoorsy woman but perhaps being forced to live in the boondocks to stay off the CIA’s radar inspired changes. “Name of the neighbor?”
“John something or other. A disabled vet. Helpful guy.”
One look at Zee would turn an uncooperative curmudgeon into an accommodating fool. Ryker bet the man had been helpful indeed.
Delta Ten nodded. “We’ve got her location.”
Faster than Ryker had expected. Then again, the area was sparsely populated, even more so outside the city, and rentals on the outskirts were bound to be limited.
“Are you going to kill me?” Blondie asked.
“No, I won’t.” Ryker patted his cheek. “I’m a man of my word.” He was, and hope had been necessary to elicit honest answers. But none of the technophiles would survive. Once his team was finished, the place would be torched. “Delta Fifteen will kill you.” Four pips in rapid succession followed, and the hackers slumped over, dead. “We’ll hit her location at 0200,” Ryker said to his entire team over comms, preferring to wait until the wee hours. “Catch the target while she’s sleeping. You’re free to wound her. I don’t care how badly, so long as it’s not fatal. I want to look that traitor in the eyes right before I kill her. So she knows that it was me.”
“I’m looking forward to the sticky buns,” John Lowry muttered under his breath.
You should’ve kissed her, you idiot.
John had sat in front of the fire for hours, replaying the evening, and he was still berating himself.
Zee was wicked smart, cool in a cosmopolitan way that screamed she didn’t belong out in the Last Frontier, and one hell of a chess player. A real knockout, too, way out of his league.
Runner’s physique. Smooth skin the color of wet sand. A Cupid’s-bow mouth. Almond-shaped eyes. Her hair was stunning, especially when she left it loose and wild. He’d never seen anything like it. A magnificent mass of dark spiral curls that he ached to wrap his fingers around and feel spread across his bare chest, sliding over his belly.
Maybe he should traipse down to her house and knock on the door. She might open it wearing her nightgown and a smile, those curls loose around her shoulders. Take his hand and lead him to her bedroom.
He glanced at the clock. Two in the morning. She’d be more likely to open the door with a loaded gun and a scowl and rightfully so.
Growling in frustration, he picked up the silly romance novel Zee had given him as a lark, which he’d been stupid enough to read, and tossed it into the fire.
Zee was wary, her guard always up. Everything she had told him tonight about being more comfortable around him had made sense.
The Alaskan wilderness held extra dangers for women. Not long after moving here he’d learned that this state had the highest rate of rape in the country. Getting to know him and discover he was a decent guy had probably been a delicate balancing act for her. One he respected. Still, he sensed there was a deeper reason behind the boundaries she’d created. She was running, hiding, the same as him.
His demons were personal. There was something inside him that he couldn’t switch off, something restless, bred by the military and capable of ugly things for the right reasons. But Uncle Sam no longer wanted him. Had stripped him of his purpose and put him out to pasture.
Forty years old, retired and miserable.
Loneliness was bad, but Zee kept him from reflecting on the misery. The only time he felt alive, happy, these days was when he was with her. In her absence, he was aware of the gaping hole in his life.
He believed her demons were of a physical nature. The giveaway was the perimeter intruder alarms she had set up in the woods around the vicinity of her place. Shortly after she’d moved in, he’d spotted them mounted to the trees. He suspected she might be out here taking such precautions because of an acrimonious breakup. Maybe she had an ex stalking her.
John looked at the mini decorated Christmas tree she had given him to spruce up his place for the holidays. He smiled, though his chest ached.
He didn’t want to ruin what was real with her for what might be possible. Yes, he wanted to hold her, make love to her until they were both sated, share the things on his mind that he kept bottled up. Which was bananas since they hadn’t even hugged much less kissed.
And what woman in her prime wanted a broken man like him anyway? A washed-up vet, almost ten years her senior, booted from the service for a bum leg and PTSD.
He wanted Zee in his life in any capacity, even if it was only platonic.
A cold shower was what he needed. Though it was a temporary fix. Come tomorrow, one look at her, one hair-flip over her shoulder, one whiff of her skin—coconut and flowers, she smelled like a vacation destination he never wanted to leave—one lick of her tongue across her lips, and he would be a hot mess of a man yearning for something he couldn’t have.
John stood, stretching out his stiff right leg. A brutal throb ran from his thigh through his knee to the tibia—the particular ache that forecasted rain.
A shower and sleep would do him good. Tackle the next day with a clear head. He’d take a long walk before she came over so he could keep up his streak of not needing his medication.
Stretching, he crossed the room and then stopped.
Instinct kicked in before his ears caught the sound. The telltale whomp-whomp-whomp was quiet. Too quiet to be military. Or search and rescue. After eighteen years in Special Forces and three living out in the Alaskan wilderness, he knew the difference. If music had been playing or he had been asleep, he would have missed the sound entirely.
That whomp-whomp was getting louder, resonating in his soul.
He snatched his down jacket from the hook, stepped out onto his porch and searched the night sky. Clouds obscured the aurora borealis that would otherwise be visible. He took a deep breath, scanning carefully, and waited. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end and it had nothing to do with the crisp, frigid air vibrating around him.
Where is it? Where is it? Where—
Ah, there it is. At his three o’clock.
A black helicopter cut through the sky.
His heart thudded as the chopper took a position over the woods, where it hovered in the scant moonlight. From the outline of the unmarked helicopter, it didn’t look like law enforcement. Possibly foreign. He couldn’t be sure, but it was unusual.
Four ropes dropped, dangling from the aircraft.
His brain recoiled, yet what he was seeing registered. This was a covert operation. But there was something very wrong about it that gnawed at him.
In his gut, all the way down to the ache in his leg, he sensed this was bad.
Men in tactical gear rappelled down each rope. Close to Zee’s place. So close they wouldn’t trigger the perimeter alarms she had put up farther out.
Ice water rushed in John’s veins. Zee.
The four men touched the ground. Red laser sights popped on. Then four more rappelled from the helicopter.
Lights came down the main road. Two vehicles stopped and killed their headlights. Once again near Zee’s. The ice water in his veins froze solid. How many of them were there?
They weren’t SWAT, not police nor FBI. Of that he was certain. He didn’t know who they were, but he did know that they were a strike team of some kind, heading for Zee.
His heart was hammering now. A warning chill rippled down his spine, telling him not to stand by and let whatever was happening simply unfold. It was instinctual, and he’d always trusted his instincts.
He had to get to her, which meant going through them, but there was no way he’d make it to Zee in time before those men reached her place.