Authors: Terri Reed
Then his focus would go back to where it belonged. Protecting the country and putting bad people behind bars.
And Tessa would resume her life without him.
That the thought left him hollow inside was an annoyance he didn’t have time to examine.
The sight of the truck barreling down on them forced his attention away from the woman who was quickly charging around the walls he’d built to protect his heart.
“We’ve got company,” Randy said from the back. He’d propped himself up on Tessa’s duffel bag.
“Yep. This thing won’t go any faster,” Jeff said.
“I’ll try to buy us some time.” Randy scooted toward the back doors.
Jeff glanced back and met Randy’s gaze. “Make every bullet count.”
“Check the glove box.” Randy checked the ammo supply. “Knowing Aaron, there’s got to be a handgun in there.”
Without a word, Tessa opened the glove box. Sure enough, there was a Glock 9mm inside.
Jeff did a mental fist pump. “Okay. Tessa, I need you to trade places with me.”
“What?” she squawked.
“Unless you think you can take them out with that gun?”
She shook her head. “How do we do this?”
“Slide over here.” He waved her over. “Put your foot on the gas next to mine.”
She did as he instructed.
“Take over the steering wheel.” He made room for her hands as she squeezed over him until she was jammed up against the door.
He inhaled deeply of her scent; despite the ordeal and the grueling days, she smelled faintly of pine and still very feminine.
He scooted away from her as she took over driving. Once he was fully in the passenger seat, he checked the Glock, confirming it was loaded and ready. “Okay, Randy. Let’s slow them down.”
Randy popped open the back door and fired at the truck. Jeff rolled down the side window and wiggled out enough for a clear shot. He aimed for the front tires and pulled the trigger at the exact moment the van hit a rut. His bullet slammed into the other vehicle’s grill.
A barrage of gunfire hit the van.
Randy slammed the door shut.
Jeff ducked back inside the cab. The sound of a tire exploding reverberated through the interior and set Jeff’s teeth on edge. Tessa yelped as the van fishtailed, then shuddered to a limp.
“What do I do?” Tessa yelled, her voice surprisingly calm. No shrieking, no hysterics. He appreciated she wasn’t freaking out.
“Keep your foot on the gas.” The last thing they needed was to stop and be captured again.
Over the sound of the van struggling on the dirt road and the roar of the truck behind them, the distinct
of a helicopter sent Jeff’s spirits bounding up with hope. He craned his neck to look up at the sky.
The camouflage netting Sherman used to hide his operation stretched above them, concealing the road. Irritated by the sight, Jeff leaned out the window and fired again at the truck, praying the good guys overhead would hear the sound and investigate. Doubtful, but one could hope.
“Jeff!” Tessa’s shout brought his focus to the highway in front of them. She spun the steering wheel and the van skidded onto a blacktop road.
Jeff checked above them and was gratified to see that the netting ended at the tree line exactly where the truck chasing them stopped, then backed up out of sight.
Tossing the Glock onto the floor, Jeff climbed half out the passenger window to wave his arms, hoping to gain the attention of the people in the helicopter. It worked.
The helicopter circled and then slowly descended and set on the wide highway, the rotating blades stirring up the debris from the forest floor.
As soon as the van lurched to a stop, Jeff scrambled out. He met Tessa at the back doors. The relief on her face warmed his heart. He grabbed her and kissed her, the delightful sensation of her lush lips crushed against his eased the anxiety flowing through his system.
“Hey!” Randy inserted himself between them.
With a laugh, Jeff stepped back and helped Randy from the cargo hold. Tessa grabbed her duffel bag and then, with Randy propped between them, they ran for the waiting helicopter.
Once inside, Jeff shook hands with the special agent in charge, Doug Coleman.
“Where’d you come from?” Coleman shouted, trying to be heard over the rotors. “We’ve been searching these woods for the past two days.”
Knowing there was too much to say, Jeff clapped Coleman on the back. “I’ll give you a full report once we’ve set down.”
Impatience flashed in Coleman’s brown eyes, but he nodded and sat back. Jeff followed Coleman’s curious gaze to Tessa. She sat next to Randy, fussing over the wound in his leg. Jeff imagined what his life was going to be like without her in it.
were the words that came to mind. A state of being he should be used to. But until he’d met Tessa, he’d never experienced the level or depth of emotion for anyone that he had for her.
And that reality scared him no end. She’d made it clear her priority would always be her work. She’d walked away from one relationship already, choosing her career over love.
Jeff would never take the risk that Tessa would do the same to him if he was to admit how deeply entrenched she’d become in his heart over the past few days. The best thing for them both would be to get their lives back to normal.
Tessa’s gaze met his, and she smiled, her eyes full of tenderness. Separating would be the best thing all around. But it would also be the hardest thing he’d ever done.
he command center teemed with men and women in flak vests, each with a different agency acronym emblazoned across the front. Feeling out of place, Tessa stood to the side of the room watching the melee of uniformed personnel who had taken over the visitors’ center.
The helicopter that had picked them up on the lonely stretch of Highway 20 had set down in the town of Newhalem. The small Washington hamlet, owned by Seattle City of Lights, was the home base of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project, and the company employed most of the town’s inhabitants.
The local county sheriff, whom Tessa had met upon arriving at Glen Lake, joined Jeff and the men and women of the U.S. Border Patrol, Homeland Security and the DEA as they gathered around a large map of the North Cascades National Forest. They were hoping to pinpoint the area where Sherman had his base of operation.
Apparently, this was where Jeff had disappeared to upon arriving, while she’d been given a change of clothes and ushered to one of the outer buildings, where she was able to freshen up. She couldn’t wait to get to the hotel room they’d promised her so she could completely wash away the filth and grime from the ordeal in the woods. But that would have to wait. The first priority was raiding Sherman’s compound before he got away.
Ranger Randy had been whisked off by a medic under heavy guard to another building to await transport to Bellingham, the nearest large town with a hospital.
She was so thankful he was going to live. Having his death on her conscience would have been too much. She was struggling enough with what she’d done to Aaron.
As she’d told the agents when she gave her statement, she still didn’t know if he’d lived or died. She prayed he lived and was apprehended.
“This is approximately where we entered the forest.” Jeff had one fist propped on the table while he pointed to a spot on the map. “We traveled by foot for seven hours before making camp. I believe we were headed in a northwest trajectory.” He glanced over his shoulder. “What do you think, Tessa?”
Glad to be included, she stepped to his side. The affection in his eyes made her tongue stick to the roof of her mouth. She forced herself to say, “Yes. That’s correct. But then we were driven to the compound. I had no sense of how long it took.”
Jeff nodded in understanding. “Right. We had bags over our heads. Sherman’s compound is roughly ten minutes by car from where they captured us in the forest.”
“We scoured this whole area by air,” the man Jeff had called Coleman said with a frown as he stared at the map. “The forest was too dense to see anything on the ground, and the thermal imaging kept recording messed-up data that made no sense.”
“It’s there,” Jeff said. “They had camouflage netting strung up. Aaron, the second in command and Sherman’s son, alluded to evasive tactics to keep infrared and thermal imaging from showing up. We blew their generator. You should have seen that despite the netting.”
Coleman nodded. “We heard the explosion. Saw some smoke. That was what brought us back around to the area where we found you.” He leaned forward and tapped the map. “Which was here.” He spread his hand on the map. “This whole area needs to be thoroughly searched by ground.” His gaze rested on Jeff, then Tessa. “Are there booby traps or deterrent devices we should know about?”
“I don’t know.” Jeff glanced at Tessa.
“What about Randy?” Anxiety kicked up its heels in her gut. She didn’t want Jeff going back in. Nor did she want anyone else getting hurt. “He’d be able to tell you how to navigate anything deadly.”
Coleman’s gaze hardened. “Randy is refusing to give up any intel on his family or the illegal marijuana operation you found.”
Frustrated by that surprising news, Tessa said, “Let me talk to him.”
Jeff’s hand came to rest on the small of her back. “It’s worth a shot.”
His support meant the world to her. He believed in her, in her abilities. No one had ever had her back before. Not like this. Not like Jeff had had her back over the past few days. She couldn’t have made it without him.
He’d saved her time and time again. But more than what he’d done to keep her physically safe, he’d made her believe in herself, believe that she was strong enough to fight for her life. She would be eternally grateful to him.
She forced her mind to the moment at hand. Mr. Coleman stared at her as if waiting for an answer to a question she hadn’t heard. “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?”
“You okay?” The concern in Jeff’s voice sent a ribbon of warmth winding around her. He tugged her closer.
She drew herself up. “Yes. Tired. But I’m good.” She turned back to Coleman. “Sir, you asked a question?”
Coleman’s intense gaze pinned her to the spot. “Do you really think he’ll talk to you?”
“He’d been willing to give up his life for us,” she said. A fact she still had trouble wrapping her mind around. But she’d found a way to keep Randy from sacrificing himself and they were all able to escape. “I feel confident he’ll tell me what you need to know.”
Coleman considered her a moment, then slowly inclined his head. “Agent Steele, you good to accompany Dr. Cleary?”
“Yes, sir. Glad to.”
Jeff propelled her out of the visitor center, a decidedly newer structure than the rest of Newhalem. The small company town consisted of a handful of buildings dating back to the early 1900s, some showing signs of renovations. “Are you really okay?”
She tucked her arm through his, her gaze on the old Baldwin steam locomotive engine not far away. The black beast gleamed in the late-afternoon sun. “I am now that we’re away from the woods and that awful place.”
“Soon you’ll be in a hotel with room service,” he said.
“And a hot bath.” Muscles she didn’t even know she had ached. Her skin was raw and scraped. Her nails were jagged and grimy. As much as she loved the outdoors and relished her time in the field, she would be happy to get back to her lab and her tests and her computer.
They walked across the dirt street running the length of the town. A dog’s bark snagged her gaze. She caught a glimpse of an older man walking a black dog on a leash as they turned the corner of a building and disappeared. Her steps faltered. Her skin prickled. She knew him.
“Something wrong?” Jeff took her hand.
“I don’t think so.” At least she hoped not. “I thought I saw someone I recognized.”
“Henry. I never got his last name. He was at the ranger station when I arrived at Glen Lake. He had the same kind of dog, too.”
“I remember him. Kind of a crotchety old man.”
“That’s the one.” Why would Henry be here in Newhalem?
“Stay right here,” Jeff said and took off at a jog for the place where she’d seen the older man and dog go. Jeff disappeared around the corner and returned a moment later. He shook his head as he came back to her. “No one there.”
She shrugged. “I must be more tired than I thought. It couldn’t have been Henry.”
They proceeded to a historic building that looked in need of some rehabilitation. A sign over the doorway read Gorge Inn. A uniformed sheriff’s deputy stood watch at the entrance. Inside the main room of the rustic structure, a bed had been set up with an IV connected to Randy’s arm while he awaited transportation to the hospital in Bellingham.
He lay stretched out on a metal-frame bed. His eyes were closed, his face pale. The bandage around his leg had been changed for a pristine white one. Thankfully, they’d managed to get the bleeding to stop. The town’s physician had said Randy was stable but would need surgery.
She approached the side of the bed. Jeff grabbed a ladder-back chair and brought it over for her. She sat and took Randy’s cold hand in hers.
His eyelids fluttered open and focused on her. He gave her a crooked smile. “I didn’t think I’d see you again.”
Her heart twisted. If only she’d come to check on him, to wish him a speedy recovery and thank him again for helping her break Jeff out and leading them both away from his uncle’s camp. But no. They had come to his bedside to ask him to betray his kin once more. “We need your help.”
His gaze slid away. “I’ve done what I could.”
She squeezed his hand, drawing his attention back to her. “You did a great thing by helping us escape, Randy. I have to believe you aided us because you know what your uncle and cousin are doing in those woods is wrong. You said yourself, the men there are trapped, held prisoner. No one should be held captive and enslaved, forced to work under the threat of bodily harm.”
Randy heaved a sigh. “It wasn’t supposed to be like that. The compound was supposed to be a refuge for those without hope and nowhere else to turn. But after Aunt Katherine’s death, Uncle Sherman changed, became bitter and mean and greedy. Then when he had the car accident that left him crippled and killed his daughter, Sarah, he refused to allow anyone to leave the compound. He sold the plants for profit. He listened to Aaron. My cousin has always had a chip on his shoulder. For as long as I can remember, he felt like the world owed him something. His mom and his sister died. His dad was a cripple. He didn’t think it was fair.”
“Life isn’t always fair,” she said, recalling the many times her grandmother had said the same thing whenever she bemoaned the state of her life or a situation she didn’t like. Now Grandma’s words resonated deeply within her. “God never promised that.”
Randy’s lips twisted. “Aaron doesn’t believe in God. He doesn’t believe in much of anything.”
Her heart contracted in her chest. “Randy, there’s something you should know.” Her throat threatened to close on the words but she had to get them out. “I injured Aaron trying to get away from him.”
He blinked, his eyes growing round. “Did he hurt you?”
Touched that his first thought was for her, she shook her head. “No. But he would have.”
“Yes, he would have.” Randy looked away. “He hurt a lot of people.”
“Which is why the police need to go in and free those men,” she said. “They need to know where the cameras and motion detectors are located. And if there is any type of trap or anything else that would prevent them from entering the compound.”
At his hesitation, she pressed, “Randy, you’re our only hope of getting those men out alive. You’ve come this far. You need to think of yourself now. If you help the authorities, they may be more lenient with you.”
“My family is never going to speak to me again,” he said quietly. “They’ll blame me for all the trouble.”
She didn’t know what to say to that.
Jeff stepped closer, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Doing the right thing is sometimes difficult. But you have to be able to live with yourself in the end. Your decision could save lives or take lives. What kind of man do you want to be?”
Randy swallowed. “I’ll tell you what I can.”
“Thank you.” Tessa leaned in to place a kiss on the younger man’s cheek. “You’re making the right decision.”
“I’ll have an agent come take your statement,” Jeff said. “I’ll put in a good word with the state’s attorney.”
“I’d appreciate it,” Randy said and closed his eyes.
Jeff led Tessa from the building. “You handled him well.”
Pleased he thought so, she said, “Thank you. I like Randy. I think he’s been caught between his family loyalty and his conscience.”
“Well, good for us that his conscience is winning out,” Jeff said, steering her back to the visitors’ center. Once there, Jeff reported to Coleman and then made arrangements for Tessa to be transported to Bellingham, where she would take a plane back to Utah in the morning.
“You’re not coming with me?” she asked as he walked her to the waiting SUV.
“No. I want to be in on the raid of Sherman’s compound.”
She stopped by the back end of the vehicle. “Why? Haven’t you had enough of that place?”
“Yes, actually. But I want to make sure Sherman is taken into custody. I don’t want there to be any mistakes made. The man alluded to friends in high places as being part of why he could operate undetected for so long. I want to make sure he doesn’t get away with his crimes.”
“For a man who professes to not do commitment, you’re very committed to your job.”
“Those are two very different types of commitment you’re talking about,” he said, his expression wary.
“Maybe, but both require attention, patience, dedication. There’s a risk with both, as well,” she said, realizing that her words were just as true for herself as for him. “You could lose your job and have nothing to show for the commitment you gave it.”
His gaze narrowed. “That’s true. But a job won’t leave a heart in tatters.”
His words brought her up short. “Who was she?”
“Is she still in your life?”
So that was why he was afraid to commit to a relationship. A woman broke his heart. The thought reverberated through her mind and resonated deep within her own heart. Who was she to judge him when she, too, had the same fear? “Then why are you still letting her affect how you live and what you do?”
Another question she had to ask herself regarding Michael. Funny how it was so easy to see other people’s issues clearly and not recognize them in oneself.
He stiffened. “Don’t try to analyze me, please.”
A wry smile escaped. She was as loath to reveal her inner turmoil as he was. “I might not like what I find?”
“Something like that.” He cupped her cheek, the pad of his thumb rubbing across her bottom lip. “I’m going to miss you.”
Her heart fluttered, and emotions bubbled up from the depths of her heart, making her want to throw her arms around his waist and cling to him. Staring into his eyes, she sifted through the complex emotions burrowing into her heart and soul. She was profoundly grateful to him for so many reasons—not only had he protected her, making sure she left the woods alive and unharmed, he’d made her feel special and cared for.
Not once had he found fault with her; not once had he patronized or degraded her thoughts, opinions or actions. Sure, there were moments when they had not agreed, like when he told her he was coming along in the boat, but never once had he been disrespectful.