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Grayson Pierce looked at his watch impatiently. The plane was late. Either that or his Rolex had suddenly lost its orderly Swiss mind. How he was supposed to help with this very, very off-book investigation, he had no idea. But his old fraternity brother from Stanford, Jeff Winston, had asked for help, and that was enough for him.
The way he heard it, Jeff had been doing the U.S. government massive favors left, right and center, and Uncle Sam owed Jeff one back. Gray frowned. What kind of debt merited pulling a senior field agent like him out of deep cover on no notice and sending him to West Virginia, of all places? What crisis of national security significance could be afoot in this bucolic setting?
Finally. The whine of a jet became audible in the distance. Gray picked out the white speck, which rapidly grew larger, descending on final approach into the Elkins-Randolph County Regional Airport. Jeff was sending some guy named Sam Jessup here to help with whatever was brewing around a local cult leader named Proctor.
The thrust reversers of a sleek Learjet bearing the Winston Enterprises logo screamed as the plane came to a stop at the far end of the runway, did a one-eighty, and taxied toward him. He was parked in a vintage 1972 Ford Bronco outside the gold, two-story box of a terminal, such as it was. Chicago O'Hare, this airport was not. He pulled up beside the low jet and hopped out as the hatch popped open. A pilot wearing a crisp uniform trotted down the steps.
A pair of high-heeled, black leather boots with chrome ankle chains and stiletto heels that looked like lethal weapons appeared on the top steps. Slim calves came into view. The shapely legs turned out to be a mile long and sheathed in leather that looked painted on. A black leather jacket with slashes of red leather under the arms emerged from the shadows. Good Lord, the jacket was unzipped down to well, that was an impressive flash of cleavage. What did the woman have on under the jacket to cause that gravity-defying display? An urge to tug the zipper down and find out made his fingers itch.
A swirl of flaming red hair swished over her shoulder. It was the color of strawberries and oranges if they got together and made a baby. A slender, porcelain-pale neck came into view, and then lush lips painted the most improbable shade of scarlet he'd seen in a long time.
The asymmetric triangles of her black sunglasses wrapped around her head like something straight out of a science-fiction movie. He'd lay odds she had body piercings in places he did not want to know about, too.
Who the hell was she? Surely Jessup didn't bring his sex-kitten girlfriend on whatever mission this was. Maybe she was some sort of contact who would take him to Jessup. Gray frowned as no one else was forthcoming from the jet. The goth chick was looking at him expectantly, so he stepped forward and held out his hand. "Welcome to West Virginia. I'm Grayson Pierce."
She took his hand in the firm grip most American women used, and which still startled him. "Sammie Jo Jessup. Nice to meet you."
"Sammie Jo" Oh, dear God. No. "As in Sam Jessup?"
The woman's lips curved into a dazzling smile that almost, but not quite, redeemed her extreme attire. "Let me guess. Jeff didn't tell you I'm a woman. He thinks that's hilarious to spring on people."
"Right. Hilarious," he replied dryly.
"So let's blow this popsicle stand," she declared, "and you can brief me in. Call me Sam if you like."
He didn't like. The name made her sound like a man. And despite her avant-garde fashion choices, she was anything but masculine under all that leather and chrome.
He slung her black duffel bag in the back of the Bronco, and with a word of thanks to the pilot, she climbed in next to him. Oddly, she smelled like roses. The old-fashioned kind with undertones of Earl Grey tea and cinnamon. A dim memory of his grandmother's formal rose garden flashed to mind. Acres of manicured green lawns and white-linen tablecloths covered with Royal Albert china rolled through his mind's eye unbidden. Bemused, he guided the Bronco out of the airport and onto an asphalt road that wound up into the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Although they weren't blue at all. Fall was just starting to paint the rolling hillsides in splashes of gold and crimson, oranges and maroons that were rapidly overtaking the carpet of green.
"Wow. Pretty," Sammie Jo commented at random.
He glanced over at her and was startled that she appeared to be studying him and not the scenery. It was hard to tell behind those dark sunglasses of hers. Had she just called him pretty? He chose to pretend she'd been referring to the scenery. "I'm told it's spectacular when the colors peak around here."
"Mmm. So why am I here?"
Direct, this woman. "I have no idea. Jeff Winston called me and said he needed my help figuring out what some local nut job is up to. Guy named Proctor. I assumed you would know what's going on since you work for Jeff."
"Nope. He didn't tell me anything more than that. But Jeff never does anything randomly. He clearly wants you and me to have a look around the local area. Turn over a few rocks and see what we find."
"That seems damned random of him."
"Agreed." She nodded. "There's clearly something going on. He must want us to take an unbiased look at it."
Frustration rattled through him. "Look. I have other responsibilities to get back to, and I don't have time for chasing shadows and vague rumors."
An eyebrow climbed above the upper rim of one tilting triangle of her sunglasses. "Like I do have time for games?" she demanded.
"Hey. He's your boss. Take it up with Winston."
They fell into silence and drove for some miles before he felt the least bit inclined to be civil again. Dammit, Jeff was his fraternity brother and had been a loyal friend through some rough times. He owed the guy at least a shot at making this investigation, or whatever it was, work.
Gray sighed and said, "Jeff rented us a motel room in a burg called Mapletop. It's smack-dab in the middle of the National Radio Quiet Zone. Are you familiar with that?"
"Tell me about it."
"It's an area encompassing 13,000 square miles and straddling the Virginia-West Virginia border. It was set aside in the 1950s to surround the world's largest radio telescope, which is an incredibly sensitive instrument. Inside the Zone, only very limited radio emissions are allowed. There are no cell phones, no Wi-Fi and only a handful of low-power radio stations. All electronic emissions generated in this area have to be approved so they don't interfere with the telescopes."
She nodded as if she already knew all that.
"We'll enter the NRQZ in a few miles, and your wireless devices will lose signal shortly thereafter. If you have any last-minute phone calls to make, email to check, or texts to send, now's the time to do it."
"No one to call," she said grimly.
His finely honed intuition sensed a story, but he didn't pry. She wasn't here to overshare her personal life with him, and he didn't want to know, anyway. He had a job to doassuming he could figure out what the damned job was.
What had Jeff been thinking to send this woman, who was as clueless as him, out here? It wasn't like she was going to blend in with the locals in the least. This region was about country music, log cabins and outdoor sports. Sammie Jo Jessup looked like a character from a science-fiction movie.
As they turned into the parking lot of the motel, his alien-wannabe companion broke the silence. "You still haven't told me why you're here," she prodded. "Who are you?"
"I'm an old buddy of Jeff's who owes the bastard a favor," he retorted. "Why he chose to collect it like this is beyond me."
He assumed she was looking at him. Her sunglasses were pointed at him, at least. "What kind of work do you do?" she asked.
Caution kicked in and he said carefully, "I work with computers."
"Hmm. Why would Jeff bring you here, then, where you're useless?"
He knew all too well the feeling of being useless. It had ripped out his soul, burned every last bit of the humanity out of him and left him the hull of a man he was today. But to be told he was useless by this impertinent female didn't sit well with him.
Irritation flared in his gut. An errant urge to tell her the truth rose in the back of his throat. But the pain rose, too, and he wasn't prepared to face the fire today. He pushed down the grief, pushed down the memories, pushed down any feeling at all.
He guided the Bronco into a parking spot in front of the two-bedroom motel bungalow Jeff had arranged for them. Gray's manners were too deeply ingrained to ignore no matter how irritating this woman might be, so he went around the SUV to open her door for her. But of course, she'd already barged out of the car and stood beside it looking around.
"What?" she demanded as he frowned at her.
"I would've opened your door for you."
She snorted. "I can get my own doors."
"I'm sure you can. But that doesn't mean I still shouldn't open them for you."
"Are you some kind of throwback to the olden days?"
He allowed himself a little smile. Wait till she got a load of how people lived in this region. The whole place was one giant throwback. "Something like that."
He fetched her bag and headed for Home Sweet Home. The mint-green cinder-block structure had the metal roof so common in this region. Either that, or someone had gone to a hell of a lot of trouble to paint rust stains on the thing. Metal apparently helped shield the minor electrical emissions of small household appliances from the nearby telescopes.
He hurried his steps to reach the door first and opened it for her with a flourish. He couldn't actually see if she rolled her eyes at him, but he sensed that she did. He smirked at her back in satisfaction as he followed her inside.
"Wow. This is rustic," she declared.
He snorted. "This is as modern as it gets this far inside the NRQZ."
His gaze strayed to her delicious tush, cupped in that naughty black leather as she closed the vinyl-lined curtains over both living-room windows. She headed for the kitchenette's tiny window, and he enjoyed the view as she bent over the rim of the sink to yank the curtains closed over the small, high window there. The cabin's interior went dim. But oddly, she didn't remove her sunglasses. Hangover from partying too hard the night before? Or maybe something more mundane like a migraine?
"Better," she announced. She turned back toward him but stopped abruptly as she caught sight of the pictures spread out across the counter. He'd forgotten those were there. She stared at the surveillance photographs closely. "Who's this guy?"
"His name is Luke Zimmer. Jeff sent me those and the kid's dossier yesterday morning."
"He's cute. You stalking him?"
She was clearly trying to get a rise out of him, therefore he refused to take the bait. He answered blandly, "Jeff hired young Luke a few months back to come here and have a look around. Kid has a history of some rather extreme political views and has been known to act upon them from time to time."
"What constitutes extreme in your world? Which side of the political spectrum do you fall on?"
It went contrary to every bit of his training and years of field experience to tell a complete stranger any details of his personal life. He was all about living the cover story. He never revealed the real man inside, for down that path lay self-destruction. "Not pertinent to the investigation at hand," he replied stiffly.
"Are you always this uptight?" she asked curiously.
"Uptight? Why I Not at all," he spluttered. Lord, this woman threw him off balance.
She strolled right up to him in a sexy catwalk, invading his personal space. Ahh. Come-ons by hot chicksnow those he had down pat. His world righted itself and, as he regained his equilibrium, his right eyebrow went up in sardonic amusement. She had another think coming if she thought she was going to intimidate him. One nicely shaped, albeit black, fingernail ran down the front of his shirt. Damned if his pecs didn't tense at her touch, though, in spite of his best effort not to react.
"You don't look like the jeans-and-flannel-shirt type, Sparky," she purred. "And those hiking boots look brand-spanking-new. They're a dead giveaway that you're a city slicker."
"Like you're one to talk," he retorted. "You'll fit in around here about like an alien from outer space."
She sat down on the couch and crossed one long leg over the other in a blatantly sexy display. "But I'm not trying to fit in. I don't even know why I'm here."
"Neither do I," he snapped. "Jeff Winston asked for my help and, for some reason that completely escapes me, saw fit to send me you'"
He packed all the derision he could muster into that last word. Man, this woman got under his skin. Nobody ever got this big a rise out of him this fast. And that was bad. For him, feelings were dangerous things. Lethal even. If he felt too much he might lose control, and then he might let go of his will to live. He hadn't fought to hang on this long only to let go now.
He commented more reasonably, "I have no idea whatsoever what I'm supposed to do with you."
"I could make a few suggestions." Her lips curved into a sinful smile. "You look like you could stand to learn a thing or two from me."
An unwilling grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. He was confident enough in his skills in that department that he definitely didn't need to rise to that jab. But she was tempting.
"Tell me about you," he said in as businesslike a tone as he could manage.
"I work for Winston Enterprises. I'm an operations controller and analyst in the Winston Operations Center. Are you familiar with it?"
He nodded. He'd visited the high-tech, informationgathering hub once and been stunned. Most governments didn't have anything better. Winston Enterprises, which was a sprawling international conglomerate of dozens of companies, practically had its own private intelligence agency.
"I've worked with Jeff for five years," she continued. "Two years ago, I volunteered for the HIVE Project. Are you familiar with that?"
"Nope. Never heard of it."
"That explains a lot," she replied cryptically.
"What is it?"
"Hang on a sec," she muttered as she fished in her jacket pocket and emerged with a cell phone. "I've got to talk to Jeff."
"Your phone won't work. No cell phone towers inside the NRQZ. And if you turn it on, the radio emissions police may show up and bust you."
She swore colorfully as she stuffed the device back in her pocket. "Have you got a string and some tin cans for me to make a call with?"
"Landline's over there on the wall. They bury the phone cables so they don't screw with the telescopes."
She marched over to the ancient rotary phone and glared at it. "How quaint." She dialed number by slowly rotating number.
"Hi, it's Sam. Is the boss around?" There was a brief pause. "Hey, Jeff. What am I authorized to tell your buddy Grayson about HIVE?" She listened for a moment, and if he wasn't mistaken, surprise crossed her face. But he couldn't be sure. He really wished she'd take those shades off. It was unsettling not being able to read her expressions at all. Was this HIVE thing the reason he'd been dragged into the middle of nowhere and thrust into the company of this annoying woman?