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Death, in all its facets, troubled Morgan Bell's mind as she rode to her destiny in the back of a Sikorsky helicopter.
For over half her adult life she'd concentrated her talents on killing. She was good at what she did. An expert, they said.
But what kind of life did that make? It hadn't been enough for her to train as an expert marksman, one of the best in the world. No, sir, not good enough for rough and tough Morgan Bell. Her record 725-yard rifle shots no longer won awards in contests. She hadn't competed in nearly a decade. Over the last ten years, all her carefully contrived shots took out killers and madmen, not paper targets.
When said in a forthright tone of voice, even in her head, those words sounded almost righteous. Pure at heart.
In her mind and soul, though, Morgan knew she was no better than the butchers and murderers that her superiors sent her to dispatch. And that wasn't who she wanted to be anymore.
Running without lights no more than twenty feet off the desert sands, the copter pilot darted his craft in and out of blind canyons, staying in the moon's shadows. Morgan's fingers clung to her rifle case with a viselike grip as she studied the expert flyer through her NVGs, glowing eerily green against the black, night sky.
Suddenly struck with a bout of depression, caused by both the stark landscape out the open door at her side and by the thought of why she'd volunteered to be on this mission in the first place, Morgan trained her gaze on the men riding in the seats next to hers. Dark, brooding men, all of them. She'd spent the last three weeks in training with them. But now, the mere sight of the deadly determination in their postures was enough to give her a start.
She felt determined, too. The situation demanded it. But she couldn't help wondering how she had allowed her life to deteriorate into nothing more than a series of determined and dire situations like this one.
Morgan was almost finished with this kind of life. She'd recently taken early retirement from the CIA, and was ready to head back to her family's Wyoming ranch to find a new life. A different life. A decent life with people who cared, like the one she'd had as a girl.
Yet, as a favor to an old friend, here she was, taking a detour and flying to one last mission. A last mission with deadly consequences and grim implications.
Her headset clicked on. "Get set," the pilot informed the team. "Our target zone is about to be hit by a weather event. I won't be able to set it down. You'll have to unload on the fly."
Morgan didn't like unplanned events on a mission. A sniper must plan every last detail, right down to the wind direction. Nothing could ever be left to chance. Too tricky to go barging right into enemy territory without working out the thousands of calculations necessary for a successful shot. Any number of things could go wrong without flawless plans.
She turned her gaze to the open doorway beside her seat and drew in a harsh breath. Where there had been moonlight and rock cliffs zooming past only moments ago, now a ground-to-sky, dense fog loomed in its place. Slinging the straps for her pack and rifle case over her head, she tensed in her seat, ready to abort the mission.
"What ?" Morgan didn't manage to get the question out of her mouth.
"Sandstorm! Go!" The pilot fought to steady his copter, hovering it over a tiny stretch of clear ground.
From the seat behind her, one of the team members reached out and grabbed her arm. "I'll go first. You're next. I'll act as your descent partner."
Petrified, she said nothing. Just stared at him as though he were speaking a foreign language.
"Never mind," he yelled, trying to be heard over the sound of the rotors.
He tightened his grip on her arm with one hand and snaked the other around her waist. "We go together."
The next thing she knew, Morgan was flying. Out the copter door, heading toward the dark ground somewhere in the hazy distance below.
"Bend your knees and roll!"
The quick rush of adrenaline as he hit the ground nearly caused Karim Kadir to forget his assignment. His one, clear and all-encompassing responsibility on this, his first, mission: the sniper's welfare.
But forgetting could never happen. Not with this woman. She was unforgettable.
Scrambling around on all fours, he swallowed down the exhilaration of the jump and located her in the swirling dust kicked up by the rotors' wash. The sniper was lying flat on the ground but still breathing heavily.
Despite the whining engine noise and the blasting winds, Karim thought he heard words coming through his headset. "Abort! Abort!"
Though he pushed at the earpiece, trying to make the transmission clearer, the copter pilot's voice grew faint in the static. Every sound, every word, broke up and Karim could see nothing through the sudden tornado of winds and dust surrounding them.
It didn't matter. His duty was clear. He found Morgan's inert body again and quickly checked over her arms and legs for any breaks.
"Take your hands off me, you muscle-bound fathead," she shouted through gritted teeth. "What the hell is the matter with you?" Batting at his arms, she scooted back out of reach.
"We need to move. Find cover from the sandstorm."
"Bite me. I'm not going anywhere with you. I'm waiting right here until the pilot comes back for us. Didn't you hear him abort?"
At least she was uninjured. But Karim did not have time to argue.
He grabbed her up and got in her face. "Retrieve your equipment." Without waiting for her move, he bent and pulled her rifle case up with his free hand. "The copter won't be back until the storm lets up. We need to take cover now."
She squirmed a little, but as he dragged her across the sand she kept silent and at last started moving with him instead of against him. Probably she'd closed her mouth to avoid having sand fill it. The sandstorm had hit in earnest.
Karim didn't care why she was cooperating. He was just glad he didn't have to carry her, her forty-pound pack and her rifle case, in addition to his own sixty-pound pack, in what must be thirty-miles-an-hour winds.
He backed them up to an uneven rock formation. This was as good of a shelter as he was likely to find, considering he couldn't see two feet in front of his face.
"Remember your training," he urged, whispering loudly in her ear as he released her.
She shot him an anger-filled glance. Then, ripping her rifle case from his hands, she cradled the case in the crook of her arm and turned her back. Inching her nose as close to the rough limestone wall of rock as she possibly could, she covered her face with her hands. Karim stepped in behind her back. Finding he was unable to totally cover her body with his own, he reached out and pulled the backpack straps down her shoulders.
"Take the pack off."
She complied with a small grimace and then swung back into position as she had been instructed in class. Karim snugged his chest against her back and braced his hands flat on the wall at either side of her body. He prayed his own pack would offer some protection for both of them from the driving sand. Already the backs of his hands were stinging and he'd had to bow his head to keep taking breaths of air.
A hell of a way to begin his first mission.
The roar of the storm still rang in her ears, but Morgan was fairly certain the worst had passed them by. She wasn't having to brace her body against the pounding winds anymore.
At that moment, Karim relaxed his body, too, and stomped away, pulling his feet out of ten inches of built-up sand as he went. She jerked her feet up as well and then swung around to give him a piece of her mind. Before she could say anything, he scrubbed his hands across his eyes, trying to remove the grit. Seeing him work so hard to focus on her face made her hold her tongue. The skin on his chin looked raw, and the beet-red color of the backs of his hands stopped her cold.
For three weeks they'd been training side by side, but they didn't know much about each other. There had been no time for relationship-building while learning desert survival and memorizing the topography of the area. But she'd had plenty of time to notice his strong jawline. The way his black-as-midnight hair curled just so against his neck. How his strong, masculine hands could suddenly turn gentle as he taught her rope-tying.
Swallowing past her parched throat, she blinked away the inappropriate thoughts.
The entire rescue team had dressed in bedouin male attire for the mission, complete with heavy scarves as head coverings. Without them, she was sure Karim's scalp would've been sandblasted and bleeding by now.
"Are you okay?" It wasn't what she'd planned for the last hour to say to him, but seeing his condition changed all that.
As he managed to clear his eyes, he grumbled, "That's my question for you. I'm still the bodyguard on this mission."
A flare of anger at both his impulsive actions and those controlling words competed in her mind with the sympathy she thought she'd been feeling for his pain. And both of those emotions, the anger and the sympathy, did nothing to cover a far deeper, more sensual shudder she'd been feeling low in the belly every time he'd glanced in her direction.
Not like her. Such distractions were not her style.
"This mission is aborted," she ground out. How many times would she be required to say it? "You must've heard the pilot."
He grinned at her, using the same careless grin that made her stomach do somersaults. "I believe I heard the pilot say the landing was aborted. Not the mission."
She waved her hand at his face, trying to make him see the truth. "A sandstorm is too huge a change in plans. We cannot continue from here."
Remembering her rifle, she stopped arguing long enough to dust off the cover and check it out. Her rifle was her life, her third arm. Nothing could happen to harm it.
"The timing will be off now." Once reassured about her weapon, she fought again to make him understand. "Changes in wind direction. A dozen other details. The mission must be scrubbed. When do you think the copter can come back for us?"
Morgan was having trouble concentrating on what she was saying while he stood still and watched her pace. She realized her inopportune infatuation with this swarthy, unpredictable man could rob her of her discipline. Maintaining control was the one thing that had kept her going for most of her adult life. Control gave her the strength to carry on after the worst of times. She could not afford to lose it now.
That look in his dark eyes seemed she wasn't sure what. Maybe disappointed?
"Aborting the mission is not your call. Let's clean up a little, drink some water and try to raise command on the SAT phone. Okay?"
Sounded sensible. Which would be in total opposition to what she knew so far about Karim's personality. An adrenaline junkie and impulsive as hell. The man was her worst nightmare.
"Fine." It took her a moment to locate her pack, covered by about a foot of fine-grained sand. "It may be months before I get all the sand out of everything."
Every crevice in her body felt gritty. A shower suddenly sounded like the best plan yet.
Karim handed her his high-tech water bladder. "Take a few sips to clear your throat."
After she drank her fill, Morgan handed the container back. As he lifted it to his lips, she noted that he sneaked careful glances at her out of fathomless ebony eyes. Rattled by his unceasing perusal, her own gaze landed on his lips as they touched the same rim that had just touched hers. He swallowed, then ran his tongue over his bottom lip as though he knew what she was thinking. A spark ignited in her gut and sizzled along her spine.
Dear God, what was the matter with her? Turning her back, she bent to dust off her pants. No thoughts at all would be better than thoughts of kissing a man like Karim.
Remembering the strong, sand-filled winds, she reached up to feel around the edges of her head scarf. She would need to make sure her hair was all tucked up under the scarf before they went anywhere. Not that she thought she would be needing her disguise for much longer. The copter would be back for them at any moment.
Before they'd come on this mission, it had been the consensus of opinion that in a backward place like Zabbaran, she would need to disguise herself as a bedouin man in order to avoid confrontations with any of the locals. That idea had been fine by her.
Morgan did not do up-close-and-personal confrontations. Not with anyone. All her deadly confrontations over the last twelve years had happened at a distance of four hundred yardsplus.
She turned back to Karim in time to see him trying to get a signal on his satellite phone. "Nothing. Must still be interference from the sandstorm."
Well, that sucked. "How long do you think it will be until we can reach them?"
"Maybe a long time. Too long to stick around here. When the sun breaks fully over the mountains, we'll be too exposed. Both to the elements and to any passing Taj Zabbar patrols."
It had taken her a while to get the names of the players straight for this wild and crazy drama her ex-CIA partner had talked her into. The Taj Zabbar would be the bad guys, she knew that much. Really bad from the sounds of things. Apparently they hated everybody, but especially the Kadir family.
Tarik Kadir, her partner on several interagency task force operations while she was with the CIA, had been the one who'd asked for her help. She owed Tarik. He'd saved her life on more than one occasion.
So without much of an argument to the contrary, she'd volunteered to work with the Kadir family inside an uncivilized desert country. And already this mission had turned into a royal screwup.
She figured she would be sorry she'd asked this, but "What do you propose?"
"The original plan called for us to head over those mountains." Karim pinned her with a sincere look. "I say we stick with the plan. Start out. Maybe we'll be able to catch a SAT signal nearer the mountain's crest."
"You aren't considering going ahead with the mission if the others can't meet up with us."
He didn't answer her non-question right away, but the look in his eyes shouted loud enough.