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The explosion blasted a tidal wave of sound through the yellow cinder block walls, rocking the building like an earthquake.
Army Chief Warrant Officer Cassidy Matthews's hands flew to the back of her head. She dived for cover on the floor, cracking her forehead against the top of the desk. Her sinuses rattled. Stars shot through her vision. For an instant, the room evaporated, and the foul oiliness that permeated the air of Iraq overwhelmed her.
Only this wasn't Baghdad.
"Mac!" She shook her head to clear her vision and inventoried the room. No blast holes in the wall. Roof intact. No smoke. But where was Master Sergeant Mclntyre? He'd been standing right in front of her not ten seconds earlier. Planting her hands on her desk, Cassidy pushed herself to her feet just as Mac braced his hands opposite hers and rose to meet her eyes.
Mac's eyes scanned the room. "You okay, Chief?"
With a quick nod, Cassidy ducked around the older man and headed for the windows that overlooked the enormous wooden tables on the parachute packing floor below. The few riggers who were packing their quota of static line chutes before lunch raced for the door, their muffled shouts a strong indicator that whatever went off was right outside the large concrete and cinder block Eighty-Second Airborne Rigger Shed.
She whirled to Mac. "Get down there. Stop them from exiting the building before we know what's going on. The last thing we need is"
"To draw fire if this is some kind of setup?"
Cassidy's exhale almost echoed off the walls of her office. Not on Fort Bragg. Surely they were safe here. "Corral them the best you can."
Sergeant Erin Landon appeared in the doorway, wisps of her wavy brown hair straggling from the knot beneath her red rigger's cap. Sweat sheened her forehead, which creased her porcelain skin into deep lines over dark blue eyes. "Chief, Private Anderson's car just went up in the parking lot."
With a glance back, Mac disappeared out the door.
"Anderson's car? Where is Anderson? Right now?" Please don't say he's in his car. Cassidy snatched the phone and dialed 9-1-1, the receiver quaking in her hand. "Find him. Make sure he's" The words refused to come. Anderson was a green private, new to the company as of a couple of months ago, fresh out of basic and rigger school. He couldn't be more than nineteen.
She had to know all of her soldiers were okay. "Never mind." As the operator answered, she thrust the phone at Landon. "Tell them what's going on." Without waiting to see if the sergeant followed her order, she brushed past her, racing for the stairs.
Lungs burning and heart thumping so hard he could hear it, Major Shane Logan pushed harder and tried to keep a line of sight on the man he pursued across the parking lot. It got harder by the second. The advantage tipped the wrong way. The July heat worked against him in his desert boots and Army Combat Uniform. The man ahead of him wore jeans and running shoes. Every thud of foot on pavement reinforced the difference.
The pair plunged into a maze of shipping containers on the back side of the parking lot. By the time Shane skidded around the corner of the second trailer-sized container, the man had disappeared. His eyes roamed the sea of identical tractor trailer-sized containers and stopped. The guy could be anywhere.
Sweat burned his eyes. How did he get here anyway? If this day had gone as planned, by now he'd have a soda in his hand, baseball on the TV and two weeks of vacation stretching before him. He should have minded his own business. Instead, he had to come and see for himself whether or not what his interpreter in Afghanistan had told him was true. Someone was using the parachutes returning from the war zone to smuggle Afghan opium into the country.
The smart move would have been to let the authorities handle it, but no. He'd shown up in time to spot someone bolt from a souped-up Honda near the building just before it exploded in a shower of flame.
The container door twanged a hollow rattle as he slapped his palm against it. Shane gave up the chase and dropped against white-hot metal. He propped his hands on his knees, gulping thick air that didn't do anything to slow his heart rate.
Shouts and sirens overtook the pounding in his ears as his body settled down. Pressing his hands against the container, he pushed himself upright and trudged toward his truck.
The torched Honda lofted oily smoke into the air. Yellow fire trucks rounded the corner with sirens squealing and pulled into the parking lot, firemen at the ready.
Shane reached his truck and snatched his cell phone off the seat in disgust. No power. The battery in the thing died on a whim if it wasn't plugged in nightly. Fat lot of help it was right now.
He let his eyes drift toward the fire as he pocketed the device. Through the smoke, soldiers gathered on the far side of the parking lot. One stood apart from the others, shoulders slumped until he almost bent double. Probably his car. Poor kid. No telling how much of his enlistment bonus he'd dropped on jazzing that thing up.
Shane leaned his hip against the side of the truck and crossed his arms, waiting for the Military Police to arrive so he could describe what he'd seen. Because all he'd gotten a good look at was a black T-shirt and jeans, he doubted anything he said would do much good. At least he could convince them this most likely wasn't an accident.
Movement at the near end of the loading dock caught his eye. A side door opened, and two other soldiersa middle-aged man and a tall, slim blondestepped out. They stopped to view the carnage, and she appeared to give orders before he walked off and she turned in Shane's direction.
His heart, which had returned to normal after his full-tilt flight across the parking lot, thudded to his feet. He straightened and squinted against the sunlight. It couldn't be her. It just ..couldn't be.
Before he could duck and cover, she pivoted on one heel and stalked across the loading dock in the direction of the soldiers on the other side of the lot.
Releasing the breath he hadn't realized he held, Shane sidestepped toward the bed of his truck to keep her in view. It was her all right. In almost a decade, her stride hadn't changed.
Scattered thoughts clicked like tumblers in a lock. It appeared she was in charge of the rigger shed. Everything his contact had told him pointed to
Cold sweat broke out along his back. It all indicated his ex-wife was the target.
"Nitrous? Over the fuel line?" Genius. Cassidy wanted to pound her palm against her forehead. The amount of money some of these guys poured into their carseither to look cool or to boost the engines for street racescould buy her an early retirement and a house on the coast. She stopped herself before she rolled her eyes heavenward.
Private Anderson's chin dipped, and his shoulders tipped forward before he caught himself and straightened. He was wound so tight even his close-cropped red hair seemed to shiver.
"Is that even legal, because I'm pretty sure it's not street legal?" Cassidy looked over the private's shoulder at Master Sergeant McIntyre, who shrugged and shook his head. She turned her attention to the younger man. "You hooked nitrous to your car last night. In the barracks parking lot, under the supervision of your buddies who have zero experience in the process. Am I tracking? Have I got it straight?"
"We didn't actually leave it hooked up, ma'am. I think that's the illegal part." Anderson stared at a spot just over her shoulder. "Ma'am."
Oh, how she wanted to confine this kid to quarters for walking the line just this side of stupid. But it wasn't her place to dish out that kind of discipline and, try as she might, she couldn't find one single thing he'd actually done wrong. "I really, really hope you had your car insured."
At the hint of his charred vehicle, the private's expression slipped even further. "I did," he muttered.
"Doubt they'll cover after-market parts like nitrous, though."
"I don't think the nitrous " He shook his head. "I'll check, ma'am."
Cassidy bit the inside of her lip. It was already well past the end of the duty day, a day in which the investigation ate up their time and put them behind on the number of parachutes packed for the Eighty-Second Airborne Division's soldiers. The chute riggers would have been finished and gone already if the fireworks in the parking lot hadn't locked them all down until the investigators found the source of ignition. "Go ahead. You're dismissed. And you're lucky this little stunt didn't get your buddies all stuck here for the whole weekend. It's a post-9/11 world. Nobody likes it when things go boom on a military base." She waved a hand toward the door. "Keep me posted on what happens, and I have a pretty strong hunch the commander will want to meet with you sooner rather than later when he gets back."
Snapping a salute, Anderson was out the door, through the outer office, and already on the stairs before Cassidy could blink.
She looked from the door to McIntyre as she sank against the front of her desk. "Think he's scared?"
"More like grief-stricken. His baby just went bye-bye. A guy like Anderson would sooner break up with a hot girlfriend than get a scratch on his car. Imagine what this kind of carnage is doing to his soul." He leaned against the door frame and crossed his arms over the rank on his chest. "He'll get over it eventually. Think about it. The kid just bought himself legend status in the Division. He'll forever be the guy whose car went up like the Fourth of July in the parking lot of the rigger shed. They'll still talk about him when they're in their seventies and swappin' stories at the VFW hall."
Straightening, Cassidy took the three steps across the room to the windows that looked down at the cavernous parachute packing area below, where Anderson huddled with several of his buddies by one of the long wooden pack tables. "You really think he'll be okay?" Try as she might, she couldn't always stop the mothering instinct as it surged in her.
"Yeah. I imagine as long as he didn't have the bottle hooked up, insurance will cover most of it. He'll get something new and shiny, and he'll have a reputation to boot. He's one bad dude now."
She snickered and glanced over her shoulder at him. "Know what? I think it's time we both got out of here. The fire's out, Criminal Investigation Division is done and has released us to go. There's no reason to stick around. Sergeant Jamison and Private Reynolds are locking up tonight. If you herd the rest of the crew out, you can get home to your wife."
Mac straightened. "Works for me. See you Monday?"
"Yeah. Hopefully nothing will go up in smoke between now and then." She waved as Mac rounded the corner into the main office, then turned her attention to the floor below. Normally, the warehouselike room was filled with riggers carefully inspecting and meticulously packing the parachutes that kept the "airborne" in the Eighty-Second Airborne Division. Now, after the excitement of this day, only a small knot stood between the tables and the door. From the looks of the small group, they'd ended the consolation portion of their day and had moved on to ribbing Anderson about his car. Circle of life or something like that.
Cassidy rested her forehead against the glass and studied them. In some ways, it felt like only a few weeks since she'd been a red-hatted rigger herself. Today, she felt every one of the days between then and now, days when she'd fought through quartermaster school, battled her private demons and emerged as one of the few females to ever sit in her position as Division Parachute Officer. Most days, it was an accomplishment that squared her shoulders and lifted her chin. Right now, the weight of her responsibility anchored her to the spot, too heavy to let her move.
"You and I both know nitrous isn't flammable." The voice over her shoulder yanked a gasp from her throat as her spine whipped straight.
Familiarity froze her feet to the floor before she could whip around. Not that voice. Not today. She'd spent years trying to let it go, to stop dreaming about it when she slept. The warm chills that washed over her in a haze of long-forgotten memories was almost as unwelcome as the blast that had corkscrewed this day sideways hours before.
Those were memories Cassidy should have released long ago and which should certainly not be drawing her in now. She gripped the ledge of the window so hard that her fingers burned against the painted cinder block. "When I turn around in three seconds, you'd better be a figment of my imagination."
"I'd make that happen for you if I could, but today's not the day. Cassy," the voice dropped with a level of gravity she'd never heard before, "you have to listen to me."
She shook her head, steeled herself against the sight of him and let go of the wall, her only anchor in a world rocking sickeningly out of control. The minute she turned, Cassidy wished she'd kept her grip. She couldn't stop herself from noticing he'd filled out over the past few years. Brown hair still spiked forward over his forehead, but the green eyes she'd first fallen for had darkened and grown wiser. His Army Combat Uniform rode his shoulders in a way that spoke of lean muscle and sheathed strength. His jaw was squarer, his demeanor more confident. This older version of Shane Logan carried himself like a man, not an immature little boy playing dress up in a soldier's body.
As always, the woman in her wanted to react to the man in him. It would take effort, but she'd choke that desire out in short order. Jerking her chin to the side, she called up her soldier facade. "And today's not the day for my ex-husband to step back into my life." She drew in a deep breath and tried to still the quake in her voice. "I'm pretty sure that's a day that's never going to come."
A quick flash of something in his eyes was the one indication he gave that the bullet met its mark before he pulled himself a spare inch taller. "I understand that. And this isn't by choice." Shane took one short step into the room, but it was enough to back Cassidy so tight against the wall that she felt the window ledge press against her bones. "You're not safe, Cassy."
He had no idea. It took a strength she hadn't had to rely on since her last combat tour, but she shoved aside the emotions his sudden appearance dragged up. On a normal day it would take too much energy to do battle with him. Today, too many reminders of war zone improvised explosives had stolen every ounce of her reserves. "Not as long as I've got cars blowing up in my parking lot and an ex who ought to be long gone sneaking up on me. I told you, Shane. Not today. Walk out, let another decade go by, and maybe I'll feel more like listening to what you have to say." With no little effort, she brushed past him and strode to her desk, where she shuffled papers in an obvious effort to ignore him. "You found your way in, you can find your way out."
The quick thud of his boots didn't give her enough warning. His fingers clasped her biceps and pulled her back around to face him before the sound fully registered against her ears. His gaze pinned hers with a force his grip couldn't match. "Someone is trying to kill you."