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Talon Holt knew he was going to die. It was just a question of time. He slogged through the foot of snow quickly piling up on Highway 191 to the Bar H outside of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Zeke, his U.S. Navy SEAL combat assault dog, a Belgian Malinois, walked at his side, looking up, a worried expression on his black face.
As he gripped the leather leash, Talon gasped for air. They were at five thousand feet in the middle of a late-May blizzard, no less. He could barely see the Snake River hundreds of feet below and to his right. On his right was a rocky, craggy mountain rising 6,200 feet, hidden by the blizzard.
He wiped his mouth, head down, the wind howling and gusting, beating against his wet, cold body. Miles earlier, it had rained. He and Zeke were drenched as they slogged alongside the muddy berm of the highway.
Talon had been born in this area so he knew he was in trouble. Few cars or trucks were on the road because of the unexpected blizzard.
What made his problem worse: the PTSD symptoms acquired during his tenure as a Navy SEAL. Talon couldn't just hop on a plane, ride in a bus or be inside any enclosed area if a panic attack hit him. When medically and honorably discharged from the SEALs, he had to walk from Coronado on the West Coast back home to Jackson Hole. He knew the journey would get dicey.
Lucky for him now, he wore his Navy camo coat and he had gloves. He took the wool blanket out of his sixty-five-pound rucksack and wrapped it around Zeke. The Belgian Malinois, who was often mistaken for a German shepherd, was not prepared for a blizzard, either. Zeke was short-haired and needed the protection. Talon tried his best to keep his loyal dog dry and warm.
He was so close to getting home. God, hadn't he suffered enough? Done enough for his country? Ever since the Taliban had captured him and Hayden, his SEAL partner, his life had disintegrated before him. They had been jumped by the enemy and Zeke had escaped and taken off. The dog had run thirty miles over rough, mountainous terrain to Camp Bravo, a forward operating base in Afghanistan.
He wouldn't be alive today if Zeke hadn't done what he did. After regaining consciousness in the hospital at Bagram Air Base near Kabul, he learned that Zeke had barked furiously, getting the SEALs' attention at Bravo. Zeke had led a six-man SEAL team back to where he and Hayden had been captured and were being tortured. During the firefight, Zeke had taken a bullet in the shoulder, nearly died himself.
Talon tried to shake off the memory of the torture. His gut churned with cramps from not eating for three days. He had to get home. He had to make it to the Bar H.
But would he survive? With every short, shallow breath that tore out of his mouth, Talon wheezed. His lungs were filling up with fluid, and he desperately needed antibiotics and pure oxygen. He cursed his bad luck. In his soggy mind, the fever making him hallucinate, Talon figured he had about a mile to go.
He was either going to die of pneumonia out in this storm or he was going to die of hypothermia. How ironic was that? He'd survived gunshot wounds and torture only to freeze to death out in this damn blizzard? If Talon hadn't been so exhausted, he'd be pissed.
The sky was a dark, gunmetal gray. He knew it was probably around seven in the morning, but it looked like early dawn due to the heavy, dark clouds carrying the brunt of the blizzard. Talon stumbled over his own feet and fell hard on the berm. He threw out his hands, releasing the leash. Zeke stopped, wagging his long brushy tail, whining and licking the side of his face as Talon struggled to sit up. The world whirled around him and Talon cursed softly, tightly shutting his eyes. Come on! Dammit, if he could survive BUD/S training to become a SEAL, he sure as hell could get through this!
Gasping, grunting, he used every last bit of his strength and pushed himself unsteadily to his feet.
He leaned over, placing his gloved hand on Zeke's strong back, which had carried so many loads for him over in Afghanistan for three years. He groped for and found the leash. Talon awkwardly patted his dog's head, saw the worry in Zeke's large brown eyes. Zeke deserved a helluva lot better than being out in this deathly blizzard.
Talon winced, lowering his head against the stinging bits of ice and snow striking his face. Hayden's screams of pain haunted him in his nightmares. He'd never get his friend's cries out of his head. And it drained Talon's will to live. Add to that his mother's battle with cancer.
Talon doggedly pushed forward. He felt Zeke's comforting weight against his knee. The dog was shepherding him along. Zeke was a bona fide hero. He had been awarded a Purple Heart and a Silver Star by the Navy for his heroic efforts to save his and Hayden's lives. Only, Hayden hadn't survived. Shit.
The past was overlaying the present. The fever had him in its grip and Talon wasn't sure if he was in a Wyoming blizzard or back in a snowstorm in the Hindu Kush Mountains of Afghanistan. And when the fever rolled out like a tide in his head, Talon would realize he was in Wyoming, trying to reach the Bar H. Trying to get close enough to home to ask for help, to let his mother know he was near.
Since his mother had contracted breast cancer, Talon had sent most of his paycheck to her because she couldn't afford the horrendous, mounting medical bills. He'd wanted to help her as much as he could. As a result, when he got wounded and discharged, he had no bank account except for five hundred dollars in a savings account to get him home to Jackson Hole. And that money was mostly gone as he walked across half of the United States to reach Wyoming.
Jesus, the fever was messing with his head. Talon's breath was ragged and fast. Dizziness struck him in waves. His lungs were drowning in fluid and he couldn't get the oxygen he needed. No oxygen, no strength. Only brute determination kept him going.
A blast of frigid air struck Talon. He slipped, lost his footing and went down. Hard. His head slammed into the snow and the berm below it. Darkness took him briefly.
He felt his dog's tongue licking his bearded cheek. As he fumbled, tried to rise, the last of his strength ebbed. He was going to freeze to death out here.
Talon lay there gasping for air, feeling the bubbles of liquid in his lungs. Death stalked him. He closed his eyes, cheek pressed into the snow, feeling nothing because his flesh was numb. Something snapped deep within. Something so primal, so visceral, that all he could do was lie there, helpless. Just as he'd hung helplessly, strung up, his wrists tied with ropes over an overhead beam, toes barely touching the dirt floor. He was forced to watch Hayden being tortured. Oh, God
Talon wanted death to take him. He was so very, very sorry he wouldn't be able to help his mother. She was a survivor. Grief and sadness wound through him like a cold, icy river flooding him. He was so dehydrated he couldn't even cry.
His SEAL team friends would find out sooner or later that he'd died of hypothermia on an unnamed highway somewhere in Wyoming during a freak blizzard. What a screwed-up ending.
Talon closed his eyes.
Well, it looked like the blizzard was going to kill him. It felt good to just rest. To lie on his side, the snow all around him.
Zeke whined and paced around him, licking his face, trying to get him up. A hoarse sound scraped out of his throat. It was as close to a sob as he would get under these circumstances. Talon wasn't afraid to die.
Zeke lay down next to him, his moist, hot breath across his face. In Afghanistan, in the cold mountains, Zeke was like a warm, living blanket to Talon. He would lie at his side, their bodies glued to each other, keeping one another warm through those icy, frigid nights.
He couldn't let Zeke stay out here. The dog would die in the blizzard, too.
And that was what forced Talon to try to get up. To move. Gasping, his breath noisy and ragged, he struggled to move his numb legs. They were weighted down, hard to move. For a moment, the fever receded and Talon's head cleared. His black lashes froze to his cheeks and he couldn't force open his eyes. Somehow, he managed to pull his hand up, scrub his face and force the lashes to break free. Blinking rapidly, Talon got them open. Up! He had to get up! Zeke couldn't freeze out here. Talon couldn't let that happen.
Just as Talon got to his feet, wobbling and staggering around, he saw headlights come out of the thick veil of snow. Blinking unsurely, he thought he was seeing thingshallucinations due to his high fever.
Zeke whined, placing his strong body against Talon's leg to help him remain upright.
Talon gasped for air, like a fish thrown out of the water. He jammed his hands down on his knees, head down, trying to stay upright as the big, black SUV appeared like an apparition out of the blinding blizzard. It stopped in front of him.
A car door opened and slammed shut.
Jesus, he had to be imagining this! No one in their right mind was out in a blizzard like this. Wyoming people knew to stay home to stay safe. Was this how death happened?
Zeke barked a warning.
There really was someone walking toward him! Zeke was in combat assault dog mode. Anyone making a move toward Talon was seen as the enemy. Zeke's growl rumbled warningly, and the hackles of fur stood up on his neck.
"Allow," Talon rasped to Zeke. The command to the dog meant not to attack, but allow that person to touch or be around him. Instantly, Zeke stopped growling and watched the person who was heavily bundled up in a coat.
Talon forced himself to stand. He was so dizzy he had to step back so that he wouldn't fall over. He tried to focus his eyes on the person coming around the SUV. Whoever it was, he or she wore a down black jacket, white knit cap, a thick muffler around their neck, hands positioned beneath their armpits.
And then the apparition spoke.
"Hey, climb in. No one should be out in this blizzard."
A woman's voice. Husky. Filled with concern. She eyed him worriedly, her blue eyes warm. The snow-flakes were landing on strands of her black hair peeking out from beneath her white knit cap.
"Hey?" she called. "Are you all right?"
Her hand came to rest around his upper arm, steadying him. Jesus, she's real! His mind shorted out. He couldn't talk. He knew he looked like what he was: a homeless military vet. He hadn't bathed in ten days. His hair was long by military standards. He hadn't shaved in God knew how long.
She saw the dog, suddenly becoming wary.
"Won't hurt you," Talon forced out, his voice rough and barely intelligible.
"Good to know. I'm Cat Edwin. Come on, I need to get you inside my SUV."
Her hand became firmer on his arm as he tried to take a step toward it. Everything whirled and he halted, shutting his eyes. "Pneumonia," he muttered.
"Yeah, I hear it. You need medical attention pronto." Cat slid her arm around his waist and pulled his one arm across her shoulder. "I'll help you into my SUV. What's your name?" He looked awfully familiar, but she couldn't place him. Right now, she didn't have time to figure out why.
Cat slowly guided him toward the passenger side of her SUV. The man could barely keep his feet beneath him, his knees continuing to collapse beneath him.
"Talon," he managed, his feet barely working. In the next breath, he rasped, "Holt."
Cat gasped. Now she knew who he was. Sandy Holt's son! "Okay, Talon Holt, hang on." Cat reached for the handle and pulled open the door. "Let's get you inside. You're wet and freezing."
He hesitated. "My dog
"He's coming along, too," she reassured him.
Talon grunted and worked to climb into the SUV. He had a helluva time getting into the seat and she practically shoved him into the SUV. Zeke jumped into the front, sitting on the floorboards between his legs, facing him.
The door slammed shut. He could feel heat in the SUV. It felt wonderful. Talon lay back, closing his eyes, gasping for air, his lungs hurting with each wheezing breath.
Cat climbed in and shut the door. "I'm going to the Bar H. It's about a mile up the road. The roads are closed beyond that. I'll get you to the ranch and try to help you there."
He had to be dreaming. Talon couldn't answer, too weak to speak. He felt Zeke's warm, wet tongue licking his hand. Just as she put the SUV into motion, his last memory was of Cat Edwin's face. She was attractive, slightly curled strands of black hair across her broad brow. He liked her large, readable blue eyes. Talon had seen every emotion in them. Her face was oval with wide cheekbones. Her nose was clean with slightly flared nostrils. He especially liked that wide, soft mouth of hers. If Talon had been healthy, he sure as hell would have wanted to know her a lot better. And with that last thought, he sank into unconsciousness.