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Hope Algier preferred sunshine and fresh air to a stuffy office. Except today.
She spent most of her life outdoors. Her father had tried for years to entice his baby girl into the boardroom of the family business with promises of expensive cars and impressive bonus packages. She turned them all down without a second thought, but right now a leather chair behind a big desk sounded good.
Trees towered over her and surrounded her on every side. This section of land adjacent to West Virginia's Cranberry Wilderness was called the Cranberry Back-country for a reason. It consisted of more than eleven thousand acres of hills and woods and little else.
Animals skittered around her. Leaves rustled as the summer wind blew warm air under her ponytail and across the back of her neck. Thick branches blocked most of the sunlight, giving her an eerie sense of isolation.
No people, no houses and no easy way out.
Turned out, this patch of forest messed with her satellite phone. She needed open sky for a signal, and she could only see peeks of blue through the canopy of summer green leaves above her. Right about now she'd give anything for a second of heat on her face.
She slipped behind a large trunk and leaned against it.
Her heartbeat hammered in her ears as she slipped the sat phone out of the pocket of her cargo shorts. It measured a bit longer than a cell phone and fit in her palm. The map she'd memorized earlier and carried in her back pocket pointed to a clearing up ahead. She hoped she was close enough to catch a signal. Please let it work this time.
She pushed buttons. When that didn't do anything, she smacked the side, hoping to jolt it into action. She even thought about smashing it against the cushion of dirt and leaves under her hiking boots.
She was about to repeat the hitting cycle when something crunched off to her right.. again. The same subtle crackling she'd been hearing on and off since she'd dove deep into the trees. A squirrel, probably. She repeated the comment in her head over and over, hoping to reassure her brain and stop the sudden subtle shake moving through her hands. She refused to think bear or, worse, predator of the two-legged kind.
As she shifted, the stray branches scratched her bare legs and caught on the short sleeve of her cotton tee. She balanced her head against the hard bark again and counted to five. It took all of her control not to call out for Mark Callah, the vice president of finance for Baxter Industries.
He'd been all gung ho about "roughing it" on this corporate retreat. So much so he had brought a gun along without telling her. She saw it when he had waved it around last night at dinner. As the person leading the retreat, she had confiscated it. That didn't go over well. Now he was missing.
There it was again. That made the fourth time she picked up the sound she wanted to write off as nothing.
Something furry and four-legged and small she hoped. But the gentle thuds sped up.
She peeked around the tree she was using as a shield and spied what looked like a flash of blue in the distance. The same flash she'd seen twice so far on this journey to find Mark and grab a clear shot to the satellite to jumpstart the phone.
She'd left the rest of the executives back at camp with orders to make breakfast and clean up. Except for Mark, they weren't exactly the venture-outalone types. She strained to remember any of them wearing navy this morning at roll call, but her brain refused to focus.
Crunching and snapping echoed all around her until she couldn't tell from which direction the noises originated. The tunnel effect had her doubting her hearing and her vision. If she spun around one more time or ventured too far in any direction, she'd need the GPS to guide her back to camp.
What she really wanted was a view of open sky. If she could get to the edge of the field and send out a call for help, then she could duck back into the woods again.
Maybe she could lure out her visitor. Not that the option sounded too reassuring to her right now.
Without thinking, she reached for the leather sheath hooked to her belt. Her fingers skimmed over the hilt of her knife. She wanted to slide it out for protection, but running on uneven ground with a blade struck her as a distinctly stupid thing to do.
Still, having the makeshift weapon lessened the anxiety pounding through her. A little.
With one last glance into the thick columns of trees behind her, she took off. Her hands swatted at the branches blocking her forged path as her feet slipped over rocks and roots and her pace picked up to a jog. The wind whistled by her and the slap of leaves hit her face. She made enough noise to put a target on her back, but she didn't care. She needed that open field.
Footsteps fell hard off to her left this time. The thump of shoes against the ground kicked up and the person drew almost parallel to her position. She tried to zigzag even though she knew her white shirt would give her position away wherever she was.
But she needed space and enough distance to make the call and pull her knife. Regardless of whatever or whoever else was out there, she would not go down without a fight.
The trail in front of her brightened and sunlight puddled on the forest floor. Even without the thinning of branches she knew she was close from the beep of her GPS as she zoned in on the preset location. The sat phone smacked against her leg with each step. She fumbled to pull it out of her pocket and hold it as she ran.
The log came out of nowhere. A fallen tree too thick to jump over right in her path. She tried to pivot and her ankle turned. One second she was on her feet and the next her knee cracked against the hard ground and something sharp dug into her palm.
She was down for only a few seconds but long enough for heavy breathing to pound in her lungs and float through the trees. The labored sound drowned out everything. The running near her seemed to stop. She feared that meant someone or something circled nearby ready to grab her.
Ignoring the pain thumping from her foot to her hip, she pushed up. With her hands on the log, she skirted the end and ran. Each punch of her right foot against the hard ground made her teeth rattle with the need to cry out.
But the bright light was right there. A few more feet and she'd be free. She dodged a massive tree trunk as the crashing of footsteps beside her picked up again. A blue blur raced close enough for her to make out a figure, but the heavy hoodie pulled down low made it impossible to identify who it was.
But the who didn't matter right now.
She broke into the clearing and reached into her pocket for the phone. Nothing. She patted her shorts and spun around in a circle as desperation swamped her. Fear rumbled through her until her knees buckled.
The log. The fall. The memory came rushing back. She must have dropped the stupid thing on the ground when she went down.
With her back against a tree, she scanned the forty feet of open field in front of her and the miles of woods beyond that. She tried to calm her breathing and slow her heart enough for her to concentrate.
The adrenaline kept pumping. She knew she should welcome it because it kept the pain at bay and her mind off the blood around her knee and throbbing in her hand, but she needed to focus.
The figure, whoever it was, stood still, right behind a tree about fifty feet away. She slipped her knife out again and tightened her grip over the handle, ignoring the fresh burst of throbbing from her injury. She opened her mouth to call out, to make the idiot face her instead of trying to terrify her in silence.
A strange thwapping drowned out her yell. She shielded her eyes with a hand and squinted up into the sun. Blue skies greeted her. She didn't see anything, but the noise grew louder.
Whop, whop, whop.
A helicopter broke into sight as it came in for a landing. She blinked twice, not trusting what she was seeing. Out here, in the middle of nowhere, it didn't make sense.
Her breath hiccupped as a new panic crashed over her. She could have walked into anything. Drug runners or criminals of any type. And if the pilot was a partner to her tracker, there was no way a knife would save her.
The helicopter hovered over the ground. The blades kicked up grass and leaves. When it finally touched down, she could make out two men, but the glass, and probably the waves of fear, distorted her view.
She was about to slip back into the blanket of the woods where she at least stood a chance when the rustling off to her left had her attention dragging back to the tree and the person hiding there. The hoodie was gone. Fearing the attacker could sneak up on her, she backed to the edge of the open field and held her knife in front of her as she faced the woods.
She thought she heard her name over the chopping of the helicopter blades, but she knew that wasn't possible. No way had one of her executives ventured away from the camp and somehow made it this far.
Her mind had gone into shutdown mode. That was the only explanation. She was hearing things and jumping at every sound.
The helicopter's engine wound down and the propeller slowed to a lazy turn. The change had her spinning around to face the new threat. One look and her body froze. Right there in the beating sun, every organ inside her whirred to a stop. She couldn't even feel her heartbeat.
"Hope, what are you doing?" Joel Kidd, the boyfriend who had walked out on her eighteen months ago rather than fight for a life with her, stood next to the helicopter.
Black tee, olive cargo pants, and sunglasses to hide those near-black eyes. From this distance she could see the ever-present dark scruff around his chin. His black hair was longer, grown out from the short military style she remembered. He might even have been thinner. And none of that explained what he was doing in West Virginia.
With one last look into the menacing woods behind her, she stepped forward. She could see the gun strapped to his hip and knew Joel was well trained in how to use it. That used to scare her a little. Now it comforted her frazzled nerves.
"You cut your leg." He ripped his sunglasses off, and concerned eyes traveled over her. "What's going on?"
Seeing him hit her like a kick to the stomach. She almost doubled over from the force of it. She'd loved him and mourned his leaving, then had spent some time pretending she hated him. As she looked at him now, old feelings of longing came rushing back. So did the urge to punch him.
"What are you doing here?" The whip of her voice mirrored her frustration.
He hesitated as if weighing what to say and whether to let the question go. Whatever he saw on her face or in her expression had him closing the distance between them. "I came to find you."
"Why?" Truth was, he devoted his life to gathering intelligence and protecting others. Right now she could use a bit of both.
The sound of the helicopter seemed to have scared off her tracker, and for that reason alone she was willing to hear Joel out. For a few seconds.
"You haven't been picking up your phone." His gaze did another bounce up and down her body, hesitating over her torn-up knee. "Where is it?"
Good question. "Lost."
His near-black eyes narrowed. "Really?"
"Any chance of hearing it right now?"
"First, you answer a question of mine." She glanced past Joel to the pilot. He jumped down and headed for them.
"Shoot," Joel said.
"There is no way you just happened to be out here, tooling around West Virginia, when you live in Annapolis. So, what's going on?"
The corner of his mouth lifted in a smile. "You know where I live now?"
No way was she walking into that discussion. "Let's stick to my question."
"Fine, it's not a coincidence." Joel's expression went blank. "Your father sent me."
Figured. "It's still your turn to explain, so keep talking."
She loved her dad, but his protective streak stayed locked in hyperdrive. He ran a private security company, one Joel used to work for. All that danger made her dad a bit paranoid. Though, admittedly, in this instance that was a good thing.
"Your dad and Baxter Industries." Joel shifted his weight, putting his feet hip-distance apart. "Seems your dad wanted you to have backup out here. Combine that with the twitchiness of the Baxter Board about having a twenty-six-year-old woman, alone, guiding the male executives, and you get me."
"How very sexist of them."
"They clearly don't appreciate how competent you are outdoors."
She had no idea if that was a shot or a compliment, so she ignored it. "If the phone isn't working, how did you oh, right. The GPS locator still functions."
"So, Dad tracked me down and sent you by helicopter."
Instead of answering, Joel motioned to the pilot. "This is Cameron Roth."
She wasn't in the mood for meeting people just now, but there was no reason to be rude. "Okay."
"We work together," Joel explained.
"At where exactly?" She'd tried to find out where Joel went when he left her dad's company. One night, bored and feeling lonely, she conducted a search, hoping to locate him, and uncovered nothing.
Her father finally let slip Joel lived in Annapolis, less than an hour away from her place in Virginia, the same place he used to live with her but never bothered to visit now. Being ignored made her stop checking in on the guy. If Joel didn't care enough to make contact, she wouldn't either.
"Ma'am." The other man butted in with a nod of welcome. "You can call me Roth or Cam."
The guy looked about the same age as Joel, a few years older than her, and shared Joel's used-to-be-in-the-military look. Broad shoulders with muscles peeking out from under the edge of his T-shirt. They both carried their bodies in a permanent battle stance, as if they could shoot or tackle at any moment, if needed.
Joel had the Tall, Dark and Whoa-He's-Hot thing down. That hadn't changed in their months apart. Cam's lighter hair and blue eyes made him seem less intense, but knowing the male type standing in front of her, she doubted that was actually the case.
Joel clapped. "There. That's settled."
Looked like the menfolk thought explanation time was over. She disagreed. "Let's go back to my question. Why are you really here? And skip the sat phone talk this time."
"Your father sent me to look for you." That smile widened. "Now it's my turn to ask a question."
"Did you really answer mine?"
Cam laughed. "She has you there, man."
Joel nodded in the direction of her hand. "Is there a reason you're carrying a knife, or is the plan to stab the helicopter?"
She glanced down, then back at Joel. "Are you worried it's meant for you?"
"I take it you two know each other pretty well," Cam said.
The conversation kept jumping around. She'd only remembered the knife when Joel mentioned it. The burning from where it pressed into her palm suddenly hit her.
Then Cam's comment grabbed her attention.
"Joel didn't tell you who I was to him?" She wanted not to care, but the hurt swallowed up her indifference.
Cam looked from her to Joel and back again. "Let's just say I'm thinking he left out some important pieces about your joint past."
"Hope." Joel snapped his fingers and brought the focus back to him. "The knife?"
She stared at it in her hands. "What about it?"
"Why are you holding it as if you're ready to attack?"
She couldn't come up with a reason to stall and certainly had no reason to lie. Not about this. Not to him. "Someone was following me."
Both men leaned in closer, all amusement gone from their faces. Cam's mouth opened, but Joel was the one who barked out a question. "What?"
Now that she had their attention, she decided to spill it all. "And I think one of my executives might be dead."