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Meg O'Reilly's heart slammed against the wall of her chest. And it had nothing to do with the altitude.
A tall, athletic man hopped off the Rocky Mountain Adventures van and Meg gulped, feeling like one of those cartoon characters with the googly eyes. The drop-dead gorgeous tourist with the short brown hair and drool-worthy body ignored herand her googly eyeswhile he helped a blonde adjust a backpack.
But she hadn't missed the dark brows shooting up to his hairline when he'd caught sight of her. Meg clung on to the strap of her own backpack, hitched over one shoulder, and scanned the group for a hidden camera or some reality TV host jumping from behind a tree and screaming, "You've been punked!"
Gabe, the driver of the van, hopped from the last step and swept his arm in Meg's direction. "This is Meg O'Reilly, your hiking guide. If you feed her chocolate chip cookies, she might tell you about her adventures climbing Mount Everest."
Impressed murmurs merged with the roaring in Meg's ears, but she pasted a smile on her face anyway, and with a trembling hand waved to the assembled group. Tall, dark and handsome broke away from the pack, striding forward, extending his large, gloved hand.
"Good to meet you, Meg. I'm John Shepherd, and this is my wife, Kayla." He jerked his left thumb over his shoulder toward the smiling blonde as he gripped Meg's hand in a clasp strong enough to snap her bones.
Meg narrowed her eyes and squeezed back. She knew darned well Ian, or rather John Shepherd, or whatever he was calling himself these days, wasn't married to some buxom blonde.
He was still married to her.
"Welcome to the tour John. This is a rugged hike. Are you sure you're up to it?" She scanned the muscular frame that made her question ludicrous, before allowing her gaze to meander back to his face. Then she turned up her lips in a false, sweet smile.
He flashed an answering grin, his broad shoulders relaxing. Why the tension? He must've known she wouldn't blow his cover. Hadn't she always been the dutiful little spy's wife?
Until the end.
"I think I can handle it, even though I've never attempted Everest. That must've been some experience."
Ian should know. They had met on her first and only Everest expedition. Formed an alliance on that mountain. Had each other's backs. Fell in love.
Swallowing the annoying lump in her throat, Megan brushed past Ian and greeted the rest of her groupseveral couples, a single man from Germany, a mother-daughter duo and a trio of women celebrating a fortieth birthday. They all looked fit and ready for the arduous twelve-mile hike up to the top of the mountain, including Ian's "wife" Kayla.
As Meg explained the rules of the hike to her group, she stole a few glances at Kayla, assessing the fresh-faced, sturdy woman in red fleece. She had to be Ian's fellow agent in Prospero, the undercover ops group that had consumed Ian's life during their two short years of marriage.
The question remained. What the hell were they doing on her hike?
"Are there any questions?" Besides her own. Meg hooked the left strap of her backpack over her shoulder and snapped the catch in the front. She answered a few questions about photo ops and first aid, thankful she could recite the answers in her sleep, since Ian's presence on the hike had her brain in a fog.
"We travel twelve miles to the top and take the train back down. Stay on the trail and drink plenty of water, even though it feels cold. We'll make several photo stops, so keep your cameras ready for some awesome pictures of waterfalls and gorges."
While the hikers drank some water and stamped their feet against the cold ground, Meg turned on her radio and slipped it into the pocket of her down vest. Wedging a shoulder against the door of the van, she said to Gabe, "Are you going straight back to the office?"
"Yeah." He started the van's engine. "I'm making another pickup there for Jason's hike to Cascade Falls."
"Make sure the radio's on at the office." Meg tipped her head back and surveyed the gray morning sky. "I don't think it's supposed to snow yet, but we'll probably get an afternoon thundershower or two, and you never know this time of year."
Gabe rubbed his gloved hands over the steering wheel, huffing out a cold breath. "Call Scott if you need help. He's out on the trails today. But it looks like you have a good group here. I even had them singing on the van."
Meg rolled her eyes. "You would. But singing isn't going to keep them safe on a muddy trail with a ten-thousand-foot drop."
"Singing won't, but you will. You haven't lost one yet, Meggie."
Meg snorted and smacked the door after Gabe cranked it shut. Then she spun around to face Ian and the rest of her group.
Since Ian excelled at keeping secrets, she'd probably never find out what he and his partner were doing here. Of course, Meg had been keeping the biggest secret of all, and since she had no intention of revealing her secret to Ian, she didn't expect him to fill her in on the reason for his appearance on one of her hikes.
She knew it didn't have anything to do with her. He'd been as surprised to see her here as she'd been to see him.with a wife in tow.
Once everyone had stashed their water bottles and secured their packs, Meg moved to the front of the group and led them to the trailhead. She turned and they gathered around her in a semicircle of expectant faces.
"At the base of the trail we have a little room to spread out, but on some parts of the trail, especially at the higher elevations, we'll have to walk single file." She held out her hands, palm up. "We might get some rain, so I hope you all brought some rain gear or ponchos. If not, I have a few plastic ponchos in my pack."
The group fell in behind Meg as she tromped up the trail. The fallen leaves from the aspens crunched beneath her hiking boots and she inhaled their earthy, balsamic scent. She refused to allow Ian's surprise appearance to spoil one of her favorite hikes. She hadn't heard from the man once since their separation three years ago. Not that she didn't think about him every day of the week.
How could she help it, when each day their son, Travis, looked at her through his father's green eyes flecked with gold?
Meg took a shuddering breath before stopping next to a clump of aspen. What would Ian do if he found out he had a two-year-old son? Probably shrug it off and return to some God-forsaken part of the globe to protect the citizens of the world. He'd made it clear during their marriage, and after the miscarriage of her first pregnancy, that he didn't want a family.
Crouching down, Meg scooped up a few pieces of bark and handed them around as she talked about the trees along the first leg of their trail. Ian and Kayla peered at a strip of bark, but Meg knew Ian's mind was churning, hatching plots and plans. His body almost vibrated with a restless energyan energy she'd found irresistible when they first met.
The hikers traversed the first mile of the trail, falling into a rhythm and predictability. Several forged ahead of her and others hung back, slowing the group's progress. She wouldn't call them the easiest bunch she'd ever led, but then maybe she could blame Ian's presence for her irritability and impatience.
The German tourist kept close to Meg, peppering her with numerous questions in his slightly accented English. One of the couples dawdled, more interested in each other than the hikeprobably newlyweds. Meg tried to suppress her envy. That's how it had been for her and Ian on Everest. The magnificent scenery could barely compete with their fascination with each other.
Two of the three women in the birthday group kept prodding their companion, who complained loudly about spending her vacation traipsing through a high elevation forest, instead of sitting in front of a bar after an afternoon massage.
Meg nudged the complainer in the side. "You'll get back in time for a massage, and there are plenty of bars over in Colorado Springs to keep you busy later. And with an air force base, and air force academy, there are lots of military guys in those bars if you like a man in uniform."
The woman growled, making claws with her fingers, and her friends giggled.
Maybe Ian's mission had something to do with the Schriever Air Force Base, although another guy in the Prospero unit, Buzz Richardson, was air force, while Ian handled mountain rescue. Was Ian trying to rescue something or someone in these mountains?
Not her problem.
Meg slid her backpack off one shoulder. "Let's stop here and take a break, get some water. There are some beautiful views of the waterfall from the lookout point. We'll be hiking to a platform about midway to the top of those falls, for a closer view."
A few of the hikers staked out some boulders, collapsing on top and chugging their water. Several dropped their packs and wandered to the edge of the trail for a better look at the falls in the distance. The honeymooners massaged each other's shoulders.
As Meg unhooked her canteen from her pack, Ian sidled up next to her. "Meg, I wanted to ask you about some purple flowers we saw back on the trail. I can point them out to you."
Meg choked on her water and it dribbled down her chin. She'd have never made it in her sister's circle, even if she'd wanted that lifestyle. "Describe the flower to me and I'll tell you all about it."
"I'd rather show you. They're not far, and I don't see any like them in this spot." Ian raised his brows, probably incredulous, she wasn't jumping at the chance to discover his mission.
She wanted to tell him to go to hell, but her curiosity trumped her petty need to strike out. "Okay, but I don't want to leave the group for too long. We need to get moving if we're going to meet the afternoon train at the top."
Nodding, Ian tromped ahead, effortlessly traversing the rugged trail, while the other hikers remained sprawled out behind them, still panting from the morning's exertion. If he knew the terrain, Ian could lead this hike in her place.
If he knew the terrain.
As soon as they rounded the first bend, he grabbed Meg's arm. "Thanks for not blowing our cover. I had no idea you were leading this hike. The website listed some guy, Richard."
Ian hadn't planned on seeing her at all. She gulped. "Richard got sick. I took his place."
"Can't pretend I'm happy about it, but I told Kayla we could count on you."
Even through Meg's multiple layers and Ian's gloves, his touch felt like a brand on her arm. She shrugged him off. "I'm guessing her real name isn't Kayla."
Ian lifted a shoulder. "I figured you'd catch on."
"And I figured my ex-husband wouldn't choose one of my hikes as an opportunity to relive old times."
"I'm your husband."
Meg stumbled back, Ian's words punching her in the gut. The aching pit of emptiness she felt at his words surprised her. Ending her marriage to Ian had broken her heart, but she thought she'd finally recovered. She'd even accepted most of the blame, since she was the one who had changed the rules of their relationship. Seeing him again, and the way his grin tilted up on one side, contrasting with the sharp intensity of his eyes, carved open a hollow space in her heartone she thought she'd filled ages ago.
One she'd better start filling with something. Anger would do.
She dug her boots into the dirt and squared her shoulders. "What are you and your partner doing on this hike?"
His grin vanished, a furrow forming between his brows. "You know I can't tell you that, Meg."
"Blah, blah, blah. Same old crap with you, Dempsey. You're obviously using Rocky Mountain Adventures for some reason, or you'd hike in here on your own. Why didn't you just call and ask me? Why'd you have to sneak in here pretending to be a tourist John?"
He put his finger to his lips. "Not so loud."
"What if I blew your cover, right here, right now?" She narrowed her eyes at the way his jaw tightened. "I'd be jeopardizing national security or something like that, wouldn't I?"
"Not only national security, but your own and that of every tourist on this hike." He cocked his head. "Why so angry, Meg? You're the one who ended it, although you never did bother filing for divorce."
Her cheeks burned and she lifted her face to the cool air. "You couldn't handle a real relationship, one with trust and commitment."
"That's bull. I committed to you with everything I had. I love loved you with everything I had. When you lost the baby."
"A baby you didn't want."
"I could've grown used to the idea."
Meg snorted. "That's big of you."
He grabbed her shoulders. "I'm not playing the pity card, but you know damn well why the thought of a child scared the hell out of me."
"You're not your father, Ian. You never were." Her eyes burned with tears as frustration gnawed at her in-sides. She should've been able to make him see that. She'd failed him.
His grip on her shoulders softened to a caress. "You made me see that more than anyone, Meg."
She swayed toward him, and then clenched her hands into fists. She couldn't take this trip with him again, especially while he was in the middle of one of his covert operations, shutting her out, keeping secrets.
She stuffed down her guilt over keeping Travis from him. He'd probably rather not know about his son.
Whatever Ian and Kayla decided to do once the hike ended didn't concern her. She'd deliver them to the top of the mountain, along with the rest of the tourists, and they could knock themselves out with their secret agent crap. Then maybe she'd get that divorce she'd been putting off, and then maybe she'd better tell him about his son.
"Where's the purple flower?"
Ian's nostrils flared for a second and then he grinned. He dropped his hands from her shoulders and swooped down, plucking a flower from the ground. Cradling the small flower in his palm, he said, "Here it is."
He tipped his hand over and the flower floated to the dirt. Meg crushed the petals beneath her boot as she headed back up the trail to the other hikers.
Perched on a boulder, Kayla raised her head from her small guide book and her brows shot up. She didn't know her partner very well, if she thought Ian had spilled the beans about their mission.