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The man was oblivious.
As Brad Odell talked on, completely unaware, Joshua Redstone watched the deer watch them. A young doe, he thought, frozen as she stared at the intruders, her every muscle tense as she assessed whether to flee. He understood the feeling. He thought of last night, when those coyotes had been yipping around them. The sounds had come from three different directions, giving them the eerie feeling of being triangulated by the wily predators. Josh had spent enough time in places like this, and even wilder places, not to worry, but Odell had seemed edgy. Of course, he'd seemed edgy from the moment they'd started this trek.
Josh had wondered, perhaps uncharitably, if he was nervous at being out of the orbit of his formidable and commanding wife, Diane. The woman was a bit alarming. Some suspected she was the one who really ran things, and Brad was often mute in her presence.
Now he was guessing it was much more than that. If the man's company hadn't been Redstone's biggest supplier of custom-machined parts, Josh wouldn't be here at all. But Odell, who had invited him several times to explore this piece of California wilderness, had been particularly insistent this time. So he had come, and had—except for his companion's constant chatter—enjoyed the trek.
Or as Tess would call it, the expedition. She always teased him about the condition he came back in, which she laughingly termed as unrecognizable. And Josh always countered that it wasn't his fault his beard grew faster than any other man's on the planet, and that after three days he looked as if he hadn't shaved for a week.
Still unaware of the deer's presence, Odell kept walking and talking. Josh amused himself by calculating the doe's comfort zone—at what point the human presence would break that perimeter and send her dashing to safety.
As I should have done, he thought wryly.
Tess had warned him. And the woman who had been friend, ally and confidant for twenty years was rarely wrong.
Just the thought of her made him smile inwardly. He couldn't imagine Redstone—or life—without Tess Machado. She was one of the three who were the foundation of Redstone.
John Draven, former special-ops soldier and now legendary head of Redstone Security, Dameron St. John, his right-hand man, and Tess, the woman who could fly anything airworthy and just about anything that wasn't. The three who had been with him virtually from the beginning, the three who were the foundation of what he'd built, the ones who had helped him make Redstone what it was today. Harlan McClaren, the first man to see the potential of Josh's dream and put his money behind it, had coined the moniker, and it had stuck.
He sighed inwardly. Normally, he would have enjoyed being here in this wild place outside Yosemite. They hadn't seen another human being in nearly thirty hours, and to him that wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Which was why he took treks like this regularly.
Too bad Odell talks enough for a dozen people, Josh thought, feeling as if he'd been on this trek with a crowd.
"—regulations made it impossible to do anything with it," Odell was saying. "And I can't afford to just let it sit and pay the taxes on it."
"They'd like that," Josh said, dragging himself back to the present. This, at least, was something he could empathize with. "All this land essentially under their control without having to pay for it? And getting tax revenue from it to boot?"
"They offered to buy it for a nature reserve. Problem is," Odell said, "their idea of 'fair market value' is ridiculous. They might as well just seize it."
"But there's that pesky Fifth Amendment."
"I don't know about that," Odell said.
But you should, Josh thought.
"But I do know I can't afford it." He gave Josh a sideways look. "I need the most I can get for it to keep General Machine afloat."
And there it was, at last. It had taken the man a day and a half to work up to it. It was like Odell to leave it until now, when they were on their way back. Which was probably the crux of all his problems anyway; he never had been good at looking ahead. Josh had figured it was something like this. He'd hoped not, but even his generally optimistic nature hadn't been able to overlook the obvious.
At least, he thought resignedly, it was a beautiful place to have to listen to a sales pitch.
Tess Machado hummed under her breath as she updated her pilot's log, a catchy, bouncy number by a band she'd heard the other day in Samantha Gamble's car. Little Joshua Gamble, the first baby to arrive out of the seemingly continuous swath of new relationships and marriages that had overtaken Redstone—and the first of likely many, she guessed, to be named after Josh in some way—loved music, and his happy efforts at singing along had been heart-touchingly sweet.
"Lucky boy," she whispered to herself. "You've got a daddy who can make you anything in the world you'd ever want, a mommy who can keep you safer than just about any other and an uncle who loves nothing more than to play with you for hours."
Sam's little brother, Billy—the boy she'd fought so hard to keep with her after their parents were killed and the powers that be insisted a nineteen-year-old girl couldn't take care of a special-needs seven-year-old—adored his baby nephew, and Sam saw to it that they spent as much time together as possible. Thanks to Redstone—and Josh—Billy had his own place in an adult living center now, and had a special area of his main room set apart for little Josh, with toys and books he himself loved.
Finished with her log, Tess wondered if she should start the preflight. She knew only approximately when Josh would arrive; when he took off on these treks the first thing he jettisoned was his watch. Not that it mattered much, he had an internal clock that was almost as accurate as anything he might strap on to his wrist.
She'd leave it for him, she thought. There was, as always after these hikes, a good chance he was going to want to fly. It was his way of making the transition back into the Redstone world, taking the controls of one of the planes that had built it. He hated not being able to fly all the time. She knew it wasn't anything to do with her, but simply that he'd much prefer to be flying himself, as he always had until the burden of the Redstone empire had required him to utilize those hours spent aloft to work.
For a moment she just sat in the cockpit of the Hawk V, the smallest, quickest, most efficient and agile jet in the Redstone fleet. Ryan Barton, Redstone's head computer geek, had once worked up a calculation of how much money was saved by Josh flying the more efficient Redstone planes, how much was gained by him being able to be in full contact and work mode while flying. He'd then factored in all the various attendant costs of flying commercially, stacked it all up versus the jet's comparatively low operating expenses, and the results had been stunning. And the cornerstone of Redstone's admittedly modest advertising budget for some time now.
Not, Tess thought, that they needed to advertise much. The Redstone name did that, simply by existing. The name stood for quality in so many ways, Eric had said.
For the first time in a long time, a rush of memory flooded her, and her eyes teared up. She gave it a moment now, let her self remember her husband's cocky grin, his lean, compact body, that way he'd had of tilting his head just so when he looked at her. She stopped before she could remember how his eyes would heat up as he wondered if he had time to take her back to bed before he headed out to whatever bit of chaos he'd been assigned to fight. She'd always known every time could be the last time. She'd even thought she'd accepted the possibility.
Until it happened. Until her love had come home from a dis tant war in a flag-draped coffin.
It had been Josh who had gotten her through. He'd stuck to her like glue for six months, never letting her be completely alone, although he left her plenty of space for her grief. He had simply looked at her with those steady gray eyes and said "Trust me. I know how this works."
And it was the knowledge that he did know—with painful intimacy, the path she must now tread—that had let her hand all else over to him, leaving her the monstrous grief to simply endure.
And endure she had, because there had been no other choice. She focused, as Josh instructed, not on what she would do now, not on what her suddenly distant and cold future held, but simply on getting through, not the next day or even hour, but the next minute. And then the next. And one foot after the other, with Josh guiding her, she had finally stepped once more out into the light.
"Enough," she told herself, yanking herself back to the present before the past swamped her.
She glanced at her watch, a complicated pilot's chronometer that nearly dwarfed her small wrist. But it had custom features she loved, including a flight calculator that could factor distance, air speed, fuel consumption, and anticipated weather, so that she could give a fairly accurate flight time for any trip at a moment's notice. She was constantly offered large amounts of cash for it whenever another pilot saw what it could do, and had often told its designer, Redstone's own Ian Gamble, he should mass produce it. Sam's husband always laughed; although Redstone paid him handsomely, he was, she knew, in it for the excitement of making an idea work, not the money.
They were, most thought, an odd couple, Tess mused as she went back into the main cabin. The vibrant, crack security agent and the genius inventor they called, when he got absorbed in an idea to the exclusion of all else, the absent-minded professor. But Sam merely laughed, saying as long as what he got absorbed in was her often enough, she was happy.
A lovely thought, Tess mused as she walked back to the galley—a compact, finely finished space that could handle meals for small groups as well as any kitchen. She put on a fresh pot of coffee, knowing Josh would be wanting it. Then she unlatched the door to the main cabin and lowered the hydraulic steps. Josh had given her a two-hour window, and it was about halfway over, so she expected him shortly.
He'd want to be wheels up as soon as possible, she knew, so she wanted to be sure they were ready. The plane was scheduled for an angel flight this evening, transporting a seriously ill child from a small, central California town just the other side of those mountains, to a pediatric clinic in Los Angeles; it was a cause Josh had long ago dedicated the Hawk fleet to, and he often flew them personally.
She pondered starting the engines now, but decided to wait. It wasn't worth the wasted fuel. One of the many nice things about the little plane, besides the ability to get easily in and out of small airfields like this one, was its quick start-up, which added to its incredible and by now famous efficiency.
She went back to the cockpit. She would adjust the seat and harness now to Josh's settings—being that he was a foot taller than she, it was quite a change—and the copilot's seat to her own. That done, she sat for a moment, looking out toward the mountains thinking about the sort of peace Josh always seemed to find on these expeditions.
"I'll bet you didn't find much with Brad Odell," she mused aloud.
A sound on the gangway steps made her smile.
Finally, she thought. And tried to ignore how much she'd missed him, worried about him, out there in the wilds.
Their relationship was so complicated, their lives so intertwined, and yet separate. Josh had become good friends with Eric, and his own beloved Elizabeth had been like the sister Tess had never had, and each knew the other still grieved, in their way. They rarely spoke of it anymore, but it was still there, and always would be.
All it was, Tess told herself, all it would ever be, was a longtime employee missing a kind, generous boss who had become a friend. She couldn't afford to mess up everything by getting tangled up in emotions she had no business feeling, not about this man.
She got up and opened the cockpit door. "Coffee's fresh, I just put it on," she called out as she stepped back into the cabin.
She stopped dead as two men spun around to face her. Two complete strangers.
One of them smiled, a smile she didn't like at all.
"Well, well, now isn't this nice?" he said, looking her up and down in a way that made her skin crawl.
No, Tess thought. It wasn't nice at all. Because they weren't just strangers. They were also armed.
She knew instantly, deep in her gut, that this was it, that it had finally happened. Everyone at Redstone's worst nightmare had finally come true.
They'd come for Josh.
Josh was having trouble focusing on Odell's pitch. They had reached the man's expensive German sedan, looking a bit odd parked at the backcountry trailhead, and would soon be headed back toward the airport.
They threw their packs and gear in the trunk. Josh glanced at a young couple setting out on the trail they'd just come back on, then got into the front. He waited, doubting Odell had given up yet. His answer, sadly, was already a given; there was no way he could help the man. So his mind kept wandering. And as it had of late, perhaps reminded by the sight of that happy couple, it kept going down that path he tried to avoid.
He'd once joked that when St. John fell in love, he'd know the world was coming to an end. And apparently he should be preparing, because it had happened. In the most unlikely of ways, but with the most likely, and probably the only woman in the world who thoroughly understood the man who had been a mysterious legend at Redstone for years.
He had no doubts, as he had none about all the other couples Redstone had brought together, that St. John and his Jessa would make it. There was something about the way his right-hand man looked at her, a trust he never thought he'd see in his wary friend's eyes, that told him this was it, the real thing.