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A figure clad completely in black emerged from the passenger seat of the vehicle.
Tall. Solid. Reaching for what had to be a heavy pack from the back seat and hefting it effortlessly onto one shoulder.
And then he turned and Rebecca could see his face under spikes of hair as black as his uniform. She could see the uncompromising features of a man she hated enough for the shockwave to steal the breath from her lungs and make her heart thump hard enough to be a painful tattoo against her ribs.
'What?' A grey-haired man, whose uniform bore the insignia of the largest rescue helicopter service New Zealand had to offer, moved away from the small cluster of people in front of a huge map that covered an interior wall of this upstairs office. 'Did you say something, Bec?'
The words had seemed like an agonised, internal groan, but apparently she had spoken them aloud. Maybe they'd had even more carrying power than reaching the ears of her boss, Richard. That might explain why the man outside had turned his head so swiftly to look up. Why his gaze had flown so unerringly to her face.
She could feel the way he stilled as he recognised her. Did it require an effort to shift the weight of so much guilt?
She hoped so.
'Ah ' The voice was now right behind her shoulder.
'Yeah ' She was testing her voice. Checking to make sure that it did not betray her. 'The medic's arrived.'
'Bit more than a medic.' There was a note of awe in her boss's voice as he raised a hand to acknowledge the new arrival. 'James Munroe is the best the army has to offer. Emergency specialist. Been with the SAS on and off for the past six years and he can handle anything. Perfect choice for a mission like this. Stroke of luck they already had a jet coming up here that he could catch a ride on.'
The incredulous huff escaped from Rebecca's tight chest all by itself. A sharp punctuation mark. Rather like the way James Munroe slammed the door of the vehicle behind him, adding a flat-handed thump that dismissed the driver.
'Problem?' Richard's tone was dumbfounded.
You have no idea, she wanted to say. Wisely, she pressed her lips firmly together and kept her eyes fixed on the flashing beacons of the airport security vehicle as it sped off, flanked by bright runway lights that stretched into the distance.
Lights that had looked as festive as Christmas decorations only minutes ago as she'd watched and waited for this arrival with all the excitement of a child expecting a special gift.
Dismay could feel rather like anger, couldn't it?
This was unthinkable, that was what it was. After so many years of earning the reputation of being as tough as they came, unflinching in the face of danger and ready to deal with any emergency in a heartbeat, Rebecca Harding had a horrible feeling she might have hit the wall.
So she said nothing as she tried to deal with it.
The perfect choice for the mission had vanished from sight now, which was helping. He'd be going into the small side door of the hangar. Climbing the stairs to this officethe operational hub of this rescue service. She could get a grip on whatever was making it so hard to breathe. Think, even. Deal with this overwhelmingly unpleasant sensation that had to be fear? No. She didn't do fear.
Creases in her bright orange flight suit vanished as she straightened to her full height of five feet four inches. Never mind that at least one of those inches came from the heels of her steel-capped boots. Her fingers tightened around the strap of the helmet dangling from her hand.
'Not having second thoughts, are you?'
'Are you kidding?' Rebecca actually found a smile. 'I've been waiting for a mission like this for my whole life.'
She had. This was it. A night flight to a destination outside any normal flight zone that would push fuel capabilities. A volcanic Pacific island that had been rocked by an earthquake and could erupt for real at any time. A group of frightened conservationists that were trapped and injured and in desperate need of evacuation.
Oh, yes. Even in a career that had had more than its share of excitement, this mission promised to be a highlight.
'Hmm.' Richard didn't sound entirely convinced. He stared at his top pilot for a long second and then a spark of comprehension dawned on his face. 'Don't tell me you and this James Munroe have some kind of history?'
That was a good word for it. The past. An event momentous enough to wipe out your world. Or rather to blot out the sun so that life became so bleak that merely surviving seemed an impossible challenge.
Oh, yes. She and Jet had history, all right.
But Rebecca shook her head. She had made a choice a very long time ago not to let the past rob her of a future. It would be easy enough to find another pilot who would be more than willing to take on this mission. Finding another medic with the kind of skills this one had would be impossible. The past few hours had been tense enough as search and rescue commanders put this plan together. They were hardly likely to tolerate a hiccup that was purely personal. Not when lives were depending on its success.
So her past had come back to haunt her?
She had been chosen and she was up for the challenge.
The real question was whether the willingness to deal with the situation would be reciprocated, and she was about to find out because the door of the office opened and her past walked in.
I hate you.
I hope I never have to set eyes on you ever, ever again.
Words that had been spoken more than ten years ago and yet they were as clear in his head right now as if they'd just been uttered.
What on earth was Matt's sister doing in this room full of the men who were in charge of organising this urgent rescue mission that he'd just been flown in from his army base down south to be a part of? And why was she wearing a flight suit? Had she given up nursing to become a paramedic? Not that he was going to allow her to occupy more than his peripheral vision or thoughts at the moment. His attention was on the most senior-looking person in the group. The one who was coming towards him with an extended hand.
'James. Great that you could get here so fast.'
'Jet,' he corrected, his smile taut. 'Haven't answered to James in longer than I care to remember.'
Longer than the ten years since he'd last breathed the same air as the woman still standing by the window. He didn't need to look at her directly to be aware of how her shape had changed. He could even sense more than the physical maturity those curves under the overalls advertised. A curious mix of femininity and determination emanated from that side of the room like a scent but it wasn't quite powerful enough to wipe out the image of the girl he remembered.
A distraught teenager who'd pummelled his chest with her fists when he'd tried to hold her. Who'd told him that it was his fault.
That she would hate him for ever.
And that had been fair enough. He'd hated himself back then. Complying with the request never to be seen again had been no hardship. It hadn't been simply the guilt. It had been the gut-wrenching similarity she had to her brother.
The same wildly curly hair. The same dark eyes and cheeky grin. Not that any hint of a smile, let alone anything more joyous, could be detected from her direction. And even a grazing glance had shown that her hair was very different. Cropped so short the curls had gone but, if anything, that accentuated her eyes and they had always been a mirror of her brother's, with that darkness softened by a touch of vulnerability that drew an urge to protect like the most powerful magnet.
He may not have shared Matt's blood the way Becca did but they'd been brothers to the bone and the last thing he'd expected right now was the soul-piercing awareness of how much he still missed his best mate.
He was barely listening to the introductions being made to the other men. Senior representatives from search and rescue, civil defence and the navy.
'I understood I was the only medic being sent,' he growled, flicking his gaze sideways.
'You are. The auxiliary fuel tanks needed to go the distance which means there's no room for any other personnel.' Richard had seen the direction of his glance. 'This is your pilot, Rebecca Harding. She's just waiting for the mechanics to finish fitting the auxiliary fuel tanks.'
'What's the flight time expected to be?'
'Approximately four hours. Have you been briefed properly?'
'I'd appreciate an update.'
He was directed towards the wall map. 'Tokolamu's the largest island in this group here. Roughly eight hundred and fifty kilometres north-west of New Zealand. It's been a Department of Conservation nature reserve for some years now and is the hub of an important kiwi breeding programme.'
Jet nodded. He was listening. Or trying to. The projected flight time was echoing in his brain, however. He was going to be cocooned in a flying bubble with Becca as his only companion for four hours?
She had to be as unhappy about that prospect as he was.
'Island's area's approximately twenty-six square kilometres and the buildings are located here, in this southern bay.'
Surely there was someone else who could step in and fly the bird?
'Currently there's a group of eighteen people on the island for weed control, checking predator traps and tracking and monitoring the kiwis. All but four of them were in the hostel when the island got rocked by an earthquake, measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale, three hours ago.'
'Where were the other four?'
'Night tracking mission. Common practice, with kiwis being nocturnal feeders.'
'Are they accounted for?'
'Any update on the injured people we know about?'
'The hostel got flattened. Three people are still trapped in the debris. Of the rest, there's one with a head injury who's unconscious and another with a compound leg fracture. Radio contact is patchy, however, and we haven't had an update for a while.'
So there were potentially major casualties and the number was still unknown. A lot for a single medic to stabilise and monitor until backup arrived but that was fine. Jet thrived on exactly these kinds of challenges and it wasn't as though he would have to worry about enemy fire this time.
Or would he?
He couldn't help glancing over his shoulder again. Until he arrived on scene, his life would be in the hands of the pilot and in this instance he wasn't at all sure he was comfortable about that. But he'd be even more uncomfortable if he was unprofessional enough to suggest a replacement. Personal issues were simply put aside in his line of work. They were irrelevant.
But this was.different.
He was looking directly at Becca for the first time since he'd entered this room. Making eye contact, and it was doing something very odd to his gut. So many questions were coming out of nowhere.
How are you?
What on earth made you become a pilot?
Do you still miss Matt as much as I do?
Questions he had no right to ask and would probably not get answered.
She was his pilot, dammit. A glorified taxi driver given that her only role was to get him to the island. Transporting patients would have to wait until the navy vessel got to the area and the men around him were discussing just how long that would be. Two days at the earliest. Three, probably, given the weather and sea conditions at the moment.
She wouldn't be there on the island with him so why did this feel personal enough to threaten his performance? She must have wanted this mission. Had she volunteered for it or been chosen and happy to accept? Either way, it sure didn't look as though she was having second thoughts in the wake of learning the identity of her passenger.
Or was she?
There was something about the tilt of her chin and the guarded expression in her eyes as she stared back at him that was.what, a warning?
The idea that it might be a plea seemed weird. Or maybe not. He was the person they wanted on this island, after all, and any pilot on this team would be skilled enough to make sure he got there safely. If he demanded a change, it might cause a few waves but it could probably be achieved. How long would it take to put those extra tanks in and connect up the manual fuel lines? Long enough to brief another pilot?
Was that what Becca wanted from him? The opportunity for something rather different and potentially more dangerous than usual?
He'd once been a part of having something desperately important taken away from her. The notion that he could give her anything at all was touching something very deep inside Jet.
It didn't matter that she hated him. She was Matt's sister and whatever she needed or wanted that was within his capability to provide, it was hers, without question.
What he needed and wanted was to break that eye contact. To get this mission kicked off and get firmly onto professional territory where he wouldn't have to be
aware of this odd stirring in his gut. The one that was making it so hard to look away and was still firing off questions he felt compelled to ask that had absolutely nothing to do with what he was here for.
As luck would have it, he got assistance. A new arrival in the room got everyone's attention instantly. Dressed in the oil-spattered overalls of a mechanic, he gave Becca a thumbs-up sign.
'Tanks are in. You're good to go.'