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Under the cover of deep darkness, Madison McKay slid on her belly in the dirt, lifted the binoculars to her eyes, then peered through a break in the thick woods and studied the distant top secret facility known as the Nest.
It had grown. A lot. In her days as an analyst there, the majority of the structures, a labyrinth of bunkers, had been built underground. Now, not one but four large buildings jutted into the night sky. A wide stretch of asphalt surrounded them, forming a clearing that ensured any approach would be noticed. Armed guards stood posted every twenty feet on the ground near concrete barricades, their backs to the buildings, and more soldiers were staggered on the rooftops. Obviously the commander expected something unusual to happen.
An attack? Unlikely. Only a handful of people assigned to the military installation surrounding the Nest knew the facility hidden at its core existed. So what had the Nest on high alert?
Her stomach burned; her fingers tingled. Northwest Florida had pretty mild winters, but being out in the woods, exposed to stiff winds and lying flat on the cold ground was enough to numb her gloved fingers and the tip of her masked nose. The stomach burn was acid due to sheer nerves.
Getting caught on the base without authorization would be bad, but getting caught on the perimeter of the Nest
Not daring to think about the consequences, she cut off those thoughts, and kept watch.
Hours passed. Her eyelids grew heavy, then heavier, lulling her to doze off. She fought the temptation. Stay awake, Madison. Of all places, heremust stay alert.
Her resolve redoubled, she kept her breathing shallow, hoping that the mask would keep her exhaled breaths from fogging the air. Even something that slight from this distance could be noted. She kept watching, kept waiting.
Dawn threatened. Soon it would expose her, and in the past four hours, the only noteworthy observations she'd seen were changing of the guards. The soldiers had been relieved and replaced every hour, and that frequency proved telling. Whatever event or threat they expected hadn't yet passed and the commander wanted the soldiers fresh, sharp and on their toes.
In the year she'd been stationed at the Nest, they'd only been on high alert once, for a practice drill in a readiness exercise that had lasted less than two hours. A string of forty-seven eighteen-wheelers had been stopped at the main facility's outer gate. Soldiers had driven the trucks into the Nest, parked at the loading docks and unloaded boxes. The trucks were then returned to the outer gates and their drivers departed with them. The installation had been deemed ready.
Ready for what? No one, not even Madison, who analyzed delivery efficiency of the boxed contents defined only by one-word codes like Seeds or Purifier, had a clue.
But this alert was different, and two facts proved it: the absence of activity during the alert negated it being a readiness exercise drill, and the tension in the guards proved whatever initiated the alert was not ordinary.
The first signs of dawn pierced the horizon, tingeing it with a thin, pale streak that would soon thicken to daybreak. Her instincts told her to stay put, but she didn't dare. If discovered, she'd never be in a position to expose the truth. The commander would see to that and possibly to a lot more.
Disappointment battered her. Tonight, after the St. Valentine's ball, she'd try again. Whatever happened here would happen at night.
The wind gusted. Madison's eyes teared. She blinked hard and fast. If the commander and/or his vice commander had done what she suspected, she had to be vigilant and cautious. She was the only thing left standing between them and their possible actions, and those actions could not happen again. Not on her watch. No more lost ones could be sacrificed here. They must find their way home .
Tonight. Tomorrow night. Six months of nights whatever it takes, Madison promised herself, then rose to a crouch and scanned the woods. Stealth and hy-peralert, noting nothing unexpected, she moved from bush to tree through the thick woods, stepping lightly to avoid creating magnified sounds of dry leaves and twigs crunching underfoot.
With a scant fifteen minutes to spare before daylight exposed her, she left the restricted area and reached the public highway, then sprinted in the woods alongside the road to the sheltered spot where she'd parked her car to hide it from view.
Something odd was definitely going on out there. Whether or not it was connected to her case, she had no ideayet. Bitterness filled her throat. Swallowing it, she eased into her silver Jaguar still hidden by darkness and shut the door.
"You want to explain what you're doing out there?"
Madison's heart rocketed. A man in her car. Oh, no. She'd been caught!
Madison squinted in the half-light, trying to identify the deeply shadowed silhouette of the man in her passenger seat. She recognized him.
Her heart rate shot off the charts, and she inwardly groaned. Given the choice of a firing squad of the guards or this man, she'd take the firing squad. Them, she knew she couldn't trust. But Grant? The jury was still out on him. "You want to explain how you got into my car?"
He held up a key. "I used this."
She should have picked up on his cologne as soon as she opened the door. But she'd been so lost in thought that she'd missed it. Bad mistake. "Funny, I don't recall giving you a key to my vehicle."
"We've been dating since October, Madison," he reminded her. "Totally plausible you did and forgot it."
She hadn't forgotten a thing. He'd found the spare key she stowed in a magnetic case under the back bumper. "For the record, while you're endearing, your being here is not." He'd scared ten years off her, though she didn't mention it. She'd learned the hard way that exposing vulnerabilities was often interpreted as giving others a license to use them against you. Yes, they were dating. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. But she strongly suspected he was under orders to spy on her and her staff. Of course, she kept him close. How else could she protect her staff or herself? That she found him attractive anyway, well, that was a challenge she just had to fight. "Why are you following meand where's your car?"
"You walked all the way out here?" It was ten miles into North Bay proper. Why would he do that? And how had he known where she'd be? Fair questions she needed answered after she got away from this facility. She cranked the engine and pulled over the deep shoulder and onto the road.
"My transportation is insignificant." He frowned at her. "And gauging by what I've observedyou pulling surveillance on an off-limits, highly classified military installationyou're hardly in a position to ask anyone questions." He lifted an irritated hand. "Dressed in covert operation gear with greasepaint smeared all over your face." She passed him her binoculars. "What are you doing out there at all, much less dressed like that? Are you trying to get yourself shot?"
She lowered the mask, let its strings loosely loop her neck and braked to a stop at the traffic light. The office or home?
Definitely not home. Not with him in the car. She'd shower and change at the office. It'd be hours before anyone else arrived. She hung a left and cruised past the sign to North Bay. "Since this is my car and you're in it uninvited, I'm perfectly positioned to ask whatever questions I want." She spared him a glance. "Why are you following me and how did you find me?"
Concern and anger feuded in his eyes, shone in the reflective light from the dash. "You were edgy all dayeven more so than usual, which is saying something. You denied anything was up, so I had a friend drop me off."
So now two people had followed her and knew where she'd gone. Oh, definitely not good. "So because I chose not to answer you, you have the right to shadow me?" She slid him a mild frown. "If I wanted to disclose, I'd disclose." Inside, a part of her felt pleased he was concerned and wanted to protect her. Not surprising; he was a Christian, but one in an awkward position. She buried her emotional pleasure under the real facts. No way did she dare trust him. "Who brought you out here?"
Her assistant. Pins of betrayal pricked and peppered her skin. "You're kidding me."
"She knows the danger, Madison."
She did. She'd been married to the former base commander. Still, telling Grant where Madison was and bringing him out there? What had Mrs. Renault been thinking?
"Don't get knotted up at her. I was worried about you and so was she." He paused and lowered his voice, not bothering to remove the sarcasm lacing it. "Worry. That's something normal people do when they care about someonein between the times they're questioning their sanity for caring for someone as stubborn as you."
She opened her mouth to object. Before she got out the first word, he cut her off.
"You know what? Don't even bother. This has gone on long enough." He sighed irritably and dragged a hand through his short brown hair. "What's it going to take for you to trust me, Madison?"
That trust question had simmered unspoken between them from the start. She'd wished a hundred times in the past four months she could just drag the matter out into the open. But now that it was in the open, all she wanted to do was shove it back into the shadows.
Instead, she clicked her blinker with her pinkie, signaling a left turn. Trust was hard for her, maybe impossible, and for just cause. Once betrayed, twice shy. Still, he deserved an answer, so she gave him the only one she could. "I don't know."
"Since I hired on with you at Lost, Inc., you've put me through test after testand you've poured on even more of them in our personal relationship." He lifted a warning finger. "This is not the time for you to say we don't have a personal relationship."
She'd like to deny it, but she couldn't. First, it wasn't true. They did have a relationship. A mostly adversarial one, but after four months under horrific conditions, she had to admit there was also a spark between them that promised they could be very good together maybe. Eventually. And, keeping it real and fair, she had tested him to the max professionally and personally. Every single time, he'd passed with flying colors. Yet even that hadn't removed her doubts and resolved her trust issues.
"Not disputing the relationship," he said. "That's progress. Yet you don't know what it's going to take to trust me. And if you don't know, then obviously I can't know." He sighed again. More deeply. "So let's try a different question. How about keeping it simplejust tell me about this jaunt of yours tonight?"
Boldly stated, and a fair question. Right after the agency's open house during the annual Fall Festival back in October, she'd been invited to the military installation and quizzed about a security breach at the Nest. It had been easy to see they were after someone to blame. She'd countered by hiring Grant. He'd just left active duty working in the Office of Special Investigations for the very commander and vice commander who had questioned her, and she needed to keep an eye on him. Keep your friends close andyour enemies closer. Commander Talbot and Vice Commander Dayton were also the reason she was watching the Nest. She strongly suspected those two men had links to two civilian murders that unfortunately everyone except her deemed solved. The cases had been officially closed.
That was her initial connection to Grant Deaver. And while he hadn't sold her outyethe had reported Lost, Inc., events back to Talbot and Dayton, purportedly defending her agency. Still, the commander had a security breach at the Nest, and he and his vice commander were trying their best to blame it on someone at her agency. With Grant reporting to them, how could she trust him?
Tempted to blast that question at him, she fingered the Purple Heart medal in her jacket pocket to steady herself. This would be a dangerous time to lose her temper. Trust him with the truth? Oh, how she wished she could. "I can't answer that, either."
He grumbled under his breath. "How can you be attracted enough to me to date me but not trust me at all? I don't get it, Madison."
"Neither do I," she admitted, hating being put on the spot like this. "Ordinarily, I wouldn't be attracted and I'd never put you on my payroll"
"I think I've just been insulted."
Two hundred pounds and six feet of bruised male ego she did not need. "That came out wrong." She glanced at him then back at the road. "Of course I'm attracted to you. What woman wouldn't be? What I meant was there's something about you that gets to me, but I wish it didn't."
"Because I'm on your payroll."
"Not really." Oh, she didn't want to get into this. Weary already, she didn't want to resurrect old wounds.
He flicked at the door handle with his fingertips. "You know, I'd really like to get out of this car, walk away from you and never look back"
Panic threatened. "Grant, don't. Please." She didn't want him to go. She wanted She didn't know what she wanted, but she wanted him with her.
"I won't." His frown deepened to a scowl. "Because as unfair as this situation is, I understand, and I'm as conflicted about you as you are about me."
The attraction was mutual and mutually disdainful. That pricked more than her pride. It pricked her heart. "Sometimes God has a bizarre sense of humor."
"Apparently." He lifted a finger. "Watch that deer."
Spotting it on the edge of the road, Madison slowed and veered into the other lane to give the animal a wide berth. "Listen, I admit that this case has me worked up, and I'm touchier than usual because of it. It's also been a really long night. Can we talk about this later?" After she thawed out would be good.
"'This case,' you said. So you were at the Nest because of the David Pace and Beth Crane murders." Grant's frustration showed in his expression.