The mountains are dangerousbut not as dangerous as what's building between them
Missing and presumed dead, wanted FBI staffer Dallas Cole is running for his life until undercover agent Nicki Jamison finds him lying crumpled in the road. To his relief, his rescuer doesn't ask questions, doesn't call the cops. Who is she? What secret is she hiding? Not trusting Nicki any more than she trusts him, Dallas joins the headstrong agent's mission to take down a ruthless militia group. But when she falls into their brutal trap, Dallas will do whatever it takes to be reunited with Nicki and her irresistible, tough-as-nails charm.
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Sleet rattled against the windshield, a staccato counterpoint to the rhythmic swish-swish of the windshield wipers. Outside, night had fallen in inky finality, as if it planned to stay awhile, the Jeep's headlights the only illumination as far as the eye could see.
Nicolette Jamison forced herself out of a weary slouch behind the steering wheel and concentrated on the curving mountain road revealed in her headlights, well aware of the treachery that lay ahead for a careless driver. The switchbacks and drop-offs in the Blue Ridge Mountains could be deadly if you weren't paying attention. Not to mention the occasional reckless deer or coyote
"Son of a!"
The man loomed in the Jeep's headlights as suddenly as if the swirling mist had conjured him up, a tall, lean phantom of a man who turned slowly to face the headlights as she hit the brakes and prayed she wouldn't go into a skid this dangerously close to a steep drop-off.
The Jeep's wheels grabbed the blacktop and hung on, the vehicle shimmying to a stop just a yard away from the apparition gazing back at her through the windshield. For a second, she had a strange sense of recognition, as if she knew him, though she was pretty sure she didn't.
Then his eyes fluttered closed and he dropped out of sight.
Nicki's heart stuttered like a snare drum against her rib cage as she stared at the misty void where, seconds earlier, she'd seen the staring man.
Ghost, her inner twelve-year-old intoned, sending her heart rate soaring steeply for a few seconds before her grown-up side took charge. She checked the rearview mirror for coming traffic, saw only the faint red glow of her own taillights, and put the car in Reverse, backing up carefully until she could see what the front of the Jeep had concealeda man lying in a crumpled heap in the center of the narrow two-lane road.
She pulled the Jeep to the shoulder on the mountain side of the road and parked, engaging her hazard lights and trying to calm her rattled nerves. The man could be hurt.
Or it could be a trick. Maybe she should call the sheriff's department and let them handle things. Except
Buck up, Nicki. This is the life you chose.
Her weapons of choice these days were pepper spray and sheer nerve, and so far, she'd survived on their one-two punch. But something about the man lying crumpled on the road in front of her made her nerve waver. There was still something eerily familiar about him, a memory tugging at the back of her mind, trying to make itself known.
Holding the pepper-spray canister out in front of her, she approached the man, easing into a crouch just beyond reach. She shifted position so that the glow from the Jeep's headlights fell across the man's face.
He was younger than she'd thought, in his midthirties at most. His pallor, combined with the sunken cheeks and shadowed eyes that came with illness, had made him look older. He was still breathing, she saw with relief. "Mister?"
He stirred at the sound of her voice, his eyelids flickering open to half-mast, then drifting shut again. He muttered something that sounded like a string of numbers, but she couldn't quite make them out.
Gingerly, she reached out to check his pulse. Fast but steady and stronger than she'd anticipated. "Where are you hurt?"
He murmured numbers again. She made out a two and a four before he stopped.
She pulled her cell phone from the pocket of her jeans and tried to dial 911, then realized she didn't have any reception. "Damn it." She pocketed the phone and stared at him for a second, considering her options. Leaving him here in the road wasn't an option. And without cell phone reception, calling for help wasn't an option, either. The temperature was right at the freezing mark, and his skin was cold to the touch, which suggested he might already be suffering from exposure.
He was breathing. He was at least semiconscious. His heart rate was a little fast but steady as a rock, so he didn't seem likely to go into cardiac arrest anytime soon. And he'd definitely been mobile before he collapsed in front of her vehicle, so he didn't seem to have any spinal issues.
She had to get him warm, and the Jeep was the best bet. The old Wrangler had seen better days, but its heater still worked.
But how was she supposed to haul this man into her Jeep?
"Mister, think you can stay with me long enough for me to get you to my car?"
He opened his eyes, looking straight at her, and that niggle of recognition returned. "Who're you?"
"My name's Nicki. What's yours?"
For a brief second, she wondered if he'd misunderstood her question. Then the memory that had been flickering in and out of the back of her mind popped to the front, and she sat back on her heels, almost toppling over.
Dallas. As in Dallas Cole, missing for almost three weeks now and presumed by most people as either dead and buried somewhere in the Blue Ridge Mountains or wintering somewhere on the coast of Mexico, a cerveza in hand and a pretty girl by his side.
The last place she'd figured on running into the missing FBI employee was on Bellwether Road in the middle of Dudley County, Virginia.
Now she could see the resemblance between the man lying in the road in front of her and the missing man whose disappearance had caused a stir all the way from Washington, DC, to the little town of Purgatory, Tennessee, where a man named Alexander Quinn ran a security agency called The Gates.
"Oh, hell," she murmured.
A frown furrowed his brow. "Where am I?"
"Ever heard of River's End, Virginia?"
His voice rasped as he answered. "No."
He struggled to sit up. Not quite sure she could trust him yet, she let him do so without her help, her gaze sweeping over him in search of injuries. She spotted healing bruises dotting his jawline and the evidence of old blood spotting the front of his grimy gray shirt, but no sign of recent injuries.
Mostly, he looked exhausted and cold, and while she was no doctor, she could help him out with those two ailments. "Think you can stand?"
He pulled his legs up and gave a push with his arms, wincing as his left arm gave out and he landed on his backside. "Something's wrong with my shoulder."
Could be a trick, her wary mind warned, but she ignored it, following the demands of her compassionate heart. He couldn't fake the unmistakable look of ill health. Something had happened to this man, no matter what crimes had led him to this place, and the least she could do was get him somewhere warm and dry before feds came swarming into River's End.
She started to reach for him, planning to help him to his feet, when her last thought finally penetrated her brain.
She pulled back, staring at him with alarm. "What's wrong?" he asked, slanting her a suspicious look.
"Nothing," she lied, even as her mind started scrambling for a solution to her unexpected dilemma. There was no way she could leave him to fend for himself out here in the sleet. There was supposed to be snow before midnight, and the temps were going to plunge into the midtwenties before morning. Dressed as he was, without even a coat to ward off the chill, he'd never survive the night.
But if she took him to the hospital in Bristol
She couldn't. They'd call the FBI, who'd want to talk to her. There'd be a lot of terribly inconvenient questions and all her work for the past few months would be out the window.
But how to explain that to the hypothermic, battered man sitting in the road in front of her? "Look, I tried calling 911"
"No." His gaze snapped up sharply, catching her off guard.
"I don't need medical help." His lips pressed to a thin line. "I'm okay. I just need to get warm."
Well, she thought, that wasn't exactly a comforting reaction.
"Are you sure?" Not that she wanted to contact authorities any more than he did, but his reluctance didn't exactly fit the picture of a man wrongly accused, did it?
Maybe that was good, though, considering the dangerous game she was playing herself. Dealing with bad guys was less complicated than dealing with good ones, she'd discovered. Their motives were easier to glean and usually involved one sin or another. Greed, gluttony, lust, hateoh, yeah, she definitely knew how to deal with sinners.
Saints, on the other hand, were a cipher.
"Let's get you out of the cold, Dallas." She pushed aside questions of his particular motives. There'd be time to figure him out once she got him back to her cabin, where she could provide the basic comforts anyone in his condition needed, whether sinner or saint.
Avoiding his bad shoulder, she pulled his right arm around her shoulder and helped him to his feet. He stumbled a little as they made their way across the slickening blacktop to the Jeep, but she settled him in the passenger seat with little fuss and watched with bemusement as he fumbled the seat belt into place. Sinner or not, he apparently took seat belt safety seriously.
She circled around, slid behind the Jeep's steering wheel and cranked the engine. Next to her, Dallas sighed audibly as heat blasted from the Jeep's vents.
"Good?" she asked, easing back onto the road.
"Heaven," he murmured through chattering teeth.
He couldn't have been out in the elements for long, she realized as his shivering began to ease before they'd gone more than a mile down the road. So where the hell had he come from?
"Should I be worrying about pursuit?" she asked.
His gaze slanted toward her. "Pursuit?"
"Anybody after you?"
He didn't answer at first. She didn't push, too busy dealing with the steady buildup of icy precipitation forming on the mountain road. Thank God she didn't have much farther to travel. The little cabin she called home was only a quarter mile down the road. They'd be there before the snow started.
"There might be," he answered finally as she slowed into the turn down the gravel road that ended at her cabin.
"Are they nearby?"
"Probably," he answered.
Great. Just great.
"What did you do?" She glanced his way. His mouth crooked in the corner. "Because people in trouble usually got there under their own steam?" She shrugged. "Usually."
"I broke a rule. I thought it was for a good reason, but as usual, the rules are there for a reason."
He was beginning to sound more like a saint than a sinner. "What kind of rule?"
"I skipped steps I should have taken," he said obliquely.
But she knew enough about his situation to know exactly what he was talking about, even if she didn't let on. "That's cryptic."
He smiled. "Yes."
So. He didn't trust her any more than she trusted him. Fair enough. She was in no position to quibble.
"Well, how about we don't worry about rules and secrets, and just get you somewhere warm and dry. Think you could handle something to eat?"
"Yes," he said with an eagerness that made her glance his way again. He met her gaze with a quick glance, his lips quirking again. "Sorry. I've missed a meal or three."
When he smiled, he was almost good-looking even with his sunken eyes and hollow cheeks, something she hadn't expected. The only photo she'd seen of him had been his driver's license photo. Nobody ever looked good in their driver's license photos.
Dallas Cole, she suspected, would clean up nicely.
Down, girl. He's not date material, and you've sworn off men, remember? Saints or sinners, they're nothing but trouble.
She pulled the Jeep under the carport connected to her cabin and cut the engine. "Sure you don't want me to call paramedics?"
His eyes were closed, his head resting against the back of the seat. When he turned his face toward her, his eyes opened slowly to meet hers in the gloom. "I just need to rest a little while. Then I'll get out of your hair."
The full impact of what she was doing hit her as she got out of the Jeep and locked the door behind her. Had she lost her mind, taking in a stranger wanted by the FBI? Even Alexander Quinn, a man who prided himself on his ability to read people, wasn't sure what side Dallas Cole had chosen. For all she knew, this might be a test of her loyalty to the Blue Ridge Infantry.
She had to tread carefully. Everything she'd worked for over the past few months was at stake.
Dallas stumbled on his way to the door, flashing her a grimace of a smile as she grabbed his arm and kept him from face-planting in the gravel between the Jeep and her kitchen door. "I'm usually steadier on my feet."
"How long has it been since you ate anything?"
"Not counting roots and berries?" he asked with a lopsided smile, leaning against the side of her house while she unlocked the door.
"Yeah, not counting those." She opened the door and helped him up the two shallow steps into the kitchen.
Inside, the cabin was blessedly warm and familiar, driving away some of Nicki's tension. Dallas Cole didn't seem to be faking his weakness, and she was finally back in her own comfort zone. She knew where the knives were kept and where to find her Remington 870 pump-action shotgun and ammo.
And there was the satellite phone hidden under the mattress of her bed that would get Alexander Quinn on the line in a second. He might be two and a half hours away in Purgatory, Tennessee, but he had eyes and ears all over the hills. She knew from experience.
"How much snow do you think we'll get?" Dallas asked as she flicked the switch on the wall, flooding the kitchen with light. He squinted at her, as if it had been a while since his eyes had been accustomed to so much light.
"I guess you haven't heard a forecast in a few days?" She crossed to the stove and grabbed one of the saucepans hanging over the range. "We'll get an inch or two, maybe. It'll probably be melted off by tomorrow afternoon."
"Glad to be out of it." He nodded toward the small kitchen nook table. "May I?"
Polite, she thought. Though she'd met a few wellmannered devils in her day who'd give you the shaft and thank you for it. "Sit. I'll see what's in the pantry."
He groaned a little as he sat, and she wondered how many injuries he had hidden beneath his grimy clothes. "Thank you. I'm not sure how I'll be able to repay you for your kindness."
His accent was subtle but there, the hint of a mountain twang not unlike her own Tennessee accent. She'd done little more than glance over the information Quinn's mystery operative had left for her at the dead drop a few weeks earlier before she'd destroyed it, not exactly expecting Dallas Cole to show up in the middle of River's End. But there'd been something about a hometown in eastern Kentucky
"No repayment necessary." She looked through the cans in her pantry. "Chicken and vegetable sound okay?"
"Sounds like heaven."
As she heated the soup, she searched her brain for any other details she could remember from the dossier on Dallas Cole. His job at the FBI wasn't exactly what she might have expectedthat much she remembered. She wasn't dealing with a special agent or a forensic science whiz.
No, he was a graphic designer with the Bureau's public affairs office.
How on earth had an artist gotten himself crossways with the Blue Ridge Infantry?