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Katie McCloud studied the barren valley at her feet and shook her head. Mars. It looks like freaking Mars. Who'd have guessed anywhere on Earth looked like this? Of course, she'd had to go to the foothills of the Himalayas at the intersection of Nowhere and Uninhabitable to find it.
She ducked inside the makeshift shelter tucked between two giant boulders and looked around. It would be a tight squeeze for two people and their gear. But this trip wasn't about having all the comforts of home. She really was trying hard to think of it as a grand adventure, but her personal pep talk wasn't sinking in at the moment. Her brother had promised it would be like primitive camping. Maybe if she was primitive camping in hell.
"Come help me," her partner-in-crime, Alex Peters, called low from outside. She slipped out just as a cloud of dust rained down on the opening. Coughing, she batted the local gray grit out of her hair and glared at him on the hillside above her. "What are you doing?"
"Camouflaging our tent."
"You didn't have to camouflage me!"
A rare smile crossed his face. "You do want us to remain hidden, right?"
"Well, yeah," she groused. "If they find us, we'll be killed."
Which was pretty crazy if she stopped to think about it. And which was why Katie was trying hard not to stop and think about it. Her brothers did this kind of stuff all the time, and everything always turned out fine. How tough could it be? She'd spent most of her adult life insisting to all of them that she could do the same sorts of wild things they did. And getting laughed at for saying it or, worse, patted on the head like some kind of cute puppy. This was her chance to prove she was the real deal once and for all.
Her confidence temporarily bolstered, she joined Alex on the steep slope above their little hideaway. She stumbled on rolling gravel, and his hand shot out to grab her elbow and steady her. As always, her pulse leaped at the contact. Surely he knew how totally hot he was. If he did, he didn't give any hint of it as he let go of her arm and turned his attention back to hiding their tent. She gathered up an armful of scrawny, dead weeds and scattered them across the canvas surface.
"Too much," he said critically. "The tonal value of the tent's green contrasts too much with the dead grass. It draws the eye to the tent." He slid gracefully down to the edge of the tent roof and removed most of the plant material.
"And when did you become an expert on the tonal values of tent canvas?" she asked tartly. Not that she doubted for a second that he was correct. In the few days she'd known him, he'd surprised her multiple times with the esoteric tidbits he knew. Her brother had warned her that Alex Peters was brilliant. As in off-the-charts-genius brilliant. But in her experience, intellect and common sense were two entirely separate things.
Alex stared at Katie warily. He did that a lot-look at her as if he thought she was about to leap on him and tear his shirt off or something. Not that it hadn't crossed her mind. He was pretty gorgeous in a dark, tortured kind of way. That combination of dark hair and light eyes was surprisingly sexy.
He answered her question laconically, "They made me take an art class my last year as an undergrad at Harvard."
"How old were you then? Twelve?"
"I didn't start college until I was thirteen," he replied absently, obviously already focused on something else entirely.
Her brother had told her Alex graduated from Harvard at sixteen with a degree in mathematics. Master's in statistics and probability from MIT at seventeen, and well into PhD work in cryptography there before the wheels had come off his life. Maddeningly, her brother hadn't said a word about what that meant. Just that the wheels had come off.
At thirteen, she'd been trying to convince her parents to let her wear makeup and her brothers to quit calling her Baby Butt. As she recalled, she'd developed an abiding hatred of math that year, too, compliments of prealgebra. Thankfully, her degree in early elementary education only required basic mathematics.
The sun slid quickly behind the looming mountains, and day became night in minutes. The temperature dropped nearly as precipitously. The two of them retreated into the tent to huddle near the propane heater.
"You're sure they'll come?" she asked Alex over a pouch of freeze-dried beef stew reconstituted with water warmed on the top of the heater.
"D.U. put the word out," he answered. "They'll come."
Doctors Unlimited was a low-profile international aid organization that sent medical personnel into the most remote and dangerous corners of the planet. Katie still didn't know a whole lot more than that about the group, even after she'd gotten the call from her brother that it needed her help. Mike was military intelligence, although he couldn't officially admit it. But everyone in the family knew he'd been a SEAL and probably still worked with the teams as an intel analyst.
She'd half suspected this trip was some sort of undercover SEAL op until she'd met Alex, who no way, no how was a SEAL. It wasn't just that he ran to the lean and elegant rather than stupidly buff. He was more
than she associated with most of the guys on the teams. He was James Bond, not Rambo.
And then, of course, there was the whole bit about his actually delivering babies out here. She didn't doubt SEALs could deliver babies-Lord knew, they could do just about everything else-but she couldn't see one successfully posing as an obstetrician for weeks or months on end. Although, how Alex had gone from mathematician to physician during the black hole of time her brother wouldn't speak of was a mystery to her.
"This area looks completely deserted," she announced.
He shrugged. "You saw the same maps I did. Karshan's a good-sized village, and it's less than a mile up the river from us."
"How will word spread that we're here? And to whom?"
"Women gossip faster than the internet," he murmured absently.
She'd already lost him again. His gaze was fixed on the heavy boxes of medical equipment they'd carried up there from the Land Rover, which was hidden under a brush pile down by the river at the bottom of the narrow, steep valley. Emphasis on steep. Her legs and back were going to kill her tomorrow.
She bloody well hoped they didn't have to move this camp anytime soon. Their first two camps had been in caves in much more accessible locations than this mountainous crevasse. Twice Alex had woken her up with an urgent warning that the rebels were coming, and it had been relatively easy to throw their gear in the Land Rover and bug out.
At this time of year, Zaghastan, high in a remote region of the Hindu Kush, was as barren and lifeless as the moon with vast stretches of gray granite mountains and wind-scoured valleys. She huddled deeper into her high-tech mountain climber's coat as a burst of frigid air rustled the canvas overhead. "Feels like snow," she commented.
"Humidity's under ten percent. Any snow will fall as virga."
"And what is virga?" she asked with the long-suffering patience she'd learned working with kindergarteners.
"Precipitation that falls from clouds but evaporates prior to reaching the ground. Although technically snow is a solid, so the correct term in this case would be sublimation and not evaporation, of course."
"Of course," she echoed drily. Being with this guy was like traveling with an encyclopedia. And he had about as many emotions as one. Either that, or Alex Peters was freakishly, inhumanly self-disciplined. Either way, she felt completely inadequate in his presence. As for her, she let everything she felt and thought hang right out there for everyone to see. It was so much easier that way. No secrets. No surprises. No head games.
Still, there was one thing she knew that he didn't- the local language. The natives of this region spoke an ancient tribal tongue not used anywhere else on earth-except in a small community of Zaghastani expatriates living in Pittsburgh. She'd learned it during her three-year stint there with Teachers Across America, educating their children.
It turned out she had a gift for languages. Absorbed them like a sponge. That, and the rules of hospitality in Zaghastani culture dictated that teachers be invited into parents' homes. She'd picked up the dialect like candy. It had helped her teach the kids English.
"Storm's blowing in," Alex observed.
She huddled closer to the tiny heat source, and her knee accidentally bumped his. He drew his leg away fractionally, and her fantasies about him were dashed yet again. Clearly, he didn't think she was in his league. Either that or he was gay.
"I thought you said we'd only get virga," she said a tad peevishly.
"That doesn't mean it won't get cold and windy. At this altitude, it's not uncommon for temperatures to drop well below zero."
She winced at the thought. Give her a nice, cozy fireplace, fuzzy socks and a cup of hot chocolate, and she was a happy camper. Less than one day on this mountainside and she was ready to pack it in and head home. Even a cave would be a step up from a canvas-covered crack in the rocks. At least they had the mountain at their back to block the wind a little.
"We should have some business before morning," he announced.
"Why's that?" she asked curiously. Was he psychic, too?
"Female mammals tend to give birth in the worst possible weather. It suppresses the movement of predators and enhances survivability of the gravid female and her offspring during the birth process."
Well, okay, then. This trip was going to be nothing if not educational, apparently. Alex commenced rummaging through his boxes of equipment. He looked frustrated, as though he'd misplaced something. "Can I help?" she asked.
That was Alex. Mr. Monosyllable.
Intense silence fell around them, disturbed only by the flapping of canvas.
"Seems like the only predators around here are the husbands of the local female population," she remarked to fill the void. She hated quiet. She hadn't grown up with five older brothers for nothing. Their house had been a zoo. But Alex seemed to prefer the transcendent silence.
He lifted one of the boxes effortlessly and shifted it into the corner. He might run to the lean side compared to her buff brothers, but he was stronger than he looked. He commented, "I doubt the husbands are the problem. It's an eighty-five percent probability, plus or minus about three percent, that conservative religious zealots have been the ones killing the midwives."
Slaughtering them, more like. Religious extremists were killing not only the midwives, but all women who advocated women's rights or who represented female power in their communities. It was obscene. And largely unreported in the media. The massacre had prompted Doctors Unlimited to fund this secret mission into Zaghastan to deliver babies, in fact. When her brother had asked her to go along and translate, she wasn't about to say no to helping women just trying to survive childbirth. She'd also just finished her gig with Teachers Across America and had yet to land a permanent teaching job or even decide where she wanted to live. And then there was the bad breakup with the latest rotten boyfriend to get away from. Her friends called her the asshole magnet for good reason.
"I'd suggest you get some sleep," Alex said briskly. "You look like you need it."
Her eyebrows shot up. "Hasn't anyone ever taught you women don't like to be told they look like crap?"
He looked vaguely startled-a first for him. "I beg your pardon?"
OMG. He really doesn't know that? "Women don't like to be told they look bad."
He frowned, his formidable mind obviously examining her statement from ninety-two different angles. "I suppose that's logical if a woman is insecure about her appearance for some reason."
"News flash, Einstein-all women are insecure about their appearance."
"I have no context within which to place that remark."
Oh, for the love of Mike. "Are you always such a geek?"
For just a second, something incongruous-and totally non-geeky-flashed in his eyes. Amusement. Male appreciation. Desire.
What. The. Heck? Where did the geek go?
She did a sharp double take, and his eyes were back to being as guarded and clueless as ever.
Alex considered Katie-or at least the tip of her nose where it poked out of her sleeping bag. She could prove to be a serious problem. For a self-professed dingbat blonde, Katie had already showed herself to be deeply intuitive. Smarter than she let on. God knew, she was easy on the eye. The first thing he supposed most people would notice about her was the lush, golden hair falling in soft waves around her face. Or maybe her bright blue eyes. Or maybe even her slender, attractive figure.
Frankly, the thing he'd keyed in on first was her smile. It was warm and genuine and filled a room. He would like to think his mother had smiled like that. But, knowing his father, the man would never have gone for an open, loving woman. His old man would have gone for an ice bitch with a heart as hard and cold as a diamond.
Which would, of course, be more in keeping with his mother's early and complete disappearance from his life. He had no memory of the woman whatsoever. Had no idea what happened to her. Never seen a picture. Never even heard a name.
A loose rock rolled outside, and he jerked to full alert. He shed the sleeping bag he'd wrapped around his shoulders and slid into the shadow beside the tent flap. He shook a razor-sharp scalpel out of his sleeve and slid it into his palm.
A low voice whispered on the other side of the canvas and then devolved into the persistent cough most of the locals had. Dammit. He didn't understand a word of what the voice was saying. But it was female. He pulled the flap back, and two lumps of black cloth crouched in front of him. He gestured for them to come inside. The scalpel went inconspicuously back inside his sleeve as he moved to the back of the tent.
"Katie, wake up." He gave her shoulder a shake through the down sleeping bag. She felt small and fragile under his hand. A temptation he couldn't afford, dammit.
"Wha-" she mumbled as she rolled onto her back. Heavy sleeper. Must be nice to be so naive. It had been a long time since he'd thought the world was safe enough to sleep like that.
"I need a translator."
She sat up sharply. "Oh!" She looked over at the two women huddled by the door and said something in the native tongue. It was a guttural and clumsy-sounding language.
"You're on, Doc," Katie announced. "The one on the left is in labor. Older one is her grandmother. Says she's worried because her granddaughter is young and small."
"How young?" he bit out.
Another exchange of words. Then Katie answered grimly, "Fourteen. Her first baby."
One of the burka-wrapped shapes bent over just then and gave a low moan. Grandma propped up the girl as the contraction gripped her.
All the deliveries had been routine so far. Adult women, mostly on at least their fourth kid. But a first-timer barely into her teens? This could get interesting. His training in obstetrics was superficial; he was primarily a trauma surgeon. But all doctors were required to pull an obstetrics rotation in medical school. The men in prison with him who had constituted much of his on-the-job medical experience hadn't given birth to a hell of a lot of babies-which was to say, any babies.
He'd pulled a short stint in a maternity ward to deliver a few more kids before he'd been sent out here. But he'd never seen a case like this. Nothing like trial by fire to earn his stripes as an obstetrician.
"Get the girl onto a cot. I need her out of her clothes but covered enough to keep her warm. I'll crank up the heater while you ladies take care of all that," he instructed.