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The crust of ice on the puddle cracked beneath Eva's boots, signaling her presence as clearly as a gunshot. She risked a glance over her shoulder. The road was still empty, yet how long would that last? The stitch in her side was getting worse. So was the cold. It would likely snow by morning. She clenched her teeth to silence their chattering and increased her pace.
The trees gave way to a cluster of buildings, but there should be no one here who would raise an alarm. The village had been deserted long before the complex had been constructed in the neighboring valley. Eva didn't know where the original inhabitants had gone—she'd never thought to ask—but they'd been too practical to leave much behind. What hadn't rotted had been carted away years ago. The sole traffic this road saw now was the monthly supply trucks that lumbered through without stopping. Only the village church had remained more or less intact, and that was because it had been built out of stone.
Katya stirred against her chest, no doubt jostled into wakefulness by Eva's quickened stride. Without pausing, Eva lowered the zipper on her coat and reached inside to adjust the sling she'd fashioned for the baby. It held Katya securely enough, but the knots were digging into Eva's neck and the small of her back. "Shh. Almost there, kitten," she whispered. She rubbed her palm over the baby's back. "It won't be long now. I promise."
Reassured by her touch, Katya burrowed closer to her mother's warmth. Within seconds, her body relaxed once more into sleep. Eva left her hand where it was, letting her fingers ride the rise and fall of her daughter's breathing. She needed the contact as much as Katya did.
The moon inched past a break in the clouds, turning Eva's breath white and spreading silver-blue over the rise where the church stood. Shadows of grave markers tilted among weed stalks that sparkled with frost. A birch tree grew at the edge of the churchyard, its bare branches swaying in the wind. Apart from that, nothing moved.
Was she too early? She'd lost track of time. It seemed as if an eternity had passed since she'd slipped past the guards at the west gate, but it was more likely less than an hour. Eva risked another glance behind her.
Even with six kilometers of pine forest and a ridge of limestone between her and the complex, the glow of its perimeter lights was visible against the sky. She had once liked the security the floodlights provided. Against the empty blackness of the surrounding, tree-shrouded slopes, it had been comforting. Eventually she'd grown to understand that the security measures had been for control, not protection. Burian enjoyed demonstrating his power over all within his range.
Not me. And not my daughter.
She sucked more air into her aching lungs, fastened her coat and headed for the stone church.
This was it. The point of no return. If there was a bridge through the valley she'd just crossed instead of a puddle-strewn road, it would be burning. Shouldn't she be feeling some sadness or at the very least regret? She was leaving her home, her country, turning her back on everything familiar.
But then, the complex had never felt like home. It had been where she worked, that was all. A place for her mind, not her heart. How long had it been since she'd allowed herself to yearn for more? For Katya's sake, she did now. Home should be sunshine and apple trees, the smell of bread cooling on a windowsill, the liquid, joyous trill of Grandma's canaries and the soft warmth of her mother's arms….
The road blurred. Eva blinked against the wind to clear her vision and stepped into the churchyard. The home of her memories was long gone, but she would make a new one. Just her and Katya. When she got to America, maybe she would look for a place with apple trees. They would be beautiful in the spring. She could lift Katya up to sniff the blossoms—
A shadow detached itself from one of the grave markers as Eva passed. It happened so swiftly that she had no chance to react. Before any sound could leave her throat, a man stepped behind her and clamped his large, gloved hand over her mouth.
Panic overrode her logic. If she'd stopped to think, she would have realized who would know she was coming. But she was tired and scared and struggled anyway.
Wrapping her arms around Katya, she kicked backward until her boot connected with the man's shin.
"Whoa, relax, Dr. Petrova." He eased the pressure on her mouth. "We're here to help you."
It was a man's voice, pitched low, closer to a whisper than to speech. He knew her name. And he was speaking English. That last fact penetrated her fear. She stilled.
"Our code word is eagle," he said. His tone was gentle, at odds with the strength in his grip. A trace of the American South flavored his words. "They told you that, didn't they?"
Another shard of panic dropped away. She nodded against his glove, then reached for his arm. Despite the thick coat he wore, it felt like steel. She tugged anyway.
"Sorry about startling you, but we couldn't let you scream." He lifted his hand from her mouth. "Are you all right?"
"Hate to ask, Dr. Petrova, because it seems pretty obvious to me who you are, but the brass are sticklers for details. Can you give me your code word?"
Her first attempt came out as a gasp. She had to swallow a few times before her voice worked. "Hatchling. My word is hatchling."
"Check. I've got her, guys."
Though he hadn't raised his voice, more shadows emerged from among the gravestones. No, not shadows but men. They were dressed in the kind of drab, shapeless winter coats the locals wore, and each held a rifle to his shoulder. They moved in silence in spite of the brittle weed stalks that covered the churchyard. None looked her way. Their attention was focused on the road and the forest at the edge of the village.
Help had really come. Oh, God. After so many weeks of waiting and worrying, it was truly happening. The wave of relief was almost as strong as her earlier panic had been. Eva realized she was trembling.
"Any problems getting here?"
She locked her knees to keep them steady and shook her head.
"Do you have the disk?"
She dipped her chin in a quick affirmative.
"You might as well give it to me for safekeeping, Dr. Petrova."
She turned to face him. Like the other men, he held a gun, but he had the barrel pointed toward the ground. He was tall—the top of her head barely reached his chin. A thick wool cap was pulled low over his ears, and the moon was behind him, so she couldn't see much of his features except for the outline of his jaw. It was square and tautly set. As were his shoulders. Although his black coat looked bulky, he didn't. Even motionless, he exuded an impression of lean strength. He stood with the readiness of a runner waiting for the starting pistol. Or a wolf stalking a deer.
Another tickle of fear fought with her logic. She breathed deeply a few times, forcing herself to think. Regardless of how gently this man had been speaking to her, she couldn't afford to trust him entirely. Too much was at stake. She lifted her chin, regretting her earlier display of weakness. "Thank you, but the disk is quite safe where it is." She kept her voice at a whisper, hoping he wouldn't detect the tremor in it. "I'll turn it over to the appropriate authorities once I am in American jurisdiction. No offense meant."
It was hard to tell for certain with his face in a shadow, but he appeared to smile. "None taken," he replied. "They did say you were smart."
By this time, the other men had withdrawn to the edge of the road. From the woods on the far side of the church came the rumble of an engine. Eva jerked in alarm.
"It's okay, ma'am." The man gripped her elbow and steered her toward the noise. "That would be our ride."
A truck pulled onto the road. It was the same size as the supply trucks that went to the complex, but there the resemblance ended. Except for short metal panels that formed the sides, the rear part of the truck was covered with canvas. The rest of it was so rusty that there was nothing to reflect the moonlight except the windshield. It looked like a relic from a past war, held together with bits of wire and luck, not an uncommon sight in this region of the Caucasus.
Eva looked around. These men had probably chosen the truck so it wouldn't attract attention, but they didn't expect to make it all the way to the coast of the Black Sea in that, did they? "I was told we'd be going by helicopter."
"It'll be at our rendezvous point. This area is too hot to risk a landing, and we figured you would already have had enough of a stroll for one night." He guided her closer to the truck. "By the way, are you wearing a pack under your coat?"
Her hand automatically went to the bulge where Katya nestled. "I was instructed to bring no luggage, and I brought none."
"Uh-huh. That doesn't mean much. I've known a lot of ladies who see fit to pack a purse as big as a suitcase for a trip to the corner store. Is that what you have there?"
"I understand what's at stake better than anyone, and I made sure to raise no suspicions. I was very careful with my preparations. It will likely be more than twenty-four hours before anyone realizes I have left the complex, Mr.…?"
"Norton. Sergeant Jack Norton."
Sergeant. Of course. She should have guessed the American government would send military people, but her contact had given only the barest details of the extraction plan.
Then again, she hadn't told her contact all the details, either.
One of the other men jumped to the truck's tailgate and pulled back a corner of the canvas tarp. A cloud of exhaust obscured Eva's view for a moment. When it cleared, she could see a faint, green light glowed from inside where a large man knelt in front of what appeared to be electronic equipment.
Still gripping her elbow, the sergeant tilted his head to regard her as they walked. "Nah, it's too big for a purse. Pardon the personal question, ma'am, but are you pregnant?"
"No, Sergeant Norton."
"Because if you are, you should let us know. The trip out could get rough. We want to be prepared if there could be any medical complications."
"I am not pregnant, I assure you. I'm in perfect health and don't expect you to make any allowances for me."
"Okay, great. So what are you hiding under that coat?"
She'd known they would find out sooner or later. Katya would need to be fed in another few hours. Eva had hoped to be safely on her way out of the country before that happened, but she could see that the soldier wasn't going to let this go. She splayed her fingers over the curve of Katya's back. "My daughter."
They were less than two meters from the back of the truck. He stopped dead and pulled her to a halt beside him. "Whoa. I couldn't have heard you right."
"You did. It shouldn't make any difference. She's almost three months old, so she'll be no trouble."
"You brought a baby?"
"Surely you don't expect I would leave her behind."
Because he was turned toward the moonlight, she could make out more of his features. His mouth was bracketed by twin lines that would probably crinkle into dimples when he smiled. Actually, he looked like a man to whom smiling came naturally. Laugh lines softened the corners of his eyes, but there was no trace of humor in his expression now. His lips were pressed thin and his eyes narrowed. A muscle twitched in the hollow of one cheek. "Dr. Petrova—"
"Shouldn't we be getting on the truck?"
For a large man, and one who spoke so gently, he could move surprisingly fast. He hitched the strap of his rifle over his shoulder, reached for the front of her coat and lowered the zipper.
Jack Norton had seen his share of trouble during his years with Eagle Squadron. He'd faced fanatics with bombs strapped to their bodies and enemy soldiers who were loaded up with enough weapons to fill an arsenal. He never took anything for granted. It was when a man felt safe that he usually bought it.
So he should have known this mission was going too smoothly.
It was a baby, all right. She was trussed up in a jury-rigged cloth carrier that held her across the woman's midriff like a combination apron and hammock. A lacy, knitted cap covered the baby's head. One tiny fist, wrapped in a mitten that trailed shiny ribbons, rested against her mouth. Luckily, her eyes were closed, which meant she was asleep, but how long that would last was anyone's guess.
Actually, it was up to Murphy, the guy who wrote the law about anything that could go wrong, would….
Jack looked more closely. The kid wasn't the only cargo the woman was hauling. Two lumpy cloth sacks dangled from strings on either side of the kiddy carrier. So, she hadn't lied—technically the sacks weren't luggage. The coat was large and knee-length, and she'd obviously made use of every square inch of space she had under there. It was a wonder she had been able to walk one klick like that let alone six.
Jack tapped the largest sack. "What's in these?"
"Diapers and baby clothes," Eva replied. She spoke fluent English with only a hint of an accent, which was to be expected. According to army intelligence, she'd spent the first few years of her life with her mother's family in upstate New York. She'd been nearly four when her Russian father had gained custody.
Eva brushed his hand away and zipped her coat closed. Not all the way, though. He could see that she'd left a gap at the top for air. "I don't want her to get cold," she continued. "She might wake up."
"Right. We sure wouldn't want that." His mind filled with crying-baby scenarios, none of them good. They were in hostile territory on a mission his government would disavow any knowledge of if it went wrong. Discretion was essential. That's why the major had made the team plan for every contingency.
Having an infant along wasn't one of them.