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"I've never met anyone like you before." Zed Brimley's dark eyes glinted as he toyed with the three glittering studs that marched their way up the curve of Ike Rombout's ear. "you'redifferent from other women. Independent. Undemanding."
"Clever man. Flattery will get you exactly where you want to be." Ike nestled closer to Zed, who was a third-year resident at Boston General Hospital and her current weekend bed buddy. The movement caused the ascending ski lift to sway beneath them.
She pulled her ski cap down over her ears, which were bared by her pixie-short black hair, and looked across ski slopes that shined white beneath a perfect Vermont winter sky.
Let's hear it for separating personal stuff from professional garbage, she thought as she took a deep breath of crisp air and felt the solid press of Zed's body against hers.
Professionally, she was skirting the edge of some serious trouble. Personally, she was exactly where she wanted to betaking a long weekend with a handsome, charming guy.
Zed grinned down at her. "Want to hit the lodge after this run? I could use a little something to warm me up." A suggestive tilt of his eyebrows said he wasn't talking about coffee. "First one down gets to choose the position?"
"I vote for the Jacuzzi," Ike said, mentally rolling her eyes. Most guys loved that she'd rather be on top during sex. They didn't question it, didn't make her admit that she couldn't stand the sensation of being trapped. But Zed was one of the ones who automatically wanted what he couldn't have.
It was the only glitch in an otherwise perfect casual relationship.
"Sounds like a plan." When the lift reached the top of the slope, he dropped onto the groomed snow and skied toward a marked trail, calling over his shoulder, " See you at the bottom. Last one down is buying dinner!"
Ike grinned, hopped off the lift and followed with a smooth stroke of her glossy black skis. Now that was her kind of challenge. "Then you'd better start warming up your credit card," she shouted, "'cause here I come!"
Zed laughed and called a masculine taunt that was lost in a chilly burst of crosswind. Clad in a formfitting black jacket and thermal pants, he cut a powerful figure as he dodged a middle-aged woman snowplowing her way toward an easier run and shot down the double-black-diamond trail.
Excitement kindled in Ike's bloodthe love of the outdoors, the thrill of speed and danger. She whooped and followed, hurtling along the top element of the run, a stomach-pitching drop that kicked her from zero to flying in the space of a few heartbeats.
She angled her skis straight down the mountain and felt the strain in her leg muscles, a warning that she was getting soft. But now that things were quieter with both her freelance investigative work and her "real" job as communications director at Boston General, she should be able to get back to the important stuff, like working out. Like acting out.
No way was she letting herself settle too deeply into a rut. Routines were for boring nine-to-fivers. She was all about spontaneity and living on the edge.
Because of it, she let out a yell as she angled between two lines of snow-frosted pine trees and whipped around a corner. There! Zed's strong figure sluiced a neat zigzag path up ahead, teasing her. Taunting her.
Ike threw back her head and felt laughter bubble up. "Ready or not, here I come!" She accelerated into the next curve, zeroing in on her lover's broad back as he disappeared around the bend.
She heard a sharp crack and thought for a second that one of the nearby trees had lost a branch. Then she rounded the turn and saw a body sprawled on the trail. Her heart froze in her chest and she screamed, " Zed!"
Going too fast to stop, she tried to turn but hit a patch of ice beneath the loose powder. She cried out and slid sideways, losing control.
Her skis hooked Zed's motionless form with a sickening jolt. Momentum carried her up and over, and the world exploded in a pinwheel of sky and snow and trees. She flipped twice, slammed to the ground and skidded downhill.
She heard another crack. Recognizing gunfire, she grabbed for the weapon she often carried at the small of her back while freelancing. But the .22 wasn't there. She was on vacation, damn it!
The Nine don't care, a small voice said inside her. They'll get you wherever they find you. Max Vasek warned you, but you didn't believe him.
Ike's heart pounded, the rapid thud nearly drowning out all other sounds as she tried to scramble to her feet. This wasn't happening, couldn't be happening. Please God, let this be a nightmare.
But she knew it wasn't a dream the moment another skier flew around the corner, saw Zed's motionless body and wiped out with a startled yell. A second skier appeared, then a third. She heard their shouts, saw them gesture wildly at Zed, then farther down the slope to where she lay.
One skied toward her, a tall, broad-shouldered man who looked to be in his early forties. He was dressed entirely in gray, and his eyes were shielded behind tinted goggles. He crouched beside her. "Lie still. The ski patrol is on its way."
"Help me get these things off." Ike yanked at her skis, cursing the bindings she habitually overtightened to get maximum speed on the slopes. "I work at a hospital. I can help him."
"you're hurt. You should"
"Shut up and help me!" she snapped, and when her would-be rescuer tried to press her down flat, she fought him off, dragged herself to her feet and limped upslope.
She elbowed her way through the growing crowd and dropped down beside Zed's limp form. He had a bloodstained hand clamped to the side of his neck, and the snow beneath him was slushy and stained red.
"Oh, God. Zed." She pressed her hand over his in an effort to keep him from bleeding out.
"You probably shouldn't touch him," a female voice said from the crowd. "That must've been a hell of a wipeout. He could've broken his back or something."
Ike whipped her head around and glared at the speaker, a teenaged snowboarder wearing a purple hoodie. "Shut up and call the ski patrol again. Tell them we're going to need a helicopter evac and the cops."
She didn't mention he'd been shot because she didn't have time to deal with questions or panic. Zed was her only focus right now. Besides, it hadn't been a random sniping, one where the gathering crowd would be at risk.
No, there had been a single target, and the shooter was long gone.
"Come on, Zed, stay with me." She kept up the pressure while she searched for a second wound, but it looked as though he'd only caught the one bullet. Unfortunately it was a hell of a hit. She was a computer jockey, not a doctor, but she knew an arterial bleed when she saw one.
"Where's the damn ski patrol?, she shouted, her voice sharpening with panic when his breath rattled in his lungs.
"Almost here," someone said. Zed groaned and shifted, fighting back toward consciousness.
Ike struggled to keep the pressure on when he tried to pull away. "Lie still, Zed. Help's coming."
He cried out in pain, opened his eyes and looked around wildly for a few seconds, then zeroed in on her face. His mouth pulled back in a rictus of dis-belief, then worked as he tried to say something.
"Hush." Ike leaned close, trying to shield him from the crowd, trying to will away the grayness she saw creeping over his skin. "Don't try to talk. Concentrate on breathing, okay?"
He reached up and grabbed her wrist with his free hand, hanging on as though he were sinking. Eyes locked on hers, he managed to say, "Why?,
Tears streaming down her face, Ike leaned closer and said, " Sh. Just breathe." But deep down inside, guilt stabbed deep at the knowledge that she knew exactly why. The sniper hadn't been shooting at Zed.
The bullet had been meant for her.
Three months later
"I can't believe I have to wear a coat in my own office," William Caine muttered. "It's spring already. isn't it supposed to be warm out?"
He sent a glare toward the thermostat, which was set at a chill fifty degrees, and yanked on his leather bomber jacket before returning to his desk, where a computer competed for space with a multiline phone and a pile of papers. Off to one side, a coffee mug overflowed with the pens that seemed to breed in his pockets.
"You got a better idea for cutting costs?, his partner's voice asked from the hall.
"Nope." William looked up and saw Max Vasek, the other half of Vasek & Caine Investigations, standing in the doorway.
Max was as tall and dark and tough-looking as he'd ever been, but these days his craggy features sported new lines, new worries.William had seen the same signs in the mirror just that morning. A recent trim of his short brown hair and a fresh morning shave hadn't done much to disguise the strain.
Vasek & Caine wasn't doing well, and the bills on the NewYork office suite were the least of their concerns.