Free Fiction Serial – Part 2/3

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AT THE SLIGHEST SOUND – Part 2/3 
by M.L. Buchman

-a Shadow Force: Psi romance-

Previously in Part 1:

Night Stalker pilot Jesse “Outlaw” Johnson’s extraction flight is definitely off to a bad start when he is shot down in the Colombia jungle close by a guerrilla camp of drug runners. Being greeted by a pair of sarcastic Army boots doesn’t help the situation, at least not until he sees who they’re attached to.

Delta Force reconnaissance specialist Hannah Tucker isn’t amused either—he was supposed to be her ride home. Now he seems bent on getting them both killed. Her greatest skill, eluding notice, is constantly foiled by Jesse—like when he shoots a guerrilla for appropriating his cowboy hat of all mad reasons.

“Daddy gave me that hat. I like that hat.”

Jesse identifies Hannah’s secret, the ability to use her mind to make tiny noises, creating nearby sonic distractions. They inadvertently discover that when they touch Jesse acts as a power amplifier enabling her to create larger sounds. The closer their contact, the more power they generate.

The advantage? The bigger the sound, the more distracted the guerrillas hunting them become.

The disadvantage? The louder the distraction, the more it takes out of Hannah. Her final outburst both saves their lives and knocks her out cold.

Doing their best to hide their new abilities during debriefing, Colonel Michael Gibson, the commander of Delta Force is not distracted. Instead, he sends them to Jesse’s hometown of San Antonio, Texas to contact a famous actress.

Chapter 6

“Tell me what I’m doing here again?”

“Beats me. Either it’s because of your colonel’s orders or because you’re crazy about me.”

“Must be the colonel’s orders,” because Hannah wasn’t going to admit that she could be getting crazy about a tall cowboy who flew Special Ops helicopters for a living after less than two days.

She stared out the rental car’s window. They’d left behind the congested area around San Antonio International Airport, heading northeast into the countryside. She missed the thick green forests of home, though not enough to ever go back. Even the NERC-infested jungle was more familiar than the open Texas prairie. Though this did look to be much more peaceful.

The view out the window was as perplexing as the man taking her there. The man-made skyscraper landscape of downtown San Antonio had given way to suburbs and then a softly rolling terrain that invited the eye to drift and left her wondering what nestled down in each little holler. Trees dotted the broad grasslands, only occasionally clumping together into a copse. No forests here, but it was welcoming nonetheless. The grasslands were divided by barbed wire fences, with some split-rail and plank fences near the homes. Horses and cattle grazed in lush pastures near low wooden barns and single-level ranch houses.

She turned to the view inside the car.

Looking at his profile, there was no imagining the warrior that experience had taught her lived there. He was the handsome blond-haired, blue-eyed sidekick, the boy next door—not the Night Stalker pilot who shot a man dead for wearing his hat, which was now tucked gently between the dashboard and the windshield. On the boat in which they’d made their escape, he had helped her finish off the guerillas and had dumped their bodies over the side without a moment’s hesitation while she was figuring out how to drive the thing.

There was also no sign of the man who had decided it was his duty to take care of her. Though that was a little easier to imagine. He’d woken her in time for their flight off the aircraft carrier, even left enough time for her to shower. While she slept, he’d scared up a kit for her, one that included a heaven-sent fresh change of clothes that more or less fit—just how petite did he think she was?

Seven hours’ sleep on the carrier and six more on the flight hadn’t been enough to make up for her multi-day deficit. Even so, he’d made sure she was as comfortable as possible on the flight from the carrier, through Bogota, and on to Texas.

A considerate man. A careful man as well—she’d even seen him discreetly slipping some protection out of his duffle and into his pocket, just in case.

She had never wanted any one man particularly. They could be fun. And sex was a very pleasant way to pass the time on occasion. She imagined it with Jesse and decided that maybe it could be more than that—much more.

How insane was it that now she’d found a man she wanted, she didn’t dare touch him. She noted her body position, glued up against the passenger door. She’d always thought that a Toyota Camry was a bigger car, but now it felt so claustrophobic that it was making it difficult to breathe.

“I’m not toxic,” Jesse’s voice was as gentle as if he was talking to a skittery horse. And far too insightful for a guy.

“Are you sure? The last time we touched I generated a sonic boom and knocked myself out cold.”

It earned her that low laugh that a woman wanted to wrap around her shoulders at night.

“I’m not exactly willing to trust that not happening again.” There was some strange synergy that happened when they touched—in both good and really terrifying ways. As a Delta Force operator, she didn’t appreciate that something could scare her—especially not when it was part of herself.

“No, I suspect not,” Jesse sounded sad when she’d expected angry or frustrated. He turned onto a one-lane road that she soon realized was a long driveway.

The fences were weathered-to-gray split rail, but they were in immaculate condition. A mile in, she spotted a barn, one of the biggest she’d seen, also neat and tidy. The ranch house was hidden in a small orchard of apple trees.

Jesse slowed the car to a stop and rolled down the windows. He breathed in deep and sighed happily. “Smells like home.”

“It smells,” she sniffed carefully, “horsey.” It was so dry in comparison to the jungle where she’d spent the last three weeks that it almost hurt her nose. Once she was past that, she could smell the freshness of mown grass and the hint of apple blossoms, which were dusting the small orchard with a bright pink. In the jungle, she’d forgotten that it was spring.

“It does smell horsey. Thank the Lord that some things never change. Care to try a little experiment, Hannah?”

“No. What?”

“I have a theory.”

“As long as you keep your hands to yourself, I’m listening.”

“My theory,” he turned to face her and she felt suddenly trapped by those blue eyes, “is that you won’t…ah…create a sound less’n you be wantin’ to.”

Hannah considered the idea.

“I haven’t heard a peep—outside of you,” his broad wink had her considering what physical mayhem she’d unload on him if she dared to touch him, “since we left the jungle.” Her “ghosts,” as he’d called them, were something she couldn’t hear but had apparently helped protect her from discovery throughout her military career.

“You’re thinking that my…curse only works in the jungle?”

“No, ma’am. I’m thinking your gift is more in your control than you’re thinking. Go on. Give her a try.”

Hannah didn’t want to, but she had to understand what was happening to her. She still couldn’t look away from Jesse’s blue eyes—they were awfully nice ones—so she imagined a loud gunshot outside his window.

Jesse just smiled.

A large brown horse standing nearby raised its head—not in alarm, but rather in curiosity.

She threw her psyche into a colossal racket.

The horse stepped forward and sniffed at the air near where she’d intended the sound to be. Then it returned to its grazing.

“Now,” Jesse held out his hand, palm up. “Take my hand, but don’t think about projecting a sound.” In the jungle, his touch had acted like a powerful amplifier to the sounds that she couldn’t even hear as she, or even they, made them.

Hannah had been trained to tackle her fears so that they didn’t control her. If she hadn’t, she’d have begged off. Made an excuse. Worn Kevlar plating the rest of her life. Committed to solo recon in a big way—which she already had. It was a rare mission these last few years where she was on a team bigger than one. But avoiding fearful situations wasn’t how the Army selected or trained its Delta operators.

So she reached out and rested her palm on his.

# # #

Jesse felt as if he was the one who wanted to shout out and create a thunderclap. The contact shock of Hannah’s palm resting lightly against his was more powerful than bedding some women. There was a rightness to it that went beyond anything in his experience. Hannah Tucker wasn’t merely female when he touched her, she exuded it as if she was the very essence of the definition. Like working with an Arabian told a man just what a horse could really be, even if it took some extra nerve to ride.

Ever so slowly, she curled her fingers until they were laced in his as tight as the braid on a horse’s mane all dandified for the state fair. Her hand felt good in his. Delta strong, but her fingers were still fine. Her hand felt feminine, despite the calluses. Or maybe it felt so good because of the calluses. It felt like no other woman’s hand he’d ever held—as unique as the woman it belonged to. And if he got much sappier about it, they were going to have to put him out to pasture or put him down.

“Nothing?” her voice little more than a whisper.

Nothing? He didn’t know what he was feeling, but it was definitely something. Oh! She means the sounds, Jesse. “Nary a peep big enough to spook a housefly.”

Her grip tightened convulsively on his and he gained a new appreciation for the meaning of Delta strong.

“Before you crush my fingers to dust with relief—”

Hannah eased up instantly and tried to pull away, but he held on to her.

“—try making a slightly bigger sound than the one before. Just don’t be making it Texas-sized.”

It sounded as if someone dropped a steel pot on a concrete floor just outside his car window.

It was followed by a sharp whinny of surprise and the sound of Brownie cantering off. “Well, she’ll definitely have a story to tell when she gets back to the barn tonight.”

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t think about—”

“Don’t you be apologizing. Brownie is gettin’ old and set in her ways. Do her good to run around a bit.”

“Brownie?” He could feel her laughing at him.

“I didn’t name her,” but Hannah’s smile didn’t let him off the hook. “Okay, maybe I let a girl in junior high who I was trying to impress do it.”

“You going to let me name one of your horses?”

“We’ll see. Hav’ta try another experiment first.”

“What?” Hannah froze up again.

Rather than answering, he leaned in and kissed her.

She made a brief gurgle of surprise, but then gave in to it. He’d been right about her taste—fresher than a stretch of spring prairie. But the feel of her was different. They were both still buckled in, held apart by their tightly clenched hands. But he knew her now. At least a little, and that knowledge spread between them like the kinetic flow when pilot and helicopter combined to make a single whole. When a change in attitude was no longer happening to one or the other of them, but both at the same time.

Jesse could feel the flow between them grow as if they were each other’s amplifiers until he wondered if they’d overload without some release.

They finally parted, not with a harsh slap of change, but rather it was a fullness that was so big it didn’t fit on the prairie or underneath the blue Texas sky. They ended the kiss, still buckled into their seats, with their noses and foreheads touching.

“That was something,” her whisper was pure surprise.

“Right nice, what with no one shooting at us.”

“That too.”

“And no, I didn’t hear anything. Though I was a mite distracted.”

“Too distracted to come along up to the house,” his father’s voice sounded from just outside the car window.

# # #

“Daddy!” Jesse leapt out of the car like he’d been launched by a James Bond ejection seat, again leaving her sitting cold at the end of an impossibly hot kiss. He was not supposed to be causing ground-shaking changes to her sex life yet never following through on even one of them.

And Hannah would never get used to a culture where grown men called their parent “Daddy.”

She unbuckled and got out the other side of the car like a normal person while the two men embraced and thumped each other on the back. Another impossible action for a child and parent, at least in her world.

They were cut from the same cloth. Jesse’s father was a little shorter, more wrinkled and sun-worn, but still from a hale-and-hearty breed that left no doubts as to their manly virility.

He wore a white cowboy hat to Jesse’s black one. The horse he’d ridden up on was mostly white as well, with a silver-gray mane. Would Jesse’s horse be black like his hat? “Daddy” tipped his hat politely to greet her as she came around the car, while Jesse hung back just long enough to retrieve his own from the dashboard.

“Sorry ’bout my boy, what with him not knowing that, when on a ranch, you’re supposed to kiss a woman on a horse, not in a car.” His handshake was as firm as his son’s, a man who definitely worked with his hands. “Terry Johnson, pleased to meet you, ma’am.” It was clear where Jesse had inherited his manners as well.

“Hannah Tucker.”

He held her hand for a moment longer, turning it up to look at it. Even ran a thumb over her shooting callus—a thick pad on the webbing between thumb and forefinger that marked her as Delta.

“Are you in the same line of work as my boy?”

“Similar, yes sir.”

“I’m not a sir. I worked for a living. Though can’t say as I understood the Air Force’s thinking about putting a Texas rancher on a chow line for two years at Elmendorf up in Alaska, but we worked hard and had a good time. Name’s Terry.”

“Yes sir.”

He smiled at her pert answer. “You keeping him safe?” There was a lot of weight and worry behind the question, though he was clearly trying not to let it show.

“Him?”

Jesse strode up beside his father, his daddy. Two damned handsome cowboys. And one too sure of himself by far.

“I don’t know, sir. Do you really think he’s worth the trouble?”

Terry unleashed a bark of laughter that startled the poor returning Brownie into running away once again.

She noticed that the big silver-gray that Terry had ridden up on, without either her or Jesse noticing, grazed patiently, clearly used to his master’s sharp laugh.

He slapped his son hard on the shoulder. “Well, Hannah. You be sure to let me know if you find out that Jesse is worth it. Been trying to solve that one for all his natural-born life. Boy always was a handful. See y’all up to the house.” Terry climbed on his horse and in moments was trotting away over the pasture.

Jesse leaned back against the hood of the car and simply waited, as if he had nothing better to do in the world than sit out beneath the warm Texas sunshine.

“You belong here, don’t you?”

“S’pose I do,” he nodded. “I’m happy on the ranch.”

“What’s your ma like?” Rather than feeling worried, Hannah was curious to see what of his mother had ended up in the man.

“Don’t rightly know,” Jesse’s hat brim hid his face as he looked down at the dirt and scuffed it with his boot. “Momma died the day I was born. Daddy speaks well of her. Never remarried despite more than a few hopeful women.”

“But,” she looked at the intricate beading of his hat band—all she could see of his expression. He’d said his mother had made it for him. That meant she’d made it for the man before he was even born. No wonder he’d killed the NERC who dared to wear his hat.

Jesse looked up and saw where her attention had gone. “The only gift I ever got from my momma other than the gift of life.”

“Then why are you in the service rather than helping with the ranch? You know it worries your pa.”

“It does?” His look of surprise didn’t appear to be feigned.

Could someone please explain men to her? Though she’d bet even small words and simple sentences wouldn’t unravel the puzzle for her.

“I serve because Daddy said that every man should do his duty, though I come home whenever I get leave. Seems like the right thing to do. Got in and discovered I liked it.”

“But?” She hadn’t expected to hear a ‘but’ in that statement. Night Stalker pilots were like Delta operators, career soldiers.

Jesse took off his hat and toyed with the hat band for a moment. She could see his touching it was what let him think hardest.

He finally tucked his hat back on, snugging it down sharply before answering.

“How many missions have you prepped for but never been sent on? Or sent on, but the ROE kept you from doing what really needed to be done?”

“Rules of Engagement are there for a reason, Jesse. You want to go rogue or vigilante or something?” Though she definitely knew what he was talking about. Those NERC guerillas in the Colombian jungle would gladly have kidnapped and raped her, only then considering whether to ransom her or feed her to the crocs. Whereas she was only allowed to kill in self-defense. She’d even been stretching the rules when she’d fired upon the men in the clearing, because they hadn’t shot at her first. However, they’d shot Jesse and her ride home out of the sky and she’d taken that as sufficient offense. Thankfully, so had the JAG officer monitoring her debriefing.

“No. Not really. But I wish we were doing more. Don’t you?” And again those blue eyes wouldn’t let her look away.

“Personally, I’d be happy if I could just keep up with what was happening.” Because the overwhelm of her situation wasn’t easing up even a little. Learning that she had some control over the sounds she made was encouraging. But any comfort in that part of her life was being rapidly offset by her growing attraction to one particular cowboy.

His slow smile came back. “All of a sudden-like, I suspect we’re not talking about the military anymore, are we?”

She sighed. It seemed they weren’t.

“Come along,” Jesse pushed to his feet and opened the passenger door for her. “Your colonel said we should call some people about this gift you’ve got.”

“Not just me, cowboy.”

“Can’t say as I like that thought much myself. Anyway, let’s call ’em right off. You won’t rest easy until we do. At least I think that’s what he was referring to. He was more than a little cagey.”

“I still can’t believe Colonel Gibson said even that to you.”

“I dunno,” Jesse closed the door and circled back to his own side, “Seemed like a smart guy to me.”

“He is.”

“I do have a question for you, though. Does he threaten every man who wants to date you?”

“He threatened you? I knew there was a reason I liked Colonel Gibson.”

Jesse just groaned and drove them up to the house.

Chapter 7

There were times that Jesse wished he had the common sense that God gave a gopher. First thing he’d done at the house was track down Ricardo Manella—wonders of a phone listing. And it had spun out of his control from the first moment.

“Colonel Gibson referred you? Well, isn’t that just so interesting. Yes, Isobel and I would love to meet with you, but we’re leaving the country in a few hours. Not exactly sure for how long—could be just a day or so. Could be longer. How about we meet for dinner? There’s a wonderful spot right by the airport.”

“We just came from the airport, sir,” and having just gotten Hannah to the ranch, he wasn’t planning to backtrack all across San Antonio. If he did, the next thing he knew they’d be all the way back in the Colombian jungle as if yanked by a long rubber band stretched taut.

“Oh, sorry. Not SAT. We use a private airfield northeast of the city.”

He read off the address, which was thankfully quite nearby, and they’d been on their way to meet the Manellas before they even had time to shower—separately or together. He’d barely had time to leave a note for Daddy so that he wouldn’t worry.

Someone was conspiring against him getting his hands on Hannah. A matter on which he was going to be filing a letter of complaint right soon if they didn’t cut it out.

The “wonderful spot” was pure Texas. It was a weather-battered building that might have once been painted white, or maybe brown. It had a sun-faded sign that said “BBQ Pit” and a smell that had him rolling down the Toyota’s window from a mile out.

Before they had a chance to go inside, an up-armored, black Lincoln Navigator with tinted windows rolled onto the gravel parking lot from the opposite direction with a loud crunch of tires and brief skid to a stop. The couple who climbed out were a study in contrasts.

Ricardo Manella was a lean, wiry man, but those always seemed to be the guys who could go forever. He was five-ten—midway between himself and Hannah—and had that relaxed casualness that was so easy to discount if he hadn’t had the Spec Ops gaze. Despite the sleek, wrap-around sunglasses, it was clear that he saw everything going on around him…everything. The loud Hawaiian shirt worn loosely over his black t-shirt didn’t hide his intense fitness. The scar down his left cheek looked wicked.

“Pansy ass car for a soldier,” apparently Ricardo Manella’s version of “Hi, nice to meet you.”

“Rental.” He should have grabbed his truck from the garage.

“You work with Gibson?”

“That would be the lady,” Jesse nodded toward Hannah, which earned him a surprised grunt. “Do not underestimate her,” he warned the guy. “How about you?”

“Yeah, he rode my butt and rode it hard. The man is something else. As to women, I know the feeling,” he nodded toward the woman coming up to his side. “My older twin sister can be a real hazard when she puts her mind to it.”

“He likes saying that. I’m only twelve minutes older.” She was gorgeous on the screen, but she was in a whole other league in person—both more and less dramatic than he’d expected. Shorter than Hannah, well-curved without quite tipping over into voluptuous, long dark hair with eyes to match, and deeply sun-kissed skin. Not the least sign of a soldier’s build—which made her on-screen fight scenes all the more surprising—but there was something about how she carried herself that said she could take care of herself in the real world as well.

But this wasn’t just some woman, this was Isobel Manella, the movie star. He’d never met an actress—not a real one—and not one of any kind since high school. He’d always thought they’d be less…normal-looking. He’d have passed her on the street with nothing more than a “wow, she’s beautiful” thought. She didn’t seem…famous—whatever that was supposed to look like.

“Twelve minutes and a day,” Ricardo countered.

“I was born just before midnight and he was born just after. We get back-to-back birthday parties because Mama is awesome.” Isobel acknowledged in the Spanish-accented low voice that had made her a screen idol. “Mama always made one big batch of cake batter, to make two cakes, until I got wise to that and started asking for separate flavors. I was always the smart one,” she teased her brother.

“And, like I said, way older.”

Isobel ignored his last comment as she greeted Hannah with a friendly smile and a warm embrace, just like any two women meeting for the first time while he and Ricardo circled each other carefully. Women were strange.

Inside, the place—restaurant was too fine a word, but “pit” was a fair match—was just as battered as the outside had made him expect: scuffed-dull Formica tables with red-leatherette-and-rusting-chrome seats. But it was still half full of cowhands and other locals, despite the midafternoon time. It had a soda jerk fountain, a big coffee urn (no decaf, no hot water with an assortment of tea bags), and a three-item menu board on the wall that hadn’t been altered in decades by the look of it: beef ribs, pork ribs, or brisket sandwich. The only fresh-painted thing in the place was a sign that declared, “No cash? No food.”

Less than twenty miles from home, how had he missed this place?

Isobel and Hannah slid into a long booth, which left him and Ricardo the lanky Latino Delta who Gibson had mentioned to go up to the window for food.

“So, what’s your twist?” Ricardo’s voice was Delta-soft like Hannah’s…and every other Delta he’d ever met.

“Twist?”

Ricardo ordered two servings of the brisket and two sodas. Just proved he was a local boy. The Texas Barbeque Commandment stated, “Thou shalt order brisket.”

Not Hannah wasn’t Texan, so he hedged his bet, ordered one plate of beef ribs and one brisket sandwich, and ignored Ricardo askance look. But the soda machine stumped him. Finally, he decided she was from the South but not Texas, so he poured a Coke for her and a Dr Pepper for himself. Ricardo hadn’t missed his hesitation and Jesse ignored his unspoken question. The things he didn’t know about Hannah were vast and not knowing if she drank Coke over Dr Pepper only emphasized that in ways he wasn’t comfortable with. At least there was no diet or caffeine-free option to worry about; the only other tap was for root beer and it had a faded and curling “Out” sign taped to it.

Ricardo shrugged and went back to his earlier question, “Gibson wouldn’t have sent your lady to Isobel unless she had a twist. A gift.”

“Thought we were sent to you,” but Ricardo was shaking his head. Jesse sighed. He didn’t know whether or not “your lady” applied either. He’d thought that relationships were supposed to make more sense with time, not less. Ricardo’s accent said local, which meant that the phrase “your lady” could mean a lot more than it seemed to, or a lot less, depending on the circumstances.

When he didn’t answer, Ricardo shrugged as if it didn’t matter to him. Though Jesse suspected that it did. If that’s what the man had meant, it wasn’t his place to tell anyway.

He was still pondering the word “gift” by the time they’d filled their sodas and returned to the counter for their orders. The conversation with Gibson had been curious. They’d never quite spoken of Hannah’s sonic capabilities. Not directly. And yet he’d sent them to meet the Manellas.

“Sound,” Jesse said the single word, hoping he wasn’t speaking out of school.

“Huh! That’s a new one. Just her, or are you part of it?”

Jesse picked up the tray with the two massive platters at the window, “Bit of both, actually.”

“That’s good. Wish Isobel and I shared ours. Think I’d like that.”

Jesse suddenly wished he had a horse racing program to figure out this conversation, but they were already back to the table. It was like they were having a conversation without actually having it. He’d thought it was at least the same one, but now he wasn’t so sure. Ricardo hadn’t made any comment of just what “gift” he didn’t share with his sister.

Isobel Manella was in mid-sentence. “—we have a few others like us. We’ve formed a club. Still looking for a good name.”

“Well, the US Special Forces already have the Psy Ops for their psychologic warfare efforts, so that name is out. It should be Psi something,” Hannah responded as if that statement made any sense.

“Wait. What did I miss?” Jesse held out both the plates for Hannah to choose as he slid in beside her.

“Plenty, cowboy,” Hannah’s smile teased as she took the beef ribs—proving she was no Texan—and his Dr Pepper. That would teach him. He wasn’t a big fan of Coke.

“Psy with a y like in I’m gonna need to be seeing a psychiatrist if some figurin’ out doesn’t happen right soon? Or sai as in s-a-i like in the Japanese fighting knives? Or sigh like in sad?”

“Psi with an i like in science fiction,” Isobel said without batting an eye.

He glanced at Ricardo, who, rather than looking disbelieving, was clearly enjoying Jesse’s complete overwhelm.

Hannah started eating as if all of this made sense. Of course nothing really had since the moment he’d first met her sarcastic boots apparently hanging from a red dirt sky. Why should this be any different? He’d known her less than forty-eight hours and all of a sudden the new normal was that nothing in his life made sense anymore.

“And what in God’s green world are you talking about? Psi powers are still all mythological, aren’t they? That hasn’t changed while I was deployed, has it?”

“Well, we don’t talk about it much. But it’s not so mythical.” Ricardo selected a rib and started in on his meal.

“How else would you explain what you and Hannah have together?”

He stared at Isobel. “What we have together? Even I don’t believe in it…”

Hannah looked at him as if he’d just stabbed her.

“…except I’ve got no choice because it saved our lives. There are more people who…whatever?” It was the uncomfortable kind of itch that there was no way to scratch.

Ricardo waggled a half-chewed beef rib at his sister and himself.

“Haven’t you ever seen a sign for a psychic? They’re everywhere.” Isobel was now giving him the same amused look Ricardo had been.

“Yeah, what rock do you live under, Outlaw?” Hannah’s voice still sounded hurt, which he hadn’t meant to do at all.

“Psychics? That’s all card-reading and crap, right? Come on, Hannah. Until you and I ran up against each other, you would have said the same.”

Her shrug admitted the point.

“Asides, I live on a horse or in a helicopter, thank you very much.” It was hard to take offense at Hannah’s smile. Even when it was being as sarcastic as her boots had once been, it was a great smile. He also had the impression that it was something she didn’t deploy very often and he liked how easily she offered it to him in any form.

A big hand thumped down on his shoulder as if it was trying to drive him through the aging springs of the booth’s seat cushion.

“Did you say helos? Can always use another hand at the controls.” The big voice that went with the big hand threatened to create a sonic boom as big as the one Hannah had used to save their lives, except it was trapped within the confines of the BBQ Pit and seemed to rattle the stack of coffee mugs.

Jesse looked up at the man who had just hammered him down. Then he looked up farther. He was taller than Jesse, which wasn’t all that common, and huge. Wide enough of shoulder that Jesse never wanted to sit beside him on a crowded airplane, and a bright smile in his dark face that might have been saying hello or might have been a feral warning that he was preparing to tear Jesse limb from limb just for the fun of it.

“What airframes?”

“Mostly Little Bird. Had a weird commander who believed in cross-training his pilots, so I’m also Black Hawk-qualified and enough time in a Chinook to not kill myself in one.” The monstrous twin-rotor Chinook still spooked Jesse each time he took one aloft because they were so damned big.

The guy stared down at him for a long moment as if he was processing numerous factors. “Gibson sent us a Night Stalker? Hot shit!” And the big guy shoved him over against Hannah on the long booth bench and sat beside him. “Tell me about your last mission.” His East Coast accent landed harshly on Jesse’s ear. He never quite grew used to how English was spoken north of Kentucky. At least he wasn’t a Yankee—they were almost incomprehensible. Maryland or maybe Delaware.

Jesse ended up shoulder, hip, and thigh pressed against Hannah and he remembered why they were here. For her.

A tall, knock-out redhead, with eyes bluer than a spring sky, sat down across from the huge black guy, which placed her next to Ricardo.

“Anton has no manners. I’m Michelle Bowman—we’re both Bowmans now.” She didn’t explain the comment before continuing on the same breath, “Call me Missy and you’re going down hard.”

“Don’t mind Missy, she’s all hot air.” Then Anton twisted sharply on the bench. There was a loud clunk as a woman’s Crayola-red cowboy boot slammed into the wooden front of their bench, probably missing Anton’s knee by millimeters and his own by only a couple handfuls of them. The two of them traded near feral smiles.

Jesse introduced himself and Hannah. “She’s the one you need to be talking to, ma’am.” He nodded in Hannah’s direction. “Though I’m still not sure who or what y’all are.”

“Well, these three losers,” Anton indicated Isobel, Ricardo, and Michelle seated across the table. “They’re all—” He jolted and glared across at Michelle. Apparently her kick had connected this time.

The message was clear. Shut up, Anton, and let the women speak. Jesse was fine with that.

“They—” Isobel started.

“We,” Ricardo Manella corrected his sister, apparently enjoying living dangerously. Which earned him a sharp elbow headed toward the ribs; something he blocked with the ease of long practice.

They,” being an actress, Isobel clearly chose her words carefully, “are former warriors who no longer fit in the normal military world. We, in our little ‘club,’ are an elite contractor for US Special Operations. We specialize in what others aren’t allowed to do, or sometimes can’t do. The men would prefer we women took a background role—”

“Damn straight,” Ricardo and Anton muttered in unison, though not very loudly.

“But,” Isobel didn’t even break the rhythm of her speech, “since they’d be dead several times over without us, they can’t just shun Michelle and me the way they’d like to. Besides, Anton and Michelle are both gifted and are half-siblings.”

“Mom’s side,” Michelle the redhead stated emphatically.

“Dad’s side,” dark-skinned Anton stated simultaneously.

“Half-siblings means you share a parent. Which one?” Was it even possible for a redhead and a black man to share the same parents?

“Ma and Pa were married…” Anton started.

“…then got divorced…” Michelle continued.

“…had us while they were apart…”

“Oh,” was all Jesse could think to say.

“They do this thing,” Ricardo waved a beef rib bone at them. “Doesn’t matter if you interrupt them, it just keeps going. You should save your breath until they’re done.”

“…then got another divorce…”

“…and remarried. So…” Anton was smiling.

“…we’re actually unrelated… Thank God,” Michelle muttered to the heavens.

“…except…” Anton aimed a big finger at her.

“…by our parent’s marriage. Kind of…”

Anton missed his next beat because he’d snagged one of Jesse’s beef ribs, leaving Michelle to finish.

“…half-half sibs. Could be step-sibs, which just sounds like we enjoy…”

“…stepping on each other. Which kinda sounds confusing.”

That’s what sounds confusing?” Hannah whispered in his ear.

“So, what gift do you two share?” Jesse hoped something would make sense soon.

“Oh, we don’t share anything—” Michelle said.

“—except being half-halfs,” Anton finished.

“It’s this reprobate that I’m stuck with,” Michelle waved a hand at Ricardo.

“Turns out we can talk to each other silently,” Ricardo supplied.

“Woulda been damned useful for exams if we’d met back in school,” Michelle bemoaned.

“Sure, except some asshole would have given me the wrong answer in Social Psych just to beat my grade.” Michelle teased him, but Ricardo didn’t seem to catch it.

“Not me. Maybe your big brother,” Ricardo was quick to pass the buck.

“Me?” Anton did a pretty good job of looking as innocent as a puppy, especially for six-five of buff soldier.

“Telepathy?” Jesse had fallen off the edge of reality somewhere. Maybe this was how Hannah had been feeling in the field as she kept creating new sounds. Like his ears were buzzing and he was in mid-flight after being thrown by a horse—with a harsh landing coming up right soon.

After a brief pause, Ricardo smiled and said, “Anton says ‘Bet your shrimpy white ass’.”

“I’ll take that, but only because Anton is twice as wide as I am.”

“I’m not the one you share thoughts with, asshole. Besides, I’d never say that to a Night Stalker. Ricardo’s got no respect just because he’s a Delta ground pounder. I started on the ground, regular grunt. But I jumped across and finally flew Hawks for the 10th Mountain out of Fort Drum. I know what kinda game you’ve got.”

Michelle’s gaze hazed for just a moment, then she laughed. “Anton wouldn’t be hot for the man. Just for his skills.”

“Real telepathy? Like two minds as one or something?”

“Thank God, no,” Michelle shuddered. “Like a conversation. When he isn’t speaking at me—which is usually, since he’s Delta—my world is blissfully quiet.”

“Anton is a remote viewer,” Isobel continued. “Give him a reference point and he can often zero in on an image and get us a view of where the team needs to go.”

“And what can you do?” Jesse turned to Isobel.

“I’m an empath; that’s emotions, not thoughts. A terrorist asshole with mayhem on his mind looks just like any other civilian. Even Ricardo and Michelle couldn’t hear a thing out of place—if they could hear someone besides each other. But if they are assholes, I can always feel that. The same thing is true for Hollywood directors, by the way. It’s very useful in my line of work.”

Jesse looked at Hannah but wasn’t ready for her whispered question.

“So, maybe I’m not a freak?”

# # #

“Not!” This time Michelle and Isobel spoke in unison and then laughed at their common answer. A sentiment that Jesse echoed as well.

He backed their statement up with a hard squeeze of her thigh under the table. It was intimate, thoughtful, and appreciated. The fact that she wasn’t broken, at least not in that way, would be a huge relief if she could just believe it.

Hannah still couldn’t shake the feeling that she was a freak in this world no matter what they said. She was a woman in the Army, which awarded her Freak Level One. An operator in Delta Force, which took her up to about Level Twenty. A female operator in Delta Force, Level Nine Kajillion right there. She’d rung the nine-kajillion bell—which had always been her personal highest measure—all before she’d started projecting mass audio hallucinations, or whatever they were.

“Even if I don’t believe you, I’m glad I’m not alone in this.”

“Yeah, finding others is a good thing,” Anton spoke up as he returned with two big platters of ribs for himself and Michelle.

“Maybe,” Michelle scowled at Ricardo.

“A while back,” Ricardo was apparently scowl-proof, “I got captured by a psycho Honduran death-squad dude. Guess I finally cursed loud enough to break through some barrier so loud that Missy heard me.”

“You do not have ‘Missy’ privileges, asshole.” She punched his arm hard. Hannah could see the autonomic flinch that said it had hurt, but all he did was grin.

“I get this freaked call out to my ship from her. She told me to see where he was and I ran an extraction team in,” Anton explained. “Someone had to haul your sorry ass from the jaws of death. Bastard still hasn’t thanked me.”

Ricardo shrugged. He clearly hadn’t liked needing to be saved.

“Only good thing about that was reconnecting with Isobel,” Michelle nearly purred with delight. “Isobel and I were roommates in college. Ricardo was already long-gone Army, so I never had to suffer through meeting him until Anton rescued him.”

I’ve said I was sorry,” Isobel remarked dryly. “He’s my brother. I can’t do a thing with him.” Her accompanying laugh was very un-movie-star-like.

Hannah liked meeting her with her “hair down” so to speak. It was kind of touching, because it didn’t seem like the sort of thing a major actress would do much in public.

Michelle shrugged a yes, then refocused on Hannah, making her want to squirm. “We thought the gift always ran in a family, even in weird ones like ours. You two not related?”

“Duh!” Isobel answered the question for her. “Not with the way it’s radiating off both of them. Don’t have to be an empath to see that.”

Hannah still needed time to think about that, so she sidetracked the conversation back to Jesse to get it off herself, “Why do you need a Night Stalker?”

Isobel and Michelle weren’t fooled for a second, but Ricardo and Anton walked straight into the trap and began questioning Jesse.

Jesse did an admirable job of avoiding their inquiries, because Night Stalkers wasn’t something you talked about with civilians. But between Ricardo being a former Delta operator who apparently knew a couple of Jesse’s fellow pilots and Anton’s worship of Night Stalker pilots in general, they were wearing him down fast.

She focused on her pork ribs. It surprised her that she could actually taste anything in her present state. The flavors were Texas strong, deeply smoky, with a tang as fresh as an ocean wind after too long in the deep jungle. She wished she’d been awake for the extraction from the jungle—that transition was always her favorite moment to mark the end of a mission.

In a way, she’d had that on her arrival at Jesse’s ranch.

Jesse’s ranch.

She felt a pang that a big swallow of Dr Pepper did nothing to wash away. To be there, to see it, to meet his father…and then to have it ripped away by the meeting with Isobel and Ricardo. Why should it feel like that? As if she’d had to leave a small piece of herself behind on the prairie. She hadn’t even been there long enough to poke around the ranch house a little or even see what Jesse’s bedroom looked like.

There was no way that he had become so important to her so fast. His home felt like…home. Something she’d lost the day Pa had walked away.

Then she remembered Jesse’s two kisses in the jungle and the one in the car.

There was absolutely no way that she was going soft on a guy merely because he kissed like he meant it. Like it was about her. Somehow—in ways that she didn’t understand—Jesse saw a Hannah Tucker she’d never met herself.

Down the table, Michelle stood up, picked up her Coke glass, then held it out of sight by her thigh. With her free hand, she tugged at Ricardo’s sleeve.

“What?”

“Could you fetch a gal a Coke?”

Ricardo looked up at her strangely, then over at the soda fountain ten steps away. With a shrug, he slid out of the booth and headed over, muttering about what was up with the women these days.

Michelle slid in next to Isobel and set down the full Coke glass that she’d kept out of Ricardo’s view. Then she switched plates and napkins. When he returned with a fresh Coke, he didn’t even look puzzled. He simply sat down, took a sip of what was now his own Coke, and rejoined the conversation that Anton and Jesse were having about past military missions.

“Aren’t men just the sweetest thing?” Michelle said to Hannah as she patted Ricardo on the shoulder. He didn’t appear to notice.

Now, Isobel and Michelle were sitting side-by-side facing her.

“It’s strange, isn’t it?” Michelle asked while picking up her next beef rib and waving it at her like an accusing finger.

Hannah decided that the Delta practice of not speaking would serve her well at the moment.

“We aren’t supposed to fall so fast, are we?” Michelle didn’t even have the decency to whisper it.

“Wouldn’t know,” Isobel replied. “But I remember you falling hard for a whole string of disasters freshman year.”

“They weren’t all disasters.”

“Name one!” Isobel arched an eyebrow at her and Michelle just flounced her lustrous red hair at her and ignored the challenge.

“We were roomies all through college,” Michelle explained, then said with pure tease to Isobel. “Lucky for poor Isobel to have such a pretty roommate or no boys would have come around at all. Besides, that’s all they were, just…boys.” Then the two women exchanged a look. Michelle grew sadder and Isobel rested a hand on her arm sympathetically.

“Except the one,” Isobel whispered softly.

Michelle was apparently unable to speak, so her friend explained for her.

“There was this Marine. Amazing guy. Went down in a training accident. She totally fell for him just walking down the hallway.”

“It was on a beach and he was so beautiful.”

“Took her about twelve seconds to fall head over heels for him,” Isobel smirked.

“Did not!”

“Did, too,” Isobel clearly knew every detail of Michelle’s past.

“Don’t believe her. It took me at least thirty seconds.”

“How long did it take you?” And they both turned their attention on Hannah.

“To what?”

“To fall for the cowboy, of course.”

“Is that what I’ve done? No, I haven’t done that.” Unless of course she had? “Can we change the topic?”

“Would you rather talk about how you’re going to be using sound projection in our new company once we figure out what to call it? We tried Lady Warriors, but the guys weren’t into it.”

“Maybe we should try again now that we’ve got one of our own,” Michelle beamed over at Hannah.

“You do? Oh no,” her brain was being a little slow, but not that slow. “Nope. Not me. Nuh-uh!”

“We’ll have to work on her.”

Isobel resumed her list with all the poise appropriate to her station by completely ignoring both of them and continuing. “We considered PSI Corps, but that got ruined by the PSI Corps in that science fiction series, Babylon 5, which was so successful. And we thought up a hundred cool acronyms that no one would ever remember.”

She’d never heard of the show herself.

“You only have the two choices: joining our team or the cowboy,” Michelle made a smooth, happy sound. “Personally, I’d rather hear about the cowboy first, but we’ll get both stories out of you, you know.”

“Fire-hot tongs and electroshock?” Hannah was made of tougher stuff than these two women.

“Wine and chocolate,” Isobel replied.

“And as you’re just back from a mission, we would toss in bubble bath,” Michelle agreed. “With the handsome cowboy, of course.”

“You two play dirty!”

Both women smiled at her.

“Regrettably,” Michelle took a long drink from her Coke. “We’re wheels-up on a mission in thirty minutes. We’ll have to bribe you later.”

“We could always take her with us,” Isobel looked at her friend.

“That could be fun,” Michelle was clearly all for it.

Apparently Hannah no longer had to speak to be in this conversation, which was just fine with her.

“Sure way to welcome the newest member to our PSI-chicks.”

“So not PSI-chicks. Get a grip.” Isobel looked disgusted. “Think about it, Hannah. Our group needs a good name.”

“Whoa!” Definitely time to rejoin the conversation. “There’s no ‘our.’ I do my walk for US Special Operations.”

“Phfft!” Michelle waved a hand at her. “Don’t bother us with details. Ricardo. Time.”

Ricardo checked his own watch, then said, “Time to finish it up,” as if Michelle hadn’t spoken.

“How he survived before I came along, I have no idea.” Michelle smiled. And Hannah was left to wonder if maybe she wasn’t the only one whose heart had gone wandering around without her. Not that Ricardo appeared to notice. For a moment she wondered if even Michelle realized it. Isobel’s tiny headshake said that Michelle hadn’t. And, Hannah supposed, if anyone knew, it would be an empath.

An empath? That was just crazy talk. Forty-eight hours ago she’d been a Delta operator hiding in the Colombian jungle waiting for a Night Stalker heliborne extraction. And now she was a sound-generating, psychic freak, who was half gone on a San Antonio cowboy and was talking to an empath and a telepath. This was wrong on so many levels that she felt as if she was flying once again.

Everyone slid out of the booth.

Jesse offered her a helping hand that she didn’t need. But when she took it and rose to her feet, it seemed the most natural act in the world to step into his arms and kiss him.

She’d intended just a small peck of thanks for being such a staunch supporter. But there were no military vest and firearms separating them this time. No pair of seatbelts keeping them confined to their separate corners as they kissed.

For the first time, they lay their bodies together separated by no more than her t-shirt and his button-down denim cowboy shirt. He smelled of his beloved prairie, fresh and rich as the soil. He tasted like BBQ and brilliant sunshine. And he felt…

Oh, how he felt. If she’d been thinking about jumping him on that motorboat on the Colombian river, it was nothing compared to right now. She’d take him in the booth if there weren’t other people around.

His kiss settled right down into her and burned hot. Not a fast burn, but the long slow heat of a winter’s night.

Her sigh, when he stood up straight and broke the kiss, was plenty audible.

It was enough time for Jesse to look at her with that question on his face, the same one as before that had her thinking about jumping him in the car.

Again Hannah answered him with a tiny shake of her head, though this time she was sorrier to do so. Michelle and Isobel were absolutely right—she was more than half gone for a cowboy.

She still wasn’t sure how it happened, though she suspected Michelle and Isobel of conspiring. The way they had talked about men as something special—as if they were treats dangled for a kitten.

Hannah somehow ended up in one of the trucks with the two women, which left Ricardo and Anton to follow in the other car…and Jesse with no choice except to follow her in the rental. Without her even noticing, Michelle and Isobel had just kidnapped her. She wasn’t sure how to feel about that, but she’d always admired tricky women.

A mile away, they pulled into a small airport. There were a dozen small planes tied down and a short line of hangars. The last hangar in the row was different from the others. It looked fresh-built and she could spot the security on it easily. Security high-end enough that she knew two things. First, there would be a whole second layer of security that would be much harder to detect. Second, she wouldn’t like to be the one responsible for infiltrating this particular building undetected.

# # #

Jesse followed the two big black trucks, feeling like a sad-sack city boy in his white Camry rental. Anton drove a Ford F-350 King Ranch with rear duallies that looked big enough to actually haul around a ranch.

Hannah’s comment about Jesse not living at the ranch was worrying at him. Daddy had never given any hint that he was anything but proud of Jesse’s service. And maybe it was true. But Jesse could feel the noose of the lariat looped about his waist and tugging him back toward home. It had always been there, but after a decade in the service it was tightening, and he’d have to do some thinking about that.

The guys hadn’t pushed when he’d refused to speak about being a Night Stalker. But it was nice to be able to talk to guys who really understood the perks and the shortcomings of working for Joint Special Operation Command. Anton had actually been regular forces but was good enough that command often tapped him when the Night Stalkers were at full capacity.

Inside the hangar was the crispest Black Hawk he’d ever seen. It didn’t have a midair refueling probe or side-mounted weapon pods and machine guns, but it was still a mean, black, fighting machine in factory cherry condition.

“Could you get her prepped for me?” Anton handed Jesse the preflight list and walked away before he could answer.

Jesse was standing there holding the checklist as the two men walked over to a massive gun safe and opened the combination lock. Inside was a collection of weapons that made Jesse’s eyes bug out a little. Not just FN-SCAR and M4A1 combat rifles, but Glock handguns (complete with harnesses) and Barrett .50 cal sniper rifles good out to two kilometers in the right hands…and a former Delta Force operator’s hands were definitely the right ones. That was only the beginning of a vast array of gear.

Hannah sidled up beside him as the other two women went over to the cabinet to select Glocks in shoulder harnesses and a pair of night-vision goggles. “Even though they were never soldiers, neither one goes in unprepared,” she explained to him in a whisper.

“What are we doing here, Hannah?”

“That was going to be my question.”

They stood side by side and watched the four strangers gearing up—even if they didn’t feel like strangers.

He put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her in close. He buried his face in her shining hair just because he could never get enough of that.

“We gotta find a bed, cowboy. Real soon now.”

“As soon as they’re gone.”

“Uh.”

“What?”

Hannah shook her head. “They’re expecting us to go with them.”

“Say what?” Maybe Jesse needed his hearing checked. Or maybe her brain had been addled by all the barbecue.

“Apparently it’s some sort of a test or invitation or something.”

“We’re US government military personnel. We can’t do this.”

“We’re both on leave.”

“Hannah! I try to be respectful, but have you lost your marbles, ma’am?”

She nodded. “I think so. These women know things—and not just about crazy psi stuff. There’s something really impressive about them.”

“Which means you’d fit right in.”

She leaned in to his sideways hug in a way that he could only interpret as pleased and made his thoughts about a bed all that much higher a priority.

“What about the men?” Hannah asked him.

“Well,” Jesse sighed. He suspected that bed wasn’t happening anytime soon. “I don’t believe in snap judgments, but if I had to make one…yep, I’d feel good if I had to go into battle with those two.”

She turned fully into his arms. “Kiss me, then finish your preflight.”

He spent a lot of time tending to her first command. Even if it meant he had to hurry on the second.

Chapter 8

Jesse watched Hannah select a McMillan TAC-50 sniper rifle (with the scope optics he knew had not been released for civilian sale) and an FN-SCAR combat assault rifle.

“At least they don’t have the Delta-designed HK416,” she whispered. “I like that some things are sacrosanct.”

“Same with the Black Hawk. Topflight, but none of the Night Stalker customizations.”

They both took a pair of Glock 19s, night-vision goggles, extra batteries, extra ammo, a radio—and a spare—and extra batteries for those as well. He grabbed her before she could turn from the supply cabinet and handed her a couple of energy bars and a water bottle. From his pocket, he fished out a Tootsie Pop, unwrapped it, and stuffed it in her mouth.

It earned him a second kiss, sloppier and shorter than the first, but raspberry-flavored and filled with sizzle. She was altering his view of sexy by the moment—this fully-armed warrior woman was stirring up places he didn’t even know he had to be stirred up. She did it much more and his heart was going to be joining in and then all hope for him was lost. Actually, he suspected that might already be the case, but there wasn’t time to think about it.

In minutes they were airborne. Anton gave him the righthand pilot-in-command seat and left him to it, acting the perfect copilot. Not Night Stalker trained, but every motion and status report proved the man was definitely skilled.

The helo felt heavy. A Little Bird was like a tap dance—fast, light, skittering on the controls and across the sky. Muhammed Ali would have approved of a Little Bird; it flew like a butterfly and stung like a bee.

A Sikorsky MH-60 Black Hawk was five tons of helo that could carry another five of fuel, armor, weapons, and personnel. It was the country-two-step bird of the Night Stalker fleet. He enjoyed the contrast. Heavier controls, more buffered from the sky, but still more tightly connected than a massive Chinook. A Black Hawk was a boot-stomping ass-kicker of a bird. The Chinook pilots sat in seats that were practically La-Z-Boys and their birds were all about the heavy-lift mission. Their dance wasn’t even a line dance—it was a papa-grizzly-bear-leaving-his-winter-den-and-none-too-happy-about-it stomp.

Outside the windscreen, night was settling over southwestern Texas. A hand rested on his shoulder. He knew the feel of it now—didn’t even need that deep feeling of connection to know it was Hannah. Together they watched the last of the sunset coloring the sky in darkening shades of red-gold. He’d hoped to get her out on the prairie tonight, for just this moment.

Jesse sighed to himself, but Hannah must have felt it because she squeezed his shoulder in sympathy.

Her voice whispered over the headset intercom so softly that it was as if she was nuzzling his ear. “It’s beautiful.”

“Sure is, isn’t it?” Anton tromped right over any tender moment like a bronc throwing a greenhorn.

Hannah faded away and her hand was gone. Instead of her presence fuzzing his thoughts, he’d never felt so clear about anything more than this moment. Flying, Hannah aboard, the Texas sunset. Somehow all of these elements seemed to mean more than ever—they all belonged together in some way he’d never be able to explain but he thought that maybe, just maybe, Hannah would understand.

“Where are we going?” Jesse asked Anton.

“We’ve got a rodent problem. Border Patrol has been trying to plug a rat hole under the Tex-Mex border with no luck. We don’t normally take on such small problems, but this one has been eluding them.”

“Whoa,” Jesse eased down on the collective with his left hand and pulled the cyclic’s joystick toward his lap to slow them down. “You guys are going in to take down immigrants? You can just drop us here and we’ll find our own way back”—though they were deep in the near-desert of the southwest Texas plains by this point.

His family ranch had many immigrants who worked there. Some seasonal, some had been there for generations. He knew how much of the US economy depended on them—both the legal and the illegal. Stopping them wasn’t the answer, legalizing them was. Seasonal work permits, family passes, something. Taking a mercenary Black Hawk and ramming it down the throats of civilians working hard for a better future was not a “proportional response.”

“Different kind of rodent problem,” Anton didn’t reach out to take the controls and push them ahead. “The Los Zetas cartel is running drugs across the border for up to forty kilometers north of Laredo. The cartel has perforated the border and the DEA can’t plug the holes fast enough. Getting permission to operate south of the border from the Mexican government hasn’t done them any good. When they try, it mostly gets more Mexican cops and judges killed. We’re private, so we can go after the source directly.”

“The source?”

“We’re going after the head of the cartel. We’re gonna yank him, wrap him up tight, and hand him to the DEA stateside.”

“The head of the Los Zetas cartel with one helo and four people? Two of them not even military? How crazy are you folks?” But Jesse was easing the controls forward and the Black Hawk regained speed. Taking down drug runners, he had no problem with.

“Six people now. Besides, we aren’t stupid and we don’t endanger our non-military personnel. We’re just running the extraction, more than the DEA can deal with. They’ve got some assets—non-talents—in place under deep cover. This morning we got the pickup signal for tonight.” Then Anton toggled the control that isolated the cockpit intercom from the rest of the helo. “Besides, have you ever found a woman who would stay behind merely because you asked her to?”

Certainly not Hannah Tucker.

# # #

Hannah had slipped into mission mode when the cargo bay door slammed shut. Sitting in the back of a tin toy called a helicopter—which was usually described as “ten thousand parts that just happened to be flying in unison.” And until some crucial one decided to fly off in some other direction or they made it to their destination intact, there was nothing to do but wait. A lone red nightlight in the ceiling of the cargo bay was finally taking over from the failing light outside the windows.

All a Delta could do was sit and wait for the pilot to do whatever it was he did. She could see Ricardo Manella slide into the same Delta Force operator headspace as he leaned back against the bulkhead beside her. Silent, appearing relaxed, yet gearing up internally to unleash whatever would be required.

And on the other side of the helo, Isobel and Michelle. Despite being dressed in basic camo, light boots, and armored vests, they looked like they might be chatting away in the living room over tea and moon pies.

She peeled back one side of her earphones and yelled at Ricardo over the scream of the twin turboshaft engines, “What the hell?” She nodded toward the women.

He peeled one side of his own headphones back. “I know. It’s definitely surreal. But Isobel is what makes all this work. We’ve discovered that without her, our success rate plummets. More to her than meets the eye.” His pride in his sister shone out of him.

“There are psi-type bad guys?”

“’Xpect so. Seems like there’s a whole world going that most folks don’t see. I sure wouldn’t have without Isobel opening my eyes. It was Gibson’s idea to start gathering us together but make it all hush-hush so that we don’t freak regular folks out.”

“Too late for me. Already freaked.”

“I grew up with her empathy, so I can’t help you much with that. And Michelle had Anton’s gift around, so it wasn’t really news to her either when I contacted her for help.”

“When he screamed off his girly little ass,” Michelle scoffed. “Except I never thought I had any gift, so it was a major surprise. By the way, try turning off your mics if you want a private conversation.”

Hannah had, apparently Ricardo needed a brush-up course about intercom etiquette. “Still, I get the honor of being the first one really freaked out.”

“Own it, woman.”

Hannah wondered if she was actually still freaked by the reality of what she was. Seeing two such normal women who appeared to accept their own skills so easily almost made it seem nothing special. If she didn’t really think about it, her “gift” was somehow okay. The thing that was making her miserable about Jesse was not being with him, so she didn’t know what to make of that either.

“So how did a woman barely bigger than Isobel ever make Delta Force?” By Ricardo’s tone that fact was much stranger than creating sounds outside her body.

“You know that being Delta is mostly about perseverance and determination. The former is how I survived my past. The latter is how I’m making sure that I never go back there again.”

Ricardo offered her a fist bump. “Shit, woman. You’re gonna fit right in here. Ain’t no such thing among our Lady Warriors as not being Delta-level determined. And you ain’t even met stubborn until Isobel digs her heels in.”

Hannah pulled her headset back into place blocking the worst of the engine and rotor noise. Ricardo did the same and they both settled into doing what a Delta operator did best—they waited.

Fitting in somewhere.

There was a hell of a concept.

Chapter 9

“DEA promised us a gap in the US Border Patrol’s surveillance as long as we stay low,” Anton was working the radios and Jesse was ignoring them. Comms were part of the copilot’s job, but it was the first mission Jesse had ever flown where he didn’t know who was calling the shots. They wouldn’t have an air mission commander for the op—Anton had made it clear they were on their own once they crossed the Rio Grande. But there was someone out there making sure the gap was waiting for them in border security.

“How low?”

“Low,” was all Anton answered.

“You need a digital terrain map for that. And an ADAS would help, but I’ll do what I can.” At least the FLIR infrared system was top-of-the-line; that was a good start.

“What’s an ADAS?”

“Advanced Distributed Aperture System. It’s a set of three-sixty-degree cameras mounted outside the airframe with full infrared and digital-enhanced vision. It lets me see to all sides as if the helicopter was invisible from inside the cockpit.” He nosed down until the Black Hawk’s wheels were twenty feet over the scrub. The bird wasn’t integral to his reflexes, so he was reluctant to go much lower while flying at a hundred and eighty miles per hour through the darkness. They were well out into the trackless lands, only the occasional ranch house lit up to enliven the view. A couple times he had to climb up past thirty feet to clear a tree, but he managed to pull that down as his reflexes settled in, able to volley around the scrub more confidently rather than climbing over.

“Is this where Night Stalkers usually fly?” Anton sounded unimpressed.

“I can push down another five feet as soon as I shed the rest of my Little Bird reflexes. I haven’t flown a Hawk in a couple months.”

“No need to push it.”

Jesse found a dry arroyo heading in the right direction. It wasn’t wide enough to tuck the whole helicopter into safely, at least not with where his reactions were tonight. But he was able to drop the entire body of the helo down into it so that only the rotors would be showing above the ground as he raced along. The dry tang of creosote made it past the air conditioner as they crossed into even more arid country.

A movement inside the cockpit forced his attention aside for a split second. Anton reaching for the controls. It was an instinctive move…one of a copilot fearing that the pilot-in-command was out of control.

Anton caught himself and drew back, but it made Jesse smile.

Somehow Gibson, Anton, and the Manellas had just made his life so much more complicated. At last he saw his chance to get a little payback and couldn’t resist smiling in the dark.

He wasn’t flying too high for Anton—he was flying too low.

Jesse was flying down in the zone ruled by the Night Stalkers—flying NOE—nap-of-the-earth. There were no other helicopter pilots as good as a Night Stalker, not in any army.

Anton might be a fine pilot, but anyone who hadn’t been through the two years of Night Stalker training—only offered to the very best, hand-selected pilots with a minimum five prior years of military rotorcraft service—simply didn’t belong on the same scale.

“Yep!” Jesse pulled out his best Texan as he arced hard through an S curve in the arroyo. “I’m always tellin’ the Hawk pilots they fly too high. It’s not the helo’s fault, even if it is clunkier than a stumblebum ol’ poke of a plow horse—bless its rotors. You wanta get good and proper low, you need a Little Bird on the job.”

Anton was doing a good imitation of looking relaxed in his seat, but Jesse now knew that was his tell. When top soldiers were really stressed, their bodies went absolutely still and quiet. Anton could be mistaken for a stone statue at the moment.

Jesse shot out of the end of the arroyo like a pinball fired into play—hard. For one blink of the eye they were above the slow, muddy flow of the Rio Grande, then—like a fast ricochet off a spring bumper—he was nosing over a bluff and into Mexico.

He could get to enjoy this.

# # #

“ROE is simple,” Anton spoke up over the intercom. “We’ll be landing one mile west of el Glotón’s compound.”

El Glotón?

Hannah couldn’t believe that these guys were taking on The Wolverine of the Los Zetas cartel with something less than a brigade force. Were they impossibly arrogant or merely suicidal? Unless… Her Delta experience had taught her the effectiveness of a small, highly trained team, but so few outside of Delta understood or knew how to execute that. Maybe they were good enough to leverage the asymmetric power of a tiny force.

“Ricardo and I will dump out and support the two DEA assets already inside. Jesse, you and the women will remain with the helo unless we shout, then be ready to come fast. These guys may be investing in top radio gear, but they won’t hear Ricardo and Isobel on any wavelength.”

Hannah considered the logistics of swinging a five-foot-long sniper rifle in the helo’s cargo bay—a space barely four feet high—and shooting Anton in the butt right through the pilot’s seat. Deciding that discretion was better than death and disorder, she “tapped” Jesse near his shoulder from where she still sat in the cargo bay.

He must have heard the soft ping, or whatever it was he heard from her, close by his head and known it was her. He half turned to face her, then stopped when he figured out why she was tapping him. Damn but having a man understand her was a real charge.

“Yep! That sounds like a fine plan you got there, pard!” Jesse drawled it out.

Now she considered which one of the two pilots she’d be shooting first.

“You go right on ahead there, Mr. Bowman,” Jesse continued. “I jes’ cain’t wait to see how long you survive if y’all try to leave a Delta operator behind.”

Okay, maybe she wouldn’t be shooting Jesse just yet.

Michelle and Isobel laughed, which encouraged her even more.

“I was thinking she could make sure that everyone on the helo stayed safe,” Anton reached for high ground, but Jesse cut him off at the knees before she could.

“If you want your best force forward, I’d suggest you stay back here and run the protection detail yourself. We’ve got a pair of Deltas in the back—ain’t no one no how up to their standards. Not you and not me.”

Hannah wondered what planet Jesse had grown up on, because it certainly wasn’t one she was familiar with. What sort of man ever recognized that a woman had skills? Not only skills, but good ones, unique from his own. She’d enjoyed watching him fly. There was an artistry to it that made her sorry she hadn’t seen him fly in his beloved Little Bird. His final, tumbling flight had been hidden by the thick jungle canopy—a flight that had turned into a crash she’d reached the clearing too late to see.

“Goddamn it!” Anton punched the console hard enough to make her flinch.

A flinch that Hannah redirected to yank her Glock free. She aimed at the back of Anton’s head in case he went for Jesse. In her peripheral vision, she saw Ricardo reach for his own.

“Don’t.” She said it softly and Ricardo seemed to think better of his choices.

Isobel and Michelle stared at her aghast. Michelle braced to leap into harm’s way, but hesitated at Hannah shaking her head no. Once the initiative was lost, control of the aft cargo area was hers.

Anton punched the console again. “Why the hell can’t I get it through my head that these women are so goddamn capable?”

Hannah hesitated, then swung the Glock up so that it was aimed at the ceiling of the cargo bay.

Ricardo relaxed and something passed between him and Isobel that had her easing down as well. No, not between. Isobel’s empathy would sense her twin brother relaxing and then do so herself.

Michelle was still so tightly strung that she almost leapt out of her skin when Isobel rested a hand on her friend’s shoulder. Ricardo, of course, hadn’t thought to speak to Michelle, not out loud or telepathically.

Anton half turned, having witnessed nothing of what had just happened behind his back. “You game, Hannah? We could use another shooter if there are problems.”

And just that fast, he’d switched his thinking around. Even by the flexibility of Delta standards, that was impressive.

“I don’t seem to recall there being much else of interest planned this evening,” she tucked the Glock away.

“Hey!” Jesse sounded truly hurt. It had been obvious, before the meeting with the Manellas came up, that they would have had sex this evening. And now he was hurt because… Hannah barely managed to suppress a giggle.

“Later, Outlaw. I promise.” She surprised herself at how much she was looking forward to it as well.

# # #

Jesse wished he had a terrain map. He wanted to sneak as close as he could to el Glotón’s compound, but still keep a hill between the compound and his landing location to deflect any possible noise. Instead he circled wide to survey the terrain out at the limits of the Black Hawk’s FLIR night-vision package.

He could use a map to what Hannah was thinking as well.

He’d like to compare it to his own, because he was thinking some seriously wild thoughts. He’d never been a one-cowgirl type. He didn’t play around when he was with one, but he never settled for long either.

Yet without even looking, he’d known for a cold hard fact that Hannah’d had his back when Anton had tried to punch out a perfectly innocent Black Hawk console. He knew it because of the stony silence over the intercom. No protests, no exclamations of surprise from the others. Just Hannah’s soft-spoken command, Don’t. Probably to Ricardo. Three to one back there, and he’d bet on Hannah being in complete control.

What was it about him? Why had he never fallen for a strong woman? The bonuses were obvious now that he’d done so. He flew with the Night Stalkers—always a team effort, but each pilot exercised maximum autonomy, especially in the Little Bird. A tight team with his copilot, when he flew with one. With the 160th SOAR, Jesse had flown into awful situations, knowing they had his back just as he’d had theirs. People, good people, had been lost along the way. Others had been saved.

However, he’d always been the loner. Happiest out on the rare solo mission with just his Little Bird for company. Between the jungle and tonight with Hannah Tucker, he’d finally discovered what being in a tight team truly felt like—and he never wanted anything else ever again.

But he was Night Stalker and she was Delta. That didn’t bode well for the future.

The future.

He hadn’t even slept with her, yet there was no question about it. The future—their future—needed a terrain that included the two of them flying together, and not just when the odd coincidence put one particular Delta woman aboard his aircraft.

He didn’t find his hill, but rather another dry arroyo—deep and wide enough to swallow the whole helo this time. It ran close behind a low ridge. The channel would reflect all of his engine and rotor noise upward. El Glotón’s compound lay less than a kilometer away by the time he eased down to land in the bottom of the dry arroyo. Even if someone did hear and came to check things out, very few would think to look down rather than up for a helicopter.

“Slick!” Anton offered high praise and held up a hand for a high-five, which Jesse acknowledged with a hard slap. Then Anton was bailing out one side of the cockpit as the door on his own side opened.

He knew who was at the door by her short height and the starlight catching her blonde hair.

There wasn’t even a thought before he leaned out to kiss her. It was awkward with the full helmet and their relative positions, but it was every bit as intense and incredible as that first kiss in the jungle. That kiss might have helped Hannah create the raucous noise that drew off the NERC guerillas, but that wasn’t why he’d pulled away so suddenly. It was because a first kiss was not supposed to feel like he’d been with that someone his whole life. The timeless quality of it, like he was kissing his lover, his best friend, and his life’s partner all rolled into one had shorted out every one of his circuits.

And here she was, in his arms, rolling out an even better one that had his toes curling in his boots so hard that he was half surprised they didn’t punch through the soles to clutch them on the rudder pedals.

“You feeling even half of what I’m feeling?” Jesse managed on a whisper.

“I hope so. Because if there’s anything that’s double this, I’m in serious trouble.”

“Trouble’s my middle name.”

“I thought it was Outlaw.”

He held her a moment longer, even though he could feel the mission pulling her away. “You come back safe or I’m gon’ be real upset. Y’hear, my love?”

“I hear.” Then Hannah was gone into the night with Ricardo and Anton.

He watched on the FLIR until they’d climbed up over the lip of the arroyo and were gone from sight out into the chaparral.

He couldn’t be in love with a woman he’d met only forty-eight hours ago. He checked his watch, corrected for the time zone. Nope, he hadn’t.

Jesse had met Hannah just forty-eight hours ago.

How could something so crazy feel so right and true?

Well, that was a question he wasn’t going to be wasting any extra time thinking about. It just flat-out did.

# # #

The moment before he’d let her go, Jesse had tucked something into the breast pocket of her vest. It wasn’t some sexed-up gesture, because a fighting vest was about the least sexy thing a woman could wear.

Once Hannah topped out of the arroyo and had settled into the middle position of a single-file fast trot across the sandy soil, with Ricardo leading and Anton in the rear, she remembered and slapped the pocket. Inside were two magazines of rounds for her assault rifle, and a thin stick. She pulled on it, sure that it hadn’t been there before.

The size was familiar. It was—

A Tootsie Pop. The second and final one from his mission stashes. Oh, she was going to be so good to that man later tonight, he’d never know what hit him. She unwrapped it and tucked it in her cheek. Strawberry!

To give up his last Tootsie Pop—twice now—the man must really love her.

She dodged around another clump of bunch grass and almost trotted straight into a cane cholla cactus.

No.

She found her running rhythm again. Anton didn’t say a word.

No way had she said…

She jumped over a dry streambed.

But he had.

She jogged left at the rock and around the prickly pear cactus.

He couldn’t have meant…

But he was Texan, which meant he’d never lie to a lady. Tell a tall tale maybe, but never outright lie.

Y’hear, my love?

She’d heard and it was freaking her out.

They’d only known each other for… She looked at her watch but couldn’t make sense of any of the information there.

She didn’t…and yet, at some level, she did. If ever she was to bolt herself onto one man, it would be Jesse Outlaw Johnson. Which made no more sense than racing across the Mexican desert—while on leave.

Ricardo led them around a low hill, down into a shallow arroyo with such steep sides they had to take time getting hand- and footholds to clamber back out. He was first over the top.

The air was so dry that it hurt to breathe.

It tasted of mesquite and…empanadas!

She grabbed Ricardo’s boot and tapped a signal to get down and stay down. Anton squirmed up beside her very quietly.

After a moment, Anton pointed through the sagebrush and held up three fingers. Then he indicated a circle and pointed at their positions around it. A campfire. A small one that didn’t throw much light into the late evening, but that would explain the smell of a cooking dinner. They were probably even too close to retreat safely.

Anton made a show of tapping his handgun, knife, and rifle. Something at their waists as well.

She signaled the other two to wait. She shook her hair out of its ponytail, then stood up and walked into the makeshift camp.

Hola, mis amigos.” Her accent was trained for South America rather than Mexico, but it was the best she had.

Unsure of what was going on, the three guards placed their hands on their weapons but left them holstered. As she’d planned, their attention tracked her as she circled around to stand on the far side of the campfire.

Qué pasa?”

Ricardo and Anton emerged from the shadows behind the still-seated guards. She nodded her head: one, two…. On three, she stepped in and placed her Glock handgun against the nearest guard’s temple. The other two were treated similarly, and in moments, all three guards had been dragged back into the shadows and tumbled down into the arroyo with their hands and feet tied. They’d be able to untie each other so they wouldn’t die out here, but they’d first have to wake from the knock-out shot Anton gave each of them.

Back to the fast trot. The half-moon rose just as their team reached the western wall of the hacienda. Every bush and clump of grass threw hard shadows that her instincts tried to treat as a hole, but Delta had run her through too many similar scenarios to stumble.

They’d come up to the back of the hacienda. It was surrounded by a massive, two-story adobe wall that was unbroken on this side. Atop the wall, she could spot roving guards, bright in her night vision. She was glad they were pressed back against the wall before the moonlight grew bright enough to do more than throw shadows. Getting out of here could be much dicier.

“Shit!” Anton’s curse was soft enough to not carry, but emphatic enough that it wasn’t something she wanted to be hearing right now.

“He doesn’t sound happy,” Hannah whispered to Ricardo.

“DEA boys are supposed to be right here,” he answered back as he eyed the top of the wall.

“Not a good sign?”

“Not a good sign. Looks like our simple pickup just went to shit.”

“And since when is that news?” Anton whispered.

The south wall of the hacienda was an unbroken expanse two stories tall. No openings, and scaling it from here wasn’t going to happen.

# # #

Jesse happened to be looking at Michelle when she jolted as if she’d been slapped. He grabbed her arm to keep her steady.

The three of them had set up a circling patrol of the helicopter. They weren’t likely to be discovered out here, so they’d risked staying together as they circled.

Jesse had enjoyed getting to know the two women. Letting go of his awe for Isobel Manella the actress was hard, but she was so consistently cheerful that it was easy to lose focus on the persona and just enjoy the woman. Michelle was having the opposite effect and became more daunting the more he spoke to her. There was a remoteness that he couldn’t seem to breach.

“She’s always like this when her half-half Anton is in the field,” Isobel had explained.

“Am not.”

“So are, Michelle. Not even worth arguing.”

Whether it was nerves or predisposition, he had much less of a feel for Michelle and what her reactions might be if things went sideways.

Michelle had frozen mid-step, nodding several times as if in a conversation, but not saying a word. Oh, right. Telepathic connection with Ricardo Manella. It still seemed unreal, if not outright impossible, and he had a hard time remembering that something so bizarre not only could happen, but actually was.

“Isobel,” Michelle broke off. “The DEA boys aren’t at the meet-up. Can you track them down?”

“Shit no! Not at this distance. I can only feel how close they are if I’m within a few meters.” Isobel’s heartfelt curse said that maybe her projected calm only ran actress deep. She rushed over to the helicopter, which had served as the center of their fifty-meter-radius circling patrol.

By the time Jesse arrived, Isobel sat cross-legged on the cargo bay deck. She had a tablet computer booted up and was studying pictures.

“Where are they?”

Michelle barely hesitated to communicate with Ricardo. “Center of the south wall.”

“Tell Anton to start with the front gate.”

“You want six-five of armed black man to walk in the front gate of a drug lord’s hacienda? Are you people insane?” Jesse should never have let Hannah out of his sight. Especially because it was far too easy to imagine her doing that as easily as she’d walked into a Colombian guerilla compound to borrow their radio.

“Remember Anton is a see-er. But he needs a mental starting point.”

Jesse shut up.

Despite her clear agitation, he noticed that she passed none of that on to Michelle. It was a crazy kind of telephone game. Isobel studying pictures and describing the hacienda aloud like a movie set. Michelle repeating it silently to Ricardo, who would be repeating it all, hopefully verbatim, so that Anton could perform a virtual walk through.

“You people do this a lot?”

“Always a first time,” Isobel cricked her neck while Michelle passed on the latest guidance.

Jesse decided that his best option was to return to patrol, but before he could turn away, Michelle spoke.

“Got them. Not good. Five meters to the left of where Anton, Ricardo, and Hannah are squatting. They’re in a small room hard inside the south wall. They have the target, but there’s a major search for them going on. They don’t have long.”

He looked at the section that Isobel had highlighted.

“No way out. The open courtyard would expose them too much. They’d never make it.”

It reminded him of a certain clearing in the Colombian jungle. He and Hannah had been unable to escape north, east, or west. The only way out was south—even if it had been a crocodile-infested river. “They have to go south.”

“Did I mention that there’s a wall there?” Both women looked at him strangely.

“Blow a hole in it.”

Michelle answered, stumbling through the words as Ricardo must be speaking very fast. “We can’t risk a breaching charge. A charge big enough to bust the wall would probably kill everyone in the room. Then it would bring every guard down on our…their heads.”

“Damn it!” Jesse walked away from the open door of the helo’s cargo bay where the women were sitting hip-to-hip with an arm around each other’s waist.

He rubbed at his mouth. He could feel Hannah cursing in his exact same tone—though probably more colorfully. Not some civilized pretend curse, but forthright and pissed. He could feel her—

Jesse rushed back to Michelle, “Let me talk to Hannah.”

“I’m not a telephone.”

“Sorry, uh,” this was definitely the craziest situation he’d ever been in. “Tell her that the wall, the material in the wall, must have a weakness. Like Jericho and blowing the trumpets that brought down its walls in the Bible story. She needs to set up a resonant frequency of sound to vibrate and then crumble the wall.”

“That’s—” But Isobel cut Michelle off.

“Tell her.”

After a brief pause, Michelle spoke again. “Have you lost it, Outlaw?”

He smiled as that could only be Hannah’s voice coming back through this crazy line of communication.

“I, she,” Michelle continued, “doesn’t have the power even if that would work.”

Michelle shook her head as if trying to clear it.

“What does that even mean?”

He needed to get to Hannah but couldn’t. Flying to her would attract every gun The Wolverine’s security force could muster. “Is there time for me to run to her?”

Isobel shook her head. “Whatever they do, they need to do it fast.”

Jesse looked at Michelle. Her connection to Ricardo was so sure across distances—globe-spanning distances if they were to be believed. He and Hannah had to be in physical contact.

Or did they?

Who knew how all this worked. Certainly not him.

“Hurry!” Michelle’s voice was urgent.

Jesse grabbed her hand. “Have Ricardo grab Hannah. You and Ricardo have to be the conduit that connects us.”

Michelle squinted at him, then nodded.

“Tell her to try it now.”

# # #

“Do it up, Hannah.” Ricardo had grabbed her shoulder and there was a surge of connection. Not with Ricardo, but with the man who felt like no other. No time to think about how; she could feel Jesse at her side even though he was a kilometer away.

She turned her attention to the wall and wondered what it would take to create a resonant frequency rather than a boom of sound. A vibration that would emanate out of her and shake the mortar loose from the rock itself.

A frequency that somehow matched the stone. More than that, like the focused shockwaves doctors used to break up kidney stones.

The outer layer of stucco slid off the adobe brick wall, but nothing she did could touch the brick itself.

“Pardon me, ma’am,” Ricardo whispered. “But I’m being told to do this.” Then Ricardo wrapped his arms around her from behind, hugging her hard against his chest. Holding her as a brother might. She imagined Jesse doing the same with Michelle—it had damned well better feel sisterly was the thought she didn’t have time to voice as the power surged into her.

A broad circle of adobe dissolved in front of her like the powdered dry mud that it was.

Even before the dust cleared, two heavily armed men stepped through the hole herding a third man whose hands were bound and mouth gagged. They all were working their jaws as if trying to clear their ears.

Anton whispered a soft, “Holy shit!”

Ricardo gave her a brief squeeze before releasing her. “Boy, oh boy. That’s a sound I won’t be forgetting—half buzz saw and half cattle stampede just trying to pierce my skull.”

As always, Hannah hadn’t heard a thing.

Anton took the lead. The two DEA men herding the third, who must be The Wolverine. At first she could barely walk without Ricardo’s strong arm around her waist.

There were definitely some details they needed to work on here. There had to be a technique so that the use of her “gift” didn’t bring her to her knees every time.

Their trip back to the helicopter wasn’t a smooth one, but it was nothing the team couldn’t handle. Her hands were steady by the time a cartel patrol in a pair of Humvees came racing in their direction.

The big TAC-50 rifle she’d chosen punched holes through both of the drivers’ side windows, which stopped pursuit half a kilometer away. She made sure no one else took the drivers’ places by dropping a few armor-piercing rounds into each of their engine blocks. The other shooters took down anyone dumb enough to exit the armored vehicles and try to fire back—which turned out to be all of them.

Jesse had the helo running by the time they reached his hiding place, probably cued by Michelle through Ricardo.

All she cared about was that they were airborne the second everyone was aboard.

Chapter 10

For Hannah, the rest passed in a blur.

Back across the border. An entire phalanx of DEA agents took away el Glotón and the intel that the DEA guys had delayed their departure to grab. That delay had nearly gotten them killed.

“Darned lucky they didn’t end up being the D-E-A-D guys,” Ricardo muttered to her.

But they had snagged a complete set of Los Zetas cartel’s border route maps and the next several weeks’ delivery schedules—in addition to anything the DEA would be coaxing out of The Wolverine.

“Neither of you is in any condition to drive home after that,” Anton said as he landed and dropped them off behind the house at Jesse’s ranch.

Ricardo collected their weapons. “We’ll bring your rental over tomorrow and talk about when you’re signing aboard. I think that you should—”

Isobel pushed him back toward the helo while he was still talking. She gave Hannah a strong hug, then caught up with her brother and tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow.

Jesse led her to the ranch house porch. She leaned back against him as they watched the helo take off—lit by the half-moon before it disappeared into the darkness.

She’d thought that her equilibrium was gone and her energy spent, but she could feel it returning even as Jesse held her. Held her as they watched the helicopter filled with their new friends taking off into the starlit sky.

It was easy to imagine having those extraordinary people in her life. Women who each had skills of their own and didn’t judge her for what she was, but rather accepted her for who she was.

“Was that your idea of a good time?” Jesse’s whisper tickled against her ear as he began swaying them in a slow dance.

She could only nod because there was too much caught in her throat to say. And something in her chest so big she didn’t even know what to do with it.

“Yeah, me too.”

“Worth leaving the Night Stalkers for?”

“Worth leaving Delta for?” Jesse’s soft chuckle teased her back.

Hannah shrugged against the uncomfortable question. It was too big. She couldn’t think about that right now.

“I can think of a good distraction,” he whispered as the helicopter’s thrum faded into the night sounds of crickets and a hoot owl.

“You sure that you can’t read minds?”

“Give you one guess what’s on my mind.”

She didn’t even need that.

Hannah had no idea what the future held, but she knew what she wanted right now.

She plucked the hat off his head as she slipped out of his arms and descended off the porch.

“You’d best grab a blanket,” she let her hips swing loose as she walked away.

No sound from behind her as she walked out of range of the porch light.

Then she plopped Jesse’s cowboy hat on her head, “Gonna hav’ta get me one of these.”

There was a sudden clatter of boot heels on the porch. He must have cleared the steps down in a single jump without touching a one because the next thing she heard was his boots rushing through the grass. She could feel him coming for her.

Yes, tomorrow was too far away to think about.

But tonight…

At the last moment she placed one hand atop his hat, then turned to face him.

She enjoyed the fall, all the way down.

***

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Copyright © 2019 by M.L. Buchman (all rights reserved)
Published by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.
Cover and Layout copyright © 2019 by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.

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