Home > The Defender (Aces Book 5)(3)

The Defender (Aces Book 5)(3)
Author: Cristin Harber

The wings dipped to one side, then the next. Bullets pinged off the plane without much damage. Vanka adjusted her hair. “That’s subjective.”

He laughed, too pleased with himself to let her dampen his high. “Break a nail?” Doubtful though. The deadliest woman he’d ever met managed never to chip a nail. It was as though Vanka were diamond-coated Teflon.

She held out her hand as the prop plane bobbed. “GTG.”

Spiker smiled. They fought like cats and dogs, but for as much hell as he gave her, there was no one he’d rather have at his side. The pint-size British terror had the face of an angel and the spirit of a chameleon.

“Did you know that Boise, Idaho has world-famous hot springs?” Vanka clucked her tongue as they gained altitude. “I really hate when we can’t see the local sights.”

Spiker pulled the nose of the plane toward the horizon. “I hate when Buck sends us into a shitshow.”

“Yes, that too.” Vanka studied the dusty dashboard.

Spiker tinkered with the gadgets and levers. Their plane had seen better days, much like their recent assignments. The ones sent straight from GSI’s head honcho had been crap—incomplete intel or run-ins with their enemies. “Seems to happen more often than not lately.”

Vanka smoothed her hands over her thighs as though a stray piece of lint was her only concern, not the bullets that had been chasing their tail end until he found this ride. “I don’t know about that.”

He shrugged. A discussion about Buck Baer and work could take a backseat. They needed to gain altitude before their semi-high-flying escape turned into a failed joyride, pancaked on the side of a mountain.

He wiped a layer of grime off of the control panel and tried to get a reading on their situation. Not a lot seemed to work. The radio was crap, not that they had anyone nearby to reach out to. “What do you think about our altitude?”

“Asked like a true maverick.” She leaned against the window. “Low. Way too low.”

“Yeah, I was afraid you might say that.” The altitude reading was off—Spiker flicked the many gauges. The fuel needle jumped from mid-tank to full. “Son of a bitch.”

No one would’ve kept this old rust bucket gassed up. That the instrument said they now had more fuel? Not a good sign.

“This afternoon’s going to get worse, isn’t it?” she asked.

As if on cue, the plane’s engine sputtered. Unlike the coughing, gasping fit it had when he hot-wired this baby and brought her to life, this was more like a choking snore before it died.

“Hang on.”

She wrapped her hands around the chest clip of the harness. “If I break a nail . . .”

“Way to keep the mood light.” He ground his molars. Spiker fought to control their descent. The forest reached as far as he could see. “Remind me to thank you for that later.”

The nosed stayed up. But they were coming in hard without a flat place to land. His pulse hammered as sweat dampened his neck. Tree canopies clipped their belly. Spiker’s muscles ached on the controls, fighting against physics. Branches smacked them side to side. The windshield broke and he lost his line of sight. Green. Dark. Blurred. Everything hit hard and fast. His jaw snapped shut and blood seeped into his mouth.

Then nothing.

It was over.

Fuck, he couldn’t breathe. He reached for her hand. “Vanka?”

She groaned.

Spiker blinked hard. He needed to clear his vision. Her hand found his, and the manicured nails bit into his skin. “That”—his stomach rolled— “sucked.” He drew in a harsh breath and glanced over. “You good?”

“We need a sick day,” she whispered.

He laughed. “Fucking hell. Yeah. We do.” He unclipped his harness and checked himself for injury as she did the same. “What the hell are we going to do now?”

Vanka wriggled loose and opened the door. “We’re not far off the ground.”

He wasn’t concerned about whether they needed to jump. What concerned him was that they had no way to make contact with anyone. These weren’t the type of woods that he wanted to stroll without a weapon, or at least a can of bear spray. A vacation sounded better and better by the minute. “I hate Buck Baer.”

“GSI’s new motto.” Vanka laughed and climbed out of the plane. “Let’s go before this thing falls or combusts.”

 

 

As crash-landings went, Vanka had to give Spiker credit. They could’ve been in a far worse position. They reached a logger’s trail and followed it to the sheared side of a mountain. She understood the need for timber, but the sight made her chest hurt almost as much as the bruise from the harness.

Without the protection of the trees, the wind chapped her cheeks and the sun baked her to the harvested forest floor. Sweat dampened the back of her neck and collected between her breasts. The expensive silk shirt clung to her skin. The pants were no better, but at least she’d worn flats to their so-called meeting. Spiker would have been ten times grumpier if she’d insisted he carry her down a mountain.

“Over there.” He gestured. “Is that a blaze mark?”

Vanka cupped her eyes. Blue spray paint marked a tree. She saw no reason the color would be a boundary marker. “Maybe. Yes.”

Hiking over timber-logged ground was cumbersome. Every stick-and-bark-covered step had the potential to sink and sprain ankles. Splinters of shorn trees stood sharp enough to impale them if they tripped. After far too long, they reached the blue blaze.

Spiker scratched the paint with his finger. “Not that weathered.”

A small sense of relief curled. “Alright.” She didn’t want to wait. The temperatures would drop in several hours, and she didn’t want Spiker to slow down on her account. “Let’s go.”

Hours crept by.

Then they saw the opening and the canopy tent at the same time.

From the distance, the setup was eerily familiar. She didn’t trust herself to say what she thought. Spiker would be on guard for dangers. Later, she could explain why, after she’d caught her breath and sat down, had food and something to drink. Then her mind would be clearer. Maybe she’d tell him what she saw and thought. What she remembered.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Of all of the places they could’ve landed and the possibilities of who might find them, Vanka couldn’t imagine how she and Spiker had stumbled into a university-led archeology dig site.

The student group and their professors asked ridiculously few questions about why she and Spiker had staggered out of the woods in business clothing. The student project had just started. They had provisions and clean clothes and were at the stage of the archeological dig when the slow grid work hadn’t yet become monotonous. It was as if her fossil-loving, rockhound parents had whispered in the ear of a guardian angel. She couldn’t have asked for anything more than the uni students offered.

Spiker did most of the talking, and used their communications systems to contact GSI. Headquarters had been unaware their meeting had gone hostile, which did not lighten Spiker’s mood. She couldn’t blame him, and yet she couldn’t snap out of her quiet.

Spiker crouched in front of her spot on a log. “A chopper will arrive tomorrow.”

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