Sweat slicked the curve of his biceps as his arms flexed above her. He hung there for a moment, beautifully suspended, before lowering an inch at a time, total control in his every move.
Alisha Bailey licked her suddenly dry lips. She attempted to tear her gaze away, but she’d been mesmerized. Spellbound by the pounding beat of the music surrounding them and the ambience—overwhelmingly masculine, perhaps, but as if she were going to complain. He exhaled, and she breathed with him. Unconsciously their bodies moved in sync.
A lock of blond hair fell over his forehead, and she was tempted to reach out and push it away. To drag her fingers over his shoulders and caress the ridges of muscle. To tug him closer until he wrapped all that leashed power and passion around her.
A metallic crash rang from their left and broke her fixation on Devon’s half-naked body.
Reality set in far too quickly. She was on the treadmill, the belt flying underfoot as she secretly ogled Devon. He hung from a horizontal bar not even five feet in front of her while he cranked out pull-ups one after the other.
People interrupted their workouts to eye the bodybuilder who’d lost his grip. Devon dropped lightly to his feet, pulled a towel from the crossbar, and wiped sweat from his face and neck as the weight lifter in question shrugged sheepishly and replaced the plate.
The low-level testosterone hovering in the air of the hard-core gym, a mix of dust and perspiration, made Alisha wrinkle her nose. With every gasp she took, the odor flooded her senses, and those breaths were coming far quicker than usual.
She wanted to blame her accelerated panting on the steep incline of the treadmill and her rate of turnover, but it probably had more to do with the eye candy than she wanted to admit. No matter how annoying Devon Leblanc was, how exasperating he was to work with, the entire aggravating package was a mighty fine one.
Not that she’d ever let him know. He had a big enough ego as it was. He didn’t need her stroking it. As much fun as stroking might seem some days.
The machine under her beeped a warning before powering up yet another notch. Alisha focused on keeping her balance at the near all-out sprint. After a full summer of climbing rescues and spending all her spare time off hiking in the Banff area, she was in peak condition. Working to stay that way was now a way of life.
When the treadmill finally shifted to a slower pace, she gulped a mouthful of water, forcing herself to finish the run strong. Follow through, all the way. No shortcuts, no sympathy.
As the smallest person in her business, and often the only woman, Alisha didn’t allow anyone to cut her slack, especially not herself. Her never give up attitude had gotten her through training that had left older and larger men in puddles on the search-and-rescue school floor. By graduation, her work ethic had sent her to the top of the list and earned her an invitation to join the most elite SAR team in the Canadian Rockies.
Maddening how her gaze automatically darted to Devon, who’d been her only real competition back in the day. The fact that the two of them had been hired straight out of school onto Lifeline still made a few tongues wag and bitter comments fly.
As if she cared what the gossips said.
She cleaned the treadmill before dragging herself to the stretching mats. The noise in the oversized arena was a lovely distraction from the throbbing lactic acid in her limbs. One of the reasons she enjoyed using the local gym instead of the weight room at the Lifeline building or the school.
She enjoyed her job, but didn’t need to live in her teammates’ pockets 24/7.
Once again Devon came into view, and she debated throwing something at him. The one person she wouldn’t mind getting away from, and yet he constantly showed up. Damn him for being her tagalong shadow.
Probably did it to piss her off.
She scrambled to her feet, pulling her blonde hair tighter into her ponytail in prep for hitting the weight room floor. The three guys headed in her direction might know her name, but she wasn’t sure who they were. “You looking for me?”
The two slightly behind their leader smirked and made some low comments, and Alisha’s heart fell.
Oh goody. Another muscle-bound Neanderthal looking to impress her. The signs were everywhere as the one in front swaggered his way into her personal space. “I hear you’re pretty good at climbing things.”
“You heard right.” She tilted her head to maintain eye contact, refusing to look away while he took a leisurely gawk down her body. It was like clockwork, in a way. The scum always appeared this time of year as new people filled the resort town in prep for the seasonal winter work.
This? This was the reason working out at the public gym wasn’t fun. What was it with guys thinking she’d make a good trophy?
Mr. Annoying leered. “You want to have something of substance to climb?”
Good grief. This one was stupider than usual. Alisha’s watch went off, reminding her she had two hours until her staff meeting. “You know, it’s been fun and all, but I have things I need to do. So, if you’ll excuse me.”
She shifted her body to one side, but he leaned with her, blocking her path. “We should get together. I want to find some of the tougher climbing routes in the area.”
“Buy a book.” Of all the things she hated, guys who acted as if they had some privileged right to access her time and knowledge pissed her off the most.
He didn’t take the hint, remaining in her path. “You’re not being very friendly.”
She glanced up to make sure she had the ceiling height to play with overhead. Other than that, Alisha didn’t bother to see who was around. None of the locals would condemn her for what she was about to do. She bent her knees slightly to get momentum, grabbed a handful of his shirt, and leapt upward.
He swore, scrambling backward as she basically walked over him. One foot landed on his thigh, one somewhere in his groin area—she didn’t worry about exact placement. She pushed her hands down on his head to get the final height needed to place one foot on his shoulder and dive for the chin-up bar Devon had been using moments earlier. A gentle swing turned her momentum and she landed on the path between the stretching area and the exercise machines, now on the opposite side of the guy who’d gotten in her way.
The asshole cursed, but she didn’t care, simply strode forward as if he wasn’t there.
Devon eyed her from where he’d been holding up the wall, sipping from his water bottle as if watching a circus performance. He straightened to vertical, clapping softly as he gestured her into the main weight room.
“Having a good day, Alisha?”
“Bloody idiot.” Wrapping her fingers around a set of dumbbells and heading for the mirrors gave her a physical outlet for her frustration.
Devon chuckled. “Him or me?”
She paused for a moment. If Devon insisted on hanging around and driving her crazy with unanswerable longings, maybe he could actually help her for once. She looked into his laughing eyes. “Do me a favour and keep him from bothering me?”
Devon raised a brow.
She paused. “Please?”
“This your boyfriend?”
Alisha tensed as she realized the brute squad had moved in behind Devon. Only he didn’t seem concerned. He winked, in fact, before he faced the jerk who’d interrupted her.
Devon checked out the three men. “I’m her friend.”
The ass in front shifted his weight. “You’re gonna keep me from bothering her?”
The last thing she expected was for Devon to burst out laughing. Full-out laughing. When he stopped, he was still shaking his head.
“You think this is funny?” The asshole stepped in closer.
“You have no idea how hysterical.” Devon moved aside, opening a path to Alisha. “You want to mess with her, go right ahead. I have a paramedic on speed dial. I’ll deal with your two friends if need be. She doesn’t need my help.”
Whoa. That was a vote of confidence she’d never expected to hear from Devon. Ever.
It was enough to make her grin.
Maybe she looked scarier than she thought, because Mr. Annoying faded away, his buddies with him.
“That simple, huh?” Alisha caught Devon by the arm and squeezed. “Wish they’d gone away the first time I told them to.”
“Yeah.” He glanced at his watch. “Finish your workout. We have a meeting to make.”
He turned his back, once again becoming a barrier between her and the rest of the room. For a moment she stood motionless, wondering at the compliment Devon had paid her.
Wondering why exactly he was there, again, underfoot.
She sat and struggled to focus on her arm workout. It was far too tempting to use the mirrors to track the location of Devon and the creep she’d crawled on instead of checking her form on each lift.
Maybe her response to the newcomer had been, well, over the top, but she was tired of having to fight for very damn inch of respect she got. She thought it would get easier over time, acting as if she didn’t care. Pulling on a screw-it-all attitude like armour.
She loved her job with something close to obsession. Why people couldn’t recognize that and respect her for it was beyond her understanding.
The noise calmed as the athletes settled into their routines. The newcomers vanished, and Devon took an unobtrusive spot at the edge of her peripheral vision.
Alisha put her irritation aside and focused on her body. On making it strong enough to handle anything tossed her way.
If only she could train her heart and soul as easily.
It seemed he’d been watching forever.
Across the room, Alisha sipped from an oversized water bottle as she visited with the Lifeline pilot, Erin Tate. Alisha and the black woman next to her looked far too small to be lifesavers, but they were both forces of nature, and that knowledge made Devon smile more than the disparity in their sizes from the rest of the team.
The team winch man, Anders, lay sprawled over two-thirds of the couch discussing the latest mountain film he’d seen with Xavier and Tripp, their paramedic and avalanche specialist, respectively. The three guys were about as far apart in physical appearance as possible, but together they were a hell of a team.
Together they saved lives.
Whatever things made them stand apart didn’t matter to Devon, as long as they worked together when it counted.
The door opened and their boss entered the room. Marcus Landers was a legend in his own way. Not that Devon would ever say that—Marcus would tie him up and leave him dangling from a rope for mentioning how much he’d inspired Devon early in his career. And working for the man?
His level of hero worship at first was embarrassing to remember. Devon had finally put that reverence into what he considered good use. He’d joined Lifeline and committed to making a difference.
Marcus glanced around the room. “Damn. You’re all here.”
“Ha.” Erin flashed him a one-fingered salute. “You’re late. We should make you do training circuits to make up for keeping us waiting.”
Marcus grinned. The man was notorious for his creative training methods. And his creative punishments. “Just keeping you at the top of your game.”
“You enjoy it too much,” Tripp drawled. “We know better than to be late without a note from the hospital or fresh stitches.”
Everyone shuffled into position around the massive boardroom table. Alisha curled herself in a chair across from Devon, ignoring him to face Marcus. “This must be an important meeting. You didn’t bring us any doughnuts.”
Erin leaned forward and picked up the roll of paper Marcus had dropped on the table. “But he did bring us a treasure map.”
Marcus folded himself into the chair at the head of the table. “Treasure beyond your wildest dreams, Erin.”
She raised a brow. “I can dream pretty big.”
“Hey,” Anders interrupted. “Before you get started on the official meeting, what’s happening at the Banff training school? I bumped into your brother the other day, and he was grinning far too hard.”
“Probably still gloating over having Becki James as a head coordinator,” Devon suggested.
Marcus’s smile deepened at the mention of his lover. “The school is damn lucky to have her on full time. The grin, though, is because he got a new sponsor who set the school up with a couple of scholarships plus enough cash to revamp the entire training centre.”
Tripp whistled softly. “Sweet. Unnamed benefactor?”
“Some Toronto bigwig with more money than God. Said he wanted to help support the ongoing development of excellence.”
“Should see if he wants to pour some cash this direction,” Xavier suggested. “Because you know this place could use a little sprucing up, and we are excellent ourselves.”
Across from Devon, Alisha had stiffened, watching the banter, but no longer participating. The tightness to her body hadn’t been there moments before.
Conversation continued around them about what they’d do to fix up the staff quarters of Lifeline if they had a spare million to play with. Devon ignored them and instead thought through all the reasons he could for Alisha’s strange tension. She’d grown up in Toronto. That was the only connection he could come up with without doing more research.
Marcus tapped on the table to get their attention. “Okay, put your speculation about the Banff SAR school aside. I have news.”
“Raises?” Erin teased.
“Actually, yes.” Marcus waited until the hooting and hollering died down. “You’re a horde of wild animals this morning. What the hell did you have for breakfast?”
“I don’t know what she ate, but Alisha went climbing over a gym rat.” Tripp held his hands up in surprise as Alisha whirled on him in exasperation. “Well, you did, right?”
“How is my business all over this town in less than an hour?” She glared across the table at Devon.
He hated how quickly she looked at him to be the cause of her troubles, but then, being annoying was his usual ploy to distract her from the truth. “Don’t blame me. I have better things to do than gossip about your choice of workout equipment.”
“Nah, it wasn’t Devon.” Tripp held up his phone and showed Alisha the screen. Her face grew red as she stared.
Devon grabbed Tripp’s wrist and pulled the phone to himself to look. Facebook. Someone had taken a picture of Alisha and Photoshopped it so she appeared to be climbing over King Kong.
“Enough.” Marcus shook his head. “Bunch of children, all of you. You want the news, or should I take you to the nearest playground for a while?”
His grin remained firmly in place. Marcus knew the truth. The teasing and joking—it was all part of dealing with the stress of life-and-death decisions. They played hard, they worked even harder.
Marcus looked them over one by one as he spoke. “It’s been a good summer, guys. I’m proud of you and the way you’ve operated. There have been a couple of nasty situations we had to deal with, and you pulled together and made it happen. Thank you.”
Goofing aside, Tripp relaxed in his chair, his expression full of pride. “Did you hear back from that rescue we did up at Twin Falls? Did the dad pull through?”
“He did.” Marcus gestured down the table. “And that’s what I mean about good work. That man would be dead without you. All of you, working together.”
“It’s what we signed up to do.” Xavier shrugged.
“It’s what we love to do,” Alisha corrected.
“And it makes a difference. Don’t ever forget it. Last year you won awards. This year, you quietly did your job, and got it done. So again, thank you.”
“Easier without the media in our bloody faces all the time, anyway,” Erin muttered. She focused on the roll, giving it a poke. “I take it your secret news has something to do with this?”
Devon agreed. Curiosity ate at him. “Enough cheerleading, Marcus. I want to see what’s on the treasure map.”
Marcus gestured. “Go for it.”
Eager hands reached forward and unrolled the paper, securing the edges in place.
“A map of western Canada?” Alisha tilted her head. “Oh, cool. You’ve marked the locations of our rescues.”
Everyone leaned in, pointing to markers and commenting on the toughest parts of the rescue they remembered, or the most memorable.
“This is like a scrapbook, Marcus.” Erin eyed him. “Who knew you had it in you?”
He grinned. “Becki’s idea.”
“Go, Becki,” Alisha dragged a finger over the mountain range to the east of Banff. “It’s an awesome idea.”
“And, what’s more exciting? We’ll have markers in a much wider range over the coming months and years. This is my news.” Marcus leaned over the table and laid his forearms on a section of the map, his prosthetic left hand on the divider line between Saskatchewan and Alberta, his right arm down the center of British Columbia. “This, to date, has been our corridor. Now?”
He opened his arms wider and settled his right hand off the coast of Vancouver Island.
“Holy shit.” Erin leaned forward. “We’re taking over coastal duties?”
“Pacific rescues have been added to our list. With cutbacks to the government, we’re now on call to assist with any extreme situation between here and Port Tofino. As far north as needed.”
A thrill of excitement shot through Devon. “Does this mean I get to break out the scuba suit a bit more often?”
Marcus nodded. “In coordination with naval SAR, but yes. Your reputation as a guppy is now official.”
The grin stretching his cheeks felt awesome. Devon glanced at his teammates, pleased to see the same thrill on their faces.
Erin waved a hand in Marcus’s direction. “Does this mean you’re getting me a bigger, better chopper? Because those are some long-ass hauls you’re talking about.”
Marcus tossed her an oversized envelope. “Try a man in every port. You’ll have a chopper on the island to access—we’ll add a plane to the team here in Banff. And yes”—he caught her with her mouth still open—“you get a bigger bird to base here in Banff.”
Erin danced in her chair as she pulled out a manual.
Tripp and Xavier were debating which of them would get to drop from the new chopper first. Devon laughed, then glanced across at Alisha to see her response.
She stared at the map, her pasted-on smile so fake he could have peeled it off and put it on the shelf. “Alisha?”
She blinked at him before shaking off the cloud. “You and your scuba suit. I thought you were over that fixation after the time you got stuck in the kayak.”
He laughed. “That was a long time ago, and say what you will, it was a blast.”
She raised a brow. “Oh, yeah, so much fun as we hauled the entire kayak out of the pool on a winch system. I still have the newspaper report. The one with you as front-page news.”
“Hey, when you got it, flaunt it. The Banff Crag and Canyon needed my extraordinary good looks to peak sales that week.”
“So giving.” Alisha made a face as she rose to her feet, taking her empty glass with her. “Marcus, I need a refill.”
Their boss waved her off, busy arguing with Erin about what upgrades the pilot was allowed to get on the larger, brighter, faster helicopter.
Devon . . .
Like he always watched, especially Alisha.
The tension in her body as she’d walked away? The lack of gushing at Marcus’s big news? That wasn’t the Alisha he’d been around for the past four years.
She should have been vibrating in her seat, asking a million questions. Usually her reactions would have driven him crazy as she poked and teased in what he’d come to consider the longest foreplay session in the fucking universe.
Walking away quietly? Something was beyond wrong.
Curiosity drove him, as did the need to get them to the next stage of the game. Which meant he needed to find out what the hell was wrong.
So he could fix it.
She’d shot him down once, a long time ago. Probably didn’t even remember she’d told him to grow up and get a life. To stop goofing around and wasting his opportunities.
The cutdown had actually sunk in, and he’d decided to do just that. Done it so well, in fact, that her taunt had changed his future.
It was time for a little positive payback and an end to their sexual frustration. He was going to find out what had put that sadness behind her eyes. Find out, and help her deal with it.
No turning back.Return to High Passion