Extended Excerpt-High Passion
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LIFELINE: an elite search-and-rescue squad based out of Banff, Alberta.
Specializing in high-risk rescue missions, this team goes wherever the job takes them…
Adrenaline Search & Rescue, Book 2
Alisha Bailey left a life of privilege for the dangerous but thrilling world of search and rescue. Denying the lure of attraction to her teammate is another sacrifice she’s made to prove to everyone—including her family— that she’s more than a pretty face or a business commodity.
Since their training days, Devon Leblanc has used the competitive fire between them to hide his fascination with the petite beauty. When a natural disaster forces their rivalry aside, heated passion finally flares between them. Sexual pleasure slowly gives way to a new appreciation for each other’s skills—on the field and in the bedroom.
But when unexplained accidents begin happening to the Lifeline team, their newfound unity may be their only hope for survival…
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.
After years of reacting instantly to all kinds of life-and-death situations, Alisha thought she was beyond panicking without proof. The trembling in her hands proved otherwise.
It was the one topic guaranteed to throw her over the edge, though.
Somehow she got through the rest of the meeting. Smiled and nodded in all the correct spots, and kept her concern to herself. She’d fooled everyone in the room other than maybe Devon, who had her fixed in his gaze every time she took her eyes off Marcus. She slipped out of Lifeline headquarters ahead of the team and was in her car headed home before she could be invited for lunch, or a workout, or whatever else they came up with.
The short trip from the industrial area where their SAR base was located to her apartment wasn’t enough time to distract her. The summer had been incredible—in that, Marcus had been correct. It wasn’t only the successful rescues. Alisha had been a member of Lifeline for two and a half years now, and this was the first summer she’d felt she’d grown closer to all the members. Even Erin seemed to more than tolerate her, although the prickly woman often wore an expression of amusement as they did things..
Being a part of something as exciting and big as Lifeline was what Alisha had wanted from the start, and she’d become more successful than she’d dreamed possible.
Wasn’t all you wanted to achieve . . .
Alisha stormed into the tiny kitchen and grabbed herself a glass of juice, ignoring the urge to go fill a cart with nothing but junk food so she could have a nice pity party.
She wandered to the window and stared over the street, the uneven rooftops and towering pines turning even the civilized city into a kind of wilderness. Inside, the rustic roof timbers and her thrift shop furniture added to the surreal effect. This inelegant setting was home, vastly different from what had been home for so many years.
Alisha flopped onto the couch and pulled out her phone. She tapped in the familiar number and waited to run the gauntlet.
“Mr. Bailey’s office. How can I help you?” The words snapped out. Crisp. Cold. The woman hadn’t cracked a smile in all the years Alisha had known her.
“Hello, Marilee. It’s Alisha. May I please speak with my father?”
No So good to hear from you, or How are you doing? but Alisha hadn’t expected more than polite distance. Efficiency was the name of the game, after all.
Marilee finally continued, “He’s in a meeting, but as soon as he’s done I’ll have him call you. Did you need me to arrange anything else? I haven’t received your response regarding flights for Thanksgiving.”
Drat. She’d been avoiding answering that particular e-mail as long as possible. “I’m afraid I still don’t know my schedule for early October yet. I’ll have a decision made within the week.”
“Very good.” In spite of the words, Marilee’s tone dripped with disapproval. It was hard to not laugh. Alisha knew very well which of them had Marilee’s loyalty—her or her father. “Thank you for calling.”
The loud click had to be Alisha’s imagination, but images of the perfectly coiffured secretary slamming down the phone hard enough to crack the case flitted to mind. Not that anyone in Bailey Enterprises would ever act out of line, but it was fun to picture.
Alisha shoved her phone in her pocket and went to deal with her workout gear, double-checking that her emergency clothing stash was in place. If she was called on short notice to work a rescue, searching for socks was the last thing she wanted to waste time on.
In some areas being efficient was necessary, but her family took it to ridiculous extremes, especially outside the office doors.
Enough moping about her father, at least until he called. Alisha turned up the music and poked through the fridge, but nothing looked interesting. Nor the cupboards. She’d lost her appetite during the morning meeting, and it seemed there wasn’t much of a chance to get it back soon.
Coastal rescues? The advancement was a huge honor, and definitely something to celebrate, but would her family even register that the team had set another milestone?
Frustration flared again, this time at herself as much as them.
By now she should know better than to expect accolades, or even a brief hurrah. That the longing for approval still rose seemed cruel.
The phone rang and she checked the screen, almost hoping for a SAR call to pull her away from having to speak with him.
No such luck.
“Your father will speak with you now.” Marilee put Alisha on hold to make the connection.
Because heaven help it if Mike Bailey had to wait on the line for a moment or two, even to talk with his own daughter.
“Alisha. It’s about time you made your Thanksgiving plans.” His soft-spoken tone hid his stubbornness. What he called willfulness when she displayed the same tenacity.
Well, she wasn’t ready to cave. “I’m not sure yet that a trip east will work with my schedule. I didn’t call about that, I called to find out if you’d been making donations to the Banff SAR school.”
“The corporation makes donations to all sorts of worthy causes, Alisha. I’d have to check the records—”
“Please do. I specifically asked you to stay out of my business here in Banff. I’d like to confirm you’re honouring that agreement.”
Her father’s sigh echoed through the speaker. “I promised not to interfere, and honestly, as far as I know, no, Bailey Enterprises has not made a donation to your old school. Even though I’d imagine they’d enjoy receiving one.”
“They probably would, only there are enough rich pockets to scoop into without diving into yours. I need this to be my—”
“Yes, Alisha. You want to do it on your own. Fine. You did. You’re now a climber and ski bum instead of part of the family business. It seems to make you happy, so good for you.”
The really sad thing, he wasn’t being sarcastic. Just out of touch and oblivious, as usual. “I am happy here. By the way, Lifeline is now the premier search-and-rescue team for all of western Canada.”
“It’s . . . fine. Good for you,” he repeated. Distraction blurred his voice.
Her father was no doubt simultaneously signing paperwork as Marilee placed it before him, unable to stop and listen to his only daughter for five minutes. He’d never allow himself to be that unfocused if she were a business contact with real important news.
“Yes, it is good. In fact, it’s incredible.” The idea of an expanded territory made her thrill and sent shivers down her spine at the same time. Wasn’t it enough to impress him? “I got a raise.”
He actually laughed, and bitter frustration rushed her as he stomped on her wishful dreams. “Well, now you can afford your fancy lifestyle, can’t you? Alisha, enjoy yourself. Get it all out of your system so when you come home next summer we don’t have to put up with more of your gallivanting.”
There was a point in every conversation with her father when Alisha’s blood pressure got too high to continue. This was five minutes past when she should have given up. “I don’t think I’ll make it home for Thanksgiving this year. Tell Mom I said hello, and I’ll e-mail her soon.”
Alisha didn’t wait for his farewell. Best-case scenario, he would offer platitudes in an attempt to smooth the conversation over. Worst case would be an attack, shaming her for her lack of feminine compliancy.
She paced through the tiny attic space, feet unwilling to stop, her furious energy needing some outlet of escape. She fidgeted with everything she passed as she walked in circles.
She wanted to scream. Wanted to throw things. Wanted to beat her body into submission with another workout, but that was unreasonable. It would be stupid to punish herself when her father was the one who should be apologizing.
Although the one positive from their discussion—ha! discussion—he didn’t seem to have tossed the money at the school. Not that she wanted Banff SAR to go without funding, but having her father dump money on them would only add to the pain of fighting for her position and standings. People found it hard enough to believe she’d achieved what she had on her own. If it were discovered that Daddy Dearest had poured money into the school coffers, even now after she was gone, all her accomplishments would be suspect. She could have the fastest times on the stopwatch and gossips would still believe she’d bought her way into the placements. And her current job.
Her job, a member of an elite, highly trained, kick-ass rescue squad. Thank you very much.
She growled her frustration at the walls. It was no use. She wasn’t going to be able to relax, not for a while.
A visit to Tim Hortons to nab an entire box of doughnuts was looking far too attractive. She needed a diversion. In spite of the clouds hanging low over the mountains, she grabbed her hiking boots and yanked them on. Maybe if she burned off a little steam, visions of using the toe of her boot to kick some sense into her father would stop dancing through her head.
She grabbed her emergency gear bag and trundled down the stairs to her car.
His curiosity got the better of him. There might be other ways to find out what he needed, but the first solution that came to mind was the simplest.
The sneakiest as well, but whatever.
Sneaky required Devon to wait until the rest of the team had left headquarters. Alisha was gone in a flash—again, atypical for her. The others poked around for a while. Chatting, teasing, and carrying on. Xavier flirted with the new part-time call-centre-worker-slash-receptionist before leaving with a shouted challenge at Tripp for darts that evening.
The newest employee Marcus had hired to Lifeline, Lana, had arrived in the middle of their meeting, gliding past the giant boardroom table to hide out of the way in the administration area. The dark-haired woman had worked silently through all the discussion and recaps and the planning for the team’s shoulder-season training and rescue setups. After the meeting she continued her tasks, nodding attentively while Marcus gave directions for ordering new materials.
Devon ignored her as he wandered through headquarters in a deliberately casual manner. Lana would work with Marcus during emergencies to gather information, and the rest of the time she would play a more relaxed administration role. It was a position that required someone trained in search and rescue but not one who joined the team physically on the field.
Marcus had made Lifeline HQ into an environment that was both efficient and relaxing, but it wasn’t Devon’s choice of hangouts. He’d prefer to head home, hit the gym, or call up a couple of his buds and see if they were free. As it was, for over an hour he found tasks to keep him busy. Organizing gear, straightening supplies. There wasn’t any problem finding reasons to stick around.
Although, as the others all left, his continued presence became more noticeable.
“You know, I’ve already promised you a salary increase,” Marcus teased.
Devon grinned. “Thanks for that, by the way. It’ll come in handy. Thought I’d get some work done while it’s quiet. I’ve already finished my workout for the day, and the weather’s crap for hiking or anything.”
Marcus gave Devon’s shoulder a squeeze before turning on the lone remaining Lifeline member. He shooed Erin out of the building. “Enough. Do your research, and stop asking me impossible questions about your new chopper. Get.”
“Meanie. See you later, Devon.” Erin snatched up the pile of materials Marcus had offered her.
Marcus slipped out the door, walking rapidly to escape as Erin followed and kept badgering him.
As the door latched behind them, Devon glanced to check where Lana had gone. She was nowhere in sight, so he pushed his way past the call desk and into Marcus’s private office.
He closed the door most of the way. Okay, what he was doing at the moment wasn’t strictly kosher, but it wasn’t as if he were snooping for tons of information. Just a hint to help him explore Alisha’s background more thoroughly.
The cabinet that held their employment records stood in the far corner. He carefully slid the metal drawer forward and flipped through hanging files until he hit Alisha’s name. He didn’t even pull the envelope out, simply opened it and skimmed down to where the emergency contact numbers were listed. Father’s name. Mother’s. A phone number. He memorized them and stuffed everything away how he’d found it.
Discovering that Lana now blocked his path to freedom proved he’d make a shitty undercover operative. Unless he wanted to spend the next however long hidden in the office until she left the room again, he was about to get caught. He went for nonchalant and headed for the door.
Her chair was tight enough to the wall that his hips bumped it as he eased past.
“Were you lost, Devon?” Her lips twisted into a smirk. “Or did you think I wouldn’t notice you?”
“Well, I was hoping . . .”
He winked. Damned no matter what he said, Devon fell back on charming her into silence. If his track record were anything to go on, he’d all too easily persuade her not to tell on him.
Lana shook her head in amusement, turning to face her desk. “If you get caught where you shouldn’t be, it’s your butt. Marcus won’t yell at me.” She slipped another set of papers into place. “And I might have only been here for a week, but even I’ve figured out he’s a good yeller.”
“A very good yeller,” Devon agreed. “Only, he didn’t catch me.”
She snorted but didn’t say anything else, her focus on the papers.
“Efficient,” he complimented her.
“I try.” She spun her chair and gave him a long stare. “You, too. You weren’t in there for very long.”
Devon waved a hand easily, attempting to put his actions into a better light than it might seem. “I wasn’t doing anything terrible, only—”
“I didn’t see anything, remember?” She completed her task before picking up her purse and rising to her feet. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
Amusement mixed with relief washed over him as he grabbed his coat and headed out the front door. Lana left as well, locking up behind them. He slowed his step as he realized his truck was the only vehicle left in the parking lot. “You need a ride into town?”
“That would be great. Catching the bus takes forever.” Lana paced at his side, her long legs easily keeping stride with his. “My car is at the shop while they figure out why it’s making weird noises. And their diagnostic machine is down, so I have to wait for them to get a replacement part before they can tell me what replacement parts I need.”
“Typical. The higher the tech, the longer it’ll take.”
She slipped onto the bench seat of his truck and tossed her purse at her feet. “Usually I don’t mind. Walking around Banff isn’t a hardship, only the Lifeline building is a little far out of town to hoof it to work.”
“I can give you a lift if I’m around and headed in,” Devon offered. Only made sense to offer her a hand, seeing how she was now part of the team.
Her face lit up. “I’d appreciate that. If it’s no problem, you could drop me off at Safeway. I’ll grab a few groceries and walk home from there.”
As he drove, Lana rambled about the move from wherever she’d come from, and how her U-Haul truck had been, as she called it, hijacked at one of the gas stations along the way. Devon tried to respond at the proper moments, but he was distracted, his focus once again returning to the mystery of Alisha and what had upset her so much.
They’d worked together for years, been in school before that, and the amount he knew about her private life was minuscule.
The way she’d avoided sharing anything about her family had to be deliberate.
“I hope there’s a good place for wings in town.” Lana broke into his mental ramblings. “Funny how we all have our vices, right? I spent my time at training school taking such good care of my body, but put an order of wings in front of me and I’m putty. I picture them at times, teasing me and calling my name.”
Devon dragged his mind off memories of Alisha’s ass while she worked her way up a vertical wall. “We do get addicted to the strangest things.”
He pulled into the grocery store parking lot and paused to let Lana off. Familiar faces turned his way to greet him, the guys checking his passenger out with more than a little interest as she slipped from the cab and waved her thanks.
Devon kept his grin hidden. She wasn’t going to lack for company. He looked her over as she walked away, chatting with one of his buddies who’d rushed the truck to help her. She was older than him, probably closer to thirty. Lana was in good shape—most of them in the field were a bit fanatical about conditioning, but that was what happened when your body was a part of your equipment.
Even observing another woman couldn’t stop Alisha from popping to his mind, though. While Lana might have the long, lean thing happening, Alisha made Devon heat far beyond reason. She had muscles while remaining feminine, but it was her attitude that fired his desire to the point where he had to fight for control. He had to be a bit of a masochist if being pushed by Alisha to the edge of his endurance during a challenge turned him on more than the fluttering lashes Lana was using on her current mark.
He headed home more determined than ever to find a way to break through Alisha’s constant rebuffs. He wanted her in his bed, and it was past time for her to admit that was what she wanted as well.
There was an unwritten law that most emergency calls arrived an hour after you went to bed or an hour before you were ready to wake up.
The alarm blaring across the room jerked Alisha from a dream that shredded away like a cloud in high wind, leaving behind only the uncomfortable sensation of watching eyes and hungry wolves.
She snatched up her phone and acknowledged receipt of the call, gazing out the window into the darkness of the backyard as she checked the sky for weather conditions. Something flashed near the fence, catching her attention for a split second before she stifled her curiosity and hurried into routine. There was no time to be distracted. She jerked on her clothing and was out the door in less than five minutes.
Her rapid response still wasn’t quick enough to make her the first to arrive at headquarters. Both Erin’s and Devon’s vehicles were already in the parking lot, with Marcus pulling in behind her.
“What’s the location?” she called to Marcus as she reached into her backseat and pulled out her bag with the rest of her gear.
“High alpine in the Monashees Range. Rock slide surprised a research team, and they’re still missing a couple of members.” Marcus got ahead of her and held the door open. “I’ll know more in a minute.”
Inside the building, the bright overhead lights made her blink as she hurried into the sorting locker to join Devon. He was already stacking ropes and bags in preparation for loading into the chopper.
He smiled, his blue eyes looking far clearer and brighter than hers felt at the moment. One section of his hair stood straight on end again, taunting her to try to make it behave.
“You slept in,” he teased.
“You know who’s leading the rescue today?” Ignoring him was her only defense when he was borderline more adorable than she could stand.
Devon shook his head as he brought down a set of climbing cams and passed them to her. “Tripp is up on rotation, but depending on the exact location, Anders might call the shots—there are glaciers in the area.”
“I knew that.” She used two hands to accept gear, keeping everything untangled while stowing it away. With a bag slung over each shoulder and another in each hand, Alisha twisted to escape.
She raced out the door and across the tarmac without looking back. She kicked herself for being rude to Devon when he’d simply been sharing news like a teammate was supposed to—she had to pull herself together before she made any more mistakes.
They were in the air in less than twenty minutes. Erin lifted the chopper while the sky remained dark, the pale glow of sunrise only a thin line against the eastern horizon.
“Everyone gets thirty minutes to wake up before I brief you on details. Marcus is back at base, finding out more. Once he knows what we’re into he’ll update me, so I’ll go over expectations and set up then.” Tripp spoke over the headset speakers, his voice rushing past her ears like a soft zephyr.
He held out a thermos, and Anders, seated to his right, grabbed it eagerly. He opened the lid and took a deep sniff. “Whoa, now that’s a nice surprise. Who had time to make coffee before heading to HQ?”
“New gadget Lana installed.” Tripp beamed. “Timer or computer controlled—when we got the bug-out call, I triggered the on button using my phone. It was ready to go when we were.”
“If it’s always prepped, we’ll never do a rescue without caffeine again.” Xavier held up a hand and high-fived Tripp. “Nice. Now hurry the hell up and pour, Anders.”
Banter continued as Anders filled everyone’s travel mug. There was no way to stop a smile from lifting her lips as Alisha observed her team.
They had all developed coping strategies to deal with the nervous anticipation that slipped in en route to a rescue, let alone the flat-out shock of being dragged from their warm beds. Some of them sat quietly, slowly letting themselves come alive. Others like Xavier seemed to have nothing but an on/off button. He chattered nonstop to anyone who would listen as he flipped songs on his MP3 player, occasionally singing along.
Alisha found it harder to wake up this morning than usual. Her restless wandering the previous afternoon had tired her out, all right, but she still hadn’t fallen asleep at a decent hour.
She straightened her coat, preparing for the hour-plus flight. She adjusted her gloves and cupped her hands around her travel mug, but even with the heater blasting overhead there was no way to completely ignore the cool temperatures clinging to the interior of the chopper.
Transports were overheated in summer and cold the rest of the year. She had to be slightly crazy to want to be a part of it all. Part of the discomfort of being woken willy-nilly, and all the other inconveniences that went with being search and rescue.
She probably was slightly crazy. So be it.
Beside her, Devon laughed at something, and she pulled her coat hood up to hide her face. Watching him made something inside flutter and ache, if it were possible to have those two conflicting emotions. He had so much life in him—so much enthusiasm. Sometimes she felt he’d pulled her through the roughest moments of training school with his sheer exuberance alone.
Striving to beat him at challenges had made her stronger. She’d admit that to herself now.
He didn’t need to know she was attracted to him, though. The player didn’t need more ammunition. Besides, it wasn’t as if he needed more playmates. He was already making a move on the new receptionist. As she’d headed out to the trailhead yesterday she’d seen Lana in his truck, the two of them laughing as they waited at the lights close to Devon’s house. She wouldn’t comment on how quickly the two of them had gotten cozy.
The wall needed to stay up. Solid. Attraction firmly ignored.
The daydreams about his strong hands and his rope-handling skills—those were simply a nice way to pass the time during a long rescue approach.
Devon glanced her way. Heat spread though her fast enough that if she weren’t careful, she’d be too toasty for her coat and the rest of her gear, and stripping prior to a rescue wasn’t a good idea. Wasn’t a good idea ever, not as far as Devon was concerned. It was unfair that he turned her on, since she certainly didn’t want her name added to his harem list.
Thirty minutes passed far quicker than she expected, and she’d relaxed, drifting off to better fantasize. A soft touch to her thigh jerked her to full alert to find herself staring into a pair of bright blue eyes. His hand on her leg was hot through the fabric, and instant tingling shot through her core.
Devon’s voice carried over the headset. “Are you ready?”
Sexual fantasies evaporated in a rush of indignation, and she stiffened. “Of course. What makes you think I’m not ready to do a rescue—?”
Rapid motion to one side caught her attention. Tripp’s soundless clapping ended as he held up two fingers. Alisha flushed and switched her headset to channel two.
“Sorry, Tripp, don’t know how I got flipped to a different setting.” She gave Devon a sheepish smile. “Thanks for getting my attention.”
Devon shrugged, then focused on Tripp.
“Everyone ready?” the older man asked. “We still have flight time, but I thought we’d go over a couple plans now so we can get into position quicker.”
“There’s already a rescue team in the area?” Anders asked.
Tripp nodded. “They’ve marked the perimeter, and they’ve contacted the RCMP K-9 division to get a dog brought out. Right now they suspect a couple of new cracks that opened might be the trouble. And none of them are climbers, so we’ll be the ones going, only down, not up. Questions?”
Everyone had trained and worked together on far too many rescues to need to be babysat through procedure. Only one subject still remained as far as Alisha was concerned. “Partners?”
As lead hand, she would be the first to head into any climb, or the first to drop from the chopper into position. Up until the start of summer her partner at the other end of the line had always been Anders. During boot camp week, though, she and Devon had been partnered up, and since then it seemed they were always paired together.
“You and Devon, Anders with Xavier. I’m sticking close to Erin with the chopper in case you find the victims and we can winch them out. Deal?”
“Deal.” Everyone acknowledged their positions and chatter resumed over the headsets.
Alisha went back to mentally prepping for the rescue. Getting into the right frame of mind to crawl down a rock wall into the darkness. To have only a rope and a headlamp as the connection between her and the outside world.
A rope, and the man on the other end of it.
She caught herself staring at Devon’s hands again. Strange. She trusted him completely when it came to belaying her. He held her life in his hands, and she didn’t feel the need to worry one bit.
When it came to her heart? He was simply another man she refused to allow to hurt her.
The chopper banked and she snuggled deeper into her coat. Much more awake, but no further ahead in solving her major dilemma.
Thank God for the distraction of a rescue.
Nothing was wrong, but something wasn’t right.
The equipment was fine, as were the steps they’d taken so far since reaching the rescue site. A sense of foreboding hovered over Devon, though, and he could find nothing to explain why.
It wasn’t some mystical foreknowledge, only he knew not to ignore the sensation, either. It had been the topic of many a late-night drinking session during training school when more experienced recruits would stop to share stories from the field. They’d all had times when they’d felt a warning ahead of time, for whatever reason. It would make sense later, but for now? He kept his guard set higher than usual.
Efficiency built from years of training and working together had Alisha slipping out of sight as the morning sun peeked above the low mountain ridge to their east. Shadows reached crooked fingers toward the rock slide, creating patterns of light and dark emphasized by variations in rock. Pale grey slabs and darker black chunks mixed with clumps of freshly exposed soil and ragged splashes of green pine needles. Devon ignored the strange beauty found even in the middle of the devastation and focused on the changing weight on the rope in his hands.
“Take,” Alisha called from below. “Devon, tie off and descend to meet me. I’ve found something. There’s a tunnel opening to one side. I want you to anchor me from here before I try it.”
“On my way.” Devon signaled Anders to his side. “Alisha’s got a lead. I’m going down.”
Anders nodded. “Xavier’s dealing with the two victims we spotted from the air at the edge of the slide. I’ll take over up here.”
A few quick adjustments switched his ropes from belaying to rappelling. Devon twisted his headlamp to high before leaning back on the ropes and allowing them to support his weight. A ray of sunshine hit him like a spotlight a second before he stepped over the edge.
The walkie-talkie link on his chest allowed him to hear Alisha without her shouting. “You’ve got a thirty-foot path—nice and clear. If you move slightly to the right when I warn you, you’ll find a set of footholds to get you to my ridge.”
“Let me know. What did you find?”
“Jacket shreds and a shoe. Some blood.” Report was clear and precise, but there was a touch of disgust in her voice any time she had to discuss bleeds. “I’m guessing someone got carried along with the rubble for a bit of a ride before they hit the crack. This is a fresh opening—I haven’t found any old growth.”
Devon agreed. He worked his way down the slope rapidly, even as he flipped on his speaker. “You’re not going to believe this. The research team was testing for seismic activity. They have clear records that show when the slide happened, and yeah, there was a bit of underground quiver.”
“Head right. And really? Tell me they’re not expecting any further activity.”
Devon followed her guidance, rock dust hanging in the air between him and the wall, blurring his vision. “Agreed. In a fresh hole while things are still shifting? Not a great idea, but there’s nothing on the equipment. Like zero activity. We’re safer down here than up top where the fall is still shifting and finding its balance.”
He landed beside her, the glow of his headlamp highlighting her cheekbones and making the bits of her hair that were visible under her helmet shine like an angel’s.
Alisha checked him over quickly, then pointed to the left. “This way. I set anchors already, but I’ll need to swing around a gap, then get some lights in place.”
Devon tied off to the wall anchors she’d set. “Nice and bombproof. Well done.”
“Thank you.” Alisha pulled a rope from her shoulder and passed him the loop he needed. “I’ll check the needed length. Hold me tight so I can lean out.”
He motioned for her to wait as he hooked the safety line in place. Once they brought back their target, or if they needed it themselves, the way out would be a matter of grabbing the rope and signaling Anders to haul them to safety.
Devon adjusted his footing and slipped in directly behind Alisha, tightening the ropes to hold himself in place, fine-tuning the ones attaching them together. Then he threaded his fingers into her climbing harness. “Lean away.”
Alisha had grabbed a high-power flashlight, the backup strap leashed around her wrist. She pushed forward, upper body hanging over the inky blackness at their feet. Light reflected from closer protrusions, skipped out into eternity in other spots as the holes ended too far back for the light to reveal the depth.
Dust particles hovered in the air around them. The taste of dirt skidded over his tongue. Peering through the haze caused by the wide dilation of his headlamp didn’t help him see much better. “Anything? Worthwhile going forward?”
Alisha stretched a hand to him, holding out the flashlight. “There’s a part of the wall to the left that’s got . . . skid marks? I need to slide around the corner to be sure.”
That would put this rescue one step farther up the danger scale. Devon took the lamp and placed it aside, pulling her to vertical, their bodies tight together as they rearranged gear.
At some point soon he needed them in this position when they weren’t covered from head to toe. Naked. Naked would be marvelous.
He slapped himself mentally, pulling back on track and thinking about the four rules his team had been built on. The first two were opposites, seemingly. Have patience, or move decisively. Was this a time to wait or move? “Do we have what we need to proceed?”
“We do for me to go around the corner. I’ll know more at that point.” Alisha took a deep breath. “On belay.”
He adjusted his hands. “Belay on. Careful, Alisha.”
She glanced over her shoulder, teeth flashing white as she smiled. A second later she was gone, the rope twisting in his hands as she used him as a fulcrum to find footing and scamper deeper into the darkness.
“Give me slack, Devon.”
He let out a foot of rope. Then another. Tension remained on the line, and everything was going well, when his earlier uneasiness returned in a flash.
“Alisha, what’s happening?”
“I found a trail. Correction. I found him.” Excitement rocked her voice, not only over the microphone now but shouted into the darkness. “Hello. Are you okay? I’m coming to help you.”
A muttered reply, nothing comprehensible, but thrilling to hear nonetheless. Devon hit his mic to the surface. “Alisha’s found the mark. Anders, get in position. We’re not far from the surface.”
“I’ll let you know.”
Alisha had continued to talk to the lost, now found, researcher. Devon fed out line and worked to get extra ropes in place for Alisha to secure the victim.
The speaker connection between them crackled. “Conscious and alert. He’s been bumped around but he’s good to move without a stretcher. Bring him up, Devon.”
For the next fifteen minutes Devon pulled and worked his muscles to the maximum as he lifted the man to the midlevel platform. He was dirty from head to toe, his jacket and pants cut in places from the rocks he’d slid over. One foot in a boot, the other in a dirt-streaked sock. Blood marred one side of his face, the wound on his temple already covered with a quick bandage Alisha must have slapped in place.
Devon checked him over quickly, shining his light into the man’s eyes to watch his pupils react. “What’s your name and how are you feeling?”
A momentary flash of panic faded as the man pulled himself together. “Paul, and dark places aren’t my favourite. Otherwise, I’m okay.”
Devon nodded. “We’ll get you out of here as quickly as possible. Hold tight.”
He wasn’t going to leave Alisha waiting in the dark any longer than he had to, either. It was a bit of a teeter-totter, making sure the researcher was roped to the wall, then adjusting lines to get back to Alisha to hoist her up. Devon worked as rapidly as possible, the occasional comment over the microphone the only thing assuring him Alisha was safe.
It seemed like forever before Devon finally was in position. “You ready?”
“No worries. I was doing my nails.”
The researcher chuckled, and Devon smiled. Yeah, everything would be—
Static shot out from his handset followed hard by Xavier’s overly loud response.
“Crap. Lock into position guys, incoming.” His breathing increased in tempo as if he were running. “We lost another chunk of the mountain and it’s rolling in.”
Devon held a hand to Paul, keeping his voice calm and controlled in spite of the unknown factors barreling toward them. “Don’t panic. We’re good here. Let me get my partner, and we’ll all bunker down.”
Paul nodded, his fingers white around the ropes holding him to the wall.
“Haul ass, Alisha,” Devon ordered.
“Already halfway there, sugar.” Alisha peeked around the corner, her bright purple helmet shining at him. “I’m ready to fly.”
Fly she would. Devon gave her the word, then put all his strength into not just supporting her as she headed into the wide arc between them. He lifted her, making her cover the distance in half the time it had taken for her to leave him.
The rock underfoot shook slightly; sounds of the secondary rock fall carrying to them from the surface. Deep underground in the darkness where they were—that was all he concentrated on. On getting Alisha to safety. Like he’d promised . . . like being a partner always promised.
His biceps were screaming, but he brought her all the way up until he could catch her chest harness and lock her against him.
She blinked, half in surprise, half delighted, it seemed. “Well now, that was a lot of fun.”
God. Devon would have laughed at her enthusiasm if they hadn’t had a wide-eyed witness. They hurriedly shuffled toward Paul. “Anders, what’s happening up top?”
“We had to retreat for a minute. Cover your heads, and I’ll be back as soon as the leading edge settles.”
“We’re all fine.” Alisha answered this time, totally calm, as if she’d been suntanning on the beach all afternoon with a relaxing cocktail in hand. “Anders, Devon and I are going to take a break for a minute, then you can lift Paul, okay?”
Devon stepped around Paul, putting the man into the middle of the huddle. Even as he worked like crazy to secure them all, Alisha carried on talking to Paul. She caught Devon’s eye for a second and winked before teasing Paul about his girlfriend and the added value this adventure would give him.
Alisha was incredible. Once again proving she deserved every single accolade she’d gotten.
Above them the sunlight faded, and a torrent of dust and debris slipped into the crack. Devon turned his back on the surface and covered Paul. Alisha did the same on the other side, their arms cocooned around the man as small rocks found their way into the opening and bounced off the walls.
“Slide mainly to the left of you,” Anders informed them. “It’s pretty dusty up here, but give it a minute and we’ll be in position to get your new buddy up.”
“There, see? Not bad at all.” Alisha smiled up at both Paul and Devon.
Devon was distracted by a new sound, one not coming from the surface, but from the wall behind them. “Alisha, take over tying Paul in. I need to check something.”
She frowned, but nodded.
He didn’t do anything stupid like unrope and go explore, but he did loosen off enough to step away from the others.
Devon placed his ear to the rock. The rumbling increased.
At the same moment his headlamp caught a glitter in the distance. Devon’s mouth went dry, but he forced himself to speak normally, no matter that everything inside was screaming for him to rush. “Alisha, is he ready?”
She gave a thumbs-up, patting Paul on the arm as she spoke into the mic. “Anders, take it away.”
Usually Devon would be intently watching the victim until the man had reached safety, the way Alisha was doing.
Only not this time.
This time something else demanded his attention.
Devon swooped in on Alisha, looping his rope around her twice. Her verbal protests cut off when he pointed at Paul to warn her not to scare the victim, but she didn’t simply give in.
“What are you doing?” she bit out in a whisper.
“The slide opened a stream. Brace yourself.” That glitter in the distance was approaching faster than they could escape. “Once the first rush is past us I’m betting there will be enough room that we can climb out.”
Her eyes widened, mouth gaping open until she snapped it shut. “A stream?”
She turned her head back toward the tunnel, headlamp shining out, and Devon swore. The glitter was no longer in the distance.
“Hold your breath, Alisha.” He caught the back of her neck and held her face to his chest. His other hand wrapped tight around the anchors while he hoped like hell the rock lip they were crouching beside would deflect the worst of the first impact.
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