Lucian Duquesne watched Adam Stone match his speed, then press the throttle lever with his calloused thumb. The all-terrain vehicle rocketed along the rough two-track trail, through the trees, and up the rocky slope. Once Adam reached the clearing, he parked, then shut down the engine.
Lucian pulled up alongside, took off his goggles, and continued the morning’s debate. “It’s not like we need to wire the whole camp. Let’s say, a thousand feet out from the buildings. Cut me some slack here, hoss. With our clientele, we should increase the efficiency of our perimeter alarms. Civilians, hikers, misdirected vacationers, poachers don’t need to be crossing the line of demarcation into our range of fire.”
A loud crack
reverberated under the heavy canopy of tall trees, followed by a second, forestalling Adam’s response. Gunshots. Then a third sound, dull and metallic, like the slamming of a heavy door.
Lucian arched an eyebrow at Adam, attempting to radiate cocky vindication. He reached for the rifle stowed in the weapon carrier on the rear deck of his four-wheeler, then rested the weapon on his lap. “Shithead poachers.”
Adam picked up his rifle. He jacked cartridges into the chamber, aimed toward a slope away from the direction of the sounds, then fired two quick rounds.
“People here. Private property!” His strong voice echoed after the rifle shots. He cranked over the ATV, headed toward the original shots. Lucian brought up the rear.
They reached the road and were immediately enveloped in the cloud of dust obscuring an eastbound vehicle. Adam gave chase.
As the gritty powder settled, Lucian spotted two long black patches of tread marks. The acrid odor of vulcanized rubber lingered in the air.
Adam returned. “Someone was in a damn hurry.”
Lucian frowned, but not at Adam’s curt remark. “Yo, hoss, tracks at eleven o’clock.”
They dismounted and carried their rifles. Experienced trackers, they didn’t disturb the terrain more than necessary. The trail of churned earth led them to the edge of the clearing. Before the ground broke and dropped into the ravine, the way was blocked—the forward motion of a dark blue four-door SUV had been abruptly halted by a rhino-size boulder and a giant tree.
As they approached the wreck, Lucian took photos of the scene before they touched anything. Then he hurried to the driver’s door. “Driver still in place, window is pebbled from the inside, looks like blood. Door is jammed. Try the other side.”
Adam checked out the front passenger door. “Not gonna happen. Truck’s wedged tight. See if the back door opens. If not, we’ll go through the tailgate.”
The driver’s-side passenger door creaked and complained loudly, but Lucian managed to force it open by bracing a leg against the side of the truck and yanking. The car alarm sounded. From the backseat, he stretched past the driver to switch off the ignition, silencing the alarm.
The driver hung forward, suspended by her seat belt.
“Female, unconscious, has a pulse. That’s all I can tell from here.”
Adam manhandled the opposite door wide enough to maneuver into the truck’s backseat with Lucian. He hung over the passenger seat, flipped a lever, then jerked the seat back into full recline mode. “I’ll cut the belt, you support her, I’ll lay both seats down. We’ll slide her backward onto the cargo deck.”
Lucian held up his forefinger. “Wait two seconds. Let me see how fast MacBride can get an EMT unit here.” He stepped outside the Tahoe and punched numbers into his satellite phone. He leaned back in. “No good. Some big-deal accident at the lake. All available personnel are at the site.”
“Then it’s us or nothing. Can’t wait. Let’s do it.”
Lucian stripped to the waist, laid his holstered Colt .45 model 1911 semiauto on the cargo deck next to his rifle, and spread out his waterproof canvas hunting jacket. In a few minutes, they had the woman lying flat in the cargo area, the coat under her. Lucian folded his T-shirt and tucked it under her head, then covered her with his flannel shirt. “I’ll deal with Jane Doe. Bring the Suburban, and let’s get her to the lodge.”
Adam secured his own weapon, then mounted up, taking the faster route by road back to their camp.
“All righty, then. Let’s see what we can see.” Lucian crawled next to the victim. Her pulse was slow but steady. The laceration on her left temple still oozed. It didn’t look deep, the edges already crusted and bruised. He spread open the collar of her silky brown blouse and cataloged the abrasions on her left jaw and neck. Seat belt must not have been snug.
More bruising around her throat. Maybe a heavy necklace? A scarf?
Lifting blood-matted blonde hair from the woman’s face, he took more photos in the hope of identifying the victim. “Bet you’re pretty when you’re not all banged up.”
He did a quick recon of the SUV. He grabbed the pen and pad he always carried in the quad for what he referred to as his “scathingly brilliant” moments, then used his handkerchief as he checked so he wouldn’t leave fingerprints. Out of habit, he talked to himself while he worked. “Air bag deployed. Driver’s-side window glass pebbled, blood on the glass, which lines up with the scalp injury. Hmm, that’s odd. No registration or insurance documents over the visors or in the glove box. No purse or luggage. Empty coffee container and breakfast sandwich wrapper on the floor.”
He took photos of everything he felt might be pertinent, looked around again, made final notes. “What woman wouldn’t have a handbag stuffed with all kinds of shit?”
He checked her breathing again, which remained unimpeded. He crawled out of the cargo space, walked a distance from the Tahoe, then snapped more photos of the scene from all angles.
With nothing else to investigate, he slid back into his shoulder holster and secured it, then pulled on his hunter-orange vest. He sat on the Tahoe’s open tailgate to watch the victim—and kept both eyes peeled for the possible shooter.
“Here I am, displaying this season’s most stylish hunting ensemble, and you’re missing it,” he told the unconscious woman. “Some first date.”
ADAM BACKED THE Suburban up to the rear of the Tahoe. He dropped the tailgate and pulled a folded canvas first-aid litter from the back of the truck. “She awake?”
“I tried MacBride again on the landline. Dispatcher put me through. Everyone is still out of the office. No ETA for assistance.”
Adam laid the blanket-covered litter next to the woman. He helped Lucian hoist the edges of the jacket and carefully slid her onto the canvas. Lucian snugged the blanket around her, then secured the straps. “There ya go, Burrito Baby.” He nodded to Adam. “Okay, hoss, let’s do this.”
Adam looked at the woman. Jane Doe remained totally unaware of the heroic efforts of her personal pair of paladins.
* * * *
During all the years of their youth, during long years as an efficient marine scout-sniper team, Lucian had trusted Adam without hesitation. Their lives depended on that partnership. And Lucian knew that trust was returned. They rarely argued—but they were arguing now.
They’d reached the lodge and had carried their charge into the great room.
“I think she should be in bed, not on a sofa.” Fists on hips, Lucian felt exasperated. “I called Catamount dispatch again. There’s a whopper of a boating accident on the other side of the lake. Multiple casualties. All available units responded. Cops and paramedics won’t be available for who knows how long. We should make her comfortable. She’ll probably wake up at any time now.”
“Fine.” Adam scooped the woman off the leather sofa and headed up the stairs to the bedrooms lining the outer side of the second-floor balcony.
Lucian followed his partner to the far end of the gallery. “Why your room?”
“Stop yapping like a Chihuahua. Do you want the lady comfy, or are you gonna keep houndin’ me to death? My bed is the biggest. More room to maneuver.” Adam responded to Lucian’s lifted eyebrow. “For first aid and possible medical treatment, horndog.”
He laid the woman on his California king bed. “Might be evidence on her clothing. Good test for the new fingerprint scanner—send the photos and prints to Garrett. I’ll grab something for her to wear, get her out of those bloody clothes.”
“Oh golly gee,” Lucian razzed, “why didn’t I think of all that good NCIS stuff? You are so
definitely my hero
Adam threw a hiking boot, barely missing Lucian’s head. “Kiss my ass.” He rummaged in his wardrobe, then returned to the bedside holding a dark blue nightshirt with The Few, The Proud, The Marines
emblazoned in bright yellow script under the Marine Corps logo. The garment appeared new, with crisp creases at the folds.
Lucian settled at the edge of the bed. “Ooh
, sexy. Never saw you wear that.”
“Never did. Never will. Rachel.”
“Ahh.” Rachel, the youngest of Lucian’s four sisters, the fashionista of the pack. She persisted in her efforts to update what she referred to as Adam’s caveman wardrobe.
He tossed the nightshirt at Lucian. “Need help?”
“Nah, I got it.”
Adam grunted and hit the bathroom to wash up.
Lucian moved the woman as little as possible to prevent further injury, which made his task difficult. He hadn’t made any headway by the time Adam returned.
“Hoss, help me get her out of these and into that.”
He and Adam were surprisingly awkward at their task as they tried not to notice—or touch—the sexy body beneath their hands. They removed the woman’s bloodstained blouse and matching brown-with-orange-poppies skirt, finally her satiny brown bra. They left her wearing the matching panties, which did not appear to be bloody or damaged. Lucian carefully folded the removed garments and placed them in a clean laundry bag. He wrapped her sparkly summer sandals in plastic and added them to the bag.
Adam straightened up. “What’s with the blotches on her neck?”
Lucian took a few more photos of the bruises, which had darkened. “No idea. I thought maybe some sort of clunky necklace or a scarf, but I didn’t find anything. MacBride’s boys will do a better search. Stuff might have fallen on the front floor, under the seats.” He stood back from the bed. “She sure is pretty. I wonder if she’ll marry me out of gratitude. My mama, the aunts, my sisters—they would all love it.”
Adam grunted. “No problem, Man of Steel, Lord of Delusion.”
Lucian flipped his buddy the bird.
After pulling a lightweight quilt over their houseguest, Lucian dragged a chair next to the bed.
“Luce, she’s not going anywhere.”
“Yeah, I know. But she’s concussed, at the very least. Someone should be here, in case. She’s adorable. Can we keep her?”
Adam shook his head. “She’s not a puppy. Look, I’m hungry. I’ll grab something, then take my turn babysitting.”
As Adam clomped down the stairs, Lucian heard a small, weak whimper. He checked their patient. She’d gone paler, and the pulse in her neck fluttered rapidly. He pressed the back of his hand against her cheek. Her skin felt chilled. He could feel her trembling.
“Damn it, hoss, she’s going into shock. Get your ass back up here, now!”
He heard Adam jump two stairs at a time. “Blankets?”
“I’ll get them. She’s shivering like crazy. Body heat works best. Lie next to her, close.”
Danica St. Como