Authors: Rebecca Zanetti
Jory nodded, his shoulders going back. “He’s mine now, too.” Now they had to get to Piper.
They zigged and zagged through the rain, reaching the helicopter just as soldiers poured out of the main building. Jory didn’t know which group came out first, and frankly, he didn’t care.
His steps slowed as the soldier who’d shot the commander dragged out a protesting Dr. Madison by the lab coat. The woman gave a good fight, struggling, even kicking with her pointy shoes. Within seconds, the soldier had tossed the woman into another helicopter.
Her eyes met his, and she screamed for help.
He paused, his memories flashing of his childhood and her presence. But the woman he loved was behind him, wounded and worried. He made the choice and turned to jump inside his helicopter. Piper had been shot, and he had to get the kids to safety, both trumping thoughts of saving the evil doctor.
He ignited the copter, his motions routine, although he hadn’t flown in nearly four years. Piper sat next to him, while the boys remained in the back of the helicopter. Her pain resonated through the air, as did the coppery scent of her blood, and the animal deep inside him stretched awake, wanting to destroy whatever had hurt her.
Rising into the air, he yanked a burner phone from his pocket and dialed Matt.
“Status?” Matt barked.
“Shit-storm of epic proportions.” Soldiers began firing up, and Jory took evasive maneuvers. “I’m landing outside of Base 2 in about twenty, and you need to evacuate and jump in for headquarters.”
Silence came over the line. “You have the code algorithm?”
“Maybe.” It depended on how badly the tower had been damaged. The hard drive for the computer was in the tower, and Piper had managed to secure it. Everything they needed was there… if the bullet hadn’t destroyed it. “We have the best we’re going to get.”
“Copy that.” Matt clicked off.
Jory turned and eyed Chance. “What did you mean that Piper getting shot was your fault?”
The kid paled, his Adam’s apple bobbing, but he didn’t look away. “I sent out a message telling the PROTECT people our location.”
Jory’s head jerked, and his body calmed in preparation for a fucking fight. “You did what?”
Chance shrugged. “I weakened our system to allow for a big hack, and then I planted files that gave our exact location so they’d attack.” He leaned up and patted Piper’s arm, tears filling his eyes. “I’m really sorry you got shot. Didn’t think that would happen.”
Piper smiled wanly and caught his hand. The poor kid had done what he’d needed to do to save his brothers. “It’s okay, sweetie.”
He blinked and then frowned. “I, um, I got you shot.”
“Nope. The bastard who shot me… shot me. Not you.” She sighed and released him. “It was a good plan, really.”
Jory blinked. Gray shards of ice glittered in his eyes. “What?”
“Take two enemies, let them fight it out, and escape during the carnage.” She smiled as if proud at Chance. “You’re such a smart boy, and it worked. You’re free, and I promise you’ll stay safe. We’re sticking together, Chance.”
The kid wiped a tear off his cheek. “Okay.” He sat back with his brothers and then quietly asked, “What is Base 2?”
“Piper’s house.” Jory glanced toward the bleeding woman, impressed by her amazing brain. She was right, and Chance’s move had been brilliant, yet he had to shove down pure fury that wanted to consume him. Only his force of will kept his voice level. “We’ll get your mother to safety.”
Piper nodded, her head leaning against the chair and her eyes closing. “We probably should talk about my mother.”
Lightning flashed, and Jory jerked the stick. “Now?”
“No.” Piper sighed. “Soon though.”
Jory frowned. What in the world did that mean?
IPER TRIED TO
wipe some of the blood off her shirt, her mind fuzzing. She’d been shot. Now she rode through a sleeting rain in a helicopter, about to set down on the street in front of her house.
Life had gotten way too bizarre. Three young kids, trained as killers, sat quietly in the back. The unconscious one, Kyle, had awakened and promptly begun throwing punches until Chance ordered him to knock it off or be choked out again. Kyle had then chosen to stare silently into nothingness and ignore them all.
The smallest kid, Wade, seemed to huddle into himself as the other two boys fought.
Poor kid. She sighed.
Jory reached over and covered her hand with his. Warm, solid, and big, he provided safety in an entirely unsafe world. “Thank you for getting me out,” she murmured. How in the hell was she going to tell him that her mother had shot him?
“Of course.” The way he said the statement, with so much easy confidence, showed the trained soldier in full force. A thread of anger still wove through his words, however. Fury that she’d been harmed on his watch. He turned to the back. “We’ll touch down, and you three cover the copter.” He turned to Piper. “You have exactly two minutes from touch-down to back in the air to get whatever you want to take.”
“How’s the wound?” he asked, his jaw tightening. Concern and fury glowed in his eyes, and tension vibrated from
him as it if had wings, turning him back into the too-scary, deadly soldier she’d first met.
“Good.” Hurt like hell, actually. But the blood flow had seemed to stem, and she needed to calm him down. They had less than a day to fix the chips, and he had to focus.
“We’ll get you patched up as soon as we can. Just keep pressure on it.” He expertly maneuvered the helicopter through the storm and dropped down along Piper’s and Earl’s front lawns. “Go. Now.”
Piper jumped out and ran for the house, shoving open the door while holding tight to her bleeding shoulder. “Mom?”
Rachel came out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a towel. “What—” Her eyes widened, and she rushed forward. “You’re bleeding.”
Piper nodded and grabbed her arm. “I need you to listen. We have two minutes to take whatever we want and get out of here. Now.”
Rachel shook her head. “I don’t understand.”
Earl hustled in from the kitchen. “What’s going on?”
“We have to go.” Piper gave her mom a little push toward the bedrooms.
The front door opened, and Jory hurried inside, followed by Nate.
Rachel froze like an animal being scoped. Her face paled so much, blue veins stood out in her forehead.
Piper took a deep breath. “Mom, this is Jory.”
Rachel blinked, her mouth opening and closing. She swayed.
Piper shook her. Hard. “Later, Mom. Right now, the commander is after us, and we have to go.” She dragged her mother down the hallway and pushed her toward her bedroom. Rachel stumbled but kept on going. Piper scurried into her bedroom and shoved her photo albums, laptop, and jewelry into bags. She nearly collided with her too pale mother in the hallway, who’d also grabbed a couple of bags.
Riley ran around their legs, barking wildly.
They all hurried toward the doorway and out onto the front porch.
Piper paused. Shock stilled her. “Brian?”
The realtor stood on the porch, next to Jory, fury in his gaze. “We need to talk, Piper. There’s a fucking helicopter on your lawn.”
Rain cut a harsh path down and over the helicopter. Piper nodded. “Yeah. I have to go. Bye.”
“No.” He moved to grab her arm, his eyes widening. “You’re bleeding.”
Jory shoved him into the vinyl siding and pressed a gun to his jugular. “I’m finding it interesting that you started dating Piper right when she arrived in town. Working for the commander, are you?”
Brian squawked and shook his head. “Nooo. Really. I just met the guy once at dinner.”
Jory frowned. “Why don’t we just fight it out now?”
Brian shook his head, and his eyes filled. “No fighting. Let’s use our words.”
Nate whistled from the damp lawn. “Hurry up, Jory. The clock is ticking. Fast.”
Jory growled and leaned in. “You’re working for the commander.”
“No. Really.” Brian coughed loudly.
Jory frowned and sniffed the air before turning toward Nate, who stood in the rain waiting. “Nate?”
“Truth.” Nate grunted. “He’s telling the truth.”
Jory growled. “That’s my read, too.”
Piper glanced from one to the other.
Jory slowly removed the gun and released Brian. “Nate’s a human lie detector.”
Interesting. Piper brushed by Jory. “You’re not working
for my father?” To be honest, since Jory had planted the thought that she shouldn’t trust anybody, she had wondered.
“Of course not.” Brian yanked down his disheveled shirt.
Piper nodded. “I guess sometimes an asshole is just an asshole.” She turned toward Jory. “We need to run.”
He lifted his shoulder and slammed his fist into Brian’s jaw.
Brian’s head crashed back against the siding, his eyes closed, and he slid to the ground.
Jory snorted. “I barely tapped him. Moron.”
Piper grabbed his hand. “We need to go.” He nodded and enfolded her in gentle strength. They sloshed across wet grass, and he helped first Piper and then her mother into the helicopter. Riley jumped in, and the boys all reached for the dog, wonder in their eyes.
Rachel started to speak, and Piper shook her head. “Later.”
Earl splashed water as he ran from his house, a backpack over one arm and his cat in the other. “Payton Manning has to come, too.”
Piper reached for the cat, her eyebrows lifting.
Rachel patted back wet hair. “I very well can’t leave Earl. He knows too much.”
The guy didn’t know a damn thing. “Of course,” Piper said, hiding her smile.
Jory jumped back into the pilot’s seat while Nate took the passenger side.
“We’ll meet our brothers at the base of the mountain and switch helicopters. Then we’ll head to headquarters,” Nate said.
Jory turned and met her gaze. “The chips will detonate at midnight.”
Jory lowered the helicopter through the night sky, his shoulders finally relaxing once reaching Montana airspace.
Nate had spent serious time and money securing the property, and the control room under the main cabin was strong enough to withstand a direct missile blast.
The ride had been made in silence, but just having Nate next to him in the passenger seat had provided reassurance.
Dawn rose on his last time on earth. They’d picked up Matt and Shane earlier, and now he’d get the chance to save them like they’d saved him so many times through the years. But they had to hurry.
Plus, they’d make sure to protect Piper, which would allow him to die in peace. Sure, they’d be pissed he died, and he’d try his best to figure out his chip after taking theirs out, but chances weren’t good.
Once a wireless link was broken, there wasn’t much of a chance to repair it. Not really.
Considering he was the computer geek of all computer geeks, regardless of his ability to fight and kill, he understood the impossibility of the challenge before him. How ironic that the one thing he truly excelled at was computers, and one would soon kill him.
The idea of leaving Piper alone cut him deep, and he exhaled some of the pain.
But he’d save his brothers first, and that was a good death, if he had to die.
He set down with a silent thud, and switched off all electronics.
Nate jumped out and opened the back door while Jory stretched to his feet and loped around to help him.
Matt and Shane leaped out and assisted Piper, Rachel, Earl, and the three kids.
The front porch light on the ranch house flipped on, and the door banged open. A petite blonde ran out with a happy yip, raced across the lawn, and jumped full bore into Shane’s outstretched arms. She peppered his face with kisses.
Riley the dog jumped around their feet, catching the excitement, barking.
Another woman walked out of the house, her brown eyes soft and concerned.
Next to him, Matt blew out a soft breath. Relief? He strode through the darkness and up to the porch, gathering the woman and dropping his head into her neck.
Jory rubbed his chin. Interesting. He’d never seen Matt in love before. Looked good on his brother.
A sixty-something rancher type in blue flannel and worn jeans assisted a really pale woman to the door. Jory squinted. Audrey Madison. He remembered the sweet girl from when she’d dated Nate years ago. Now, pale as hell, she was just as beautiful as he remembered.
Her eyes widened, she turned, and promptly threw up into the scraggly leaves of a hibernating geranium plant.
Nate sighed and walked her way. “Still having morning sickness, darlin’?”
Audrey nodded and waved him back, bent over the bush. He continued on and gathered her hair into one hand while rubbing her back with the other.
Wow. Nate in love turned him, actually,
“Who’s the rancher?” Jory asked Shane.
Shane smacked the blonde on the mouth in a quick kiss and then grinned. “Senator Nash.”
Piper gasped. “I thought he died.”
“He did.” Keeping hold of his blonde, Shane made introductions and then introduced the three boys as new Dean brothers.
The entire group eyed the boys and then smiled.
Accepted. Jory watched the boys feel it and accept their new reality. With hope and a sense of wonder.
Seeming entirely comfortable remaining wrapped around Shane, Josie Dean waved at the kids and held out a hand for Jory. “I’m so glad you’re not dead.”
Yeah. He instantly loved his sister-in-law. “Me, too. I’m glad Shane found you again and was smart enough to keep you this time.”
Josie grinned. “I had to hit him over the head a couple of times, but it’s all worked out.” Then she lost her smile. “I mean, if we can get rid of the chips.”
“We can,” Piper said, reaching for the mangled hard drive tower. “I need to get working, actually.”
“After Laney patches up injuries, I’m ordering three hours’ sleep for everyone,” Matt called from the porch without looking back. “Everybody take three hours, and we’ll meet up then. None of us are any good if we pass out.” He lifted the brunette and quickly disappeared inside the sprawling ranch house.
Shane snorted. “Good plan.” He eyed the boys sitting so quietly, surveying the ranch. “I’ll show you guys to the bunk room.” He started for the house.
Chance glanced at Jory, and he nodded. “I’ll be in to check on you in a few.”
The other two boys waited for Chance to start after Shane. The second he moved, they fell in step. Just like soldiers.
Jory rubbed his chest right where a pang hit. If it were the last thing Jory did, he’d figure out a way to make them boys again. Even if he didn’t survive, his brothers would take care of the kids. Help them to be kids.
He wished he could be there. Help them overcome the training and pain.
The three hours weren’t for sleeping—they were for saying good-bye. Just in case they couldn’t deactivate the chips.
Waiting until his family had entered the house, Jory turned to Rachel. She hovered a foot below him, her face pale, her hands wringing together. Had he scared her by punching Brian? “Are you all right?”
She swallowed, her thin neck working. “Um, no.”
Piper grasped her mom’s arm. “Let’s go inside, Mom.”
Rachel drew back. “No. I, uh…”
Earl frowned and patted her back. “What’s wrong, Rachel?”
“I shot you,” Rachel said, staring up into Jory’s eyes.
Jory rocked back. Why would the sweet woman make that up? “Excuse me?”
Piper released her mom and grabbed Jory’s hand. “It was an accident. She didn’t mean to shoot you.”
He swung his focus to Piper. What in the hell was going on? “Excuse me?”
“It wasn’t an accident. I infiltrated the people who had you, the PROTECT people, eased my way in by giving yogurt samples, found you, and shot you.” Rachel patted his chest. “I’m the one. I’m so sorry.”
Jory blinked, the world narrowing in focus. “Yogurt samples?”
“Yes, dear.” She sighed. “I owned yogurt shops, and it was an easy way in when the commander blackmailed me.” She frowned. “If it helps, he didn’t know you were the target.”
Jory grit his teeth, his brain flaring. “That doesn’t help, believe it or not.”
“I know.” She rubbed her eyes. “He said he’d put Piper in jail, and since he’d set her up as a hacker, he could’ve done it. But at least I didn’t kill you.”
So much heat burned down Jory’s throat, his larynx spasmed. “You didn’t kill me? That’s the upside here?”
Earl stepped in front of Rachel. “Leave her alone.”
“No.” Rachel pushed him to the side and visibly steeled her shoulders.
Piper touched Jory’s arm. “I can explain.”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “Sweetie, I’m a crack shot. If I’d wanted you dead, you’d be dead.” Her sigh echoed through the morning, and she turned toward Earl. “I’m sorry about my past.”
Tension vibrated around the group during the peaceful morning.
Earl rocked back on his heels. “That’s okay.” He grinned. “It’s not like you killed him.”
Jory’s neck began to ache. “You tried to murder me.”
Rachel’s eyes widened. “Again, no I didn’t. Crack shot here. Don’t be such a baby.”
His shoulders launched back in an effort to keep from striking. “Baby? I was in a coma for two years.”
She pressed her lips together and nodded. “I am sorry about that, although not entirely sure that was a bullet problem and not substandard medical care.”
He shook his head, his thoughts zinging around like a ricocheting bullet.
She patted his arm. “Listen, Jory. I was scared, and I did the best I could to keep my only daughter out of prison and not end your life. Not one of my shots was a kill shot.”
Jory glanced from Rachel’s steady gaze to Piper’s worried one and then back. His shoulders settled, and his mind cleared. He’d been on missions before, and he understood trying to save family. And he loved the woman’s daughter, which made her family. No matter what. “I guess you didn’t try to kill me.”