Rachel Grant
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RACHEL GRANT
Romantic Suspense
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Tinderbox

Djibouti
Cal took the lead with Pax walking backward, covering their six with his M4 at the ready. They’d find a protected, viperless position to hole up in and await orders. If they didn’t have Dr. Adler, they’d go directly to the base, but the woman was more than a hindrance, she was an unknown.

A spy with the perfect cover, or an innocent targeted for death by Etefu Desta?

Once they found a safe position, Cal radioed their commander. The news wasn’t good. The second convoy, the one that had taken the Charlie route, was pinned by sniper fire. They were dealing with a coordinated assault orchestrated by Desta.

“Desta’s never had the organization or firepower to launch an attack like this before,” Cal said.

Pax nodded. He’d been thinking the same thing. His gaze traveled up and down Dr. Adler. Desta’s messenger. What the hell did that mean? “What if Desta isn’t the one behind this three-pronged assault?” he said. “Who else is gunning for Camp Citron?”

Cal snorted. “We can narrow it down to pretty much everyone in East Africa and on the Arabian Peninsula.”

He grimaced at the truth in Cal’s statement. “I’ll rephrase: who has the means to organize an assault like this? Both the timing and the money?”

Cal shrugged. “No clue. Maybe China?”

It was true that China was working awfully hard to gain a toehold in East Africa, but a direct attack on a US military base seemed far-fetched, even for them. Again Pax’s gaze landed on Dr. Adler. Her reaction had been extreme. Too extreme?

Possible. But his gut said she was just a shortsighted fool.

Radio chatter increased as the marines on Charlie estimated the sniper’s position. Cal perked up. “If the sniper is west of Charlie, between the wadi and the base, we’re behind the asshole.”

Pax pictured the location in his mind. “The sniper could be above the wadi a half klick northeast. We can sneak up on the prick and take him out.” His gaze turned to Dr. Adler, and he frowned. This wasn’t the sort of op in which a civilian could tag along.

Cal could read his thoughts. “I’ll forget the fifty you owe me if you take babysitting duty,” he said.

Pax snickered and was tempted to demand a hundred, but he’d rather go after the sniper. “No deal.”

“I’m a better shot at distance, and this is likely to be a long one.” Cal’s gaze slid to the archaeologist. “And you’re better with the ladies.”

Dr. Adler snorted, then glanced up and down the narrow, dry-as-bone riverbed. She met their gazes in turn. “If you can get him, you should. I can hide and wait.”

As much as Pax liked that plan, there was no way in hell they’d follow it. He gave Cal a sharp nod. Pax was no slouch at sniping down snipers, but Cal was an ace. “I’ll stay with Dr. Adler, but you’re buying tonight at Barely North.”

Separating was far from ideal, but since when was combat ever ideal? And sure as shit checking out the tip about Dr. Adler as a favor to the XO had turned into a full-blown combat mission. “This is not how I pictured spending my day off,” he added.

“Think of the overtime pay,” Cal said.

“You’re going to need it, because I intend to blow past the two-drink limit tonight.” He pulled out a map and spread it on a rock between him and Cal.

The sun beat down, glaring off the plastic sheet that protected the paper map. Sweat dripped from his hairline onto the plastic. He’d start with a frozen drink. He didn’t give a damn what kind, so long as it had a lot of ice.

Cal pointed to a ridgeline above the wadi. “Along here”—he traced the contour with a fingertip—“he’d have a line of sight on Charlie. It’s long, meaning this sonofabitch has skills. Plus, he’s feeling smug because no one on the ground can get a line on him.”

“Time to take the smug bastard down a notch,” Pax said, tucking the map away. “Dr. Adler and I’ll continue up the wadi. See you on base.”

Cal cracked a grin. “Not if I see you first.” He turned to Dr. Adler. “Ma’am, it’s been terrible meeting you. I hope when we meet again there will be fewer explosions and snakes.”

Adler laughed. “Agreed.”

His gaze flicked to Pax. “Don’t let Pax scare you. He’s a teddy bear. Brooding means he likes you. It’s how he flirts.”

“Don’t you have somewhere to go?” Pax asked his teammate in exasperation.

Cal grinned at her, then turned to Pax, and in a flash, the soldier returned. Cal could change from congenial buddy to Special Forces operator with a speed that would give some men whiplash. “Barely North at eighteen hundred. I’m buying.” He turned and jogged up the wadi, not slowed in the slightest by the heavy pack on his back.

Adler met Pax’s gaze. “A teddy bear? Somehow I doubt that.”

Pax kept his face blank as he studied the woman who had seriously screwed up his day. “Grizzly, teddy. Cal gets those terms confused.”

Her mouth twitched, but she didn’t smile. Her gaze turned serious. “I’m sorry I was an ass earlier.”

“Not so much an ass as an idiot.”

She nodded. “That too. I was awful. And I’m sorry.”

He gave a sharp nod. “Apology accepted.”

She tilted her head down the wadi, opposite from the direction Cal had gone. “I take it we’re heading that way?”

“Yes. We don’t know what’s waiting for us. So we’ll take it slow. Play it cautious.”

She nodded and took a step forward. He stopped her with a hand on her arm, ignoring the zing of contact. “I go first.”

“Sorry.”

He led the way, scanning the wadi with his gun barrel with each slow step. Pretty much everything about this situation sucked. The sun had reached zenith, humidity was at about a thousand percent, Cal had gone off to take on a sniper by himself, and Pax was stuck with Morgan the Foul-Mouthed Fairy.

As if cued by his thoughts, Dr. Adler let out a stream of curses. “What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I started mentally cataloging everything that was in the car: my computer, field notebooks, camera. All my site notes, all the excavation photos, all the strat drawings. Gone.” More curses escaped her lips, her invective directed at Desta and his ancestors, followed by “Arugula served with goat spunk on moldy toast is too good for that pig-faced dung beetle.”

“You must hate arugula.”

“Arugula is Satan’s lettuce.”

Since she couldn’t see his face, he allowed a full smile. He wasn’t a fan of arugula either. “Did you have backup for the data?” Pax asked.

“The minister of culture has copies of some of the field notes—preliminary findings, project updates, but not the detailed maps and drawings. Not the hardcore data.”

A noise up ahead had Pax stopping short. He held up a fist at shoulder height to signal a halt and hoped Adler knew the sign. She stopped immediately and caught on to the need for silence.

He listened, knowing he’d miss the softer notes because his hearing was still muted by the blast. But even so, the sound of gunfire was unmistakable, as was the basalt spall that hit his shoulder, having been dislodged from the rock to his right by a bullet.

He grabbed her and dropped down, dragging her behind a boulder. He cursed silently. He’d caught a glimpse of at least two men before one had squeezed off the shot.

“Give me a gun,” she whispered.

He startled and met her gaze.

Her eyes flicked to the Sig on his belt. “Give me the Sig.”

“Are you nuts? You know what would happen to me if anyone found out I gave a civilian my gun?”

“I’d feel safer with a gun, you aren’t using it, and we’ve got at least two militants shooting at us from forty feet away. This isn’t the time to worry about what your XO will say.”

He placed his hand on the Sig. Shit. She had a certain logic. And if something happened to him, she’d be facing down armed militants alone. They’d kill Pax, but Dr. Morgan Adler? She’d be kept alive. Spoils of war. In Somalia, which was less than ten miles away, ISIS stripped adolescent girls, stood them on auction blocks, and sold them into sexual slavery. Adler would almost certainly suffer the same fate if taken.

“I don’t suppose you know how to shoot?” he asked.

She gave a sharp nod. “I’m a good shot.”

Pax hoped she wasn’t lying.

He handed her the Sig, and she checked the load like someone who was well versed. She rammed the magazine back into the handle. “I’m rusty, but I know what to do.” She glanced down at the weapon. “Are the sights true?”

He nodded.

“Good.”

“You won’t be shooting at paper. Can you shoot a person if you have to?”

“Do you think these men had anything to do with the explosion?”

“Yes.” He did, but he’d have said yes either way.

“Then I will blow the motherfuckers’ squirrel-sized peckers off.”

He smiled, for the first time thinking he might like this woman.