There was a fine line between being exhausted and being comatose, and Adam Connelly had just about found it. He'd been two nights without sleep, half that without food, and his shoulder hurt like hell where his shirt was sticking to his open wound.
It was hard to feel much past the heart-pounding adrenaline surge still making his limbs quiver, but the pain managed to creep through. The freezing burn of the sleet slapping him in the face didn't help either as he opened his pack and shoved in his gear. Later, he'd have to take it all back out again and carefully repair, clean, and repack everything after the unexpected rescue, but for now he wasn't particularly inclined toward much besides getting the hell out of there.
Milo stood at his side, still in his search and rescue vest, attentive to their surroundings even though he had to be as done in as Adam. Knowing it, Adam forced a few deep breaths to try and slow his heart rate. "What do you think?" he asked, pretending he wasn't fighting his still knocking knees to hold him up. "Food, sleep . . . or a woman?"
Milo nudged the pocket of the daypack where his food was kept.
Adam shook his head, finding some humor in the day, after all. "You always vote for food."
The ten-month-old yellow lab seemed to smile at that. He was a search-and-rescue dog now, but not too long ago, he'd been nothing more than a scrappy, unwanted pup. In Milo's world, food still trumped everything else.
Adam got that. After all, like tended to recognize like. Besides, sleep was overrated, and it wasn't as if a woman had been on his calendar, anyway. Hell, a woman hadn't been even a glimmer of a possibility in too long to contemplate.
His own fault. "Food it is, then," he said, and realized in spite of still shaking and sweating, he was starving, too. That was a good sign, he decided. It meant that the PTSD had been kicked down to a lowly 3 on the scale, when two years ago it would've been at a 10.5, not to mention wholly consuming him.
Besides, he'd never been able to resist a good adrenaline rush. After all, some of his fondest memories were born of adrenaline rushes--being five years old and running like hell from a pack of Rottweilers that he and his brother Dell had accidentally roused while climbing fences. Or at fourteen, getting caught drinking underage and "borrowing" a '69 classic GTO--a joy ride that had landed him in juvie. Hell, for most of his teenage years, fathers everywhere had feared Adam's influence on their impressionable sons and mothers had locked up their daughters on Saturday nights. And then it had all caught up with him in one horrifying tragic evening that had changed the direction of his entire life.
Footsteps came up behind him; Kel, the local sheriff and good friend. Hooking his radio back on his hip, he squinted through the wind and freezing rain whipping at them, rippling the surface of Bear Lake into a frenzy in front of them. "Nice job."
"It wasn't a job," Adam reminded him. They'd just happened to be scouting out this area for new rugged terrain to be used in search and rescue training. They'd been doing a complete two-day run through when they stumbled into a real rescue situation. "It was just sheer dumb luck."
"Good luck," Kel corrected. "All those years you spent overseas saving the good guys asses left you like a machine. Man, the way you shimmied down that sheer rock to get to the kid before he slipped . . ." Kel shook his head in marvel. "And how the hell did you hold on to him like that until I got the ropes to you without popping your shoulder out of the socket? You do that Superman shit in the military, too?"
Among other things, Adam thought, but he merely shrugged, a movement that caused the laceration on his shoulder to split further. Some machine.
"Well, however you did it," Kel said, "it's damn good to have you back."
Yeah, well, there was back, and then there was back. Adam couldn't have gripped a rope right then to save his life. He could no longer hear the thump-thump-thump of the vanishing helicopter airlifting the ten-year-old and his father out of this remote area, which was good. His foster brother, Brady, was behind the chopper's controls, which alleviated any concern about the increasingly bad weather. Brady, an ex-army ranger who'd retained all of his skills, could fly in and out of the eye of a needle if he had to. From here to Coeur d'Alene would be a picnic, oncoming storm or not.
Kel shouldered his pack. Adam did the same but much more gingerly. Normally, there'd be hours of post-rescue takedown, but everything had happened too fast. As the region's coordinator and S&R team leader, Adam hadn't even had time to set up an incident command post or mobilize a search. There weren't the usual myriad trucks or equipment or people it generally took to run an S&R, and for once, that was a good thing.
They could go home right now, and Adam could stop expending all his energy on appearing to be fine, when what he really wanted to do was pass out and pretend today hadn't happened. Because although he made a living teaching and training search and rescue, and he had more accredited initials after his name than the alphabet was long, he hadn't actually been active in a rescue in two years. Not since Afghanistan, when he and his unit had been called in to rescue a group of British soldiers stuck on the side of a godforsaken mountain. That day they'd dropped in from helicopters and rappelled down cliffs and into the caves.
And straight into enemy fire.
Most of the time, that memory was buried deep. But today, thirty minutes ago, Adam had faced his nightmares in broad daylight. He'd had to rappel down a cliff to save that kid, and being forced into an active role like that, hanging off those rocks at the mouth of the caves, barely grabbing the boy in time--it had all brought him back to a very dark place.
Milo pushed his wet nose into Adam's palm and leaned against him, something the dog wasn't supposed to do on the job. Adam didn't correct him for it, didn't have the heart. There hadn't been much softness in Adam's life, and even less affection, and though he didn't yearn for either, something about the damn dog got to him every time. He looked down at Milo, who was panting happily up at him, his brown eyes clearly saying, Dude, concentrate! Food!
And Adam had to laugh. "Right. Food." Always food. And proof that even a dog had better sense than to hang on to the negative shit.
They all headed back to Adam's Polaris Ranger, a four-wheel, all-terrain vehicle that could get them in and out of just about anywhere--at least until the heavy snows came. "Up," Adam said to Milo, but the dog leaned on him again. Worried. And Adam realized the dog wasn't fooled by Adam's cool exterior but was picking up on his lingering anxiety. With a sigh, he crouched and hugged the dog. "I'm fine. You're fine. We're all fine. Now up."
Milo leapt into the small backseat of the ATV and Adam angled in behind the wheel. With Kel riding rifle, they four-wheeled out of there. By the time Adam dropped Kel off at his station in their small hometown of Sunshine, the adrenaline was definitely wearing off. Pain was a dull ache in his shoulder, right behind his eyes, and in his heart, but he told himself to suck it up because at least this rescue had a happy ending.
A gust of wind brought in more icy rain, and the first few flakes of snow. Yesterday it had been sixty-five degrees. Today, snow. Welcome to early December at the base of the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho. By the time he off-roaded to the property he owned with his brothers, the snow kicked up a little bit in intensity, the landscape going soft and white and quiet.
He loved quiet.
He pulled into Belle Haven, which spanned thirty acres and was big enough to house their large vet clinic and stable their horses. Having been gone two days, Adam needed to poke his head in the office to pick up his messages and check on things.
And then sleep.
With any luck Dell would've treated all his patients for the day and locked up by now so that Adam wouldn't have to see anyone and talk about what had happened. Unfortunately, he'd run out of luck a long time ago. When he pulled into the lot, Dell's truck was still there, next to Adam's in fact, which was freshly washed and shiny clean as always.
Not Dell's. Dell's was covered in a fine layer of dust and filled with crap. Work equipment, sporting gear, yesterday's fast-food lunch wrappings . . . It boggled Adam's organized mind. But then again, Dell hadn't gone into the military and had the discipline drilled into him. Dell, two years younger than Adam, had gone to vet school, and had gotten used to practically living out of his truck while trying to make it through. Old habits died hard.
Adam strode into the animal center, with Milo on his heels. Their reception area was large and airy, with wide planked wood floors lined with comfortable benches for waiting. At one end was a long counter, behind which was the hub of the entire place. Jade's arena. Jade was their drill sergeant slash office manager and also Dell's very significant other slash better half.
At the sight of him, she stood up, a strawberry blond pin-up girl in eye-popping pink, phone in hand. Adam considered himself tough as hell and street smart. Jade was both tougher and smarter than he, and most competent at running his world when he needed her to.
"He's back," she said into the receiver, no doubt reporting to Dell. Dropping the phone, she came around the counter, eyes on Milo, whom she crouched low to hug. "Hi there, handsome."
"Right back atcha, beautiful," Adam said.
This earned him a smile as Jade slipped Milo a dog cookie.
Milo snarfed it down and licked his chops, eyeing her hopefully for a second, even though he knew the rules. One cookie at a time.
A young cat sat on the counter next to the cookie jar. Beans ruled the place with the same fierceness Jade did.
Milo whined up at her. The pup wanted to be friends so bad he could taste it. But Beans eyed the dog with the same general disdain she held for the rest of the world before lifting a leg to wash her Lady Town with quiet dignity.
With a sigh for the lost cause, Milo plopped to the floor, head on his front paws, eyes soulful.
"So," Jade said to Adam. "You look like hell. You need a cookie, too?"
Her expression softened. "I have leftover chicken in the kitchen. I'll make you a plate." She grabbed his messages. "The IDRA called. They want to publish your latest article on S&R dog training."
Adam was a certified instructor and evaluator for the Idaho Dog Rescue Association, both for handlers and dogs, and had provided much of the site's public education content. "Tell them that's fine."
"Oh, and that reporter from the Coeur d'Alene Chronicle called--Cynthia Withers. She wants to know if you'll pose in their annual Hot Outdoorsmen calendar this year. She said she asked you last year and you said--"
Jade grinned. "Yeah, that. Shame, though. You could totally make the cover, especially with that two-day scruffy, smoldering glower you've got going on right now."
Adam didn't react to this. Reacting only gave Jade ammunition. But he did feel an eye twitch coming on to go with his headache.
"Damn, you're no fun today." Jade tossed that message to the trash and read the next one. "Oh, yeah. Tina Molan enjoyed your puppy training class so much that she wants private lessons this time. For herself, not her puppy," Jade clarified, looking like she was thoroughly enjoying herself. "She said, and I quote, ‘You're a most excellent master, and she's most eager to be . . . mastered.'?"
Yeah. A definite eye twitch. He gave Jade a long look, which didn't bother her in the slightest.
"Hey, don't shoot the messenger," she said. "You know damn well that you look like a fallen dark angel. The price for that, you poor, poor baby, is women wanting you. You ought to try dating some of them--that would scare them off in no time."
Yeah, yeah, message received. But he wasn't big on socializing and hadn't been in a while. Watching half his unit be blown away in a war zone tended to do that to a person, he'd been assured. He'd get back on the bike soon. Things would get better. Time would heal all his wounds. Blah, blah, blah, he'd heard it all. Some of those old adages might actually be true, but most of the time it all felt like a load of bullshit to him.
Dell stepped out from the back, tailed by Gertie, his one-year-old, happy-go-lucky St. Bernard. "You tell him about the calendar offer?" Dell asked Jade.
"Uh-huh," she said. "He says he can't wait to pose."
Adam shook his head at his brother. "Your woman thinks she's funny."
"Hey, I'm my own woman," Jade said.
Gertie made a beeline for Adam, his welcome-home committee in a one-hundred-pound package of joy, exuberance and slobber.
Adam held up a hand. Gertie, eager to obey him, skidded in her efforts to stop. She failed, and ran into Adam's legs, nearly taking him out. Panting, Gertie regrouped and sat obediently, looking up at him in adoration.
Milo hadn't left his position at Adam's other side, his training too strong to break posture, but he stared at Gertie with the same love that Gertie lavished on Adam.
With a soft laugh, Adam crouched low and gave Gert a full body rub that had her falling bonelessly to the floor in ecstasy. "Come on, then," he said to Milo, who happily joined the love fest.
Beans looked unimpressed.
Dell extracted Adam's messages from Jade, leaning in to nuzzle and then kiss her jaw as he did. She cupped his face and kissed him softly before heading to the back, her heels clicking as she left Dell and Adam alone.
Or as alone as one could get surrounded by all the animals. Dell eyed his dog flat on her back, trying to entice Adam to rub her down again. "She missed you guys."
"I see that." Looking at Dell was a whole lot like looking in the mirror. Same dark hair, dark eyes, and dark skin they'd gotten from their Native American mother, who'd given them up as young boys to go back to her reservation. Same big, broad build they'd gotten from their Texan, all-American football player father, who was long dead. Same matching commitment and authority issues they'd gotten from their unstable youth.
"You had a long few days," Dell said casually.
The equivalent of a welcome-back hug. Adam shrugged and then sucked in a pained breath as the movement jarred his shoulder. He concentrated on the fresh warm blood that trickled down his back instead of his brother's intense gaze.
Kel might have been a little clueless on exactly how long it had been since Adam had been on the active side of an S&R mission instead of running it, but Dell was not.
"So you saved the kid," Dell said.
"Milo found him."
"Clinging to the cliff that you then had to climb because no one else was close enough."
Adam blew out a sigh. "Brady called you."
"Brady called," Dell confirmed. "Said you were favoring your shoulder and that you looked like you hadn't eaten or slept in two days." Dell paused, his gaze scanning the length of Adam, the doctor eyes carefully assessing. "He also said you were in a mood."
Adam ignored this and snatched his messages from Dell's fingers.
"So . . . how are you really?" Dell asked.
"I'd be better if everyone would leave me the hell alone." He flipped through the notes. Several state S&R agencies wanted him to run some training for their staff. He did a lot of that, traveling across the country to set up systems and training. He also had some new signups for next week's new dog obedience class. Two more wanted to attend his tracking and agility class. A breeder was looking for advice. And three calls from . . . "Holly?" He stared at the name on the paper. "Holly Reid?"
Dell nodded. "She's been here twice today looking for you."
Adam kept his face carefully blank. As far as Dell knew, Holly was the daughter of one of Adam's clients. And she was. But she was something else as well--a blast from Adam's past, one that never failed to evoke an entire slew of emotions, in him--not a single one of which he was equipped to deal with on the best of days.
Which today definitely wasn't.
Most of Adam's errant, misguided youth had been a blur of resentment, anger, and wildness. Growing up in a series of foster homes had turned him into a ruffian thug in the making. He'd thrived on trouble, all kinds, and he'd been exceptionally good at it.
In comparison, Holly had come from another planet. She was the daughter of Donald Reid, an extremely wealthy businessman who'd bought up a bunch of failing ranches in the state and turned them around. Holly handled the business side of her father's ranching conglomerate. Which in no way explained the blast of fury she unloaded on Adam every time their paths crossed. It had been twelve years since they'd been young and stupid--emphasis on stupid--a virtual lifetime. She was settled and successful.
So he had no idea why she hated him.
Well, maybe he had some idea. But it would take some thinking about, an inner reflection that he wasn't up for at the moment.
In the meantime, he had no idea what the hell she'd want with him. Her dad, Donald, was a big, old softie who often fostered young S&R puppies for Adam until they were old enough to be trained and adopted. The problem was Donald had been spending a lot of time up north helping upgrade his sister's ranch, leaving Holly to handle the entire Reid empire, puppies included. Maybe that was it--she needed help. But he knew he was the last man on earth she'd come to if she needed something. Shrugging it off, he turned to the stairs.
Milo immediately leapt to his feet, ready to roll. The stairs led up to the loft above the animal center. At one time or another, each of them had lived there, but it was Adam's at the moment. It was large, running the length of the center, and quiet. It suited him.
"So what does Holly want?" Dell asked.
"Whatever it is, she's not going to give up."
No shit. When Holly sank her teeth into something, she was like a pit bull--the prettiest pit bull Adam had ever seen. Once upon a time she'd sunk her teeth into him, and he'd loved it.
And then he'd been an idiot and pried her loose. He'd done it for her own good, not that he'd gained any credit for that. So, no, he really couldn't imagine what she wanted. Hell, she was married. Married, living the life as one half of a couple, sharing a place, sharing a bed.
Which he really didn't want to think about. "Whatever she needs," he said, "you handle it."
Dell laughed softly, his tone suggesting that Adam was still an idiot.
Bessie came through, pushing a broom. Bessie was their cleaning lady, and somewhere between fifty and one hundred years old. They'd inherited her from Sol Anders, who'd been Adam and Dell's favorite foster parent. Bessie came up to Adam's elbow and was about as wide as she was tall, but she could clean like no one's business, and she never took shit from anyone. A bonus in the Connelly Casa. She gave Adam a long look up and down, then shook her head. "You done it again, huh?"
"I didn't do anything," Adam said, automatically reacting like the guilty teenager she'd gone after with her broom a time or two.
She cackled. They both knew he was guilty as hell of something on any given day.
Adam started to climb the stairs. Aware that both Bessie and Dell were watching, he forced himself not to groan, but every single step jarred his shoulder, and he gritted his teeth against the pain.
"That's not good," Bessie said conversationally to Dell. "You see that?"
"I see it," Dell said, sounding grim.
"It's nothing," Adam said to them both.
"You need food?" Dell asked.
"Jade's already on it, Mom."
Bessie snorted. They all knew Dell was about as un-mom-like as they came.
"I'm coming up," Dell said. "So don't bother locking me out. I've got a key."
"Don't look like it," Bessie said. "You're bleeding through your sweatshirt."
Adam entered the loft and shut the door harder than necessary. He strode directly to the small kitchenette at the far end, where he poured Milo a big bowl of water and food. Then he headed to the bathroom, stripping as he went. He cranked on the water, and while waiting for it to heat up, checked out the back of his shoulder in the quickly fogging mirror. He had a two-inch-long gash that wasn't going to kill him but definitely needed stitches.
Rifling through the medicine cabinet didn't yield much. He'd long ago tossed all the various meds the doctors had foisted on him after Afghanistan; the anxiety pills, the antidepression pills, the sleeping pills. He'd never wanted any of them, and seeing them in the cabinet day in and day out had only made things worse.
All he had in there now was a bottle of aspirin and a razor. Since he'd never been one for slitting his own throat, he shook two aspirin into his palm and then added two more. This was definitely a four-aspirin type of situation. Swallowing them dry, he stepped into the shower and hissed out a breath as the water hit his abused body.
While scrubbing up, he found an assortment of other cuts and bruises. Deciding he'd suffered much, much worse, he let the hot spray soothe him until the water cooled. He turned it off and heard the impatient knocking on the door.
Adam grabbed a towel and his first-aid kit and left the bathroom. Milo had eaten and was curled up in the middle of Adam's bed. "Five minutes," he warned the dog. "And then I'm taking over that whole thing."
Milo cracked open a single eye but didn't appear concerned. On duty, the dog was attentive and polite. Off duty, he was lazy as hell.
Another knock. Milo just lay there, not a growl or even a head's up. "No, don't get up," Adam said dryly. "I'll get it."
The yellow lab rolled to his back, his head landing onto Adam's pillow. All four legs in the air, he immediately began to snore.
The knock came a third time, much harder and firmer now. "What the--" He reached for the door. "Since when do you knock--"
The leggy blonde in front of him wore a pale blue down parka, painted-on jeans tucked into knee-high leather boots, and a tight frown.
Holly Reid, looking city hot and as untouchable as ever. It was her shield, that sophisticated New York air, and she was exceptionally good at using it. Adam knew this. He expected this. Which in no way explained why his heart did a slow roll in his chest at the sight of her. He thought of all the long nights he'd spent somewhere out in the middle of hell, not knowing if he'd make it back alive, and how he'd often imagined of a moment just like this to make it through.
Whenever he played that particular mental game with himself, it had always been Holly. He didn't know the implications of fantasizing about her and wasn't sure he was up for knowing, anyway. "Let me guess," he said, propping his good shoulder against the door jamb, casually crossing his arms. "Your daddy's out of town and the two golden retriever puppies he's fostering for me are on your last nerve."
She flushed at the reminder of the last time she'd shown up at Belle Haven, a wriggling puppy beneath each arm, her blue eyes spitting fire. "Thing One and Thing Two are fine," she said, and nudged him inside with a hand that, hello, had no wedding ring on it, not that he was noticing, and entered his loft.
In those high-heel boots, she clicked her way across the wood floors to the wide wall of windows that overlooked the property, which at the moment was nothing but dark looming shadows only hinting at the remote beauty beyond.
Pretty much like the woman in front of him.
She wasn't particularly fond of him, and he couldn't much argue with that. Adam wasn't particularly fond of himself, either, but whatever her reason for being here, it was pissing her off.
She turned and faced him then, and he realized she wasn't angry at all.
She was scared.