He couldn't allow himself to look at Alicia with her blond hair still tousled from making love. Crouching, he scooped his survival vest and tossed Alicia's to her, as well. He tucked behind the stacked logs with her, shrugged into his vest, drew his flare gun.
Headlights swooped across the Plexiglas window, no stealthy approach. A good sign.
Low voices permeated through, but nothing overly loud or specific to discern - which meant bad news.
This wasn't a military rescue or they would have announced themselves. Still, he could only see two figures. Could there be more lurking?
Alicia held up two fingers in the dimly lit corner, a question puckering her brow. "Only two guys on the snowmobiles?" she whispered.
"Seems so." With some luck, these were only a couple of hunters.
Hunting on Christmas Eve? Yeah, right.
Part of him wanted to blast the two men lurking outside now, but his military training overrode baser instincts. As much as he wanted to protect Alicia at all costs, he still needed to establish the men had hostile intent. They could be lost and wandering, something he doubted but couldn't risk.
Damn, how much longer were those two bozos going to weasel around outside? They had to know from the smoke that someone was inside. His grip tightened on the flare gun. Alicia's body heat radiated beside him. Primal protectiveness still churned from their earlier discussion about the bastard in her past.
And now it all roared stronger. Louder.
He wouldn't end this day with even one hair on her head injured.
More muffled voices echoed along with a sound he recognized well—the click and rattle of a machine gun being raised. Ah, hell.
He grabbed the back of Alicia's neck and pushed.
"Stay down," he hissed. He flattened onto his belly beside her.
Bullets riddled the shelter. Pinging. Popping through the walls. Ricocheting off the stove. Shit. He flung his arm over her head.
Snow gear dangling from the line swayed, shredded, fiberfill puffing and exploding.
Had the Plexiglas given a distorted impression of people inside? Slowly, the long pants slithered to the floor.
He jerked to look at her, skimming his hand up to her neck to find a reassuring pulse.
"I'm fine. Don't worry about me."
But he did. How could he not? He wanted to crawl on top of her and shield her body with his until this hell passed. She stared back at him, resignation on her face.
She knew him. She knew he would want to lead the charge as if he could fix her past for her. He thought of his own nightmarish experience he'd long wanted to put to rest...and accepted she had her own. Hers in some ways was worse, because the betrayal had come from someone she trusted.
Slowly, understanding—if not peace—rolled over him about the university siege. His faith in mankind may have been shaken, but he'd never had to question himself. He'd done his best that day.
Alicia needed to learn to trust herself again before she could fully trust him. She needed to fix her own past and win this battle on the ground.
He didn't intend to let her fight the battle alone, but damn it, she'd earned her place on the front lines. Big picture, they needed to bring these bastards down and stood a better chance working together. "We're outgunned. Our only edge is surprise since they think we're wounded or dead. They're over armed—but overconfident. That can work for us."
"For us?" she asked, as if she couldn't believe he would include her.
"For us. Like in Cantou, we watch each other's back." I trust you. You trust me. And God, he hoped he'd been right to trust his instincts. For a man who'd spent a lifetime following logic, this was scary shit. "When the door opens, shoot. The gyro jets are great for tearing through a jungle canopy overhead, but their aim's not all that accurate. Hopefully we'll nail at least one of the bastards. Then we'll rush the door before the other can hide and swing around to riddle us with bullets from the back."
Footsteps crunched the snow.
"Are you ready?" he stared into her eyes and hoped that even in the faint light she could still see him, see her.
"Thank you," she said simply, didn't need to say anymore.
He understood. Thanks to Alicia, he understood so much more now.
Josh nodded, too much emotion clogging his throat and his head. He needed a clear brain.
Footsteps crunched closer. Two shadows bobbed and blended, bobbing again. Josh angled around one side of the wood stack, Alicia around the other. Staying flat on his stomach, he extended his arms in front of him, flare gun in both hands, aimed. Ready.
The door blasted open. A lone figure blocked the view.
"Fire," Josh ordered. He shot, the hiss of Alicia's gun in synchronicity with his.
Two flares blazed across the room. Reflexively, he reloaded. Only three more left in his vest.
The flares caught the looming figure in both shoulders. Howling, he stumbled back, toppled.
Falling into the second intruder. Both landed in the snow.
Luck, logic or miracle? Josh didn't care or have time to analyze. But he was mighty grateful.
"Don't move," Josh shouted to the screaming man beating at the poker-hot torches in his shoulders. The bastard was lucky the snow gear had blunted the impact and the heat had likely cauterized his wounds. "One twitch this way and we'll pin you both with another round." Josh glanced back at Alicia. "Cover me while I get their weapons, then we can pop a flare for rescue."
"Roger." She reloaded and raised her flare gun level. "I've got your back."
Her words knocked around inside his head before settling in his gut with a new tightness. He'd heard her say it before, hell, had even brought it up himself earlier. But now the words solidified and became a part of him beyond just applying to the plane or battlefield. After a lifetime of living in a world where people put up walls around him, where he put them around himself, he wasn't alone anymore.
Enemy weapons gathered, Josh launched a rescue-signal flare into the sky. An umbrella of light exploded in the midst of the purple-and-pink haze of the aurora borealis. Staring up into all those lights, he decided that it wouldn't be too far a stretch from trusting instincts to believing in miracles. And more than anything, he wanted the miracle of forever with the wary, stubborn, incredible woman he'd married.
Alicia clicked off the cordless phone, placing it on top of a stack of packing boxes by her kitchen stove, her Christmas calls complete. Since her family hadn't been notified about her ordeal, there hadn't been any need for tears or explanations. Simply rejoicing.
Her father was celebrating with her sister and sister's fiance. Her brother was enjoying a bachelor dinner with his girlfriend. Josh had even taken his turn speaking with everyone so she didn't have to make explanations about their breakup.
Were there even explanations to be made?
Alicia slumped against the towering boxes and stared at the starkly bare apartment walls that had yet to be warmed into a home. She'd had such plans for decorating their first place together with all her favorite colors and Pier I rattan. She still hoped to...
Except she didn't know where she stood with Josh. After their life-and-death struggle, it seemed their problems should be insignificant. But they weren't. She knew better now than to ignore troubles in hopes that they would fade of their own volition.
She couldn't delay much longer settling things one way or the other. The archway afforded a clear view of Josh starting a fire in the fireplace. Northern lights streamed through the wall-size picture window during the final hours of night.
Alaskan snow-capped mountains loomed as large and indomitable as the man in her living room.
Long legs were encased in faded jeans, broad shoulders covered by a T-shirt and white cable sweater.
Her stomach did a quick loop-de-loop.
She would talk to him. Soon.
First, she just needed to find the darned microwave so she could heat the carry out meal they'd snagged on their way home from base. She wasn't delaying. Much.
She sliced through the tape on a box. They'd been picked up by the military helicopter and taken to Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks for a once-over by the doctors. Once the flight surgeon declared them healthy with only minor frostbite and no tissue damage, they were both released.
Sifting through the box, she uncovered...no microwave. Damn. Why hadn't she paid more attention to how the packers labeled the boxes? She shuffled down to the next box and hacked it open.
A debrief with the Office of Special Investigations had taken up the rest of Christmas Eve, but well worth it. All intelligence indicated the illegal uranium mine was being used to funnel material for nukes over the Bering Strait into Russia. From there, it went to radical factions in Cantou. The two goons on snowmobiles were already spilling vital information in hopes of immunity and new identities. Hopefully, that information would help keep things chilled in Cantou for Josh's squadron.
The plane hop from Fairbanks up to their base in Anchorage had been silent due to lack of privacy. And now they had privacy to spare during the dark of Christmas morning. Alone. Neither one sure what to say. But she had hope after the way they'd worked together at the Quonset hut in bringing down their attackers. Afterward, Josh hadn't even suggested going to his BOQ room or office.
Abandoning her microwave search, she leaned against the open box and just enjoyed staring at her hunky hubby. Josh knelt in front of the grate, adjusting the kindling on top before reaching into his back pocket for...his trusty Bic lighter. She smiled, suddenly glad there hadn't been time yet to install gas logs, this moment wonderfully reassuring in its reminder of how they'd worked together to survive the past days.
She wanted to settle in front of that fire with him and make love through the day. Years of stored hormones demanded release. But she also wanted more with Josh. She always had, but now realized she'd sabotaged their relationship from the start out of fears and insecurities, her refusal to plan for a future because making that final commitment symbolized a loss of control. Fixing things between them would be a delicate balance.
Absently scratching a moving sticker off the box, she let herself savor watching Josh in motion, the man always so sure of himself and his actions. He never seemed to need anyone.
Or did he?
Her thumb slowed on the sticker. He often joked about carrying a Scooby-Doo lunch box to his doctoral dissertation defense. Sure he got along well with people. His sense of humor earned him plenty of pals. But why had she never noticed he lacked close friendships? And he outranked almost everyone his age since he'd entered the Air Force young and been promoted early.
Alicia looked again at the solitary man blowing gently to coax the fire to life with patience and single-minded determination. He'd probably already calculated the exact wind power needed.
Beyond missing out on having a real senior prom, how many friendships had he missed out on as well?
Yes, he was more than a little arrogant. Self-assured. And of course he was usually right.
Smart man that he was, he must have known on some level that he'd been pushing all her buttons, too, almost ensuring she would run. She wasn't the only one who'd kicked the legs out from under their shaky marriage.
Here they were, two combat veterans scared to death to tackle happily ever after. Two leader-loners who had to take a risk on a partnership. Partnerships came with higher stakes. Having someone to watch your back also meant having someone to lose. But if she didn't try, she would lose even more. She couldn't lie to herself anymore.
She still loved Joshua Rosen. Totally. No quitting this time.
With renewed energy and purpose, she tore into another box. Christmas decorations winked back up at her. A snow globe glistened. Santa perched on an airplane dropping packages. Her mismatched creche waited to be assembled.
Presents and parcels were packed alongside, including a last-minute arrival she'd shoved into the box.
She lifted out the package addressed to her.
From Josh's grandmother?
Alicia tore away brown packing paper and reached into the box. A wooden moose stared back up at her, antlers ready for candles.
Her eyes filled with tears. She scooped out her mismatched creche and held it beside Josh's moose menorah from his grandmother. Somehow the two different symbols presented in their quirky manner looked so very right together.
Just the way she'd envisioned and hoped things could be for her with Josh.
She replaced both back in the box with careful hands. Shaky breaths doing little to ease her light-headed nerves, she smoothed her hunter-green angora sweater. She wasn't naive enough to believe they would never hit rocky patches again. She was scared, but then the two symbols of hope cradled in the moving box had sprung from scary times survived through trust and love.
It would take a lot of compromise and love—courage beyond a chestful of medals—for she and Josh to lower their defenses enough to be touched and healed by the power of the season.
But thanks to knowing this wonderful man who had the most endearing penchant for wearing crazy boxers, making her smile, melting her heart, she now had an abundance of trust and love to give.
"Do you need some help?"
Josh glanced up from blowing on the logs, just the sound of his wife's voice combusting a fire in him that rivaled anything in the works in front of him.
Alicia strode toward him across the white carpet, packing box in hand, crimson red velvet miniskirt begging his hands to climb right up and explore her legs. Her Christmas-green fuzzy sweater all but
screamed "touch me." Rein it in, libido.
He wanted to park with her in front of a romantic fire and she wanted to scale mountains of boxes nearly as tall as the snowy mountains outside their window. Not an auspicious start to their reconciliation.
"I'm set here." And he was, with a clear mission. Operation: Win Back His Wife—without being a dumb ass this time. Hand on his knee, he shoved to his feet. "What about you? Do you need some help with that?"
He kept his tone light. He wouldn't push her like he'd done before. If she needed time to finish settling her past, their future, then he would damn well give her plenty of space.
But he wasn't walking away.
Her black ankle boots thudded softly against the carpet as she walked past a rattan futon. "Actually, yes, I could really use help finding the microwave, but we'll get to that in a minute. First, I have something for you." She rifled through the box, setting aside bulks of packing paper, until she unearthed a gift-wrapped box, shoebox-size.
She thrust it toward him. "Merry Christmas. Happy Hanukkah. From me."
He took the box from her, the simple brush of their fingers making him long to unwrap her instead.