The Montana Front Range was breaking upward, shattering the flatness of the plains.
When the helo pilot announced they were nearing the ranch, Lauren Foster stared down at the flat prairie. The whole transition happened in a matter of ten kilometers—or rather six miles as she was a freaking civilian again. In a matter of six miles the flatness of the Great Plains gave way to the abrupt jolt of the Rocky Mountains.
Henderson’s Ranch lay as a narrow band between the two of gentle hills, abrupt valleys emphasized by the low angle of the morning light, rich grasslands turning brown with the late summer heat, and patches of trees so dark and thick they could be the forest primeval. All the land features were jumbled together as if God had been playing a game of pick-up sticks.
Definitely not the Big Apple, girl.
After far too many deployments into Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and every other hellhole that Delta Force inhabited, she’d been so ready for a dose of the best city in the world. New York was calling. She’d planned to start at Katz’s with a pastrami sandwich slathered with sharp mustard that bit the nose even harder than the tongue, and a root beer that tickled the throat. Every one of the stupid, touristy things that no local ever did, she wanted to do. Visit the top of the Empire State Building. Take a freaking Circle Line boat trip around Manhattan. Maybe she’d go around twice or three times, just sit with her feet propped on the rail and watch The City go by. Get off downtown to chow down some fresh dim sum with a cold Tsingtao at Jing Fong before she…
Instead, she was a hundred klicks—sixty freaking miles—into the Montana wilderness without flying over a single rinky-dink town since Great Podunk Falls. The grass was unending brown. The cows they were flying over were brown. The buildings were brown. None of the vibrant neon and shining glass of the big city.
It wasn’t as if Great Falls, Montana, was anything more than the closest airport. It was the same twenty-two square miles as Manhattan—and if she stacked twenty-seven Great Falls on top of each other, she’d get the same population density as the Big Apple but still a millionth the character. The Big Apple had started cooking its own unique blend of city in 1624 and no Montana-come-lately could ever hope to compare.
Also, nothing smelled right here.
The air from the helo’s vent system smelled fresh, filled with early September promise rather than pastrami on rye. Though it also didn’t smell like Dustbowl Afghanistan, stinking goat Iraq, desperation Somalia, or any other screwed-up desert she’d patrolled over the years, which was a relief. Even the helo itself smelled fresh-washed with a hint of leather seats—not splashes of Jet A fuel matched with the hard stench of burnt cordite and stinking soldiers who’d been too long in the field. No coppery after-hint of spilled blood either, another plus.
“This is all your fault, Colonel.”
Colonel Michael Gibson, seated beside her in the back of the helicopter, didn’t bother to respond. He rarely did, but he didn’t have to. When the best field operator in all of Delta Force said, “You’re with me,” you went. Even if she wasn’t in the military anymore, she went.
“I was within easy windage of a Nathan’s hot dog!” Coney Island Boardwalk was calling her, too—even now from two thousand miles in the wrong direction. She’d had a ticket home in her hand and a spot all picked out on her brother’s couch. She’d done her fifteen years and was out. Way out.
“Get a grip, Foster.” The colonel’s command was stated with the same calm he always used, whether in the briefing room or under heavy fire.
Get a grip? Yeah, my hands around your throat! But she kept the thought to herself. Besides, it would just piss off his wife sitting copilot. And Lauren liked Claudia Jean, even if she talked almost as rarely as the colonel. Kind, beautiful, blonde, a red-hot helicopter pilot with the Night Stalkers—what wasn’t to like. Her deep-bred warmth a sharp contrast to Gibson’s chill factor. No, that wasn’t right because the man wasn’t unkind, he was just…austere. Like looking up at the Empire State Building until your neck hurt from trying to see the top.
The pilot who’d picked them up in Great Falls was the poster boy for tall, handsome, and retired military right down to his mirrored shades and cheeky grin. Somebody Henderson. Her blood sugar had crashed along with missing a night’s sleep. She only remembered his last name because “Henderson’s Ranch” was plastered across the side of his little Bell JetRanger helicopter along with a painted team of running horses.
He flew like retired military as well. She wondered if he flew this way when he had a load of tourists aboard. She hoped so—especially if he had footage of their faces.
The number of things that civilians didn’t understand about the military, and about what women like her had to do to serve there, made her completely crazy. No matter how she tried to explain, they looked at her as if she was either a cold-blooded killer or a lunatic. The only person she wanted to kill in cold blood was still stationed who-knew-where. He was still on the inside and she was now on the outside, which was just fine with her. Having the civilian-military divide between them provided yet more distance—none of it comfortable. As to being a lunatic? Wouldn’t find her denying it.
Guess what, folks? Out there, life comes by a different measure. Which definitely was going to make her the crazy person in the ever-so-normal civvie world, rather than them being the strange ones so secure beneath their hard-won security blanket, double-shrouded in purposely-head-in-the-sand, ostrich-style naivete.
Thankfully, there wasn’t a person on this flight she had to explain s**t to; not even why she’d left. Fifteen years in, eight of it attached to The Unit (as Delta Force called themselves) was enough wear and tear on anyone. The pointless loss of her military war dog had been one straw too many.
Even now she could feel Jupiter resting his head on her thigh. Instinctively she moved her hand to pet the Malinois and stroked…nothing but air.
Two months and the reflexes weren’t going away.
Gibson saw it of course, the man missed nothing, but he was smart enough not to say anything.
For sanity, she brushed her fingertips over her pant’s belt and found a little peace there. She’d made it from Jupiter’s last leash.
“Welcome to my family’s ranch,” the pilot boomed out cheerfully over the intercom. “Our land runs from the Larson cattle ranch directly below us—”
And the helo’s vents offered solid proof that they were flying over a lot of cattle. Lauren had to sneeze to clear the smell.
“—right up to the two and a half million acres of the Flathead National Forest wilderness area. Don’t want to go riding into there without a guide I can tell you.”
Lauren scanned the ranch. How would she track across such land? Even the central compound? It was all spread out with no encircling protective wall, not even a gate that she could see. Any fool could just walk in.
Would she lead a patrol along the ridge where they were exposed and easy to see, or along the valley where they could be ambushed from above? And the big ranch layout would be a nightmare to secure. Three barns, multiple corrals, a monstrous main house in the I-was-a-log-cabin-as-a-little-girl style, outbuildings, cabins up among the trees…
A hundred places for a trap.
A million ways for the enemy to—
She recognized the pattern in herself and wrestled it back, fought it down with sheer willpower.
Lauren no longer led patrols. Jupiter, what she’d been able to find of him, was buried in Afghan hell and was never coming home. All of Delta Force had only nine dog-handler teams who could hit The Unit’s standards, and she and Jupiter had been the best. Until… Until they only had eight.
But there lay another, far deeper trap. There lay the fury that still ripped her apart every time.
She glared out the window of the helo as it circled and she leaned into the laser-like focus brought on by the rage.
The big house was a grand two-story timber lodge with a deep and welcoming wraparound porch. It sat slightly above the other main buildings of the compound; only the guest cabins up the hill ranged higher.
The main barn connected to several large corrals. Even now, seven horse-and-rider pairs were working their way through a jump course in one of them.
There was something odd about the roof of the barn. There was a single large skylight midway along the roof. Near it, where she expected a little cupola would normally be perched, stood a trio of high-gain satellite antennas. The helo circled low enough to see that they were military grade. On a ranch in Montana?
Closer to the ground, she again scanned for how she’d approach the area.
There! That’s where she’d start a scouting patrol.
She’d start at the back corner of the farthest cabin. It perched at the crest of the hill in a small wood, overlooking the entire ranch. No one could surprise her from there. She liked the safety of the position, even if it would be more exposed to the weather from the north. From there she’d range downslope and—
“Remember to breathe at some point.”
She hated that she’d been caught. Though nobody ever slipped anything by Colonel Gibson. Carefully, consciously, she took a breath. Two more before she turned to face him.
They weren’t coming in hard to a browned-out LZ in an armored Night Stalker Black Hawk. They were sitting in the back of a little Bell JetRanger, civilian version. Cushy seats. Even a small drink cooler at their feet, for crap’s sake.
“Why?” Breathing just meant another day of remembering the pain. And doing it without a Nathan’s hot dog or a plate of dim sum as an analgesic.
The colonel merely quirked a fleeting smile. So he could smile. That was news. She’d been on countless missions with him over the years and hadn’t known he had it in him. Then he looked down at the fast-approaching ranch and grimaced darkly.
Now that made her feel better.
There was something eating his behind as well.
Mark’s usual flight approaches never bothered Minotaur. The American Paint gelding was typically rock steady, even when Patrick Gallagher had been a total greenhorn—three years back as the ranch’s newest hand.
The horse had actually been named Minnie, but no self-respecting cowboy would ever ride a horse named Minnie, much less a male one. His splotchy coat was red-brown with white spots that could almost be a red polka dot dress. From the rear haunches down, he was as white as Minnie Mouse’s bloomers—the little hussy. And the same white from the withers up, to where more red-brown made a bow like Minnie’s on his face that masked both of his eyes. A few more polka dots there made the horse appear to be looking about with more than the usual two eyes.
Patrick supposed that the name had been inevitable, but he preferred Minotaur—the monster in the labyrinth, thankfully without the attitude. He’d changed the gelding’s name and no one had argued with him. Probably because Patrick had never really told anyone other than the horse and the dude ranch’s guests—the horse didn’t seem to care in the least and ranch guests were gullible enough that they believed anything you told them.
This time, however, Mark flew the helicopter like he was still some crazy military pilot. He swooped so low over the barn that he could have cleaned the gutters. He zipped close enough over the path between the paddock and the barn where Patrick was currently riding that he could taste the hot carbon of the exhaust. Mark pulled up hard at the last second to thump down on the dirt in front of the garage as if this was the team insertion scene from Black Hawk Down, not an ideal setting for The Horse Whisperer. Minotaur was not happy about it and reared up in protest. Patrick was no longer a greenhorn, but there were still a few tense moments before he managed to get secure in his seat.
Once Minotaur had returned to a standstill, the corner of the big garage blocked his view of the newcomers so he leaned sideways out of the saddle enough to see what tourist distractions Mark had been fetching in from Great Falls. Long legs exited the rear door of the JetRanger. Legs were followed by a sleekly lean frame in a leather bomber jacket, finally topped by a movie-star profile framed in light-brunette waves down to her shoulders. Not as tall as his own six three, but well on the way. Definitely worth checking out.