Kyle Sullivan stumbled up the stairs, his footsteps echoing on the metal steps. Midnight again. Third fucking time this week. And nothing but a case of beer waiting for him inside. He jingled the keys, fumbling with the lock as he opened the door and walked inside. He took three steps in, tossing them and his detective’s badge onto a small wooden table. He didn’t bother with the lights as he staggered to the fridge, his mind drifting toward sleep, when a faint noise sounded behind him. He spun, gun already cocked, and aimed at the far wall.
“Not bad, Kyle. Your reaction time is better than I anticipated.”
Kyle snarled, half engaging the trigger. “Then you’ll be mighty impressed when I blow your fucking head off.”
The man laughed, exposing his right side to the pale light of the window. “Really now, is that any way to treat an old friend?” He slipped from the shadows, taking a seat to his left.
Kyle drew a sharp breath and lowered his gun. “Malcolm! Bloody hell, I could’ve killed you.”
“Aye. But you didn’t. Besides, I wanted to know if your memory was as good as your reflexes. After all, it’s been a few years.”
Malcolm raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t you going to offer me a beer? Though I have to say, your choice in lager has deteriorated over the years. Nothing but domestic swill in that fridge of yours.”
Kyle chuckled as he grabbed two beers and joined Malcolm at the couch, sitting across from him. “You haven’t changed much.” He opened the bottle and took a long pull before relaxing back in the chair and nodding at the man. “I’d ask you why you’re here, but there’s only one reason you’d hunt me down after a decade of being on the outside.” He met Malcolm’s intense gaze. “I’m not going back. I left that part of my life behind for a reason. There’s nothing Jack Conrad has that I want, anymore.”
Malcolm stared at him, his eyes narrowed and his lips drawn tight, before he tipped up the bottle and downed half the beer. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand as he rested against the cushions, his gaze still centered on Kyle. “I didn’t come here to ask you to rejoin the unit. As a matter-of-fact, I’m not with the squad anymore.”
A cold shiver snaked down Kyle’s spine. “But you’re the Bureau’s inside link to Jack. The only way they have of keeping the old man in line. Hell, you have higher security clearance than, well, fuck—everyone.”
He stopped, watching Malcolm swirl the brown liquid around the inside of the bottle. If Malcolm had left the unit, it meant something was seriously wrong. He leaned forward, but Malcolm waved him off.
“I suggest you get comfortable, laddie, I’ve got a story to tell—one you’re gonna wanna pay close attention to.”
* * * *
“Settler’s Ridge—what the hell kind of name is Settler’s Ridge?”
Kyle watched the sign disappear in his mirror, finally breaching the outer limits of the small Montana town. He’d left at daybreak, hopping the first flight out of New Orleans for the city of Missoula, followed by a two-hour drive north to the upper fringes of the Rocky Mountains. He still couldn’t believe he was here. He’d done everything to convince himself Malcolm was lying. That the man was merely filling his head with propaganda in order to persuade him to go on some godforsaken crusade. But there was proof—disturbing images and communiqués—that had left little room for doubt. He could still see Malcolm’s face as he’d laid it all on the line—the truth about Jack Conrad’s unit, Kyle’s enrollment and his sister’s death. Then Malcolm had added a healthy dose of guilt, graphically outlining Jack’s new agenda, giving Kyle no choice, but to concede.
Kyle slammed his hand on the steering wheel, hoping the simple act would release some of his pent up tension as he searched for the cabin number scribbled across the paper. Malcolm had arranged everything—the flights, the car and even a guide. Kyle had scoffed at the notion of a guide, but Malcolm had quelled his arguments with a sharp look.
“Trust me,” he’d said, handing Kyle the folder of information. “This isn’t some trivial hiking tour. It’s a full-scale expedition across terrain few people are man enough to attempt. There’s a reason they picked this place. Ya can’t face Jack if you die before ya reach his hideout. And remember, there’s more at stake here than keeping a promise. Thousands of lives depend on you reaching that cave and stopping Jack, before he leaves.”
Five days was all Kyle had to right a wrong, and failure wasn’t an option.
Kyle growled, purging the thoughts, as he scrutinized each building, grinning when he saw the large double eight on the cabin. He skidded into the gravel driveway, slamming the car shut as he headed for the entrance. He took the steps two at a time, pausing to read the small sign nailed to the door.
Austin’s Guiding Services
If the door’s open, I’m in.
He smiled in spite of himself and stepped inside.
“You made it.”
He stopped, drawn to the woman standing in front of him. He could tell by her expression, and the way she tapped her foot on the floor, she wasn’t thrilled by his arrival.
He flashed her a smile. “You sound disappointed.”
“I’d be lying if I said, ‘no’. As your friend probably told you, it’s not the best time of year to be hiking around these hills.” She extended her hand to him. “You must be Professor Kyle Sullivan.” She shook his hand. Her fingers were small, and her skin was soft despite the row of calluses on her palm. “Malcolm described you to a tee. I’m Taylor Austin, your guide.”
“You’re Austin?” He found the idea amusing. He swept his gaze over her body, taking in her small athletic frame and the way her chocolate-brown hair hung in waves around her face, stopping at the sensual swell of her breasts. He tried not to notice, but her form-fitting top was making the job impossible. It clung to every inch, leaving very little to his imagination.
He gave himself a conscious shake, trying to ignore how the rest of her body flowed from one sensuous curve to the next, but lost the fight when she hitched one hip up as she crossed her arms on her chest.
He cursed Malcolm, wondering if the man had any idea how long it’d been since he’d had a lover. And he sure as hell didn’t need any distractions. Kyle dragged his gaze back to her face. He could see by the way she held her chin high with her lips pulled tight, she had complete confidence in her abilities. But she was far from intimidating and didn’t seem suited to such an extreme line of work.
Taylor smiled at him. “I see Malcolm neglected to tell you I was a woman. I hope that’s not a problem. I’m more than qualified, if not insane, to head such an undertaking. But if it bothers you—”
He tried focusing on her eyes but kept drifting to her mouth. She’d pursed her lips into a charming little pout and he found himself staring at their fullness.
“Good. Because there’s no one else in town who’d even consider the job. Besides, it didn’t seem to bother Malcolm in the least.”
“Of course not. The only thing Malcolm does better than his job is women.”
Taylor laughed with a breathy little rasp that made him smile.
“I can assure you, Professor Sullivan, other than a fair amount of groveling, he was a complete gentleman.”
Kyle took a step forward, loving the way she gave his body a long, slow sweep before meeting his gaze again.
“There’s a first time for everything. And you can call me Kyle.”
“Okay, Kyle. Now before we go any further, I want to make sure Malcolm told you what you’re getting yourself into.”
“He mentioned you had a few issues regarding the trip.”
“I have more than a few.” She walked over to a long table, spreading out a map across its length. “Just so you get an idea of what we’re up against, this is where we are.” She pointed to the northeast side of town. “This is where Starlight Cave is.” She drew her finger several inches across the map, pausing at a small speck. “It’s in the upper reaches of Mount Ronan, which means a hard, twelve-hour ride followed by two to three days of extreme mountaineering.” She turned to face him, giving his body another long look. “I’m not suggesting you aren’t capable of making the trek, but there are other routes we could take that aren’t as demanding, or as dangerous.”
“Will they get us there in the same amount of time?”
“They’ll take an extra few days, but it’s time well spent.”
Kyle shook his head. “Thanks, but I need to get there as quickly as possible.”
“That’s the part that has me just a bit confused. Malcolm said you were on a special archeological search. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I was under the impression artifacts didn’t go anywhere.”
Kyle smiled, humored by the slight sarcasm in her voice. “What Malcolm neglected to tell you is, those artifacts are worth millions to the University. I’m sure he also forgot to mention we’re not the only ones searching for them. So if you don’t mind, I’ll take the punishment if it means beating the competition to the punch.”
“So why not just fly there and save everyone the hassle?”
Kyle frowned, intent on maintaining his cover. After all, flying into Jack’s retreat wasn’t an option. The bastard was crazy, not deaf. “I know Malcolm told you about my one shortcoming, so let’s just forget you even asked, okay?”
Taylor lowered her eyes. Kyle’s expression had hardened, sending a cold shiver down her spine. Malcolm had been emphatic about Kyle’s fear of flying, but Taylor found it hard to believe. The man towered over her, the strength of his muscles bunching his shirt, creating dips and valleys in the fabric. His flat stomach narrowed into strong hips and long, thick legs, giving him an air of someone accustomed to long, hard days of physical labor. He didn’t seem like the type to let anything stand in the way of what he wanted—especially fear.
She sighed, knowing she’d already lost the battle. “Have it your way. Just remember, I warned you ahead of time.”
“Your skepticism is duly noted.”
“Fair enough.” She headed to the back, reappearing moments later carrying a large pack. “Malcolm said you had some special tools you needed to bring along.”
“Just a small case.”
“It’s up to you whether you want to secure it on the outside, or pack it inside. Just try to put the heaviest stuff at the bottom, and not have too much weight hanging off the back.”
Kyle nodded, following her to the door. “Is that all we need?”
“The rest of the stuff’s at my place.” She laughed, running her fingers through her hair. “By the time Malcolm secured my services, all the hotels in town were already booked. There’s a Halloween Festival on Saturday, and this place gets sold out by mid-October. I agreed to let you stay at my house, but I have to warn you, it’s far from a five-star hotel, and I’m a pretty unimaginative cook, so you do so at your own risk.”
A slow smile spread across Kyle’s face, and she fought to keep the heat from rising in hers.
“I’m sure it will far surpass my dismal dwelling.” His smile deepened. “And anything beyond three-day-old pizza is gourmet in my books.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” She led him out the door and down the path. They were just getting in Kyle’s car when a white Cherokee pulled up beside them, Sheriff stamped across the doors.
“Good evening, Taylor.”
She stepped over to the door. “Sheriff Roberts.”
He nodded at Kyle. “Off on another adventure, are we?”
“A gal’s gotta earn a living.”
“Cutting it pretty close, aren’t you? Weather’s already changing. The pins in my shoulder have been aching for a week, a sure sign the first heavy snowfall isn’t far off.”
“We still have a few days.” She winked at him just as a green Pathfinder pulled into the driveway. She glanced at the truck and sighed.
Roberts shook his head, saluting as he pulled into the street and disappeared around the corner. Taylor bolted over to Kyle, asking him to wait in the car. He agreed, an arch of his eyebrows marking his confusion. He was just getting in when the man from the truck walked up to her, pulling her into a firm embrace.
“Cody. I didn’t expect you to stop by.”
Cody tsked at her. “Since when do you head off without giving me the details first?” He nodded toward Kyle. “So where are you going this time?”
“Nothing special. Just here and there.”
“That’s not an answer, Taylor. You know the code. Where are you going?”
“Fine.” She huffed, knowing she was in for a fight. “If you must know, my client’s an archeologist and he needs to go to Starlight Cave—”
His tone effectively cut her off as he took a calculated step forward.
Taylor thought about matching his step back, but decided against it. “Just relax and let me explain—”
“There’s nothing to explain! Going to Starlight Cave at this time of year is…suicidal!” Cody drew himself up to his full height, towering over her smaller frame. He shook his head, kicking at the dirt. “Forget it. You should know better. There’s no way I’m letting you go.”
“You’re what? Did you just say you’re not going to allow me to go? Now you listen to me, Cody Tiberius Fox! I’m quite capable of taking care of myself, and making my own decisions! And I am taking this man to Starlight Cave!”
Taylor stood there, arms crossed, foot tapping the dirt. Cody cursed and stuffed his hands into his pockets, as if stilling the urge to strangle her.
“Fine. You want to go and get yourself killed, I won’t stand in your way.” Cody’s lips pulled tight as his gaze speared hers. “Just remember one thing. We’ve both lost people we love to that mountain.”
She took a step back as the words hit her like an avalanche. Black dots flickered across her vision as it dimmed slightly, blurring the gravel lot into a jumbled mass of gray. Blood pounded in her head, the sound loud in the awkward silence, before the moment passed and she was left standing there, staring at her friend, wondering how he knew exactly what to say to enrage her the most. Anger bubbled through the numbness, and she felt her cheeks flush. She stole a quick look over her shoulder. Kyle was still in the car, but she could see his gaze reflected in the rearview mirror.
Damn. Just what she needed—a scene. And in front of him.
Taylor looked back at Cody, her jaw set as she moved her hands to her hips. Words crashed in her head, but all she could do was stare at him.
He glared at her, but said nothing. A chime lit the air, and she realized Kyle had opened his door, though he hadn’t gotten out of his seat, yet. She tamped down her anger, needing to defuse the situation before it got out of control.
She took a step back, motioning toward the car. “We’re leaving tomorrow. I’ll radio you once we reach the cave.” She turned and jumped in.
“Wait, Taylor. I didn’t mean to—”
She nodded at Kyle, slamming the door shut as he shoved the stick in reverse and drove out of the lot. She glanced back as they headed down the road, but the parking lot was nothing more than a cloud of dust.
© Hard Target by Kris Norris
Author: Kris Norris
Publisher: Resplendence Publishing
Genre: Romantic Suspense
A promise worth dying fo…a woman determined to save him. All that stands between them and success is ten thousand feet and a mile of ice.
Ex-Federal agent Kyle Sullivan can’t afford any distractions. He’s in the middle of a highly volatile mission and the last thing he needs is to fall for the woman he’s entrusted his life to. But his heart has other plans.
Taylor Austin isn’t sure what to think of her new client, the not so bookish “professor” Kyle Sullivan. Everything about him screams sexy, and she can’t help but wonder if he’s hiding something. But just her luck, all he seems interested in is trekking his ass half-way across a glacier to a deserted cave. And in October, the Rocky Mountains couldn’t be more treacherous. If they can just make it across the ice sheet, perhaps she can convince him that she’s more interesting than his job.
Taylor is everything Kyle ever wanted in a woman…smart, strong and a whole lot of trouble. But he needs her, and not just to fill the emptiness inside him. She’s the only guide capable of getting him to a remote hideout alive, and that’s worth risking everything…even his heart.