The drive to Fulton Airport wasn’t far, but to Lainey it seemed to take forever. She felt like some sort of criminal, carting a large chunk of cash in her pocket to deliver to a stranger in a parking lot. And now she’d hatched this plan to come along. That particular decision churned in her stomach, making her more nervous than the entire prospect of meeting a potentially dangerous stranger who planned to rescue her kidnapped brother.
The airport finally came into view and she drove slowly through the small parking lot, looking for a dark SUV. It was parked at the end of the lot, as far away from any building as it could be. Two figures sat in the front seat and as she parked next to them, the one on the driver’s side got out of the vehicle.
Lainey had no idea who she thought she’d encounter, what a mercenary – if that’s even what they were called – would look like, but the guy who stepped out of the SUV certainly looked like he could take on a jungle full of kidnappers singlehandedly. She was absurdly pleased by his looks, then decided that probably wasn’t the most important qualification for getting Shane back.
The man was tall, dressed in a black t-shirt and dark green cargo pants, each article of clothing hugging powerful-looking muscles. His suntanned face was obscured by dark glasses, and he wore a dark baseball cap pulled low to hide his face. All that was really visible was a long, straight nose and his lips, currently held in a tight line as he waited for her
Lainey turned off the ignition and pocketed the keys. Opening her door, she stepped out of the car.
“Lainey Nickels?” His voice was low and the first thing Lainey thought of was a lion, growling at an intruder.
“Yes.” She stuck out her hand and the man took it. She winced at his powerful grip.
“Gideon Hunt. Scott told me your brother is being held somewhere in Guatemala. He’s a journalist, right?”
Lainey nodded. “He’s with News Daily, the online magazine.”
Gideon grunted, a non-committal sound. “Okay. Do you have a photo?”
“I do.” Lainey reached into the pocket of her jeans, pulling out the photo she’d printed from the magazine’s website. It was the most recent she could find that didn’t include her or Sam, Shane’s elderly pug dog. “And here.” She handed him the envelope, thick with one hundred dollar bills.
The envelope disappeared almost instantly into the back pocket of his pants. But he held the photo a moment longer, eyes scanning the image of her brother.
“He looks like you. Older brother?” He pulled off his sunglasses for the first time, fixing her with a piercing gaze. Lainey blinked; his eyes were olive green, but shimmered gold in the sunlight. The contrast against his tanned skin was amazing and she found herself stammering out a reply.
“Um, younger, but just by a year. We ended up in the same grade at school, some fluke with our birthdays. Our parents thought it would be easier for us.” Lainey realized she was babbling, took a deep breath and tried for composure, but was only marginally successful.
His riveting gaze held hers a moment longer and then he folded the paper, sticking it into his pocket.
“I’ll call you as soon as I land and then you probably won’t hear from me until…”
“But I’m coming along.” Lainey opened the back door of her car and retrieved a small bag carrying a few changes of clothes, sunscreen, and a toothbrush, slinging the strap over her shoulder.
“Like hell you are. That’s not part of the plan.” His brows drew together swiftly, his neutral expression darkening.
“But I’m paying you…”
“Yeah, you are. And then I do my job. You’re not part of me doing my job.”
“But he’s my brother. He’s my responsibility.” Lainey lifted her chin and drew herself up to her full five and a half feet, hands on her hips. The passenger climbed out of the SUV, a short dark-haired man in greasy chinos and a dirty denim work shirt. He eyed Lainey curiously, offered a slight smile, but said nothing.
“I appreciate that, lady, but this isn’t a vacation in the tropics. It’s dangerous. And I don’t need you tagging along making sure I’m doing my job.”
“I’m not checking up on you. I have every confidence you’ll do your job. But this is my brother, my only family. I want to be there.”
“You’re going to be in my way. And like I just said – this is dangerous. Also, I work alone for a reason.”
“I know what you are.” The words bubbled out of her mouth before she could take them back. His eyes narrowed but she continued. “I can take care of myself. I’ll just…get on the same plane as you do. You can’t stop me from doing that.”
Lainey glanced at the shorter man. He was listening to their conversation, his smile widening. Had she messed up? Maybe he didn’t know about Gideon’s special abilities.
He leaned against the fender of the SUV, apparently enjoying the exchange. If what she’d said surprised him, he didn’t show it.
Gideon took off his cap, revealing a shock of thick, dark hair and she shook her head. This was no time to lose focus. She was going to Belize whether Gideon Hunt liked it or not.
Gideon ran his fingers through his hair, messing up the already disheveled locks. He jammed the cap back on his head, tugging it low over his forehead, then looked down at her, mouth held in a firm line. A very disapproving line.
“Look. I get you’re worried about your brother. I get it, really. But this is no place for a woman, not by a long shot.” He turned away from her, as if that was the end of the discussion. The shorter man straightened, moving toward the passenger door.
“You can’t stop me from flying,” she called out, repeating what seemed to be a perfectly logical argument. Gideon kept walking, but the other man stopped and turned back, an expectant look on his face.
“I’m not flying commercial, so you’re going to have a hard time finding me even if you did manage to get a flight. I’ve got a charter booked. This is my pilot.” Gideon nodded at the other man as he rounded the back of the vehicle.
“How much does it cost to fly charter?” Lainey turned to the pilot, who had stopped a few feet from her.
“How much you got?” He leaned against the SUV again, hands stuck in the pockets of his chinos, as if he had all the time in the world. She saw Gideon out of the corner of her eye, striding back around the rear of the SUV.
“A thousand dollars.” Lainey held her breath. It was almost all the cash she had left, besides credit cards. And the pilot didn’t look like the kind who took American Express. Scott had said something about expenses, and she’d wanted to be prepared in case Gideon asked for more money.
“Then a thousand dollars will get you a flight to Belize.”
“What the hell are you doing, Mack? She can’t come along.”
“She can fly in my plane if she’s got the cash, Hunt. You’re buying a seat; she’s buying a seat. I’m out to make a buck, just like you.”
The man turned back to Lainey and extended his hand. After a pause, she shook it. He looked confused a moment then smiled, shaking his head.
“Nice meeting you, Miss Nickels, but I want my money.”
“Oh, right.” Lainey fumbled in her pocket for the smaller envelope she’d tucked away, counted out a thousand dollars, and handed it to the pilot. Unlike Gideon, the man counted the money. Satisfied, he nodded, glancing at Gideon before looking back at Lainey.
“I’m Mack. Grab your stuff and we can head to the plane. That is, if Gideon is done trying to run my business for me.”
That remark was met with a deep scowl from Gideon, but he voiced no other protest. He stalked to the driver’s side door, opened it, and climbed in. The engine roared to life and Lainey quickly opened the back door and climbed inside, fearful Gideon would drive away, leaving her behind.
As it was, she’d barely gotten the door closed before he backed out of the parking space in a squeal of tires. He circled the terminal and several other buildings, heading for a small blue hangar on the outskirts of the runways. He pulled up in front of the large metal doors and Mack jumped out, running over to the building and disappearing through a small service door. A moment later, the large hangar door slid to the side. Lainey saw a small white plane tucked neatly inside the hangar. Mack disappeared into the dark depths of the building.
Lainey opened her door, grabbed her bag, and stepped out into the sun. Gideon climbed out of the driver’s side, slamming the door with a resounding thud. He strode to the back of the SUV, tugged up the hatch, and began rummaging through an array of duffel bags and other containers. Lainey took a tentative step toward him, but before she could say anything, he spun around.
“This is not a good idea.” He took a step forward, his finger jabbing in her direction. “You’re going to get in the way, you’re going to be in my way, and you’re going to slow me down.” He advanced further and she took a reflexive step backward.
Then she stopped. This was just like Scott, starting in on a lecture of how she was wrong and he was right. Granted, this was her brother’s life they were talking about, but there still had to be something she could contribute besides money.
“Look, Gideon. I know this is probably out of the ordinary…”
“Out of the ordinary? It’s completely crazy. You’re completely crazy.” He was standing directly in front of her now, the toes of his big black boots almost touching her sneakers. Craning her neck, she looked up at him as he glared down at her. This close he seemed immense, chest broad enough to block out the sun.
“But I can’t control Mack or who he takes as a passenger. And it’s pretty obvious I can’t control you either.”
She held his gaze, watching his pale eyes darken dangerously. The image of a lion rose in Lainey’s mind again, a very angry lion this time, looking at her as if deciding if she was worth the effort to swat aside or to eat for lunch. Maybe he was exactly as she pictured. Scott had said Gideon was like him. Was he a wolf or had her ex merely meant a shapeshifter in general? She opened her mouth to ask, but shut it just as quickly. Now wasn’t the time.
For a moment, they stood, Gideon glaring down at her, Lainey determined to stand her ground. Her breathing was fast and shallow, and for a moment she wondered just how long this staring match was going to continue. But then Gideon shook his head, waving a dismissive hand in the space between them.
“Fine. Do whatever you think you have to do. We’re wasting time.” He turned back to the SUV. “Just don’t…”
The noise of the plane cut off the rest of his words. Lainey turned and watched as Mack skillfully brought the plane out of the hangar, angling it toward the nearest runway. He twirled his index finger in the air in a hurry up gesture, and Gideon gave him an impatient wave.
Lainey shouldered her bag as Gideon finished putting items in a black duffel bag. Out of curiosity, she peered over his shoulder as he worked. He turned abruptly, catching her in the shoulder with the bag. She jerked back with a cry, dropping her own bag on the tarmac.
“Proves my point. We’re still in Georgia and you’re already in the way.” He hoisted the duffel bag, slammed the hatch on the SUV, and turned toward the plane. She grabbed her bag and straightened. Gideon was already headed toward the plane, tossing words over his shoulder.
“Get in, sit down, and do what Mack or I say. Don’t move, don’t talk. Nothing.”
Lainey hurried to keep up with Gideon as he walked across the tarmac. Yanking open the door on the side of the plane, he tossed the duffel bag inside, then pointed to Lainey, motioning her inside. She climbed up on the wing and then into the plane. There were four seats, two facing forward and two directly behind the pilot, facing the rear. She took the one furthest from the door, behind the pilot, facing forward. Gideon climbed in to sit beside Mack in the narrow cockpit.
The plane rolled out across the tarmac, made a sharp turn, and then headed down what Lainey hoped was the runway. They increased speed, racing over the gray runway, the plane shaking and bouncing far more than she thought was necessary.
Out of the window she could see the wing, one of the engines, and the ground flashing by. Suddenly the wheels left the runway, the bumpiness stopped, and they were airborne. They rose over green fields, past the two-lane highway on which she’d driven, then circled and headed away from everything that was familiar to Lainey.
This was it; she was on her way to get Shane out of whatever mess he was in, with a surly shifter who probably hated her. She looked over at Gideon, studying his profile. The sunglasses were gone and he’d taken off his cap, replacing it with a pair of headphones. His hair, even though it was on the short side, was still messy, a few erratic peaks sticking up around the headphones. The sleeve of his black t-shirt stretched across the muscles of his upper arm, the edge of a tattoo visible.
For a moment, she had the almost irresistible urge to reach out, tug the sleeve higher, and find out what the rest of the tattoo looked like. She wondered if there were more hiding beneath his shirt.
Then Gideon turned, said something to Mack, and smiled briefly. It was the first smile she’d seen and for a moment, she was captivated. He was ruggedly handsome, the smile crinkling the corners of his eyes, relieving the tension on his face.
But it was quickly gone, replaced by his usual grim face. She sighed and looked out the window again. In her excitement, or maybe it was terror, of getting herself on this trip, she’d forgotten to ask how long they’d be in the air. It really didn’t matter; she was on the plane and there wasn’t much Gideon could do now. She was headed toward Belize.