"You make a good partner, Renshaw."
His words echoed and bounced around her, mocking her with how she'd failed at just that. "Thank you, but it's my job."
"Yeah, right. I'll scrounge around outside for something to eat, some ice to melt, before the storm gets any worse."
And he was gone, swallowed by the sheets of snow rippling and twisting like linens on a line. The cave doubled in size without his shoulders and booming voice. So much for professional distance to carry her through this night alone.
She dropped her mittens to the slick black ground. She unzipped her parka and released the bark and needles into a pile near the mouth of the cavern to vent the smoke. From a pill bottle, she extracted a Vaseline-soaked cotton ball and dropped it on top of the kindling.
Kneeling, she struck her survival knife against the magnesium stick, launching sparks. She swooped again and again until the cotton ball poofed with flames. Kindling crackled, warmed. Acrid smoke singed the air and her lungs. Once the fire roared, she clicked off the flashlight to save the battery.
The entrance sealed closed. She startled, knife drawn, then relaxed.
Josh filled the entryway again, logs in his arms. "I set traps. We'll shoot hoops to decide who cooks.
Loser skins Thumper."
How could she not smile at the reference to their old hoops ritual? All the same, she could have done without the reminder of Josh's better qualities. Smart. Funny. Hot. Air sense in the plane that left people of all ranks bowing in worship. And oh yeah, hot.
Her traitorous gaze skipped over to him as he dumped the wood. Hard, angular features gave him a raw appeal, softened just short of scary by long dark eyelashes. A scar along his jawline provided a touch of humanity to his godlike perfection.
Perhaps it was his humanity that scared her most of all. "Left or right side?"
"Pardon?" He squatted down in front of the fire, stripping off his mittens.
"Left or right side of the rock bed? After we eat."
Josh glanced up at her, eyes clear with understanding of her unstated boundaries. He flipped back his hood. "Right side, by the light, so I can read myself to sleep."
He obviously wanted an easygoing tone, too, like with the shooting-hoops comment. Still, tension lines radiating from the corners of his eyes sprinkled guilt all over her. She couldn't squelch the desire to smooth her fingers over them.
Danger zone. Back off notions of touching.
She opted to be up front. Dodging the obvious wasn't helping, anyway. "Kinda tense, huh? Being here together. Things will be better once we're both settled at work. We won't see each other so much. Ops officer duties will have you hopping, being called out to the flight line every time there's an emergency. I'll be busy giving check rides and filling out form eights. Even when we do see each other, we'll both be too exhausted to notice."
"Sure. Sounds great." He brought a longer log down over his knee. The frozen brittle wood snapped in half, the crack echoing. Crouching, he dropped one piece, then the second onto the fledgling fire.
Sparks showered up, blazing higher to throw dancing shadows along Josh's beard-stubbled face. He so didn't deserve the pain she'd brought to his life.
She inched closer to him, woodsy smoke teasing her nose on its curling path outside. "You can have the apartment if you want. I'll look for somewhere else to live. I know you'll be busy keeping everyone current and spun up in case things flare in Cantou again."
He grunted, still staring down into the fire.
"Josh? We have to learn to be civil. This isn't the only time we'll be working together."
"Fine." His face snapped up. "Glad you're ready to talk. Let's start with why the hell we ever got married."
Whoa! Scream on the brakes. Blood rushed to her head as if she were pulling G-forces. She was thinking more along the lines of "You get the blender and I'll take the food processor."
She opted for the simple answer. "Your biological clock was ticking."
He snorted. "A guy's clock doesn't run down."
"Whatever." He'd wanted babies and she'd wanted to give them to him. So why hadn't she been able to just go for it?
With a long stick, he prodded the fire, stoking. "So why did you marry me?" "My biological clock was ticking." Partial truth.
His incredulous look shouted a louder answer than any he could have shot her way. Okay, so she'd delayed having children. Again. And again, even though originally they'd agreed to start a family right away, both of them impatient.
Then their final explosive argument while unpacking in their new apartment had ended everything. She'd turned the spare bedroom into an office. He'd been planning more along the lines of a nursery.
She couldn't stop thinking how damned scared she was to take that final commitment step, because someday he would demand answers to questions she saw crowding his eyes about her past. She hadn't told him, but she suspected he knew at least a part of the story thanks to her blabbermouth younger sister.
Josh pitched a final branch into the fire. With deliberate, predatory intent, he leaned forward. She should move away, but couldn't find the will. No surprise around Josh.
He stroked aside her hood, exposing her face to the grazing knuckles of his caress. "It's a damned shame we couldn't get our clocks in synch, because you know there's nothing I would have enjoyed more than giving you a baby for Christmas."
Alicia held herself still under his touch, unable to pull away, unable to move forward. Her heart twisted with longing. She'd had such hopes for their first holiday season as husband and wife. Her gift for him remained wrapped, hidden, an antique sextant for her navigator husband.
The heat of his fingers scorched her chilled face, stirring the hunger that simmered inside her anytime he touched her. She couldn't ignore it, but she refused to act on that hunger. "You really need to stop with the sexual innuendos. It's going to be uncomfortable enough sleeping next to each other tonight."
He stared back at her, inscrutable thoughts scrolling across his eyes. Would he push?
Finally, he just smiled, letting her off the hook for now. "I'd much rather sleep beside you than a bear." "Thanks, I think."
His hand fell away. "But you're right. This sucks, being stuck out here together. I'm sorry it had to be this way."
She didn't want him to be nice, especially not now when they faced a final night together. She'd already cheated him of so much. He deserved better.
From the start, she'd known he was only getting half a person after what happened eight years ago. She'd hoped that maybe if she loved him enough, went through the motions of normalcy, everything would work. He would never know that she couldn't give him a hundred percent of herself.
She'd been wrong.
Alicia rocked back on her heels, suddenly certain she could not curl up next to him and hold firm to her resolve. "Maybe we shouldn't sleep at the same time after all. Once we finish eating, we could take turns sitting guard to keep the fire going. You should sleep first since you walked the lead."
With some luck, they could take turns sleeping until morning, never awake at the same time for long. And somehow forget that they were stranded together during one of the longest nights of the Alaskan winter.
Ten hours later on the longest night of his life, Josh held a branch-rigged torch overhead to add to the flashlight rays. Still, the beams barely pierced a dark deeper than outside. While Alicia slept, he wanted to scout around the cave. He needed to work off restless energy after his four-hour power nap.
They'd eaten, drunk melted ice, all silently. The talk of babies for the holidays had axed right through any hope of joking away the evening.
So her biological clock was ticking, which meant she just didn't want his babies. That delivered a kick in the seat of the pants harder than an afterburner.
He focused on the task at hand, surveying their surroundings, scouring for anything that might help their survival situation, like animal furs or food. So far, he'd only found an empty rabbit's nest and a few rats.
And a surprising lack of anything else.
Other wildlife should have taken up residence in this shelter. Yet he couldn't find so much as a footprint.
The cave floor looked as immaculate as his mother's fresh-mopped kitchen.
No one was here now, but his instincts blared that someone had been recently. And that someone didn't want anyone else to know.
He jerked to look over his shoulder, torch swooshing around to light an empty corridor.
"Josh? It's just me." Alicia's voice bounced around a corner a second before her flashlight beam
ricocheted off the wall.
He turned before she could draw closer. "Careful about sneaking up on me." "Sorry."
Soft regret carried on her single word, the sentiment obviously for so many more things between them.
Her sleep-husky tones tempted him to hold her, shake her, kiss her, insist they give things another chance. But did he really want to keep trying to repair their broken relationship?
Not if she wasn't willing to be straight up with him.
He'd had a bellyful of people holding back from him. Hell, it wasn't like his brain made him a mind reader. Yet even while he mainstreamed enough to fit in, people always kept up walls with him as if his intelligence allowed him an understanding of their inner secrets.
If he could do that, then he wouldn't have his crap dumped at the BOQ. "Go back to sleep. It'll be an ex hausting trek with the extra snowfall. You've got maybe four hours left before we start out." He raised his torch to illuminate her.
She stood silhouetted by the halo of light, her hood flopped back to reveal blond hair, spiky, tousled, as if mussed from his hands during sex. Her unzipped parka flapped open to her sides, revealing soft curves encased in her flight suit.
Heat surged south with unerring navigation.
Hitching the torch ahead, he charged past toward the last corridor left unexplored. Four steps in, his instincts blared an undeniable warning. He eyed the irregular hacks in the cave walls, fresh indentions that had nothing to do with nature and everything to do with human intervention. The mine wasn't abandoned anymore.
White suits dangled from pegs in the wall beside a tarp-draped mound no bigger than the new dining room table he and Alicia had bought the day before their split.
"Josh? Is something wrong?" Alicia asked from a step behind him and, hell, but he hadn't even heard her approach this time.
"I'm just hoping I'm not seeing what I think I'm seeing." And now he intended to keep Alicia plastered to his side until he knew for certain. "Stick close."
Illumination swelled in the small rock chamber as they walked deeper inside. He strode past the canvas-covered bulk to the white suit bags dangling like ghostly apparitions from a Dickens tale.
Alicia's gasp behind him echoed his realization. "Protective clothing and breathing apparatus. God, Josh, these are better quality than the chemical gear we're issued and new. What the hell's going on here?"
He swept aside the tarp to reveal boxlike machinery with levered doors and gauges. And thanks to a stint at the nuclear-weapons officer course at Sandia Labs at Kirtland AFB in New Mexico, he knew exactly what he was seeing. None of it good.
"Apparently someone has set up a small-time mining operation here. This machine—" he gestured to the device on the left"—measures mass of the rock. The one on the right measures radioactivity. Combine those two machines and they perform radiometric sorting, which separates preferred uranium from rock and lesser uranium."
"Whoa. Uranium? Hold on. This mine's supposed to be shut down." She hooked her hands on her hips, spinning a slow circle. "Wouldn't someone have noticed all the activity from hacking out so much rock?"
"Usually with uranium to rock mass, you have to haul away a helluva lot of rock." He knelt on one knee in front of the black metal stretch of machinery, flicked a dial gauge. "Unless I miss my guess, they've struck a vein of pure uranite, probably a highly concentrated form. Uranite can be up to eighty-five percent concentrated, which makes small parcels. A mom and pop operation could pull this off without their activity being detected."
"And this uranite has been sitting in a training base backyard?"
"People see what they expect to see. Up to five seconds ago, I thought the only place to find this particular ore was in Blind River, Canada."
"I may not be a genius, but even I know Canada's mighty darn close to Alaska."
"They're probably taking out maybe a grocery-bag-size amount per day, then using a small plane or helicopter."
Alicia stared at the suits. "I'm guessing a helicopter since we didn't see tracks outside other than the rab bits'." She filled in the blanks as quickly as he thought them. "Helicopter blades would blow away footprints upon take off."
"Good guess." Damn, why couldn't they figure out marriage this easily? "Granted, it's raw uranium and has to be enriched. But it's enough uranium to build a bomb the size used in World War II."
"So with that grocery bag, either paper or plastic, we could be totally screwed."
He fingered the Geiger counter attached to one of the suits. "That's not even taking into account skipping the enrichment process and building a dirty bomb."
His skin tingled at just the thought of radium exposure even as the Geiger counter in his hand told him they'd been exposed to less than an X ray.
Alicia backed away from the suits. "Rose-Bud, as enlightening as this discussion is, I think it's time we took it outside."
Fair enough. Radiation may not be a major concern, but the people who inhabited those ghostly suits could do some serious real-life haunting.
Josh doused the torch, the flashlight more than adequate for hauling ass out. He clasped her hand and tugged her along behind him, grip tight. He wasn't risking losing her in the maze of tunnels. "We'll call from the radio once we're outside and can pick up a frequency. Hopefully the weather's cleared enough to send a chopper."
"What an excuse to get out of finishing the class." "It'll make the logbooks for sure."
She stumbled behind him.
"You okay?" he called over his shoulder.
"Just tripped over something in the dark. I'm fine." Tripped? Trip. Trip wire. Ah, hell.
A sixth-sense premonition burned over him a half second before rumbling echoed behind them. A collapse? No. More of a squeak. Rolling. Opening. Like a gate or door.