Security Specialists International, Book 2.5
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I don’t have any secret recipes for those cold nights — other than a nice shot of single malt scotch always works for me … so I decided to share a brrr-cold rescue scene from my romantic thriller — FREE for download novella — Storm Front, Book 2.5 in the Security Specialists International series.
Security Specialists International, Book 1.5
You can download this novella and my other SSI novella, Stormy Weather Baby, Book 1.5, at my publisher’s site. Yes, they are both free. My gifts to you. And if you like them, please give my other books in the SSI series a chance, Eye of the Storm, Cold Day in Hell, and my newest release, Weather the Storm. They are all available for download at my publisher and Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and other online retailers. Print books are available at Amazon.
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As soon as Earl felt the slack, he kicked off the side of the ravine and covered the ten feet or so with one kick-off. He hung over Tessa’s body for a second before making a controlled landing on the ledge next to her. The ledge was solid, thank the fuck.
“Tweeter, the ledge can hold us both,” Earl said. “Come on down.”
As Tweeter made his final descent, Earl tugged and received more slack and then bent over Tessa’s still body. She lay on her front, her face turned to the side. Her eyes were shut, her lashes lined with ice. Her skin was whiter than the snow she lay upon.
“Tessa?” No response.
He brushed the snow away from her face with gloved hands. Removing one glove, he checked for a pulse and found it. He sighed with relief. “She’s alive.” He checked her neck and determined it wasn’t broken as far as he could tell. “Neck doesn’t seem to be broken, but I want a collar down here. Tweeter, a hat … need a hat here.”
Most heat loss was from an uncovered head. He needed to get her warm ASAP. Hypothermia was the biggest danger at this point.
Tweeter hunkered down next to him and put his own stocking cap on Tessa. His climbing partner had on a balaclava just as he did and would be fine without the extra layer of wool.
“If you feel it’s safe, then lift her,” Tweeter said. “I’ll get this solar blanket under her so we can wrap her in it.”
Earl nodded. “Tessa, sweetheart? Talk to me.”
Still no response, and she wasn’t shivering. Not a good sign. Even unconscious her body would shiver to produce heat. Her lips were blue. Her skin looked dehydrated, and he remembered she had already shown signs of altitude sickness.
He felt under her coat and swore. “Godammit, she’s soaking wet.” He looked at Tweeter whose face was as grim as he felt. “Probably from the exertions of trying to climb out.”
Tweeter nodded. “No matter how she got wet, it isn’t good. We need to move, Earl.” The man grabbed the collar sent down to them and gently placed it around her neck.
“Let’s do it.” Earl lifted Tessa’s limp body into his arms and laid her on her back on the blanket Tweeter had spread on the ground.
“Fuck me.” Tweeter’s curse said it all.
Tessa’s clothing was torn and bloody.
They quickly wrapped her like a mummy in the high-tech sheet which would keep her from losing any more body heat.
“God, sweetheart, look at what you’ve done to yourself.” Earl lifted the edge of the blanket just enough to slide his hand inside. He quickly, by touch alone, checked her ribs, collar bone, and pelvic bones for breaks. Then he moved to her legs. “No obvious breaks that I can find.”
SSI had a fully equipped medical facility run by Lacey Jones, a trauma nurse and the wife of Quinn, Ren’s third in command. She could check Tessa out more fully later.
“She didn’t climb all the way up from the stream bed.” Tweeter looked over the edge of the ledge upon which they perched.
Earl retucked the blanket more closely around Tessa. He brushed the back of his fingers over her icy cold cheek. Her lashes fluttered—the first sign of movement from her since they’d gotten there.
Thank you, God.
“Looks like the SUV got hung up on a tree. I see an area where some roots are still hanging out from the side of the ravine. It’s fresh damage.” Tweeter turned to look at Earl. “She was lucky to have gotten out before the vehicle fell to the bottom.”
She had to have been terrified, but she’d done what she had to do. His woman had grit.
“Yeah.” Earl stroked her face once more before putting his glove back on. “We can find out exactly what happened later. Let’s move.”
The wind gusted even harder now than it had on their descent. Tweeter had to fight to stand upright on the ledge. Climbing out with an unconscious woman wouldn’t get any easier the longer they waited.
“How do you want to do this?” Tweeter eyed the climb. “Sides of the ravine are too rough to haul her up. She has enough lacerations.”
“I’ll take her on my back.” Earl began to fashion a rope harness with the extra rope he’d carried down. “You can tie her to me by my harness.”
As Earl quickly fashioned a torso harness with doubled lengths of rope, Tweeter hunched down by Tessa and commented, “I did this with Keely when we went rock climbing one summer in Montana.”
Earl put the make-shift harness on Tessa with Tweeter’s help and tightened it.
“Keely sprained her ankle,” Tweeter added. “She rode my back on the way up and out. But she was conscious and short and only weighed about ninety pounds at the time. Tessa’s almost six foot and weighs maybe one forty.”
“I can do it.” Earl brushed his lips over Tessa’s forehead. Other than the one fluttering of lashes, she hadn’t made any other motions the whole time they’d been there. “I’ve carried wounded soldiers on my back, with sixty-pound packs, up the side of mountains in Afghanistan in worse conditions than this.”
Those times hadn’t been a walk in the park, but they had been crucial and necessary. Carrying Tessa to safety fit into the same category—life and death.
He pulled the wool neck scarf off his neck and wrapped it around her lower face to give her more warmth. “You’ll have to get her on my back and then make sure she’s tied to me securely. The wind’s vicious.” He didn’t want her torn from him with a savage gust.
“I can do that.” Tweeter double-checked all the harness knots. “Knots I’m good at.”
At Tweeter’s last words, Tessa blinked and slitted her eyes open. What little body heat they’d managed to salvage for her had helped her rouse a bit.
Earl murmured, “Hey there, sweetheart. Welcome back.”
“Cold. Sick…” she muttered and moved her head from him to Tweeter and then back. “Where—” Her voice trailed off and she closed her eyes.
“Tessa! Stay with me, baby. Where do you hurt?” Earl sat and gathered her into his arms, adding his warmth to the solar blanket.
Her eyelids fluttered, but remained closed. She licked her lips, which were tinged blue and very chapped. “All … over. Sick … threw up.” She coughed, and Earl tilted her body so she could breathe easier. “Do I have … flu?”
Earl groaned. “No, baby.” She wasn’t completely with them. Delirium wasn’t good. He looked into Tweeter’s worried eyes. “Let’s haul ass.”
Then Earl spoke into his head set. “Ren, have someone get an IV ready. She needs fluids.”
She’d been sick before she left the Lodge; he’d smelled it in her bathroom. If she’d been sick again on the mountain, she was in danger of not only hypothermia, but hypovolemia and possibly hypovolemic shock. A deadly double whammy. He’d lost men that way on forced marches at high altitude in a war zone. He wasn’t losing her.
“On it,” Ren’s calm voice replied. “Price is setting it up now in the Hummer. We have heat packs ready to go also. Just get her up here. Weather’s deteriorating. A new storm front is moving in with blizzard warnings for the rest of today and tonight.”
“Roger that,” Earl replied. “Hold her up for a second, Tweeter.”
Tweeter took over bracing Tessa as Earl stood. “Okay, I’ve got her.” Earl pulled Tessa up and held her against his body, her front to his front. She was as limp as an over-cooked noodle. “Can you hold her upright while I turn and take her on my back?”
“Got it. Go.” Tweeter encircled Tessa from behind and braced her against his body.
Earl turned his back to them and stooped. “Lean her on me and brace her. I’ll pick her up and then you can tie her to me.”
“Got her, Earl,” Tweeter confirmed.
“W-w-what’s … happening?” Tessa slurred the words.
“Shh, it’s okay, Tessa. Earl’s giving you a piggyback ride.” Tweeter’s explanation was spoken in a gentle voice as he positioned Tessa for Earl to pick her up.
“Yippee.” Her tone held no inflection, and her voice was breathy. She could speak, but aphasia wasn’t far off. Without warmth and proper hydration, her brain would shut down unnecessary systems in order to protect the crucial internal organs to maintain life.
Earl reached for her legs, hooked his arms under her knees, then lifted her onto his back. Tweeter immediately began to secure her rope body harness to Earl’s climbing one. Tessa’s head lay on his shoulder, her cheek turned toward his neck. The scarf he’d wound around her face must have slipped, because he could feel her labored breathing against his neck.
“Tweeter, we’re gonna lose her,” Earl rasped. His fear for her well-being tinged his voice.
“She’s on,” Tweeter said. “Let go. I need to secure her legs to your waist, so they won’t impede your climbing.”
Earl straightened, and once he was sure her body was tied to him, he let go of her knees one at a time. Tweeter fashioned a sling to support her bent legs and attached it to her rope harness and then to the D-rings on Earl’s climbing harness.
“Her torso and legs are secure, but what about her arms?” Tweeter had come to stand next to him. “She can’t hold on. She’s unconscious again. Do you want me to tie her arms around your neck?”
“Yeah, but tie her wrists to the D-rings on my shoulder,” Earl suggested. If he were on level ground, he would’ve just held her arms around his waist, but he needed both arms for climbing.
“Gotcha.” Tweeter quickly tied Tessa’s wrists to D-rings on each of Earl’s shoulders. “I made sure the ropes were around her gloves and loose enough not to cut off circulation.”
Neither man spoke the thought Tessa might not have any feeling by this point in any of her limbs. Paresthesia had probably set in once Tessa had gotten cold and then been exacerbated by her loss of fluids.
“Yo, on belay,” Earl informed the men on top.
“Belay on. Climb,” a Walsh twin said.
“Climbing,” Earl replied.
When he felt the tightening of the slack in his ropes, he found a foothold off to the right of the ledge and stepped off the ledge, first his right foot and then his left. He found his balance at a slight angle from the rock wall, and then, using all his upper-body strength and training, began to climb up the wall. The men on top picked up the slack and assisted, but much of the work was still on him. He used natural footholds when he could, but relied on the men at the top to make sure the rope stayed taut as he walked his way up the side of the ravine.
Tessa’s extra weight, coupled with gravity, made the climb a challenge. The wind didn’t help the situation as the gusts shoved him around on the unforgiving, cold, wet wall.
Earl ignored the strain on his hands, arms, and shoulders and concentrated on using all the skills he’d learned in the Army. He’d be sure to drop his trainers a thank you for pushing him to his limits during Mountaineering School. Failure had not been an option then, and it wasn’t one now.
Tweeter climbed easily and effortlessly at his side, using a hand to keep Tessa’s head from flopping around even with the neck brace.
The computer geek brother of Keely Walsh-Maddox might never have served in the military, but Earl would take the man climbing in a war zone any damn time. The man was a cool customer under pressure, and if Earl hadn’t been here, he didn’t doubt the youngest Walsh son would’ve gotten Tessa up the side of the ravine all by himself.
A slurred “sorry” was murmured against his neck. Tessa had roused again as she was jostled about on his back. Her bruised and lacerated front had to be hurting. He wanted to howl at the pain he was causing her.
“Shh, we’ll talk later, sweetheart.” Earl paused long enough to turn his head toward her face. Tessa had somehow raised her head and was looking at him through slitted lashes covered in ice crystals. He smiled with what he hoped was reassurance. “Close your eyes, Tessa. You’re safe with me.”
She blinked and buried her face against his neck with a deep sigh. She went even limper against him, and he began climbing faster.
Ren looked over the edge, his facial expression fierce, and spoke over the headsets. “You’re close. Price, Paul, and I have you. Tweeter, Loren has you. Let us do all the work once you get to road level.”
“Roger that.” Earl kept climbing. Tweeter echoed him a second later.
When he and Tweeter reached road level, two sets of hands pulled him and Tessa over the edge and onto the top of the small stone wall. Earl let Ren and Price unhook Tessa and take her off his back while he held on to the wall.
His body was wracked with shudders as the combination of fatigue and stress hit him. His rasping breaths showed as little puffs of white in the frigid air. He took the short respite to regain control over his body after the arduous climb in blizzard conditions. Even now, he could barely see ten feet in front of him, and the storm was getting worse.
Once Tessa was freed from his back, he swung over the wall and stood. Shoving the effects of the climb aside, he held out his arms to Ren. “Give her to me.”
Ren handed her over, and Earl jogged toward the Hummer they’d come in. It was barely visible through the sideways sheets of snow.
Pacing him, Ren said, “We set up the back seat. Lay her on the reclined one. Get the IV started, and then we’ll head back to the Lodge. Short clock, guys. The storm front is moving through now.”
“Roger that.” Earl lifted Tessa into the back of the Hummer. Price had beaten them to the vehicle and was ready to take her inside. Earl followed quickly and began to strip the wet clothing off Tessa.
Price moved to help, but Earl glared. “I got this. Thanks. Get the IV started, okay?”
Price nodded and began testing for a vein on the arm closest to him. He swore like the SEAL he’d been. “Shit, her veins are sunken. She’s too dehydrated. Her blood volume sucks. Butterfly it?”
“Do it.” Earl grunted as he wiped the chilled dampness off Tessa’s skin with one of the extra blankets in the Hummer and began to stuff Tessa into a man’s thermal long-sleeved shirt and long johns. “Somebody get some dry socks on her and warm gel packs on her extremities.”
He wasn’t sure who responded, but soon Tessa had on two pairs of men’s thermal socks with hot gel packs between the layers on the soles of her feet.
Tessa moaned in pain. He knew how it must feel—like hot pokers stabbing her feet―but she needed to get warmed up. He took care of the hand Price wasn’t working on, using two more socks with a hand warmer between them. With the butterfly stick going into the vein on the top of her hand, the IV fluid should help warm that hand up.
“Any more blankets?” Earl sat next to Tessa on the side that didn’t have the IV. He opened his jacket and the heat he’d built up climbing almost created mist in the cold air coming from outside the Hummer. He pulled Tessa with Price’s help into his arms and pulled his jacket over her as much as he could.
Price wrapped two more blankets over Tessa and tucked a larger warm gel pack under the blankets at her waist to help with the warming. “Best we can do for now. You all set?”
“Yeah, let’s go.” Earl rubbed his cheek over the top of Tessa’s head as it lay on his shoulder. He angled his face and kissed her cold forehead. “Hang in there, sweetheart.”
Price nodded, shut the rear passenger side door, and climbed into the front next to Ren. The other men had already started back to the Lodge to make sure all was ready to receive Tessa.
As Ren sped up the road, the Hummer’s heating system began to pour out its heat.
Earl was hotter than hell, but he could care less. Tessa had started to moan and shiver. The heating packs and the fluids and electrolytes were doing their job. He only hoped they’d gotten to her in time and had managed to forestall any permanent damage.
Price looked over the back of the passenger seat. “How’s her face? Any noticeable frost bite?”
Earl tipped up Tessa’s head and looked. He let out a sigh. “Looks okay. She must have just fallen unconscious right before we reached her. She climbed for a ways, so she had some circulation and heat production while she was exerting.”
“It was hard.” Tessa’s eyes remained closed and her voice was weak, but the slurring was almost gone. “Thought I was gonna croak. So sick. So tired.” She let out a sigh and snuggled into Earl’s chest. “Warm. Nice. Smell good.” Then she yawned like a kitten who’d tired itself out and relaxed bonelessly into him.
“God, baby.” Earl kissed the top of her head.
Price looked from Earl to Tessa and then back. “You claiming her?”
“Yeah.” Earl glared at the too-handsome man. “You got a problem with that?”
From what Earl had heard from the other SSI men, Price had nailed every eligible female over twenty-one and under thirty-five in Idaho County and points north to Coeur d’Alene. The man wasn’t getting anywhere near Tessa if he could help it.
“I don’t poach.” Price turned to look out the front as they approached the Lodge’s underground garage area. “But it’s her choice, ya know. I’ll be around in case she decides she doesn’t want to be claimed.”
Ren shook his head. “Price, do you have a death wish?”
“Nope, just sayin’ little Tessa hasn’t agreed to take on Big Earl.” Price sounded smug.
“She will.” Earl kissed her cheek and nuzzled her ear. “She likes how I smell.”
“She will.” Earl kissed her cheek and nuzzled her ear. “She likes how I smell.”
That admission had set it in stone as far as he was concerned. She recognized him on some primal level just as he recognized her. She was his, and he was hers, and all that was left were the details of how soon she’d move in with him.