A bark. Another. Growls grew louder behind the walls, not the storm howling at all. Guard dogs or wolves? Either way, a death pack. Josh's hand convulsed around Alicia's.
"Shit," he bit out. "Run!"
Alicia gripped Josh's hand.
She held tight, not from fear of the snarling reverberations chasing them through the cave. But out of a gut-sure sense that her husband would do something recklessly macho if he thought she was in danger.
Holding firm, she sprinted, her feet slipping along the slick rocks and frozen mud. The flashlight beam bounced ahead.
Josh's heat, sweat and intensity seared through their form-fitting flight gloves as they ran. Around a corner. Left or right? Josh shoved right.
Ten steps later, the mouth of the cave came into view.
"Gloves," she shouted. "Grab them."
Her hand sailed down to scoop up her discarded arctic mittens. No time to snag the snowshoes. Thank God they had their goggles dangling around their necks.
Alicia scrambled on her belly through the narrow opening. Her boots sunk into the snow. Snow flurried and she yanked up her hood.
"Trees," Josh huffed. "Back into the forest. Climb up. We'll call for rescue from there." The trees were farther from their pickup point. But the snarling beasts were closer.
She trudged through the drifts in a high-stepping run that screamed death. They needed to go faster, but the deep snow turned their sprinting into slow motion.
Ominous barking swelled from inside the cave. Then pow, the deadly symphony cleared the cave and exploded full force across the open tundra.
The trees grew closer. But were they close enough? She vise-gripped Josh. Ran. Prayed. Worked to dispel the image of hounds tearing at her husband.
She could feel the steamy caress of hot breath as her hood flopped behind her. Was it her husband breathing beside her? Or were the beasts that near? She didn't dare look.
Snowfall thinned from tree cover. She picked up speed, plunging deeper into the icy forest. She searched for a pine or birch strong enough to hold them.
Five more steps. Josh knelt, hooking his hands together in a step.
She opened her mouth to protest and send him up the tree first to make the call while she...what?
Scrambled up as best she could.
"No time to argue," Josh shouted. "Go. That's an order, Captain." Her soldier soul couldn't ignore the command even as her wife heart screamed in protest.
"Yes, sir." Stuffing her survival mittens inside her flight suit, she placed her boot in his cupped hands. She bounced once, twice for leverage, and up...
She grabbed for a low-hanging branch. She gripped, her flight gloves slippery around the icy branch.
Please God, no missing that would cause Josh to stay on the ground longer. A firm hand landed against her butt. Supported. Shoved upward. She flailed her other arm, smacking a branch.
It held. Yes.
White birds flapped from the branches in protest. Dangling, swaying, she hooked her elbow around. She swung one leg up, then the other.
She sprawled onto her belly on the thick branch, wrapped her legs and one arm around before reaching down. The barking grew intolerably closer. Josh grabbed a droopy pine limb, levered himself up with a boot. His gloved hand slapped into hers.
The first snarling wolf skidded to a stop at the base of the tree, a mangy gray creature with fangs bared.
Flashing teeth latched around Josh's leg. Her heart lurched as the other wolves closed in.
The sound of ripping fabric mingled with snarls. She stared down into Josh's face, icy branch slick against her parka. Determination stung through her. He kicked, thunking his boot against the wolf's head, once, twice.
Her hold strengthened. No letting go. The beast would have to pull them both down.
Pine needles, clumps of snow, lethal icicles rained from the shaken branches. A wolf yelped and fell. An icicle poked from its side while the animal thrashed in death throes.
Alicia slipped to the side. She stifled a shriek.
Josh's eyes narrowed. She read his intent too well. He planned to let go. He would fall to his death to protect her.
"No damn way, Joshua Rosen!" she shouted through gritted teeth. "Don't you dare let go out of some misguided macho-ass idea of saving me."
Her arms strained, one burning from the exertion of holding on to the tree. The other stretched to the limit from her hand locking with Joshua's. "If you fall, then I'm going down with you. There's not a chance in hell I can sit up here while those wolves tear at you. So you hang on tight because I look forward to chewing you out once you get—"
"Roger. Understood." A smile pushed dimples into his face, so at odds with the moment as he hung there somewhere between the branch and a pack of hungry wolves with white teeth and at least five pairs of crystalline eyes flashing up.
"Not letting go." Josh inched closer. "So quit wasting.,.energy talking and just pull."
His booted foot swung free from the fanged jaws. Somehow his feet found purchase along the icy trunk.
He hooked an arm around a limb, hefted himself over and settled, straddling a swaying branch.
Chest pumping quick bursts of vapor, Josh inched closer to the trunk. Finally, he sagged back against the frosted bark. The howling dogs continued to snarl and jump at the trunk, but their growls didn't sound so loud to her ears now that Josh was safe.
He turned his head to look sideways up at her on a bough six or more inches above and over. White clouds from his mouth wafted around her. "Thank you."
"Thank you for the leg-up first." Relief coursed through her, cooling the adrenaline-induced sweat on her body. Minutes whispered by uncounted while she allowed herself to soak in the vitality of Joshua. Alive.
Nothing else mattered at the moment.
"Are you okay?" His gaze raked her.
"Me? I'm not the one who had a wolf hanging off my leg by his teeth. Are you all right?" "I'm fine. The snow pants kept him from actually biting me. Now, how are you, damn it?"
"Just winded." Scared, relieved, scared all over again. "Screw this saving ourselves crap. Arctic Survival School has concluded for us now. We need to report in about what we found in the cave. God, I can't believe anyone would be brash enough to mine uranium right in the backyard of a training area. Scares the hell out of me to think where they might be shipping it. Josh?" Why wasn't he talking? "Don't you agree?"
Cloudy breaths with no words continued to fill the night.
"Are you ready to call in a rescue?" "Look down."
Fishing her flashlight out of her pocket and scared all over again because she couldn't even remember putting it there, she arced the light down. Had she really climbed that high? How in the world had she reached to pull him up? The reality of how close they'd come to dying prickled over her, leaving her a little dizzy until the tundra below jiggled.
Alicia jerked her gaze up again. "I'd really rather not. It's a helluva long way down, and it's not like I have vertigo or anything, I mean, jeez, I'm a pilot, right? But I really prefer to have a parachute strapped to my back anytime I'm up high." Oh, God, already she was growing loopy from the cold and they still had at
least a couple of hours until dawn. "What was that about looking down, anyway?" Suck it up, Renshaw.
Ah, hell. Whatever her name was.
Securing her grip on the pine, she looked down again. A trio of wolves remained in sight, one nuzzling the limp carcass of the impaled beast. Blood stained the white perfection of fur and snow.
She swallowed hard, scanned the other animals busy prowling, circling the base of the tree. All but one.
A lone wolf stared up with the survival radio clamped firmly in its jaws, bits of torn snow pants hanging from his teeth.
No wonder Josh had wanted her to look down.
"Ah, hell." She sagged back against the sturdy trunk that still swayed under the force of the stormy winds.
Arctic Survival School was definitely over. Time to put their teaching to the test for real.
"De-e-eck the halls with boughs of holly..."
Alicia's warbly carol drifted around the tree, working better than a mega-jolt of caffeine to keep Josh awake.
His wife couldn't sing for crap. Her voice—a questionable contralto—carried on the tearing night wind.
He figured any safety benefits to shushing her were outweighed by the need to keep her awake.
Keep him awake as well.
Luckily the storm that had sent them into the cave in the first place was likely keeping the bad guys away for now. He and Alicia sat with backs against the trunk, legs stretched out on the limb to evenly distribute weight.
The branches seemed sturdy enough. But too easily he could envision the effortless snap of breaking off frozen wood for the fire earlier outside the cave.
Only another hour till sunrise and he could scatter the wolves, climb down. Too risky in the dark, though, where the wolves could lurk behind a tree under the cover of darkness.
Brief flashes of the stars overhead helped him gain his bearings again after their off-course run. How he could see the North Star so clearly through the storm clouds, he didn't know. And he didn't intend to question.
A miracle? Maybe. All love of science aside, he would take help any way he could tonight. He would do anything to keep Alicia alive. No way in hell would he let her be the victim of a holiday siege.
He'd only been fifteen years old, that growth spurt no-damned-where in sight. With the gunman waving his AK-47 and extra ammo around, Josh couldn't do a thing but sit at his desk with a half-completed final exam for Advanced Incompressible Aerodynamics in front of him.
After twelve hours of tense negotiations, the masked gunman had opened fire. Josh had thrown himself across the aisle, toward his classmate who had a houseful of kids at home. His chin still ached from
cracking on the floor.
Seven students had died before the gunman turned his weapon on himself. Still Josh had sprawled over the silent woman who'd been dead before she hit the ground. Memories focused in on only the blood dripping off desks and splattered on the wall, crimson against white like the dead wolf in the snow below.
The next day, he'd marched into the ROTC office to discuss joining up once he was old enough. His goal had shifted. Working for NASA after graduation had become his intermediary job until flight training.
Red as a holiday color carried a whole different meaning for him.
"Fa-la-la-la-la," Alicia rounded off the holiday classic, "La-la-la-laaa."
"Bravo." He clapped his gloved hands together in the bitter cold. Even his damned nose hairs were frozen together. "You should take your show on the road."
"Sure hope Carnegie Hall leaves a message on my voice mail. Oh, or what about a USO tour? My sister could haul me around in her cargo plane to perform for the troops. Ah, but there's just that matter of my job. Got my own plane to fly. Too bad we can't harness those hounds like reindeer and pilot us out on Santa's sleigh. And oh, man, am I getting loopy."
"You're doing great. Just hang on and keep singing if you need to."
"You pick the next s-s-song." Her teeth chattered. "What kind of holiday tunes did you sing growing up?"
Amazing how they'd fought about everything except their differing faiths. "Nah, you go ahead with your next riff."
With memories still clogging his head like an oncoming sinus infection, he didn't want to be funny. He glanced down his stretched legs to his squadron scarf tied around a leg of his survival pants to cinch where the wolf had torn the fabric—jarring loose his radio. Frustration kicked through him again.
"Alicia? More serenades?"
"I've pretty much caroled through the whole Renshaw canon of Christmas tunes."
He scrambled for a new topic that would launch her into a lengthy explanation. They really didn't know much about each other's holiday traditions since they'd been apart last December for different deployments. "What did your family do for the holidays?"
"Regular stuff, the tree, church, Santa, presents. Lots of fruitcake and peppermint hot chocolate. Ah, man, what I wouldn't give for hot chocolate." Her voice went dreamy. "Sometimes we celebrated on a different day than the twenty-fifth...like the year Dad shipped out before Desert Storm cranked into gear."
"Sort of like how Hanukkah dates float from year to year."
"Never thought about it that way, but yeah. It was all about being together for us anyhow because we never knew for sure when Dad would fly out again."
She shifted on her branch, rustling pine needles to the ground in a shower that brought a yip from below.
"This one year movers lost a box of my mother's Christmas decorations."
"I imagine she'd collected things from all over."
"Sure, but those weren't the ones lost. The missing box had the decorations we'd made in school. There was a star with my picture in the middle. And some from when we painted ceramic Twelve Days of Christmas. Hank Jr. and I whipped through eleven days in ten minutes. Darcy worked on her lords-a-leaping for an hour, then realized she'd forgotten to paint the back."
"Ah, man, that bites." An only child, he had different memories. Not bad, just lonely sometimes, which had more to do with being so many grades ahead of everyone else. Probably part of the reason he wanted lots of kids.
He wondered, not for the first freaking time, if she'd wanted kids with that other guy who'd left such a mark on her life she wouldn't even talk about him to her husband.
So why didn't he just ask? Easy answer. Because it was one thing to think she still loved the poor dead bastard and another altogether to hear her say it.
"Actually, Mom told Darcy to leave the half-painted ornament just like it was. She wanted us to remember that we are a work in progress and to keep improving." Her sigh wrapped around the tree, around him. "So that year, she put up all the pretty ornaments. It was a gorgeous tree, no question. But when Mama went to an Officer's Wives Club Christmas tea one night, Daddy brought us construction paper and glue and glitter and popcorn string. We worked for two hours straight to junk up Mama's tree."
"I bet she loved it." His head thunked back against the trunk.
"She really did. It was a perfect Christmas with snow. A couple of weeks later, she died from a fluky aneurysm."
Ice chilled inside him colder than outside. He'd known her mother died, just not when. Which proved how little talking of any importance he and Alicia had done over the past year and a half.