Home > The Defender (Aces Book 5)(4)

The Defender (Aces Book 5)(4)
Author: Cristin Harber

How long had he been watching her before he came over? She bit her lip. “That’s good.”

His scrutiny intensified. “You’re not in pain?”

“Nope.” She straightened her shoulders and glanced beyond him. The summer sun burned a deep orange, illuminating the clouds with gray and red. A few meters from her log, the students were preparing for an early bedtime. Vanka knew their routine. Digging would start at first light. They’d be up and ready before daybreak. “Thanks for my tent.”

He nodded. The professors had offered separate tents. Spiker had set them up the moment he changed clothes. “You ready for bed now?”

She nodded. It wouldn’t matter to her if she sat on a log or in a tent, but if she couldn’t shake off this funk, Spiker would ask more questions. “You?”

He shrugged and extended his hand. “Up and at ’em, princess.”

Funny how he called her that. She’d never been partial to royalty, and if memory served correctly, it wasn’t her accent that had earned her the nickname, but a job gone very wrong, ending very dirty, where she happened to have been wearing an evening gown and tiara. The nickname had stuck.

An hour or two later, Vanka remained awake in her deluxe sleeping bag. These weren’t the kinds that she normally rucked in. The unexpected luxury should’ve lulled her to sleep, but the scent of earthy clay had infiltrated her tent and conjured up childhood camping memories of adventures with her parents.

The front flap of her tent unzipped, and she propped onto an elbow.

Spiker stuck his head in. “You asleep?”

She groaned. “Do you know that’s the only question in the world that you cannot answer in the affirmative if true?”

He ignored her and crawled into her tent. “I would’ve come in earlier if I had known you were up and ready to play games.”

“Oh, bugger off.” Her head and body ached. Exhaustion had sapped everything out of her. Why wouldn’t sleep come? She dropped onto her sleeping bag. “What do you want?”

Spiker smoothed a lump under the tent and, reaching for an unused blanket, made himself comfortable next to her. “I wanna know what’s wrong with you.”

“That’s what you want to know?” She side-eyed him. “Obviously, I can’t sleep, and now, there’s no way that will happen”—Vanka pushed her feet against his legs but didn’t nudge him back to his tent—“when you’re distracting me.”

He snickered, but his amusement tapered faster than she’d expected. She didn’t put too much faith in auras and chakras, but his energy was off. Shadows darkened his expression. Or maybe that was simply the dimming night and her absolute fatigue.

Vanka sat up and adjusted the tent flaps. The sun had dropped below the mountains and stars ignited in the purple sky. She checked the zipper and secured the tent, then returned to her comfortable spot and studied Spiker. Even in the dark, his tics and features were easy to sense, but not to decipher. She didn’t believe he was that worried about her sleepless night. Something more weighed on him. “Your turn for the inquisition. What’s wrong with you?”

“Thought you’d never ask.” He tucked his hands behind his head. “Give me a nice long couch, and this could feel like therapy.”

“Oh, bugger off and let me go to sleep.”

Grinning, he twisted his head, his cheek resting against the bulge of his shoulder muscle. “What fun would that be?”

Vanka pulled the edge of the sleeping bag up to her face and grumbled.

He sighed and stared up as though he could see the stars through the tent. “I don’t know what’s wrong—nothing’s wrong. Actually, ya know what?” He rolled onto his side. “I’m pissed.”

“At who? Buck?”


“Still?” She tsked. “Get over it, Spiker.”

The low rumble of his laughter shook the tent. “That easy, huh?”

“Does it matter?” She rolled onto her hip and faced him. Had the plane crash messed with his mojo? They hadn’t gotten this far together without mindfucks, and if that was the case, she needed to do her part. She wriggled her closed fist from inside the sleeping bag and held it over his chest. “Here. Take it.”

He inched back. “What?”

“A bitter pill to swallow.” Vanka flung open her fingers as if she were throwing fairy dust. “Buck’s not going anywhere, and this is our job. You either take it or leave it.”

He snorted. “Cute. How long have you been waiting to say that?”

“It just came to me, thank you very much.”

The quiet roll of his laughter filled the tent again and fell away. “I’ve been thinking about renovating my place.”

“Where epic tales of debauchery are born? Pffsh. I thought the lake house was perfect.”

“Don’t knock it unless you try it, princess.”

“Never,” she scoffed, then wondered if the crash had brought that on. “Since when did you want to make changes to the man castle?”

“Man castle?” he repeated under his breath then pretended to look at his watch. “Since about an hour ago.”

His place stored all the goodies and toys a grown man might want, but the actual home never seemed like part of his fun. Best she knew, he didn’t fix it up or decorate. It always sounded more like a bachelor pad than a place to unwind. The more she considered his home base, the more the suggestion seemed off. “What kind of renovation?”

“A complete gutting.”

“Oh, big time.” And definitely off.

Spiker explained how removing a wall would add more room to the central space. He wanted a different garage and didn’t like the kitchen—not that she believed he used the kitchen all that much. But as he talked, he relaxed. His tension lulled and the clinging negative energy wafted away.

He didn’t seem to mind that she had nothing to say. The rough texture of his voice served as hypnotic hum. Whispers of square footage and support beams metamorphosed into a lullaby of white noise. Finally, sleep had come.



Vanka’s rhythmic breathing was the first thing that Spiker noticed when he woke. His second thought tangled with the awareness that he could identify how she sounded while sleeping. Hell, he sensed Vanka's presence before he noted daylight. That could only mean they had been working together for too long.

“Rise and shine.” He nudged her sleeping bag.

“Go to hell,” she muttered.

Spiker grumbled. “I’m trapped on top of a mountain with you. I think I'm already there.”

Her arm snaked from her sleeping bag, and with the speed of a biting viper, she snatched the blanket from his legs. “Out of my tent.”

He didn’t budge. “Our tent?”

“Ha—go away.”

“Waking you is like poking a bear.” Albeit a pretty, slightly pretentious bear, but once Vanka awoke, she’d be fine. Spiker considered himself more of a slow simmer. Mornings weren’t usually his thing, and that he was awake after a restless night irritated him.

He wanted to go back to sleep but couldn’t. His chest tightened. Today, he hated his job as much as he had when they had gone to sleep. Spiker yanked his blanket from atop Vanka’s sleeping bag and settled down again.

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