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

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

Vanka repositioned and tucked an arm under her head as a makeshift pillow. Messy blond hair spilled off her shoulders. Mornings were one of the few times he’d see this version of her; it was a personal favorite. She didn’t have the fortified walls of carefully planned makeup, hair, and clothes. It was just her.

Amusement tugged at the corner of his lips. Tension in his chest loosened. He made a short list of his favorite Vankas.

Sniper Vanka.

Evening Dress Vanka.

Interrogator Vanka.

Mountain Climbing Vanka.

His list tapered off. It reminded him too much of a shelf of Barbies. Party Barbie. Doctor Barbie. Fill-in-the-blank Barbie. Mattel likely had a Barbie for every occasion. Categorizing Vanka the same way didn’t feel right. Then again, that’s what they did. They played parts and fulfilled jobs. She could transition from an afternoon tea with European aristocrats to a nighttime stakeout with a sniper rifle cradled close.

Worse, if Vanka were Barbie, would that make him Ken? Sniper Spiker had an okay ring to it, but Tuxedo Spiker didn’t. Honestly, he wasn’t sure who Barbie and Ken were before their parade of outfits and careers. What did that say about him?

A crick formed in his neck. Spiker balled the blanket and shoved it under his head. A better question was how many more stupid questions he would stumble across while stuck on this mountain.

Their plane crash might’ve short-circuited his brain. Panic pricked his hairline—or was this a quick onset of PTSD? An existential crisis? Fuck, he didn’t know what was wrong with him. Because there wasn’t anything wrong. Life was perfect.

At least, for a man like him.

His eyes pinched against the sunlight bleeding through the tent. Life was perfect. An insignificant plane crash didn’t call that into question. He excelled at his job. His bank accounts were fat and happy, and his house was an oasis on a private lake—and apparently due for an upgrade. All was good in his world. Spiker needed to take a breather.

Vanka sat up as if an alarm clock had clanged. He could’ve kissed her for the interruption.

She finger-combed her hair into a low ponytail. “Why are you still here?”

“To make you miserable, princess.”

Vanka rolled her eyes, then stretched like a cat. “So glad we’re starting the day with your usual charm.” She untucked her legs from the sleeping bag and reached for the blanket he’d used as a pillow, folding it into a tidy square. “Ready to go home?”

“More than ready.” But even as he said it, it was a lie. Spiker didn’t want to stay. He didn’t want to go. The only thing he was certain of was a full-scale renovation. Anxiety needled under his skin.

Vanka opened the tent to the bright morning. Cool air flowed in. “It’s gorgeous out.” She tilted her face toward the sky, then turned to her sleeping bag. With smooth, practiced measures, she rolled and secured the bundle. “Now if there was only tea—” Her sharp gaze narrowed. “What’s wrong?”

Everything. “Nothing.” Suddenly willing to brave the chance of small talk with strangers, he maneuvered past her and ducked out of the tent. “I’ll see what kind of caffeine I can find.”

Several hours later, they’d had their share of instant coffee and their ride home had arrived. Spiker was ready to roll and waiting on his partner. The helicopter blades whirled. The downwash kicked debris into the air. He anchored himself on the land zone’s periphery. Any closer and he would risk the pilot’s irritation and Vanka’s notice as she busied herself with goodbyes.

She usually wasn’t one to make personal connections or draw out goodbyes. On rare occasions, she’d hit it off with someone on a job, and, as though a switch had been flipped, Vanka would deem them a close friend.

Spiker didn’t have a clue how to classify her easygoing manner. Vanka hadn’t singled out any one person to befriend, and yet similar to last night, she casually socialized with this welcoming, unknown group as if she genuinely enjoyed the conversation. Maybe the fresh air and off-duty night of forced camping had been good for her.

The sun reached into the morning sky. A light breeze blew from behind. The cool air rolled against his neck and over his shoulders, wicking away his unshakable agitation. The split-second decision to renovate his house hadn’t helped alleviate the growing knot in his chest. He still couldn’t explain the sensation. Not quite dread. Not as if someone had sighted him in their crosshairs. His inability to explain the tension made him all the more aware of its existence.

He rubbed the back of his neck and waited for Vanka’s final goodbye. A moment later, she walked toward him. Vanka cupped her hand over her gaze. Her friendly expression remained, as though the conversation she’d finished had been delightful.

“Make a few new friends?” he asked.

Vanka ignored him and signaled her readiness to the pilot. The rotors increased their velocity, effectively silencing anything else he had to say. Head ducked against the downdraft, she managed to saunter toward the chopper in a way that told Spiker to kiss her cute ass. Any other day, he would’ve had something to say. Today? Not so much.

He hustled and boarded their ride. It would take them to a company jet at the nearest airport. Spiker strapped into his seat and pulled his headset on.

“Are you worried about going up again?” Vanka gestured toward the sky.

“Right.” As if one hard landing would lend itself to fear of flying. “I’m fine.”

Her forehead scrunched. “That was too quick an answer.”

“You’re the one acting out of character,” he tacked on. “Chatting with everyone like you’ll stay in touch.”

Her lips pressed into a tight line. The chopper rocked, then steadied. Vanka crossed her arms. “I am a friendly person.”

“Yeah, a regular life of the party.”

Her lips parted. “Are you serious?”

A hint of hurt bruised her words. Spiker glanced over, surprised to see she’d taken offense. He fumbled to recover.

“Please,” she continued. “Not everyone can be a beach house, playboy bachelor like you.”

“What?” An image of Playboy Ken came into his mind, complete with a velvet robe and two arms full of Barbies. “Who the hell are you calling a playboy, princess?”

“If the shoe fits.” She shrugged.

“The shoe doesn’t fit.” He waited for her to agree. “You’re kidding me.”

“You have a bachelor pad.” She ticked off one manicured finger and then another. “Lake-front? Where you and the boys—”

“The boys?”

“Your mates,” she qualified in the most British way possible. “The boys you booze and boat with. Paying attention to no one except yourselves.” She cocked her head. “Isn’t that the very definition of acting like a playboy?”

The accusations hit like assassin strikes, one after another. He never saw them coming. “You’re serious?”

“Apparently that’s all I am.”

“I didn’t say that, Vanka.” The conversation gave him whiplash. Spiker sifted through their back and forth. “I pay attention.”

“To what?”

“Everything.” He could’ve identified the pilot in a lineup, had memorized all pertinent information obtained at the dig site, and could tell by the way Vanka breathed if she was asleep or not. “I’m the poster boy for detail-oriented observation.”

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