Protector

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Chapter 1

Okefenokee Swamp, Georgia

Present Day

Of all the helicopter pilots who could’ve flown this medevac run, why did Josh Campbell have to be the one who showed up? Edie Lang snatched a sidelong look at him. His tall, broad-shouldered form seemed to take up more than his share of the cockpit space. Or maybe her unwelcome awareness of him caused that crowded sensation.

His headset and tan ball cap hid most of his sun-kissed, light brown hair but emphasized his profile. Josh’s straight nose and strong chin might’ve graced a classical statue. Intently tracking the burning landscape, his eyes were green today, like his flight suit, but an intriguing mix of green and brown when he wore street clothes.

He still looked as sexy and, unfortunately, as aloof as he did three years ago, when they’d last worked together. They’d been part of a helicopter firefighting crew in Wyoming until she’d left.

Not that their history mattered now.

At least he would get her to the injured firefighter in one piece. Josh had his faults, but no one flew wildfire rescue better than he did. Although fire-generated air currents buffeted the chopper, his piloting skills, combined with a bit of magic, kept it steady above the flaming, smoky swamp.

It was his skill at other things that made her edgy.

She suddenly felt self-conscious about her grimy face and the smoke and ash stains on her fire-resistant yellow shirt and green pants, not to mention her hair that probably looked more gray than blond by now. She’d fought the wildfire until she got the injury call and switched her brain to paramedic mode.

So what if she and Josh had almost done the deed once when they worked together? That’d been a freak incident, a mistake he’d realized before they made it worse by going all the way.

It was just her bad luck this fire was so big that her crew from Colorado and his from…wherever had been rotated into Georgia to fight it.

Unfortunately, their one intimate encounter had etched itself into her memory. She knew every warm, sleek contour of the sculpted form under that flight suit. Those hard, smooth shoulders of his flowed into a firm chest and muscular, well-toned arms. The man was good with his hands in ways that had nothing to do with aviation.

Edie shifted in her seat. Best to get her mind off what had so briefly been and never would happen again.

If only his spicy aftershave didn’t remind her.

The magic they shared resonated between them, but Josh projected all the warmth of a steel door in a freezer. He probably hadn’t expected to see her again any more than she’d expected to see him.

Still, his silence was aggravating. One aborted night together didn’t give either of them a claim on the other, but they weren’t strangers. Damned if she’d put up with his attitude any longer.

“So,” she began, “when did you leave Wyoming?”

“Couple of years ago.” His offhand tone signaled boredom.

Tough for him. “Any special reason?”

“Got a better job.”

“And that would be…?”

He glanced at her, green eyes baffled and brows raised. “Does it matter?”

“We worked together for two summers,” she reminded him, trying not to sound as hurt as his reticence made her feel. Had he really blocked off their time as helitack crewmates so thoroughly? “I’m interested.”

He shrugged. “I wanted a change.”

“So what are you doing now?” Besides irritating her with his minimal responses—deliberately, she suspected.

“Jesus! You just don’t give up.” But his glance this time held wry humor and warmth that might’ve been affection.

It made Edie’s heart turn over. Momentarily speechless, she stared at him, and his gaze softened and warmed. His vibe in the magic between them seemed less distant.

Josh wrenched his eyes to the side, barriers rising again. His abrupt withdrawal left Edie feeling bereft. She swallowed hard, waiting for the needy quivers in her gut to settle. It was so not fair that he could make her feel this way after three years of noncommunication.

“I fly combat missions and medevac for the Southeastern Shire Collegium , better known as the Georgia Institute for Paranormal Research,” he said.

The mageborn organized their governing districts by shires, disguising the combined headquarters and government centers they called C ollegiums as Mundane businesses. The deception allowed them to live and work safely amid their Mundane neighbors. She hadn’t visited Georgia before and had never heard the Southeastern Shire Collegium’s cover name.

“So they loaned you and this chopper to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and reconfigured the rear for medevac?”

He shrugged. “The wildlife refuge has a helicopter service contract, but that bird was already working another fire. The Collegium mages like to be good neighbors, and some of us hang out in a little town near here, Wayfarer.”

“Yeah, I stopped there on the way in,” she managed around the lump in her throat. “Nice place.”

She might be better off if he hadn’t shown her that flash of warmth, hadn’t underscored the brief, bittersweet memory.

Wildland firefighters shared a rare camaraderie. For Edie and Josh, being mageborn should’ve created an ever deeper trust, but the man kept her at the same distance he maintained with every other woman on the fire line.

Except for that night at Compadres Gulch, when grief ripped through the firefighters’ encampment because they’d lost three of their own in a deadly burnover. She and Josh had briefly found refuge in each other’s arms, but his pager had interrupted them, summoning him to make an emergency retardant drop. He hadn’t kept his promise to return afterward.

If only she could forget that incident. He clearly had. The next day, he’d treated her with his usual cool courtesy. As though nothing had happened between them.

What an idiot she was, to regret that after so long.

Edie looked down at the burning landscape. An alligator fled a line of flame consuming the grassy area below. As she leaned closer, worried, ready to help it with just a bit of magical shielding, the big reptile slid into the water. Not that the canal provided much of a refuge with a gray layer of ash covering its surface.

Below the helicopter, charred, blackened cypress trees lined the water like ghostly sentinels. Flames would soon reach the ones the alligator had hurried past and turn them into the same sad specters.

Josh glanced down. “I saw a bear and a couple of deer running from the flames yesterday. The wildlife is suffering.”

Edie nodded. He’d always had a soft spot for the creatures of the wilderness. Too bad she remembered, because that made her soften further toward him, the last thing she needed.

“The smoke’s hard on the people in the nearby towns, too,” she said. “Bad news all around.”

He grunted in agreement, his eyes on the ground below and his barriers still up. Edie stifled a sigh. If only the fire hadn’t cut across the road. Otherwise, an ambulance could’ve come in on the track the bulldozer had made last week, sparing her and Josh this difficult encounter.

Well, difficult for her. He showed no sign of being bothered at all, and wasn’t that a smack in the ego?

The Incident Command Team had thought this area was clear, but fire could travel long distances underground in peaty soil, erupting unexpectedly where there was no one to counter it and making firefighting abominably difficult. This blaze had started from a lightning strike in the expanse now charred and blackened below them, then burned westward, only to surprise everyone by popping up at the tree line to the north near here.

“Coming up on the dozer line. I’ll set down in the middle of it,” Josh informed her.

His deep, smooth voice generated warm ripples of awareness in Edie’s chest. Blast. She focused on the ten-foot-wide , rutted track below. As the helicopter descended, adrenaline banished the warm, fidgety feeling and the memories it triggered.

The rotor wash kicked up ash from the area below the chopper and sent embers, smoke, and debris whirling through the air. Landing here was making the line crew’s job tougher, but with water on one side and fire on the other, the helicopter was the injured man’s only way out.

“Good thing this area’s sandy,” Josh said, “not that damned peat.” The tingle washing over her skin signaled his throwing out a magical shield to protect the helo from burning debris.

“That’s one lucky break. Though it switches to peat where that grass is over there.” In the direction she needed to go, blast it. If not for the summer’s drought, the sedge-covered , peat prairies would be underwater, and the fire wouldn’t have spread so easily.

The helicopter descended toward a clearing covered in knee-deep, yellow sedge. At the tree line to her left stood a firefighter garbed as she was, his clothes and hard hat also mottled with dirty gray.

He waved but didn’t try to approach through the debris-laden air of the small clearing.

Behind him lay the usual tall pines, red maples, black gums, and live oaks draped in Spanish moss. To the north, fire roared through the slash pines, devouring the oily saw palmetto ground cover.

A crew of ground pounders in yellow and green dug a fire line or cut trees ahead of the advancing blaze. Edie, Josh, and the firefighters had to get the wounded man out before the flames reached this area.

Josh set the bird down as easily as a sheet might float onto a mattress. “Go.”

Edie traded the helo’s comm net headset for her hard hat, grabbed her pack, and hopped out. While she and Josh performed a quick “Helicopter 892 to Bravo unit paramedic” radio check on her two-way, she slid open the back door and pulled out the folded Stokes litter and its insert. A few quick steps brought her to the low mound of sandy soil at the plowed track’s edge, clear of the rotors though not of the mess they raised in the air.

Her boot narrowly missed a smooth black object protruding from the piled-up soil. Its curved surface glowed faintly purple-red.

Weird. She started to go on, run do her job, but something about the half-buried object drew her to kneel beside it.

Cautiously, she touched it. A faint vibration penetrated her protective gloves and raised a chill on the back of her neck. This thing carried some sort of magic. They could figure out what kind later, but better not leave it for Mundanes to find. Who knew what it could cause?

“Bravo paramedic, everything okay?” Josh’s voice crackled over her radio.

Other voices broke in on the channel, so Edie flashed him a thumbs-up and jammed the cantaloupe-size orb into her pack. As she swung the pack onto her shoulder, dizziness blurred her vision. Crap, it was hot out here. A shake of her head cleared it, and she ran toward the waiting firefighter.

They quickly introduced themselves. Hurrying into the trees with Rob Dawson, Edie asked, “What happened?”

“We cut a big pine that fell the wrong way and knocked another one down on him.” The man’s dark brows drew together in his sooty face. “He’s not doing so good.”

“Let’s get to it, then.”

A flash of red at eye level warned them both to jump back. A burning chunk of wood landed between them, igniting the dry grass.

“I got this.” Dawson used his Pulaski, the combination axe and hoe tool, to churn sandy soil over the flaming spot. He jerked his head behind him. “That way. His name’s Phil Moss.”

Edie ran. Damn, but her pack felt heavy all of a sudden. No time to worry about it now, though. Through the smoke, she spotted another yellow shirt and Forest Service hard hat, a lanky , blond firefighter kneeling by a wounded comrade.

She dropped the litter and knelt beside the injured man. Soot smeared his face and his dark hair below the hard hat. His features were tight with pain.

“Hi, Phil. I’m Edie. I’m going to take care of you.”

#

Where the hell was Edie? Drumming the fingers of his free hand on his knee, Josh peered into the smoke. The flames to the north roared toward the frantically working crew. Their laboriously dug line wasn’t going to hold the blaze, not with the wind picking up. He’d adjusted the rotor controls on his upgraded Huey II to minimize backwash, but it still blew debris around. The sooner she finished her assessment and got her patient to the aircraft, the better.

His thumb hovered over the button on the control stick that would key the radio mike. He’d heard her call for help to carry the heavy litter, seen seven firefighters leave the line and run toward the trees in response. She’d be moving soon. Besides, she wouldn’t appreciate having him interrupt her while she worked. She knew they needed to get going.

What she didn’t know, never would know, was how tough he’d found sitting here while she ran into the smoke. He’d been attracted to her for a long time, back in Wyoming, even though he’d known pursuing that was stupid.

The loss of his mom, a deputy sheriff killed in the line of duty when he was eight, still raised an ache deep inside him. So did the memory of his dad’s descent into alcoholism afterward. No child of Josh’s would ever go through what he and his sisters had experienced.

Never date a women in a dangerous job was his mantra. Steering clear of them cut the pool, but there were still plenty of women who didn’t go charging into danger every day. There’d been no point in pursuing his attraction to Edie.

Until Compadres Gulch.

Even then, he should’ve held himself back, but he’d been so damned glad she wasn’t one of the lost. Grieving for their dead comrades, he’d needed the reassurance of her living body in his arms.

Thanks to that brief encounter, he knew every curve, every warm, smooth surface her mannish protective clothing obscured. Her faint jasmine scent under the sweat and the smoke today had evoked the memory. Her scent then had filled his nostrils while awareness of her had blown his mind and driven back the sorrow and fear.

He’d managed not to think about that time, mostly, for the past three years, but he could still feel the firm roundness of her breast in his palm, the sweet, taut nub of her nipple in his mouth…

And now he was sporting wood.

Great. Just freaking great.

Come on, Edie.

The wind shifted toward the Huey, sparks flying. Embers hit the grass, igniting it, and Josh’s gut clenched. A firefighter broke from the line to smother the flames.

No need to use magic, then. Not yet. Come on

At the tree line, yellow shirts appeared in the smoke, Edie and seven guys carrying the injured firefighter in the Stokes basket. Josh squinted into the dirty , gray air. Lines of strain marked Edie’s face, but eight litter bearers should’ve managed easily enough.

She looked pale, too, probably breathing hard through her bandanna. Was she sick?

Clenching his fist around the control stick, he forced himself to sit still. He couldn’t jump out to help without shutting off the rotors, and doing that would mean a dangerous hot-engine restart and possibly a fatal delay for the patient.

More embers drifted toward them, only to strike an invisible buffer and fall. Edie’d erected a magical shield. As she came closer, Josh felt it. But why would that make her look so stressed?

Smoke dimmed the sunlight, the easiest energy to use for a recharge, but she should be drawing power from the surrounding swamp, siphoning energy from the plants and creatures to recharge her magic. Now her effort to do that prickled over his skin, but for some reason, it didn’t seem to be working.

Subtly, he added his magic to hers, firming the invisible barrier. Edie didn’t seem to notice. In the mingling of their power, he felt the weariness that dogged her.

She’d been fine half an hour ago. What the hell had happened?

Thirty yards from the Huey, she stumbled but caught herself without dropping her end of the litter.

Fuck. Without a copilot, he couldn’t leave the bird, and that was that.

Edie looked even worse at close range, pale, sweating even more than the norm for these hot conditions, stumbling. She climbed into the back, and the firefighters slid the stretcher in behind her, where seats had been removed to make space for just this eventuality. Edie started strapping it in.

The guys helped her tighten the tie-downs to the aircraft floor. Then, exchanging nods of congratulation, they drew back, but Josh noticed Edie’s hands shake as she cinched the last straps.

She told a lanky , blond guy who leaned in with a worried frown on his face, “I’ll radio back when we know more.”

The guy took a last look at his buddy, shut the door, then ran to help the crew on the fire line.

When he’d gone, Edie switched her hard hat for the headset. She worked on her patient while informing Josh, “It’s blunt force trauma to the chest, and his breathing isn’t good. His blood pressure’s dropping, and his saturated oxygen is ninety. That’s low. It looks like a collapsed lung, maybe with internal bleeding.” Her direct look told him she’d confirmed those problems magically, but she couldn’t say so in front of the Mundane patient. Except in rare circumstances, mages kept their existence secret from Mundanes rather than risk a repeat of the seventeenth-century hysteria and witch hunts known as the Burning Times. “We need the nearest hospital.”

“That’d be Wayfarer County.” Josh turned back to the instrument panel, but something plopped between the seats. He glanced down. Edie’s pack had fallen, bandages and tape spilling out. Josh grabbed and righted it, stuffing the gear inside.

Was that a rock?

Pushing her supplies down, he brushed the odd , dark stone with his fingertips. A weird magical vibe tingled through his gloves. The edges of his vision went black.

What the hell?

Scowling, he shook the blackness off. Edie continued talking to her patient in soothing tones as she connected his oxygen mask to the tank on the cabin wall, but Josh had never seen her so pale. Maybe she was catching some kind of bug. If so, Ms. Tough Chick would work straight through it.

“Is the patient secure?” he asked.

“Yeah. Go.”

Josh lifted off. At least her voice was holding up. If she didn’t look better by the time they reached the hospital, he would strong-arm her into letting a doctor look her over.

A few minutes into the flight, Josh shook his head, blinking against black spots. Fatigue seeped into his bones. He’d been in the air only a few minutes, but he had to fight to keep his head up.

The Huey listed to the left. He jerked it back up. His hold on the stick had relaxed, though he hadn’t meant to let it.

“Josh?” Edie’s head snapped up as her patient groaned.

“Sorry.” Josh set his teeth and forced his shoulders square. Compared to the hours of combat he’d flown in a single day, this little medevac run was a cakewalk. No way he should feel so tired.

He risked another glance backward. The tiny slice of Edie’s profile visible between the seats was still pale, with beads of sweat on her forehead.

“You okay, Edie?”

“Fine.” She grabbed the water bottle off her pack and chugged it, then tore open an IV kit. Reaching to hang the bag of Ringer’s Lactate on a wall hook, she missed the hook the first time.

Fine, his ass.

“He’s fighting me,” Edie snapped. “Oxygen saturation is 87, BP 152 by palp. Can you push this bird any faster?”

“A bit.” He adjusted the controls to gain airspeed as he relayed the info she’d given him to the ER in Wayfarer.

The brief adrenaline rush had banished Josh’s fatigue, but as the minutes ticked by, it crept up on him again. He opened his senses, reaching for the sunlight streaming in through the windshield. The power flowing in strengthened him.

A few seconds later, it faded.

Damn, what was this? He glanced back at Edie. Judging by her slumped shoulders and pale lips, she was feeling the same weariness. She had the IV going, though.

“Not much farther,” Josh said. “How’s our patient?”

“Hanging in.”

You hang in, too, he thought. And so will I.

 #

“Where did you go when you left our helitack crew?” Josh’s voice crackled over Edie’s headset. She blinked in surprise and tried to muster enough energy to answer.

“Edie?” Shifting in his seat, he threw her a worried look. “You with me? I asked where—”

“Yeah.” Edie watched Phil’s chest rise and fall as she chugged more water. Drawing power from the woodlands flashing by outside gained her enough strength to talk.

She pumped air into the blood pressure cuff on Phil’s arm, feeling for the radial pulse again and waiting for the needle’s waver at the top of the systole. “I joined Three Pines IHC, out of Fort Collins.”

“Helitack wasn’t good enough? You had to go be a hotshot?” The multiskilled crews ranked among the elite of wildland firefighters.

“I want to be a smokejumper. I figure hotshot experience is a step in the right direction.”

“A smokejumper,” he repeated, his voice flat. Dismay vibrated in the magic between them.

Edie shrugged. If he’d bothered to ask three years ago, she would’ve told him. He probably didn’t think women were any better suited to that than they were to digging line. Jumping out of airplanes to fight wildfires that were otherwise inaccessible likely fell under his heading of men’s work.

His opinion shouldn’t matter, but it stung.

She focused on Phil, whose shallow gasps didn’t seem to improve but also didn’t worsen. A collapsed lung would make the poor guy feel as though he were suffocating. His brown eyes opened, anxious and dark with pain, and flicked to her.

Her depleted power made such simple tasks as easing his pain and minimizing the bleeding difficult. At least she’d been able to dull the pain when she’d drained the excess air from his chest cavity. Too bad that was only a temporary fix. A mage doctor could’ve repaired the lung.

Leaning in so he could see her, Edie patted his shoulder. “Not much farther, Phil.”

Finally, Josh asked, “Why smokejumping?”

“Why not?” she snapped.

He said nothing, but the silence between them carried a hint of reproof. Edie sighed. After all, she’d been the one who wanted to talk earlier.

“It’s a challenge,” she said. “I like challenges.”

That was probably why she couldn’t forget Mr. Hot-and-Sexy-Almost-One-Night-Stand. The emotions between them had been intense, urgent. Until he’d been called away. Morning had brought the disappointment of waking up alone and then meeting his cool stare in the breakfast line. “The work matters, too, protecting forests there’s no other way to save.”

“Sure.” He hesitated. “It’s rough on a family, though, you being in danger.”

“My parents are okay with it, and there’s no one else affected.” Was that why he seemed so disapproving of the women firefighters, some kind of ideal wife image he wanted women to meet?

Edie glanced at Phil. His eyes were closed. Was he asleep? Even in shock, he might overhear, so she chose her words carefully. “Besides, that’s an odd sentiment from a former combat pilot who doesn’t have the calmest life now.”

Ferrying mages into battle against their deadly ghoul enemies was by no means a safe or uneventful job.

“Somebody’s gotta do it.” Josh’s brusque tone implied she’d nettled him.

“Rough on a family, though,” she quoted, and earned his scowl as a reward. 

#

 Josh’s vision slowly went wonkier. He hadn’t been so happy to see a helipad ahead since his Blackhawk had been shot up in Afghanistan, leaving him with a dead copilot in a bird that needed two to fly it and a twelve-man Spec Ops team to bring home safely.

Drawing on his reserves of power, recharging from the trees and sunlight again, he forced the weariness away and concentrated on bringing the bird down softly.

Not a perfect landing but good enough. He cut the engines. Edie was already untying the litter as the medical personnel moved in from the nearby ER entrance.

The orderlies had the patient strapped on a gurney in moments. Edie grabbed her gear and ran beside it, relaying information.

Josh watched her. He had no clearance to go into the working area of the ER, but Edie still didn’t look good. Better to follow her unnecessarily than to be sitting out here if she needed his help. Besides, he could use a break.

When he jumped out of the chopper, black polka-dotted his sight. He ignored it and ran after Edie. Blinking, he stared at the tall, dark-haired doctor hurrying beside the gurney. Stefan Harper? What was the Collegium’s top doctor doing here?

Whatever the reason, Josh and Edie could speak frankly to him about a magical problem like recharge difficulties. Maybe the fire had somehow caused their symptoms.

Josh squeezed between the ER doors as they closed. Edie gave him a puzzled look.

“I need to grab a soda,” he explained, and she shrugged.

They hurried past a crowded waiting room and into the treatment area. No one questioned Josh, maybe because they were all so busy and he was with a doctor.

Harper nodded a greeting, his lean face intent as he and Edie helped a nurse cut Phil’s shirt and undershirt off. “I knew he was in good hands with you flying, Josh.”

“Thanks, Doc.”

“You two know each other?” Edie’s voice sounded rough. Tired. And her pallor was worse. Damn.

“I’m on the medical staff where Josh works, at the Georgia Institute for Paranormal Research,” Harper said.

“He’s the chief physician,” Josh added.

The lightbulb went on in Edie’s eyes, and he knew she’d realized Harper was a mage. But why hadn’t she sensed his power?

Watching her, Josh finished, “Stefan Harper, Edie Lang.”

They nodded at each other across the gurney. Harper’s gaze sharpened, running over Edie in keen, professional assessment.

“We’ll check you out, too, Ms. Lang, as soon as I have our patient stabilized.”

Recharging when surrounded by sick or injured people was dangerous. Neither Josh nor Edie would risk that, and he felt her fatigue in the magic. If he did, Harper also must.

“I’m fine,” she insisted.

The doctor directed a stern glance her way. “White lips tend to get my attention. Wait here.”

Harper followed Phil’s gurney into an ER booth and pulled the curtains.

A chair stood between two of the curtained booths. Josh steered Edie to it, and she plopped down. Her failure to argue over which of them should sit was a bad sign.

A few minutes later, Harper reappeared, ordered stat x-rays, and started the process to send Phil into emergency surgery.

The spots in front of Josh’s eyes returned. Again, shaking his head cleared his vision, but more slowly.

Harper raised an eyebrow. “Hard day, Josh?”

“I could use a short break.”

He couldn’t fly like this, but maybe he’d be okay if he sat down and recharged properly. If not, the Collegium could send another pilot to take the Huey home, and there was an excellent mage doctor handy.

But no one else in the Collegium could fly helitack.

Harried staffers in scrubs came to wheel Phil away. Harper nodded to a petite, strawberry-blond nurse and then at Edie. “Take her to triage, Ms. Casey.”

The nurse nodded. “Come with me, miss.”

“Well, maybe.” Edie cast a doubtful look at the exit.

Josh stepped close. Lowering his voice, he said, “The recharge isn’t working. Harper knows what he’s doing, Edie. He’s the best.”

She looked up at him. The trust in her shadowed, exhausted blue eyes brought memories crashing back. With them came desire and a fierce, possessive protectiveness that momentarily cut through Josh’s weariness.

“Edie…”

Her eyes rolled back in her head. Josh whipped an arm around her waist, but the effort to hold her upright brought blackness crashing across his sight.