"That's a nice set of wheels," came a drawling male voice paired with fetid breath that wafted over Chloe in the driver's seat of the cherry red convertible.
She winced as if having bitten into something sour, and pulled her sunglasses down her nose. "Yes, it is."
He looked at the car and its driver appraisingly. "Bet you'd like someone to show you to really drive it."
"Doubt you could handle the stick," Chloe said dryly. "And if that isn't somehow emasculating enough for you..."
His clueless leering was punctuated by an undignified squeak as Nadine grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and flung him backward, sending him pinwheeling awkwardly before he skidded onto his backside two parking spots over. She strolled around the front of the car and hopped the door to land lightly in the passenger seat.
"Thanks for not denting the rental, love."
"Mmhmm," Nadine hummed, handing her a bottle. "Got you a root beer."
"A goddamn miracle," Chloe declared, with a reverent look. She cracked the bottle open and took a long draught. "Jesus, that's disgusting," she concluded, grimacing. "How do Americans drink this stuff?"
Nadine only grinned and put on her sunglasses.
"That was fucking disrespectful," came the indignant cry as Chloe's would-be suitor staggered back toward the car.
For a moment, the women canted their heads at him, studying his approach. "I could rip his arm off, then beat him to death with it," Nadine offered.
"Aw. You'd do that for me?" Chloe asked, turning to face her companion. She put her hand to her chest. "I am genuinely flattered."
The foaming idiot sputtered a bit, aware that they weren't paying the slightest bit of attention to him.
"Least I could do, especially after you punched that guy in the throat the other night in the bar."
"I thought he was choking," Chloe argued, with devastating innocence. "I was only trying to help."
"With your fist," Nadine pointed out. "Repeatedly."
"Well, I never claimed to be a medical professional," Chloe said, shrugging. "Also he was quite rude, even after I tried to help him."
"You two are insane," the man said weakly.
Chloe shifted to look back at him, annoyed. "Excuse me. I was having a moment with my partner just then. I believe you two have already met - she's the one who tossed your sorry ass across the tarmac."
His face had achieved an unhealthy shade of purple as he stared at them in disbelief, unable to comprehend why these women were not in any way affected by his considerable display of bluster. He opened his mouth to berate them further, then he noticed the gun.
Nadine's gaze hardened as she held the pistol pointed evenly at his head.
"You'll want to move along, mate," Chloe purred. She tossed her hair, pushed her sunglasses delicately back up her nose, and fired up the car's ignition.
As they peeled out of the parking lot, he could hear them laughing. He shook his head and wondered what godforsaken desert wind had brought the crazy into town.
"I thought Southern California would be a bit more temperate than this," Chloe said loudly over the buffeting air in the convertible, while they sped over a bridge to their overnight destination. She took a sip of her root beer, instantly regretted it, and instead pressed the cool bottle to her forehead.
"Santa Ana winds," Nadine shouted back. "Seasonal weather patterns that blow warm air down the mountain passes to the coast."
Chloe grinned, not even a little surprised her companion had that bit of trivia at the ready. "So this is a preview of the desert?"
With a thoughtful shrug, Nadine turned her attention to the bay below, as they neared Coronado, their base camp for the night.
Chloe had insisted on one night of indulgence before they headed inland to start exploring, and so they had gathered supplies and snacks, bribed the appropriate local contact to secure a firearm for Nadine, and made their way to the oceanside resort.
"We'll have a slumber party," Chloe had decreed with a nod, when they'd parked and unloaded their gear to the hotel room. Nadine offered a game smile while she cracked open a window to listen to the waves rolling in.
A few hours later, Chloe acknowledged that she'd honestly expected rather different results from this particular "party." She'd already raided the room's minibar, discovered a complete lack of entertainment on the TV, and walked up and down the beach outside their room, twice.
Her brain was starting to itch, and she remembered why she so strongly disliked sitting still. Even if the tradeoff to her nomadic existence was a certain perpetual level of danger, at least it kept her mind occupied.
Her companion, however, appeared to have no such concerns.
Nadine looked ridiculously relaxed, dressed down to boy shorts and a tank, dangling backwards over the edge of the oversized hotel bed, shoving beef jerky into her mouth while studying her phone.
All of a sudden Chloe felt her racing thoughts slow, pausing in the moment to revel in this woman's company. She couldn't help but grin as she plopped down at Nadine's side and grabbed a couple strips of jerky for herself.
"I've found some forums on the internet where people have claimed to see the galleon as recently as a year ago," Nadine said.
Really, she couldn't have cared less. Chloe made an agreeable noise around her snack, and went back to admiring the taut lines of Nadine's barely-exposed abdomen.
"Of course, if the ship is under mud in the Salton Sea, we're not likely to find it. So we have to hope for erosion of a dune in the desert that might have exposed a hull, or a mast, or... something."
When Chloe didn't offer anything beyond a vague murmur in response, Nadine flexed in a sort of half sit-up, pulling her head up to peer at her companion. "You think this is a waste of time," she accused.
"Not at all, love," Chloe countered. "If we find a galleon and there's a treasure, then that will be delightful. If we don't or there isn't, then..." she paused, considering how to complete the thought. "Being here with you is enough," she decided, finally.
Nadine narrowed her eyes, considering that response. "That is... unexpectedly sentimental," she observed.
Chloe shrugged, and gave a nod to the plush hotel surroundings. "I definitely don't mind the change of pace from ducking bullets and high speed chases," she said. "Besides, this line of work is usually pretty lonely. Turns out I rather like having you around."
"So I've noticed," Nadine said with a wry look at Chloe's hand that had somehow slid halfway under her tank.
Chloe huffed. "Oh please. You lay there like that - looking like that - and expect me not to get handsy?"
Nadine chuckled merrily. "See, that's actually a relief. I was wondering why you were so shy."
"'Shy?' Wh- Listen, you," Chloe sputtered, as she rearranged herself to properly straddle her prone companion. "Cheeky... I am not shy." Even as she said it, she realized that with Nadine, that wasn't quite true. "Usually," she concluded with a shrug. She had definitely opted out of her typical "do the deed with gusto then run away" approach, and if she was honest, she didn't really know why.
Nadine let her hands slide upward to stroke across Chloe’s thighs in gentle patterns, and waited.
"Told you I was bad at the 'people' thing," Chloe said, ducking her head. "Sorry."
Nadine chuckled and sat fully upright to meet her for a languid kiss. "Never said I minded," she murmured against Chloe’s lips when they parted. "Just didn't seem your style."
"Well, you’re different," Chloe admitted, surprising herself. "This is different, for me," she clarified, with a gesture between them. She took Nadine’s face gently in her hands and willed her to understand.
"Different in a good way?" Nadine whispered.
In the neon light of the Pink Lotus, a skeptical, angry Nadine Ross glared at her, and Chloe tried to ignore the bloom of a peculiar ache in her gut that had strangely never subsided.
"Different in the best way," she replied. Her voice hit that low rasp Nadine knew as both entirely sincere and utterly terrified.
Nadine's brow furrowed for a moment, then she set the unspoken worry aside and adopted a conspicuously lighter tone. "Okay, but for the record?" she said, as she reached up to tug her fingertips through Chloe's thick, soft hair. "You can get 'handsy' anytime."
Chloe leaned in to kiss her. "Duly noted, Ms. Ross. And likewise."
It started out teasing, with Chloe nipping playfully until Nadine pulled away with an intense, smoldering look that sought permission Chloe happily gave. The teasing evaporated, chased away by a surge and strong arms that pulled them flush against each other. Chloe responded with a low groan and rocked her hips in a shameless, needy grind.
Within minutes their respective clothing had been discarded, and Chloe was well on her way to getting the slumber party she'd been hoping for.
Chloe was awake far earlier than she meant to be, but found herself happily energized after the night before. She stretched out next to her bedmate in a comfortable lassitude and eyeballed the beam of sunlight threatening to split the hotel room curtains.
Natural restlessness aside, it was strange not feeling like they needed to run. They'd left Shoreline and Asav's army thousands of miles away, cycled through their assortment of faux documents to choose suitably low-key identities, and suddenly they were in a breezy room on the far side of the Pacific, naked and comfortable under crisp sheets.
She didn't have the heart to tell Nadine that their current job was near hopeless. Instead, she threw her usual skills at securing funding, this time targeting Silicon Valley venture capitalists with more money than sense. She'd seeded a few select social media accounts with the more remarkable photos she'd taken in India, and dropped clever hints about treasures yet to find. Hopefully, someone would bite, so they could eke out a means of at least breaking even from this gig.
(For reasons she did not care to deeply scrutinize, it was vitally important to her that their partnership could continue unimpeded.)
Nadine stirred next to her, and Chloe lifted a hand to smooth away some stray curly hair that was blocking her view.
While she waited for Nadine to wake and entertain her again, she let her mind wander to ten short days previous, in a tiny cabin on a merchant ship, where they sat together fighting seasickness and the lingering injuries from too many near-fatal falls. To her profound surprise, Nadine had turned to her, and asked in a quietly miserable voice if Chloe minded curling up at her back, as close as possible.
Chloe, somehow, had managed not to crack a joke about her companion being an unlikely little spoon. She just tugged Nadine down next to her on their shared cot and held her through the night. When they woke again, the seas had calmed, the sun was shining, and Colombo was on the horizon. When Nadine turned in her arms and kissed her good morning, Chloe found herself in possession of a treasure she found more precious than anything she'd ever "collected" from a long-gone civilization.
Honestly, Chloe thought their new sleeping arrangements were all rather adorable, especially the shameless way Nadine came to her night after night, the way she tied back her remarkable hair so it didn't smother Chloe while they slept, and the way she carefully held Chloe's hand against her belly until sleep claimed her and her fingers uncurled in relaxation.
Occasionally in those moments, Chloe found herself wondering just who this woman was, and every once in a while during daylight she'd catch a look from Nadine that made it seem like she was thinking the exact same thing.
Then there was the previous night, which had been full of all sorts of new discoveries. Their natural rapport in the field translated immediately to the give and take of intimacy and pleasure. More than once they'd paused to catch their breath and ended up laughing with a kind of incredulous happiness.
Chloe couldn't suppress a shiver of recollection, and decided she couldn't wait to try all of that over again, from different angles, and definitely in the hotel room's whirlpool tub.
Her phone buzzed on the bedside table, and Chloe reluctantly turned to grab it. While she studied the message, Nadine grumbled sleepily about the sudden cold air against her back.
Chloe read the message with a wicked grin, and fired off an immediate reply.
It was official: They had a buyer, and the deposit was already hitting the wire.
She snuggled back up to Nadine and planted a kiss on her cheek. "We just got lucky, china," she murmured.
"Ja," Nadine replied, still mostly asleep. "I was there."
When Chloe wandered out of the bathroom, blotting her hair with a towel, she found Nadine in a predictable spot: perched in the hotel room window, watching the world and waiting to react to threats.
She grabbed the steaming mug of coffee Nadine had left her and tossed her towel across her shoulders. "Any dangerous people lurking out there?" Chloe asked.
"No," Nadine replied, before taking a sip from her own mug and pointing out the window. "But those seagulls look shifty."
Curious, Chloe sidled up next to her companion and took a look for herself. Sure enough, several ragged-looking birds perched on a nearby log. One looked back their way with obvious contempt, despite very plainly having lost an eye in some previous avian altercation.
"Oh Jesus, you weren't kidding," Chloe barked in surprise, delighted by Nadine's low answering laugh.
They watched the waves together and finished their coffee, preparing for the switch back into work mode for the day to come. Without even thinking about it, Chloe rested her free hand at Nadine's waist, letting her thumb stroke across the ribbed texture of her tank top. Nadine shifted a bit, and turned a pensive look back at Chloe in response.
"So, last night," Nadine began.
Chloe's lazy grin turned downright lecherous. "Last night," she repeated. "Was fun. We should do that again." She licked her lips. "As often as possible."
Nadine puffed out a breath, clearly relieved. "Wasn't sure you'd think so," she admitted.
"Are you kidding? You have skills, love. And we have chemistry."
Nadine smiled at her then, and it was so damn pretty that Chloe nearly missed the ghost of worry that creased Nadine's brow. She reached up to run fingertips across Nadine's cheek. "I keep seeing that frown, china. What's going on?"
With a duck of her head, Nadine loosed a profound sigh. "I told you I had my own shit to sort out," she said.
The flutter of panic that statement sparked in her gut was significantly out of proportion for Chloe's usual romantic encounters, and she swallowed hard against it. She waited, then lost her patience and waved a prompting hand in Nadine's face. "Don't keep a girl on pins and needles, now," she said, aiming for a light tone but missing by a wide margin.
"I have... poor romantic history," Nadine said finally. "Things tend to go very badly. Like catastrophically, violently terrible."
Oh. That wasn't exactly news, but Chloe absorbed the admission just the same. "Because your exes turn into power hungry warlords who steal priceless artifacts to fund civil wars? I mean, I can't predict the future or anything, but that's not likely to be a path I'd take," she joked.
"It's not that," Nadine countered. "It's this line of work, the people who do it. They have priorities that aren't..."
"That aren't their partners," Chloe finished. She nodded, and tried not to let that sting. Just like Nadine's reputation preceded her, so too did Chloe's. She couldn't restrain a wince. "My 'type' isn't big on attachment, I suppose," she conceded.
Nadine sighed in irritation. "That's not what I meant."
"And of course you already know I didn't have the most stable model relationships as a child..." Chloe continued. "But hell, even someone like Nathan Drake can settle down eventually." She might have babbled into oblivion if not for Nadine's finger across her lips.
"It's my shit to work out," Nadine insisted. "I'm not worried about you, I'm just... worried. I don't want to get hurt."
"That's understandable," Chloe replied.
"I like this," Nadine added, with a gesture encompassing the space between them. "I like you." She took a moment to weigh her next declaration, but found it less burdensome than she expected. "I trust you," she concluded.
"Even after Sam?" Chloe asked.
Nadine rolled her eyes. "Look, never tell him I said this, but he's okay. Even Nathan... well, I'm glad he didn't go down with his stupid pirate ship."
"I promise I won't tell," Chloe said solemnly, before offering a tentative smile, then pulling the other woman into a careful hug. "I like you, too, you know?" she whispered against Nadine's ear. "And I trust you."
Nadine didn't bother responding aloud. She just wrapped her arms around around Chloe and held tight.
They packed in subdued silence, both sensing that the fledgling bond between them was just a bit bruised and fragile.
Chloe did one last check of the room for their belongings, then wandered over toward the door. She was stopped in her tracks by a finger hooked in the belt loop of her jeans, and she turned to quirk a questioning eyebrow at Nadine.
"You're wearing red," Nadine said, gesturing to Chloe's vibrant top.
"So I am," Chloe agreed.
"You're wearing red. To the desert."
Chloe's face split in a slow smile, remembering Nadine's frank assessment of her field skills in a jungle not too long ago. "I look good in red," she argued.
"You do," Nadine said amiably. "You also look good with a tactical advantage when you blend into your environment."
With a mild shrug, Chloe just pointed to the incredibly functional, incredibly khaki clothing choices of her companion. "Tell you what. If I need camouflage, I'll just pull you on top of me."
Nadine snorted, but nodded in concession. "Deal."
Chloe lifted a hand to Nadine's cheek, then hooked her fingers around the back of her neck to pull her in for a soft, indulgent kiss. They were both smiling when they parted, feeling considerably more stable.
"Shall we go find some treasure, partner?" Nadine asked.
"Lead the way, partner," Chloe replied.
"How does a ship get lost this far inland, anyway?" Chloe asked, as they sped along the freeway.
"The Colorado River would periodically flood out to the Gulf of California," Nadine replied. "Expeditions came inland in search of trade, then were ambushed by indigenous people, or stranded when flood waters would recede. Sometimes the topography would suddenly change due to earthquakes."
"Earthquakes," Chloe repeated, making a face. "Definitely my least favorite flavor of natural disaster."
"I'm just glad there are no wildfires right now," Nadine said.
Chloe couldn't help but smile at her companion's relentless and predictable pragmatism. "So ships would get stranded inland, and then... what?"
"The captain would beach the craft, ditch the cargo, and walk back to a Spanish settlement."
"How many ships are we talking about?"
Nadine held out a hand in a vague shrug, indicating Chloe had hit on an incredibly valid question. "Hard to say, really. There are a bunch of different legends. Pirates, Spanish mutineers, even Vikings."
"What the hell were Vikings doing all the way over here?!" Chloe asked.
"Same as everybody else," Nadine replied. "Trying to trade, or find quicker routes for trade."
"The lengths people will go to for a few doubloons, right?" Chloe said, with a grin that underscored the irony of her own career choices.
"I've triangulated several potential locations based on satellite data and internet reports," Nadine explained. "The maps of the area from the seventeenth century are nearly useless, but there are a few consistent landmarks for reference."
Chloe nodded and pursed her lips, impressed. Nadine had done her homework. She cracked open a bottle of water and took a swig. "So what's our search area?"
"About twenty five hundred square kilometers."
She promptly choked on her water. "What?!" Chloe yelled, through a coughing fit. "We can't possibly cover that kind of ground."
"Not by car," Nadine acknowledged. "But we have other options."
An hour later they were standing at one end of a pockmarked desert runway. Chloe peered at a flimsy-looking pile of tubing fitted with seats and a propellor, not hiding her profound disdain. "And what, pray tell, is this?"
"Powered parachute trike," Nadine said, as she paced around the vehicle, inspecting it. "We tow it with us, then when we want to get a better view we deploy the wing and just take off."
"Right," Chloe said, drawing the word out in disbelief. "And this thing is safe?"
Nadine gave her an enigmatic grin. "It'll save us a lot of time if you just assume it's not."
Chloe put her hands on her hips and looked less than convinced. "Quoting me back to myself doesn't actually help, you know. In case you hadn't noticed, I'm kind of an asshole."
"Actually, powered parachuting is safer than most other forms of aviation," Rod, the aircraft rental guy, interjected with a worried look as he tried to head off what looked to be brewing domestic discord. "It doesn't require thrust to stay airborne, and it's almost impossible to stall."
Chloe glared at him, having honestly forgotten he was even there. "Have you been up in one of these things?" she demanded.
"Oh, sure," Rod said, with unforced enthusiasm. "Closest you'll ever get to those flying dreams you had when you were a kid."
"I hated those dreams," Chloe muttered.
Nadine grinned and tossed her a helmet. "You get shotgun, this time," she said.
Maybe it wasn't so bad. Maybe flying in a contraption so open to the air around them was rather exhilarating and Nadine's enjoyment was just a little infectious. Chloe might have felt just the slightest bit of disappointment when they set down after their test flight.
Rod waited for the prop to stop spinning before bounding over to help gather in the wing. "Nice landing," he called to Nadine with a thumbs-up.
"Indeed," Chloe agreed, as she clambered out of the trike and pulled off her helmet. "The lady can fly." She gave Nadine a look and lifted her eyebrows in question.
"My father taught me," Nadine demurred, before looking up to check the sun's position in the sky. "We should move our gear to the 4x4 and roll out. We'll get to our first site before dark."
"You ladies going camping?" Rod asked. "Nice! Me too. Wave if you see me and Rufus out near Mortero Palms." He pointed over toward an aged yellow lab lazing in the shadow of his truck, who immediately perked up and woofed obligingly.
They left the impractical convertible in Rod's hangar, swapped to an offroad-capable truck, and set off into the desert. Nadine didn't even bother cracking a joke about Chloe taking the wheel again, opting instead to keep a careful eye on GPS and the maps she'd compiled.
They stopped near sunset at the base of a canyon ridge, where an earthquake had supposedly-possibly-maybe buried evidence of a Spanish caravel a hundred years previous, and they set up camp while the coyotes howled from the nearby hills.
They were out in the open, facing an uncertain objective, surrounded by potential predators, and Chloe realized she hadn't been so content in a long, long time. She dropped to a seat next to Nadine within the circle of light cast by their campfire, and shut her eyes to just bask in the moment.
"We should get a dog," Chloe mused aloud.
Nadine chuckled. "I knew you were going to say that."
Chloe poked her in the thigh. "I am not that predictable," she protested, annoyed when Nadine only laughed harder. "Fine. Just for that I won't let you name him."
"Sam," Nadine said immediately. "His name would be Sam. And he would think he was very helpful."
At that, Chloe burst out laughing too, and leaned against Nadine's shoulder in delighted camaraderie.
After they wound down, Nadine slung an arm around Chloe's back, pulling her a little closer. "I know I'm new to this, but I have a good feeling about this job," she confided.
"Yeah?" Chloe asked, taking in Nadine's answering nod. "Well, no one's shooting at us, and it looks like you can actually control that flying death machine you rented, so I guess I'm feeling pretty good about it, too." She spent a moment enjoying Nadine's profile in the firelight before continuing. "Your father taught you to fly?"
"Ja," Nadine said absently. "When I was young. He had an old Cessna, and he would take me up and then hand me the controls." She smiled faintly in recollection, then let her gaze drop to the fire.
The sudden sadness on her face hit Chloe like a punch to the gut, and she fretted for a long moment, casting about in her head for any topic that would relieve it.
"Are you still sure about leaving Shoreline behind?" she asked finally, then almost smacked herself in the forehead. If there was a topic that would make Nadine feel better, it was not likely to be the lifelong career as a mercenary she'd left behind due to failure, bankruptcy, and betrayal.
"I'm sure," Nadine said, surprisingly steady. "My father never wanted me to inherit the family business anyway." She took a deep breath. "So, I should definitely get those new business cards - 'Don't Cross Ross?'"
"Yeah," Chloe agreed in a quiet voice. "'Frazer-Ross Industries.'" She held up a finger, anticipating Nadine's immediate objection. "Alphabetical order, love. You're just going to have to deal."
Nadine smiled, then turned and pressed a kiss to Chloe's head. "Okay," she agreed.
"You know what?" Chloe asked a moment later, as if having a sudden revelation.
"No, what?" Nadine responded, gamely.
"I've never had sex in the back of a pickup truck before. Can you believe that?" She stood up and brushed the desert sand from her pants. "Seems like a grievous oversight, really. I'll just be over there, if that's something you'd like to help remedy," she concluded, pointing to their vehicle before giving Nadine a wicked look and strolling away.
Later, she realized that she shouldn't have been surprised that Nadine had somehow beaten her to the truck, and was there with a grin to offer a hand into the open bed.
It was just after dawn when Chloe stirred at the soft touch across her brow, and she woke up to see Nadine looking down at her. She had just enough time to recognize the gentle urgency of Nadine's expression before Nadine bent to claim a kiss.
When she stopped to think about it, Chloe was always surprised that Nadine's mouth was so soft on hers. Usually she didn't bother thinking, she just tilted happily against lips and tongue and focused on sharing the heat of the moment.
When they parted, Chloe hummed and opened her eyes to see Nadine leaning away with a self-satisfied look. "Mm. Not that I'm complaining, but what's the occasion?"
"You were beautiful just then," Nadine said, with a shrug. With a shift that could only be described as bashful, she ducked her head and slid out of the truck bed.
Chloe laid there for a moment, letting a mess of sudden emotion surge through her and settle next to the now-familiar flutter in her gut. She pressed a hand to her belly and exhaled a tiny laugh.
At least she didn't appear to be the only one in this partnership to be ridiculously smitten.
After packing up the site and securing their gear in the truck, they sat on the open tailgate and shared an MRE. Nadine spread out a topographical map in the space between them.
"We're here," she said, pointing at the south opening of the canyon. "In the early 1900s, an old prospector reportedly went around sharing photos of a Spanish caravel lying on its side in the base of this canyon."
Chloe grinned. "Let me guess. He showed the photos to an unsuspecting innocent, and promised directions to the wreck for a modest fee."
"This is not the most viable location," Nadine conceded, not needing to confirm Chloe's take on the story. "But it shouldn't take long to survey the canyon from above."
"Right. In the aerial death machine," Chloe said, eyeing the equipment in question with distaste.
"You enjoyed yourself well enough yesterday," Nadine replied, with a look that challenged Chloe to argue.
"That doesn't mean I can't still complain about it," Chloe said brightly. She pushed herself off the tailgate and brushed herself off. "I... don't care much for heights," she muttered in admission, keeping her eyes pointed down. When Nadine didn't respond, Chloe looked up again to see the frown pointed her way. "And I know that's rather ridiculous, given my employment habits."
"Eh, you would make a career out of defying your own phobia," Nadine replied, with a shrug. "But I won't let you fall," she concluded.
Chloe felt herself blush, and scrunched her face in a smile back up at Nadine. "Right, then. Let's get to the part where we smash ourselves to bits against some dusty old rocks."
Nadine snorted, then handed over a GPS unit with a touchscreen. "I'll fly. You spot. If anything looks promising, mark it and we'll check it on foot."
Chloe took the device, offering just the hint of a pout. "You know, despite any protestations to the contrary, I really do prefer my treasure hunting with a just a dash of reckless danger."
"Fine," Nadine said, with that look that said she found Chloe simultaneously charming and insufferable. "You mark the location where the rescue party will eventually find our mangled corpses."
"Now you're talking, china," Chloe said, with a dazzling grin.
There really weren't any bad angles from which to appreciate Nadine Ross, Chloe decided from the back seat of the powered trike. From this particular location, she had an absolutely lovely perspective of broad shoulders and chiseled triceps as Nadine worked the craft's controls.
Once they were aloft and cruising over the canyon, Chloe was careful to keep dutiful attention on the rocks and scrub bushes below, only sneaking a lingering glance at her companion once in a while.
She was a professional, after all.
Since they hadn't bothered with headset radios for this jaunt, they could only communicate by gesture or touch. The dip and sway of the trike against the breeze and the muted propeller noise beating against her ear protection lulled Chloe into a nearly meditative state. She somehow even forgot to notice the part where they could easily plunge to their deaths.
Though Chloe was well-practiced in picking out human-made shapes against natural landscapes, the canyon hid its secrets well. She'd only spotted one odd confluence of shadow on the canyon floor, and showed Nadine the marked location after they'd landed back at their camp site.
"That will be a good hike," Nadine said, sounding as amiable and relaxed as Chloe was feeling.
"Yeah," Chloe agreed in a low voice. She bumped her shoulder against Nadine's and grinned. "Let's go get dirty."
An hour later, they had reached the crest of the canyon wall above the spot Chloe had marked. Even with binoculars, the deep shadows of the rocks below yielded little information.
"We'll have to climb down," Nadine decided, anticipating Chloe's ready agreement.
The canyon wall was uneven, eroded by weather, and more than a little dangerous. Their descent was quiet and concentrated, and they shared only terse directions, with occasional exclamations as another handhold gave way.
About halfway down, it became apparent that the odd item Chloe had spotted from above was in fact an old, abandoned camping trailer that had fallen victim to some other adventurer's bad fortune years previous. The twisted aluminum would almost certainly yield no treasure, but they decided to complete the descent to be sure.
Once safely on the canyon floor, Chloe smacked the dust away from her clothes and looked around. The surrounding rocks were bone dry, but smoother edges alluded to being shaped by running water in the distant past. She ran her fingers along a sharply defined layer of sediment and smiled.
Nearby, Nadine dropped to the ground and headed over to the wrecked camper, prodding bits of metal out of the way with her foot to assess the damage. "Nothing here," she called in conclusion, clapping her hands together in finality as she wandered back to Chloe's side.
Chloe murmured a noise of agreement, then bent to study the flecks of minerals that sparkled out of the rock face.
"Thinking of panning for gold?" Nadine teased.
"I lack the patience," Chloe replied. "But remember how I was complaining that nothing in the States is old enough?" She turned and gave Nadine a grin. "I lied. This is fairly amazing."
Nadine pursed her lips and nodded. "Ah. So she likes archeology and geology," she said. "Noted."
"Millions of years of history, carved bare by water long evaporated," Chloe said, in mild exasperation as she gestured broadly to the rocks around them. "And all you can say is, 'Noted?'"
"Eh, just thinking," Nadine said with a shrug. "Up the coast there's a cove where you can dive for jade."
Chloe narrowed her eyes. "Did you just ask me on another treasure hunting adventure?"
Nadine grinned at her, then reached out and traced the same vibrant layer of sediment that had first caught Chloe's eye. "It is pretty cool," she said. After a moment she turned her gaze upward, toward the slanting rays of sun setting across the top of the canyon. "But we should head back."
"After you, partner," Chloe replied, with a happy smile. She absolutely did not linger on the canyon floor to admire her companion's impressive physique as she hauled herself back up the rock face.
They set up camp for the night on a ridge of that had warmed in the day's sunlight. Chloe looked the slightest bit uneasy as she doused herself with water from her canteen, trying to wash away some of the desert grit.
"You've probably done your due diligence about rattlesnakes, right?"
Nadine didn't even look up from her map. "They're mostly dormant this time of year."
"'Mostly,'" Chloe echoed. "Well, great."
At that, Nadine squinted up at her. "So. Heights and snakes?"
"You say that like it's somehow unreasonable not to want to fall to one's death or be bitten by a venomous reptile," Chloe grumbled. She plopped down on the sleeping bag arranged next to Nadine's and settled in to pout.
After a moment, Nadine leaned closer. "I don't like spiders," she admitted quietly.
Chloe gave her a sideways look, unwilling to be placated that easily. "You're just saying that."
"I almost scrapped this entire gig when I read about desert tarantulas," Nadine continued, with a tiny shudder.
"Do I want to know?" Chloe asked, eyeing the encroaching darkness with new apprehension.
"No," Nadine said firmly. She held up the map, and pointed to another canyon. "Tomorrow, we go looking for Vikings."
"Excellent," Chloe said, relieved to talk about literally anything other than the creeping critters that likely teemed nearby.
After reviewing the evidence and planning the tasks of the next day, Nadine leaned back, propping herself on outstretched hands and tilting her face upward toward the starry sky. "So what mythology do you see up there?" she asked.
Chloe mirrored her posture with a thoughtful look. "Well, Western culture is predictably dominant, but I know a few of the better stories. Like Orion?" she asked, pointing to the prevalent three-star pattern of the warrior's belt. "Very popular piece of cosmic real estate."
"Really?" Nadine prompted, with a grin.
"Sure. Which version of the story would you prefer? The one with the god posing as a deer who wanted to seduce his own daughter?"
"Gross," Nadine said bluntly.
"Ah, then you want the version with Skanda, younger brother of our old friend Ganesh. Not to be outdone by his sibling, Skanda had six heads, and rode a giant red bird into battle."
"Dramatic family," Nadine observed, even as she smiled at the familiarity of the tale.
"Indian myth is not known for its subtlety," Chloe agreed. "And really, who has the time for contextual interpretation when you have to teach morality and history to 1.3 billion people? Subtlety just isn't efficient." She shifted, and pulled out her phone. "Speaking of..." she muttered, as she plugged in earbuds and offered one to Nadine. "I downloaded a bunch of whatever passes for popular American music these days."
Nadine took the proffered earbud with a hesitant look. "Are we culturally assimilating, now?"
"Nah," Chloe said. "Just figured you'd enjoy playing modern day anthropologist with me," she explained, scooting in closer. She dropped her voice to a dramatic, instructional timbre. "In this sample, the singer laments the tragic end of a romantic relationship."
Nadine snorted and listened for a moment, then tugged out the earbud and handed it back to Chloe. "That is annoyingly catchy."
"Right?!" Chloe crowed. "Wait, I think I have some girl-power ballads that are right up your alley."
Nadine waited amiably, smiling at Chloe while she scrolled through her phone. When a lock of dark hair fell across Chloe's face, Nadine reached up with gentle fingers to tuck it back behind Chloe's ear.
Chloe made the tiniest happy noise in response, and turned her cheek against Nadine's hand while keeping her attention on the phone screen. "So much overwrought young angst," Chloe muttered, dismissing song after song. "What kind of music did you listen to as a kid?"
"I didn't, really," Nadine replied with a shrug.
The note of wistfulness in her voice made Chloe pause and look up from the phone screen. "No?"
"My father ran an army. It's safe to say I didn't have the most conventional childhood."
She said it in such a matter-of-fact way, but the notion still hit Chloe with a weight of regret. "I'd guess you didn't have a lot of time for being a 'regular' girl, huh?"
"Like you did?" Nadine countered. "With your father's work and constantly moving around?" She shrugged. "I don't think 'regular' is what we do."
"I suppose not," Chloe murmured.
"Suits me fine," Nadine concluded, firmly setting aside any sense of remaining melancholy. "I like 'irregular.'" She gestured toward the playlist with a tilt of her chin. "Got any techno?"
"Techno," Chloe repeated, in flat disbelief. She handed over the phone with a skeptical look.
"Something with a good beat," Nadine explained, before selecting a song and readjusting her earbud. "I suppose a girl-power ballad will do."
Chloe settled in with a grin to listen with her, and eventually fell asleep curled up against Nadine's shoulder while old stories chased across the sky above.
This time Chloe awoke with a start, to the whine of approaching vehicles. The weight of Nadine's hand across her chest kept her from sitting up in alarm.
"Stay down," Nadine whispered. She was prone beside Chloe, peering over the edge of their meager cover to watch the approaching ATVs.
Chloe took a breath, fighting through adrenaline to properly take stock of the situation. The sky was above was turning a dramatic pre-dawn purple, there was a faint layer of condensation across her face and clothes, and beside her head, their cell phones lay on the ground, powered off with their SIM cards removed.
What the hell?!
She flipped over onto her belly, and likewise studied the approaching vehicles. "That looks... organized," she muttered.
Nadine grunted agreement.
As the convoy drew closer, a few details resolved: matching vehicles, clothing, and sidearms.
"PMC?" Chloe asked.
"Maybe," Nadine said. "But poorly trained. They can barely control those vehicles."
"Style over substance," Chloe muttered. "Might actually make them more dangerous." She shook her head and sighed. "On the upside, they clearly don't know who you are. Otherwise they'd have brought a lot more firepower."
Nadine didn't react to the intended joke, instead lying very, very still with her body coiling in increased tension as the vehicles drew nearer.
Chloe could feel the shift, could sense the conscious realignment in Nadine's every breath. To her core, Nadine was a trained fighter. This wasn't an exercise, this wasn't just a few idiots out for a quick score at her expense. This was a direct assault on her team (of two). The sum of all of Nadine's conditioning, habit, inherent anger management issues, and family expectation meant the approaching force was going to pay.
If she was honest, this aspect of Nadine's personality scared Chloe shitless and broke her heart all at once. She slid her hand across the dirt and hooked a pinky finger around Nadine's in a tiny show of solidarity.
The effect was immediate. Nadine's entire posture changed, as her scrutiny turned less wrathful and more... curious.
In total, five ATVs carrying seven men drove up and came to a stop a few dozen meters from the parked truck. The men dismounted and approached warily, but sloppily. If they'd been more observant they would have spotted the tracks that would have led them directly to Chloe and Nadine's perch on the rocks above.
"I'm not getting a ping off their GPS anymore," one of the men announced after looking up from his phone.
"Think they know we're here?" another asked.
"Not likely," said a third, who had a vague bearing of being in charge. He chewed a piece of gum idly as he squinted up at the rocks, his gaze passing directly over the two women's hiding spot without recognition. "Toss the truck," he ordered.
Chloe felt every muscle in her body clench in response. The truck was only a rental, and it didn't hold anything of actual value. Still, the sense of violation was palpable.
Two of the intruders teamed up to rip apart the contents of the truck, littering camping gear across the ground.
"Found some old maps," one reported.
The leader nodded. "Okay, we'll upload those to the buyer and work off the old data we grabbed before they went dark." He turned and headed back toward his ATV before calling over his shoulder. "Mills, take a gas can and a flare and torch their ride."
"Dude, are you nuts?" Mills - apparently - replied. "The contract didn't say anything about..."
"The contract says we get a bonus if we find the treasure before they do. The fastest way to do that is to make sure they don't follow us."
"What if it starts a wildfire or something?" Mills asked.
"That's what insurance is for," the leader replied, in dripping condescension. He hopped on his ATV and held out the prescribed gas can. "Any time now."
Mills hesitated a long second before grabbing it, then he trudged over to the truck and tipped the can liberally across the interior and over the engine compartment. He lit a flare from his kit and held it out away from himself before turning to get final confirmation from his teammates, then chucked the flare into the open truck door.
The leader smirked and gunned his ATV's throttle. "Good boy. Don't forget to check out the canyon before you leave. We'll head to the site by Mortero Palms."
Six men on four ATVs fired up their engines and zipped away, leaving Mills to watch the growing inferno in the truck with significant trepidation.
"Son of a bitch," Nadine muttered, as the engine noise and building roar of flames rose up over the rock face.
"They hacked your phone," Chloe breathed.
"Shit," Nadine spat, clenching her hands in the dirt.
The departing ATVs had receded into the distance, and Mills wandered toward his own vehicle to carry out his next orders.
It occurred to Chloe to be angry, to feel violated beyond the destruction of their gear and the snooping on their phones. The past few days had been such an idyllic reprieve, such an oasis of comfort and bonding, and now these assholes were intruding on her newfound partnership. And for what, really? The two woman hadn't found anything of value, and honestly weren't likely to.
She could feel a swelling ball of anger deep in her gut, building and threatening to boil over. She grit her teeth, then looked over at Nadine, who... was gone?
Chloe swore as she spotted the blur that was Nadine Ross pelting down the rocks, then levered herself upright to follow.
Mills turned, too slowly, then reached for his sidearm, way too slowly, then ate dirt as Nadine plowed into him with her shoulder and took him down in a hard tackle.
She reared over his prone body, ready to destroy him by hand.
Chloe bounded up a few steps behind, calling out Nadine's name. She grabbed at Nadine's shoulders and tugged. "Nadine, c'mon, he's not worth it," she panted. She scooped up his dropped pistol and tucked it in the waistband of her jeans. "Let him go," she pleaded.
Nadine snarled, but climbed off Mills, leaving him groaning in the dirt.
"Jesus, I think you broke half my ribs," he wailed.
"Who is your employer?" Chloe demanded, keeping an eye on her partner's twitchy display of rage as Nadine paced nearby.
"It's just a private security company," Mills said. "We got contracted out to drive around in the desert and follow some GPS coordinates and look for some 'treasure.' That's all I know, I swear."
"You don't know the origin of the contract?" Chloe pressed.
"Luis might," Mills muttered. "He's the senior asshole." He squinted up at them and clutched at his side. "Who the fuck are you people?"
"Way beyond your pay grade, kid," Chloe muttered. She eyed Nadine, who was still walking in tense circles. "What's next, partner?" she asked, deliberately pitching her voice to a register that was low and coaxing.
Nadine stopped pacing and cast a look back at Chloe. Her jaw was clenched in obvious frustration.
Before she could answer, the truck lurched on its failing suspension, spewing forth an even larger inferno.
"That thing's gonna blow," Mills said weakly.
Chloe grabbed him by the arm and hauled him upright, ignoring his bleating misery as she tossed him across the rear fender his ATV, then took the front seat. "Let's move," she ordered.
Nadine took one last look at the truck, then bounded over and gracefully hopped into the spot in between Chloe and the sprawled security contractor. She took hold of Chloe's hips as they sped away, then curled her body to shield Chloe's when truck finally exploded behind them, launching metal debris in an impressive radius.
When the danger appeared to have subsided, Chloe pulled the ATV around in a slow curve, then stopped and leaned forward against the handlebars to catch her breath.
Nadine dismounted and dragged Mills to the ground by his collar, then patted him down to find his phone and his walkie talkie. She turned to Chloe. "Who was the buyer?"
"I don't know," Chloe said honestly. "Some Silicon Valley VC. It doesn't really matter - if they could afford us, they could afford to pay off some hackers and a private security force to improve their chances of a score."
With that, Nadine nodded, drew back her arm, and launched Mills' phone as far as she could. A device known by their pursuers was not worth trusting, but...
"If you can crawl to your phone, you can call for help," Nadine told the man lying in the dirt.
"Are you shitting me?" he cried.
She ignored him, and chambered a round in her pistol. "They don't have much of a head start. We can catch up." For a moment she waited, giving Chloe time to object. "You with me?"
"Whither thou goest," Chloe muttered, before exhaling a humorless laugh. She turned back toward the ATV, but was stopped by Nadine's outstretched hand holding out her cell phone.
"Didn't want you to lose this," Nadine said quietly. "Just in case you don't have a backup of your photos."
In point of fact, Chloe did not have a backup of her photos, and she knew that when she'd managed to think about it later she would have been heartbroken to lose the record of their time together.
Instead, somehow, in a moment of profound, justified fury, Nadine had spared a thought for her partner, and protected some of Chloe's most valued memories. Chloe took the phone and pocketed it with a tiny smile. "Thanks," she said, giving Nadine a look she hoped communicated the depth of her appreciation.
Nadine smiled back, then grabbed a canteen from the ATV's cargo box and dropped it next to Mills' head. "Try not to die," she admonished, before hopping onto the vehicle again and waiting for Chloe to take the driver's seat.
Mills watched them drive away, whimpered, grabbed the canteen, then started to drag himself in the direction Nadine had pitched his phone. With every painful movement he cursed both women, the contract, and his stupid goddamned boss.
"At least we know they're just clueless idiots," Chloe called over her shoulder to Nadine behind her.
They no longer had GPS to work from, but the contractors' ATVs left crystal clear tracks to follow.
"Like you said - might make them more dangerous," Nadine called back. "They're amateurs, led by an asshole. They didn't need to burn the truck and risk a massive fire. Cutting a few fluid lines would have accomplished the same thing."
Chloe nodded, acknowledging the overly dramatic flair of a man inclined to show off. "How do you want to play it when we catch up to them?"
Nadine was quiet for a moment, thinking it over. The blinding rage had subsided, and now she was much more interested in getting the hell out of the desert with Chloe. Still, they had a job to do.
"Their call," she declared, as her hands settled a little more possessively at Chloe's waist.
Chloe nodded and gunned the throttle. "All right then. If they want to be civilized, we can be civilized."
They were fast catching up to the remaining four ATVs, which themselves were approaching the mouth of the last canyon Nadine had pinpointed in her research.
Chloe pulled their borrowed vehicle into the shade of a scrub bush, dismounted, and waited while Nadine fished binoculars from the ATV's cargo box to scope their opposition.
Five of the remaining contractors set to scaling the rock face at the direction of the sixth, the leader who had ordered the destruction of their truck. He paced along the ridge and barked orders, dramatic and overblown.
Nadine handed over the binoculars with a frustrated sigh.
"They'll give any old asshole an army, huh?" Chloe asked, as she squinted through the lenses. She reached out and scritched Nadine's back in sympathy. "Think the rest of them will scatter if we remove him from the equation?"
"Probably," Nadine said. She pulled out the radio she'd lifted from Mills and turned it on, then scrubbed through the channels until she picked up the team chatter. "But first, we'll let them scout the site."
Chloe pursed her lips and nodded in appreciation before dipping into the cargo box to find the remaining canteen, then cracked it open to take a sip of water. "Smart," she said. "I am going to enjoy it when you beat him down later."
Nadine swore in disgust as she listened to the undisciplined yammering from the team. "You and me both," she muttered.
They didn't have to wait long. After twenty minutes, the radio crackled with activity, and a report of something "weird" poking out of the desert floor. Nadine took a deep breath to focus, and turned a questioning look toward Chloe. "We doing this?"
"Yup," Chloe replied, without a moment's hesitation. "Right behind you."
Nadine smiled and dipped her head, recalling any number of previous tests of their partnership that had gone exactly the same way: running headlong into absurd danger, always together.
She started out with a jog across the open space leading to where the other ATVs were parked, then took up cover behind one and saw Chloe do the same nearby. From there she watched, waiting while the leader paced in his chosen path, until he paused at the top of the ridge to yell useless orders at his men. Nadine pointed to one path, saw Chloe nod acknowledgement, then took off up the opposite route.
They were low to the ground and quiet, but Nadine knew it was inevitable that he'd eventually turn and spot one or both of the women closing on his location. She stepped up her pace, hoping he'd see her first.
He started at the flash of Chloe's red shirt in his peripheral vision, drew his sidearm, and started firing before he'd even properly brought the sights to level.
The shots were wide and wild, but one still caught Chloe's arm. She spun from the burn of it and fell to the ground, gasping as her ribs crashed hard into the rocks.
Nadine broke into a flat run, knowing she had only steps before he turned and brought the weapon to bear on her. She launched herself into the air and took him down hard, knocking his gun away and delivering a satisfying crunch to his jaw.
He sprawled, unmoving, in the dirt. Nadine patted him down, found zip ties in his pocket, and promptly set about binding his hands and feet as tightly as possible.
"Uh, Luis?" came a call from his radio. "False alarm down here. It's just some trash from an old campsite."
Nadine grabbed the radio to reply. "Luis can't answer you," she growled. "And I will end any of you who try to help him."
"What the fuck?" barked a voice on the other end.
"You should leave. Now," Nadine ordered. She dropped the radio and started running back down the hill to where Chloe had fallen.
For her part, Chloe had heard the scuffle on the ridge above, decided Nadine had it all well in hand, and figured she could just stay still on the ground for a moment.
A shadow crossed Chloe's face. She opened her eyes to see a yellow lab staring down at her curiously. He woofled a bit, and bonked her in the forehead with his nose.
"Ah," Chloe blurted in alarm, even as she reached up to pat the side of the dog's head. "Hey there, boy."
"Chloe!" came Nadine's panicked voice, followed by rapid steps as she sprinted back down the hill.
Chloe waved to indicate she was okay, but Nadine didn't even break stride as she skidded to her partner's side.
"Are you all right?" Nadine asked. Her hands roamed over Chloe's body in aimless alarm, and she looked askance at Rufus while he turned in a circle and sat nearby.
"Yeah," Chloe said. "Just got the wind knocked out of me." She closed her eyes against the bright sky and cast an arm across her forehead. "I'll totally get up in a minute."
"You're bleeding," Nadine said urgently.
"Bullet grazed me," Chloe replied. "No serious harm done."
Nadine exhaled a ragged breath and collapsed into a seated position in the dirt beside her. "Okay," she said, as she swiped sweat-damp hair away from her eyes.
"Hey, you two all right?" called a male voice from somewhere down the rock face.
Nadine looked over her shoulder to see Rod, the guy who'd rented them the truck and the parachute trike. He squinted up at them in the sun, then whistled to call Rufus back to his side.
"Jesus, is that who I think it is?" Chloe asked, without lifting her arm away from her face. "Tell him he can keep the deposit."
"I heard the ATVs earlier, then what sounded like gunshots, I think?" he continued as he drew closer. "Figured I should come check it out."
"We're fine," Nadine called, before turning back to Chloe. "Can you stand?" she asked quietly.
"Yup," Chloe exhaled. She pushed herself up to a seated position, then took Nadine's hand to be pulled to her feet.
Nadine stayed close, with a hand light at Chloe's waist. "Okay?" she asked.
Chloe realized the last time she'd seen such solicitous, gentle concern on Nadine's face was back in Halebidu, after she'd knocked her head during their dramatic exit from that aqueduct.
She'd never cared to closely examine the physical or emotional fallout from that day; traumatic brain injury was just another checkbox on the list of outrageous risks she took in her line of work. The soft worry on Nadine's face was equally risky, since Chloe found herself desperately wishing she could somehow take it back and never make Nadine worry again.
She'd forged a lucrative career out of avoiding sentimental entanglement, after all.
Now, halfway around the world, she felt the same regret, drawing the same conclusion surely neither she nor the rewards of the job were actually worth the worry on Nadine's face.
She almost brushed Nadine's hands away as she stood, but couldn't quite make herself be so dismissive. "I'm good," she said in a low voice.
Rod was puffing a bit by the time he scaled the rocks to reach their location. "Whew," he breathed, as Rufus panted loyally at his side. He shaded his eyes with one hand, and pointed at Chloe. "Shit, you're bleeding," he observed. He took off his long-sleeved shirt and tore off a sleeve to provide a makeshift bandage, which Nadine promptly tied around Chloe's arm.
"The gunshots you heard," Chloe explained. "Up close and personal."
"What the hell happened?" Rod asked.
Nadine pointed up the ridge, to where she'd left the security contractor hogtied on the ground. "Security contractor up there, got a little aggressive."
Rod looked up where Nadine was pointing, looked back at the two women, and frowned. "Okay," he said after a moment, drawing the word out in plain apprehension. "Let's get you two back to my camper, then I'll radio the sheriff and they can take care of this mess."
As they made their way back down the ridge, Chloe noticed Rufus and Nadine had wordlessly teamed up to flank her, ensuring that she kept her footing. It occurred to her to be annoyed, but really, they were both awfully cute.
Yup, that settled it. They really needed a dog.
While they waited for law enforcement, Rod shared some snacks and water. Rufus planted himself firmly at Chloe's side, and she snuck him some of her treats when Rod wasn't looking.
"So hey, that vehicle fire I heard about on the scanner this morning..." Rod began.
Both women winced. "Yeah, sorry about that, mate," Chloe said.
Rod rocked on his feet. "Whoa. You've had a rough day."
They couldn't disagree, but declined to elaborate further.
"Why were those guys after you?" Rod asked.
"Some crazy misunderstanding," Chloe said, blithely. "They said something about a contract and 'treasure.' Which is weird, right? We were camping."
Not for the first time, Nadine was happy to let Chloe's gift of running at the mouth distract from the less-believable reality. She held out a potato chip to Rufus, who snubbed her offer with a snort.
"You might want to tell your sheriff friends to look out for a young man named Mills," Chloe continued. "He's the one who torched your truck and that trike... thing. Otherwise nice kid, though."
"Right. But you got away, then chased the others down, got shot at, then took down the leader and told the rest to scatter?"
Chloe shrugged. "Like you said - rough day."
"Uh huh," Rod said, clearly not believing a word of it.
The sheriff and deputies were also understandably skeptical, but Chloe's innocent, clueless act was unshakable, and Nadine only made vague noises of agreement on cue. The deputies had found Mills, who substantiated their story, and of course a gunshot wound did a lot to lend credence to the women's overall sincerity.
Once it was all down to the paperwork, Rod drove them back to his hangar. He'd apparently run out of questions, but the speculative frown on his face only got deeper as they went.
"Ah, a vehicle that's not on fire," Chloe said dryly, when they arrived and she spotted their convertible. "How pleasant."
"Yeah," Rod agreed, before swiping a hand in the air as if to brush away their pretense. "So, cards on the table. You two weren't just camping. And those guys weren't just chasing you by mistake." He waited for them to argue, which they didn't. "You're treasure hunters?"
Chloe sighed, and gave Nadine a look. "As outlandish as that sounds, yes."
"What were you hunting?"
Nadine shook her head and cast her hands out in a shrug. "Nothing but tall tales," she said, defeated.
Chloe, on the other hand, was watching Rod in curiosity. "A shipwreck," she said, in a manner calculated to draw a reaction.
He returned her gaze evenly. "In the middle of the desert?" he asked.
Nadine looked between them, torn between annoyance at Chloe's tendency to wander off script and intrigue at Rod's muted response. "Wasn't always just a desert," she said.
"Yeah, how about that," Rod agreed, with an enigmatic look. He turned and wandered over to a large metal cabinet next to a workbench against the hangar wall. "You know, I've been living out here for fifteen years, and I've seen some weird stuff in the desert sun." He fished a key out of his pocket, unlocked the cabinet, and pulled out a duffle bag. "But the day I saw that old ship sticking up out of the dirt? That was definitely the weirdest."
Chloe's breath caught. She reached out to Nadine with a gasp.
"Where?" Nadine asked, wide-eyed.
He crossed back toward them, clearly enjoying their reactions. "In a valley about three miles from where I met up with you ladies today. You're not gonna be able to find it, though. It was exposed by a flash flood, then a wildfire wiped it out a couple summers later."
Nadine tipped her head back and exhaled loudly. "Damn," she muttered.
"Oh, you were so close, china," Chloe said, sympathetic.
Rod looked them over with a smile. "Yeah. It was pretty cool," he continued. "I'm sorry you didn't get to see it." He held out the duffle bag. "But actually, you're closer than you think."
Curious, Chloe took the bag and unzipped it, then reached in to pull out a handful of dark, beautiful pearls. She let them sift through her fingers, back into the bag, before reaching in for another handful, staring at their lustrous sheen in speechless wonder.
Nadine didn't have that problem. "Holy goddamned shit," she breathed.
Rod grinned. "That's pretty much what I said."
Chloe hefted the bag, trying to gauge its weight. "You have quite the haul here, friend," she observed. "Why haven't you sold them off?"
"Don't exactly need the money," he said with a shrug. "I was a double-digit employee at a tech startup in the 80s, sold off my options a long time ago, and never looked back. Never really knew how to go about liquidating 'treasure,' anyway."
"We might be able help you with that," Chloe said carefully.
"Yeah, I kinda thought you might," Rod replied.
Nadine had little to say, since her brain had basically gotten stuck in a feedback loop: the ship had been real, the treasure had been real, and by an incredibly improbable twist of circumstance, they'd actually found it. She couldn't believe their luck, even though she'd already lived through a number of incredibly improbable events alongside Chloe Frazer.
"Anyway," Rod continued. "If you're interested in that kind of thing, I've heard rumors about some Mayan ruins down south that would blow your mind."
Chloe grinned, zipped the duffle bag, and handed it back to him. "Oh, I think we're interested," she said.
An hour later, after Chloe had ruthlessly (but charmingly) haggled for a forty percent share in the sale of the pearls to some of her favorite gray market contacts, then secured Rod's promise to fund future exploration in the Americas, they had pulled the convertible out of the hangar so he could lock up and get back to his camping trip with Rufus.
Before anything else could happen, Nadine insisted that she address the bullet wound slicing across Chloe's bare arm.
The injury really was superficial, but Nadine bent carefully to the task of cleaning and properly bandaging it. Chloe leaned against the hood of the convertible and held her face up toward the setting sun, enjoying the breeze that tugged at her hair, while she tried very hard not to flinch at the antiseptic sting.
"You're quiet over there," Chloe murmured.
Nadine grit her teeth. "Worried about you," she replied, in a tight voice.
"Pfft," she countered, dismissive. "Only a scratch."
Nadine ran her fingers across the bandage one last time, then tidied up the first aid supplies. "I'm sorry," she murmured.
"About what?" Chloe asked with a squint.
"About chasing dust in the desert and you getting hurt in the process. This gig did not go according to plan."
Chloe shrugged, utterly unbothered. "These things rarely do. That's part of the fun."
"Fun," Nadine repeated.
Chloe turned and gave her a look. "You do remember the part where we got the treasure and lived to tell the tale, right?"
"You do remember the part where the entire job was almost a complete bust, we only found the treasure by coincidence, and you got shot, right?"
"Well, my version is the one we'll tell at cocktail parties," Chloe said, with a thoughtful look. "But overall, this was one of my milder outings."
Nadine nodded and stepped around her to lean against the car as well, bumping her shoulder gently against Chloe's uninjured arm. Chloe reached out and found Nadine's hand, then laced their fingers together.
"So, partner. Another job done. You want east or west?" Chloe asked, referring back to a conversation on a crowded dock in India, when Chloe was trying to give Nadine a graceful exit from their partnership, from the chaos that was Chloe's general existence. "Maybe south?" she added, when Nadine didn't answer right away.
Nadine sighed and squeezed her hand. "West," she said.
Chloe felt her heart drop, even though she'd been anticipating this moment for weeks, now. "Oh," she managed to utter.
Nadine cocked her head, giving Chloe a tiny smile. "With you," she continued. "On the beach in that red bikini."
Chloe forced a chuckle, as her heart tried valiantly to climb back out of a well of dread. "I thought you said red clothing lacked tactical advantage in sandy environments."
"It does," Nadine said in her usual pragmatic way. "But I can be on top of you whenever you need cover."
At that, Chloe broke into a relieved, delighted grin, and she settled into a proper snuggle against Nadine's side. "You know, I do quite like adventuring with you."
Nadine turned and pressed a kiss to Chloe's soft, sun-warmed hair. "Likewise," she replied. As if sensing Chloe's lingering unease, Nadine took a breath and bowed her head. "You have me until you tell me to go," she said, low and quiet.
Chloe shut her eyes and leaned in to bump her nose against Nadine's jaw. "Then I suppose I'm gonna keep you for a long, long while," she vowed in a whisper.