"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.