To the Xtreme (Xtreme Ops #2) - Em Petrova
Harris Lipton must have lost his damn mind.
For six months he’d been in the Alaskan wilderness hunting fugitives, drug smugglers and human traffickers, and the minute he got a short leave from his duties with the Xtreme Ops, he took off backpacking into Denali National Park. Instead of heading to Cali for some sun and sweeties, he was trekking through thick mud on the edge of Big Stony Creek.
He planned to set up in one of the zones that permitted camping, but he already knew a week wouldn’t be nearly enough time away from it all.
Picking his way through the high grasses, he forced himself to slow down. There was no run to the finish line on vacation. He pulled in a deep breath of mountain air.
From the corner of his eye, he spotted the bleached white of bone and froze mid-step.
The fact he was totally desensitized to the possibility—and likelihood—that it could be human remains told him this time away from work was essential.
Lipton changed his path to circle closer to the bone. He might face the remains of some grizzly’s dinner. Or a murdered hiker. Out here, he never knew what to expect.
As soon as he saw the long, spikey tines of a caribou antler shed, relief surged through him.
Scrubbing a hand over his face to clear out half a dozen images of death flitting through his mind, he stood staring down at the antlers people enjoyed searching for and collecting. If he had a home of his own, he might tie them to his backpack and haul them back to nail over a mantel.
At present, home consisted of Quonset huts—small buildings with rounded roofs lined up along the base and outfitted the same as a basic dorm room. After some of the places he’d stayed over a lifetime, he didn’t take it for granted.
Serving four years in the Marines had been the root of his training, but he’d quickly climbed ranks and become the Marines’ number one person to call when they needed a bomb deactivated.
As if the pressures of not blowing himself up every week hadn’t been enough, he jumped at the chance to join Xtreme Ops. His buddies called him a stress junkie. Lord knew he spent enough months in therapy to figure out the same thing. Bottom line—a stressed young boy sought other stressful events as a man searching to control them.
Which made him a control freak too.
He squatted next to the antlers and stroked a fingertip along the smooth, bleached bone. Pretty in a primitive way, just like everything here in Alaska.
Lipton continued on his journey, hiking for miles along the drainage area where mountain runoff created a creek of sorts and sometimes flooded out. Someday, he’d return during the flood time just to witness the power of the water changing the land.
In the distance, Denali rose up, awe-inspiring with its massive size as North America’s tallest mountain. She had some clouds on her, softening her jagged peaks. Yes, Lipton damn well needed more of this.
He pulled in deep breaths. Cool, fresh air washed through his head, clearing out the dark, cobwebbed corners. Early in his military career, he learned he had to find a way to let shit go. Right now, right here, he was making peace with all the unpleasant but necessary deeds he’d done.
His only plan was to commune with nature. Maybe say fuck it to shaving for a week. And he definitely would not be pulling out a map anytime during the course of his leave.
In the distance, he spotted a grizzly with two cubs, the babies a darker shade than their mother and striking against the landscape. He stopped to watch them play for a little while before continuing on with no sense of purpose. It felt good to shut down the tactical portion of his mind. Was this how normal people lived? Just blue sky, pines and himself.
Wandering out of the flat land came as second nature to him. He couldn’t go long without a challenge, so he angled up the hill. Soon his muscles burned with the exertion he was so familiar with on a daily basis, but this time his goal was personal—to reach the top and find a view.
His captain wasn’t giving orders in his ear. He didn’t tote a rifle. And he wasn’t out here to hunt a criminal. As he hiked, he repeated these things to himself. Didn’t people say they needed a vacation from their vacation? No wonder—doing nothing was hard