sticks & stones (cut & run 2) - Page 27

Deuce stood hastily and made his way out of the kitchen. “I’ll start packing up the truck!” he called as he went.

“My duffel’s packed,” Zane told Ty with a shrug. He already had on jeans and boots along with his thin T-shirt covered by a long-sleeved Henley.

Earl grunted and pushed away from the table. “We’ll just patch that roof next time,” he said to Ty with a smile before he strolled out of the kitchen, mug in hand.

Ty cleared his throat, snorted in annoyance, and looked at Zane with narrowed eyes.

“What?” Zane asked softly.

“I should’ve left your ass in DC,” Ty muttered to him as he pushed away from the sink counter and moved slowly toward the table where Zane sat. He cocked his head to listen briefly, and then he bent and stole a surprise kiss before leaving the room.

Zane licked his bottom lip as he stood. He was smiling when he followed.

Chapter 6

THEY said their good-byes to Mara at the trailhead, each giving her a hug and a kiss—even Zane, Deuce noticed—and they each shouldered their packs. Deuce examined his walking stick, a long, thick piece of wood that had been hand-rubbed and stained dark. It had a length of survival rope tied around the top as a handle, and fixed into the wood of the tip was a small compass.

“That’s quite a walking stick,” Zane said, coming to a stop to stand next to him as he zipped up his heavy coat. He had Deuce’s old pack hanging off his broad shoulders.

“It is,” Deuce agreed readily. “Ty made it for me. Saw one at a gun show somewhere and thought it might come in handy.”

Zane snorted. “Thoughtful,” he said more genuinely.

“He can be,” Deuce answered as he tightened the strap on his own pack.

Zane smiled a little. “Sometimes,” he agreed, looking over to his partner, who was circling around one of the other cars in the gravel lot, frowning at it thoughtfully. “So,” Zane sighed as he watched Ty for a moment. “Where are we off to? Just… up the mountain in a random direction?” He glanced up into the trees, and now that Deuce really looked at him, he could tell Zane was tense. Edgy, even.

“There are several different trails we can take from this point,” Deuce answered. He tugged at one of the straps of Zane’s pack and shortened it for him, making certain it fit snugly to his back. Borrowing a pack was generally frowned upon on the trail because it was so important that they fit well. But Zane and Deuce were roughly the same height, and the pack wasn’t too heavily laden, so Deuce wasn’t worried about it. “We don’t usually have a set path planned out. Just a general idea of how long it will take so Ma can pick us up at the other end. Ty’s got the trail map.”

Zane shot Ty a glare as Deuce spoke, and his brother just smirked evilly as he walked past them. It was easy for Deuce to see the dynamic between them. Ty and Zane seemed to get along best when they were annoying each other. They enjoyed the adversity, and Deuce was enjoying seeing all the puzzle pieces of their partnership and how they were starting to fit together.

“Great. He’ll pick the worst one,” Zane grumbled as Ty moved past them.

“Nah,” Deuce answered with certainty. “He stays away from the really bad ones when I’m with him,” he said with a tap of his walking stick on the ground to indicate his bad leg. Zane offered him an apologetic smile, but Deuce waved it off.

“You ready?” Ty asked them from where he stood at the head of the trail.

“What’s with the car?” Zane asked as he and Deuce moved to join him.

Ty shrugged and looked at it again. “Expired inspection,” he explained. “Been up here a while.”

Deuce glanced over at the vehicle, wondering why Ty had even noticed and why Zane had felt the need to ask him about it. It had to be an FBI thing.

“You want to do something about it?” Zane asked Ty as they all looked at the dusty car. There were several stickers on the back for the Appalachian Trail, the Shenandoah Valley, the Great Smoky Mountains, The Black Cat in Boone, North Carolina, and several others in the same vein. The owner was obviously a hiker.

“Ten to one the driver has a hemp wallet,” Deuce said to Ty wryly.

Ty snorted and shook his head, smiling. He gave the car one last look and shrugged. Deuce figured the car probably belonged to a long-term hiker who hadn’t thought ahead to have the inspection done. Ty was apparently thinking along the same lines.

“We’ll let it be,” Ty answered carelessly. “Y’all ready?” he asked them. Earl had already disappeared into the trees.

Zane nodded, although he did give the car one more look before he started walking. Deuce started off down the trail just ahead of him, knowing Ty would take up the rear like he always did. It often didn’t matter what trail they intended to take. Earl went where he pleased. That was why they had stopped even trying to plot their course years ago.

It was quiet on the mountain, cool and peaceful and wonderful. Deuce and Ty had grown up in these mountains, and no matter how many big cities he lived in or how much money he made, Deuce would always consider this home. He glanced back at Zane and then Ty as he followed a curve in the trail. Zane was looking all around him, and it was even clearer now that he was stiff in the shoulders. Wary. On guard somehow.

Very interesting. It could be as he said, that he just wasn’t accustomed to the mountains, or it could be that this was how Zane Garrett always was. Deuce didn’t want to describe it as a hair trigger, but it was close.

It usually made Ty cranky when Deuce started analyzing his friends, but he just couldn’t help himself. “Is it the trees that make you nervous or just not knowing where you’re going?” Deuce asked over his shoulder.

Zane glanced up at him. “Both,” he said curtly, though he sighed and shrugged a little after that answer. “But I imagine I’ll get used to it really quickly.”

Deuce turned and glanced back at him more fully. Behind Zane, Ty was fixing a lime green buff over his head as he walked, not really paying attention to them. He had about half a dozen of them, each a different color and pattern, and he wore them underneath his straw hat to keep his ears warm and wick the sweat away from his short hair. Deuce knew he’d worn them through a variety of different Recon missions, and he was never without one on the mountain.

Deuce looked back at Zane and smiled. “Shout if you need to stop,” he advised.

“Come on, ladies!” Earl called from far ahead of them. “Next twenty miles ain’t gonna hike theirselves!”