Xtreme Pressure – Em Petrova

“Make that incline any higher and I’ll tie you to this treadmill and force you to run.” Chris Paxton ground the words out through his teeth while gasps of air ejected from his nostrils. The physical therapist tossed her head on a laugh. “Just like all the military men I get in here—all growl and no bite. C’mon, Special Operative. You hit this incline before.” “But not at this speed,” he bit off. Running wasn’t the issue. Paxton had raced up Alaskan cliffs carrying a full military pack. But now his right leg was more titanium and screws than bone. “Why don’t you complain some more?” The therapist leaned against the wall, pulled out her phone and started scrolling. “I know what you’re doing.” His feet pounded the treadmill, but none of his frustration dispersed with the staccato beats. “What’s that?” She didn’t glance up from her screen. “I went through special forces training, remember? I know all the ways a person can break you down.


” That cold water training day at the beach had damn near broken his spirit as well as his will to continue and join the division of Homeland Security called Operation Freedom Flag. If not for his good friends, he might not have completed the training. Thank God he’d hung in there and was able to do some good, even if he had been shot. “I’m not breaking you down, Pax. I’m building you up.” She glanced at the clock on the wall. “Five more minutes.” Hell. His leg was screaming. Not just the shin where he’d taken a bullet, but his knee and thigh muscles. Months in the hospital and then rehab had left him soft. It pissed him off and made him want to run faster up an even steeper incline in order to reach the invisible top so he could hurry up and return to his team. Xtreme Ops had seen so much action since that fateful day he took a bullet from a member of the Russian mafia. Knowing he wasn’t there to guard his brothers’ backs rifled him with so much guilt it was staggering. “Four minutes.

How’s the leg?” On fire. Felt like it was going to fall off. “Fucking wonderful.” Her smile flashed, and she ducked her head to hide it by looking at her screen. “Glad to hear it. You want more?” Did he? Hell no. But would he be able to keep up with the team if he didn’t push himself even harder? He recalled special forces training, that beach and the icy wind cutting through him. Wet, shaking, on the verge of hypothermia, most men and women had called it quits. But he and his friends had lasted. “Give me more.” His voice came out as a roughened rasp. The therapist stepped up to his treadmill and tapped some buttons. Christ, he hated those little beeping sounds. They gave him PTSD more than any incoming gunfire. The treadmill ramped up, and so did he.

His long legs ate up the belt on a steeper incline and faster pace. He could only get through these tough therapy sessions if he pictured a goal. Today, he pictured his team at the top of a mountain. An icy path underfoot and high elevations cutting down his oxygen levels. Air puffed in and out of his lungs. He swore he smelled the belt burning. He fisted his hands and put on a burst of speed. “That’s it!” the therapist cheered him on. Pax really did want to tie her to the treadmill and make her do the same routine she forced him through. Sure, it was for his own good. That didn’t make him like it any better. Focusing on the thump of his feet and heart, the pain in his leg faded. He envisioned the summit and drove himself harder. “Three minutes.” “I can do ten,” he grated out.

She chuckled. “But I won’t make you. After this, you can go to the ice bath and have a massage.” “Lucky me.” Three difficult, painful minutes later, the therapist brought his treadmill to a slower pace and he walked on the flat surface to cool down. “How do you feel?” she asked. “Like I ran uphill on a speed of eight-point-five for twenty minutes.” She nodded, ponytail bouncing. “But just think. That was your final challenge. The box your superior officer has to tick to let you rejoin your unit.” He grabbed the towel off the arm of the treadmill and slung it around his neck. “I’ll be glad to get out of this place.” “You’ll miss me.” “As much as I would miss sitting and rotating on a cactus three times a week.

” To soften his harsh reply, he grinned at her. “I’ll miss you, Pax. Not every man who comes through those doors gives me as much of a challenge as you do. You’ve done what most can’t. You were told you’d limp and you don’t. You were told you couldn’t return to your unit and I believe you will.” “Damn right I will.” Sweat poured down his spine. His leg hurt like a motherfucker, but he could deal with pain. These past months had been nothing but pain. She brought the treadmill to a stop. After he chatted another minute with his therapist, he went for the ice bath for ten excruciating minutes followed by a blissful massage. Then he headed back to his room. The facility wasn’t very big, but it catered specifically to injuries sustained in combat. So as he passed each door, he was able to see horrific things.

Body casts, amputations and burn bandages. He had talked to a few of the guys, but mostly Pax kept to himself. By the time he reached his room, he had to force himself not to limp. One of the nurses followed him into the room. “You overdid it,” she announced. “I can tell by the way you’re favoring that leg.” “I’m fine.” Pressing his palm to his thigh, he edged to the wheelchair and sank to it. He propped his leg on the footrest and stretched. “I’ll get your post-workout painkillers.” The nurse eyed him a moment before walking out. As soon as she was gone, he allowed himself a grimace. Just one. Usually he refused painkillers after his workout, but no hero shit today. He reached for the remote hanging off the side of the bed and flicked on the TV.

The news popped up, and he tuned in to the world events. The nurse bustled back in with a foam cup of ice water and a pill cup. He turned his focus on her. “You’re wearing the blue scrubs today, Mel.” She snorted. “You and twenty other men in this unit took notice of what I’m wearing today.” “It’s because you look great in blue. Matches your eyes.” He took the water from her and brought it to his mouth. She set the pills on the table that rolled across his bed. He cocked a brow. “Why’d you bring the hardcore drugs?” “Because you don’t want that leg to swell and the pain to get out of control.” “They knock me out. I don’t like being knocked out.” “Do you have some pressing engagement you have to stay awake for that I don’t know about? Maybe the midday news?” She waved a hand, the blue eyes that matched her scrubs twinkling as she teased him.

Maybe Mel was right. If it was possible to feel his leg swelling, he did. He glanced down, but his loose sweats concealed his leg. Under the cloth, he knew the shape of the surgery scar well. The bullet had shattered his tibia. After four months in rehab, he was good and sick of being here. “I’ll take the pill.” He grabbed the tiny plastic cup, brought it to his mouth and flicked his wrist to take it like a shot. He swallowed water to wash it down, and Mel stood there gaping at him. “You look shocked,” he grumbled. “Am I such a difficult patient?” “No worse than everyone in here. That will help the pain. Your lunch will be here soon. Did you already have your ice bath after PT?” “Yep.” “Maybe you’ll want an ice pack for later.

I’ll grab it for you.” Mel hurried out again. He turned his attention back to the TV. A reporter was conveying some breaking news. An act of domestic terrorism had been thwarted by a confidential informant when the person let the authorities know what was going to take place. Mel returned, and Paxton glanced her way. “Did you hear about this?” “What is it?” She set the ice pack on the table and then came to stand beside him. “A bombing was planned to take place in one of the local federal buildings.” “Wow. I hadn’t heard. At least they stopped it.” “Yeah… What’s that?” He looked to the table and a syringe she’d set there. “That’s a bit more painkiller the doctor ordered for you in case you need more to take the edge off after today’s therapy. Your trainer ran into him and told him she’s going to clear you as physically fit.” He looked away from the syringe.

“I won’t be needing that. This is enough.” In fact, the pill he’d taken was already working its way into his system, making his leg ache less and the rest of his body feel heavy. Mel patted his arm and left him with the news. He sipped his water and watched the scene at the federal building unfold as teams searched the premises for signs of explosives. He slumped in the chair. He rarely used the wheelchair, but it was closest and getting off his leg had been his top priority. The news report riveted his attention. Though the public didn’t know it, special units from Operation Freedom Flag would be sent to guard various other federal buildings in case the threat was more widespread. That meant his own team in Alaska was probably on their way to any one of the federal buildings to thwart a threat. He should call his teammate Cora and find out where they were. Usually, one of them called him daily just to check in. He hadn’t heard from anyone today, and no wonder if they were on a mission. He grabbed his phone and stared at the screen. “If you need something more…” A nurse ran by.

Then another. “Mel! Hurry! We need all hands on deck. Mr. Amsler has fallen.” “Oh crap! It will take six of us nurses to get him back in bed!” Mel rushed out after them. Paxton watched her go and then tried to clear his mind enough to make a call to his team. His vision blurred, and he found himself blinking slowly. Damn Mel. That pill was knocking him out. He could drift off without a care in the— Something sharp bit into his upper arm. A sting, or a…needle. “What the hell?” he managed to get out before the drug hit his system. Jersey was running out of time. Charlotte was dead. Loyal Charlotte, her only friend.

And it was Jersey’s fault. Now her own family was after her, and they wouldn’t stop until she was six feet under. That was the consequence of betrayal in a family full of Omegas. The gang was renowned in not only Arizona but across the country for their brutality. You crossed them, it was all over. Well, she’d crossed them. With a glance over her shoulder, Jersey rushed down the street, sticking close to the buildings, prepared to duck if she saw her father, her brothers or any of her cousins. Her breath sounded too loud in her ears, her heart a painful thud in her chest. She had to get a grip fast, before she hyperventilated. Passing out on the street meant they’d catch up to her. She knew when she contacted the authorities that she was calling down the wrath of the entire Omega gang, numbering in the hundreds in this city alone. There weren’t many places she could hide, which left her only one thing to do—get out. With every person she passed on the sidewalk, she flinched inside. All it would take was one member of the gang to spot her and slip a blade between her ribs. Her gut knotted at the thought.

What had she expected? Of course turning them in would slap a target on her back. But she couldn’t sit by and let people die in the attack they had planned, could she? Then her family had gone to Charlotte to get answers and information about Jersey’s whereabouts. Jersey couldn’t let her mind so much as skim the edges of what they’d done to Charlotte before killing her. She’d go crazy. She’d run screaming down the street, draw attention to herself and get that knife in her ribs or a bullet in her back. I have to find a safe place. But where? Should she hop on a bus out of Tucson? She knew the Omegas’ long reach. They’d manage to stop the bus and pull her off it. Heart pumping harder, she kept her eyes peeled for the gang’s colors. They wore white and black, with horizontal stripes being their favorite to represent their criminal activities. Growing up, she’d asked questions about why they’d want to draw attention to themselves and risk arrest, but her family had laughed and brushed her off as being too young to understand. She was now twenty-five and knew enough about right from wrong, thanks to her sweet best friend Charlotte and Charlotte’s family. She sure as hell didn’t learn anything from her father, brothers or cousins. Her mom had split long ago, leaving Jersey to find her own way in the big crime family. She’d found a way, all right—a way to the grave.

The man approaching on the sidewalk wore a black shirt and black pants. Her heart seized. Her air cut off. She spotted a striped scarf knotted around his boot and her muscles hardened. She bolted through the alley, cutting across several blocks, heart chugging, breaths rasping. She looked over her shoulder so many times she came close to running into dumpsters and other junk in the alley. When she burst out the other side, she glanced around for more Omegas. Ahead, she spotted a big building with a lot of windows. It looked to be a medical complex. A group of four people were walking up to the entrance carrying balloons and gift bags. Her perfect disguise.

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Updated: 14 January 2022 — 11:00

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