Way of the Warrior 

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Eight passionate love stories about amazing heroes by eight bestselling authors. To honor and empower those who’ve served, all author and publisher proceeds go to the Wounded Warrior Project. IN PLAIN SIGHT By: Catherine Mann Tech Sergeant Gavin “Bubbles” Novak isn’t known for a sparkling wit, but his steely eyed focus on the job has […]

“Dog Tags” in Love Bites (reissue) 

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Coming soon….

Rescuing Christmas 

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Excerpt coming soon….

“Dog Tags” in LOVE BITES 

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Chapter One

Tech Sergeant Brody Ward unlatched the gate to the white picket fence, more than ready to see his girl. After a twelve- month deployment to Kuwait, he’d been away from Penny for far too long.

But he knew without question she would be waiting for him.

The Florida sun hammered down on his head, his flight suit sticking to his back. A loadmaster on an AC-130, he hadn’t even bothered to change out of his uniform after they’d landed at Hurlburt Field. He’d sped through in-processing and driven his old truck straight across Fort Walton Beach until he’d arrived at the waterside duplex.

And then he saw her. Sitting on the front porch of the yellow stucco cottage. Waiting for him.

“Penny,” he called out, his heart already squeezing tight.

In a flash, she raced down the stone walkway. Long hair streaked behind her.

Kneeling, he held out his arms.

His Border collie loped faster, barking, and barking some more. Penny. Named for the copper streaks in her white fur that rippled as she ran to him.

Finally, a sense of coming home hit him as hard as his fifty-pound dog slamming full-on against his chest.

“How’s my girl?” He buried his face in the soft fur along her neck. “Did you miss me? Because I sure missed you like crazy.”

Penny’s barking shifted to more of a whimper talk that seemed to say, I missed you like crazy, too. Where have you been? Skype sucks because I can’t sniff you or lick your face.

Although she was more than making up for that now.

Laughing, Brody wiped the dog slobber off his chin onto her fur. Thank God she was okay and healthy. Most important, she was back with him. This deployment had almost cost him Penny forever. He swallowed hard and scratched her ears.

When he’d flown out a year ago, he’d thought Penny was safe and cared for with his dad and his stepmom. He’d left plenty of money in an account to pay for dog food and any possible vet visits. He’d been sad to leave his pet, but his stepmom had assured him they would look after Penny.

He should have known better than to trust his old man.

A month into the deployment, an emergency message had come through from county animal control. Penny had been picked up as a stray, thin and matted, her coat full of sandspurs. His dog’s microchip had enabled the shelter to contact Brody.

Straightening out the mess from across the globe via sketchy cell phone calls and email had been tough as hell, but he’d refused to give up. His dad had insisted Penny was too much trouble and refused to spring her from the shelter. Animal control made it clear his father had been doing a crappy job caring for Penny anyway, and they were considering cruelty charges for neglect. His dad had never been the most dependable, but his father’s new wife had seemed trustworthy.

Fury had been futile. In his limited time for calls, he had to focus on securing a safe place for his dog to stay for the remaining eleven months of the deployment. There wasn’t any other family to call, since his mother lived in a no-pets apartment across the country. He’d broken up with his girlfriend two months before flying out. All his friends were deployed to Kuwait with him.

He’d been at his wits’ end, calling dog-sitting businesses, willing to hock his truck if he’d needed to, since his dad had already spent all the cash.

Then the shelter had mentioned a possibility.

They had a handful of volunteers willing to foster long term for deployed service members. The list filled up fast. But they’d given him a name to try—Leah Russell.

His own personal godsend.

She’d come highly recommended, ran her own gourmet dog food bakery. She’d agreed and had taken in his dog for eleven months. He owed Leah Russell a debt he could never repay. She’d cared for Penny, sending him photos and video updates. She’d even set up Skype sessions so Penny could see his face and hear his voice.

Then he’d heard Leah’s husky voice. Seen her beautiful face. And wow. Just wow.

Today, he would meet her in the flesh for the first time.

Brody looked up from Penny to the duplex, searching for Leah. Was she somewhere across the simply manicured lawn? Standing in a window? Hanging out on the porch?

The creak of a chain caught his attention and he realized she sat on the porch swing. At least he thought it was her. Late-afternoon shadows grew longer, which accounted for why he hadn’t seen her right away.

Standing, he took a step toward her. “Leah?”
“Welcome back, Brody. You’re early.” She sounded like Marilyn Monroe with a southern accent, even sultrier without the filter of computer technology. “I didn’t expect you for another half hour.”

“Is it okay that I’m here now?” He hadn’t been able to wait to see Penny.

To see Leah. In person, rather than in computer HD.

Intellectually, he knew he was just some cause to her. Support our troops. A part of the patriotic wave to lift a warrior’s spirits. So he’d tried not to make too much of her emails and care packages. Still, he’d found himself anticipating those Skype sessions more and more.

Could the connection he’d felt have been his hyped-up imagination, spurred by battle fatigue and the need to connect with home? His feet grew roots on the flagstone walkway. Leah stayed in the shadows, the swing creaking.

“Of course it’s okay that you’re here now.” Her voice carried on the salty breeze rustling the palm trees. “Penny has been watching for you every day.”

Moving forward, Brody walked the last few feet to the house, his hand still resting on Penny’s head. His eyes adjusted to the shaded dimness of the porch, to the sunset and shadows. Leah’s caramel-blond hair shone as she swung into and out of the light.

At the top of the four steps, he finally saw her clearly. And more than wow. The reality of having her close took his breath away.

She wore jeans and layered tank tops that hugged her curves. Her long, lean legs were tucked to the side. She had the sort of soft, pale beauty that made a man go all protective, especially when he already had twelve months of battle mind-set testosterone pumping through his veins.

He locked in on the deep blue of her eyes, noticing the flecks of green that hadn’t been evident online. “I can’t thank you enough for taking such great care of Penny.”

She waved away his words with a slim hand. “Brody, anything I did is minor in comparison to your sacrifice this past year. I’m just happy to help in my own small way.”

“You made my time away less stressful, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s no small thing.”

“Penny’s such a good girl, it was easy. I even took her with me to work.”

Leah’s tank top bore the logo for the Three Pups and a Pony pet-food shop stamped across it—across her breasts. His mouth damn near watered.

What was she saying just now?

Oh, right. Something about his dog, who was currently plastered against his leg.

“You’re joking about taking her to work with you, right?” Brody dropped into the wicker chair near the swing, stroking Penny’s neck. “I know she’s a great dog—the best—but ‘easy to handle’ isn’t a phrase I would use.”

Although his dog was sure behaving right now.

“She just needs to be worn out and kept busy.” Long feather earrings played peekaboo in Leah’s shoulder-length hair. “She’s a working breed.”

“You understand dogs.”

Her plump lips curved into a smile. “Penny’s not my first foster for the shelter. And I gain insights from clients at the shop.” She smiled, her cheekbones as high as any model’s. “Then too, I have my own dog.”

“Monty. Your golden retriever.” Monty had made his fair share of appearances in the photos and on Skype. “Where is he?”

“In the house.” As if on cue, paws thudded on the window behind her. A long, golden nose pressed against the pane. “I was just spending a little alone time with Penny before I have to say goodbye to her.”

Goodbye? Whoa. Wait.

“Who says this has to be goodbye?…”

Winning It All 

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Winning It All anthology
“Pregnant with the Playboy’s Baby”
by Catherine Mann
Silhouette Desire, August 2010

Seven Oaks Farm—Bridgehampton, NY:

Vanessa Hughes had been burned. And it had nothing to do with the summer sun beating down overhead as she stood on the sidelines watching the polo match in action. The earth vibrated beneath her high heels from the thundering hooves passing by.

The calendar didn’t lie. She was late. Scary late. Maybe pregnant late.

Her stomach bubbled with nausea. She’d forced herself to eat. She had to regulate her blood-sugar level for her diabetes, but fear had her ready to upchuck. Clamping her hand on top of her broad-brimmed hat, she peered through her overlarge sunglasses at one particular player in all black, riding his favorite chestnut sorrel.

Two months of being romanced by the intense and passionate Nicolas Valera had been magical, soothing and stirring all at once. Although they hadn’t slept together again since the sauna incident, he’d provided her much-needed distraction from confusion over learning of her adoption. Those moments of being secretly whisked away in a limo, finding anonymous flowers on her pillow, even stealing kisses in a kitchen pantry, had carried her through. She’d thought she’d found the perfect solution, and she had even considered giving in to temptation and indulging in uncomplicated sex.

That was impossible now. She was ninety-nine percent sure she was pregnant. Even thinking about the possibility made her sway in her high heels. She just had to get up the nerve to take the home pregnancy test stashed in the bottom of her voluminous purse. And she would. After the match.

Thank goodness sunglasses kept her eyes from betraying her fear to the crowd around her under the large white tent— the mainstay of old-money New Yorkers, Europeans, artsy and cultured Hampton royalty mixed with a couple of Hollywood celebrities. And right beside her stood Brittney Hannon, a high-profile senator’s daughter.

Vanessa fanned her face with the program booklet. Her ever-present shades enabled her to watch Nicolas undetected as he rode across the field, mallet swinging.

Maximo’s coat gleamed like a shiny penny. Nicolas loved that horse, a Crillo/Thoroughbred mix. Maximo wasn’t the largest, but he was absolutely fearless.

Like Nicolas.

How would he react when she told him the news? It wasn’t as if they had a real relationship beyond attraction. She wasn’t sure how much more upheaval she could take.

Her heart nearly cracked in two to think of her father lying to her about being adopted. He’d always been there for her before. Her mom, however, had ignored Vanessa unless cameras were present. Not so nice to think ill of the dead, but then Vanessa didn’t have much experience tempering her thoughts and emotions. This whole “good girl” gig was new to her.

She’d tried her best to clean up her act this summer, for her father’s sake. No more wild-child acting out in public.

Private indulgences were another matter altogether. She just couldn’t stay away from Nicolas, and that could cost her big-time. Their secret affair wouldn’t be so secret once her pregnancy started showing. She glared at the ever-present cameras from behind the protective shield of her sunglasses.

“Damn paparazzi,” she muttered, tapping her large black sunglasses in place.

Pulling a picture-perfect smile, Brittney Hannon linked arms with Vanessa. “As I’ve learned the hard way, press photos are an unavoidable part of the game. Don’t let them ruin the match for you.”

Vanessa turned to the senator’s daughter, who’d weathered a bit of scandal herself at the start of the summer. Who’d have thought she would find a kindred spirit in the conservatively dressed Brittney, who had a reputation for being the antithesis of her showgirl mother?

“Don’t you ever get tired of it?” Vanessa asked. The press had splashed racy photos of Brittney and a well-known playboy, only to learn later the two were engaged. “Don’t you want some privacy? It’s not as if we asked to be born into this.”

Brittney blinked in surprise. And no wonder. Vanessa was known for welcoming the limelight. She’d never even considered that one day she might feel differently, and she sure hadn’t realized how difficult it would be to step into the shadows.

The politician’s daughter shrugged an elegant shoulder. “My father has the chance to make a real difference for our country. He takes a lot of heat as a natural byproduct of the job. The least I can do is keep my nose clean and smile for the paparazzi. Besides, none of this is real. It’s all just for show.” The outwardly reserved woman struck a subdued pose for the cameras, dimples showing in her cheeks. She spoke quietly out of the side of her mouth as she said, “But when I get away from all this, I’m finding it easier than I expected to simply indulge in being happy.”

Vanessa wasn’t even sure she knew the meaning of happy. The closest she’d come was the excitement of being with Nicolas, yet even that left her hollow inside afterward. Aching. Feeling she was missing something.

Brittney tapped Vanessa’s arm with a French-manicured nail. “You have some dirt on the hem of your dress.”

Gasping, Vanessa looked down at her simple, white Valentino Garavani original. “Really?” She twisted to look behind her. “Where?”

“Just teasing so you’ll lighten up. You never have so much as a speck on you. Now smile.”

Halfway through the round of clicking cameras, halftime started. Finally, she would be closer to Nicolas.

Vanessa slid her Jimmy Choo Saba bag from her shoulder, slipped off her heels and pulled on a pair of simple flats. Waving a quick goodbye to Brittney, Vanessa tucked her strappy heels into her oversize leather purse.

Time to divot-stomp. One of her earliest memories of coming to the matches was of holding her daddy’s hand and stomping down the chunks of earth churned up from the polo ponies’ hooves. She would jump up and down, smashing the ground until her Mary Janes were covered in mud.

Her mother had hated how she came home dirty, her huge hair bow lopsided. Vanessa stifled a wince. She’d despised those bows that weighed a ton and pulled her ponytail back so tightly from her face that she had a headache by the end of the day.

Smile nice for the camera, Nessa.

What a pretty baby.

The only way to get her mother’s attention had been to go on shopping trips or sit still for a hair brushing. Her mother touched her only during those primping routines or when posing her for the camera.

Once she’d gotten out from under Lynette Hughes’s fashionista thumb, Vanessa wore white. All the time, every day. She’d already spent two lifetimes in front of a three-way mirror as her mom put together perfectly color-coordinated outfits.

No more picking or choosing for Vanessa.

These days her hair stayed straight and free in the wind, or simply sleeked back in a low ponytail. Sunglasses covered her eyes so she never had to blink back dots from camera flashes.

People called her an eccentric drama queen. She was just tired of being a baby doll.

Baby?

Her brain snagged on the word. Her breath caught in her throat as she thought of having to tell Nicolas, of ending the fragile, tantalizing truce they’d forged. And her gaze zipped right back to the only man who could have fathered her baby, if she was indeed pregnant.

Nicolas would mingle with the divot-stomping crowd at halftime, even autograph some polo balls. He was a renowned six-handicap player after all, in the top five percent of players in the world. With fans—and with her—he would be coolly reserved, as always.

They wouldn’t be able to talk, according to the rules of their summer-seduction game. Normally, she would have enjoyed playing out the moment. But today, she resisted the urge to check her watch. How long before she could slip away and use the pregnancy test tucked deep in the bottom of her purse? As much as she feared the answer, she couldn’t afford to wait, not with her health concerns. Her diabetes could place both her and a baby at risk. She stomped a chunk of dirt back into the ground with extra oomph and wished her fears were as easily addressed.

Tingles prickled along her arms as Nicolas approached. She could feel him, could have even sworn she caught a whiff of his signature scent on the wind, a soap-and-cologne combo that smelled enticingly of bay leaves. He drew closer. If she hadn’t known by his scent, she would have been able to guess by the reaction of those around her. People slowed, their eyes fixed on her as if waiting for her to react.

Nicolas stepped alongside her, nearly shoulder to shoulder. Her fears and wants tangled up inside her until she almost lost her balance. Nicolas pressed his booted foot ever so precisely in front of her, leveling the ground, then walking past with only the barest brush of his hand against hers. He never looked at her, didn’t even miss a stride even though his simple touch had set her senses on fire.

Her fist closed around the scrap of paper he’d slid into her palm. She might not yet know the specifics of what he’d written, but she knew without question she would be seeing him alone soon.

Nicolas had arranged the location for their next tryst.

Six hours later, Nicolas added a twist of lime to his sparkling water. Nothing stronger for him at tonight’s party. He never drank during the season.

Even if the timing had been different, he needed to keep his mind sharp. His instincts told him he was close to his goal of getting Vanessa back into his bed. Yes, he knew one misstep could cost him the whole game, but he had hope.

He glanced at his Rolex—thirty minutes to kill at this party before ducking out to meet her at the Seven Oaks boathouse.

Bridgehampton polo season parties were always top notch. The highest of high society pulled out all the stops entertaining their friends and celebrities in for the summer. The extravagance was so far beyond his spartan upbringing in Argentina. His village could have eaten for a month off the food spread out at multiple stations. Most gatherings were fundraisers, which took the edge off some of the decadence. Between his polo earnings and sportswear endorsements, his bank balance matched that of most of the partygoers. Still, he wouldn’t forget where he came from. Nicolas emptied half his high-priced water.

Tonight’s benefit was for the Humane Society. Hollywood star Bella Hudson had flown out with her hotel-magnate husband—and their dogs. Bella was talking with fellow actress Carmen Atkins. The two movie stars held the press’s attention for now. Nicolas took the rare free moment to look at Vanessa.

Twenty-five years old—she was young, so young with her pampered life—yet she charmed the hell out of him. The tabloids painted a party-girl picture and he’d bought into that last year, never bothering to look deeper, only thinking about their next sexual encounter. But over the past couple of months, he’d come to realize Vanessa was also smart, witty and sensitive.

Their breakup had been tumultuous last year—and tough. He’d never known he could want someone that much. Now? He couldn’t even look away, much less leave. Abundant energy crackled from her petite frame, no more than five foot two inches, if that. She always wore high heels and still barely reached his chin.

Tonight, in her white satin dress, she was very much the “celebutante,” perfectly groomed to catch the camera’s eye. For some reason he’d never learned, she always wore white and managed to stay pristinely clean whether outdoors at polo matches or under a big tent at a Humane Society fundraiser with pets on leashes all around. Since the sun had gone down, he could see her unshielded eyes, a pale blue that turned almost silver when he made love to her.

His body jolted at the mere thought of being with Vanessa. Their secretive romancing had him on edge. He clamped down the urge to simply haul her off to the nearest room. Except he couldn’t afford a repeat of the scene she’d thrown last year. He needed to project a professional image, important for his dream of launching his own training camp, even someday owning his own team.

Nicolas shifted his gaze from her to the linen-draped table of food beside her and walked closer. Swiping a tiny napkin, he trained his eyes forward and spoke to Vanessa behind the cover of his raised drink. “Did you help with the party plans?”

“Why would you say that?” She also kept her attention forward, her gaze not even straying his way as she cradled a glass of sparkling water with lime—like his own drink.

He nodded lightly toward the gauzy tent. “Everything is white.”

Hydrangeas rested in clear crystal containers. Mammoth flower arrangements sat on top of pristine pillars. At least a tenth of the guests had brought their pets, yet there wasn’t so much as a muddy paw print marring the décor.

Smiling, Vanessa inhaled deeply. “I adore lilies and stephanotis.”

A tuxedoed waiter passed, carrying a silver tray of hors d’ouevres. Nicolas popped a smoked salmon canapé in his mouth, while Vanessa reached for a portabella mushroom and herb bruschetta. Her hand shook.

Odd.

He looked from her arm up to her pale face. “Are you all right?”

“You played well today.” Ignoring his question, she dabbed at the corners of her mouth, her lipstick leaving traces on her napkin.

All summer she’d made a point of leaving hidden lip prints on his body for him to find when he showered later. Yet he still hadn’t sealed the deal.

God, he couldn’t wait to get her alone in the boathouse. He’d even set up a few surprises for her there. He glanced at his watch. Twenty-seven more endless minutes.

At least he could talk to her now. The shoosh of the champagne fountain on one side and the bubbling of the white chocolate fondue on the other added extra cover for their conversation.

She sipped her sparkling water, as the band took to the stage after their break. “I can’t meet you tonight.”

Surprise hit him, and disappointment, too. “You are free after this gathering, and I know it.”

“Are you spying on me?”

“I just listen well enough to know you do not have plans.”

“Then listen now.” She placed her cup on the table. “I can’t always be at your beck and call.”

Surprise shifted to irritation. “You are the one who set the rules for this game.”

“Sometimes rules have to change…”

More Than Words: Stories of Hope 

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Chapter One

Librarian Anna Bonneau was well on her way to landing in the pokey. And that’s exactly where she wanted to be.

Handcuffed to a park bench in protest all afternoon while reading hadn’t been a great hardship since books were her life. However waiting for the police to take notice was starting to give her fanny fatigue.

Finally, a cop cruiser squealed to a stop by the curb.

She should have realized they wouldn’t actually have a problem with her sit-down protest until closing time – five p.m. The recreation area was empty but for autumn trees awash with colors, swings twisting in the wind by Lake Huron , the place her mother had taken her for tea parties.

Losing her mother at twelve had been the most difficult time in her life, and this park represented a living tribute to the warm woman whose time on earth had been cut short by a car accident. Her father – a local retired judge – had tried to continue the picnic tradition, but their differences in opinion during her teenage years made things difficult.

All in the past. Now, Anna did her best to focus on her book while keeping a peripheral check on the police officer stretching out of his cruiser. Finally, progress in her cause.

She’d always wanted to be a librarian. However, landing a job in her sleepy hometown of Oscoda , Michigan was a dream come true. She’d waited three years working in a library in the Detroit area for this position to come open.

Two weeks from now, she would start her job. And not a chance did she plan to let the short-sighted members of the town planning commission rip up this park to plop a “Gentlemen’s Club” restaurant and bar right beside her library.

She shifted her numb tush off the metal bench growing cooler by the second in the autumn temps, all the while keeping her eyes firmly focused on rereading a Suzanne Brockmann reissue. Yes, Anna adored her romance novels as much as the long ago classics.

A scream pierced the air. A child.

Anna jolted up from her seat only to be yanked back down by the handcuff – ouch. Her book fell to the ground as she took in the sight of a parked truck and second male carrying a kid gaining ground on the police officer. She peeked around a tree, angling for a better view. Howling shrieks echoed, closer, fuller, tugging at her heart until she saw someone she’d hoped never to lay eyes on again after he had broken her heart in high school.

Forest Jameson.

As he crossed the lawn toward her, Anna’s tummy back flipped as it had when she’d first seen him bat one over the fence on the baseball field. He was a hunk, no doubt, however too uptight back during their teenage dating days. She’d heard he’d returned about four months ago to set up a legal practice, but she hadn’t seen him since her return a week ago.

Why was he at the park, and why was he hauling along a child? They could be here to play – not that the kid sounded happy. More likely, Forest was here because her father, his long ago mentor, had called and asked him to save her numb tush.

The cop, old Officer Smitty, stopped short of her bench. Closely following, Forest Jameson juggled the boy, a briefcase and a tote bag stuffed with toys dangling from his shoulder.

“Anna.” He nodded a greeting. “You still look the same.”

She wasn’t sure how to take that and before she could answer, he’d turned back to the child.

Forest jostled the wailing, magenta-faced kid wearing sunglasses. “Hang on, Joey. Just a few minutes and we’ll be through here. I promise, son.”

A son? Her eyes zipped to Forest’s ring finger. Bare. She didn’t want to think about the relief.

Forest met her gaze. “Divorced and the nanny quit.”

His tight lipped answer engendered sympathy along with embarrassment over being caught checking.

Forest strode over to the cop. “I’m here to represent the interests of Miss Bonneau.”

Well sheesh. Wasn’t that convenient? “Uh, hello? Miss Bonneau has something to say about that.”

The child – around four, maybe? – arched his back, pumping his feet. “I want to go home!”

“Well, you’re going anywhere if you don’t settle down.” Forest’s unwavering parental tone of calmly stated boundaries was betrayed by his harried composure.

Officer Smitty jumped in with the universal key and unlocked the handcuffs confining her to the bench. “H’lo Miss Bonneau. How about you take care of this little stinker and I’ll have a conversation with the lawyer?”

Click. The handcuffs fell away, ending her latest protest and there wasn’t a thing she could do about it. Maybe she would ride this one out and see what Forest had to say – in the interest of being entertained. Right?

She snagged her book from the ground, placed it on the bench and reached for little Joey. He didn’t even loosen the lock hold on his dad’s neck. Single parent Forest was clearly overwhelmed.

Hmmm. It seemed she needed to bail him out as well and clearly the men would talk more if they thought she was out of the way. She may have wanted her standard quick stop in jail, but her father said Forest never lost his cases so she would simply stay near enough to listen until she came up with plan B.

And the kid surely was a heart-tugger. “Could I take him for you while you work your attorney magic?”

Forest hesitated, which irked her to no end. Finally, he nodded and eased the boy’s arms from around his neck, speaking the whole time. “It’s okay, son. This is Miss Anna. She’s going to play with you while I talk business. Okay?”

Joey hiccupped. “Kay.” His chocolate colored curls stuck to his head with tantrum-induced sweat. “Can I go swing?”

Of course. He passed Joey over. “Anna? You’re sure you don’t mind?”

If he’d been surprised that she guessed his reason for showing up, he sure didn’t show it.

“Not at all.”

She took the child, a solid weight. The scent of baby shampoo and sweat soothed her with the sweet innocence of childhood. Gracious, he was cute in his striped overalls, conductor’s cap and Thomas the Train sunglasses.

Forest opened his mouth as if to speak further, but Anna turned away. Her nerves were on edge and resisting the temptation to stare at the grown up Forest was almost irresistible. His gentleness with the child could well draw her, just as it had when she’d seen him volunteering with little leaguers in high school.

She headed toward the swings offering soothing words both for herself and Joey.

“Can you sit in the swing and hold me, please?” Joey asked.

“Of course, sweetie.”

This was easier than she thought. She could hold the child, keep him happy and listen to the two men decide her fate as if she wasn’t even there. Grrr. She tickled Joey’s chin with the tail of her braid until he chortled. His cool guy sunglasses the cutest little things she’d ever seen.

Unable to resist gloating since that usually riled Counselor Uptight in the past, Anna glanced past Joey to his father. Bummer. Forest hadn’t even noticed. He was too busy unloading baby gear. As he placed the toy bag and briefcase on the bench, his suit coat gaped open to reveal a broad chest covered by his crisp white shirt. She swallowed hard.

He whipped off his steel rimmed glasses and snatched a tissue from the briefcase to clean away evening mist. Anna’s breath hitched. Forest’s blue eyes glittered like a shaken bottle of soda water. Wasn’t she supposed to be the one who delivered surprises?

Darn it, she wouldn’t let him trounce her heart again the way he had when he left town without so much as a farewell.

“Miss Anna, higher!” Joey squealed, yanking her braid. “Miss Anna, want to swing higher.”

She blinked twice to clear her mind. Joey’s tug helped. The kid had the strength of a fifth grader. She welcomed the wake-up call.

Why couldn’t her father understand she believed in justice as strongly as he did? She merely approached it from a different angle with her protests she’d been organizing since passing a petition in the second grade for new monkey bars on the playground.

Forest finished his discussion with Smitty and the older cop ambled off to his patrol car. Forest strode toward her with determined steps and held his arms out for his son, tapping the boy on the shoulder. “Time to go, Joey.”

The little fella pivoted in her lap and launched at his dad with obvious affection. This time, however, he squirmed down to walk, holding his dad’s hand.

Anna eased up from the swing. “What’s the verdict?”

“Since we made it out of here before closing, you got off with a simple ticket, but no jail time.”
“I guess that will have to do, but I was hoping we could squeeze some news coverage.”

A tight smile crooked his perfectly sculpted mouth as he mimicked her voice. “Why thank you, Forest , for keeping me from paying an expensive fine. And heaven forbid I might have actually had to go to jail and eat their fine cuisine. It’s great to see you again.”

She slumped in the swing. He had gone to a lot of trouble for her and she was being brattier than a two year old. “Thank you for your time and help. It’s, uh, good to see you too.”

Even if it had cost her the short stint in jail and a much coveted feature in the weekly newspaper that she’d been hoping for.

Still, heaven knew she needed to put distance between herself and his too-enticing blue eyes. The sparkle in those charmers rivaled any giggles from Joey.

“Christmas at His Command” in Holiday Heroes 

holiday heroes

Chapter One

General Hank Renshaw hadn’t often seen a man’s hand down the bra of esteemed congresswoman Ginger Landis.

Of course, as he stood astounded in the doorway of the VIP lounge in the tiny airport on the Bavarian border, he couldn’t recall a time he’d ever seen his long-time friend Ginger’s underwear at all. Much less with a man’s hand slipped inside.

Hank slammed the door closed so nobody else would snag a view of what now filled his eyes.

Technically, the security fellow wasn’t groping around inside her satiny camisole thing. Ginger had taken off the jacket to her Christmas red power suit so the reedy guy in a black jacket could outfit her with the latest listening device for her upcoming meeting with the German Chancellor and Minister of Arts as well as the Vice-Chancellor of neighboring Kasov. All a part of a holiday goodwill trip across Europe , ending on Christmas Eve at a medieval castle with chapel ruins set to be rebuilt. Ginger would be donating an heirloom from her family’s antique art collection, a small but priceless porcelain crèche.

Hank’s role? To stand at her side as her official military escort. Unofficially, he was here to protect her. The final wall of defense between her and the threats that had been made on her life. Those threats were the very reason for the heightened security with a listening device.

Arms extended, Ginger stood in spike heels, legs to kill in a pencil thin skirt and satin camisole trimmed in lace.

His midnight dreams about this woman played out much like this – with him standing beside her, of course. He would stretch her out on that frou-frou creamy chaise behind her.

But only in dreams when he tossed off the restraints of waking hours did he allow himself to fall victim to fantasies about his pal of over twenty-five years. He was a red-blooded man, after all, and age hadn’t diminished Ginger’s appeal in the least. Which could also have something to do with the genius brain she packed underneath that head of perfectly styled platinum blonde hair.

Still, never had he done anything to put their friendship at risk by relaying the attraction.

Then he realized the silence had gone on too long to be anything but freaking awkward, and his slack-jawed look could very well put a chink in their all-important friendship.

“Sorry, Senator Landis.” Hank used her official title in deference to the security personnel present – and out of a need to put some distance back into their relationship. “I hadn’t realized you weren’t ready yet. I’ll just step outside.”

Outside. A fine place for him to stand guard anyway, while he sweated his way through images of her wearing red hot lingerie. This would be a very long day.

He twisted the doorknob behind him.

Ginger waved a manicured hand through the air, white tips of her nails fluttering. “Oh, hell, Hank. Quit with all that formal Madame stuff. We’re not at a press conference.”

She had a point. Still he couldn’t help thinking he would be safer standing guard in the airport corridor by the decorated tree getting his head on straight again. “Ginger, I’ll wait in the hall by the door until you’re ready.”

“Hold on. Get out from under that mistletoe and come over here. See if you can clip this microphone on right so I’m not trailing tiny computer bits out of my skirt,” her South Carolina drawl curled through the cloud of unease. “This poor secret service fellow’s so worried about copping a feel he can’t get the damn thing secured to save his soul.”

The young security agent must have been all of seventeen – okay, twenty-seven. They just looked like babies when you’d hit fifty-five.

The kid didn’t help matters by blushing to the roots of his Idaho farm boy red hair. “Senator Landis, I apologize. These new listening devices have a tricky clasp, but they’re far less visible.”

Ginger cocked a delicately arched brow. “Well, I wanted to use those fancy teeny tiny ones that fit in the ear canal, but all this flying gave me a double ear infection.”

She smoothed a hand over her blond hair away from afore mentioned ailing ear. The simple gesture hitched her camisole up to expose a tiny strip of stomach when Hank was already reeling from the surprise of seeing his old friend in a new light. Hank blinked his way through the fog and focused on her words. She’d mentioned being sick? Concern slammed away everything else.

He charged deeper into the room, the plush carpet muting his frustrated footsteps to dull thuds. “Are you sure you’re up to this trip? They’ve packed in more stops on this goodwill tour than there are waking hours in the day.”

“I’m fine. The antibiotic’s kicked in. My ears are just a little sensitive.”

Relief rocked through him as the secret service agent stepped away from her, giving Hank a clear path. Yeah, he knew he was a little over protective of women. His daughters labeled him an alarmist when it came to illnesses. Send a bullet or mortar his way and he could stand firm without flinching. But ailments of the body still made him break out in a cold sweat since he’d lost his wife to a fluke aneurysm twenty-four years ago, leaving him with three children to bring up.

He didn’t know how he would have made it through without Ginger’s help. He’d tried to help her as well when her Senator husband had died ten years ago in a car crash, leaving her with four strapping boys. She and Hank had pooled resources when they could.

He blinked through thoughts of the past, their past, their friendship. Anything to keep himself from focusing overlong on the fact that his fingers were now inches away from Ginger’s chest…

“The Joker” in Bet Me 

bet me

Chapter One

Being a princess was a real pain in the tiara.

Wearing the crown and fifty-plus pound royal garb of her native country of Cantou threatened to give Las Vegas Police Detective Kim Wong a debilitating rash and back ache. And the police station hadn’t even been called to order for morning brief yet.

She shuffled from foot to foot, shoes too tight as she stood with her fellow police officers on the Las Vegas Police Force. And yeah, they were smirking.

“Zip it, Jakowski,” Kim said, “or I’m gonna send your wife a picture of you in drag.”

Coughing into his hand, the smirker hushed and rejoined his conversation with an older detective in plaid shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and a camera around his neck.

Aside from this whole costume party being the strangest morning brief in history, the clothes brought back all the reasons she’d decided to put the pomp and circumstance behind her for a life where she controlled her choices. Hanging out with the coffee maker burping sludge into the pot, Kim bolstered herself with thoughts of the wager she’d made with her two best pals, also detectives, Dorian Byrne and Clarissa Rivers.

The bet?

Who would close their case first this weekend. The stakes? A very precious – and rare – week off.

Their boss, Captain Bill Pearson, was riding the whole department’s back to clean up the town the weekend before a big influx of tourists for the Labor Day extended holiday. Finishing up fast and first would rate extra kudos around the water cooler.

Every cop not on another detail had been assigned to work a suspect casino. She would be working the Great Wall Casino. The tip on the Great Wall would barely warrant attention on a normal day, but her boss was really wigging. So he paid more attention than normal to an unreliable snitch with a heroin habit who vowed stolen diamonds were going to be moved through the Asian-themed casino this weekend.

Normally, they would just do a cursory check, not a deep undercover gig. Except this wasn’t a normal weekend. Their Captain was definitely not in a normal mood with politicians breathing down his neck and his wife breathing fire not-too-privately about all her husband’s overtime.

So, here Kim stood in fifty-pounds of embroidered garb.

She raked her fingernails along her shoulder and resisted the urge to replace her tiara with a jeweled baseball cap. She truly respected the beauty and history of her heritage, but she’d picked a new path for her life years ago. However for this weekend she had to impersonate her spoiled brat princess cousin, Ting.

Lucky for Kim’s case, she and “Princess” Ting could be identical twins.

Not that either of them was really royalty. The whole imperial thing had ended thirty-eight years ago in a military coup. Her family was allowed to keep their titles out of courtesy only.

Kim was grateful for the support of her two best pals – her cohorts in the bet. Clarissa had already started her assignment and Dorian would be heading out soon. But Confucius love ‘em, her friends had been emphatic about giving her a big send off even though they’d already gotten their marching orders.

A hand rested on her shoulder, jolting her. She turned to find Dorian had slid through the masses, past a lion tamer and a “vacationing” couple. Her buddy, Dorian, wore a prim suit, lucky her, but her undercover get-up would come soon enough.

“Hang in there, my friend,” Dorian consoled. “It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. We all know you can kick any man’s ass with your black belt qualifications – not to mention your street moxy.”

Kim rolled her eyes. “I can barely walk in this get-up. But sure, whatever.”

Dorian dipped her head and whispered, “Kim, are you sure you’re up to this?”

“I only needed a few stitches, not major surgery.” Itching. Not pain. She wouldn’t think about the bullet wound. A nick only, really.

“That doesn’t mean getting shot didn’t mess with your head.”

Kim forced a smile. “You just want to shift the odds in your favor of getting that week off.”

“I’m just watching my friend’s back.” She grinned. “Not that I could recognize your back in all those clothes you’re wearing.”

“It’s better than being darn near naked,” Kim pointed out because Dorian would be wearing streetwalker gear soon enough.

A scowl turned Dorian’s expression fierce. “Point taken. The stilettos are guaranteed ankle-breakers”

“I respect my country’s historic wear, but dang, this stuff chafes.”

“Once you get through the opening ceremonies, things should be more casual.”

“Obviously you’ve never seen Ting featured in Celebs Magazine.”

Clarrisa Rivers made her way past Jakowski in drag to join them. “Too bad they couldn’t give you a purple tiara. You like purple.”

“I’m sure Ting has one shoved somewhere.” Her cousin made full use of the family coffers to pamper herself.

“At least you don’t have to go undercover as a maid or a hooker.” Clarrisa tugged at the apron in obvious disgust, the magenta costume obviously striking some kind of negative chord.

“You’ve got me there.” Kim eyed her two friends, grateful for their support. They really could be out working their cases now, getting a head start on her, but they’d come here to check on her, to make sure she had her feet under her since the shooting a month ago. “Thanks for coming over to check on me. But I’m sure you need to get back to your own assignments.”

Clarissa tapped Kim’s tiara. “We wouldn’t have missed your launch for the world.”

Then the room was called to attention for the head dude, their boss, Captain Pearson. “Be seated. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover today, so let’s get straight to it and start with getting Detective Wong out on the street.”

Deep breath. Time to make her grand march to the front of the room. Bye-bye burping coffee pot.

Kim tossed her head back and strode forward, willing the crowd to part.

Which it did.

Hmmm. Apparently the royal blood still shooshed through her veins after all. Her protective entourage – police officers all decked out as well – flanked her on her way to the front of the room.

Captain Pearson nodded to her as he stepped aside to make room for Kim and Company. “Good. You all look good, convincing. Well done, detectives. We’ll get started soon. We’re just waiting on one final individual, your personal bodyguard.”

What? All itchy sensations disappeared in light of a full tingle of irritation. “Personal bodyguard? I think I’m insulted.”

Pearson shook his head. “It will look strange in the casino if you don’t have a bodyguard.”

“Of course you’re right.” Irritation slid away, which of course gave the itching full rein to return. “I’m thinking with my ego rather than my brain.” She was still stinging after getting winged on that domestic dispute job last month. She didn’t doubt herself, but she feared others would.

“We’re concerned about security on this one, Wong. It goes beyond the jewels. There’s been a threat called in on the royal family given the shaky relations between some rogue factions in the U.S. and in Cantou.”

“I’m a U.S. citizen now.”

“But you’re not yourself this weekend.”

Of course. Already her brain was getting muddled.

“This weekend, you are Ting in the eyes of your mother country. And if the diamond transfer to fund underground armies in Cantou is true, they won’t care if you’re the princess or not. You’re royal. That’s cause enough to put a price on your head. So, regardless. We want a robust security detail, and what makes the most sense is big burly boyfriend.”

A boyfriend? She searched the room full of her fellow detectives. At least she could be sure she wasn’t getting the jerk Jakowski since he wouldn’t scare off anybody in his spandex skirt and pink lipstick. Somebody really should have told him to shave his hairy legs.

Shuddering, she turned back to her boss. “You’re kidding, sir.”

“I’m afraid not,” the captain said from behind the podium. “And the most logical choice would be the man well known for hanging out with the Wong women–

A slight inkling started to niggle through. Oh no.

“–when he was deployed to Cantou–”

He couldn’t mean. She clutched Dorian’s arm.

“–two years ago on assignment with the U.S. Air Force.”

Oh no. Pearson totally did mean–

The door opened wide and in lumbered Kim’s bodyguard to the whooping and applause of her fellow police officers who must not realize this man wore the uniform for real. He wasn’t a rent-a-hunk.

Nuh-uh. He was a man she wouldn’t have forgotten regardless of his size. The looming guy wore Air Force blues, with a uniform jacket packed with ribbons and silver wings attesting to his career bravery. A military pilot who’d darn near stomped her heart a couple of years ago when she’d made her annual journey to her homeland. It should have been a fling. Instead, it had been an emotional code red, courtesy of the most intense, serious… sexy man she’d ever known.

Captain Marcus “Joker” Cardenas.

“Touched by Love” in More Than Words 3 

more_than_words3

Chapter One

Librarian Anna Bonneau was well on her way to landing in the pokey. And that’s exactly where she wanted to be.

Handcuffed to a park bench in protest all afternoon while reading hadn’t been a great hardship since books were her life. However waiting for the police to take notice was starting to give her fanny fatigue.

Finally, a cop cruiser squealed to a stop by the curb.

She should have realized they wouldn’t actually have a problem with her sit-down protest until closing time – five p.m. The recreation area was empty but for autumn trees awash with colors, swings twisting in the wind by Lake Huron , the place her mother had taken her for tea parties.

Losing her mother at twelve had been the most difficult time in her life, and this park represented a living tribute to the warm woman whose time on earth had been cut short by a car accident. Her father – a local retired judge – had tried to continue the picnic tradition, but their differences in opinion during her teenage years made things difficult.

All in the past. Now, Anna did her best to focus on her book while keeping a peripheral check on the police officer stretching out of his cruiser. Finally, progress in her cause.

She’d always wanted to be a librarian. However, landing a job in her sleepy hometown of Oscoda , Michigan was a dream come true. She’d waited three years working in a library in the Detroit area for this position to come open.

Two weeks from now, she would start her job. And not a chance did she plan to let the short-sighted members of the town planning commission rip up this park to plop a “Gentlemen’s Club” restaurant and bar right beside her library.

She shifted her numb tush off the metal bench growing cooler by the second in the autumn temps, all the while keeping her eyes firmly focused on rereading a Suzanne Brockmann reissue. Yes, Anna adored her romance novels as much as the long ago classics.

A scream pierced the air. A child.

Anna jolted up from her seat only to be yanked back down by the handcuff – ouch. Her book fell to the ground as she took in the sight of a parked truck and second male carrying a kid gaining ground on the police officer. She peeked around a tree, angling for a better view. Howling shrieks echoed, closer, fuller, tugging at her heart until she saw someone she’d hoped never to lay eyes on again after he had broken her heart in high school.

Forest Jameson.

As he crossed the lawn toward her, Anna’s tummy back flipped as it had when she’d first seen him bat one over the fence on the baseball field. He was a hunk, no doubt, however too uptight back during their teenage dating days. She’d heard he’d returned about four months ago to set up a legal practice, but she hadn’t seen him since her return a week ago.

Why was he at the park, and why was he hauling along a child? They could be here to play – not that the kid sounded happy. More likely, Forest was here because her father, his long ago mentor, had called and asked him to save her numb tush.

The cop, old Officer Smitty, stopped short of her bench. Closely following, Forest Jameson juggled the boy, a briefcase and a tote bag stuffed with toys dangling from his shoulder.

“Anna.” He nodded a greeting. “You still look the same.”

She wasn’t sure how to take that and before she could answer, he’d turned back to the child.

Forest jostled the wailing, magenta-faced kid wearing sunglasses. “Hang on, Joey. Just a few minutes and we’ll be through here. I promise, son.”

A son? Her eyes zipped to Forest’s ring finger. Bare. She didn’t want to think about the relief.

Forest met her gaze. “Divorced and the nanny quit.”

His tight lipped answer engendered sympathy along with embarrassment over being caught checking.

Forest strode over to the cop. “I’m here to represent the interests of Miss Bonneau.”

Well sheesh. Wasn’t that convenient? “Uh, hello? Miss Bonneau has something to say about that.”

The child – around four, maybe? – arched his back, pumping his feet. “I want to go home!”

“Well, you’re going anywhere if you don’t settle down.” Forest’s unwavering parental tone of calmly stated boundaries was betrayed by his harried composure.

Officer Smitty jumped in with the universal key and unlocked the handcuffs confining her to the bench. “H’lo Miss Bonneau. How about you take care of this little stinker and I’ll have a conversation with the lawyer?”

Click. The handcuffs fell away, ending her latest protest and there wasn’t a thing she could do about it. Maybe she would ride this one out and see what Forest had to say – in the interest of being entertained. Right?

She snagged her book from the ground, placed it on the bench and reached for little Joey. He didn’t even loosen the lock hold on his dad’s neck. Single parent Forest was clearly overwhelmed.

Hmmm. It seemed she needed to bail him out as well and clearly the men would talk more if they thought she was out of the way. She may have wanted her standard quick stop in jail, but her father said Forest never lost his cases so she would simply stay near enough to listen until she came up with plan B.

And the kid surely was a heart-tugger. “Could I take him for you while you work your attorney magic?”

Forest hesitated, which irked her to no end. Finally, he nodded and eased the boy’s arms from around his neck, speaking the whole time. “It’s okay, son. This is Miss Anna. She’s going to play with you while I talk business. Okay?”

Joey hiccupped. “Kay.” His chocolate colored curls stuck to his head with tantrum-induced sweat. “Can I go swing?”

Of course. He passed Joey over. “Anna? You’re sure you don’t mind?”

If he’d been surprised that she guessed his reason for showing up, he sure didn’t show it.

“Not at all.”

She took the child, a solid weight. The scent of baby shampoo and sweat soothed her with the sweet innocence of childhood. Gracious, he was cute in his striped overalls, conductor’s cap and Thomas the Train sunglasses.

Forest opened his mouth as if to speak further, but Anna turned away. Her nerves were on edge and resisting the temptation to stare at the grown up Forest was almost irresistible. His gentleness with the child could well draw her, just as it had when she’d seen him volunteering with little leaguers in high school.

She headed toward the swings offering soothing words both for herself and Joey.

“Can you sit in the swing and hold me, please?” Joey asked.

“Of course, sweetie.”

This was easier than she thought. She could hold the child, keep him happy and listen to the two men decide her fate as if she wasn’t even there. Grrr. She tickled Joey’s chin with the tail of her braid until he chortled. His cool guy sunglasses the cutest little things she’d ever seen.

Unable to resist gloating since that usually riled Counselor Uptight in the past, Anna glanced past Joey to his father. Bummer. Forest hadn’t even noticed. He was too busy unloading baby gear. As he placed the toy bag and briefcase on the bench, his suit coat gaped open to reveal a broad chest covered by his crisp white shirt. She swallowed hard.

He whipped off his steel rimmed glasses and snatched a tissue from the briefcase to clean away evening mist. Anna’s breath hitched. Forest’s blue eyes glittered like a shaken bottle of soda water. Wasn’t she supposed to be the one who delivered surprises?

Darn it, she wouldn’t let him trounce her heart again the way he had when he left town without so much as a farewell.

“Miss Anna, higher!” Joey squealed, yanking her braid. “Miss Anna, want to swing higher.”

She blinked twice to clear her mind. Joey’s tug helped. The kid had the strength of a fifth grader. She welcomed the wake-up call.

Why couldn’t her father understand she believed in justice as strongly as he did? She merely approached it from a different angle with her protests she’d been organizing since passing a petition in the second grade for new monkey bars on the playground.

Forest finished his discussion with Smitty and the older cop ambled off to his patrol car. Forest strode toward her with determined steps and held his arms out for his son, tapping the boy on the shoulder. “Time to go, Joey.”

The little fella pivoted in her lap and launched at his dad with obvious affection. This time, however, he squirmed down to walk, holding his dad’s hand.

Anna eased up from the swing. “What’s the verdict?”

“Since we made it out of here before closing, you got off with a simple ticket, but no jail time.”
“I guess that will have to do, but I was hoping we could squeeze some news coverage.”

A tight smile crooked his perfectly sculpted mouth as he mimicked her voice. “Why thank you, Forest , for keeping me from paying an expensive fine. And heaven forbid I might have actually had to go to jail and eat their fine cuisine. It’s great to see you again.”

She slumped in the swing. He had gone to a lot of trouble for her and she was being brattier than a two year old. “Thank you for your time and help. It’s, uh, good to see you too.”

Even if it had cost her the short stint in jail and a much coveted feature in the weekly newspaper that she’d been hoping for.

Still, heaven knew she needed to put distance between herself and his too-enticing blue eyes. The sparkle in those charmers rivaled any giggles from Joey.

A Soldier’s Christmas 

a_soldiers_christmas

…Watching his soon-to-be ex-wife trudge ahead, Josh wondered how she managed a strut even in snowshoes across the Alaskan tundra. It boggled the mind and the laws of physics. A half hour later after endless ready-to-explode-his-head tension, he needed a distraction. Well, one other than thinking of Alicia every other second while she ignored the hell out of him.

How freaking inconvenient that even when the love left, attraction still clung with tenacious claws that would put a polar bear to shame. “Damned boring, just walking, no talking.”

He really hated being bored. Almost as much as he disliked being ignored by this woman when he couldn’t stop naked snow-angel fantasies.

“Solve quadratic equations in your head,” his pilot wife answered without missing a step.

That might work. He’d done it often enough in grad school at sixteen, caught in the middle of keg parties with hot co-eds all too old for him.

By eighteen, he’d completed a master’s degree. He’d then worked at NASA while earning a Ph.D. until he was old enough to enter Air Force flight training at twenty-one and capture his dream of soaring in an F-15E. NASA, navigator training and a below-the-zone promotion had brought plenty of women in his path. He’d saved the equations for work then.

Here he was, thirty-five years old and back to equations. Damn. “Excellent suggestion. Something like calculating the clamp pressure required from my teeth to rip off your panties should keep me occupied.”

Ignore that, Renshaw-Rosen.

She stopped. Turned with a grace that defied those damned snowshoes and bulky parka. Nailed him with a look frostier than the icicles spiking from the trees. “Thong or French cut? Cotton or satin?”

Oh yeah. Now they were talking. “Obviously what you’re wearing today.” He swept aside a branch weighted low by snow, startling an arctic hare from the underbrush. “Why would I care about anything else? If you’re feeling shy about sharing first, allow me. I’m wearing Scooby Doo boxers with a holiday theme since Scooby’s sporting a Santa hat. Granted, they aren’t very military-looking, but the regs only require that while in flight I wear a hundred percent cotton.”

“Thanks for enlightening me, but I’m so not interested in your Scooby snack right now.”

Yeah, he pretty much got the message on that one loud and clear. Not for the first time he wondered about that dude in her past, the one she’d almost married except he’d died first. What secret had the poor bastard carried to his grave about understanding this woman?

“Ouch.” Josh thumped his chest with his oversize arctic gloves. “You know how to wound a guy. But I recover fast. Now, back to your underwear. I do believe I’ve solved the mystery.”

“Oh goody. And how did you manage that?”

“Elementary, my dear Renshaw-Rosen. Since we just finished slipping the surly bonds of earth in an aerospace vehicle owned by the Department of Defense, I deduce, as per regulation, your undergarments are one hundred percent cotton.”

Damn, it had been a long four days in the survival class with her, but at least they hadn’t been alone together – until now. Stupid though it may be, he wanted some kind of reaction from her. “As far as what design? While you do have the butt for a thong, I’m going to guess necessity overcame fashion and you opted for something a little more practical.”

Sighing, she hitched her hands on her hips. “You know, I really hate you sometimes. If only your brain and shoulders weren’t so hot.”

“You like my … brain?”

“Fine,” she snapped. “You win. You want to talk? Let’s discuss who gets what when we split up the household goods.”

His humor faded faster than his breath puffing vapors into the sub-zero air. “One in four decisions made while cold will be incorrect, my love.”

All the more reason he shouldn’t be thinking about sex. His traitorous Scooby snack throbbed anyway. Good God, it was cold as hell. Just what he needed, a frozen erection.

“Don’t call me that.” Her chin trembled. From anger? Or something softer?

“Call you what?”

“My love.”

“Why not? You can call me all sorts of things – Josh, Colonel, Bud, Rosen. Jerk. Take your pick. Meanwhile, I have…” He quirked his gaze up to the murky sky, ticking through numbers on his fingers. “Seventeen more days until our appointment with the attorney to start the process whereby we officially begin making you no longer ‘my love.'”

After streaming a long cloudy exhale ahead of her, she ignored him. No surprise. He deserved her disdain. He was being an ass and he knew it.

He should shut up, except damn it all, he was working to survive on a lot of levels today. Must be the whole holiday season dragging him down. Since a gunman’s siege at his college right in the middle of December semester exams, he dreaded this time of year. He’d hoped to make happier memories with Alicia in front of their fireplace with a bottle merlot, some mistletoe and no clothes.

But he’d grossly underestimated the amount of effort required by marriage, and all the logic in the world hadn’t helped him figure out this woman. “Maybe we could both take leave and fly down to Mexico for a quickie. Divorce, I mean.”

“I know what you mean.” Her voice might be quiet, but she snapped with tension louder than the crack of fallen branches underfoot. “And you are so not funny right now.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Comedy and arrogance. Just what every girl looks for in a guy.”

“Arrogant?” He plastered an over-innocent look on his face, chapped skin pulling tight at the effort, but it was a helluva lot easier to joke than vent his real frustrations. “How so?”

Her snowshoes slapped the ground, wafting a powdery patch. “Don’t be a smart ass.”

“But I am a smart ass.” He checked his compass, adjusted their steps. “My IQ’s just a fact, a fluke of birth, nothing I can take any particular pride in.”

And that IQ told him he’d mastered funny, a talent he’d developed to help him fit in when he entered college at thirteen. He didn’t intend to go through life as an ostracized whiz kid freak. He’d needed something to help him assimilate into the college community until he hit his growth spurt, which, thank you sweet God, finally happened at seventeen to the tune of six feet tall.

Of course, he’d quickly learned that humor was harder than landing a perfect score on the SAT, which made it more of a challenge. And damn, but he loved a challenge. Alicia was his biggest challenge ever, more so than studying the rim shot humor patterns of the Three Stooges’ comedic routines. Problem was, he was losing this challenge.

“What do you want, Alicia? Do you even know?” The question fell out before he could think, which said too much about his frustration level.

Silence answered him for at least eight trudging steps under the cover of silent trees, her arms swinging along her sides. “I want to finish this survival course. I want to start my job at the squadron. Simple stuff. Nothing complicated. So quit placing me under a microscope. I’m not an equation for you to figure out. I’m just … me.” Her snowshoes smacked the ground with increasing force and sound. “And most of all, I am not your love. Not anymore, if I ever was.”

He had loved her, damn it, before too much distance and arguing had killed it for both of them. She could just bite him if she thought otherwise.

Not that he intended to mention the point and thus offer up the rest of his heart for target practice. “Thanks for clarifying. Consider the microscope officially packed away. We’ll walk. No talking other than directions. Speaking of which, veer left at the Y-looking birch tree up there.”

So now this crappy day would be silent. Fair enough. Couldn’t get much worse anyway.

Snowflakes whispered from the murky sky…