…Paige Haugen nudged her glasses straight on her nose again, righting her view of the landing cargo plane. Military fire trucks and security police shrieked onto the runway toward the hulking gray cargo plane touching down, slowing, smoke puffing from the tires and screeching brakes.
Her other hand held firm to the sticky softness of her baby girl’s fingers, not so little now. All of six years and nine months, Kirstie proclaimed often enough.
Too young to have hurt so much.
Paige swallowed back bilious memories stirred by the sirens. She wanted to leave. She’d seen enough destruction in her life thanks to her traitorous bastard husband. But her brother had dropped her off on his way into Minot to restock veterinary supplies, leaving her landlocked at the base for at least another half hour.
The plane jerked to a stop. Seconds later the side hatch dropped open, stairs lowering. The gaping portal filled with flight suit clad bodies pouring out and down the steps. Men, three, sprinted away from the craft while the fire trucks swarmed around.
An emergency? Or a part of the air show events? Surely the crowd would be cleared for a problem with the plane. And not just any plane, but a C-17 from her old hometown of Charleston. The tail art glinted, afternoon sun showcasing a blue palm tree and half moon resembling the South Carolina state flag. No matter how far she ran, even back home to North Dakota, apparently her past dogged her heels.
Her fingers squeezed protectively around Kirstie’s until her daughter squeaked, “Ouch, Mama, you’re crunching my hand.”
“Sorry, punkin seed.” She smiled down, the late spring sun beaming welcome warmth after a cold Dakota winter bitter in more ways than one. “I guess I was caught up in the action.”
“Those men don’t look like they got hurt. So how come there’s that amb’lence? Is there a doctor inside? Are they gonna get a shot?” Somber brown eyes peered up from behind coke-bottle thick glasses. “I don’t like shots much.”
Her daughter didn’t like doctors either, suffering a heartbreaking fear of illness and death since her father’s murder in prison. Paige’s heart pinched. She would do anything to bring back her daughter’s smile.
Even face demons from her past by coming to an Air Force base.
“They’re as healthy as Waffles’s new litter of puppies. See how fast they’re running?”
The three men, all her age or maybe slightly older, kept a steady pace away from the craft. She exhaled relief.
Fire trucks circled the plane as a fourth man filled the hatch. The aviator, younger than the others, thundered down the steps and made up the distance in seconds, overtaking, passing.
With a guitar case slung over his shoulder?
How incongruous, yet it broadened her smile and sprinkled relief over her fried nerves. If he’d stopped to retrieve the instrument, then surely this wasn’t a real emergency situation. Her gaze tracked the sprinting man abandoning the scene with heart-pounding athleticism.
“It’s probably a part of the air show demonstration, punkin’. Or maybe they’re practicing for when something really goes wrong.” Too bad life didn’t offer practice runs. Paige smoothed back her daughter’s sweaty blond curls from her forehead. “But if you’re scared, we could go look at something else.”
“No, please. You promised we could see the planes. You promised. What if it rains tomorrow and we can’t come back? Then you gotta work Sunday cause Uncle Vic’s working Saturday and Uncle Seth hurt his ankle.” Kirstie tucked her glasses back up for a better view. “And ‘sides, I wanna make sure those men are okay.”
“If you’re sure.” Easy enough to acquiesce when the small crowd blocked the exit anyway.
“Totally sure.” Kirstie stared back with wide eyes devoid of laughter.
Damn Kurt Haugen.
Damn him for dying. Damn him for the many lives he’d destroyed. Damn him most of all for stealing Kirstie’s childhood joy. And while she was at it, Paige figured she deserved a good swift kick for believing in him right up to the point they’d locked his traitorous butt in jail.
A toxic mix of acid and horror scoured what little of her stomach lining remained. How could he have sold out his country by smuggling terrorist-supplied opium in his restaurant’s shrimp trawlers? And how could she have missed that she and her husband were living far better than even an up and coming restaurateur should?
Paige popped a Tums and bolstered her resolve. She was through being a gullible idiot when it came to charming men. Her daughter needed a strong mama with a good head on her shoulders straighter than her perpetually crooked glasses.
The four men slowed, gathered, studied their aircraft, chests pumping for air. The oldest, a lumbering man, bent to brace his hands on his knees. Two others swiped their brows with a forearm.
Her gaze skipped last to the lanky guitar-carrying aviator who still stood tall, barely winded in comparison. His coal black hair reflected the sunrays, some of the beams lingering to catch along the hint of curl in his close-cropped cut. Why couldn’t she look away from him? She definitely wasn’t in the market for a man now, if ever again. Kurt had singed her, but good.
She frowned. Did the guy look familiar? Maybe that was what snagged her attention. Except she couldn’t tell for certain from so far away. Maybe they all looked alike in those green flight suits.
Heaven help her if she actually knew him. It was bad enough that her husband had cultivated a couple of young service members with deep debts to help him track military drug surveillance flights. But then he’d threatened others who wouldn’t help him.
Coming to an Air Force base and facing so many reminders of her husband’s deceit left her longing to dig deep in her purse for the whole roll of antacids. But there was precious little excitement around here to entice her child’s playfulness back. The annual air show marked major goings on in the area, right up there alongside the yearly State Fair and Rodeo.
Not that she was complaining anymore. Unlike her teenage years, she now embraced the starkness of her home state. Nothing was hidden here. There wasn’t even a respectable tree in sight for a good old fashioned game of hide and seek. Definitely different from the verdant marshes of the South that had cloaked so much.
The guitar guy chose that vulnerable moment to glance her way. Dry lightning crackled overhead. Or at least she thought it did because her skin prickled, fine hairs rising with an awareness that nature was about to unleash a storm.
What a ridiculously fanciful notion – and a dangerous one. Still her hand snuck up to check the stretchy band holding back her own hair as blond as Kirstie’s.
Her hand fell away. Damn it, she didn’t have time for vanity much less men.
Without breaking eye contact, the guy angled to speak with a grumpy-looking fella next to him, boots already moving forward. Toward her. Ah geez.
Paige hitched the insulated lunch sack from the ground up onto her shoulder, her heart thumping like thunder answering lightning. “Come on, punkin’, let’s find somewhere to sit.” Far away from here. “We can watch the planes land while we eat.”
Kirstie stared up with eyes enlarged by the lenses of tiny kid glasses. “I want to go inside the airplanes.”
“And we will. Tomorrow when the show officially starts. Okay? Today the planes are just arriving.”
The man ambled closer.
Time was running out. She resorted to desperate measures. “We’ll eat cupcakes for lunch.”
“I thought I gotta eat protein first so I don’t get sick with the flu or new-monia and hafta get a shot.”
“I brought peanut butter and jam sandwiches too,” she bartered through clenched teeth. “Blackberry jam. And I’ll give you a Rugrats vitamin the minute we get home. Come on.”
Kirstie’s wide eyes shifted from the lunch sack to the airplanes and back again. Her tongue peeked out of the corner of her mouth.
Yesss. They were seconds away from a sugar high she suddenly craved very much. Paige gave her daughter’s hand a gentle tug. “Race ya’ to that bench over there.”
Way over there, far from the man who really, really couldn’t be walking toward her.
Kirstie’s sneakers smacked asphalt while Paige jogged alongside. The physical labor as a veterinary technician for large farm animals this past year had increased her endurance. Wind and work toughened her up again in more ways than one. Being broke sucked. At least she had a roof over her head, thanks to her brother, and she was trying to pull her own weight by helping his veterinary practice stay afloat.
The sexy baritone carried on the wind, leaving her no choice but to stop. Paige turned, gasped. Recognition stole her breath faster than any run.
Flyboys didn’t look alike in the uniform, after all. This man resembled no other. She remembered him sure enough, and that horrible night she’d first seen him.
Her past came strutting toward her with loose-hipped appeal, guitar slung over his shoulder. He was gorgeous, quite simply a perfectly put together man with fallen angel good looks that even an objective observer would note.
And her husband had tried to kill him simply because the man had the bad luck to be in Kurt Haugen’s way. She fought back tears and shame.
“I didn’t mean to startle you, ma’am.”
Ma’am? Paige winced. Now didn’t that put her in her old lady place?
Bo Rokowsky would likely be shocked to hear about the whole lightning sensation. God, he was probably all of about twenty-six or seven. Too young for her.
Her thirty-three wasn’t ancient, but she suffered no delusions about her looks. Sure, she didn’t crack mirrors, but she would never be mistaken for a supermodel even with an overhaul.
She was comfortable in her own skin now, far more so than during her weekly manicure life. But she wore jeans for working with animals these days, rather than sundresses for pampered wife dinners. Her glasses never stayed straight. And carting around an extra pounds on her butt that couldn’t be called baby weight anymore didn’t exactly engender rubbernecking stares from men.
“Mrs. Haugen?” The young god’s forehead furrowed. “Are you okay?”
“Mom,” Kirstie jerked her hand, whispering, “aren’t you gonna answer?”
“Hello.” Wow, what a conversational gymnast.
“You probably don’t remember me.”
Could she bluff her way out by pretending she didn’t know him? Except she’d never been a good liar, unlike her husband. “I remember you. It was a … memorable … time, Lieutenant Rokowsky.”
“It’s Captain now.”
Had that long passed since the arrest and Kurt’s death soon after? Nearly twelve months. Why was this man here?
Kirstie clung to Paige’s leg silent, trembling. Her little girl who used to turn fearless cartwheels now approached the world with more wary feet.
Hugging an arm around Kirstie, Paige wrapped her in as much security as she could. She couldn’t imagine this man would deliberately hurt a child. But even unwitting mentions of Kurt left Kirstie searching for hives on her legs, convinced she’d contracted a deadly disease that would require an injection.
“That was quite a show your crew put on, Captain.”
“Show? Oh, you mean the sirens.”
“And the sprint.”
“We flew into a flock of birds, took one in an engine and had to call for an emergency landing.”
“So that wasn’t a performance for our benefit?”
Why wasn’t he leaving? Working? What did he want from her? “Don’t you need to do … something after a landing that frightening?”
“Stuff like that happens in the air – birds, engine fires, rapid decompressions. All in a day’s work.” His fingers flexed inside his flight gloves. “At least nobody’s shooting at us.”
She winced at images of Kurt’s arrest the night he’d held this man and another family hostage in hopes of finding a ticket out of the country.
“I meant in a war zone,” he amended gently.
She tried to smile. And failed. “Oh.”
He stepped closer. Man and musk and a masculine protectiveness emanated from him, wobbling her knees.
Bo brushed her elbow. “How are you?”
Scared. Afraid she couldn’t feed her daughter. Terrified one of her husband’s connections would come after them. She was also mortified. Decimated.
Lonely. And really, really enjoying the hot strength of this man’s touch against her elbow. Ah geez, was he actually leaning closer, his nostrils flaring as if catching her scent like a stallion choosing a mate?
No problem then unless he got worked up over the smell of Hawaiian Tropic sunscreen.
She eased her arm free. “We’re building a new life. I appreciate your taking the time to say hello–” Now wasn’t that a whopper lie? “But my daughter and I are about to eat lunch.”
“Cupcakes,” Kirstie whispered from around Paige’s leg.
Resting his guitar on the cement, he lowered to one knee in front of Kirstie. “Sounds like my kind of meal.”
Was he angling for an invitation? For what possible reason? She hated being suspicious, but when someone you loved betrayed you so totally, trusting strangers was all but impossible.
“Well, goodbye Captain, we need to get mov–”
Kirstie released her death grip on Paige’s thigh and inched forward. “Will you show me the airplanes? I’ll give you half my cupcake.”
“Kirstie,” Paige shushed low. “Captain Rokowsky probably has–”
“Bo.” He tapped the nametag on his flight suit. “My name’s Bo.”
“He has other things to do.”
Bo glanced over at the three men and then back. “I’m afraid your mom’s right.”
Kirstie’s disappointed sigh huffed up to rustle sweaty bangs. Then her spine straightened with her old spunk. “What if I gave you my whole cupcake? It’s chocolate with sprinkles.”
“Sprinkles, huh?” He scratched his square jaw. “That’s a tempting offer, but my boss is going to come looking for me soon and he gets cranky when we’re not on time. I just wanted to say hello before debrief.”
“De-what?” Kirstie’s curiosity about all things flying overtook her shyness. As much as Paige wanted to run, she couldn’t bear to stomp the returning spark in her daughter.
“Debrief. That’s when we talk about the flight so we can learn how to do things better the next time,” he explained with surprising patience from a young bachelor with “player” stamped all over his god-like body and confident strut.
“Oh, kinda like how I hafta go to school.”
“Exactly. But are you coming back tomorrow? I could work around those other things to spend an afternoon with two pretty ladies. If it’s okay with your mama, of course.”
He grinned up with unrepentant mischief as if he knew darn well he’d maneuvered her by offering in front of Kirstie. Yet why offer at all? Didn’t he have better things to do? It wasn’t that deserted in Minot.
“Are you always this accommodating?” And full of bull.
“I aim to please.” His smile kicked up a notch, his perfect face somehow enhanced all the more by his ever-so-slightly crooked teeth. “What do you say, ladies? Are you going to stand me up tomorrow?”
“No way.” Kirstie’s curls bounced with her shaking head. “You betcha boots we’re coming back. Mama promised.”
Whoa. Somebody stop the Mack truck force of this guy and her daughter. “Hello? I’m here too.”
“Mama always keeps her promise,” Kirstie rolled right on. “‘Course sometimes she says maybe, but that means she’s not sure and she never promises ‘less she knows for sure ‘cause it’s important not to lie.”
“She’s right.” Bo nodded sagely. “Sounds like you’ve got a good mama, Cupcake.”
“Kirstie. My name’s Kirstie Adella Haugen and my mama’s name is Paige.”
“Well Miss Kirstie Adella Haugen…” Scooping up his guitar, he stood, killer grin rising in wattage along with him. “I’ll meet you and your mama at noon tomorrow over by the Thunderbirds booth. All right, Paige?”
Her stomach flipped like one of those planes in flight. She wanted to say no, no and hell no.
But Kirstie smiled.
Paige sighed, defeated by a hip high six year old, no less. “Yes, thank you.”
Kirstie’s squeal was ample reward. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Captain Bo.”
“Looking forward to it, Cupcake.” Winking, he pivoted away, swinging his guitar back over his shoulder.
Watching him swagger off, the sunlight looping a glinting dance through the hint of curl in his hair, Paige reminded herself that the veneer of charm dulled all too quickly without substance beneath. And since she had no intention of going deep with this man, she would be able to keep her daughter safe for the span of one afternoon outing.
As he tossed another wave over his shoulder and perfect smile with charmingly imperfect teeth, she couldn’t help but wonder who would protect her from the likes of him?
He hadn’t packed protection for this TDY.
Bo almost startled back a step on the tarmac at the unexpected thought. Still, he kept right on watching the soft sway of Paige Haugen’s even softer looking hips as she hunted down a bench for the cupcake lunch with her kid.
Why was he worrying about condoms today? The emergency landing must have rattled his brain. He’d known full well when leaving Charleston this morning that he wouldn’t need birth control since he would only be seeing Paige Haugen. She was the last woman he would choose to sleep with given the mess a year ago, and no doubt, he wouldn’t even make her list for last place.
Now didn’t that sting more than it should while firing testosterone at the challenge?
Like he needed more firing up. The singsong melody of her Dakota accent still strummed his raw senses. Her tangy sunscreen scent clung to the dry air, moistening. And damned if sunscreen didn’t smell like coconut oil and tropical fantasies.
Her shoulder length locks offered an enticing bonus of softness. His hands itched to discover just how silky her hair might be gliding through his fingers. He was near burning after a glimpse of her generous breasts straining against her 4-H T-shirt. He could have been standing in a winter snowdrift and melted that sucker in five seconds flat.
Gusting wind whipped the eighty degree May weather around him along with rat-sized mosquitoes, itching him out of his sensual haze. The pesky insects bred and hatched in the piles of melting snow, thriving, big like everything else in this wide-open landscape.
He slapped his neck. Paige Haugen would certainly rather swim naked through a pool of these monster mosquitoes swarming the flight line than spend more time with him.
The image threatened to take root with a tenacity he knew better than to allow. She was an attractive woman – smelled damned good. But his goal here was to get her out of his head, not plant her more firmly in his thoughts.
She and her daughter emerged from the other side of the small crowd, making their way toward a metal bench. She swung the insulated sack between them and started doling out food. His mouth watered at the thought of tasting a cupcake, followed by a patch of Paige’s skin.
As if she felt his gaze, she glanced over – and away just as quickly. He couldn’t blame her for wanting to avoid him after the way things had shaken down with her husband’s murder in prison. Reminders of that had to suck, regardless of whether or not she’d loved the jackass…