Wingman Warriors

Grayson’s Surrender/Taking Cover – reissue

posted on February 7, 2014 by Catherine Mann

“Nice patch there, Major.”

The words fell from her lips with a light Southern drawl, whiskey warm and just as potent.

Gray glanced down at his sleeve. Anything. Anywhere. Anytime.

The insinuation crackled along the humidity-laden air. Gray let his gaze slide back to her. “Wanna test the motto out?”

Lori laughed, husky, if a bit tight. “Same old gray.” Her chin tipped. “Been there. Done that. Lost the T-shirt.”

His arms folded over his chest. “You left it at my place.”

She laughed again. The great husky laugh of hers that rolled right into him. Just as fast, she had his hormones bombarding the defenses of his reason. Of course sex, great sex, incredible anything, anywhere, anytime sex, had never been their problem. But the minute they’d set their feet on the floor….
Captain Tanner “Bronco” Bennett gripped the cargo plane’s stick and flew through hell, the underworld having risen to fire the night sky.

“Anything. Anywhere. Anytime,” he chanted the combat mantra through locked teeth.

His C-17 squadron motto had gone into overtime today.

Neon-green tracer rounds arced over the jet’s nose. Sweat sealed Tanner’s helmet to his head. Adrenaline burned over him with more heat than any missile. He plowed ahead, chanted. Prayed.

Antiaircraft fire exploded into puffs of black smoke that momentarily masked the moon. The haze dispersed, leaving lethal flak glinting in the inky air. Shrapnel sprinkled the plane, tink, tink, tinking like hail on a tin roof.

Still he flew, making no move for evasion or defense.

“Steady. Steady.” He held his unwavering course, had to until the last paratrooper egressed out of the C-17 into the Eastern European forest below.

Offloading those troopers into the drop zone was critical. Once they secured the nearby Sentavo airfield, supplies could be flown into the wartorn country by morning. Starving villagers burned out of their homes by renegade rebels needed relief. Now. The scattered uprisings of the prior summer had heated into an all-out civil war as the year’s end approached.

Anything. Anywhere. Anytime. Tanner embraced it as more than a squadron motto. Those villagers might be just a mass of faceless humanity to other pilots, but to him each scared, hungry refugee had the same face – the face of his sister.

A flaming ball whipped past his windscreen.

Reality intruded explosively a few feet away. Near miss. Closer than the last. Time to haul out.

“Tag,” Tanner called over the headset to the loadmaster, “step it up back there. We gotta maneuver out of this crap. In case you haven’t noticed, old man, they’re shooting at us.”

“Got it, Bronco,” the loadmaster growled. “Our guys are piling out of this flying coffin as fast as they can.”

“Start pushing. Just get ‘em the hell off my airplane so we can maneuver.” Urgency pulsed through Tanner, buzzed through the cockpit.

His hand clenched around the stick. No steering yoke for this sleek new cargo plane. And it damned well needed to perform up to its state of the art standards today.

He darted a glance at the sweat-soaked aircraft commander beside him. “Hey, Lancelot, how’s it look left? Is there a way out on your side?”

Major Lance “Lancelot” Sinclair twisted in his seat toward the window, then pivoted back. A foreboding scowl creased the perspiration filming his too-perfect features. “Bronco, my man, we can’t go left. It’s a wall of flames. What’s it like on your side?”

Tanner leaned forward, peering at the stars beyond the side window for a hole in the sparking bursts. Bad. But not impossible. “Fairly clear over here. Scattered fire. Isolated pockets I can see to weave through.”

“Roger that, you’ve got the jet.”

“Roger, I have the jet.” He gave the stick a barely perceptible shake to indicate his control of the aircraft. Not that he’d ever lost control. Lance hadn’t been up to speed for weeks, a fact that left Tanner more often than not running the missions, regardless of his copilot status. “Tag, waiting for your all-clear call.”

“You got it, big guy.” Tag’s voice crackled over the headset. “Everybody’s off. The door’s closing. Clear to turn.”

Anticipation cranked Tanner’s adrenaline up another notch. “Hold onto your flight pay, boys, we’re breaking right.”

He yanked the stick, simultaneously ramming the rudder pedal with his boot. The aircraft banked, hard and fast.

Gravity punched him. G-forces anchored him to his seat, pulled, strained, as he threaded the lumbering aircraft through exploding volleys in the starlit sky.

Pull back, adjust, weave right. Almost there.

A familiar numbing sensation melted down his back like an ice cube. Ignore it. Focus and fly.

Debris rattled, sliding sideways. His checklist thunked to the floor. Lance’s cookies, airmailed from his wife, skittered across the glowing control panel. Tanner dipped the nose, embers streaming past outside.

The chilling tingle in his back detonated into white-hot pain. His torso screamed for release from the five-point harness. The vise-like constraints had never been adequate to accommodate his height or bulk. Who would have thought a simple pinched nerve just below his shoulder could bring him down faster than a missile?

Doc O’Connell had even grounded him for it once before. He knew she would again in a heartbeat. If he let her.

Which he wouldn’t.

Tanner pulled a sharp turn left. The plane howled past a shower of light. He hurt like hell, but considered it a small price to pay. By tomorrow night, women and children would be fed because of his efforts, and he liked to think that was a worthwhile reason to risk his life.

Yeah, saving babies was a damn fine motivator for going to work every day. No way was he watching from the sidelines.

He accepted that none of it would bring his sister back. But each life saved, each wrong righted, soothed balm over a raw wound he knew would never completely heal.

Tanner’s hand twitched on the stick, and he jerked his thoughts back to the cockpit. He couldn’t think of his sister now. Distractions in combat were deadly.

He reined his thoughts in tight, instincts and training offering him forgetfulness until he flew out over the Adriatic Sea.

“Feet wet, crew.” Tanner announced their position over the water. “We’re in the clear all the way to land in Germany.”

He relaxed his grip on the stick, the rest of his body following suit. The blanket of adrenaline fell away, unveiling a pain ready to knife him with clean precision. Tanner swallowed back bile. “Take the jet, Lance.”

“Bronco, you okay?”

“Take the jet,” he barked. Fresh beads of sweat traced along his helmet.

Lance waggled the stick. “Roger, I have the aircraft.”

Tanner’s hand fell into his lap, his arm throbbing, nearly useless. He clicked through his options. He couldn’t avoid seeing a flight surgeon after they landed. But if he waited until morning and locked in an appointment with his pal Cutter, he would be fine. Doc Grayson “Cutter” Clark understood flyers.

No way was Tanner letting Dr. Kathleen O’Connell get her hands on him again–

He halted the thought in midair. Her hands on him? That was definitely an image he didn’t need.

Keep it PC, bud. Remember those soft hands are attached to a professional woman and a damned sharp officer.

All presented in a petite package with an iron will that matched her fiery red hair.

Forget reining in those thoughts. Tanner dumped them from his mind like an offloaded trooper.

Lance pressed the radio call button on the throttle. “Control, this is COHO two zero. Negative known damage. Thirty point zero of gas. Requesting a flight surgeon to meet us when we land.”

“What the–” Tanner whipped sideways, wrenching up short as a spasm knocked him back in his seat. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“Calling for a flight surgeon to meet us on the ground.”

In front of the crew? Tanner winced. “No need, Lance. I’ll be fine until I can get to the clinic.”

“Yeah, right.” Lance swiped his arm across his damp brow as he flew. “I’ve seen you like this before. You’ll be lucky to walk once we land. You need a flight surgeon waiting, man. I’m not backing off the call.”

“Listen, Lance–” Tanner wanted to argue, fully intended to bluster through, but the spasm kinked like an overwound child’s toy ready to snap.

He couldn’t afford to be grounded from flying again, not now. He only had six weeks left until he returned to the states to begin his rescheduled upgrade from copilot to aircraft commander. Not only could he lose his slot, but he would also lose six weeks of flying time, of making a difference.

Why the hell couldn’t he and O’Connell have pulled different rotations, leaving her back at Charleston Air Force Base with her perfectly annotated regulation book and haughty cat eyes?

The strain of ignoring the stabbing ache drizzled perspiration down Tanner’s spine, plastering his flight suit to his skin. Options dwindled with each pang.

“Fine.” Tanner bit out the word through his clenched teeth. What a time for Lance to resume control. “Just have them find Cutter to meet us. He’ll give me a break.”

Not like Doc O’Connell. She probably hadn’t colored outside the lines since kindergarten.

“And Lance, tell Cutter to keep it low key. Would ya? No big show.” Rules be damned, he wasn’t going to end a combat mission publicly whining about a backache. Cutter would understand. Tanner was counting on it.

If by-the-book O’Connell ran the show, he would be flying a desk by sunrise….

“Christmas at His Command” in Holiday Heroes

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

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…

Under Siege

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

Lieutenant Colonel Zach Dawson liked to think he’d learned a few lessons after sixteen years in the Air Force, ninety-seven combat missions, two weeks as an Iraqi POW and one very speedy divorce. Most important, he’d learned that being him was a hell of a lot easier than being married to him.

And today, being Zach Dawson was tougher than snow removal in Thule, Greenland.

Zach scooped his LMR – land mobile radio – from the front seat of his truck and loped across the steamy South Carolina hospital parking lot at a slow jog. Nineteen minutes left until visiting hours ended.

Nineteen more minutes, then his longest Friday on record would be over.

Duty dictated he pay a courtesy call to new mother Julia Sinclair, the widow of one of his pilots. Conscience insisted her loss couldn’t be repaid with any simple hospital visit. But for today, that’s all he could do, give her nineteen inadequate minutes of his time as if it might somehow erase her past eight months alone.

If only the radio gripped in his hand would stay silent. Zach clutched the LMR tighter, sprinting past a decorative pond toward the glass doors. As commander of a Charleston Air Force Base C-17 squadron, he kept that radio plastered to his side – his walkie-talkie “pipeline to the flight line.” Since the radio was tailor-made with frequencies acceptable even in a hospital, Zach never slipped out of range. He even slept with the thing. Not much of a life to offer someone else.

Nope, he didn’t blame his ex in the least for walking. He did, however, resent like hell that she’d abandoned their children when she’d strolled off with her cooking instructor boyfriend.

Ruined Zach’s lifelong penchant for brownies – and robbed his two daughters of their mother.

He swallowed a curse as the hospital doors swooshed open to release a blast of cool, antiseptic air. Normally, he didn’t let Pam’s leaving get to him. His father had shown him well how anger had a way of leveling everything it touched faster than a SCUD missile. Zach had too many people counting on him to indulge in a momentary vent that wouldn’t accomplish anything constructive.

But as he entered the hospital to visit Julia Sinclair and her fatherless son, thoughts of children missing a parent just hit Zach damned wrong.

He flipped his wrist to check his watch. Seventeen minutes left and–

The radio crackled. “Wolf One, this is Command Post. Over.”

Wolf One, radio code for the Squadron Commander, which meant trouble. He’d checked in with the control tower before leaving. While he couldn’t be off-line, he’d requested non-emergency questions be directed to Wolf Two, his second in command.

Zach shifted his focus to work-mode and answered without breaking stride. No need to change course until he assessed the situation. “Wolf One here, go ahead, Command Post.”

“Sir, this is Lieutenant Walker. I have a phone patch from Moose two-zero. Please initiate.”

“Roger, Command Post. Break, break,” he answered, chanting the lingo to change who he was speaking to as he rounded the reception desk. He mentally scanned the day’s flight schedule. The mission flying under the call sign Moose two-zero would be … Captain Tanner “Bronco” Bennett’s crew. A crew not scheduled to land until 0100 hours. The early call could only mean an in-flight problem. “Moose two-zero, this is Wolf One. Go ahead.”

“Roger, Wolf One.” The connection buzzed with interference from the plane’s roaring engines. “This is Bronco. Moose two-zero is aborting the mission due to equipment malfunction. Nose gear’s stuck in the Up position. We’ve tried everything, sir. We’re currently holding ten miles east of the field while waiting for word on what to do next.”

Damn. The day from hell had just plunged to a level lower than even old Dante could have penned. Zach twined around a couple carrying flowers, past the gift shop, toward the elevators. “Roger, Bronco. Put a call through to the aircraft’s manufacturer for further input on options.”

“Yes, sir. I’d like to do just that, but Command Post refused our request to speak with the technicians on-call at the manufacturer.”

Disbelief slowed Zach’s steps. “Say again.”

“Command Post refuses to place the call.”

Disbelief gave way to a slow burn. Zach stopped in front of the elevator, stabbing the Up button. “Break, break,” he called to switch speakers. “Command Post, I assume you have a good reason for denying my man’s perfectly reasonable request.”

Bronco might be a new aircraft commander, but he had solid air sense, a gifted set of flying hands and a top-notch knowledge of the aircraft. And all that could only haul him through so far if he didn’t have the proper ground support, support Zach would make sure became available.

No way in hell was he losing another crew on his watch. Never again would he tell a woman her husband wasn’t coming home. Julia Sinclair’s eyes full of restrained tears still haunted his waking as well as sleeping hours. “Well, Lieutenant?”

“Sir, Training Flight is already reading through the tech manuals to find a solution.”

That burn simmered hotter, firing Zach’s determination. Not that he would let it overheat. Once the shouting started, the battle was lost. “Let me get this straight. While my flyers are up there tooling around the skies with busted nose gear, you’re telling them not to worry because you’ve got folks holding a study session with the instruction manual? Lieutenant, if my man Bronco says he’s tried everything, then that’s exactly what he’s done. Time to look for answers outside our base.”

“The Wing Commander says we’re over budget. No unnecessary consultation calls. We can handle this one in-house.”

Zach stepped into the elevator, ignoring the curious stares from an elderly couple wearing “proud grandparent” pins. “Now maybe I’m just slow on the uptake today, Lieutenant, but I have a question,” he drawled, taking his sweet Texas time to let the quiet heat of his words steam through the radio waves. “Do you really think the Wing Commander meant that to save five thousand dollars on a consultation call we’re gonna land a plane nose gear up and do half a million dollars worth of damage? Do you think that’s what the Wing Commander meant about saving money?”

Silence crackled for three elevator dings. “Sir, I’m just repeating what Wolf Two said. He gave the order.”

Frustration bubbled closer to the surface. He should have known his second in command was behind this, a narrow minded, micromanaging ass who couldn’t see the big picture if it swallowed him whole. All the more reason Zach couldn’t relinquish control of his squadron for even a second.

“And this is Wolf One overriding that command,” Zach enunciated softly, slowly. He would take the hit from the Wing Commander later without hesitation. “I assume full responsibility, Lieutenant. Place the call.”

“Dialing now, sir.”

Zach exhaled with the swoosh of the opening elevator doors. “Roger, Lieutenant. Expect me on the runway in…” He glanced at his watch as he plowed into the hall. “Forty minutes.”

That would give him ten minutes with Julia Sinclair and still have him back at base well before they put that plane down. No need to leave now. There was nothing he could do on the runway until Bronco landed. Time management was everything in his job. He couldn’t fritter away valuable minutes waiting around, because he would undoubtedly need them for some other emergency in the morning.

Seeing Julia wouldn’t be any easier tomorrow anyway.

He checked the arrows directing him toward her room number and turned left. So much for finishing up early enough to enjoy a video and popcorn with his kids.

The crisis made for a fitting end to a hell of a day. A day that had started with a memorandum stating the Inspector General’s intent to reopen the investigation into the fatal crash of one of Zach’s crews eight months ago.

And now it was time to face Lance Sinclair’s widow, a woman as much Zach’s responsibility as any of his aviators. A woman who needed the one thing he could never give her back.

A father for her child.

Out of Uniform

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann


“Hell’s bells, here comes Betty Crocker in a bustier.” Tech Sergeant Jacob “Mako” Stone pitched his remote control onto his family’s motel check-in counter and took a second look at the walking contradiction in the parking lot.

Washington winter winds whipped sleet and snow sideways, the icy sheet parting before encircling a shivering woman. She stumbled, righted her spiked heels and hobbled toward the main office of the rundown motel where Jacob had grown up.

Now, he only planned to stick around long enough to get his teenage – orphaned – sister’s life in order before he returned to his career as an Air Force in-flight mechanic. Okay, so he was technically on sick leave while his arm recovered from a line-of-duty bullet. But he hoped to be back in his flight suit, tooling around the sky with his C-17 buddies in two more weeks.

Fourteen days certain to be jam-packed settling his sister’s life – and his old man’s near bankrupt “estate.”

All of which should be enough for his plate. Pulling his gaze off the woman, Jacob adjusted his healing arm in the sling with a wince and shifted his attention to the Dr. Phil rerun again in hopes the shrink could offer up some insights on how to help a teenager with an infant get her life on track. Fixing his sister’s situation seemed harder than keeping a multi-million dollar military aircraft in smooth working order.

Still, curiosity hauled his gaze right back the parking lot as the woman’s coat flapped open. That slinky dress, racy red lingerie peeking free with each stormy gust, just didn’t match the Junior League face.

She huddled inside her coat and started up the office steps. She probably needed to call a friend, and the phones were out.

The woman wrapped her arms around her willowy body and tucked her head into the storm. She must be from room sixteen, since his only other customer had been a horse rancher who’d checked out an hour ago. Jacob hadn’t seen the woman up close when she’d arrived the night before. She’d been slumped asleep in the car while “Mr. Smith” had paid cash for their room.

Jacob glanced toward the parking spaces. Mr. Smith’s white Suburban was long gone, snow already piling in the tire ruts.


Sympathy and frustration stuttered through Jacob like the bullets that had come his way during a simple assignment hauling a congressional entourage around Europe . Apparently this woman’s wild night out on the tiny town hadn’t unfolded as planned.

Double damn. Already he could feel warrior instincts honed in bloody battle zones stirring to life within him.

Jacob pushed to his feet, snagging his remote control from beside the television. Extending his arm, he thumbed the remote, silencing Dr. Phil.

He might not be wearing his uniform, and the woman may not need his help. But that wouldn’t stop him from throwing himself in the middle of her problems when she came through the door. The only way to ensure she went out the door all the faster…

Private Maneuvers

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

First Lieutenant Darcy “Wren” Renshaw flung her flight checklist on the planning room table with a resounding smack. Not much of an outlet for her frustration, but the satisfying thunk on scarred wood made her feel marginally better.

While her siblings pounded dictators in Southeast Asia, she was stuck flying Flipper to Guam.

Restrained anger pinged inside her like antiaircraft missiles. Darcy spun an empty chair and dropped into the seat at the lengthy conference table, eager to start and therefore finish this mission all the sooner.

For once she didn’t plunge into conversation with the other aircrew members plotting their early-morning takeoff from San Diego bound for Guam – an island that still haunted her dreams. No need to infect the crew with her rotten mood. After all, transporting marine biologist Dr. Maxwell Keagan and his two bottlenose dolphins to the South Pacific was considered an honor.

An honor for the rest of the C-17 crew maybe, but for her? Darcy knew better. She hadn’t earned this cake mission, an embarrassing reality that burned over her with the devouring speed of flaming jet fuel.

How dare her three star General father “encourage” the Squadron Commander to yank Darcy’s combat slot to Cantou and schedule her as a last minute substitute on the safer Flipper Flight? She’d worked her boots off to be deserving of the wings on her leather nametag since the first day of pilot training. She wouldn’t start quietly accepting gift-wrapped cushy assignments now.

Sounds of Air Force crewdogs at work wrapped around her, the familiar routine offering none of its usual excitement. Rustling charts, clipped banter. Pilots. Loadmasters. Ground support. Every one of them having already pulled their rotation in conflicts around the world. She couldn’t allow them to shoulder all her risks as well as their own.

Once she offloaded Dr. Dolittle and his dolphin duo in Guam, she would confront her commander. If she wasn’t qualified for combat in the Cantou conflict, then he should remove her from flying status altogether.

Darcy yanked a bag of sunflower seeds from the thigh pocket of her flight suit and wrestled open the cellophane. Munching away emotions she refused to let rule her, she cracked shells, slowly, one at a time to restore her calm while waiting for Dr. Keagan to arrive. “Anybody seen the dolphin doc around yet?”

Captain Tanner “Bronco” Bennett, the aircraft commander, looked up from his chart. “What’s your hurry, Wren? He’s got another ten minutes.”

“Eight,” Darcy answered without checking her watch. “To be early is to be on time.”

“Cool your jets. He’ll get here when he gets here.” Bronco reached into the thigh pocket of his flight suit. “Since we’re waiting, have I showed everyone the latest pictures of Kathleen and the baby at the zoo?”

“Yes!” the room collectively shouted.

Bronco held his hands up in good-natured surrender. “Hey, just trying to pass time till the guy arrives.”

“I’m starting to wonder if you could fit enough pictures in your pocket for that, Captain.” Darcy eased her grouse with a quick grin, drumming her fingers impatiently on the gouged wood.

She hadn’t met Keagan yet, having only arrived at the San Diego Naval Air Station from her home base in Charleston, South Carolina the night before. But the guy must have some heavy-duty clout to warrant military transport for his dolphins.

String pullers weren’t high on her list of favorite folks, especially today.

This time General Pops had gone too far with the overprotectiveness. Sure, she’d been kidnapped in Guam as a kid. A terrifying experience for her family, and one she still couldn’t dwell on for even thirty seconds without dropping her damned sunflower seeds all over the floor. But it was time to get past it.

Darcy cracked seeds one at time to focus her thoughts and calm her pissed off senses. Maybe the time had come to confront her father, too. If only she didn’t have to confront the inevitable worry on his dear craggy face as well.

Why couldn’t her dad understand that by clipping her wings, he’d always denied her the chance to put that week behind her? Her very nature, inherited from seven generations of Renshaw warriors, demanded she fight back. Like the squadron motto on her patch, she would be ready for anything, anywhere, anytime.
She hadn’t expected that to include hauling cetaceans across the Pacific.

Darcy jack-hammered another salty seed with her molars.

Bronco spun her chair to face him. “Geez, Renshaw. How about I get you some rocks to chew? Wouldn’t be half as noisy.”

Bronco’s linebacker bulk filled his chair as completely as his teasing filled the room. Darcy shrugged off her irritation and slid into the camaraderie with as much ease as zipping her flight suit. Childhood years spent as a squadron mascot while her classmates earned Scout badges had left her with a slew of surrogate big brothers and the ability to hold her own around any military water cooler.

She sprinkled a pile of sunflower seeds on top of the aircraft commander’s chart. “Shelling is an art form, boss man. Didn’t they teach you old guys anything when you went to pilot training?”
From across the table, Captain Daniel “Crusty” Baker scooped the shells. “We old guys must have been busy inventing the wheel.”

“Old guys? Ouch!” Bronco thumped his chest. “Renshaw deals another lethal blow to the ego. My wife would be proud.”

Crusty pitched the seeds into his mouth, swiped his hand along his flight suit and grabbed the bag for a second helping.

Darcy snagged it away, irritation creeping through in spite of her resolve. “Get your own, moocher.”

Bronco eased back his chair, a big-brother-concern glinting in his eyes she recognized too well. “What’s got your G-suit in a knot today, Renshaw?”

Uh-uh. She wasn’t answering that one. Her feelings were her own. Always had been since the terrorist raid on her childhood overseas home.

She clenched her fist around the shells until they sliced into her palm. One rogue seed spurted between her fingers and spiraled to the carpet. She inched her flight boot over it to conceal the seed as well as her momentary lapse.

Darcy popped another seed into her mouth. “I’m sorry. Were you talking?” She scavenged a quick grin. “I couldn’t hear you over my crunching.”

Chuckling, the two senior captains resumed pouring over Bronco’s chart.

Tipping back her seat, Darcy dragged the industrial-size trash can forward and pitched her hulls inside. Time to launch this flight and bring her closer to launching her life as well. She rolled her chair away from the table. “I’m going to find out what’s keeping Keagan so we can get this mission off the ground.”

Footsteps sounded from the hall, stalling Darcy half-standing. The door swung open, voices swelling through as three men strode in, two in naval khaki uniforms, one in creased pants and a bow tie.

Ah, the professor.

Just as Darcy started to look away, another man strolled through the doorway. One glimpse at him and she lost all interest in studying flight data scrawled on the dry erase board.

Holy marine mammal, the guy was hot.

Six foot two, three maybe. Early thirties? Given his laid-back air and casual clothes, perhaps he was the graduate assistant accompanying the professor on the flight. A graduate assistant who looked as if he spent all his after school hours on a surfboard.

Sandy-brown hair spiked from his head, the tips bleached from overexposure to the sun. The damp disarray could have been styled deliberately, but somehow she didn’t think so. His five o’clock shadow at 8:00 a.m. hinted his only comb might be fingers tunneling through sun-kissed hair.

A sea-foam colored windbreaker zipped halfway up his broad chest. The banded waist grazed the top of his low-riding drawstring swim trunks. Slim hips and an incredible tush were covered by… Flowers.

Loud tangerine and purple blooms blazoned from faded nylon hitting right around knee-length, obliterating her earlier frustration in a Technicolor sensory tidal wave.

After hanging out in an almost exclusively male world all her life, she wasn’t often rattled by a man’s physical appearance. So why were her fingers itching to comb through this guy’s hair?

The senior Navy officer paused beside the dry erase board. “Sorry for the delay. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce Dr. Maxwell Keagan, head of Marine Mammal Communications at the University of San Diego. And his research assistant, Perry Griffin. Now that they’ve arrived, I’ll set up the computer and projector while you introduce yourselves.” The officer turned to the two civilians. “Dr. Keagan, we’ll be ready for your brief in about five minutes.”

“Thank you, Commander.”


Dr. Keagan’s answer hadn’t come from Mr. Bow Tie, but from the surfboarder dude with incredible pecs and horrid fashion sense.

Darcy dropped into her seat with more force than a botched parasail landing. She blinked, stared again.

Sure enough those tropical-flower-clad hips were advancing toward her end of the table for an introduction. Not Mr. Bow Tie. That guy was crawling along the floorboards searching for an outlet for the computer like an eager-to-please research assistant.

Surfboarder dude extended his hand. “Dr. Max Keagan.”

A beach bum with a brain. Fantasies didn’t come any better.

“Hello, Doctor.” Standing, she transferred her sunflower seeds to her left hand and extended her right. “Lieutenant Darcy Renshaw.”

His callused fingers enfolded hers, his scent chasing right up the link to blanket her with intoxicating potency. Coconut oil, salty air and a hint of musk wafted from him, like a pina colada after long, sweaty sex on the beach.

If she’d ever had such a moment.

For a crazy, impulsive second, Darcy wondered what it would be like to make that memory – with this guy. A shiver whispered through her that had nothing to do with the whoosh of the air conditioner.

Did she see an answering attraction in his blue-green eyes? Maybe the slightest narrowing of his gaze to one of those sleepy-lidded assessments she’d seen her eight ka-zillion pseudo big brothers give other women when–

Bronco cleared his throat just before the chair behind Darcy jarred the back of her knees. Damn. Did the big guy have to kick it so hard? Be so obvious in pointing out she was still clasping Max Keagan’s fingers?

Darcy jerked her hand away and glanced over her shoulder. Sure enough, the pilots stood side-by-side, a mismatched Mutt and Jeff with identical smirks. Double damn and dirt. They would razz the hell out of her all the way across the Pacific.

She willed herself not to blush. Salvaging what she could of her pride and professionalism, Darcy pulled to attention. “Dr. Keagan, a pleasure to meet you.”

Pleasure? She stifled a groan at her word choice.

Bronco snorted.

Forget salvaging squat. She turned on her boot heel toward the aircraft commander. “With all due respect, sir, I’m going to roll you off the loadramp right after we cross into international airspace.”

She faced Max Keagan again, unable to read anything on the man’s tanned – gorgeous – face. “I apologize for him and for my, uh…” Adolescent drooling? Mortifying lack of self-control? “For staring. You aren’t quite what I expected.”

“No problem. I’ve heard the same in more than one faculty meeting.” He let her off the hook with a few simple words.

Oh, man. Smart, hunky and nice enough to grant her an easy reprieve when he could have been an egotistical jerk.

She was toast.

“Let’s start again.” Composure thankfully back in place, Darcy made the formal introductions without a hitch. They settled into their chairs, Bronco and Crusty suddenly opting for a new seating chart that left only one place for Dr. Keagan. Next to Darcy.

Great. Now instead of teasing her, they were “helping.” She had her very own hulking Cupid with a sunflower-mooching cohort.
She probably needed their help. And then some.

If only she possessed as much ease with flirting as she did with touch-and-go landings.

Touch-and-go. Her heart rate fired like jet pistons chugging to life. Why did a routine flight term suddenly sound sexy courtesy of Dr. Keagan?

Duh! Because his bad-boy, fine self was sitting no less than eighteen inches away, his eyes gliding over her flight suit with a heat she’d never, never had sizzle her way before from any guy. After all, men did not look at their best bud that way, even if said bud was a woman.

Darcy savored the heat all the way to her toes.

Twenty-five years of virginity, of overprotective relatives, of being everybody’s pal and never the object of those sleepy-lidded stares, weighed her down like a seventy-pound survival pack ready to be shed after a marathon trek. She was tired of being slotted into safer roles.

Why wait until after this mission to go for what she wanted? Here was a big, hunky risk ready for the taking.

And she could have that risk without breaking her personal rule. No military men. No men like her father, government protectors by training, trade and blood.

Before she lost her nerve, Darcy extended her fist toward Max. Her fingers unfurled to reveal a now steady palm full of sunflower seeds. “Want some?”


Max stared at that slim hand, up to Darcy Renshaw’s wrist where a pulse double-timed in a fragile vein.

He wanted a lot more than sunflower seeds from the leggy dynamo seated beside him. Her flight suit and take-no-lip attitude assured him she could probably down the average man in five different ways. One helluva woman, no doubt.

Not that he intended to act on the impulse to accept that challenge. Following impulses could get even the best of CIA officers killed.

Or worse yet, someone else…

Strategic Engagement

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

Eleven years ago Mary Elise McRae had expected to fill a hope chest for Daniel Baker. But she’d never thought she would fill it quite so literally.

Her body currently folded inside a five-by-five foot wooden crate, Mary Elise hugged the two small boys closer. The rough-hewn box jostled on the back of the flatbed truck, jarring bony little elbows and knees against her. Hard. Not that anyone dared do more than breathe in the cedar-scented darkness.

A lone horn honked along the stretch of desert road in their escape route from Rubistan. The truck jerked to a stop. A goat blocking the way? Or a cow? Either animal slow when Mary Elise needed fast. Headlights from the truck behind them shone through the tiny slits between the boards.

A Rubistanian guard from the embassy tracking them.

She’d heard his voice during the loading onto the truck. Procedure didn’t allow him on the U.S. government’s vehicle, but those ominous beams sparked fear inside her as surely as if he’d been sitting alongside puffing away on one of those cigars he favored. Would he use this delay as an excuse to ambush them? Cause an “accident”?

The diesel engine’s growl increased and the truck lurched to life. Mary Elise exhaled her relief in the stifling enclosure. Only another half hour, max, until she delivered Trey and Austin safely aboard a U.S. military cargo plane. Then she would say her tearful farewells to the two children being smuggled out of this Middle Eastern hell in the back of Captain Daniel Baker’s C-17.


His name echoed in her mind amid the grind of changing gears. What would Daniel say when he saw her for the first time in eleven years? If only he had advance warning she would be with the boys, but she’d expected to stay at the embassy, not be in this sweltering crate.

With any luck, they’d be too rushed to talk. She would pass over her young charges. Thank Daniel for answering the emergency SOS she’d anonymously routed through the economic attaché. Then haul butt off the airstrip, back to her tiny apartment in Rubistan’s capital, back to her teaching post at the American embassy school.

Back to her solitary life.

She wouldn’t let memories of Daniel make her yearn for anything more. She’d worked damned hard for her pocket of peace away from Savannah. Peace bought with the help of Daniel’s father. Trey and Austin’s father too. And today she would repay that debt.

“Mary ‘Lise?” Austin whispered from under her chin. “Wanna get out. Gotta go.”

“Shh,” she urged as loudly as she dared. “Soon, sweetie. Soon.” She hoped.

Sweat trickled down her neck, caking sand to her skin as Mary Elise willed Austin silent. A crate of computers didn’t whisper for a bathroom, after all. Sure, a diplomatic pouch was immune from inspection – a pouch being U.S. government property of any size from the embassy. Totally immune. Unless that “pouch” starting talking.

Her arms locked tighter around thin, preschooler shoulders on her left and the more substantial nine-year-old frame on her right. At least Trey was old enough to follow instructions, his shoulders pumping under her arm with each heavy breath. Little Austin was a wild card.

Bracing her feet against the other side to combat jolts, she suppressed the illogical bubble of laughter. Definitely a card. Wild. Precious. And looked so much like his adult half brother Daniel.

So much like the baby she and Daniel might have had if not for the miscarriage.

Of course she hadn’t been able to turn away when Austin had pumped out tears at the sight of the crate. He’d begged for Mary ‘Lise to crawl inside with him instead of his twenty-one-year-old nanny, a pale nanny who’d seemed all too willing to bow out.

The truck squealed to a stop. A tiny hand tucked into hers and clutched tight with chubby stickiness. She pressed a silent kiss to Austin’s brow.

“Well, hello there, gentlemen,” the masculine bass rumbled.


Even with eleven years more testosterone infused into deepening his voice, she would recognize that hint of a drawl anywhere. No rushing. Even in the middle of an unstable country, on a darkened runway where threats lurked in countless shadows… Danny didn’t hurry for anyone. Life followed him. He never followed life.

His ambling lope thudded closer. Could they hear her heart thump outside the box?

A second set of footsteps sounded. Faster. Cigar smoke wafted through the thin slits between boards. The distinctive scent of imported Cubans favored by the Rubistanian guard from the embassy snaked around her.

The slower bootsteps, Daniel’s, stopped. “How downright neighborly of you to offer an escort, but my folks here can handle things now.”

“We have procedure to follow in my country, Cap-i-tain,” the guard clipped out in heavily accented English.

“Lighten up there, Sparky. I know all about your procedure. The paperwork’s pristine … well, except for some ketchup on the edge there from my fries. Now back on up so my loadmaster can finish the transfer.”

Daniel’s affected flippancy reached into the box with calming comfort. And unwelcome arousal. His voice shouldn’t still have the power to strum her numbed senses to life, especially not now. She wasn’t a teenager anymore. She was a mature woman with control over her life. She’d moved on after the debacle with Danny. Married someone else.

Bad example.

Lighten up, ‘Lise. Danny’s mantra echoed in her head through the years. Life’s just not that complicated.

She wished.

“Time to head on out, Sparky,” Daniel called, casual and irreverent as ever. “The sooner Tag over there can load up and lock down, the sooner we’ll get off your runway and out of this … garden spot.”

A trail of tangy smoke slithered into the box. “What is your hurry, Cap-i-tain?”

“Hurry?” Daniel’s bass rumbled closer, louder. The truck shifted with the weight of another body. “I need to head home for my annual pilgrimage to the Frit-o-Lay factory. Besides, my copilot’s just a kid and it’s past her bedtime.”

“Hey, now,” a female voice called from below. “Frit-o-Lay? I thought you were going to Hershey, Pennsylvania.”

“That was last month, Wren.”

“And you didn’t bring me any chocolate? I’m crushed.”

“I thought about you. But what can I say? I got hungry on the way home.”

Their lighthearted voices filled the box, and Mary Elise resented the twinge of envy over his easy rapport with the copilot. She’d once shared that same relationship with Daniel until the summer their friendship had spiraled into something more. So much more.

Memories swirled in the murky box with oppressive weight. So Daniel still loved his junk food. They’d met twenty-two years ago over a chocolate Ho-Ho. She’d pulled the treat from her Holly Hobby lunch box to thank him for bloodying Buddy Davis’s nose after the bully made fun of her Yankee accent.

Did Daniel still like video games too? Hide his genius brain behind jokes?

Kiss with an intense thoroughness that turned a woman’s insides to warmed syrup?

A hand patted the box once, again, and again, with slow reassurance. Daniel. “And speaking of hungry,” he said, his hand thumping a lulling lazy beat. “There’s a flight lunch and a bag of licorice with my name written all over it waiting in the cockpit. Let’s step this up.”

Smoke spiraled inside, mingling with the ripe scent of fresh-cut boards. A low wheeze hissed from Trey. His head fell back against her arm as he sucked in air.

Tension stretched inside her. Mary Elise rubbed a soothing hand along his back, a poor substitute for his inhaler, but all she could risk. The smoke, cedar and fear were too much for anyone, much less a child with asthma. As if these kids hadn’t already been through enough with their parents’ “accidental” deaths and a Rubistanian uncle trying to claim them – and their inheritance.

All the more reason to get the children to their half-brother on American soil. Screw official diplomatic channels where the boys could be in college before Rubistan coughed them up.

Mary Elise hugged the boys closer, her hair snagging along the wood. Pulling. Stinging her scalp. Hard. Her eyes watered.

Oh, God. Come on, Daniel. They needed to get rid of that guard so someone could crack open the box, let Trey breathe.

And let her out.

Another puff of cigar smoke tendriled inside. “How interesting that your name tag reads Baker, Cap-i-tain. That is the last name of your ambassador who so recently died.”

The thudding stopped. Silence echoed for three wheezing breaths from Trey before the rhythmic tap resumed. “Baker’s a common last name over in America, Sparky.”

“Of course. If you were related you would be in mourning, not working.”

The vehicle dipped with added weight, then footsteps shuddered the truck bed. Not Daniel’s lope. The clipped pace of the guard. “Is that a loose board I see right–”

“Don’t even think about it.” Daniel’s steely voice iced the humid air. The click of a cocked gun echoed. “If you lay so much as one finger on that box, I’ll blow your damned hand off. A diplomatic pouch is sovereign United States government territory. Move back and get off this truck. Now.”

Bugs droned in response along with the low hum of the idling plane engines. Please, please, please, be careful, Danny. She hadn’t wanted to see him and now she couldn’t bear the thought of never laying eyes on him again. She’d brought him here, hadn’t had a choice for the boys. But if things went to hell, she would never forgive herself.

An exhale sounded along with the retreat of boots and smoke. The gun snicked as it was uncocked.

The crate rolled forward.

Air rushed from her lungs. Not that she should be surprised at Daniel’s victory. The teenager she’d known carried an untamed look in his eyes, the veneer of ten generations of Savannah wealth having worn thin for him. So often he’d flung himself into brawls like a scrappy street fighter in defiance of his pedigree. In defense of her. He’d always won, too. Except once.

I’m sorry. She winged her apology for then as well as now.

He’d taken a punch from his father when she’d been as much at fault for the unplanned pregnancy. Of course Daniel had never raised a hand to defend himself.

God, she wished she had the option of fighting back against her ex-husband, fists and brawn and bluster, instead of shadow dancing with insidious threats. He’d never actually struck her, just controlled her, betrayed her body in a way so soul rending she wondered if she could ever recover. And then when she’d dared leave him, he’d hired a hit man to take her out.

Not that the police would help her, thanks to her ex’s far reaching influence.

She wasn’t a wilting flower, but she also wasn’t stupid. So she’d run. She’d even been willing to move to a hotbed of political unrest in the Middle Eastern country of Rubistan to stay alive. At least in Rubistan no one thought it might be a nifty idea to kill her simply because she couldn’t bear him children.

Visions of her Georgia home chilled the sweat sealing her silk shirt to her skin. Come on, come on, come on. Open the damned box.

The sides closed in with claustrophobic pressure. She shoved away the need to run. For the boys. The precious warm weights beside her who smelled of chocolate and sunshine and dreams she would never have.

The crate tipped. Mary Elise and the children slid, wedging into the corner with the minimal padding of a couple of blankets.

“Tag, go easy there,” Daniel called. “Wouldn’t want to crack a keyboard now, would we?”

“No worries, sir.” A voice sounded beside them as the box jerked to a stop. “I’ll treat it like one of my own.”

A mechanical drone built. The dim streaks of light faded. The load ramp shutting? The world faded around her to near black until the ramp clanked closed.

She forced her breathing to regulate. Maybe they needed privacy to open the crate. That made sense. Then they could slip her back off the plane under the cover of darkness. Not ideal. But doable.

Lazy footsteps picked up speed along the metal floor. A final thump sounded on the planked top. “Lock it down tight, Tag.”

“Roger that, Captain.”

The thud of boots faded. Chains jangled in the time fugue of waiting. Was it safe to talk? Engines roared, growing louder. Forget waiting.

Mary Elise opened her mouth and shouted. And couldn’t hear herself over the engines.

Her heart hammered her chest. The boys wriggled closer. She screamed. A soundless shriek swallowed by the din.

The crate vibrated, joggled as the plane moved. Faster. Forward. Picking up speed. The roar built, swelled. Tension clenched her chest until each breath became a struggle like Trey with his asthma.

The box tilted back. Gravity slid her with the boys until she landed against the wooden wall as the plane…



Oh, God. They were airborne.

Anything, Anywhere, Anytime

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

Chapter 1

Major Jack “Cobra” Korba, USAF had mastered butting heads with mountains by the fifth grade when he discovered his ability to make people laugh. But right now he suspected there wasn’t a knock-knock joke on earth that could offer much help against the 6500-foot rocky peak screaming toward his windscreen at three hundred knots.

“High terrain. Coming thirty degrees left,” Jack clipped through the headset to his copilot.

Adrenaline crackled inside him like the popping flickers of light across his night vision goggles – NVGs. The gear strapped to his helmet narrowed his vision into a neon-green tunnel.

“Copy that, Cobra, thirty degrees left,” affirmed his copilot, Captain Derek “Rodeo” Washington.

The C-17 cranked left, massive cargo plane hugging craggy landscape. Desert dunes and jagged ridges whipped past in an emerald kaleidoscope haze.

He lived to fly. But today he flew as lead pilot for this mission so that others might live. One person in particular.

Rodeo ran his hands along the dimly lit control panel checking readings while Jack gripped the stick. No steering yoke like with older cargo planes, the Air Force’s C-17 boasted the stick and grace of a fighter jet despite its hulking size.

Four more C-17s packed with Army Rangers trailed behind in formation. Total night swallowed them, no lights on the wings or ground. Only minimal illumination on the instrument panel guided them through the roller coaster pass in their low level flight.

Hazardous as hell to fly with NVGs, but necessary for stealthy penetration into enemy territory to offload cargo holds full of Airborne Rangers – the final phase of the mission to seize a Middle Eastern terrorist camp. Aside from having ties to 9/11, the radical faction had assassinated the ambassador to Rubistan and taken three American hostages.

Jack worked the rudder pedals, refusing to allow the need for vengeance to chink his concentration. Mountains to the left and right posed a constant threat outweighed by the benefits of masking them from detection by enemy radar. Visually, dark aircraft blended with the thrusting backdrop of sand and rock. Sound reflected off the mountains until pinpointing a plane’s locale became all but impossible.

Hell yeah, the protection from enemy ground-to-air missiles offered a hefty payoff to counterbalance the perils of weaving 174 feet of hurtling metal through a serpentine pass. At night.

All the more reason to nail this final training run over the Nevada desert. Soon to be a Middle Eastern desert. He contained the anticipation. Had to stay focused. Training missions could prove as deadly as the real deal.

Rodeo keyed up his mike. “Sixty seconds to turn point. Right turn three-zero-five degrees. Climb to 3700 feet. High terrain this leg. Peak, right side of corridor, 4900 feet. Stand by to turn.”

“Copy, co.” Jack’s gloved hand clenched around the throttle, nudging it forward. “Heading three-zero-five. Climb to 3700.”

Clipped numbers and confirmed calls zipped back and forth, every contingency considered. Jack hoped. Damn but did he ever hope since this was their last chance to work out any bugs.

Dust swirled in a murky haze from the 40,440 pounds of thrust from each of the four jet engines powering the C-17 past the arching peak. He steadied each breath in time with his heartbeat. Only a week until the three American hostages would be rescued. Only a week until Monica’s sister would be free.

Major Monica Hyatt – the one mountain of will he couldn’t move. His heart rate kicked an extra beat ahead of his breaths.

And God knows he’d tried to sway her to the point of screwing up their relationship so damned bad there was no going back. Probably for the best given that when Monica discovered he’d kept the plans for this mission from her, his flight surgeon ex-lover would likely take a scalpel to him.

Only by the grace of God and connections in D.C. had he managed to land himself in the position of primary planner as well as lead pilot. Having Monica in his biscuits was a distraction he couldn’t afford right now. Not that she was speaking to him anyway.

“Cobra, check right.”

Mountains dipped beyond his windscreen. Jack roped in his thoughts. The weight of lives in the planes as well as on the ground in that camp overseas pressed on his shoulders heavier than the bulky NVGs anchored to his helmet. “Copy, co. Got it visually.”

Jack angled through a saddle dip where a valley divided crests into a stretch of desert waiting to welcome the aerial assault from rangers offloaded into the drop zone. Low and slow. He eased back on the throttle.

Keep cool. Laid back but steady, his lifetime mantra.

Time to offload the troopers from the 75th Ranger Regiment. Jack thumbed the mike button to signal the loadmaster. “Tag, level at 3800 feet.”

“Roger, Major. Level at 3800 feet. Ready when you are.”

The loadmaster snapped through the checklist calls and confirmations until control panel lights signaled dual doors opening with the loadmaster, Tag, orchestrating. Tag, a looming silent mystery around the squadron and a magician in the air, offloaded cargo with a swift efficiency that resembled a disappearing act.

Fifty-five seconds later, one hundred and two paratroopers from his plane split the inky sky. Jack’s grip around the stick loosened. The boulders on his shoulders crumbled. Sure the C-17s still had to return to base for a no lights landing, but it was only their butts on the line now.

He shrugged through the tension. With pressure easing, piddly ass concerns trickled over him like the sweat down his back. Such as the fact that his arm hurt like a son of a bitch from the immunizations required for a deployment to the Middle East. His hand slid up to rub the sore inoculation site.

Rodeo nodded toward his arm. “You okay, Cobra? They pumped us full of more crap than normal for this one. Damned morphing virus strains.”

“This new anthrax shot feels like the time I picked up one of my sisters’ curling irons while it was still plugged in.” And it wasn’t as if he could call on his favorite flight surgeon for TLC anymore. “Sometimes it’s tough to tell which is worse, the shot or the disease.”

“You’ll survive. My mama used to dose me up with every inoculation the minute it cleared the FDA, sometimes before.” A military brat, Rodeo had grown up around the world, moving with his Army medic mother. The guy could party in four languages and never left a friend alone in a bar fight.

A wingman to trust.

Why then did he trust Rodeo with his life in the air, but hadn’t told a man he considered his best friend about the mess with Monica? “Doesn’t seem your mama stunted your growth.”

Rodeo’s deep chuckles rumbled through the interphone without arguing. No need since his wiry height spoke for itself. “Made any plans to kill time before we ship out?”

“Me. My pillow. One-on-one for twelve hours straight.” Jack pushed the throttle forward, climbing into the opaque sky.

“Don’t hand me that hangdog crap. Let’s head down into Vegas and hit one of the casino’s all-you-can-eat setup before we’re stuck with a week of that mess hall shit on a shingle. Crusty was telling me the Rio’s got this kick-butt Carnival World Buffet.” He kissed his gloved fingertips. “Everything from sushi for me to those cheeseburgers you love. Too bad Crusty’s already over in Rubistan. He’s always up for food.”

Vegas? Irritation and memories chewed his hide. “Thanks for the offer, but my bed has a kick-butt pillow that won’t take me a half hour of driving to find.”

If he could sleep the night through without dreams of Monica – or nightmares about her sister who’d been taken hostage simply because she wanted to feed a few hungry peasants.

Guilt slugged him and not for the first time. He’d used those same damned connections in D.C. to wrangle an introduction for Monica’s sister with the Rubistanian ambassador. Bingo, her team with the IFB – International Food Bank – had been granted entrée into Rubistan.

All because he’d wanted to impress Monica.

No matter how many times logic told him Sydney Hyatt would have found her way over there with or without him, the guilt stayed.

“Come on, Cobra. What’s up with you? We’ve got a week in Rubistan and then hell only knows how long in Germany afterward.”

Jack grunted, running out of excuses and not in any hurry to share, even with Rodeo.

“Ah, I get it,” Rodeo nodded, his hands running over the dim neon glow of the control panel as he noted altimeter settings and airspeed. “You’ve already got something lined up, maybe someone to meet you on that pillow. Korba, for a hairy, ugly son of a bitch, you sure score a lot.”

He wanted off this subject. Now. “Not tonight, pal. I’m taking my hairy self to bed.”

“Yeah, right. What’s your secret?”

Jack upped the throttle again, bringing him closer to his pillow and the end of this chat. “I start with calling a woman by the right name.”

“Ah, hell.” Rodeo’s curse rode a laugh. “Then I’m totally screwed.”

The headset echoed with laughter from Tag in back, Rodeo’s call sign no great secret. His first had been “George,” a link to his last name Washington until word leaked that Rodeo had a reputation for shouting the wrong woman’s name during sex. Rumor had it one offended babe of the week bucked him off and onto his bare ass in under eight seconds – rodeo style.

Minutes after the tale hit the Officer’s Club, somebody tapped a keg for a new naming ceremony and “Rodeo” was born. A funny as hell moniker if it weren’t for the fact that Jack suspected Rodeo always called out the same woman’s name. Something Rodeo had never shared anymore than Jack felt compelled to spill about Monica.

Sympathy knocked with a reminder of how close he could come to being in the same position. Bare butt on cold tile.

Sweat iced on his back. “How about after we wrap things up overseas and get back home to Charleston, let’s take some time off? Hang out. No women. I’ve got a line on some tickets to a Braves game if you’re in for a road trip over to Atlanta.”

And damn it, he would not think about how much Monica enjoyed ball games, as at ease in jeans and a ponytail as in her flight suit and a French braid.

“Sounds like a plan.” Rodeo smirked beneath the NVGs, his teeth a mocking green grin. “Well, hope you enjoy your date tonight with your … pillow.” “I’m sure I will.”

When he completed this mission, he could clear the slate and move on. Celibacy was a pain in the ass, not to mention other body parts. Much longer and he’d be qualified for a call sign change to “Blue.”

Problem was, he didn’t want anyone else. But if he didn’t get his head on straight again, he would alienate everyone around him. What the hell happened to his normal boots steady, laid back, keeping it cool?

Cracked desert heaved and rolled with rocky outcroppings leading back to Nellis AFB, the location hosting final mission rehearsal as all the combatants from different bases came together. The city lights of Vegas stayed well out of sight in their route chosen for NVGs.

Vegas. That must be what had him on edge, too many dark-cloud memories of his last trip here with Monica. They’d been so damned jazzed over landing a joint TDY – temporary duty. Then the news of her sister’s capture had come through and everything spiraled out of control in a flat spin – unrecoverable.

Ridiculous to think for a second Monica would hang all over him in gratitude once she found out he’d taken on the upcoming mission to save her sister. Clinging vine wasn’t her gig. Fine by him. He’d never wanted her to change.


Hell no, he didn’t expect gratitude complete with waterworks and hot thank-you sex. Well, okay, yeah he would give his left nut to have Monica naked in his bed again. He was human. Male. Alive.

But he didn’t want her taking him back out of gratitude. Rescuing the hostages was the right thing to do. It was his job. His mission. His calling. He would do the same for anyone’s sister, mother, daughter – be they from the United States or Timbuktu.

Still, he couldn’t stop the bitter surge of satisfaction in knowing that once he finished, he would damn well be imprinted on Monica Hyatt’s memory, if not her life, as she’d been imprinted on his.

Only one more week and he would be free to sleep without hellish nightmares or tempting dreams. He could erase her name from his brain and off his mouth. Because no way did he intend to tap a keg for a call sign change to Rodeo Two.

* * *

In two minutes flat Monica Hyatt talked her way past the cleaning lady outside Jack Korba’s room at the Warrior Inn VOQ – Visiting Officer’s Quarters. Piece of cake, since she’d changed into her flight suit after flying in on a commercial airline from Charleston.

Facing Jack again, however, would be tougher and more embarrassing than taping Band-Aids over her nipples for the bathing suit competition in the Miss Texas pageant.

She’d been first runner up for Miss Texas. She wouldn’t accept anything but a win today with the stakes a helluva lot higher than scholarship money for medical school….

Joint Forces

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann


February: Over the Persian Gulf

“We’ve been hit!”

The aircraft commander’s words popped like bullets through Senior Master Sergeant J.T. “Tag” Price’s headset. Ricocheted around in his brain. Settled with molten-lead heat as J.T. sat in his solitary loadmaster perch beneath the cockpit in the cargo plane.

Not that he even needed the aircraft commander’s announcement. The teeth-jarring thump still shuddered through the C-17. Yet up to that last second, he hadn’t given up hope of a minor malfunction.

Minor? The wash of warning lights blazing across his control panel told him otherwise.

“Details,” he quizzed, quick. Brief. Never one to waste words even on a good day.

This sure as hell wasn’t a good day.

Aerodynamics went to crap. The craft already rattled, strained.

“Missile hit,” the aircraft commander, Captain Carson “Scorch” Hunt, answered from the cockpit above. “Probably a man-portable, fired from a boat, I think.”

The plane bucked. Shuddered. His checklist vibrated off the console. “Are we gonna have to put down somewhere bad or can we make it to Europe?”

“We’re not going to make it to Europe.”

Silence echoed for two seconds, cut only by the rumble of engines taking on a progressive tenor of pain.


J.T. pivoted toward the cavernous cargo hold containing a pallet full of top-secret surveillance equipment. The technology could not fall into another government’s hands. Beyond that, the stored intelligence from monitoring terrorist cell phone traffic would give away field agent identities. “Plan of action?”

“We’ll have to circle back and haul ass toward the coast to land in Rubistan.”

Definitely bad. But not as bad as it could be. Relations with the country were strained, yet not outright hostile. Still, the equipment on that pallet made for a serious time bomb if they didn’t offload it before reaching land. “How much longer ’til feet dry?”

“Ten minutes until we make the coastline.”

Tight, but workable. Scooping his small black binder off the floor, he flipped through to the destruction checklists. “All right, then. Stretch it if you can while I destroy as much of this crap back here as possible before ditching it in the ocean.”
Then pray like hell they didn’t end up ditching the plane too.

“Make it quick, Tag. I can buy you one, maybe two extra minutes over the water, but hydraulics and electrical are going all to hell.”

“Roger, Scorch.” J.T. unstrapped from his seat. “Beginning destruction checklists. Get the back ramp open.”

He pivoted toward the man strapped into a seat two steps away. Spike – Max Keagan – also an OSI agent undercover as a second loadmaster on the flight, another potential land mine if the Rubistanians discovered the man’s real job. “Stay out of the way ’til I’m through, then get ready to start pushing.”

Spike flashed him a thumbs-up while keeping clear, laser sharp eyes processing from his agent’s perspective. He raked his hand over his head, normally spiked hair now in a buzz cut for his undercover military role.

Feet steady on the swaying deck thanks to twenty-four years in the Air Force and five thousand flying hours, J.T. charged toward the pallet. He flipped red guard switches, started hard drives erasing data about terrorists financing operations by trafficking opium out of Rubistan. And somewhere on their own base in Charleston was a leak. Thus the involvement of the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigation.

As he destroyed data, J.T. tried not to think about all the government time and money wasted on the trafficking investigation. He hooked his fingers in the metal rings, pulled while also pushing a small plunger. Foam filled the motherboards, seeping out.

The load ramp yawned open. Wind and light swept the metal tunnel. The coughing drone of wounded engines swelled.

Now to finish the last of the destruction the old fashioned way. He yanked the crash ax off the wall. Hefted back. Swung.


What a helluva way to miss an appointment with his wife at the divorce attorney’s office. Sorry I can’t make it, babe, but I’m a guest of a foreign government right now.

Or worse.

He jerked the ax free of the cracked metal, swung again. God, he’d worried more times than he could count about leaving Rena a war widow, knew she had prepared herself for it as well. But how the hell did anyone prep for a peacetime front door visit from the commander, nurse and chaplain?

He’d already caused her enough grief over the years, and now to end it this way. Damn it. She deserved better.

But then she’d always deserved better than him.

J.T. hefted, arced the ax over, repeated, again, endlessly. Sweat sheeted down him, plastered his flight suit to his back. Air roared and swirled through the open hatch. Still, perspiration stung his pores, his eyes.

The aircraft’s tail end swayed more by the second. His muscles flexed, released, burned until the surveillance computer equipment lay scattered, split into a pile of metal and wires.

“Destruction checklist complete,” he reported, then nodded to Spike. “You ready?”

“Roger.” The undercover agent charged forward to push, no help forthcoming from the screwed electrical system.

They tucked side by side behind the pallet. Air and ocean waited to swallow the equipment.

J.T. shoved, grunted. Rammed harder. Toward the gaping hatch, yawning out over the gulf. Boots planted. Muscles knotted, strained, until…

The pallet gave way, hooked, caught, lumbered down the tracks lining the belly of the plane, rattling, rolling, tipping.


Swiping a sleeve over his forehead, J.T. backed from the closing ramp, avoiding the friction-hot rollers along the tracks. “Quickest you’ll ever throw away a billion dollars. Now get your ass strapped in upstairs.”

“Roger that.” Spike clapped him on the back on his way toward the front.

J.T. jogged past his loadmaster perch, up the steep stairwell to the cockpit. For a crash landing, the higher up, the better. Two seats waited behind the pilot and copilot. J.T. darted right, Spike left, and buckled into the five-point harness.

The clear windscreen displayed coastline and desert meeting, sunrise cresting. He plugged in his headset again, reconnecting to the voices of the two men in front of him. Their hands flew over the throttle, stick, instrument panel as they battled the hulking craft.

Scorch, their aircraft commander, filled the left seat, a fair-headed guy who looked more like some mythological Greek god from the book in J.T.’s flight suit pocket, a book he’d packed in anticipation of the quiet time out over the Atlantic. Hell. Scorch would need to tap into some godlike powers to get them out of this one.

Bo, the copilot, sat directly in front of J.T. The dark-haired kid must be all of maybe twenty-five or six. Not much older than his two kids, for God’s sake. Nikki was just finishing up her junior year at UNC. Chris was still in high school.

Regret seared. Damn but he wanted to see his daughter graduate, the first member of his family to get a college education. Of course he’d attended Rena’s graduation a couple of years ago, been proud as hell of her honors grades and quick landing of a job as a civilian counselor employed by the Charleston Air Force Base hospital.
But educational successes were expected for her since all her siblings had already sported a few diplomas triple matted on the wall when he’d met her. Hers had been delayed because of marrying him so young.

His head thunked back against the seat. Images of Rena scrolled through his mind on high speed as if to jam forty years more living into the next four minutes in case he never saw her again.

Never made love to her again.

Hell, right now he’d even settle for fighting with her, something they did as well and frequently as making love, which was mighty damn often. I’m sorry, Rena. For so many things.

Scorch thumbed the interphone button. “We’re not going to make it to an airstrip. We’ll have to put her down in the desert. Strap in tight. This one’s going to smack so hard your children will be born dizzy.”

J.T. braced his boots. And if they survived the landing? The Rubistanian government would detain them. Question them. It wouldn’t be pleasant by a long shot, but they would make it home.

As long as the tribal warlords didn’t get them first.

Chapter One

May: North Charleston, S.C.

The doorbell echoed through the house.

Rena Price resisted the urge to duck and run upstairs to keep from answering. Instead, she kept her feet planted to the floor for a steadying second while she tipped the watering can into a potted begonia by the sofa.

Yeah, that sure would make a dignified image, a forty-year-old woman cowering under her bedroom quilt. And all because she was scared spitless she wouldn’t be able to resist jumping the man standing on the other side of her oak door. But then her emotions had never been easy to contain. Especially around J.T.

Water gushed Niagara Falls style over the sides of the porcelain pot.

“Damn it.” Rena dropped the watering can and scooped up a burgundy throw pillow from the sofa to blot the water off the floor. She’d just wash the pillow later.

Sheesh. She wasn’t the same eighteen-year-old at an air show all gaga-eyed and drooling over a hot airman in his flight suit. She was a mature woman.

The bell pealed again.

A mature woman who needed to answer her door so her soon-to-be ex-husband could start his weekend visitation with their teenage son.

She Frisbee-tossed the soggy pillow across the room and out of sight into the hall, flipped her long hair over her shoulder. Whew. Composed? Hah. Not inside. But enough to pass muster outwardly for at least five minutes.

Rena tucked around and past the fichus tree beside the overstuffed armchair. “Hold on. I’m coming. Just, uh,” her eyes fell on the telephone, “finishing up a call.”

Liar. Liar. Her heels chanted with each click along hardwood floors, then muffled on a braid rug as she made her way toward the broad shouldered shadow darkening the stained glass inset.

Regret pinched, not for the first time. How sad that she’d come to a point in her life where her husband had to ring the bell at his own house. He deserved so much better than this.

Better from her.

They’d sure as hell tried for years until she’d booted him out six months ago. Taken him back once he returned from Rubistan and whatever horrors he’d endured after being captured. Only to have him walk out on her a few days later.

She slowed in front of the door, pressed her hand to the glass magnolia pattern, her cluster of silver bracelets jingling and settling up toward her elbow. He wouldn’t think anything of the gesture if he saw her on the other side since she was unbolting the lock with her free hand. But she let her fingers linger on the colored window for a second longer over the place where his body shadowed the pane.

After twenty-two years of sleeping with this man, her body instinctively hungered for the comfort and pleasure she could find in his arms. Her mind, however, reminded her of the heartache.

Her hand fell away from the glass.

Rena opened the door. “Hi, J.T……”

A Soldier’s Christmas

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

…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…