Wingman Warriors

The Captive’s Return

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

“Marry me… please.”

Major Lucas Quade almost missed Sarafina’s gasped appeal as he sprinted toward the embassy with her bullet-riddled body in his arms. Explosions and gunfire from behind the dense trees all but drowned out the shouts of military security around them.

He focused on reaching the side entrance rather than risking even a glance at the pale face of his friend of six months, his lover of thirty days and the only woman who’d ever come close to stealing his heart. “Helluva time to change your mind, Sara.”

Her limp arms around his neck tightened a hint. “A woman’s prerogative and such.”

Bullets from local crime lords hungry to take over the tiny coastal country tore the ground by his feet. The surprise attack had interrupted an argument with Sara nearly as explosive as the munitions lobbing over the fence. Five yards away, a grenade landed, blasting a shower of leaves, branches and orchids. A tree crashed to the ground in front of him, so close to having flattened them both.

Damn it. Quade darted left around the uprooted oak, hunching forward to shield her as best he could. Debris pounded his back, but he kept Sara clear, easier to accomplish than blocking her surprise proposal from his mind. She must be freaking delirious.

Zigzagging across the lushly landscaped lawn, he raced toward the side entrance of the stucco building. He stayed close to sprawling trees, off the stone path, his eyes on the portico. The mini-jungle landscaping in the middle of the city offered plenty of vine-covered trunks to duck behind – for him and the enemy.

Sara’s chin-length hair tickled his face, hints of her floral shampoo blending with the acrid scent of gunfire. Her curves fit against him with familiarity, her hot blood soaking through his flight suit.

He refused to accept that this would be the last time he held her. Even the thought threatened to send him to his knees. Not the first time he’d been leveled by this woman.

She’d first knocked him on his ass six months ago in a press brief. The stunned feeling hadn’t come close to fading while he’d worked with the embassy interpreter during his stint as an assistant air attaché, or even when he and Sara had started sleeping together.

He wanted to remember Sarafina Tesoro that way, not torn apart from rebel gunfire on the front lawn of the U.S. Embassy in Cartina. His Sara dying when only minutes ago they’d been feeding the birds while sharing a couple of beefy churrascos, for God’s sake. Why the hell hadn’t he just appreciated that moment rather than arguing with her over her latest refusal to marry him unless he turned himself into some flipping sensitivity guru?

Instead he’d walked away, pissed off. If only he’d been a second faster in throwing himself over her. He’d seen the suspicious “tourists” gathered outside the iron gates, had been turning toward Sara, opening his mouth to call for the guards when…

Mayhem.

His combat boots landed on the first stone step up to the looming door. For the next ten strides he would be out in the open. Exposed. His back a target. But he had to get her inside. The level of fighting didn’t show signs of easing anytime soon, and he knew without question that seconds would count in saving her.

A whistle sounded overhead. Damn. Damn. Damn it all.

Boom.

A column gave way, spewing chunks and shards of stone. He rammed the side entrance with his shoulder. It gave. The weighty door creaked open to a corridor packed with guards darting for position, civilians seeking cover.

Quade booted the door closed behind him. The cacophony outside was muffled.

“Guards,” he shouted even as security personnel poured around the corner. “Alert a medic or doctor. Now.”

He ignored offers to pass Sara over and pounded down the winding hall toward the small on-site clinic.

She clutched his wrist, her hold a fading echo of her usual strength that only yesterday had left scratches down his back. “We have to keep Tomas safe.” Not surprisingly, she focused on her teenage brother instead of herself. “He is too young, not a man yet in spite of what he thinks. Promise me you’ll take care of him.”

Her brother had no family except Sara since their father had died two weeks ago. Without her, Tomas would be a vulnerable fourteen year old. So young, but old enough for “recruitment” into local rebel armies renowned for underworld dealings, even some with terrorist ties.

Now Lucas understood the reason for her surprise proposal. She wasn’t delirious after all. As Lucas’s brother-in-law, Tomas could leave the country.

He should have known she would only marry him if desperate. He’d asked her to be his wife more than once over the past month, and she’d always said no. But nothing mattered now except easing her worries so she could focus on surviving.

Or dying in peace.

“Yes. I’ll marry you.” He knew she only asked to secure Tomas’s safety and somehow that made Lucas respect her even more. He understood all about survival and paying any price to protect others. “But you have to stay alive. Got it?”

“Si.” Her eyes slid closed.

“Sara!” His arms convulsed around her while he checked that – yes – she still breathed, shallow but steady.

He kicked through the clinic door, only to be stopped short by the press of walking wounded. Blood streamed down the groundskeeper’s face. A secretary cradled his mangled arm to his chest.

Where the hell was a doctor, nurse, anyone? Or a medevac helicopter out would be damn welcome right about now. He opened his mouth to bark an order – but a medic acknowledged him from across the room, leaning to whisper to the overworked doc.

Lucas spotted an empty gurney in a far corner, tucked sideways through the mass of people and lowered her, carefully, slowly. As she peeled away from his chest, fresh blood pumped from her side onto the sheet.

“Doc! Speed it up,” Lucas shouted as he sealed his hands to her wound, speaking while searching over his shoulder. “Hang in there, Sara. You’re going to be fine. By the end of the week, I’ll be giving you bed baths that will drive us both crazy.”

“Senor,” called the overworked doctor. He slid between Lucas and Sara, rolling the tray of medical supplies to a stop by the gurney. A medic trailed behind with IV bags. “If you will step aside, por favor.”

Quade clasped her fingers in his, moving closer to her head, their hands slick and red with the same blood oozing from her side as the medic cut away her blouse.

“Swear to me.” She clasped Quade’s hand tighter. “Swear you’ll take Tomas out of here. Don’t let Tio Ramon near him.”

Ramon Chavez, her father’s best friend rather than an actual relation. Chavez was a slimy bastard with enough money to buy invulnerability in this corrupt country.

Damn stubborn woman. “I won’t let anything happen to your brother.”

“You’ll take him with you when you leave.” She insisted on nailing him to a specific promise even as she winced at the jab of an IV needle.

“We’ll take him with us.”

“Of course we will.” Her accent grew thicker, the normal perfection of her multi-lingual skills seeping away in time with her blood. “But to be safe, marry me now, so you are his legal guardian.”

Lucas sliced away the thought of a world without Sara as effectively as he blocked the clipped orders of the doctor probing her side. She’d painted his stark life with bold strokes the first time she’d swished in to translate for a press conference.

He would take her any way he could have her.

Pivoting, he barked to the Marine sergeant standing guard at the door. “Find a priest.”

“We already have, sir. Anyone who requests it will have last rites.”

Last rites? Denial howled through him. Not to mention rage.

Lucas eased from the gurney, strode across the room, his face right in the sergeant’s, his voice low. “To perform a marriage ceremony.”

The seasoned Marine’s eyes radiated a pity Lucas hadn’t seen since a teacher slipped him an extra apple in elementary school. “Of course, Major, I’ll see if I can hurry him up.”

“Lucas?” Sara’s weak voice pierced through the pandemonium.

“I’m here.” He took her hand again.

“I want you to know, just in case–”

“Damn it, Sara, quit wasting energy talking.”

Another blast outside echoed his command. Plaster rained from the ceiling.

Way to go, grouching at a bleeding woman. Of course he’d never been much for pretty words or flowery sentiments. His emotions were too raw, especially for a guy who preferred to keep life even, unemotional. Objective.

Sara blew his objectivity right out of the sky on a daily basis. Who knew what she saw in him, enough to be his friend, then his lover.

He wrestled his emotions and tone to softer levels. “You’re going to be fine. You’re a tough lady, Sarafina Tesoro. You’ll be chewing me out for being a grouchy SOB before sunrise.”

“I look forward to it.”

The door flung open, slamming against the wall. Lucas reached for his M9 strapped to his waist, ready to fling himself over Sara again if necessary. She wouldn’t shed one more drop of blood on his watch today.

The sergeant raced through the door with a young man in jeans, a black shirt – and thank God – a priest’s collar.

Sara’s hand drifted back down to rest on her chest. While the harried doctor rolled her to her side to evaluate another wound in her shoulder, the priest leaned down to Sara. She whispered, quickly, something that obviously convinced him, as if her condition wasn’t cause enough.

The priest straightened. “I hear we need a wedding performed.”

The surgeon didn’t so much as glance up from his patient, his jaw going tight at a newfound slice on her shoulder. “Short version, Padre, this lady has a date with me in surgery.”

Searching the doc’s world-weary eyes, Lucas found determination – and not much hope. Dread sucker punched him.

Words and vows passed in a blur as he spoke and ran alongside the litter being raced to the next room – a piss poor tiny facility when she needed the technology of a major hospital. He wanted to growl orders at everyone around him, command them to wipe the fatalistic looks off their faces. She would not die.

The priest raised his hand for a final blessing of brief vows Lucas couldn’t remember repeating. So little time. Her eyes slid closed and he could only seal their marriage with a brief kiss to her blood-covered hand before they rushed her away. He watched the door slam closed, blocking her from sight, but not from his mind’s eye.

He refused to accept he would never see Sara again…

Awaken to Danger

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

CHAPTER 1

Where was she, and where the hell were her clothes?

Flat on her back in a strange bed, Nikki Price stared up at the ceiling fan moving slower than the spinning ceiling. Click, click, click. Blades cycled overhead in the dim light, swaying the chain with a tiny wood pull dangling from the end.

“Ohmigod, ohmigod. Oh. My. God.” What had she done last night?

She tried to look around but her eyeballs seemed stuck, all swollen and gritty in their sockets, her head too heavy to lift off the fabric-softener-fresh pillow, sheets equally as soft against her bare skin. All over bare. Goosebumps prickled over her completely naked body.

“Not right,” she whispered to herself, her quiet voice bouncing around the quieter room sporting a hotel-generic décor. “Not right, not right.”

Her bedroom fan pull sported a miniature soccer ball with tiny flowers painted on the white patches, a gift from her brother last Christmas. “Okay, I’m not totally losing it if I’m noticing silly details like overhead fixtures, right?”

No one answered. Thank God.

Still, nothing was familiar in the dim bedroom, only a hint of early sunrise streaking through the blinds. Voices swelled outside the walls. Her stomach clenched.

Okay, almost definitely a hotel.

She inched her fingers under the covers across the mattress, farther, farther again. Empty. She searched her mind for clues before she would have to turn her head and confront whoever might be in the room with her.

Panic stilled her more than even the nauseating ache stabbing through her skull. She hadn’t drunk much the night before. Had she? She scrolled through the evening, getting ready to go to Beachcombers Bar and Grill for the live music – and a neutral place to break things off with Gary. But she couldn’t recall much of anything after asking for a second amaretto sour. She wasn’t an angel, but she’d never expected to wake up in a strange bed.

Of course she hadn’t expected to do a lot of the reckless things she’d done over the past seven months since Carson Hunt tromped her heart. Truly tromped. Not the sort of temporary hurt that came from having a crush go south or getting dumped by a guy she’d just met. No. He’d deep down damaged her soul so much that even thinking about him still made it difficult to breathe. The ache of betrayal by her first real love might never go away.

Although these days she was more mad than hurt.

Could she have been mad enough last night to do something beyond reckless? Something totally stupid. Apparently she had since here she was. She’d thought she was ready to break up with the latest loser she’d been dating in hopes of filling that empty spot left by Carson. Finally she would move on with her life.

Okay, so she dated Air Force pilots – like Carson. From the base where Carson was stationed. And most of them happened to be tall and blond like, well, Carson. It had only taken her seven months to make the connection – hello? – but once she had, she’d resolved to set her life right again and end things with her latest Carson-substitute, Gary Owens.

No wonder she’d frozen up when any of those dates so much as kissed her. She wasn’t interested in them. Which made her feel even worse. No guy – even a loser – deserved to be used as a replacement for another man.

Her stomach rebelled. So why was she naked in a hotel room? Apparently she’d gotten over her kissing aversion.

She swallowed down fear along with a prayer that whoever she’d been with used a condom. From here on out, she would stop being such a loser. She risked a deeper breath, inhaling the scent of laundry detergent. Masculine cologne – ohmigod.

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

Breathe in … cologne and an air of something else, an unfamiliar smell she couldn’t quite identify, but her body shivered in disgust all the same. Somebody was in the room with her. Still asleep? Or in the bathroom?

Please, please, please at least let it be Gary, even if they’d never slept together before. He hadn’t been at the bar last night for those few minutes and couple of drinks she could remember, but he’d been the one to set up the meeting by sending her an e-mail asking her for a date.

Bracing herself for the worst anyway, she arched her aching body, her head pounding as she rolled onto her side under the cotton sheets. Fresh pain pounded as her cheek met the pillow, but she stifled the urge to moan. The room appeared as empty as the bed. She gulped in gasping breaths, her heart now hammering harder than her head, relief making her darn near dizzy. At least if he was in the bathroom, she would have a second to collect herself.

Palms flattened to the mattress, she angled up, cool morning air prickling along her skin. Winters in South Carolina were all the chillier for the humidity. Cold and damp, like the ancient tombs her junior high students were currently studying in honors history class – and ohmigod, she was going to be late for work.

“Hello?” Her voice crackled up her parched throat. “Uhm, I would really appreciate it if you wrapped a towel around yourself before coming out.”

She didn’t risk guessing a name.

Nikki waited, but still no sounds from the shower or anywhere else. She squinted to look through the dim morning light across the room. The tiny bathroom seemed abandoned. Relief rode a shuddering exhale racking through her.

She would worry later about the rest when she swiped the fog from her head. She wasn’t off scot-free thanks to those unaccounted for hours, but she didn’t have to confront the awful awkwardness – and horror – of facing some guy she couldn’t even remember picking up.

New leaf turnover time.

Hell, she would turn over a whole flipping tree. She was done feeling sorry for herself just because Carson “Ultimate Loser” Hunt had drop kicked her heart in one unforgettable night. She would take control of her life and her emotions.

Pressing the heel of her hand to her melon-heavy head, she swung her feet to the floor. Thud. Her toes struck something solid rather than carpet. She toppled forward, her heart double timing to marathon pace.

Arms flailing she grabbed for the end table, slammed to her knees, her teeth jarring together. Pain sliced through her head. She squinted in the faint light…

And stared straight into the unblinking eyes of the dead man on the floor.

* * *

Major Carson “Scorch” Hunt was dead tired and he hadn’t even eaten breakfast yet.

Of course he hadn’t fallen into bed until two in the morning due to an emergency on the flight line and he was back at his desk by dawn, hoping for a more peaceful day. No such luck.

Now thanks to a phone call from the security police, peace was on hold for far longer than the sausage and egg croissant he’d picked up at Burger King. On his way out the office door again, he jammed his arms back into his leather flight jacket that had never made it onto the brass anchor peg before his phone rang.

A lieutenant from his squadron was dead…

Grayson’s Surrender

posted on September 2, 2009 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….

Fully Engaged

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

PROLOGUE

Five Years Ago: Randolph AFB, Texas

Lieutenant Nola Seabrook accepted that she could face death on Monday. But for the weekend, she intended to celebrate life to the fullest.

She gripped the door of the Officer’s Club bar, preparing herself to do something she’d never even considered before. She intended to find a man – a stranger – for a one night stand.

Lucky for her, she was away from her home base, which gave her a wealth of unfamiliar faces to peruse. Country music and the clang of the bell over the bar swelled as she swung the door wider to reveal the Friday night crowd.

No crying. No fear. She would forget herself with some stranger and lose herself in sensations she might never feel again.

Nola shouldered deeper into the press of bodies. The room reverberated with cheering. The place was packed, as she would expect on a Friday night, but the majority clustered in a circle to the side, the source of the whoop, whoop, whoop. And “Go, Lurch! Go, Lurch!”

Lurch? Now there was a call sign for a guy worth investigating.

Curiosity nipped, sucking her feet sideways.

She angled toward the commotion. Sidestepping an amorous couple making tracks toward the door, she caught sight of a chalkboard mounted on an easel. A bartender stood beside with a nubby piece of chalk to scratch out numbers. Ah. Bets. But what for?

She sidled through to the inner circle. Her eyes homed in on the source of the noise. The focus of the cheering was…

A man.

Holy cow, what a man. On the floor pumping push-ups in BDU pants and a brown T-shirt, he clapped between counts – ninety-five at the moment. The number hit a hundred and still he didn’t stop or even hesitate. Must be his size that earned him the nickname “Lurch” because holy cow, he was big.

Two men in similar uniforms split from the crowd carrying a fifty-some-odd year old waitress on their shoulders like Cleopatra. With ceremonial hoopla, they placed her on the man’s back. Finally, his arms strained against the T-shirt, muscles bulging, veins rippling along the stretch of tendons, but still he pushed.

Up. Down. Again and again.

Ohmigod, her own tummy did a flip of attraction. Arousal. And hadn’t she come here for just this reason?

Twenty-five years old and she didn’t have anyone else to turn to for comfort, which could really pitch her into a tailspin if she let herself think on it for too long.

Her elderly parents gone. Her marriage ka-put because her ex-husband couldn’t take the stress of a wife who might not live to see thirty. Zero siblings. Her best friend deployed to Turkey. Her only other friends a bunch of rowdy Air Force crew dogs who spent as much time on the road as she did, and she really couldn’t see herself showing weakness by bawling her eyes out to any of them.

Charge ahead, girl.

She made a quick check of his left hand. No wedding band. No pale cheater mark along his tan ring finger. Sheesh, she wished she’d thought to change into something other than her flight suit.

Too late for regrets. She was here now, and if she left to change, the man in front of her might be gone by the time she returned. Besides, she didn’t want to miss a second of this display.

Sweat started to pop along his forehead and even a hint along his shoulders, but still he kept moving. The man was a poster boy for health and vitality.

Invincibility, perhaps? All things she so desperately wanted to soak up right now. She found herself clapping the count along with everyone else.

“One hundred forty-eight.”

He switched to one handed push-ups. The crowd roared louder.

“One hundred forty-nine. One hundred-fifty.”

He reached behind to steady the waitress and jumped to his feet, easing the apron-clad lady to hers as well. With all the showmanship of his single-handed display, he wrapped an arm around the waitress’s waist, dipped her and gave her a quick kiss before setting her free. “Thank you much, Delphine.”

“No problem for you, Captain Rick. Anytime you’re in town.”

Rick. She liked that name. Solid.

However if she didn’t get her butt in gear and make a move soon, he would be gone. Nola stepped forward. And thank you, Jesus, that’s all it took.

He looked her way and his deep chocolate eyes held.

Without breaking the stare, he smiled, snagged the rest of his uniform off the back of a chair and slid his arms through, slowly buttoning up over his chest.

DeMassi was stitched over the left pocket and above that she recognized the insignia for a pararescueman. He hurtled himself out of planes. Penetrated the most hostile of territories. Anything to save a downed airman, to bring someone like her home.

Honorable to the core and darn near invincible, for sure. Even his patch proclaimed, “That Others May Live.”

He fastened the last button and started toward her. “Hello, Lieutenant Seabrook.”

“Hello to you, Captain DeMassi.”

“Do you have a first name?”

“Nola, like New Orleans.”

“Ah, classy.” He extended his broad hand toward her. “I’m–”

“Rick. I heard from your cheering section.”

“We’re all away from home, coming in from maneuvers to one of our favorite Officer’s Clubs, needing to let off some steam. They would have cheered on anybody.”

“So you say.” She folded his hand in hers, warm and strong.

More of that vitality she needed. Her imagination skipped ahead to thoughts of his hand against her skin. She didn’t need to worry about concerns of compatibility or depth. This was about the moment. She refused to let echoes of her mother’s preaching voice make her feel guilty or shallow.

Nola’s hand stayed connected to Rick’s, shaking, seesawing slower and slower, up and down like his pushups until finally she inched away with a self conscious laugh, wiping her hand against her flight suit leg. “This is awkward.”

“Why so?”

“I want to be all collected and say something femme fatale perfect but now I’m… She started to turn, her nerve wobbling. “Forget it.”

His hand fell on her shoulder, heavy and warm sparking another jolt of that alive feeling she needed.

“Wait,” he said.

She looked back and what she saw in his eyes mirrored the sensations zipping through her like lightning traveling through an aircraft – not fatal, but hair crackling, unsettling, and oh so invigorating.

“Yes?” She meant the word as a statement as well as a question.

“How about this?” He held her with those deep eyes rather than his hands, as if sensing she needed space. Would he be this perceptive in bed? “Let’s not worry about saying the right things. We can say whatever we want, even if it’s a damn awful first date wrong thing to say.”

Date? She was thinking encounter, but okay. Breathe. His game had intriguing merit. The bar patrons kept their distance, even if they watched with half-veiled interest.

Hesitantly, she hitched her elbows back onto the bar. “You go first.”

He propped one arm beside her and leaned in to make his move, his shoulders blocking everything but him.
“I live with my parents.” He thumped his chest with his fist and belched. “Mom does my laundry.”

She burst out laughing. Settling a somber _expression, she responded, “Speaking of laundry, I just don’t get what all the hoopla is about fancy underwear.”

“Ouch. You go right for the jugular, lady.” He grabbed his head in mock agony. “All right, time for the big guns. My doc said not to worry. It’s only a cold sore.”

“Then you should be able to enjoy our meal together.” She reached for the laminated menu wedged between the condiments. “What’s the most expensive item featured?”

“I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter since I maxed out all my credit cards.”

“Fair enough, since it will soon be our money because I’m husband hunting.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Her divorce left her scathed, but good.

“Ah, good one.” He tapped his forehead, then snapped his fingers. “As long as you don’t mind going a lifetime unsatisfied in bed.”

“As long as we get to go to bed together.”

“I’m counting on it.”

She froze and so did he. They weren’t playing anymore.

He held out his hand. “Dance with me.”

And she did. Silently. Talking softly about anything, mostly seductive. For hours until the crowd thinned and the bell rang for last call. They broke apart and he extended his hand again. She knew if she took it this time they would be heading for a different kind of dance, the one she had come here searching for.

Again, her hand fit perfectly in his. A short stroll later they had walked to his room in the visiting officer’s quarters. He kicked the door closed behind him.

She didn’t even bother telling him she’d never done anything like this before. Truth or not, she didn’t want to sound trite and she didn’t intend to see him again anyway. He seemed okay with that. No guilt for either of them. She was through with words and he seemed to feel the same way.

Between kisses, their clothes fell away until only their underwear remained. Skin to skin. Her hands explored the hardened expanse of his muscles more impressive than she’d even imagined.

And her imagination had been mighty darn amazing. She’d been right to do this. This was exactly the escape she needed this weekend to take her away from the ordeal that awaited her next week.

His talented hands made fast work of the front clasp on her bra and he swept the lacy scrap down her shoulders with reverent fingers. A long, slow exhale slid from his mouth, blowing an appreciative whistle over her exposed skin. “Wow, lady, you are something to behold.”

Gulping back emotion, she lifted his hand, placed the callused warmth over her bared breast and savored the sensation as if for the last time. Which it very well could be.

Because Monday, combat veteran that she was, she began her toughest battle ever – one that started not with a mission briefing, but with a mastectomy.

Taking Cover

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

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…