Wingman Warriors

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…

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

CHAPTER ONE

“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.

Damn.

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.”

Huh?

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…