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….

The Executive’s Surprise Baby

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann


July, five months ago

Brooke Garrison ordered her first taste of alcohol at twenty-eight years old.

She reached across the polished teak wood for the glass of wine from the aging bartender at the Garrison Grand hotel lounge. Her hand shook after the emotional toll of the day, hearing her father’s will read, learning of his secret life. At least she didn’t have to worry about getting carded even if she had been younger since her family owned the place.

“Thank you,” she said, surreptitiously reading the older man’s nametag, “Donald.”

“You’re welcome, Miss Garrison.” He slid an extra napkin her way as smoothly as the pianist slipped into his next song. “And please accept my condolences about your father. He will be missed.”

By more people than she had realized. “We all appreciate the kind words. Thank you again.”

“Of course. Let me know if you need anything else.”

Anything else? She would like to erase this whole horrible day and start over. Or at least stop thinking about it, much less talking. She’d already ignored four voice messages from her brother Parker’s receptionist.

Tentatively, Brooke sipped the wine, wincing. She watched the candle’s flame through the chardonnay’s swirl. Somewhere in that glass held the answers to what stole her mother away from her. To what had driven her father to lead a secret second life in the years before he’d died.

Her alcoholic mother’s bitter words after the reading of John Garrison’s will this morning echoed over and over again through Brooke’s head. “The cheating son of a bitch. I’m glad he’s dead.”

What a helluva way to learn there weren’t five Garrison offspring – but six. In addition to three bothers and an identical twin sister, Brooke had an illegitimate half-sister living in the Bahamas , a sister her father had never told them about while he was alive. Instead, he’d chosen to share the news in his will while handing over a sizable chunk of the Garrison Empire to Cassie Sinclair – the newly discovered sibling.

Not that Brooke cared about the money. The betrayal, however, burned.

Conversations and clinking glasses of happier people swelled around her while she sipped. She wanted none of the revelry, even made a point of carefully avoiding eye contact with a couple of men attempting to snag her attention.

Brooke raised the long-stemmed crystal to her mouth again. She knew intellectually to be as top notch as the fresh flowers and linens around her. Her taste buds, however, registered nothing. She was too numb with grief.

She’d always blamed her mother for her father’s frequent business trips. The drinking must have driven her wonderful daddy away. Now she couldn’t help but wonder if her father’s behavior had somehow contributed to her mother’s unhappiness.

And how could she untangle it all in the middle of mourning the loss of such a huge figure in her life? The hotel blared reminders of his presence. She could see her father’s imprint on each multi-domed chandelier in the bar, on every towering column.

Brooke circled a finger around the top of her half-full glass, an indulgence she never allowed herself because of her mother’s addiction.

Tonight wasn’t normal.

Her eyes hooked on the looming columns in the spacious hall outside the bar – the evening turning farther beyond normal than she ever could have anticipated.

Through the arched entranceway walked the last man she expected here, but one she recognized well even in the dim lighting. Their families had been business rivals for years, a competition that only seemed to increase once Jordan Jefferies had taken over after his father’s death.

So why was Jordan here now?

Brooke forced herself to think more like her siblings and less like her peacemaker self… and the obvious answer came to her. He’d come to her brother Stephen’s hotel to scope out the competition.

Brooke took the unobserved moment to study Jordan Jefferies prowling the room with a lion’s lazy grace. No, wait. Lazy was the wrong word.

Think like her siblings. Jefferies would only want people to perceive a lazy lope so he could pounce while she was otherwise occupied staring at his blond, muscle-bound good looks.

Yeah, she’d noticed his looks more than once. He might be the enemy, but she wasn’t blind. However, she’d considered him off limits because of the controversy it would cause in her family. Often, she’d heard her oldest brother Parker fume for days over a contentious business meeting with Jordan . The family diplomat, she always tried her best to soothe over arguments and hurt feelings.

For all the good it had done her. The whole Garrison clan had been ripped raw today.

Her mother’s voice whispered in her head again… “The cheating son of a bitch. I’m glad he’s dead.”

The bartender swooped by, breaking her train of thought. “Can I get you anything else, Miss Garrison?”

Garrison. She couldn’t escape it anywhere around here, just as futile as thinking she could keep peace in her family.

Why bother trying?

A heat fired through her veins and bloomed into an idea, a desire. And sure, a need for open rebellion after a day of hell. “Yes, Donald, actually you can do something for me. Please tell the gentleman over there,” she pointed to Jordan , “that his drinks for the evening are on the house.”

“Of course, Miss Garrison.” The bartender smiled discreetly and walked under the rows of hanging glasses to the other side of the wooden bar. He leaned to relay the message and Brooke waited. Her stomach tightened in anticipation.

What would he think of her picking up the tab for his drink? Likely nothing more than a Garrison acknowledging his presence.

Would Jordan Jefferies even remember her? Of course he would. He was a savvy businessman who would know all the Garrisons. A better question – would he be able to tell her apart from her twin?

He looked from the bartender to her. His gaze met hers, and even in the low lighting she could see the blue of his eyes. Interest sparked in his slow smile.

Jordan picked up his drink and wove his way around the patrons, straight toward her with a deliberate, unhesitating pace. He set his glass beside hers. “I didn’t expect such a nice welcome from a Garrison. Are you sure you didn’t have the bartender poison my drink, Brooke?”

He recognized her. Or a lucky guess?

“How do you know I’m not Brittany ?”

Without ever glancing away from her eyes, he reached, stopping an inch shy of touching a lock of her hair that stubbornly refused to stay pulled back. “Because of this. That wayward strand is signature Brooke.”

Wow. He definitely recognized her when even her own father had gotten it wrong sometimes.

In that moment, she realized she had more Garrison determination in her than anyone would have ever suspected. Brooke lifted her glass to Jordan in a silent toast.

She’d seen him many times. She’d always wanted him.

Tonight, her family be damned, she would have him…

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……”

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…


posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

“Negative G forces coming. Hold on to your lunch.”

Captain Josie Lockworth, USAF upped the throttle and pushed forward on the stick of her T-38 supersonic jet. Out of courtesy only, she offered the warning to reporter Shannon Conner strapped into the back seat.

Not that she had anything against reporters. Hell, she’d flown with top notch embedded journalists in the Middle East. Her best friend was even a television correspondent.

This reporter, however, could only be called a hack. Her news network soaked up scandal like a thirsty rag. Josie couldn’t afford bad press derailing her multimillion-dollar military test project. Forget the money, actually small change as far as the government was concerned.

Her mother’s honor had been held hostage long enough.

The T-38 pierced a low-lying cloud. Blood rushed up to her head with negative G forces, the reverse of positive Gs that pushed blood down. The body tolerated fewer negative Gs before passing out. One negative G. Two. Three. Spots danced in front of her eyes on the mountainous horizon of the California desert.

Adrenaline sang through her veins. Sweat popped along her back through her T-shirt. Her flight suit clung like a second skin. But then the uniform was already as much a part of her as any epidermal layer.

She pulled back on the stick, glancing up at the mirror to check her passenger. Shannon was awake but slumped in her seat in the tight cockpit, one strand of blond hair sneaking out of her helmet to stick to her pale face.

No hurling yet. A twinge of respect trickled through Josie’s steady focus, even a bit of sympathy.

But she did need to keep the reporter busy and disoriented. How better than nonstop acrobatics in a supersonic and nimble airplane? Shannon had insisted on the full-out flying experience. And Josie always delivered one hundred percent.

Tucking sideways, she slipped through a mountain pass. Through her clear top canopy, she watched the sandy landscape scroll past.

Josie forced oxygen in and out. Her huffed exhales echoed through the headset Darth Vader style. Near silence swallowed the cockpit, the only sound the rasp and drag of breathing through the oxygen mask since they’d left noise behind with speed.

As always, she flattened her frustration with familiar routine of flying. The trainer jet zipped along over a range near Edwards Air Force Base, approximately a hundred miles northeast of Los Angeles. Not much longer left in this flight until she landed where she worked in a military detachment at the nearby Palmdale testing facility, also known as Air Force Plant 42.For a test pilot, steely nerves were mandatory, leaving no room for cranky emotions jangling her at a critical second. And during test missions, any second could be critical.

Okay, so this wasn’t a test and she was pissed.

That someone like Shannon had been allowed access to Josie’s current test project just proved higher ups were only paying lip service to endorsing her work. Someone wanted this resurrected project that had once been her mother’s to fail. Damaging press could facilitate their cause.

And yeah, yeah, she mentally rolled her eyes at her annoying voice of reason. Part of her still resented Shannon from their prep-school days at the Athena Academy for the Advancement of Women.

Advancement? Shannon had tried to advance Josie right out the front gates on a trumped up charge of stealing.

Good God, as if.

Her stomach which held strong against negative Gs grew downright queasy over the notion of taking so much as a post office pen. But back then, Shannon had convinced everyone Josie was off her rocker like her washed up military mama. Who could expect reasonable behavior from a Lockworth lady?

Anger fired hotter than an afterburner, jangling the singing adrenaline off key. Her combat boots braced on the rudders. She kept her right hand loose on the stick, her left on the two throttles, flicking up to adjust dials then landing back on the stick. Not a HOTAS – hands on throttle and stick, with all the buttons attached. In the T-38 she had to take her hands off the stick and throttle to work the controls. But for Shannon, she’d give a new spin to the HOTAS – Hands On Tummy and Sickbag.

She ran the stick fore and aft, gliding the T-38 through the sky in a porpoise-style swim along the rolling mountain range. Push for a hint of a negative G at the top of the sine wave. Pull for the kiss of a positive G at the bottom of sine wave. Push, pull. Push, pull.

“Uh, Josie?” Shannon’s thready voice echoed over the headset. “Where’s the eject button again?”

Crap. She’d gone too far, something she never did anymore. She steadied the stick. “Just a little PIO – pilot induced oscillation. My fault, and nothing to worry about. I’ve got it back under control.”

Time to get herself under control as well. She needed to tamp down the old impulsive Josie in favor of her more structured self she’d cultivated after her mother’s breakdown. “We’re on the straight and narrow now. As long as you keep your eyes forward, all will be normal.”
Unlike looking to the side where everything blurred with speed.

She hugged the terrain with skill and calm. No one would ever have reason to accuse her of weakness or emotional instability. She knew how hard she would have to fight even a whisper of that label since her mother had been locked away after “the incident.” But with this test project, Josie hoped to clear her mother’s name – and shake free of that dark legacy.

“Doing okay back there?” Josie’s gaze flicked up to the mirror again.

“Just fine,” ever-prideful Shannon replied, brown eyes wide, make up still impeccable.

Pride, Josie could understand. She had her fair share of that. Sad thing was, Shannon really packed a genius brain under all that uptight pettiness. Given the right direction, she could have been an incredible asset to the Athena Academy alumni list – if she’d even made it to the twelfth grade instead of being punted out on an honor violation.

All a moot point since, more importantly, that genius brain could twist things against Josie in a heartbeat if the intellect wasn’t otherwise occupied. And if her navigational calculations were correct, they were seconds away from a guaranteed distraction.

Bingo. Right on target, there it was, a nifty distraction for any brain. “Bet you wouldn’t expect to see that out here.”

“See what?”

“A nudist colony.” She hoped her words didn’t convey the grin she couldn’t stifle.

Silence echoed over the headset, then, “You’re making that up to get me to look over to the side where it’s tougher to keep oriented with the motion. You just want to freak me out again.”

“I’m only playing tour guide.” Oh yeah, completely in control again. “Not that I have anything against nudist colonies, but I can’t help wondering. Why have one in the desert? I mean think about it. Wouldn’t the sunscreen sting in sensitive places? And sitting on a metal lawn chair, a guy would really have to watch his butt and be careful of his, uh, well, hoo-hah hanging out there.”

“And this helps me with my feature how?” Broadcaster neutral tones livened up with an extra touch of bitchiness.

“I’m trying to show you some of the local scenery. But if you don’t think it will work, no problem. Besides, hoo-hah might be too technical a term for your viewers.”

“You’re so not funny.”

This whole damned flight wasn’t funny. And the threat Shannon posed to her career was downright terrifying, but Josie had to find moments of levity where she could.

“You’re right. I totally understand if you don’t want to look. It’s much easier to keep your lunch down if you’re focusing forward.” Now wasn’t there a nifty life lesson there? “Watching out the side is only for folks with steely nerves.”

She’d tossed down a gauntlet and Shannon would undoubtedly accept the challenge. Wait. Wait for it.

“Oh my God.” Shannon’s face went waxy in the mirror. She jerked back around front, gaze fixed on the horizon.

“Been that long since you saw a hoo-hah, huh?”

Shannon’s growl echoed through the headset.

Josie concurred on a number of levels. Sadly, it had likely been even longer for her since she didn’t have time for a man lately, much less his hoo-hah. Not that she would admit that to Shannon.

The woman resented her, always had. Right from their early teenage years at Athena Academy, Shannon had envied Josie’s connections through her grandfather, past CIA director Joseph Lockworth. Poppy had been directly responsible for starting the prestigious all-girls prep school designed to empower women, many of them going on to government security jobs. With only two hundred students from grades seven through twelve, the bonds forged among students were tight and lifelong.

She still sweated bullets over how Shannon’s little stunt had almost cost Josie her dream. Luckily, her best friend Tory Patton had worked her own investigative skills and proved Shannon was responsible for stealing the class’s petty-cash fund and setting up Josie.
Josie’s hands fisted tighter. She should just get over it. Besides, she had the Athena diploma. She could afford to be magnanimous. Adult.

Easing back the stick, Josie skimmed a more scenic route along California’s desert valleys cut by the ridges of the Sierra Nevadas with the Kern River running through. She cranked an east turn away from the river valley, out of the Sierras back over flat land of dry lake beds and creosote bushes, closer to her Palmdale testing facility near Edwards AFB and closer to dropping off Shannon.

Josie continued a tour-guide litany while her passenger stayed silent for once. Thank God.
A road splitting the desert stretched straight and long ahead of her, marred only by the dust kicked up from a motorcycle bearing down toward the test facility. She lined up along the lone band of road, pacing, gaining ground on the rider. And why not? Everything in an aviator’s life was a chance for competition.

Fringe rippled from the arms of the biker’s leather jacket giving off a Mad Max air that fit well with the scattered miners, desert rats in rusted trailers. Wild and untamed, like the old Josie who was no longer allowed free rein. The taboo element entranced her all the more for being forbidden. Even while she rambled her scenic explanations to Shannon, Josie couldn’t look away from a sight and yearning that held her attention beyond any hoo-hah.

Her headset crackled with a cleared throat. Shannon’s interruption yanked Josie’s attention back to the cockpit.

“Too bad you couldn’t get Tory to cover your dog and pony show. No doubt she would have televised anything you wanted. That loyalty among classmates is something else. You two even covered for a pregnant friend once – what happened to Kayla and her kid anyway? Did she ever find a man to marry her?”

Okay, that ripped it. The old Josie still humming just below the surface kicked her adrenaline level up into a freaking aria. “For a smart woman, you sure do say some mighty unwise things at times.”

She could put up with someone smacking at her. But her innate sense of justice which had once earned her the label “Josephine the Tattletale Queen” really balked at letting an injustice go unavenged.

Nobody messed with her friends.

“You know, Shannon, I don’t think I’m lined up just right. We need to go around.” She clicked on the radio. “Palmdale Tower, Bat two-zero on the go.”

Josie popped the jet into afterburners, dumping raw gas into the exhaust stream like a pilot light on a stove igniting, pumping up the speed. Thwump. The plane jolted from the swift kick in the ass. Exhilaration trilled within her like the final high note exploding free to reverberate through an auditorium.

Her eyes flicked to the mirror. Shannon’s face turned cucumber.

“Ah, hell, Shannon–” she couldn’t quite suppress the sarcasm “–I probably should have told you I was going to do that.”

Shannon grappled at the face mask. Her throat worked, then cranked down in a swallow. Impressive move, holding back the volcano of vomit that would have spewed up through the mask.

Enough payback for one day. Point made. The last echoes of justice faded, leaving an emptiness inside her that grew increasingly difficult to ignore.

Josie leveled off at five hundred feet above the runway. “Palmdale Tower, Bat two-zero requesting left closed.”

“Left closed approved. Repeat base.”

“Bat two-zero, left base with gear.”

The control tower responded, “Bat two-zero, clear to land. No traffic.”

Coming in. Landing. One hundred and fifty miles per hour at impact, the tires screeched in protest of the brakes. She kept the nose up to bleed off speed as well until poof, the plane’s nose tilted down and kissed asphalt. The plane taxied down the runway at a sedate pace.

Hand easing back on the throttle, she slowed, pulling off onto the hammerhead toward Shannon’s waiting television cameraman. “Palmdale, Bat two-zero clear the active. Going to ground control.” She switched frequencies. “Palmdale ground, Bat two-zero. Clear the active. Request parking.”

“Bat two-zero, taxi via Alpha,” ground control responded. “Back to spot sixteen. Caution construction. Right hand side of Alpha at Bravo.”

A blue pickup truck slid in front of her with a “follow me” sign in back to lead her onto the tarmac. The sun’s rays baked through the clear canopy, desert temps still notching in November. Her flight suit stuck to her back against the leather seat as she followed the truck past the guy waving wand flashlights toward the parking spot–

And toward a uniformed man, the major, her boss, standing waiting.

Not good. The murky cloud over her day went opaque.

Major Mike Bridges had no doubt made the trip out to the flight line to coincide with her landing for a reason. Since he stood by the hangar housing her two modified test models of the Predator unmanned spy drone, he must be here for her. A problem? If so, she needed scoop-hungry Shannon Conner out of the way before any discussion.

Josie whipped off her helmet and deplaned. Wind tore across the treeless expanse, lifting her short hair, drying the sweat on her body with gritty gusts. Her combat boots smacked steamy asphalt three steps behind Shannon, who was staggering toward the nearest trash can.

Shannon gripped the metal edges and leaned, her borrowed flight suit stretching across her heaving back. Wonder if the cameraman would document that part?

Her boss frowned. Josie cringed, then braced. He’d only assumed command a month ago, so she still wasn’t sure where she stood in regard to his approval and respect. Still, she’d followed orders today – show the reporter around and pull out all the stops. Okay, so she’d worked in a little revenge for her friend along with it. And at a totally sucky time.

She needed to lay low after the fallout from her helicopter diversionary stunt she’d pulled to help one of her Athena grad friends with a mission a few months ago. Another wrong she’d leaped in to avenge and damn the consequences. She’d never quite understood why being right wasn’t always the right thing.

Regardless, her flight and fun were over.

A rumble from behind the hangar interrupted her thoughts seconds before a Harley rolled into view. The same low rider cruiser she’d seen from her plane roared up with the guy wearing black leather.

The motorcycle jerked to a stop by the fence gate. Fringe rippled on the man’s arms rippled. The growling engine shushed.

One boot slammed the cement. A muscled thigh in faded blue jeans and black chaps swung over. The second boot pounded pavement. He tugged off the helmet, shaking free coal dark hair longer than any military regs allowed. The thick mane hit his shoulders.

Definitely not military.

He smacked along his leather-clad thighs, dusting, the action and chaps drawing attention to a hoo-hah package that–

Nope. Not gonna go there even in her mind. Too much talk of hoo-hahs must have her hormones on overload.

Her P.C. call sign might have started out as a Josie and the Pussy Cats reference, but she’d quickly redirected it to Politically Correct. She had rights and wrongs down pat. Checking out a man’s hoo-hah was as disrespectful as an ass-check from him.

Even if this guy didn’t have a problem with women who flew jets and shot the big guns like other men she’d seen outside the workplace, she didn’t have time for a relationship. Hell, she barely had time to do her laundry.

Once she cleared her mother’s name, her life would be different. Then she could shake off the ghosts of her past and not worry so much about the repercussions of letting the occasional emotion slip free.

She turned her attention back to the upchucking reporter, reaching into her thigh pocket for a pack of tissues and a peppermint. Silently she passed Shannon the candy and tissues.

Blond hair straggling forward, Shannon snatched the offerings and started restoring order for a camera appearance. “My feature about you is going to suck, you know.”

“We both know it was going to anyway.” Josie popped a peppermint into her mouth as well and clicked it to the side against her teeth.

Life might not always be right or fair, but people were predictable for the most part. There was something comforting about that, even when it brought negative garbage her way. At least she could see it coming and strategize.

After her mother’s breakdown and discharge from the Air Force, Josie had submerged all impulsiveness, clinging to clear-cut reason and stability. Except for a brief lapse today with shaking up Shannon, she’d stuck to her plan. Emotionalism, injustice, any upset in the cosmos launched jitters in Josie’s tummy that left her HOTAS.

Her wayward eyes skipped right over to the biker making his way toward her commander. What the hell were the two of them plotting? Her instincts screamed ambush ahead.

Rich Man’s Fake Fiancée

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann


Only one thing sucked worse than wearing boring white cotton underwear on the night she finally landed in bed with her secret fantasy man.

Having him walk out on her before daylight.

Ashley Carson tensed under her downy comforter. Through the veil of her eyelashes, she watched her new lover quietly zip his custom fit pants. She’d taken a bold step – unusual for her – by falling into bed with Matthew Landis the night before. Her still-tingly sated body cheered the risk. Her good sense, however, told her she’d made a whopper mistake with none other than South Carolina ’s most high profile Senatorial candidate.

Moonlight streaked through the dormer window, glinting off his dark hair trimmed short but still mussed from her fingers. Broad shoulders showcased his beacon white shirt, crisp even though she’d stripped it from him just hours ago when their planning session for his fundraiser dinner at her restaurant/home had taken an unexpected turn down the hall to her bedroom.

Matthew may have been dream material, but safely so since she’d always thought there wasn’t a chance they could actually end up together. She preferred a sedentary, quiet life running her business, with simple pleasures she never took for granted after her foster child upbringing. He worked in the spotlight as a powerful member of the House of Representatives just as adept at negotiating high profile legislation as swinging a hammer at a Habitat for Humanity site.

People gravitated to his natural charisma and sense of purpose.

Matthew reached for his suit jacket draped over the back of a corner chair. Would he say goodbye or simply walk away? She wanted to think he would speak to her, but couldn’t bear to find out otherwise so she sat up, floral sheet clutched to her chest.

“That floorboard by the door creaks, Matthew. You might want to sidestep it or I’ll hear you sneaking out.”

He stopped, wide shoulders stiffening before he turned slowly. He hadn’t shaved, his five o’clock shadow having thickened into something much darker – just below the guilty glint in his jewel green eyes that had helped win him a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Five months from now, come November, he could well be the handsome sexy-eyed Senator Landis if he won the seat to be vacated by his mother.

With one quick blink, Matthew masked the hint of emotion. “Excuse me? I haven’t snuck anywhere since I was twelve, trying to steal my cousin’s magazines from under his mattress.” He stuffed his tie in his pocket. “I was getting dressed.”

“Oh, my mistake.” She slid from the bed, keeping the sheet tucked around her naked body. The room smelled of potpourri and musk, but she wouldn’t let either distract her. “Since yesterday, you’ve just developed a light step and a penchant for walking around in your socks.”

Ashley nodded toward his Gucci loafers dangling from two fingers.

“You were sleeping soundly,” he stated simply.

A lot of great sex tended to wear a woman out. Apparently she hadn’t accomplished the same for him, not that she intended to voice her vulnerability to him. “How polite of you.”

He dropped the shoes to the floor and toed them on one after the other. Seeing his expensive loafers on her worn hardwood floors with a cotton rag rug, she couldn’t miss the hints that this polished, soon-to-be Senator wasn’t at home in her world. Too bad those reminders didn’t stop her from wanting to drag him back onto her bed.

“Ashley, last night was amazing–”

“Stop right there. I don’t need platitudes or explanations. We’re both single adults, not dating each other or anyone else.” She snagged a terrycloth robe off a brass hook by the bathroom door and ducked inside to swap the sheet for the robe. “We’re not even really friends for that matter. More like business acquaintances who happened to indulge in a momentary attraction.”

Okay, momentary for him maybe. But she’d been salivating over him during the few times they’d met to plan social functions at her Beachcombers Restaurant and Bar.

Ashley stepped back into the bedroom, tugging the robe tie tight around her waist.

“Right, we’re on the same page then.” He braced a hand on the doorframe, his gold cufflinks glinting.

“You should get going if you plan to make it home in time to change.”

He hesitated for three long thumps of her heart before pivoting away on his heel. Ashley followed him down the hall of her Southern antebellum home/turned restaurant she ran with her two foster sisters. She’d recently taken up residence in the back room off her office, watching over the accounting books as well as the building since her recently married sisters had moved out.

Sure enough, more than one floorboard creaked under his confident strides as they made their way past the gift shop and into the lobby. She unlocked the towering front door, avoiding his eyes. “I’ll send copies of the signed contract for the fundraising dinner to your campaign manager.”

The night before, Matthew had stayed late after the business dinner to pass along some last minute paperwork. She never could have guessed how combustible a simple brush of their bodies against each other could become. Her fantasies about this man had always revolved around far more exotic scenarios.

But they were just that. Fantasies. As much as he tried to hide his emotions, she couldn’t miss how fast he’d made tracks out of her room. She’d been rejected often enough as a kid by her parents and even classmates. These days, pride starched her spine far better than any back brace she’d been forced to wear to combat scoliosis.

Matthew flattened a palm to the mahogany door. “I will call you later.”

Sure. Right. “No calls.” She didn’t even want the possibility of waiting by the phone, or worse yet, succumbing to the humiliating urge to dial him up, only to get stuck in voicejail as she navigated his answering service. “Let’s end this encounter on the same note it started. Business.”

She extended her hand. He eyed her warily. She pasted her poise in place through pride alone. Matthew enfolded her hand in his, not shaking after all, rather holding as he leaned forward to press a kiss…

On her cheek.


He slipped out into the muggy summer night. “It’s still dark. You should go back to sleep.”

Sleep? He had to be freaking kidding.

Thank goodness she had plenty to keep her busy now that Matthew had left, because she was fairly certain she wouldn’t be sleeping again. She watched his brisk pace down the steps and into the shadowy parking lot which held only his Lexus sedan and her tiny KIA Rio. What was she doing, staring after him? She shoved the door closed with a heavy click.

All her poise melted. She still had her pride but her ability to stand was sorely in question. Ashley sagged against the counter by the antique cash register in the foyer.

She couldn’t even blame him. She’d been a willing participant all night long. They’d been in the kitchen where she’d planned to give him a taste of the dessert pastries her sister added to the menu for his fundraiser. Standing near each other in the close confines of the open refrigerator, they had brushed against each other, once, twice.

His hand had slowly raised to thumb away cream filling at the corner of her mouth…

She’d forgotten all about her white cotton underwear until he’d peeled it from her body on the way back to her bedroom. Then she hadn’t been able to think of much else for hours to come.

Her bruised emotions needed some serious indulging. She gazed into the gift shop, her eyes locking on a rack of vintage-style lingerie. She padded on bare feet straight toward the pale pink satin nightgown dangling on the end. Her fingers gravitated to the wide bands of peek-a-boo lace crisscrossing over the bodice, rimming the hem, outlining the vee slit in the front of the 1920’s look garment.

How she’d ached for whispery soft underthings during her childhood, but had always been forced to opt for the more practical cotton, a sturdier fabric not so easily snagged by her back brace. She didn’t need the brace any longer. Just a slight lift to her left shoulder remained, only noticeable if someone knew to check. But while she’d ditched the brace once it finished the job, she still felt each striation on her heart.

Ashley snatched the hanger from the rack and dashed past the shelved volumes of poetry, around a bubble bath display to the public powder room. Too bad she hadn’t worn this yesterday. Her night with Matthew might not have ended any differently, but at least she would have had the satisfaction of stamping a helluva sexier imprint on his memory.

A quick shrug landed her robe on the floor around her feet.

Ashley avoided the mirror, a habit long ingrained. She focused instead on the nightgown’s beauty. One bridal shower after another, she’d gifted her two foster sisters with the same style.

Satin slid along her skin like a cool shower over a body still flushed from the joys of heated sex with Matthew. She sunk onto the tapestry chaise, a French Restoration piece she’d bargained for at an estate auction. She lit the candle next to her to complete the sensory saturation. The flame flickered shadows across the faded wallpaper, wafting relaxing hints of lavender.

A deep breath at a time she willed her anger to roll free as she drifted into the pillowy cloud of sensation. She tugged a decorative afghan over her. Maybe she could snag a nano nap after all.

Timeless relaxing moments later, Ashley inhaled again, deeper. And coughed. She sat up bolt right, sniffing not lavender, but…


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…

Explosive Alliance

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

…Paige Haugen nudged her glasses straight on her nose again, righting her view of the landing cargo plane. Military fire trucks and security police shrieked onto the runway toward the hulking gray cargo plane touching down, slowing, smoke puffing from the tires and screeching brakes.

Her other hand held firm to the sticky softness of her baby girl’s fingers, not so little now. All of six years and nine months, Kirstie proclaimed often enough.

Too young to have hurt so much.

Paige swallowed back bilious memories stirred by the sirens. She wanted to leave. She’d seen enough destruction in her life thanks to her traitorous bastard husband. But her brother had dropped her off on his way into Minot to restock veterinary supplies, leaving her landlocked at the base for at least another half hour.

The plane jerked to a stop. Seconds later the side hatch dropped open, stairs lowering. The gaping portal filled with flight suit clad bodies pouring out and down the steps. Men, three, sprinted away from the craft while the fire trucks swarmed around.

An emergency? Or a part of the air show events? Surely the crowd would be cleared for a problem with the plane. And not just any plane, but a C-17 from her old hometown of Charleston. The tail art glinted, afternoon sun showcasing a blue palm tree and half moon resembling the South Carolina state flag. No matter how far she ran, even back home to North Dakota, apparently her past dogged her heels.

Her fingers squeezed protectively around Kirstie’s until her daughter squeaked, “Ouch, Mama, you’re crunching my hand.”

“Sorry, punkin seed.” She smiled down, the late spring sun beaming welcome warmth after a cold Dakota winter bitter in more ways than one. “I guess I was caught up in the action.”

“Those men don’t look like they got hurt. So how come there’s that amb’lence? Is there a doctor inside? Are they gonna get a shot?” Somber brown eyes peered up from behind coke-bottle thick glasses. “I don’t like shots much.”

Her daughter didn’t like doctors either, suffering a heartbreaking fear of illness and death since her father’s murder in prison. Paige’s heart pinched. She would do anything to bring back her daughter’s smile.

Even face demons from her past by coming to an Air Force base.

“They’re as healthy as Waffles’s new litter of puppies. See how fast they’re running?”

The three men, all her age or maybe slightly older, kept a steady pace away from the craft. She exhaled relief.

Fire trucks circled the plane as a fourth man filled the hatch. The aviator, younger than the others, thundered down the steps and made up the distance in seconds, overtaking, passing.

With a guitar case slung over his shoulder?

How incongruous, yet it broadened her smile and sprinkled relief over her fried nerves. If he’d stopped to retrieve the instrument, then surely this wasn’t a real emergency situation. Her gaze tracked the sprinting man abandoning the scene with heart-pounding athleticism.

“It’s probably a part of the air show demonstration, punkin’. Or maybe they’re practicing for when something really goes wrong.” Too bad life didn’t offer practice runs. Paige smoothed back her daughter’s sweaty blond curls from her forehead. “But if you’re scared, we could go look at something else.”

“No, please. You promised we could see the planes. You promised. What if it rains tomorrow and we can’t come back? Then you gotta work Sunday cause Uncle Vic’s working Saturday and Uncle Seth hurt his ankle.” Kirstie tucked her glasses back up for a better view. “And ‘sides, I wanna make sure those men are okay.”

“If you’re sure.” Easy enough to acquiesce when the small crowd blocked the exit anyway.

“Totally sure.” Kirstie stared back with wide eyes devoid of laughter.

Damn Kurt Haugen.

Damn him for dying. Damn him for the many lives he’d destroyed. Damn him most of all for stealing Kirstie’s childhood joy. And while she was at it, Paige figured she deserved a good swift kick for believing in him right up to the point they’d locked his traitorous butt in jail.

A toxic mix of acid and horror scoured what little of her stomach lining remained. How could he have sold out his country by smuggling terrorist-supplied opium in his restaurant’s shrimp trawlers? And how could she have missed that she and her husband were living far better than even an up and coming restaurateur should?

Paige popped a Tums and bolstered her resolve. She was through being a gullible idiot when it came to charming men. Her daughter needed a strong mama with a good head on her shoulders straighter than her perpetually crooked glasses.

The four men slowed, gathered, studied their aircraft, chests pumping for air. The oldest, a lumbering man, bent to brace his hands on his knees. Two others swiped their brows with a forearm.

Her gaze skipped last to the lanky guitar-carrying aviator who still stood tall, barely winded in comparison. His coal black hair reflected the sunrays, some of the beams lingering to catch along the hint of curl in his close-cropped cut. Why couldn’t she look away from him? She definitely wasn’t in the market for a man now, if ever again. Kurt had singed her, but good.

She frowned. Did the guy look familiar? Maybe that was what snagged her attention. Except she couldn’t tell for certain from so far away. Maybe they all looked alike in those green flight suits.

Heaven help her if she actually knew him. It was bad enough that her husband had cultivated a couple of young service members with deep debts to help him track military drug surveillance flights. But then he’d threatened others who wouldn’t help him.

Coming to an Air Force base and facing so many reminders of her husband’s deceit left her longing to dig deep in her purse for the whole roll of antacids. But there was precious little excitement around here to entice her child’s playfulness back. The annual air show marked major goings on in the area, right up there alongside the yearly State Fair and Rodeo.

Not that she was complaining anymore. Unlike her teenage years, she now embraced the starkness of her home state. Nothing was hidden here. There wasn’t even a respectable tree in sight for a good old fashioned game of hide and seek. Definitely different from the verdant marshes of the South that had cloaked so much.

The guitar guy chose that vulnerable moment to glance her way. Dry lightning crackled overhead. Or at least she thought it did because her skin prickled, fine hairs rising with an awareness that nature was about to unleash a storm.

What a ridiculously fanciful notion – and a dangerous one. Still her hand snuck up to check the stretchy band holding back her own hair as blond as Kirstie’s.

Her hand fell away. Damn it, she didn’t have time for vanity much less men.

Without breaking eye contact, the guy angled to speak with a grumpy-looking fella next to him, boots already moving forward. Toward her. Ah geez.

Paige hitched the insulated lunch sack from the ground up onto her shoulder, her heart thumping like thunder answering lightning. “Come on, punkin’, let’s find somewhere to sit.” Far away from here. “We can watch the planes land while we eat.”

Kirstie stared up with eyes enlarged by the lenses of tiny kid glasses. “I want to go inside the airplanes.”

“And we will. Tomorrow when the show officially starts. Okay? Today the planes are just arriving.”

The man ambled closer.

Time was running out. She resorted to desperate measures. “We’ll eat cupcakes for lunch.”

“I thought I gotta eat protein first so I don’t get sick with the flu or new-monia and hafta get a shot.”

“I brought peanut butter and jam sandwiches too,” she bartered through clenched teeth. “Blackberry jam. And I’ll give you a Rugrats vitamin the minute we get home. Come on.”

Kirstie’s wide eyes shifted from the lunch sack to the airplanes and back again. Her tongue peeked out of the corner of her mouth.

Yesss. They were seconds away from a sugar high she suddenly craved very much. Paige gave her daughter’s hand a gentle tug. “Race ya’ to that bench over there.”

Way over there, far from the man who really, really couldn’t be walking toward her.

Kirstie’s sneakers smacked asphalt while Paige jogged alongside. The physical labor as a veterinary technician for large farm animals this past year had increased her endurance. Wind and work toughened her up again in more ways than one. Being broke sucked. At least she had a roof over her head, thanks to her brother, and she was trying to pull her own weight by helping his veterinary practice stay afloat.

“Mrs. Haugen?”

The sexy baritone carried on the wind, leaving her no choice but to stop. Paige turned, gasped. Recognition stole her breath faster than any run.

Flyboys didn’t look alike in the uniform, after all. This man resembled no other. She remembered him sure enough, and that horrible night she’d first seen him.

Her past came strutting toward her with loose-hipped appeal, guitar slung over his shoulder. He was gorgeous, quite simply a perfectly put together man with fallen angel good looks that even an objective observer would note.

And her husband had tried to kill him simply because the man had the bad luck to be in Kurt Haugen’s way. She fought back tears and shame.

“I didn’t mean to startle you, ma’am.”

Ma’am? Paige winced. Now didn’t that put her in her old lady place?

Bo Rokowsky would likely be shocked to hear about the whole lightning sensation. God, he was probably all of about twenty-six or seven. Too young for her.

Her thirty-three wasn’t ancient, but she suffered no delusions about her looks. Sure, she didn’t crack mirrors, but she would never be mistaken for a supermodel even with an overhaul.

She was comfortable in her own skin now, far more so than during her weekly manicure life. But she wore jeans for working with animals these days, rather than sundresses for pampered wife dinners. Her glasses never stayed straight. And carting around an extra pounds on her butt that couldn’t be called baby weight anymore didn’t exactly engender rubbernecking stares from men.

“Mrs. Haugen?” The young god’s forehead furrowed. “Are you okay?”

“Mom,” Kirstie jerked her hand, whispering, “aren’t you gonna answer?”

“Hello.” Wow, what a conversational gymnast.

“You probably don’t remember me.”

Could she bluff her way out by pretending she didn’t know him? Except she’d never been a good liar, unlike her husband. “I remember you. It was a … memorable … time, Lieutenant Rokowsky.”

“It’s Captain now.”

Had that long passed since the arrest and Kurt’s death soon after? Nearly twelve months. Why was this man here?

Kirstie clung to Paige’s leg silent, trembling. Her little girl who used to turn fearless cartwheels now approached the world with more wary feet.

Hugging an arm around Kirstie, Paige wrapped her in as much security as she could. She couldn’t imagine this man would deliberately hurt a child. But even unwitting mentions of Kurt left Kirstie searching for hives on her legs, convinced she’d contracted a deadly disease that would require an injection.

“That was quite a show your crew put on, Captain.”

“Show? Oh, you mean the sirens.”

“And the sprint.”

“We flew into a flock of birds, took one in an engine and had to call for an emergency landing.”

“So that wasn’t a performance for our benefit?”

“Afraid not.”

Why wasn’t he leaving? Working? What did he want from her? “Don’t you need to do … something after a landing that frightening?”

“Stuff like that happens in the air – birds, engine fires, rapid decompressions. All in a day’s work.” His fingers flexed inside his flight gloves. “At least nobody’s shooting at us.”

She winced at images of Kurt’s arrest the night he’d held this man and another family hostage in hopes of finding a ticket out of the country.

“I meant in a war zone,” he amended gently.

She tried to smile. And failed. “Oh.”

He stepped closer. Man and musk and a masculine protectiveness emanated from him, wobbling her knees.

Bo brushed her elbow. “How are you?”

Scared. Afraid she couldn’t feed her daughter. Terrified one of her husband’s connections would come after them. She was also mortified. Decimated.

Lonely. And really, really enjoying the hot strength of this man’s touch against her elbow. Ah geez, was he actually leaning closer, his nostrils flaring as if catching her scent like a stallion choosing a mate?

No problem then unless he got worked up over the smell of Hawaiian Tropic sunscreen.

She eased her arm free. “We’re building a new life. I appreciate your taking the time to say hello–” Now wasn’t that a whopper lie? “But my daughter and I are about to eat lunch.”

“Cupcakes,” Kirstie whispered from around Paige’s leg.

Resting his guitar on the cement, he lowered to one knee in front of Kirstie. “Sounds like my kind of meal.”

Was he angling for an invitation? For what possible reason? She hated being suspicious, but when someone you loved betrayed you so totally, trusting strangers was all but impossible.

“Well, goodbye Captain, we need to get mov–”

Kirstie released her death grip on Paige’s thigh and inched forward. “Will you show me the airplanes? I’ll give you half my cupcake.”

“Kirstie,” Paige shushed low. “Captain Rokowsky probably has–”

“Bo.” He tapped the nametag on his flight suit. “My name’s Bo.”

“He has other things to do.”

Bo glanced over at the three men and then back. “I’m afraid your mom’s right.”

Kirstie’s disappointed sigh huffed up to rustle sweaty bangs. Then her spine straightened with her old spunk. “What if I gave you my whole cupcake? It’s chocolate with sprinkles.”

“Sprinkles, huh?” He scratched his square jaw. “That’s a tempting offer, but my boss is going to come looking for me soon and he gets cranky when we’re not on time. I just wanted to say hello before debrief.”

“De-what?” Kirstie’s curiosity about all things flying overtook her shyness. As much as Paige wanted to run, she couldn’t bear to stomp the returning spark in her daughter.

“Debrief. That’s when we talk about the flight so we can learn how to do things better the next time,” he explained with surprising patience from a young bachelor with “player” stamped all over his god-like body and confident strut.

“Oh, kinda like how I hafta go to school.”

“Exactly. But are you coming back tomorrow? I could work around those other things to spend an afternoon with two pretty ladies. If it’s okay with your mama, of course.”

He grinned up with unrepentant mischief as if he knew darn well he’d maneuvered her by offering in front of Kirstie. Yet why offer at all? Didn’t he have better things to do? It wasn’t that deserted in Minot.

“Are you always this accommodating?” And full of bull.

“I aim to please.” His smile kicked up a notch, his perfect face somehow enhanced all the more by his ever-so-slightly crooked teeth. “What do you say, ladies? Are you going to stand me up tomorrow?”

“No way.” Kirstie’s curls bounced with her shaking head. “You betcha boots we’re coming back. Mama promised.”

Whoa. Somebody stop the Mack truck force of this guy and her daughter. “Hello? I’m here too.”

“Mama always keeps her promise,” Kirstie rolled right on. “‘Course sometimes she says maybe, but that means she’s not sure and she never promises ‘less she knows for sure ‘cause it’s important not to lie.”

“She’s right.” Bo nodded sagely. “Sounds like you’ve got a good mama, Cupcake.”

“Kirstie. My name’s Kirstie Adella Haugen and my mama’s name is Paige.”

“Well Miss Kirstie Adella Haugen…” Scooping up his guitar, he stood, killer grin rising in wattage along with him. “I’ll meet you and your mama at noon tomorrow over by the Thunderbirds booth. All right, Paige?”

Her stomach flipped like one of those planes in flight. She wanted to say no, no and hell no.

But Kirstie smiled.

Paige sighed, defeated by a hip high six year old, no less. “Yes, thank you.”

Kirstie’s squeal was ample reward. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Captain Bo.”

“Looking forward to it, Cupcake.” Winking, he pivoted away, swinging his guitar back over his shoulder.

Watching him swagger off, the sunlight looping a glinting dance through the hint of curl in his hair, Paige reminded herself that the veneer of charm dulled all too quickly without substance beneath. And since she had no intention of going deep with this man, she would be able to keep her daughter safe for the span of one afternoon outing.

As he tossed another wave over his shoulder and perfect smile with charmingly imperfect teeth, she couldn’t help but wonder who would protect her from the likes of him?


He hadn’t packed protection for this TDY.


Bo almost startled back a step on the tarmac at the unexpected thought. Still, he kept right on watching the soft sway of Paige Haugen’s even softer looking hips as she hunted down a bench for the cupcake lunch with her kid.

Why was he worrying about condoms today? The emergency landing must have rattled his brain. He’d known full well when leaving Charleston this morning that he wouldn’t need birth control since he would only be seeing Paige Haugen. She was the last woman he would choose to sleep with given the mess a year ago, and no doubt, he wouldn’t even make her list for last place.

Now didn’t that sting more than it should while firing testosterone at the challenge?

Like he needed more firing up. The singsong melody of her Dakota accent still strummed his raw senses. Her tangy sunscreen scent clung to the dry air, moistening. And damned if sunscreen didn’t smell like coconut oil and tropical fantasies.

Her shoulder length locks offered an enticing bonus of softness. His hands itched to discover just how silky her hair might be gliding through his fingers. He was near burning after a glimpse of her generous breasts straining against her 4-H T-shirt. He could have been standing in a winter snowdrift and melted that sucker in five seconds flat.

Gusting wind whipped the eighty degree May weather around him along with rat-sized mosquitoes, itching him out of his sensual haze. The pesky insects bred and hatched in the piles of melting snow, thriving, big like everything else in this wide-open landscape.

He slapped his neck. Paige Haugen would certainly rather swim naked through a pool of these monster mosquitoes swarming the flight line than spend more time with him.

Paige Haugen.


The image threatened to take root with a tenacity he knew better than to allow. She was an attractive woman – smelled damned good. But his goal here was to get her out of his head, not plant her more firmly in his thoughts.

She and her daughter emerged from the other side of the small crowd, making their way toward a metal bench. She swung the insulated sack between them and started doling out food. His mouth watered at the thought of tasting a cupcake, followed by a patch of Paige’s skin.

As if she felt his gaze, she glanced over – and away just as quickly. He couldn’t blame her for wanting to avoid him after the way things had shaken down with her husband’s murder in prison. Reminders of that had to suck, regardless of whether or not she’d loved the jackass…

Code of Honor

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann


Iraq – two years ago:

“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! Calling any Coalition aircraft.”

The SOS crackled through Captain Joe “Face” Greco’s helmet, all other chatter dissipating faster than the clouds outside his windscreen. Adrenaline snapped through him, narrowing his focus. The two-hour flight in his Pave Low helicopter to ferry around a photojournalist should have offered a break from months of knife-edge missions.

Keeping the peace was a deadly endeavor.

Hands steady on the stick, Joe scanned the cracked desert rolling below and listened for the rest of the call, ready to launch if the threat fell into his range.

“This is Alpha one-six-three, seven miles west of Fallujah.” Gunfire popped in the background with the panting voice. “Requesting air support and evac.”

Alpha one-six-three? Dread kicked into high gear. Distinguishing voices over the radio might be tough, but Joe also remembered the number designation. The staticky shout for help blended with the chop, chop, chop of his helicopter blades, stirring hellish recognition. He’d dropped off that Special Forces team yesterday to track insurgents. He knew these Green Berets.

He knew their leader – Cooper Scott.


Muscles tensed for action, Joe barked to the copilot beside him. “Postal, get me a heading to Fallujah.” “Jesus Christ, Face, shouldn’t we radio command post for authentication?” First Lieutenant Bobby “Postal” Ruznick clicked keys on the navigational computer even as he argued. “I’m up for a gun battle as much as the next guy, more so probably. But if I’m going to get my ass shot off, I’d rather not go down in some set up ambush.”

“I’ve got voice confirmation on this one.”

“Roger that, then. Spinning up directions for Fallujah as we speak, boss.”

Joe resisted the urge to twist the cyclic, dip the rotors forward and plow ahead, follow his nose and to hell with directions. Those dudes should have been safe. He’d landed his Air Force Special Ops helicopter randomly twenty times yesterday to disguise placement of the twelve Green Berets tasked to track Al Qaeda foreign fighters, terrorist insurgents on suicide missions with no respect for rules of war. How the hell had the team been uncovered?

He’d figure that out later. After he pulled their bacon out of the fire. First he needed to call the air operations center while Postal plotted a flight path.

Joe thumbed the radio button. “Bear Cave, this is Yogi two-three. I’m in receipt of a mayday transmission.”

Flight name themes changed by the day. Yesterday they’d all flown with Superman IDs. Today some guy with a sense of humor had opted for a cartoon. Humor in hell, sometimes all that kept them sane. Too bad a literal guy like him sucked at humor. “Proceeding seven miles west of Fallujah to aid Alpha one-six-three. How copy?”

“Bear Cave copies all,” the control center responded.

“Heads up in the rear,” Joe radioed his gunners, two in the side windows and one at the helicopter’s back deck.

“We’ve got a mayday call. Make sure your guns are charged, and buckle down our guest.”

Damn, damn, damn it, why did they have to be carting a civilian today? An innocent female civilian who expected to change the world with her camera. A female who meant too much to Cooper.

Joe refused to think about what she could have meant to him.

His headset cranked up again. “Yogi two-three, this is Bear Cave, confirming that your mayday is valid. We’re scrambling two A-10s for support in ten mikes.”

Ten minutes. An eternity for Cooper and his men.

Postal straightened in his seat. “Pick up a heading of three-three-zero while I get something in the nav system. I’ll give you a heading marker in a second.”

Joe twisted the cyclic, tilting the rotor blades on top of the helicopter forward, dropping the nose to bite into the air and propel. The chop, chop sped to a roar. His other hand steered the stick, while his feet worked the rudder pedals to maneuver the tail. Hands and feet synched to dance the craft through the sky.

Too many valuable seconds were ticking by. He keyed up the radio. “Alpha one-six-three, responding to your mayday. We’re on our way, a single Mike Hotel five three–” MH-53, Pave Low “–what’s your situation?” Would Cooper recognize his voice as well?

“Our hide site got blown. We’re on the run.” Gunshots sputtered between his words, fire, return fire, explosions. A scream. “We’ve got about fifty guys on our ass. Several vehicles, too, with mounted weapons.”

Now the scratchy voice over the airwaves spurred images from the past in a macabre parallel – of his elementary school pal on the other end of walkie-talkies, playing war games in Joe’s backyard, practicing for the day they would grow up and live them out for real.

This was too damn real with no chance for do-overs.

The headset blasted with another explosion. Closer to Cooper’s radio. Louder again. “Crap. We’re getting nailed. How fast can you get here, Face?”

No question. They both knew who they were talking to, and he and his crew weren’t the only ones listening. Their passenger heard as well. Photojournalist Brigid Wheeler would document much more than she’d bargained for when they’d left their Kuwaiti base this morning.

At least Cooper didn’t know she was on board, and her headset wasn’t wired for responding. Only listening. Joe could almost hear his pal chewing him out for not flying her back ASAP. Not an option. She’d signed her liability waiver when she’d taken the press tour in a war zone. But then Cooper wasn’t much for rules.

Would she recognize Cooper’s voice garbled through static since she had far less time on military headsets?

“We’re ten miles out. Five mikes. Just hold on. We’ve also got two A-10s taking off from Baghdad International in eight mikes.”

Flat desert rolled past below him. Empty. Sun broiled through the windscreen, reflecting off the sand for a double dose of hellish heat. Light revealed too much. After-sunset flights offered the advantage of state-of-the-art night vision goggles and an infrared camera.

Forget bitching about the hand fate dealt. Work with it and win.

“Hey, bud…” Joe stopped himself short from using Coop’s name, which would alert Brigid if she didn’t already know. “Give me a better fix on your position. You got any coordinates to share?”

“Negative on coordinates. Little too busy running and shooting to check my GPS,” he said between gasping breaths.

“Once we snag a defensive position, I’ll get a read. Best I can tell now we’re seven miles west of the edge of town. We’re running west in a wadi–” a gulley trench in the sand that wouldn’t offer much protection “–and we’re trying for an abandoned village a mile west of here for cover.”

“Roger that. Will continue inbound.” Sweat stung his eyes, soaked his flight gloves, the stench of body odor and hydraulic fluid swelling.

Hopefully Cooper’s Special Forces team’s return fire would be enough to hold off the insurgents. Rugged terrain would slow the vehicles. There was a chance.

God, what he wouldn’t give for a joke to connect with his bud right now. Too bad his hands and brain were too busy to reach for his palm pilot and look one up.

Instead, he settled for one of their childhood sayings. “You’re still the baddest dude in the jungle.”

A choked off laugh huffed through. “Hell, if I was in a jungle I could take a GPS reading from behind a banana tree.”

Not even a palm in sight.

The copilot tossed aside a map and started logging fresh data into the navigational system. “I think I’ve got a lock on their location from the wadi. Follow the heading marker.”

“Copy.” Centering up on the heading marker, Joe shoved aside relief which would only waste seconds.

He tipped the rudders and squeezed another couple of miles per hour out of the Pave Low, one-forty-five, one-fifty, until she strained and rattled, giving all she had and more. She was a good old war hound. But just that – old, penetrating deep into enemy territory with only so much speed to haul in and haul out.

Scrap negative thoughts. Concentrate on flying and the beer at the end of this rotation when they got back to the States. Cooper stationed in Georgia, with Joe a short jog down at Hurlburt Field in the Florida panhandle.

Finally, dots appeared on the horizon, a city stretching ahead of the racing men. Fallujah.

Twelve Army soldiers – one officer and his team of eleven – were losing ground. In hand to hand combat, the Green Berets could take the insurgents gaining on them. But they were outgunned and on foot, chased down by crappy trucks and jeeps. Urgency pounded harder than his blades overhead. Sand churned below from the chopping rotor.

“Come on, come on, baby,” he coaxed. “Almost there. All right in back. Target area approaching. Gunners engage trucks coming up on the right hand side.”

He swept over trailing trucks in the convoy as the ground neared, gunfire sputtering down. One, two, three vehicles exploded. Five more ahead were almost on top of the team. Almost there. Almost…

Out of time.

Sweat seared his eyes, friend and enemy mixing as the insurgents overtook the Special Forces team. Whispers of defeat buzzed in tune with the howl of the engines. He couldn’t keep spraying their attackers with fire and risk killing whatever remained of their own. Not to mention further pissing off the bad guys who were now seconds away from having American POWs in their hands.

If he landed, his crew would be taken. He couldn’t even let himself think what those bastards would do to a woman. There had to be a way to keep things together until the A-10s arrived. His mind clicked through options. He counted vehicles again, five… One lagging behind so close he could almost see the face of the man in back as he…


Hefted a rocket launcher onto his shoulder.

“Fucking A!” Joe jerked left. “Hold onto your ass in back.”

Whoomp. Hiss.

The RPG – rocket propelled grenade – hurtled toward them. The Pave Low tipped to the side, strained to avoid.

His windscreen imploded…

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…


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.


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…