Books

“The Joker” in Bet Me

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

Chapter One

Being a princess was a real pain in the tiara.

Wearing the crown and fifty-plus pound royal garb of her native country of Cantou threatened to give Las Vegas Police Detective Kim Wong a debilitating rash and back ache. And the police station hadn’t even been called to order for morning brief yet.

She shuffled from foot to foot, shoes too tight as she stood with her fellow police officers on the Las Vegas Police Force. And yeah, they were smirking.

“Zip it, Jakowski,” Kim said, “or I’m gonna send your wife a picture of you in drag.”

Coughing into his hand, the smirker hushed and rejoined his conversation with an older detective in plaid shorts, a Hawaiian shirt and a camera around his neck.

Aside from this whole costume party being the strangest morning brief in history, the clothes brought back all the reasons she’d decided to put the pomp and circumstance behind her for a life where she controlled her choices. Hanging out with the coffee maker burping sludge into the pot, Kim bolstered herself with thoughts of the wager she’d made with her two best pals, also detectives, Dorian Byrne and Clarissa Rivers.

The bet?

Who would close their case first this weekend. The stakes? A very precious – and rare – week off.

Their boss, Captain Bill Pearson, was riding the whole department’s back to clean up the town the weekend before a big influx of tourists for the Labor Day extended holiday. Finishing up fast and first would rate extra kudos around the water cooler.

Every cop not on another detail had been assigned to work a suspect casino. She would be working the Great Wall Casino. The tip on the Great Wall would barely warrant attention on a normal day, but her boss was really wigging. So he paid more attention than normal to an unreliable snitch with a heroin habit who vowed stolen diamonds were going to be moved through the Asian-themed casino this weekend.

Normally, they would just do a cursory check, not a deep undercover gig. Except this wasn’t a normal weekend. Their Captain was definitely not in a normal mood with politicians breathing down his neck and his wife breathing fire not-too-privately about all her husband’s overtime.

So, here Kim stood in fifty-pounds of embroidered garb.

She raked her fingernails along her shoulder and resisted the urge to replace her tiara with a jeweled baseball cap. She truly respected the beauty and history of her heritage, but she’d picked a new path for her life years ago. However for this weekend she had to impersonate her spoiled brat princess cousin, Ting.

Lucky for Kim’s case, she and “Princess” Ting could be identical twins.

Not that either of them was really royalty. The whole imperial thing had ended thirty-eight years ago in a military coup. Her family was allowed to keep their titles out of courtesy only.

Kim was grateful for the support of her two best pals – her cohorts in the bet. Clarissa had already started her assignment and Dorian would be heading out soon. But Confucius love ‘em, her friends had been emphatic about giving her a big send off even though they’d already gotten their marching orders.

A hand rested on her shoulder, jolting her. She turned to find Dorian had slid through the masses, past a lion tamer and a “vacationing” couple. Her buddy, Dorian, wore a prim suit, lucky her, but her undercover get-up would come soon enough.

“Hang in there, my friend,” Dorian consoled. “It doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. We all know you can kick any man’s ass with your black belt qualifications – not to mention your street moxy.”

Kim rolled her eyes. “I can barely walk in this get-up. But sure, whatever.”

Dorian dipped her head and whispered, “Kim, are you sure you’re up to this?”

“I only needed a few stitches, not major surgery.” Itching. Not pain. She wouldn’t think about the bullet wound. A nick only, really.

“That doesn’t mean getting shot didn’t mess with your head.”

Kim forced a smile. “You just want to shift the odds in your favor of getting that week off.”

“I’m just watching my friend’s back.” She grinned. “Not that I could recognize your back in all those clothes you’re wearing.”

“It’s better than being darn near naked,” Kim pointed out because Dorian would be wearing streetwalker gear soon enough.

A scowl turned Dorian’s expression fierce. “Point taken. The stilettos are guaranteed ankle-breakers”

“I respect my country’s historic wear, but dang, this stuff chafes.”

“Once you get through the opening ceremonies, things should be more casual.”

“Obviously you’ve never seen Ting featured in Celebs Magazine.”

Clarrisa Rivers made her way past Jakowski in drag to join them. “Too bad they couldn’t give you a purple tiara. You like purple.”

“I’m sure Ting has one shoved somewhere.” Her cousin made full use of the family coffers to pamper herself.

“At least you don’t have to go undercover as a maid or a hooker.” Clarrisa tugged at the apron in obvious disgust, the magenta costume obviously striking some kind of negative chord.

“You’ve got me there.” Kim eyed her two friends, grateful for their support. They really could be out working their cases now, getting a head start on her, but they’d come here to check on her, to make sure she had her feet under her since the shooting a month ago. “Thanks for coming over to check on me. But I’m sure you need to get back to your own assignments.”

Clarissa tapped Kim’s tiara. “We wouldn’t have missed your launch for the world.”

Then the room was called to attention for the head dude, their boss, Captain Pearson. “Be seated. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover today, so let’s get straight to it and start with getting Detective Wong out on the street.”

Deep breath. Time to make her grand march to the front of the room. Bye-bye burping coffee pot.

Kim tossed her head back and strode forward, willing the crowd to part.

Which it did.

Hmmm. Apparently the royal blood still shooshed through her veins after all. Her protective entourage – police officers all decked out as well – flanked her on her way to the front of the room.

Captain Pearson nodded to her as he stepped aside to make room for Kim and Company. “Good. You all look good, convincing. Well done, detectives. We’ll get started soon. We’re just waiting on one final individual, your personal bodyguard.”

What? All itchy sensations disappeared in light of a full tingle of irritation. “Personal bodyguard? I think I’m insulted.”

Pearson shook his head. “It will look strange in the casino if you don’t have a bodyguard.”

“Of course you’re right.” Irritation slid away, which of course gave the itching full rein to return. “I’m thinking with my ego rather than my brain.” She was still stinging after getting winged on that domestic dispute job last month. She didn’t doubt herself, but she feared others would.

“We’re concerned about security on this one, Wong. It goes beyond the jewels. There’s been a threat called in on the royal family given the shaky relations between some rogue factions in the U.S. and in Cantou.”

“I’m a U.S. citizen now.”

“But you’re not yourself this weekend.”

Of course. Already her brain was getting muddled.

“This weekend, you are Ting in the eyes of your mother country. And if the diamond transfer to fund underground armies in Cantou is true, they won’t care if you’re the princess or not. You’re royal. That’s cause enough to put a price on your head. So, regardless. We want a robust security detail, and what makes the most sense is big burly boyfriend.”

A boyfriend? She searched the room full of her fellow detectives. At least she could be sure she wasn’t getting the jerk Jakowski since he wouldn’t scare off anybody in his spandex skirt and pink lipstick. Somebody really should have told him to shave his hairy legs.

Shuddering, she turned back to her boss. “You’re kidding, sir.”

“I’m afraid not,” the captain said from behind the podium. “And the most logical choice would be the man well known for hanging out with the Wong women–

A slight inkling started to niggle through. Oh no.

“–when he was deployed to Cantou–”

He couldn’t mean. She clutched Dorian’s arm.

“–two years ago on assignment with the U.S. Air Force.”

Oh no. Pearson totally did mean–

The door opened wide and in lumbered Kim’s bodyguard to the whooping and applause of her fellow police officers who must not realize this man wore the uniform for real. He wasn’t a rent-a-hunk.

Nuh-uh. He was a man she wouldn’t have forgotten regardless of his size. The looming guy wore Air Force blues, with a uniform jacket packed with ribbons and silver wings attesting to his career bravery. A military pilot who’d darn near stomped her heart a couple of years ago when she’d made her annual journey to her homeland. It should have been a fling. Instead, it had been an emotional code red, courtesy of the most intense, serious… sexy man she’d ever known.

Captain Marcus “Joker” Cardenas.

Strategic Engagement

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

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

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

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

A Rubistanian guard from the embassy tracking them.

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

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

Danny.

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

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

Back to her solitary life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Danny.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad example.

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

She wished.

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

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

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

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

“That was last month, Wren.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And let her out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crate rolled forward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Roger that, Captain.”

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

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

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

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

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

Went…

Up.

Oh, God. They were airborne.

“Christmas at His Command” in Holiday Heroes

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

Chapter One

General Hank Renshaw hadn’t often seen a man’s hand down the bra of esteemed congresswoman Ginger Landis.

Of course, as he stood astounded in the doorway of the VIP lounge in the tiny airport on the Bavarian border, he couldn’t recall a time he’d ever seen his long-time friend Ginger’s underwear at all. Much less with a man’s hand slipped inside.

Hank slammed the door closed so nobody else would snag a view of what now filled his eyes.

Technically, the security fellow wasn’t groping around inside her satiny camisole thing. Ginger had taken off the jacket to her Christmas red power suit so the reedy guy in a black jacket could outfit her with the latest listening device for her upcoming meeting with the German Chancellor and Minister of Arts as well as the Vice-Chancellor of neighboring Kasov. All a part of a holiday goodwill trip across Europe , ending on Christmas Eve at a medieval castle with chapel ruins set to be rebuilt. Ginger would be donating an heirloom from her family’s antique art collection, a small but priceless porcelain crèche.

Hank’s role? To stand at her side as her official military escort. Unofficially, he was here to protect her. The final wall of defense between her and the threats that had been made on her life. Those threats were the very reason for the heightened security with a listening device.

Arms extended, Ginger stood in spike heels, legs to kill in a pencil thin skirt and satin camisole trimmed in lace.

His midnight dreams about this woman played out much like this – with him standing beside her, of course. He would stretch her out on that frou-frou creamy chaise behind her.

But only in dreams when he tossed off the restraints of waking hours did he allow himself to fall victim to fantasies about his pal of over twenty-five years. He was a red-blooded man, after all, and age hadn’t diminished Ginger’s appeal in the least. Which could also have something to do with the genius brain she packed underneath that head of perfectly styled platinum blonde hair.

Still, never had he done anything to put their friendship at risk by relaying the attraction.

Then he realized the silence had gone on too long to be anything but freaking awkward, and his slack-jawed look could very well put a chink in their all-important friendship.

“Sorry, Senator Landis.” Hank used her official title in deference to the security personnel present – and out of a need to put some distance back into their relationship. “I hadn’t realized you weren’t ready yet. I’ll just step outside.”

Outside. A fine place for him to stand guard anyway, while he sweated his way through images of her wearing red hot lingerie. This would be a very long day.

He twisted the doorknob behind him.

Ginger waved a manicured hand through the air, white tips of her nails fluttering. “Oh, hell, Hank. Quit with all that formal Madame stuff. We’re not at a press conference.”

She had a point. Still he couldn’t help thinking he would be safer standing guard in the airport corridor by the decorated tree getting his head on straight again. “Ginger, I’ll wait in the hall by the door until you’re ready.”

“Hold on. Get out from under that mistletoe and come over here. See if you can clip this microphone on right so I’m not trailing tiny computer bits out of my skirt,” her South Carolina drawl curled through the cloud of unease. “This poor secret service fellow’s so worried about copping a feel he can’t get the damn thing secured to save his soul.”

The young security agent must have been all of seventeen – okay, twenty-seven. They just looked like babies when you’d hit fifty-five.

The kid didn’t help matters by blushing to the roots of his Idaho farm boy red hair. “Senator Landis, I apologize. These new listening devices have a tricky clasp, but they’re far less visible.”

Ginger cocked a delicately arched brow. “Well, I wanted to use those fancy teeny tiny ones that fit in the ear canal, but all this flying gave me a double ear infection.”

She smoothed a hand over her blond hair away from afore mentioned ailing ear. The simple gesture hitched her camisole up to expose a tiny strip of stomach when Hank was already reeling from the surprise of seeing his old friend in a new light. Hank blinked his way through the fog and focused on her words. She’d mentioned being sick? Concern slammed away everything else.

He charged deeper into the room, the plush carpet muting his frustrated footsteps to dull thuds. “Are you sure you’re up to this trip? They’ve packed in more stops on this goodwill tour than there are waking hours in the day.”

“I’m fine. The antibiotic’s kicked in. My ears are just a little sensitive.”

Relief rocked through him as the secret service agent stepped away from her, giving Hank a clear path. Yeah, he knew he was a little over protective of women. His daughters labeled him an alarmist when it came to illnesses. Send a bullet or mortar his way and he could stand firm without flinching. But ailments of the body still made him break out in a cold sweat since he’d lost his wife to a fluke aneurysm twenty-four years ago, leaving him with three children to bring up.

He didn’t know how he would have made it through without Ginger’s help. He’d tried to help her as well when her Senator husband had died ten years ago in a car crash, leaving her with four strapping boys. She and Hank had pooled resources when they could.

He blinked through thoughts of the past, their past, their friendship. Anything to keep himself from focusing overlong on the fact that his fingers were now inches away from Ginger’s chest…

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.

Much.

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

PROLOGUE

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

Prologue

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.

Crap.

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.

Hack.

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.

Gone.

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

CHAPTER ONE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Damn.

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

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

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

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

Pursued

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

CHAPTER ONE

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.

Damn.

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…

Smoke.

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…