Wingman Warriors

Grayson’s Surrender/Taking Cover – reissue

posted on February 7, 2014 by Catherine Mann

From GRAYSON’S SURRENDER:
“Nice patch there, Major.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A flaming ball whipped past his windscreen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Roger that, you’ve got the jet.”

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

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

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

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

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

Pull back, adjust, weave right. Almost there.

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

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

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

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

Which he wouldn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bronco, you okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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….

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……”

A Soldier’s Christmas

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

…Watching his soon-to-be ex-wife trudge ahead, Josh wondered how she managed a strut even in snowshoes across the Alaskan tundra. It boggled the mind and the laws of physics. A half hour later after endless ready-to-explode-his-head tension, he needed a distraction. Well, one other than thinking of Alicia every other second while she ignored the hell out of him.

How freaking inconvenient that even when the love left, attraction still clung with tenacious claws that would put a polar bear to shame. “Damned boring, just walking, no talking.”

He really hated being bored. Almost as much as he disliked being ignored by this woman when he couldn’t stop naked snow-angel fantasies.

“Solve quadratic equations in your head,” his pilot wife answered without missing a step.

That might work. He’d done it often enough in grad school at sixteen, caught in the middle of keg parties with hot co-eds all too old for him.

By eighteen, he’d completed a master’s degree. He’d then worked at NASA while earning a Ph.D. until he was old enough to enter Air Force flight training at twenty-one and capture his dream of soaring in an F-15E. NASA, navigator training and a below-the-zone promotion had brought plenty of women in his path. He’d saved the equations for work then.

Here he was, thirty-five years old and back to equations. Damn. “Excellent suggestion. Something like calculating the clamp pressure required from my teeth to rip off your panties should keep me occupied.”

Ignore that, Renshaw-Rosen.

She stopped. Turned with a grace that defied those damned snowshoes and bulky parka. Nailed him with a look frostier than the icicles spiking from the trees. “Thong or French cut? Cotton or satin?”

Oh yeah. Now they were talking. “Obviously what you’re wearing today.” He swept aside a branch weighted low by snow, startling an arctic hare from the underbrush. “Why would I care about anything else? If you’re feeling shy about sharing first, allow me. I’m wearing Scooby Doo boxers with a holiday theme since Scooby’s sporting a Santa hat. Granted, they aren’t very military-looking, but the regs only require that while in flight I wear a hundred percent cotton.”

“Thanks for enlightening me, but I’m so not interested in your Scooby snack right now.”

Yeah, he pretty much got the message on that one loud and clear. Not for the first time he wondered about that dude in her past, the one she’d almost married except he’d died first. What secret had the poor bastard carried to his grave about understanding this woman?

“Ouch.” Josh thumped his chest with his oversize arctic gloves. “You know how to wound a guy. But I recover fast. Now, back to your underwear. I do believe I’ve solved the mystery.”

“Oh goody. And how did you manage that?”

“Elementary, my dear Renshaw-Rosen. Since we just finished slipping the surly bonds of earth in an aerospace vehicle owned by the Department of Defense, I deduce, as per regulation, your undergarments are one hundred percent cotton.”

Damn, it had been a long four days in the survival class with her, but at least they hadn’t been alone together – until now. Stupid though it may be, he wanted some kind of reaction from her. “As far as what design? While you do have the butt for a thong, I’m going to guess necessity overcame fashion and you opted for something a little more practical.”

Sighing, she hitched her hands on her hips. “You know, I really hate you sometimes. If only your brain and shoulders weren’t so hot.”

“You like my … brain?”

“Fine,” she snapped. “You win. You want to talk? Let’s discuss who gets what when we split up the household goods.”

His humor faded faster than his breath puffing vapors into the sub-zero air. “One in four decisions made while cold will be incorrect, my love.”

All the more reason he shouldn’t be thinking about sex. His traitorous Scooby snack throbbed anyway. Good God, it was cold as hell. Just what he needed, a frozen erection.

“Don’t call me that.” Her chin trembled. From anger? Or something softer?

“Call you what?”

“My love.”

“Why not? You can call me all sorts of things – Josh, Colonel, Bud, Rosen. Jerk. Take your pick. Meanwhile, I have…” He quirked his gaze up to the murky sky, ticking through numbers on his fingers. “Seventeen more days until our appointment with the attorney to start the process whereby we officially begin making you no longer ‘my love.'”

After streaming a long cloudy exhale ahead of her, she ignored him. No surprise. He deserved her disdain. He was being an ass and he knew it.

He should shut up, except damn it all, he was working to survive on a lot of levels today. Must be the whole holiday season dragging him down. Since a gunman’s siege at his college right in the middle of December semester exams, he dreaded this time of year. He’d hoped to make happier memories with Alicia in front of their fireplace with a bottle merlot, some mistletoe and no clothes.

But he’d grossly underestimated the amount of effort required by marriage, and all the logic in the world hadn’t helped him figure out this woman. “Maybe we could both take leave and fly down to Mexico for a quickie. Divorce, I mean.”

“I know what you mean.” Her voice might be quiet, but she snapped with tension louder than the crack of fallen branches underfoot. “And you are so not funny right now.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Comedy and arrogance. Just what every girl looks for in a guy.”

“Arrogant?” He plastered an over-innocent look on his face, chapped skin pulling tight at the effort, but it was a helluva lot easier to joke than vent his real frustrations. “How so?”

Her snowshoes slapped the ground, wafting a powdery patch. “Don’t be a smart ass.”

“But I am a smart ass.” He checked his compass, adjusted their steps. “My IQ’s just a fact, a fluke of birth, nothing I can take any particular pride in.”

And that IQ told him he’d mastered funny, a talent he’d developed to help him fit in when he entered college at thirteen. He didn’t intend to go through life as an ostracized whiz kid freak. He’d needed something to help him assimilate into the college community until he hit his growth spurt, which, thank you sweet God, finally happened at seventeen to the tune of six feet tall.

Of course, he’d quickly learned that humor was harder than landing a perfect score on the SAT, which made it more of a challenge. And damn, but he loved a challenge. Alicia was his biggest challenge ever, more so than studying the rim shot humor patterns of the Three Stooges’ comedic routines. Problem was, he was losing this challenge.

“What do you want, Alicia? Do you even know?” The question fell out before he could think, which said too much about his frustration level.

Silence answered him for at least eight trudging steps under the cover of silent trees, her arms swinging along her sides. “I want to finish this survival course. I want to start my job at the squadron. Simple stuff. Nothing complicated. So quit placing me under a microscope. I’m not an equation for you to figure out. I’m just … me.” Her snowshoes smacked the ground with increasing force and sound. “And most of all, I am not your love. Not anymore, if I ever was.”

He had loved her, damn it, before too much distance and arguing had killed it for both of them. She could just bite him if she thought otherwise.

Not that he intended to mention the point and thus offer up the rest of his heart for target practice. “Thanks for clarifying. Consider the microscope officially packed away. We’ll walk. No talking other than directions. Speaking of which, veer left at the Y-looking birch tree up there.”

So now this crappy day would be silent. Fair enough. Couldn’t get much worse anyway.

Snowflakes whispered from the murky sky…

Explosive Alliance

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

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

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

Too young to have hurt so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With a guitar case slung over his shoulder?

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

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

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

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

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

Damn Kurt Haugen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man ambled closer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mrs. Haugen?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hello.” Wow, what a conversational gymnast.

“You probably don’t remember me.”

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

“It’s Captain now.”

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

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

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

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

“Show? Oh, you mean the sirens.”

“And the sprint.”

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

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

“Afraid not.”

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

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

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

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

She tried to smile. And failed. “Oh.”

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

Bo brushed her elbow. “How are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He has other things to do.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Kirstie smiled.

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

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

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

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

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

***

He hadn’t packed protection for this TDY.

Protection?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paige Haugen.

Naked.

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

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

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

The Captive’s Return

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

“Marry me… please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mayhem.

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

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

Boom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or dying in peace.

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

“Si.” Her eyes slid closed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We’ll take him with us.”

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

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

He would take her any way he could have her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m here.” He took her hand again.

“I want you to know, just in case–”

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

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

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

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

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

“I look forward to it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He refused to accept he would never see Sara again…

Awaken to Danger

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

CHAPTER 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

No one answered. Thank God.

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

Okay, almost definitely a hotel.

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

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

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

Although these days she was more mad than hurt.

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

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

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

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

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

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

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

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

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

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

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

She didn’t risk guessing a name.

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

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

New leaf turnover time.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

A lieutenant from his squadron was dead…

Grayson’s Surrender

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

“Nice patch there, Major.”

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

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

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

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

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

She laughed again. The great husky laugh of hers that rolled right into him. Just as fast, she had his hormones bombarding the defenses of his reason. Of course sex, great sex, incredible anything, anywhere, anytime sex, had never been their problem. But the minute they’d set their feet on the floor….