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Shelter Me

posted on February 7, 2014 by Catherine Mann


I was born in the land of Babylon.

Thousands of years ago people spoke the same language there, before the Big Master scattered them. Maybe that’s why I understand what humans mean even when they can’t understand each other. Or possibly that’s why they can’t understand me, because they left.

But then perhaps they can’t understand me because I’m a dog.

No. Really. I’m not putting myself down. I’m seriously a D-O-G. Yep, I can spell, too, but I can’t tell people that, either, because . . . Come on, you know the reason. Say it with me. Because I’m a . . .


And while I was born in Babylon—a.k.a. Southern Iraq—my life changed forever the day I left that home with Sergeant Mike Kowalski. The morning I went away was tricky, because the Sergeant had to sneak me out of the forward operating base on one of those monster big cargo planes they call a C-17. I was going for the ride to end all rides.

Back then they didn’t have lots of cool puppy rescue organizations to bring dogs back from a war zone. In my day, the Department of Defense law stood more often than not. No pets on military installations. And bringing them home? Huge negative on that.

So rules were bent, twisted and broken to rescue me, but it was a must-do operation to complete my mission. To understand my mission fully, you need to know how I ended up with Sergeant Kowalski.

Back when I ran in a pack with my cousins, we scavenged for scraps. Best place to look? U.S. military installations. The guys in uniforms, the ones from across the ocean, fed us. Good stuff, too. So we howled out the locale of new troops setting up camp so our pack buddies would know.
I hit the mother lode with those guys.

“No MREs for you, Trooper. You get steak,” said a colonel with silver hair, dusty camos and creaky knees.

The first time I ate steak, I almost peed myself. Of course I peed myself for a lot of reasons in those days because I was still a puppy. Six months old then. Twelve months old when I left that place. Eleven years old now.

During my puppy days, the rest of my pack didn’t want to stay at that particular camp because it was busy and big, and they were ancient and wary. But I was the youngest, the only one of my litter to survive, and gut-deep hungry from only scraps of leftovers. I was way below being the alpha dog. Not even really a beta dog. More like a lowercase zeta.

After we ate our fill for a week, it was a tough choice sticking around by myself, because yeah, I would lose my pack, but hunger won out. Six months later when the time came to leave on that plane? I didn’t hesitate for a second. Sure I would miss this place where they tossed a tennis ball and seemed to think I was a rock star because I figured out fast they wanted me to bring it back. Like that was hard after tracking rats in the desert for dinner?

But I knew it was time to leave Babylon. Southern Iraq. Home.

I had a mission. That was what the Sergeant told me. I was needed. Magic words to a dog. We live for a job, a purpose. It’s what we were created for by the Big Master.

My mission: to heal a family, the family that had lost their person over here. I was supposed to be their link to him because he was the one who found me. The silver-haired Army colonel who fed me steak…

One Good Cowboy

posted on January 11, 2014 by Catherine Mann

…”What are you doing?”

“You said you didn’t want to talk.” Sure he knew they weren’t really going to have sex on his desk, but he reveled in the regret in her eyes that she couldn’t hide in spite of her scowl.

“You’re being outrageous.”


“Stop. Now,” she said firmly.

Okay, he’d pushed her far enough for today, but he could see that while their love for each other might have burned out, their passion still had plenty of fire.

He buttoned his shirt again and tucked in the tails. “Spoilsport.”

She brushed papers into a stack. “The pilot’s waiting.”

“Damn waste of an empty desk,” he said with a smile…

For the Sake of Their Son

posted on September 30, 2013 by Catherine Mann

“You can’t be serious.”

“I’m completely serious.” Elliot’s fingers twisted in Lucy Ann’s ponytail.

“Let. Go. Now,” she said, barely able to keep herself from hauling him in for a kiss. “Sex will only complicate matters.”

“Or it could simplify thing.” He release her hair slowly, his stroke tantalizing all the way down her arm.

“Lucy Ann?” His bourbon-smooth tones intoxicated her parched senses. “What are you thinking?”

“My aunt said the same thing about the bonus of friends becoming….more.”

He laughed softly, the heat of his breath broadcasting how close he’d moved to her. “Your aunt has always been a smart woman. Although, I sure as hell didn’t talk to her about you and I becoming lovers.”

“You need to quit saying things like that. You and I need boundaries for this to work.”

His gaze fell to her mouth for an instant that stretched to eternity. “We’ll have to agree to disagree….”

Yuletide Baby Surprise

posted on July 5, 2013 by Catherine Mann

“Do you really think people are going to believe we went from professional adversaries to lovers in a heartbeat?”

“Lovers, huh? I like the sound of that.”

“This isn’t a plan.” Mariama pulled free, inching her chair back. “It’s insanity.”

“It’s a plan that will work.” Everyone will want to hear more about the aloof princess finding romance and playing Good Samaritan at Christmastime.”

Her eyes went wide with panic, but she stayed in her seat. She wasn’t running. Yet.

Rowan showed to his feet. “Time for bed.”

“Bed?” she squeaked, standing as well.

He could see in her eyes that she’d envisioned sharing a bed before this moment. And it gave him a surge of victory….

Free Fall

posted on December 26, 2012 by Catherine Mann

“Elite Force” book 4
By Catherine Mann

Horn Of Africa

When Interpol operative Stella Carson was eight years old, her mother rented the movie Out of Africa so Stella could envision where her mom lived when she left Tallahassee for Peace Corp trips. Those images had helped through the first night alone saying her prayers. And through a summer with her brothers as babysitters while their father drove his UPS route.

In the fall, a photo of her mother went in her backpack, helping Stella hold strong during a rocky start of third grade when she landed in the principal’s office for a playground fight. Nobody would make fun of her daddy’s efforts to send his baby girl off to school, even if her braids were lopsided with mismatched bows. Stella knew how to punch like a boy, thanks to her three older brothers.

Her siblings had failed to mention the importance of saving the infamous Carson left hook for the walk home, off school grounds.

But she’d survived the principal’s punishment, as well as her father’s disappointment, by envisioning her mom dispensing medicine and mosquito nets to needy kids. The school wouldn’t suspend her anyway because they needed Stella’s perfect scores on standardized tests. Tuning out the principal’s lecture, she’d stroked one of the mismatched ribbons between her fingers, tabulated the number of pinholes in the ceiling tiles and pretended she didn’t need her mother.

When Stella was fifteen her mom died on one of those annual aide trips. She had a tough time understanding why Melanie Carson chose to leave her family to help other families in a foreign country. It didn’t make sense to a grieving teenager, and Stella craved answers. Understanding. Order.

By college, she’d realized if she didn’t decipher what really happened that day her mother died and find peace for the restlessness inside her, there would be no building a family of her own. Something she desperately wanted. So she’d changed her major to criminal justice, landed a job in Interpol’s American office as a code breaker, and poured all her energies into wrangling an assignment in Africa.

Here. Now. In a country every bit as magnificent as in the movie Out of Africa and tumultuous as her feelings about the place that stole her mother.

Finally, she could piece together her mom’s last days. Find answers about her mother’s mysterious death. And if not answers, at least gain closure.

Although her whole quest would be moot if she didn’t squeeze more life out of the sleek boat she was steering at breakneck speed along the Arabian Sea into the Gulf of Aden.

Stella thumped the already maxed throttle, the metal so hot to the touch it damn near blistered her palm. Logic told her the engine didn’t have anything more to give. Still she calculated angles to take the choppy sea faster. She stayed well clear of the other vessels just as they stayed away from her. Everyone kept their distance in these lawless waters.

The hull’s nose popped over a wave and slammed back onto the churning surface. She bit her tongue. The metallic taste of blood filled her mouth. The motor revved and muffled, catching hold of the water and shooting forward again. Seconds counted. Timing was everything.

A team of Navy SEALs and a pair of Air Force pararescuemen were counting on her to be in place for the pick up if things went wrong with their helicopter rendezvous. Sure, those special operations dudes could swim for miles, but even the most elite of the elite warriors didn’t relish hanging out in shark infested, pirate riddled waters.

Sea spray stung her overheated face as the sun melted downward in the sky. She gripped the steering wheel tighter, her eyes on the sonar and radar screens feeding images of the SEALS and pararescuemen – also known as parajumpers or PJs. Six SEALs and two PJs were diving, about to “count coup” on a suspected pirate frigate, a stealthy tap and go.

The mother vessel was towing four faster skiffs for overtaking their targets once they reached the open sea. Except today the US forces were under water disabling the smaller crafts, something the Somali pirates wouldn’t discover until they were out in the middle of the sea ready to prey on others. Those four malfunctioning boats, clearly dismantled right under their very noses, would screw with their heads.

Never underestimate the power of psychological warfare.

As a field operative for Interpol, she’d been sent to assist with the investigation into stolen artifacts by pirates off the Horn of Africa, to decipher the codes and patterns to their movements. Local government officials in the region had requested international help. Those stolen treasures brought major bucks on the black market, money then used to fund separatist groups and local warlords that increased criminal chaos. Groups responsible for instigating ruthless uprisings. Rampant looting where women were brutalized. Young males, barely teenagers were being pressed into service. At least one of those child soldiers was on that main vessel today.

Another reason the PJs had been tapped to participate – for the safety of the kid as well as the SEALs if things went to hell. PJs received the same SEAL training needed to carry out the mission, but with additional medic skills to make a house call behind enemy lines. PJs were like Supermen with EMT bonus powers.

There hadn’t been any PJs around for her mom. Melanie Carson died here and her family had been given sketchy details along with her body to bury. Authorities had written off the injuries as results of a car accident. Stella hadn’t believed them then, any more than she believed them now. She’d worked her entire career with Interpol with one goal: To find the truth about her mother’s death. Finally, she had her chance and she wouldn’t allow anything to derail her plans.

Today’s launch of her mission was everything.

A helicopter had dropped the SEALs and PJs in the water five miles out from the pirates. Afterward they were supposed to swim five back where the chopper should be able to pick them up. But as a failsafe, she and four heavily armed CIA operatives stayed nearby in the speedboat.

She’d plotted contingencies, and more contingencies for the contingencies, because logic was her strength, her secret weapon even. It was all about back up plans–

Pop, pop, pop.

The unmistakable sound of gunfire carried across the water. Stella braced, sweat chilling under her bulletproof vest. She looked over her shoulders at her four CIA teammates aiming MP5 submachine guns.

“Is it pirates?” she shouted over her shoulder, wind tearing strands of hair loose from her braid.

“Don’t think so,” an operative known only as Mr. Smith barked back, scanning distant horizon where two fishing boats bobbed. Of course CIA agents were always Smith or Brown. Or if working in a pack like today, Jones and Johnson joined in. “They seem to be shooting in the air, partying maybe.”

His buddy Mr. Brown squinted into the scope on his gun. “The place is littered with these bastards. I’m not trusting that party spirit.”

Mr. Jones hitched his weapon higher. “We can outgun them.”

Stella eyed the horizon. A whale arched just ahead, then slapped its tale in a majestic display so at odds with the turmoil playing out on the water’s surface above them. “Or we can stay cool and keep moving closer in case the chopper needs to bail out.”

An explosion in the sky sent shockwaves across the water. The CIA dudes dropped to their knees. So much for keeping cool.

Stella steadied the boat and studied the radar. Her heart punched into her throat. Had the pirate ship blown up? Had the PJs and SEALs been injured in the raining debris and flames?


The radar offered plenty of details.

But the news?


As bad as it got.

“The chopper exploded,” she announced, forcing her voice to stay flat, calm. Professional.

Now that she knew where to look, debris rained in the distant sky, a splash spewing on the horizon. The crew she’d briefed this morning was almost certainly dead, and if not, a different contingency was in place to search for them – a second PJ pair. Just the thought delivered a sock in the gut as she thought about another child hearing the news her mom or dad wasn’t coming home.

But she had to push through the feelings threatening to
suck her under. Her role now? Crystal clear.

“We have to get our guys out now rather than waiting for them to swim closer. Those look like dolphin fins out there, but if I’m wrong… We need to move.”

Nailing the throttle again, she compartmentalized. Later, she would climb up onto the embassy roof alone and mourn the aircrew. At this moment, her focus had to be on extracting the men in the water.

How far had the special ops men swum from the vessel? How close would she have to sweep by the known pirate frigate? And the unknown bad guys in these waters? Who had launched that rocket at the chopper?

She took a read off the sonar beside the radar, homing in on the blips. Beacons sent signals from her pick up targets. Men. Swimming. Closer. She eased back on the horsepower. Searching the surface for the slightest… ripple.

“Got ‘em,” Mr. Smith announced with conviction an instant before she saw what snagged his eagle eyes.

The barest perceptible cuts through the water. The pirate vessel was a surprisingly distant shadow in the sunset. Good God, how had the men made it so far so fast? Even if the other boat was speeding away.

She cut the engine back to idle. Her four CIA field agents went into action while she kept the boat as steady as possible. They didn’t talk much – but dudes from the agency rarely spoke. One at a time they hauled sleek bodies in wet suits into the deck. Her muscles burned as she gripped the wheel straining to spin free.

Man after man rolled onto the deck. Six, seven… eight.

The final guy whipped off his facemask and pinned her with piercing brown eyes and an intense focus that kept people alive beyond the odds. The air snapped in an indefinable way that defied the logic she embraced.


Had to be.


He nodded once, giving her a thumbs-up. “Go, go, go!”


Shaking off the momentary distraction, she revved the engine to life again. Her brain cycled to contingency twenty-freaking-two, a cave cut into the mountainous shore line. Minutes passed in a blur as she drove and watched the screen, monitoring traffic. Pathetically few officials policed the area. A boat racing across at a reckless speed wouldn’t appear at all out of the ordinary around this place.

Even as the yawning entrance to the cave came into sight, she refused to relax her guard. She pulled back on the throttle. Entering slowly, she scanned while her quiet companions held their MP5s at the ready. Would an Interpol operative, four CIA agents, six SEALs and two PJs be enough to face anything that waited inside? The low hum of the motor echoed like a growling beast in the cavern, one light strobing forward into the darkness.

Illuminating a waiting U.S. fishing boat.

Her final contingency.

Her plan had to work, otherwise, she would screw up her hard earned chance of working in Africa before the mission barely got off the ground. She flung open the door to the small forward cabin of her speedboat. The clang of metal hitting metal echoed in her mind like the closing of her mother’s coffin. Melanie Carson’s daughter would not give up on day one.

Digging around in the hull, Stella pulled out small duffel bags, one after the other, tossing them to each of the men in wet suits.

“Change, gentlemen. We’re about to become American tourists on a sightseeing excursion. Mr. Jones,” who could blend in best with the locals and even spoke a regional dialect thanks to his mother, “will be our guide. We’re swapping boats, then splitting up at the dock. Blend into the crowds. Report at the embassy. You’ve got a duress code if you need to call in. Any questions?”

Only the sound of oxygen tanks and gear hitting the deck answered her.

“Good.” Her heart rate started to return to something close to normal again.

The sound of zippers sent her spinning on her heels to take care of her own transformation. She unrolled a colorful rectangular cloth, an East African kanga, complete with the standard intricate border and message woven into the red and orange pattern.

It would be hot as hell over her black pants, top and bulletproof vest. But a little dehydration was a small price to pay for an extra layer of anonymity.

“Need help?”

She turned and there were those coffee dark eyes again. Static-like awareness snapped when she looked back at the intense gaze that had held hers earlier as he’d lifted his facemask. Except now he was more than eyes and a wet suit. He was a lean, honed man in a pair of fitted swim trunks he must have worn under the diving gear. He was glistening bronze with a body trained for survival anyplace, anytime.

The boat rocked under her feet from a rogue wave. At least she thought it was a wave.

“Uh, no, I’m good. Thanks. You should get dressed. We need to haul butt out of here.” And his current state of undress definitely didn’t qualify as “low profile.”

“I meant, do you need help with the cut on your temple?” He gestured to the left side of her face, almost touching. “You brought along two PJs for a reason, ma’am.”

Her skin hummed with a sting that her brain must have pushed aside earlier for survival’s sake. She tapped the side of her forehead gingerly.

“Ouch!” Her fingertips were stained with blood as murky red as her hair.

“A bullet must have grazed you,” he said with a flat Midwestern accent. A no-accent really, just pure masculine rumble. “Could have been much worse. This was your lucky day, ma’am.”

“Stella.” For right now she could be more than Miss Lucky Smith.

“They call me Cuervo.”

Call him.

Call signs.

No real name from him for now. Understandable and a reality check to get her professional groove back on. “Do I need stitches?”

He tugged a small kit from his gear, a waterproof pack of some sort. “Antiseptic and butterfly bandages should hold you until we can get someplace where I’ll have time to treat you more fully.”


Her brain hitched on the word, the answer to who she would be partnering with as they escaped into the crowd. She wasn’t saying goodbye to him – to Cuervo – at the dock. Irrational relief flooded her, followed by a bolt of excitement.

“Thanks, Cuervo. Blood dripping down my face would definitely draw undue attention at an inopportune time.” She forced a smile.

Still, his face, those eyes, they held her, and while she wasn’t a mystical person, she couldn’t miss the connection. Attraction? Sure, but she understood how to compartmentalize on the job. This was something that felt elemental. Before she could stop the thought, the words soul mate flashed through her head.

And God, that was crazy and irrational when she was always, always logical. Her brothers called her a female version of Spock from Star Trek.
Still, as those fingers cleaned her wound, smoothed ointment over her temple and stretched steri strips along her skin, she couldn’t stop thinking about spending the rest of the day with him as they melded into the port city and made their way back to the embassy.

Damn it, she could not waste the time or emotional energy on romance or even a fling. Right now, she could only focus on working with the Mr. Smiths and Mr. Browns of her profession. She needed to make peace with her past, then move on with her life. Then and only then she would find Mr. Right and shift from the field to a desk job so she could settle down into that real family dream she’d missed out on.

Yet those brown eyes drew her into a molten heat and she had the inescapable sense that Mr. Right had arrived ahead of schedule.


Chapter One

East Africa: Six Months later

Five years, eight months and twenty-nine days sober.

Staff Sergeant Jose “Cuervo” James flipped his sobriety coin over and over between his fingers as he reviewed the satellite feed on the six screens in front of him. If he and the multi-force rescue team around him didn’t save Stella Carson in the next twenty-four hours, odds were his coin would end up in the trash.

The cavernous airplane hangar echoed with the buzz of personnel calling directives into headsets and the low hum from each image on the dozen screens. Techies gathered information for the eight man rescue team – two Air Force pararescuemen, eight Navy SEALS and five CIA operatives. The volume on the speakers increased whenever something of specific interest captured their attention about Stella and the eleven college students who’d been kidnapped with her during a foreign exchange trip.

Only one screen interested him. The one showing Stella being held hostage by separatists in some concrete hell hole south of the Horn of Africa. His eyes ate up the image of her – alive – for now.

She wore jeans and a black tank top with gym shoes, looking five years younger than her twenty nine years and just like the exchange student she was pretending to be. Her titan red hair was half in, half out of a ponytail. A long strand stuck to blood on her cheek from an oozing gash in her eyebrow that made him think of the scratch on her head from the bullet that grazed her the day they’d met. The day she’d saved his ass.

Right now, she was dusty, strained, and bruised. But still keen eyed, pacing around her cell, nothing more than concrete walls with a pallet and bucket in the corner. A table filled another corner with a scattering of artifacts and relics. Frustration knotted his fists as he held back the urge to reach through the screen and haul her out. To hell with the objectivity and the logic she worshiped.

Usually his job as a pararescueman gave his life focus and stability. But today’s assignment was more than just a mission. Stella Carson was more than an Interpol agent to pluck out of a sticky situation. She was the only woman he’d ever loved.

She was also the woman who’d dumped him four weeks ago.

He prayed to every saint he’d memorized in parochial school that the captors bought her cover story of being an over privileged student studying overseas on Mommy and Daddy’s nickel. He couldn’t even let himself think about all the atrocities committed against women in this region. He could only focus on willing her to stay alive. God help her if they figured out she was a top-notch intelligence operative with an uncanny aptitude for code breaking.

God help them both if he failed to get her out….

Copyright: Catherine Mann 2013

All or Nothing

posted on September 28, 2012 by Catherine Mann

“What if I say no?”

Not an option. Conrad played his trump card. “Do you want my signature on those divorce papers?”

Jayne dropped her rings on top of the computer that just happened to be resting over divorce papers. “Are you blackmailing me?”

“Call it a trade.” He rested his hand over the five-carat diamond he’d chosen for her, only her. “You give me two days and I’ll give you the divorce papers. Signed.”

“Just two days?” She studied him through narrowed, suspicious eyes.

He gathered up the rings and pressed them to her palm, closing her fingers over them again. “Fourty-eight hours.”

Fourty-eight hours to romance her back into his bed one last time…

An Inconvenient Affair

posted on May 2, 2012 by Catherine Mann

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Hillary Wright seriously needed a distraction during her flight from D.C. to Chicago. But not if it meant sitting behind a newlywed couple intent on joining the Mile High Club.

Her cheeks puffed with a big blast of recycled air as she dropped into her window seat and made fast work of hooking up the headset. She would have preferred to watch a movie or even sitcom reruns, but that would mean keeping her eyes open with the risk of seeing the duo in front of her making out under a blanket. She just wanted to get to Chicago, where she could finally put the worst mistake of her life behind her.

Hillary switched from the best of Kenny G before it put her to sleep, clicking through the stations until she settled on a Broadway channel piping in “The Sound of Music.” Passengers pushed down the aisle, a family with a baby and a toddler, then a handful of businessmen and women, all moving past her to the cheap seats where she usually sat. But not today. Today, her first-class seat had been purchased for her by the CIA. And how crazy was that? Until this month, her knowledge of the CIA only came from television shows. Now she had to help them in order to clear her name and stay out of jail.

A moan drifted from the brand-new Mrs. Somebody in front of her.

Oh God, Hillary sagged back into her seat, covering her eyes with her arm. She was so nervous she couldn’t even enjoy her first visit to Chicago. She’d dreamed about getting out of her small Vermont hometown. Her job as an event planner in D.C. had seemed like a godsend at first. She met the exciting people she would have only read about in the news otherwise—politicians, movie stars, even royalty.

She’d been starstruck by her wealthy boyfriend’s lifestyle. Stupidly so. Until she allowed herself to be blinded to Barry’s real intentions in managing philanthropic donations, his lack of a moral compass.

Now she had to dig herself out from under the mess she’d made of her life by trusting the wrong guy, by believing his do-gooder act of tricking rich associates into donating large sums of money to bogus charities, then funneling the money overseas into a Swiss bank account. She’d proven herself to be every bit the gullible, smalltown girl she’d wanted to leave behind.

As of today, her blinders were off.

A flash of skin and pink bra showed between the seats.

She squeezed her eyes shut and lost herself in the do-re-mi refrain even as people bumped past. Focus. Will away the nerves. Get through the weekend.

She would identify her scumbag ex-boyfriend’s crooked banking acquaintance at the Chicago shindig. Give her official statement to Interpol so they could stop the international money-laundering scheme. Then she could have her life back and save her job.

Once she was back in her boss’s good graces, she would again be throwing the kinds of parties she’d wanted to oversee when she’d first become an event planner. Her career would skyrocket with her parties featured in the social section of all major newspapers. Her loser ex would read about her in tabloid magazines in prison and realize how she’d moved on, baby. Maybe she would even appear in some of those photos looking so damn hot Barry would suffer in his celibate cell.

The jackass.

She pinched the bridge of her nose against the welling of tears.

A tap on her shoulder forced her out of her silly self-pity. She tugged off an earbud and looked over at a…suit. A dark blue suit, with a Hugo Boss tie and a vintage tie clip.

“Excuse me, ma’am. You’re in my seat.”

A low voice, nice, and not cranky-sounding like some travelers could be. His face was shadowed, the sunlight streaking through the small window behind him. She could just make out his dark brown hair, which was long enough to brush his ears and the top of his collar. From the Patek Philippe watch to his edgy Caraceni suit—all name brands she wouldn’t have heard of, much less recognized, before her work with highend D.C. clients.

And she was in his seat.

Wincing, she pretended to look at her ticket even though she already knew what it read. God, she hated the aisle and she’d prayed she would luck out and have an empty next to her. “I’m sorry. You’re right.”

“You know what?” He rested a hand on the back of the empty seat. “If you prefer the window, that’s cool by me. I’ll sit here instead.”

“I don’t want to take advantage.” Take advantage? The cheesy double entendre made her wince. A moan from the lovebirds a row ahead only made it worse.

“No worries.” He stowed his briefcase in the overhead before sidling in to sit down.

Then he turned to her, the light above bringing him fully into focus— And holy cows on her hometown Vermont farm, he was hot. Angular. But with long lashes that kept drawing her gaze back to his green eyes. He was probably in his early thirties, gauging from the creases when he smiled with the open kind of grin that made him more approachable.

She tilted her head to the side, studying him more closely. He looked familiar, but she couldn’t quite place him…. She shook off the feeling. She’d met so many people at the parties she’d planned in D.C. They could have crossed paths at any number of places. Although, she must have seen him from a distance, because if they’d met up close, she definitely wouldn’t have forgotten him.

His seat belt clicked as the plane began taxiing. “You don’t like flying.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You want the window seat, but have the shade closed. You’ve already plugged into the radio. And you’ve got the armrest in a death grip.”

Handsome and observant. Hmm…

Better to claim fear of flying than to go into the whole embarrassing mess she’d made of her life. “Busted. You caught me.” She nodded toward the row in front of her just as one of the seats reclined providing too clear a view of a man’s hand sliding into the woman’s waistband. “And the lovebirds up there aren’t making things any more comfortable.”

His smile faded into a scowl. “I’ll call for the flight attendant.”

He reached for the button overhead. She touched his wrist. Static snapped. At least she hoped it was just static and not a spark of attraction.

Clearing her throat, she folded her arms over her chest, tucking her hands away. “No need. The flight attendant’s in the middle of her in-flight brief—” she lowered her voice “—and giving us the death glare for talking.”

He leaned toward her conspiratorially. “Or I can kick the back of their seat until they realize they’re not invisible—and that they’re being damned inconsiderate.”

Except now that he was so close, she didn’t notice them. Her gaze locked on the glinting green eyes staring at her with undisguised, unrepentant interest.

A salve to her ego. And an excellent distraction. “I guess we can live and let live.”

“We can.”

“Although, honestly, it doesn’t seem fair the flight attendant isn’t giving the evil eye to the handsy twosome.”

“Maybe they’re celebrating their anniversary.” She snorted.


“And you’re trying to tell me you’re a true believer in flowery romance?” She took in his expensive suit, his dimpled smile and his easy charm. “No offense, truly, but you seem more like a player to me.”

A second after the words left her mouth, she worried she might have been rude.

He just laughed softly and flattened a hand to his chest.

“You think the worst of me. I’m hurt to the core,” he said with overplayed drama.

Her snort turned into a laugh. Shaking her head, she kept on laughing, tension uncurling inside. Her laughter faded as she felt the weight of his gaze on her.

He pointed to the window. “We’re airborne now. You can open the shade and relax.”

Relax? His words confused her for a second and then she remembered her excuse for nerves. And then remembered the real reason for her nerves. Her ex-boyfriend. Barry the Bastard Bum. Who she was hoping to help put in prison once she identified his accomplice in Chicago—if she didn’t get offed by the bad guy first.

She thumbed her silver seat belt buckle. “Thank you for the help.”

“Troy.” He extended his hand. “My name is Troy, from Virginia.”

“I’m Hillary, from D.C.” Prepping herself for the static this time, she wrapped her fingers around his, shaking once. And, yep. Snap. Snap. Heat tingled up her arm in spite of all those good intentions to keep all guys at bay. But then what was wrong with simply being attracted to another person?

Her ex had taken so much from her, and yes, turned a farm-fresh girl like her into a cynic, making her doubt everyone around her. Until she now questioned the motives of a guy who just wanted to indulge in a little harmless flirtation on a plane.

Damn it, there was nothing bad about chatting with this guy during the flight. He had helped her through her nerves about identifying Barry’s accomplice at the fundraiser this weekend. A very slippery accomplice who had a way of avoiding cameras. Very few people had ever seen him. She’d only seen him twice, once by showing up at Barry’s condo unannounced and another time at Barry’s office. Would the man remember her? Her nerves doubled.

She desperately needed to take full advantage of the distraction this man beside her offered. Talking to Troy beat the hell out of getting sloshed off the drink cart, especially since she didn’t even drink.

“So, Troy, what’s taking you to Chicago?”