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Pursued

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good God, as if.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“See what?”

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re so not funny.”

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

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

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

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

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

Shannon’s growl echoed through the headset.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody messed with her friends.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Left closed approved. Repeat base.”

“Bat two-zero, left base with gear.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regardless, her flight and fun were over.

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

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

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

Definitely not military.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

Code of Honor

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

Prologue

Iraq – two years ago:

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

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

Keeping the peace was a deadly endeavor.

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

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

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

He knew their leader – Cooper Scott.

Shit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ten minutes. An eternity for Cooper and his men.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not even a palm in sight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of time.

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

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

Pivoted.

Hefted a rocket launcher onto his shoulder.

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

Whoomp. Hiss.

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

His windscreen imploded…

The Captive’s Return

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

“Marry me… please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

Baby, I’m Yours

posted on September 2, 2009 by Catherine Mann

PROLOGUE

“Ah hell, it broke.”

The second the stunned words fell out of Vic Jansen’s mouth he wanted to recall them for something more composed. But what was the mannerly way to tell the naked woman straddling his lap that their birth control had suffered a catastrophic failure?

This wasn’t supposed to happen to two over thirty adults.

“What do you mean, ‘It broke’?”

Claire’s horrified whisper steamed over his chest as they sat tangled together. The steamy gust stirred a fire down south when he should have been long past recovery after their weekend of marathon sex.

Lifting her off and to the side, Vic squinted in the darkness to see his friend of six months and lover of three days. Years of veterinary practice had prepped him for hostile horses and spitting-mad cats, but at the moment he felt damned unprepared to cope with Claire McDermott and a possible pregnancy.

Coping with memories of the daughter he’d lost proved even tougher. He shoved aside images of pigtails, Barbie dolls – funeral wreaths.

“Exactly what I said.” He swiped a wrist across his forehead, flinging aside sweat in spite of the forty degree weather of a Southern January evening. “The condom tore.”

“There’s absolutely no way it should have broken.” Panic pitching her voice higher, breathier, Claire snatched her dress from beside her feet and clutched it to her bare breasts he wanted to unveil and kiss all over again. “I know they only have a ninety-six percent reliability factor, but that four percent encompasses idiots who don’t know how to use the things.”

“Well, lady, tonight we two idiots just blew those stats right out of the water – as it were.” Vic gripped the steel rim of the bass boat, the plastic fishing chair chilling his skin. “Be still, will ya’? You’re going to tip us over.”

Claire puffed a breath of air upward, blowing away a lank lock dangling in her face, puffed again, then finally combed shaking fingers through her tousled caramel-colored hair. He couldn’t let himself think about tangling his hands through her silky strands as he held her curvy body against his or he would lose his focus.

She untangled a gelatinous lure and flicked it onto the tackle box. “Are you sure you didn’t catch the condom on a hook or something?”

“Geez, Claire.” Vic clasped her shoulders, her soft scented skin sending a fresh jolt of heat through him. “Don’t you think I would know if I had a hook in it?”

“Good point.” She dodged the cooler, leaning over the seat which displayed a flash of tempting flesh before she straightened, her lacy bra and panties in hand. “That’s the last time you get to supply birth control.”

“I feel compelled to point out that it’s one I snagged from your bedside table–” he tugged on his jeans– “since we’d used up mine.”

The slap and crash of waves against the shore filled the silence while Claire shimmied into her underwear. Vic grimaced at her extended quiet. Theirs had been an unlikely friendship of opposites – classic Claire with all her pretty lace, and him with his flannel, rough-around-the-edges ways. But a friendship he’d come to value in the past six months since he’d sold his vet practice in North Dakota and relocated to Charleston, South Carolina, away from all reminders of his daughter and ex-wife.

Yet, in spite of his vow for a rootless existence living on a sailboat, more and more often he’d found himself walking across the marina dock to Beachcombers restaurant for Claire’s home cooked meal, a glass of sweet tea – and her smile.

Claire suddenly seemed overly interested in how her dress buttoned up the front. “Those condoms in my bedside table were old. I, uh, haven’t been with anyone for a long time.”

“Really?”

She swayed toward him. “Really.”

Damn, she never failed to capsize his control with her unexpected moments of vulnerability peeking through her unflappable shield. Vic pulled her against his chest. She resisted half-heartedly, then relented.

He smoothed his hands over her back, down her spine while resisting the tempting curve of her bottom. “I don’t have any diseases you need to worry about, if that makes you feel better.”

“A little.” Her full lips curved into a hesitant smile against his skin. “Me neither, by the way, no surprise given my non existent sex life… up to now.” She eased free, the boat lurching in response. Once steadied, Claire slipped her feet into her pumps.

“What are the odds, given the timing of your cycle?”

“You don’t want to know.”

“Are you sure? Never mind.” Stupid question.

The risk of having another kid scared the pants right back off him, but Claire deserved some kind of reassurance.

“Let’s take this a day at a time. There’s no need to get in a frenzy about something that may not even happen. We’ll discuss it when and if we need to, but I’ll be there for you.”

Claire stared back at him in the dark, waiting… for what? Finally, she shook her head. “Like you said, we’ll discuss it later.”

She snatched up her sweater and leapt from the boat onto the asphalt.

Sliding open the garage door, she revealed the marina parking lot and her restaurant/home up the hill overlooking docked crafts bobbing in the harbor.

They’d been on their way to his forty-two foot sailboat when they’d been delayed by a spontaneous make-out session against a string of garages for marina residents. And hey, since he owned the truck and bass boat inside, why wait?

Zipping his pants, he tracked her sweet-butt hauling up the planked walkway toward the two story restaurant she co-owned with her sisters. A few leftover Christmas lights illuminated her double-time progress way from him. He considered simply letting her go and giving them both some space. But even as frustrated as he was over her deep freeze, he owed Claire for challenging him back to life after years of numbed emotions. That meant he couldn’t let her walk away scared.

Snagging his shirt, he vaulted over the side of the boat. He stuffed his arms through the flannel softness that now carried Claire’s lilac scent, along with a few ripped buttonholes from her frantic hands.

“Hold on.” He dashed after her, the tails of his open shirt flapping behind him.

The need for a better end to their weekend raked aside everything else, including shoes. He thudded barefoot past the marina office onto her property, across the patchy sandy lawn.

Toes darn-near frostbitten, Vic made it to her front porch a hair’s breadth behind her. He braced a hand just beside her and rested his cheek against the back of her head, nuzzling against her tangled hair. She tensed, but she didn’t move, gasping in the steamy humid night.

His brain scrambled for the right words, a way to shift them back to what they’d shared before he’d ruined it by taking her to bed – or to his boat. “I know you needed me to say something, and I fell short of the mark.”

The tense brace of her shoulders sent alarms through him. Claire was beyond upset. She was in a blind panic. What fears of her own was she carrying around that she hadn’t shared with him anymore than he’d told her about his? And what a time to realize they hadn’t been friends in any meaningful manner after all. Just meal-sharing acquaintances who’d gotten naked together. “God almighty, lady, you’re the most exasperating and incredible woman I’ve ever met. But I’m not very good at the pretty words.”

Slowly, she turned, tilting her chin defensively. She reached, her hand hovering between them almost touching his bare chest, but settling on the open shirt instead. “I need to be alone right now. But I promise I’ll let you know if I’m…”

She didn’t need to finish. Her shuttered expression said it all. They couldn’t go back to what little they’d had. Disappointment chugged through him, more than he would have expected three short days ago. His hands slid from her face. “Okay, I’ll be waiting to hear from you then. You know where to find me.”

He stepped back from the porch, Claire, her smile. Déjà vu swept over him as she sprinted up the steps and into her antebellum restaurant/home. How many times would he watch people he cared about fade from his life?

Damned if numb wasn’t better after all.