From GRAYSON’S SURRENDER:
“Nice patch there, Major.”
The words fell from her lips with a light Southern drawl, whiskey warm and just as potent.
Gray glanced down at his sleeve. Anything. Anywhere. Anytime.
The insinuation crackled along the humidity-laden air. Gray let his gaze slide back to her. “Wanna test the motto out?”
Lori laughed, husky, if a bit tight. “Same old gray.” Her chin tipped. “Been there. Done that. Lost the T-shirt.”
His arms folded over his chest. “You left it at my place.”
She laughed again. The great husky laugh of hers that rolled right into him. Just as fast, she had his hormones bombarding the defenses of his reason. Of course sex, great sex, incredible anything, anywhere, anytime sex, had never been their problem. But the minute they’d set their feet on the floor….
From TAKING COVER:
Captain Tanner “Bronco” Bennett gripped the cargo plane’s stick and flew through hell, the underworld having risen to fire the night sky.
“Anything. Anywhere. Anytime,” he chanted the combat mantra through locked teeth.
His C-17 squadron motto had gone into overtime today.
Neon-green tracer rounds arced over the jet’s nose. Sweat sealed Tanner’s helmet to his head. Adrenaline burned over him with more heat than any missile. He plowed ahead, chanted. Prayed.
Antiaircraft fire exploded into puffs of black smoke that momentarily masked the moon. The haze dispersed, leaving lethal flak glinting in the inky air. Shrapnel sprinkled the plane, tink, tink, tinking like hail on a tin roof.
Still he flew, making no move for evasion or defense.
“Steady. Steady.” He held his unwavering course, had to until the last paratrooper egressed out of the C-17 into the Eastern European forest below.
Offloading those troopers into the drop zone was critical. Once they secured the nearby Sentavo airfield, supplies could be flown into the wartorn country by morning. Starving villagers burned out of their homes by renegade rebels needed relief. Now. The scattered uprisings of the prior summer had heated into an all-out civil war as the year’s end approached.
Anything. Anywhere. Anytime. Tanner embraced it as more than a squadron motto. Those villagers might be just a mass of faceless humanity to other pilots, but to him each scared, hungry refugee had the same face – the face of his sister.
A flaming ball whipped past his windscreen.
Reality intruded explosively a few feet away. Near miss. Closer than the last. Time to haul out.
“Tag,” Tanner called over the headset to the loadmaster, “step it up back there. We gotta maneuver out of this crap. In case you haven’t noticed, old man, they’re shooting at us.”
“Got it, Bronco,” the loadmaster growled. “Our guys are piling out of this flying coffin as fast as they can.”
“Start pushing. Just get ‘em the hell off my airplane so we can maneuver.” Urgency pulsed through Tanner, buzzed through the cockpit.
His hand clenched around the stick. No steering yoke for this sleek new cargo plane. And it damned well needed to perform up to its state of the art standards today.
He darted a glance at the sweat-soaked aircraft commander beside him. “Hey, Lancelot, how’s it look left? Is there a way out on your side?”
Major Lance “Lancelot” Sinclair twisted in his seat toward the window, then pivoted back. A foreboding scowl creased the perspiration filming his too-perfect features. “Bronco, my man, we can’t go left. It’s a wall of flames. What’s it like on your side?”
Tanner leaned forward, peering at the stars beyond the side window for a hole in the sparking bursts. Bad. But not impossible. “Fairly clear over here. Scattered fire. Isolated pockets I can see to weave through.”
“Roger that, you’ve got the jet.”
“Roger, I have the jet.” He gave the stick a barely perceptible shake to indicate his control of the aircraft. Not that he’d ever lost control. Lance hadn’t been up to speed for weeks, a fact that left Tanner more often than not running the missions, regardless of his copilot status. “Tag, waiting for your all-clear call.”
“You got it, big guy.” Tag’s voice crackled over the headset. “Everybody’s off. The door’s closing. Clear to turn.”
Anticipation cranked Tanner’s adrenaline up another notch. “Hold onto your flight pay, boys, we’re breaking right.”
He yanked the stick, simultaneously ramming the rudder pedal with his boot. The aircraft banked, hard and fast.
Gravity punched him. G-forces anchored him to his seat, pulled, strained, as he threaded the lumbering aircraft through exploding volleys in the starlit sky.
Pull back, adjust, weave right. Almost there.
A familiar numbing sensation melted down his back like an ice cube. Ignore it. Focus and fly.
Debris rattled, sliding sideways. His checklist thunked to the floor. Lance’s cookies, airmailed from his wife, skittered across the glowing control panel. Tanner dipped the nose, embers streaming past outside.
The chilling tingle in his back detonated into white-hot pain. His torso screamed for release from the five-point harness. The vise-like constraints had never been adequate to accommodate his height or bulk. Who would have thought a simple pinched nerve just below his shoulder could bring him down faster than a missile?
Doc O’Connell had even grounded him for it once before. He knew she would again in a heartbeat. If he let her.
Which he wouldn’t.
Tanner pulled a sharp turn left. The plane howled past a shower of light. He hurt like hell, but considered it a small price to pay. By tomorrow night, women and children would be fed because of his efforts, and he liked to think that was a worthwhile reason to risk his life.
Yeah, saving babies was a damn fine motivator for going to work every day. No way was he watching from the sidelines.
He accepted that none of it would bring his sister back. But each life saved, each wrong righted, soothed balm over a raw wound he knew would never completely heal.
Tanner’s hand twitched on the stick, and he jerked his thoughts back to the cockpit. He couldn’t think of his sister now. Distractions in combat were deadly.
He reined his thoughts in tight, instincts and training offering him forgetfulness until he flew out over the Adriatic Sea.
“Feet wet, crew.” Tanner announced their position over the water. “We’re in the clear all the way to land in Germany.”
He relaxed his grip on the stick, the rest of his body following suit. The blanket of adrenaline fell away, unveiling a pain ready to knife him with clean precision. Tanner swallowed back bile. “Take the jet, Lance.”
“Bronco, you okay?”
“Take the jet,” he barked. Fresh beads of sweat traced along his helmet.
Lance waggled the stick. “Roger, I have the aircraft.”
Tanner’s hand fell into his lap, his arm throbbing, nearly useless. He clicked through his options. He couldn’t avoid seeing a flight surgeon after they landed. But if he waited until morning and locked in an appointment with his pal Cutter, he would be fine. Doc Grayson “Cutter” Clark understood flyers.
No way was Tanner letting Dr. Kathleen O’Connell get her hands on him again–
He halted the thought in midair. Her hands on him? That was definitely an image he didn’t need.
Keep it PC, bud. Remember those soft hands are attached to a professional woman and a damned sharp officer.
All presented in a petite package with an iron will that matched her fiery red hair.
Forget reining in those thoughts. Tanner dumped them from his mind like an offloaded trooper.
Lance pressed the radio call button on the throttle. “Control, this is COHO two zero. Negative known damage. Thirty point zero of gas. Requesting a flight surgeon to meet us when we land.”
“What the–” Tanner whipped sideways, wrenching up short as a spasm knocked him back in his seat. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Calling for a flight surgeon to meet us on the ground.”
In front of the crew? Tanner winced. “No need, Lance. I’ll be fine until I can get to the clinic.”
“Yeah, right.” Lance swiped his arm across his damp brow as he flew. “I’ve seen you like this before. You’ll be lucky to walk once we land. You need a flight surgeon waiting, man. I’m not backing off the call.”
“Listen, Lance–” Tanner wanted to argue, fully intended to bluster through, but the spasm kinked like an overwound child’s toy ready to snap.
He couldn’t afford to be grounded from flying again, not now. He only had six weeks left until he returned to the states to begin his rescheduled upgrade from copilot to aircraft commander. Not only could he lose his slot, but he would also lose six weeks of flying time, of making a difference.
Why the hell couldn’t he and O’Connell have pulled different rotations, leaving her back at Charleston Air Force Base with her perfectly annotated regulation book and haughty cat eyes?
The strain of ignoring the stabbing ache drizzled perspiration down Tanner’s spine, plastering his flight suit to his skin. Options dwindled with each pang.
“Fine.” Tanner bit out the word through his clenched teeth. What a time for Lance to resume control. “Just have them find Cutter to meet us. He’ll give me a break.”
Not like Doc O’Connell. She probably hadn’t colored outside the lines since kindergarten.
“And Lance, tell Cutter to keep it low key. Would ya? No big show.” Rules be damned, he wasn’t going to end a combat mission publicly whining about a backache. Cutter would understand. Tanner was counting on it.
If by-the-book O’Connell ran the show, he would be flying a desk by sunrise….