Lori Avocato

Holiday Op


The Stocking by DC DeVane

<p>The Stocking by DC DeVane</p> A Proposal Via Inflated Raft

DC made her debut in the Highland Press Spec Ops Military Anthology, OPERATION:L.O.V.E. with her story B &B BIVOUAC. THE STOCKING: A PROPOSAL VIA INFLATABLE RAFT marks her second story for Highland Press. You can look for her in the soon-to-be-released Highland Press Intelligence Community Romance Anthology: FOR YOUR HEART ONLY coming in February 2010. She writes the gamut from sweet to sexy but her favorite genres are spicy romantic suspense and sweet and funny military romance. And she is a member of the Heart of Dixie Chapter of the Romance Writers of America.

DC was born on Keesler Air Force Base and is the daughter of a lifer Air Force Master Sergeant father and a career Civil Service mother. Over the years she has supported the USO and multiple Veteran's organizations with her time and donations… and adopts several soldiers each year, keeping the post office in business shipping FRB's to Iraq and Afghanistan APOs. Her cookies and care packages are legendary (or is that infamous?).

A former evolution in her life saw her working for Porter Novelli, Omnicom's Public Relations arm, and McKinsey & Company Management Consulting in Los Angeles. She is experienced in the various facets of managing events and enjoys the wonderful world of marketing and promotion.

When she's not watching the sun come up over the rim of her laptop, DC enjoys spending time with her rocket scientist husband Charles and their two cat masters, Tiger and Angel. She is an admitted spa addict who is perpetually in search of the perfect massage, rich dark chocolate truffles and, most importantly, the ideal cup of gourmet coffee. She enjoys Fencing Epee with the Huntsville Fencing Club, riding her 800cc Vulcan Classic Softtail motorcycle, horseback riding, shooting, camping, cooking, painting, entertaining friends and family, and all forms of dancing and is working on her scuba certification.


Acknowledgements/Dedication

<p>Acknowledgements/Dedication</p>

To my mom for her wicked sense of humor and all the stories of how she tortured Dad while he was in the military with ‘surprises at mailcall.’ And to my dad for surviving it all with grace and a blush. You guys were the best.

For Glen Kerley… my ‘soldier boy’ from long ago who, when threatened with a teddy bear during bootcamp, made me the ‘counteroffer’ of an 8-man inflatable raft with an auto trigger in return… if I dared. This one's for you, kiddo.

To Anne Elizabeth for your love, friendship, and support, and for all the incredible hard work you put into these collections. And also thank you for being my teacher on this journey. I've learned so much from you about life and about writing, especially about the art of the short story. Thank you for sharing your time, talent, and knowledge with me.

To Leanne Burroughs, our wonderful publisher, for believing in ‘our ongoing mission’ of writing these military and intelligence community anthologies to educate people about our military heroes and heroines. And to Patty Howell, our editor extraordinaire, for keeping my POVs straightened out (NOT an easy task) and for always making my stories so much better. Thank you, Ladies!

To Carl, Ed (K.I.S.A.), Dracos, and Thor for letting me pick their brains on ‘life in bootcamp’ and ‘inprocessing procedures’ for Spec Ops guys, and life in the Rangers.

As always, to my wonderful husband Charles for loving me and believing in me, for taking care of the homefront when I'm on deadline, and giving me the freedom to go into my cave and write without distraction and to follow my dreams. I love you, Dearest, more than you will ever know.

Most importantly, to our warriors and their loved ones. Thank you for your sacrifice and dedication. You give so much to keep us safe. We owe you more than we can ever repay. May this collection of sweet romances bring you a smile and warm your hearts while you're away from your loved ones and families… especially during the holiday season.


Chapter One

<p>Chapter One</p>

"Happy Holidays,” said the FedEx guy as he delivered the heavy box onto her front porch, scooted the handcart out from underneath it, and hurried down the walkway to his waiting truck.

"You, too,” Marcy called after him.

He waved without even looking back, stowed the dolly, and sped away.

Marcy Grayson looked at the package for several moments, wondering who in the world would have sent her such a huge, heavy ‘whateveritwas.’ She ran her hands over the box looking for the sender's return information, but only her name and address were on the top. Curious, she pulled at the twine and tape holding the plain brown paper in place and worried the container loose. After several minutes struggle, the last of the protective outer wrapping fell away to reveal a beautiful red and gold patterned foil package with a big card on top.

'Love, Paul'

She squealed. A Christmas present from her sweetie! Marcy quickly reached down and pulled the card loose from the package to look at it more closely. Awwww… Paul had signed it 'Love.' Funny, there was a string attached to the back of it.


***

Ahhhhhh unftummm pftttpant pant pantumfffft

"NO!” had been the last intelligible word she'd been able to utter before the air whooshed from her lungs. Marcy was stuck spread eagle, smushed up against the wall and not happy about it in any way, shape, form, or fashion. She pushed at the unwieldy black rubber blob that had become the entirety of her universe. It gave way in some places, pushed back in others. She tried again, only to be thrust back against the wall even harder. Being pinned into the corner of the small enclosed porch of her modest home was soooo NOT how she wanted to spend her holidays. She couldn't even manage to get her hands down by her sides to work her cell phone out of her pocket and call for help.

Okay, this was becoming less funny by the minute. Not only was it frost-butt cold out there on the porch… never mind that it wasn't supposed to be this cold in Huntsville, Alabama, winter or no winter… she was tired, and chilled, and it was getting harder and harder to breathe as the enormous rubber raft attempted to wrestle her into submission.

The end of the raft sticking out through the front door kept it open, giving the cold air plenty of room to seep in around its squishy edges. Marcy wondered vaguely why none of her nosy neighbors had come to see what monstrosity was sticking out of her porch door like an enormous hippo butt stuck up in the air. For once, just when she wished they would poke their noses into her business, they were strangely AWOL. Oh well, so much for ‘Neighborhood Watch!'

As she pushed again with all her might against the solid wall of black blobbiness, the absurdity of the situation set in and her irrepressible sense of humor began percolating up to bubble over. She giggled.

Paul was such a dead man! She was going to kill him when she saw him. He'd threatened her with this if she…

At that last memory. Marcy's giggle escalated into peals of laughter. Yep… she was just going to have to kill him. No way around it. Kind of like the raft holding her immobile at the moment… an inescapable fact of life.


***

That straightjacket-tight pantyhose made the derriere look better under a knit dress was an inescapable fact of life. Marcy turned to stare at her backside in the full-length mirror in her bedroom. She ran her hands down over her trim waist and hips, then turned around to enjoy the sight of her well-rounded breasts in the soft, clingy fabric.

She wanted to look especially nice tonight. Paul would be there shortly to take her ‘somewhere special’ for dinner. Since this was their usual date night, she wondered exactly what was up that he was making it into such a big deal. Hmmmmm. Well, there were a few things she could think of that might qualify. She reached over and got the pearl earrings her mother had given her for her twenty-first birthday and carefully hooked them into her ears. Her gaze came to rest on her hand, focusing in on her bare third finger. Was he about to? Her eyes widened, the breath catching in her throat as she bit her lower lip and let her heart hope.

She added the matching pearl necklace… just for luck.


***

Bridge Street Town Center. Conner's Steak & Seafood on the water by the footbridge. Candlelight dinner overlooking the manmade lake. The full moon reflecting down in the water, smiling back at her from above and below. Good food, good wine… very good company. Even a romantic fire in the fireplace right there in the restaurant. Check. Check. And check. Yessssss. All the elements were in place as Marcy lingered over the gourmet coffee and slice of German chocolate decadence she and Paul were sharing. Any minute now.

She put down her fork and reached over to touch her ring finger. It must be psychosomatic. It had been itching like crazy all night long. Several times she had to consciously stop herself from scratching it right in front of Paul. She smiled to herself. Well, what do you know? Her finger was as excited by the prospect of an engagement ring from Paul Callahan as her heart was.

And her heart had wanted him to be all hers from the first time she'd set eyes on him; back in tenth grade when she'd transferred to the new school and he was The senior stud all the girls were dying over. One look at him and she had almost walked into a wall. He was tall and handsome and had a sexy ‘big man on campus’ swagger when he walked. He was also dating Becky Carter, a girl she had taken an instant dislike to for the completely obvious reasons that she was a sweet, blue-eyed blonde cheerleader who was built like a Barbie Doll… and dating ‘Marcy's boyfriend.’ The fact that Paul had no idea the flat-chested little sophomore girl with the head full of brown curls was even on the planet at that point was irrelevant. He was hers… or going to be just as soon as he woke up and realized it. She could wait. In the meantime, she had wondered if mojo dolls and stick pins really did work or if the gris-gris woman she'd met when they were stationed overseas had just been pulling her leg.

She hadn't had long to wait. Within a month Paul and Becky had parted ways-as usually happened with high school romances at the end of the summer-and with no help from Marcy.

Her mind came back momentarily from the past when the waiter brought Paul the check. She watched the face of the man before her and remembered the boy he'd been. While he handled the paperwork, she let her mind drift back down the years to that first day-that amazing, life-changing day-when Paul had saved her and ‘They’ had begun.


***

"She looks like she's about eight years old. I bet she doesn't even shave her legs, yet.” The girl's snide voice caused Marcy to stiffen. As the new girl in school, there was always a brief period of territorial skirmishes to endure, but that usually settled down pretty quickly. This time, this school, it hadn't. Cherie Serginter had decided Marcy didn't belong on ‘her’ planet and had made it her ongoing mission to let the new girl know that it would be better if she just evaporated now and quit taking up space. Marcy sighed and kept walking.

"So Mer-cee. Have you tried drinking more milk? Maybe if you poured it directly onto your chest they might get the idea. Or you could just borrow some of your dad's socks and do some stuffin'.” The hateful girl snickered. “You're a real pirate's dream come true… got your own sunken chest.” The other girls laughed. Bullies were the same all over the world. Get a group and pick a victim.

They followed her across the courtyard, as she hurried to her next class, and temporary safety. Almost there. She had the building in sight when things suddenly escalated. A hand in the middle of her back pushed her forward, causing her to lose her balance and the books and papers in her arms to go flying. She stumbled and barely managed to keep her feet. Another shove and she went down to her knees and found herself surrounded. One of Cherie's gang picked up her purse where it had landed in the grass and started to open it to see if there was anything in there they might want.

"I wouldn't do that.” A quiet male voice intruded into her humiliation.

Instantly, all the girls froze. A couple of them giggled nervously. Cherie licked her lips, puffed her chest out, and stepped forward. “Hi, Paul. How's it going?” She had dropped her voice, trying to sound alluring, but to Marcy's ears it just sounded like a cheap line from a bad B flick.

He looked Cherie over and then, without taking his eyes off the short, stocky girl with the overdeveloped rack, reached out and snatched Marcy's purse back and handed it down to her. “Here."

Marcy took it and snapped it closed again. “Thank you."

He grasped her by the elbow and helped her to her feet. “You okay?"

"Yeah. I just need to get my stuff and get to class."

"I'll walk you over there.” He turned to the circle of wannabe thuggettes. “Well, just don't stand there, ladies. Pick her stuff up and hand it back to her.” He stepped straight into Cherie's space, forcing the girl to step back. “Now."

The girl's mouth got a mulish set to it and her eyes darted around Paul to glare at Marcy. Paul didn't budge or speak another word. After a few moments Cherie nodded and her little gang of five started picking up Marcy's books and papers and shoving them back at her.

"Now get the hell out of here and leave her alone.” He dropped his voice and leaned close to whisper into the pack leader's ear, “Or else."

Apparently, Paul Callahan didn't just walk like a big man on campus-he was one. The girls groused while they did as ordered; but they did as ordered, and that was what counted in Marcy's book.

Once they were alone he turned to give her his undivided attention. “They give you any more trouble, let me know. They have a rep for trying to be tough and making life miserable for any new girl coming in.” He reached out and tweaked a leaf out of Marcy's riot of curls. “Don't take it personal. You weren't the first. And I'm afraid you won't be the last.” He stopped and actually looked at her. “Marcy, right?"

"Yes.” She took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. “And you're Paul."

"Where were you headed when…?” He indicated the direction the girls had stomped off with the twitch of his head.

"Oh, just study hall. Coach Rosetti."

"I'm heading that way. I'll walk you over. Here, let me take those.” Without waiting for her to agree, he hefted the load of books out of her arms and fell in beside her. “Lead on."

Oh My God! Paul Callahan. Carrying her books and walking her to class. Her day had just gone from less than zero to home run! It was worth the humiliation she'd endured. Well, almost worth it. Her pride was still stung, but her mom and dad would be proud she hadn't gotten into a fight with the girls. She glanced over at Paul and blushed all the way to the roots of her hair. He was looking straight at her. Staring was more like it. She stopped and stared right back at him.

"You have caramel-colored eyes. I've never seen that on a girl before."

"Yours are more like milk chocolate.” Just then, she snorted.

"What?"

"I'm just glad you didn't say ‘peanut butter colored,’ cuz then we'd look like a Reese's Cup walking along,” she teased.

He grinned, then chuckled.

"You said you were going my way…?” She hooked a thumb in the direction of the class she was late for.

"Oh, yeah. Heading over to the rifle range for ROTC actually.” He grimaced. “Target practice. I'm trying to pass my qualifications and I…"

Marcy's head snapped up to instant alert, her eyebrows going up in surprise. This might be the opening she'd been praying for with Paul.

"And you…?” she led the question.

Paul actually blushed and ducked his head down a bit. “Oh, it's nothing. Just having problems with landing my center matches at distance. I'll figure it out.” He'd done the typical guy thing of throwing out a couple of technical terms figuring she wouldn't know exactly what he was talking about and be impressed. He'd miscalculated.

Marcy grinned over at him in delight. “I can help with that. Let's go.” She took the lead and walked straight past her assigned classroom out toward the ROTC area. She glanced back to see Paul staring after her in shock for a second before hurrying to catch up.

That had been eight years ago. It had been Paul and Marcy-shoulder-to-shoulder, back-to-back-against the world ever since.


***

A gondola ride around the lake, complete with hot cocoa and warmed lap blankets followed dinner. There was even a singing gondolier-but, still no proposal-although Paul pulled her into his arms and kissed her silly as they went under the bridge, a tradition said to ensure eternal love according to their poleman.

As the gondola started back to the dock, Paul looked down at Marcy and, with a sigh, gently pushed her away from his body and set them both back to rights, straightening the front of her jacket, and even making sure the laprug was tucked in so she wouldn't be chilled. He took a deep breath and cleared his throat. “Honey… there's something I have to tell you. Something I want to ask you."

Here it was! Her ring finger had been right and gave a happy little tingle. He'd just been waiting for the right moment.

"Honey…” He paused, took another deep breath.

Marcy mentally urged her big-strong-knight-in-shining-armor to be brave and just ask. It shouldn't be so hard to ask her to marry him. Afterall, they had been together for ages. What was he waiting for?

"Paul… what is it?” she prompted, giving him the opening to ‘pop the question.'

He took her hand in his, brought it to his lips and kissed her fingers. “Honey…” Another pause and then it all came rushing out at once. “I joined the Army. I just got my notification. I've been accepted AND I've got a chance to eventually get into the Rangers. I leave in three days for bootcamp at Fort Benning, Georgia. Will you keep my dog?"

The cold must be affecting her ears. ‘I've discovered that I love you. Desperately. Passionately. You are my heart, my soul, my life, my very reason for living and I can't endure another day without you as my wife. Will you marry me, my darling Marcy?’ came out sounding exactly like ‘I've joined the Army, will you keep my dog.'

Marcy sat in stunned silence, a weird, bloodless pressure seemed to be centered around her face, over by her ears. Her eyes were having trouble focusing all of a sudden and her mouth opened and closed several times, but nothing came out. Her ring finger was strangely silent.

"Honey?” Nothing. “Honey? Did you hear me?” Paul reached up to gently touch her face.

She slowly turned to him. “You joined the Army and you want me to keep your dog.” Her deadpan response quietly fogged from her mouth into the frosty night air.

Paul's face relaxed. Yes. She had heard him. He looked expectantly at her. Still nothing. He took a deep breath and plowed on. “You've known Alex since he was a puppy. He likes you and I know he'll be safe and happy with you while I'm gone."

Marcy's brain finally started to function again and she closed her mouth that had been hanging open ‘catching flies’ as her mom would have said. “You joined the Army. And you want me to keep your dog."

"You already said that."

"Just checking to make sure I heard you correctly."

As soon as the gondola pulled up to the pier, Marcy stood and reached for the hand of the man waiting to help the ‘romantic couple’ from the boat. She thanked him, turned around without stepping back from the edge of the dock-thus preventing Paul from exiting the craft-and looked down at her not-fiance trying to steady himself while standing in the unstable vessel.

Her too-quiet, measured tones and deliberate sentences dropped onto his head like lead weights from above. “Thank you for a lovely evening. Good luck with your Army career. I hope you make it into the Rangers. Yes, I'll keep your dog. No, I don't need a ride home.” With that she turned and walked away without looking back.


***

Paul watched Marcy brush past the carousel and the street vendors without stopping and disappear into the crowd. He sat back down on the blanket-still warm from being on her lap-a strange, unreadable expression on his face.

The gondolier looked down at him in amusement. “You're an idiot."

Paul's eyes flew up to glare at the man standing over him, then flicked back to see where Marcy had disappeared and his shoulders sagged. No point in being pissed at the gondolier… the guy was right. Without wasting another second, he reached up, grabbed the mooring pylon, heaved himself up onto the dock, and took off running after Marcy.

"Marcy! Mars! Wait up!"

Thankfully, she stopped, and waited for her idiot boyfriend to catch up with her.

"Honey, what's wrong? Why did you leave me like that?” Paul's eyes desperately searched her face for clues as to what she was thinking.

"I love you,” she whispered, then just stood there silently, not even looking at him.

"I love you, too.” This uncharacteristically deflated Marcy was starting to scare Paul. “Mars? Talk to me, honey."


***

"A woman waits her whole life for a proposal from the man she loves, and I guarantee you, when she's a little girl thinking about her ‘Prince Charming,’ that proposal does not come out sounding like ‘Will you keep my dog!'” She wiped the tears from her eyes with the back of her empty-fingered left hand and sniffed back her hurt as she stared out across the piazza.

Paul closed his eyes, his head falling back for a moment before he blew out his breath and brought his gaze down and forward to stare at her.

"Mars, I…"

"No. Don't. You don't have to say anything. I let my expectations ruin a beautiful evening between us.” Her voice caught in her throat. “Apparently, one of the last ones we're going to have from the sound of it.” She gathered as much of her dignity and her aching heart as she could scrape up off the cobblestones and pasted a smile on her face as she looked up into the big brown eyes of the man she loved. “It'll be okay. And, yes. You know I'll keep Alex. He's as much mine as yours. And… I'm… Congratulations on getting into the Rangers. I know you've talked about joining up for a long time. Since before college even.” She took a deep breath that only shook slightly. “I just didn't know you were going to do it so soon."

"I'm not in the Rangers yet. That's at least a year off, if then. But at least now I have the possibility of being accepted.” He paused before gently continuing. “I waited until you got out of college and got settled into the new job. I wanted to make sure you were all set before I headed out."

"Headed out,” she parroted almost soundlessly. “Sounds like you're not planning on coming back."

Paul grabbed her arms and made her look directly into his eyes. “NO! That's not what this is about. Don't even go there.” He pulled her up tight against his body and wrapped his arms around her. “I love you, Mars. I always have. This is just something that I have to go do.” He tilted her chin up to look at him. “I will be back. I'll always come back to you."

She sighed and snuggled back down against his chest, enjoying the warmth of his body that radiated out even through his jacket. “I guess it won't be so bad. I mean, how long is bootcamp and all that other training? Six weeks? Six months? We were apart a lot longer than that when you first went away to college without me. We'll get through it and then you'll be home."

Paul stiffened under her fingers. “Honey, if I make it through bootcamp then there's AIT-Advanced Individual Training. After that there's at least one year in the Infantry and then I can apply for RIP-Ranger Indoctrination Program. If I make it through that… then I go to Ranger school, and… then… I go operational and I'll be deployed. An enlistment is a minimum four-year commitment and most of it won't be Stateside. Not with the country fighting two wars and God only knows how many more skirmishes around the world in the coming years.” His words made her realize she hadn't thought it through. He tried to soften the blow as much as possible. “I will get leave and we will be rotated out, so I'll be Stateside some of that time, and with you every moment I can be."

Her eyes drifted up to the festive lights strung across the walkways, lighting the night and shining down on happy couples and families she watched walking along, window shopping. They seemed to mock her, the lights. She looked away from their fairy brightness and as her eyes adjusted, her heart clutched. Paul had caught up to her right in front of Kay Jewelers. There, in the shop, was tray after tray of engagement rings and wedding bands… and none of them were hers… theirs. She closed her eyes to block out the sight of so many promises of happiness, took a deep breath and did what she always did: stepped up to support Paul in whatever he wanted or needed her to do.

"So what can I do to help? I mean, do you have everything you need already? Can I exercise my shopping genes on your behalf? Or… something?"

Paul squeezed her tight until she squeaked for breath before letting off on the pressure. “So, you forgive your idiot boyfriend for spoiling our last date night for a while?"

Marcy snorted at Paul's description of himself. He had just gotten a new nickname in her book. “Don't I always?” She nuzzled her head up under his chin. “Seriously though, what do you need me to do to help you get ready?"

"I'm fine for now. Basically, we show up in our skivvies and Uncle Sam takes it from there."

"Winter's coming on soon. It's going to be cold this time of year. I've seen pictures of those bootcamps. Most of the time the guys look like they're either going to die of heat stroke or hypothermia."

He chuckled. “I'll be fine. You know I love camping out and ‘roughing it.’ Only thing I won't have is you next to me to keep me warm."

A wry smile quirked her lips. Her humor was her armor. Always had been. It got her through tough times and hard things when nothing else could. It would in this case, too. So, okay, she obviously couldn't make him unsign the enlistment papers; she wouldn't if she could because she knew how long he'd wanted this. Nor could she go to bootcamp with him, but there was no sense in not having some fun with his last remark.

"Well, no.” She gave a big, overly dramatic sigh. “I can't go with you to keep you all nice and warm at night, but I could make you one of those big, soft specialty teddy bears with your name embroidered on it. They even have little green fatigues you can dress them in at the Build-A-Bear shop I passed by the other day at the mall."


***

Paul's blood ran cold at the thought of her sending him a teddy bear. He knew this woman intimately, and her thought-should he think of it more in terms of her ‘threat'-of sending him a bear was not something to be taken lightly. She'd do it! And oh he would be so dead. He wasn't even IN the military yet, but he knew enough to know that ‘mama's boys’ had a hard time and a teddy bear would brand him for life as the ‘boy who brought his BooBoo to bootcamp.'

"Oh honey… nonononononono… you can't. Really!” He held her away from him to stare pleadingly into her eyes. “You do that to me during bootcamp and I'm dead meat."

She twinkled back at him. “Why, Paul, I don't know what you're talking about. You know I would never do anything to embarrass you."

"Yeah. Sure you wouldn't. Let me tell you something, Marcy Grayson. If I wind up getting pummeled because of you and some stupid bear, I-I-I'll…” He fumbled around looking for a suitable threat that might make an impression on the hardheaded female he'd lost his heart to all those years ago. “I'll send you an auto-inflating raft booby trapped to go off in your living room. Then you'll be sorry."


***

The ice and fear between them cracked a bit as she grinned up at him. Of all the ridiculous bluffs he could have threatened her with, an auto-inflating raft was the best he could come up with? Her boy was seriously losing his touch.

She knew then that this was going to be an ongoing joke between them and that she would continue to torture him with the promise of sending him a teddy bear to keep him warm and comfy at night. She loved her ‘idiot boyfriend'-as he would forever be known as after this night of non-proposal-and would never intentionally do anything to make his bootcamp tougher for him. Realllllly. But she wasn't above having a little fun with him in the meantime.

And have fun she did. Over the next few weeks that he was away at bootcamp, Marcy kept the post office in business with cards and letters. She'd done a little investigating and tracked down his mail station. The first letter, welcoming him to the next phase of his adventurous new life, had actually arrived the same day he reported. And letters and pictures, all that was allowed to be sent, arrived in a steady stream to remind him of exactly what he was going through bootcamp for. Some were pictures of her and Alex and ‘home.’ Others were cutouts of fully operational US Army Rangers in camo paint holding big, scary-looking things that went bang and boom and that you had to yell, ‘incoming’ about. Written at the bottom in bold black marker was, “Ranger Paul!"

And with each letter, the mention of how much she was enjoying designing and building his bear… what it looked like… how pretty its white fur and big chocolate brown button eyes were. In one letter, she had even taken pictures of various bear outfits in the shop-her favorite was the pink ballerina bear-and included a little form to fill out of which ones he liked best along with a self-addressed stamped envelope so he could send it back to her. Marcy had laughed until she couldn't breathe at what he'd sent back and saved the reply for the scrapbook she was making for him. She could practically feel Paul squirm as he read her letters and knew that if he'd been able to call her from bootcamp there would have been a little tinge of worry in the back of his voice that she might actually carry through on the ‘promise.'

Paul had been at Basic for over a month. Just a couple more weeks and he'd be done… and home for the holidays. Marcy couldn't wait to see him and hold him tight again. But first she had one more thing to send. She had to hurry and get one last surprise finished and in the mail prior to the cutoff date to get it there in time before he left. It had all been arranged between her dad and Paul's DI. She hoped the guys in Paul's bay didn't pound on him too hard because of what she was about to pull.

And so, with the Charlie Brown Christmas Special playing in the background on the TV, she carefully stitched the small brown buttons into place on the face of the bear, then held her handiwork out at arm's length to inspect the overall effect. All that beautiful white fur. The pink ears and paws done in satin. The smile carefully embroidered onto his face and his Army Ranger camo fatigues as letter perfect as she could make them. A sprig of mistletoe and a couple of jingle bells on his boonie cap completed his ‘ensemble.’ Almost done. Another couple of hours work and it would be complete and ready to send to Paul. She took a sip of her hot chocolate and went back to her hand stitching, humming It's Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas under her breath.


Chapter Two

<p>Chapter Two</p>

"Here, plant your feet and lean into your shooting platform. Like this.” Paul twisted his battle buddy's torso around a bit more and pushed his feet into the proper stance with the toe of his boot. He adjusted the other man's hand on the front grip, got him into the right balance points for the stance, then stepped back out of the way. “Now, sight in. Breathe in and then relax. Don't anticipate the recoil, it'll throw you off. As you let your breath out, move your finger onto the trigger and squeeze slowly. Stroke her gently. Ancht! Keep your finger off the trigger until you're in position. That's how bad shit happens.” Paul checked up range and down, double checked his hearing protection, and tapped the man on the shoulder. “Okay, you're clear on the line. Fire when ready."

Fuentes did as instructed and fired off a three-round burst while Paul scoped it from the side with a range finder and chuckled as he watched his bunkmate drop three in the center ring kill zone of the target. Marcy to the rescue again. He had debated telling the guys that his girlfriend had taught him to shoot and decided against it. Older officers would take it in stride, but young recruits liked to think they were the next Rambo and the thought of being taught by G.I. Jane tended to get them all excited… in some very not good ways. Better to just send silent thanks to Mars, ‘The Goddess of War’ in this case, for the lessons that got him through ROTC all those years ago. There were advantages to having a dad who was not only a Lifer, but a qualified sharpshooter and weapons instructor. You got schooled early and often. And if you were generous of spirit, which his Mars was, you shared what you knew.

Paul had become one of his unit's top marksmen and been appointed a peer instructor. If he kept up like he was going, he'd be offered the option of going to sniper school. In the meantime, he'd made it his personal mission to ensure every guy in his class got through the shooting requirements. As he was taught, so he now taught. Four weeks down, two more left to get these guys qualified on the line. He stepped up and tapped Fuentes on the shoulder. “Good. Now, what I want you to do next is…"


***

Good old Physical Training: PT… pushups, situps, squats, and running… everywhere. Apparently, doubletime was the standard speed at bootcamp. All day every day they marched and doubletimed it all over the base and surrounding area building up stamina and strength, turning raw, green recruits into G.I. Joes. Today had been one of the longest so far. A 20-mile march with full packs, up and over the switchbacks of ‘Jake the Snake’ and back. Paul hurt in places he didn't even have and was so tired all he wanted to do was fall into bed and forget what planet he was on for a few hours, but that time was still a ways off yet. A quick shower and mess call and they were back in their bay just in time for a late Mail Call from the company clerk.

Mail Call! At this time of night? Oh well, never look a gift horse in the mouth, especially one bearing cards and letters from home. Paul always looked forward to Mail Call. Every one of the men did. It was a chance to forget the aches and pains, blisters and bruises, and spend a few precious minutes remembering ‘why’ they did what they did. A letter, especially one with a picture of a loved one, was literally what kept a couple of these guys moving forward some days.

But, as much as he loved getting letters from her, there was also that little tinge of fear, too. It was like living with the Sword of Damocles hanging over his head, never knowing when it was going to fall. But, so far, no bear. Maybe Marcy had just been teasing after all. She had a warped sense of humor, his girlfriend did. A couple of weeks back, he'd gotten quite a bit of ribbing over a drawing of a pair of old-fashioned black silk stockings on one letter that had been scented with her best perfume. He smiled and his heart melted all over again at the thought of those, a blush actually creeping up his neck. Stockings (even drawings of stockings), Yes! Bear (of any kind), NO!

"CALLAHAN, Paul James.” The voice rang out and Paul's tired head came up with a snap. A box was lofted over the heads of the guys in front of him and he raised his arms just in time to catch it. A BOX? Mars! He quickly checked the return address and blanched.

The box had obviously been opened and inspected. Instead of taping it back shut, it had just been four-squared on top, and not very carefully done at that. There, right at the top front edge of the box, barely poking out but still visible, was his nightmare come true… white fur! Oh, dear Godshe didn't! Oh no! Please Nooooo

"Hey, Callahan. Whatcha got in da box? Sumptun from home to eat?” a hopeful voice penetrated his adrenalin-muffled ears. What? He started up guiltily from staring into his doom. The box shifted and a small jingly sound… like muffled bells… could be heard from inside.

All over the bay, heads popped up from letters at that question like a bunch of meerkats scenting the wind. Paul looked up and around to see half a dozen of his closest ‘kill-you-and-eat-you-if-necessary’ buddies zero in on him, their grins spreading wide across their expectant faces. Even his Battle Buddy was looking at him funny.

"Uh. Um. No. No brownies. No candy. Nothing to eat, guys. Really.” Paul tried to close up the box so that the bear wasn't visible.

"Yeah, sure. Look at his face. There's something good in that box and he don't wanna share."

"No, it's just something personal from the girlfriend…” Paul realized his mistake as soon as the words left his mouth. He looked from one salivating, predatory grin to the next and all of a sudden understood-better than he ever had before-the concept of fight or flight. Flight won out.

Without a word or a warning he clutched the box to his chest like an all-star running back and sprinted for the door and his escape, ‘the hounds of hell’ hard on his heels, their whooping and war cries echoing off the walls of the hallway outside their bay. It was no contest. He made it down the stairs, past the instructors’ room and out the door onto the frost-encrusted ground outside the barracks, but they caught him there and he went down under a dogpile of bodies. Scuffling. Scrambling. Swearing and sweating. And then the box was ripped from his hands and he was positive that life as he knew it was over.

Paul could hear the tearing of the cardboard, the jingling of the bells, and the whooping of his fellow grunts as they ripped into the box. He was going to kill her. He had begged her not to. Pled with her. He thought she loved him and understood just how bad this was going to be for him. A damned teddy bear. With his luck she'd put lace bloomers or some other ‘dolly drag’ on the blasted thing. He was so totally scre-

"Awwwww… would ya look at this?"

"Where's the brauw-nies?"

"No brownies. Just this."

"Ah hey, that's cute."

"Cool!"

"Ooh-rah!"


***

It was his own damned fault. If he'd manned up and asked her to marry him that night like he'd intended to do, he wouldn't be in this mess now. He'd planned it down to the last detail. The dinner, the romantic gondola ride… he'd even had the engagement ring burning a hole in his pocket. But as the night wore on, he began to realize what he would be asking her to commit to and he loved her too much to ask her to wait around on the chance he would make it into the Rangers, and come back from deployment in one piece… or at all. Face it, soldiers died every day in war, and Rangers were good, but they weren't bomb or bulletproof. So at that last second, when he was going to ask her to be his wife, he looked into her beautiful caramel-colored eyes that he loved so much, and just couldn't do it.

'Will you take care of my dog?’ He'd seen the bright sparkle fade from her eyes when the realization of what he'd said sank in. She'd withdrawn from him in a way she'd never done in all the time he'd known her, all the time they had been together. It scared him how hard that had hit her and how her reaction had reflected back and hit him. They were ‘back to normal’ by the end of the evening, at least to all outward appearances, but there was still a distance that hadn't been there before. A ‘demilitarized zone’ of protection that was invisible, but palpable.

The next day he'd gone to see his sister and brother-in-law. When he told them what had happened the night before, Jeff and Sarah had looked at him like he'd grown two heads. They adored Marcy and had been looking forward to welcoming her officially into the family. And, apparently, neither of them considered that he might not make it back as sufficient reason for being an idiot. The whole concept of ‘if she's still single at the end of my enlistment and if I'm still all in one piece and functional then I can ask her’ was met with some very blunt assessments from the distaff side of the family and her spouse.

Jeff didn't mince words either and told him flat out that he was a jerk-and a fool-to let that one stay on the market without his ‘brand’ on her. So okay, it wasn't the most PC statement he'd ever heard, but he understood the reasoning behind it. Sarah, on the other hand, chewed Jeff out for that totally sexist comment, but then turned right around and told Paul he should have taken Beyonce's advice-"If you like it then you should have put a ring on it!"


***

The pressure eased up as one by one the guys climbed off of him and ambled back into the barracks and out of the cold night. He was still alive. They hadn't tortured him overly much. At least nobody was calling him ‘Teddy’ or ‘BooBoo’ or any other bear-related nickname… yet.

He sat up and looked around at the now empty grounds. At the door as it closed behind the last man. At the ripped open box next to him… with a big, beautiful Christmas stocking laying carefully on top of it to keep it off the ground. A stocking with a huge white fur ruff around the top, and little jingle bells dangling from the bottom of the snowy topping. His name, embroidered in gold above the bells, practically glowed up at him, lit by moonlight and lamplight… and the light of the love that was stitched into it. A beautiful cinnamon-colored bear with pink satin ears and feet and small brown button eyes, dressed in letter-perfect Army camo BDUs and holding a small red and gold box with a big red bow on top was appliqued onto the front. Ranger Bear Callahan.

Paul stared at the stocking for a long time, not moving, then reached out and picked it up and brought it closer. He was careful not to get it dirty, but needed to touch it, feel it. Make sure it was real. He reached out one finger and flicked the tiny little bells attached to the embroidered mistletoe on the cap and smiled. He jingled it a little and the bells sewn around the bottom of the cuff tinkled merrily into the night.

A slight breeze whuffed around him and a flash of white caught his eye. Paul looked back at the flattened box, and there, under where the stocking had been, was an envelope. He laid the stocking across his lap and reached down, retrieved the Christmas card and took out the letter he found inside. He slowly began to read.

"My Darling Paul,


***

I hope the Stocking wasn't too ‘unbearable’ for you. He comes to you with a lot of love and holds not only Christmas goodies (which I'm pretty sure your DI will have confiscated), but my love for you as well in his fuzzy little paws.

I've spent a lot of time lately with the wives and girlfriends of the guys here on Redstone arsenal. I know from my own family what military life is like, at least for the women, and I'm good to go with whatever you need to do. You have not only my love, but my support, always. Just wanted you to know that.

Love,

Mars

PS, I've organized the Officers’ Wives here into an all-female shooting club. We hit the range every Tuesday/Thursday and some of them are getting pretty good. BTW, Captain Weck's wife wanted to know if you figured out the difference between your rifle and your gun yet? You'll have to explain that one to me when you get home. I'm still working on the whole bridge playing thing not doing so good on that oneso far.

PPSHurry home. Alex misses youso do I.

As he sat there staring at the stocking, dealing with the aftermath of that rush of adrenalin, a small white flake landed on the nose of the bear, followed by one on its fur-which Marcy had perfectly matched to Paul's own soft brown hair color. Paul looked up as another one drifted down to land on his own nose and then another and another. It was snowing! Two weeks before Christmas and it was snowing in freaking Georgia! Did this mean that hell had frozen over? Or were the silent, peaceful flakes beginning to blanket the earth a sign… perhaps that something rare and special was happening in his life and he should take notice of it? He started to laugh, quietly at first, then louder, until his sides were aching and he was practically rolling on the ground. When he finally stopped and came up for air, he'd made a decision.

This was the woman he wanted to be with forever. He had to confess that he loved her. Desperately. Passionately. She was his heart, his soul, his life, his very reason for living and he couldn't endure another day without her as his wife. He needed to make up to her for that last ‘non-proposal’ with something as unforgettable as she was. But what?

He stood, the stocking carefully protected against his chest, the bear pressed close over his heart, and headed for the barracks and all those dog-piling ‘buddies’ of his. He was almost to the door when he stopped dead still and practically howled at the moon with laughter. All of a sudden he knew exactly what to do to set the seal on this proposal. Paybacks were such a…


Chapter Three

<p>Chapter Three</p>

Marcy had finally stopped laughing, but her eyes were brimming with tears, blurring everything and giving it a starry-filter sparkle. She blinked them away and managed to finally get one hand up to her eyes to wipe them. She blinked and wiped again. But some of the sparkle just wasn't going away.

That's when she noticed something she hadn't seen before-something shiny and bright and small-tied to the front of the raft, just within her grasp. She reached out and tugged on the red ribbon holding it to the raft's loop. With that single tug it came loose and fell into her outstretched hand. She brought it up to gaze into its sparkling heart, to lose herself in its fire for a moment. A diamond engagement ring. A beautiful solitaire just like one she'd seen in the window that night right before Paul went to bootcamp and had caught up with her in front of Kay Jewelers. The night he hadn't proposed.

Marcy looked at it again and went very still inside. It wasn't a new ring. It was actually a very old one. She took a deep breath as the reality of what she was looking at truly sank in. In her hand she held the ring she'd seen in a picture of Paul's Great-Grandmother Dorothy. The one his grandmother and his mother had been given when they each became engaged. She gasped and the tears started to gather and fall for real.

A loud ‘pop,’ followed by the hiss of escaping air whooshed around her, and the pressure started to release from the raft pinning her to the wall. She watched it go down inch by slow inch to reveal the figure of a tall, broad-shouldered, chocolate-eyed, cinnamon-haired soldier standing in full Army dress uniform on the far side of the now ruptured Zodiac 8-man, auto-inflating combat raft.

Paul stood in the door, Ka-bar in hand, and grinned at Marcy as the raft continued to deflate until it was on the floor at their feet. Without a word he sheathed the knife, stepped forward to stand on the recently murdered raft and held out his arms. Marcy didn't hesitate for an instant. She launched herself across the distance, wrapping her arms around his neck and her legs around his hips and began showering him with kisses.

"Mars? Mars! Marcy!” Paul said between kisses, which wasn't easy considering she had his head in her hands and her lips plastered to his.

She drew back just far enough to look into his twinkling eyes. “Yes, Paul?"

Paul gently eased her down off his waist onto her feet and took her face in his hands for a moment before stepping back to go down on one knee before her. He reached up and took the ring from her hand, kissed it, and looked up at her. “Margaret Helena Grayson, I love you with all of my heart. I always have. And I can't imagine going through this life without you by my side. Will you marry me?"

Marcy looked down at him. This was soooo much more what she had dreamed of back when she was a little girl orchestrating her Barbie's engagement to Ken and dreaming of her own proposal and wedding one day. Her tears fell so hard she almost couldn't see the man she'd loved absolutely forever. “Yes! Oh, yes, Paul. You know I will. I love you, too. I always have and always will.” She sniffed back her tears, gave a little hiccup and blinked. “Do I still get to keep the dog?"

She heard Paul roar with laughter an instant before she was swept up into his arms and kissed until the room was spinning around her and she forgot everything but the feel of his lips on hers and his arms holding her close. Which was why, when after a few moments Marcy became aware of the sound of applause, it took her a while to figure out what it was she was hearing.

As amazingly wonderful as being in his arms was right then, curiosity got the better of her and she slowly disengaged their lip-lock just enough to peek up over one of Paul's broad shoulders. Her eyes went wide. Now she understood why none of her neighbors had called the cops about the hippo butt in the front door… they were all in on it. Everyone from the whole block seemed to be standing in her front yard, along with several men in green army dress uniforms holding bottles of champagne and bouquets of flowers-more specifically, poinsettias in pots, as was appropriate for a Holiday Proposal. For Marcy that was better than roses. She gave a happy little sniff and buried her face against Paul's neck, her head resting on his shoulder and her arms fitting ever so nicely around his waist.


***

The fire crackled merrily in the fireplace as Marcy and Paul snuggled on the couch, Alex racked out cold on the floor at their feet. The last of the neighbors had left only a few minutes ago, encouraged by Paul's Army buds who had taken the hint of, “So, are you mooches ever going to get the hell outta here and give us some privacy?” in good stride, and translated it into the more politically correct, “Ladies and Gentlemen, I think we shouldn't overstay our welcome and let the newly-engaged have some time to themselves.” With much hugging and handshaking, congratulating and best wishing, they all filed out the door amid plans to meet for brunch the next morning.

"That was fun. You've got some great neighbors.” He nuzzled into Marcy's hair and pulled her even tighter against him.

"Yeah, I do. I'd always thought of them as a little bit too nosy, but I think I like having people around that I know. It's almost like living in a small town where everybody knows your business. I like your guys, too.” She snuggled down, burrowing into his arms as close as she could. “Are they going to keep you together when you're assigned or is everyone ‘to the winds'?"

"They're a great bunch, but they probably won't keep us together. We'll be sent to established units according to our skills and their needs. We haven't even gotten our MOSs yet.” He took another sip of the champagne and looked toward the door where everyone had filed out earlier. “I like knowing you have friends around while I'm gone. It's going to make it easier on me if I know there are people you can count on close-by."

"Whether I have these neighbors or not, I've still got Jeff and Sarah. And Mom and Dad are only a few hours away. And, I'm now wired in with the Officers’ Wives Club… Wow… I'm about to be an officer's wife.” She sat up straight and beamed at him.

"Marcy… you're really sure about all this? It's going to mean long stretches away from each other. You're young and you're going to want to go out and have some fun. And there's always the possibility of that knock on the door from the Chaplain's office…” His voice trailed off leaving the hard, cold facts laid out in front of them.

"I'm sure. I always have been. And it will be the same long stretch for you. Hey, I've got the women on base. They're always busy with some project or other. And the shooting club is coming along very nicely. We're actually thinking of entering some competitive meets. How'd you like to get outshot by a bunch of your wives and mothers, Oh Mighty Ranger of the South?” she teased lightly before going serious on him. “Plus, I do have friends from work and even a few from school who are in the area. I have family close to hand… and truthfully… where would I want to go without you?” She took his glass, finished off the champagne in it and set it on the end table before crawling into his lap. “As to that other consideration… hey… I could get hit by a bus or a lightning bolt tomorrow and you could live to be one hundred. No one's fate is written.” She turned his face toward hers and looked deeply into his eyes. “As long as you love me, I'll be fine. I'm an Army wife, you know."


***

Yes, she was an Army wife. Or would be just as soon as he could arrange it, definitely before he shipped OUTCONUS. He laughed to himself at how he even thought in military acronyms-Outside Continental United States. She was his, and it was his duty, his honor-and his pleasure-to see to her safety and security, whether fighting the bad guys over there, or filling out the paperwork that would take care of her over here.

But that could wait until at least the morning. Tonight they had other things that needed attention. Paul wrapped his arms around the wonderful woman in his lap, his woman, and they melted into each other.


Epilogue

<p>Epilogue</p>

Ranger Paul Callahan watched as the snow fell thick and silent. From his position as lookout at the opening of the shallow cave high in the mountains of Afghanistan, he could see far down the trail below them. He and his men had been lucky to find this defensible spot right before dusk and taken up shelter there for the night. A small crunch of boot on gravel alerted him that one of his teammates was coming to relieve him from his guard duty where he'd been hunkered down over his rifle for the last four hours. The man tapped him on the helmet and he moved aside to let him assume the overwatch position. Wordlessly he tapped back to acknowledge the silent change of watch and moved over to the other side of the opening. Although he was now free to return to the cave and grab some chow and rack time, he didn't move inside. Instead, he closed his eyes for a minute, let the tension drain from his neck and shoulders, and allowed his mind to shift out of guard mode to more pleasant thoughts.

Mail call had found them right before they went out again and their holiday packages from home had arrived. As always, Marcy had packed enough for not only him but extras that he could share with his men, and even enough for some of the locals. It was never easy being away from her at this time of year, but her traditional extravaganza of cookies and brownies, hand warmers, and homemade goodies sure did make it easier to bear until he could get back home and hold her in his arms. He made sure he always told her how much she meant to him, how having her as his partner in this world made such a difference in his life, but he wasn't sure she could ever truly comprehend just how much of a difference. She was the heart of his home. She was where he lived. No matter where his duty took his body, his soul was in her keeping.

Paul looked down at the luminescent dial on his watch: 2200. Their daily ritual time. He removed his winter glove and touched the wedding ring wrapped in tape on his finger. He stared at it for a few moments, then reached into his inside breast pocket and pulled out a tiny stuffed Beany Bear dressed in camo BDUs-just like the one on his Christmas stocking-that he always carried with him. He looked westward and sent a silent ‘Merry Christmas, Darling’ to his sweet wife at home. Soon, Sweetheart. Soon.


***

On the other side of the world, Marcy looked up from decorating their tree. The hair on the back of her neck tickled and her heart got a warm glow. Paul was thinking about her. She looked at her watch-1300 on the dot. Yup… her Ranger was right on time, as usual. This was their daily ritual, developed over the years to tie them together, but on this day-Christmas Eve-it was always extra special. She brought her wedding ring to her lips and then to her heart. Almost the same motion Paul had made right before he proposed to her. Later he'd told her the kiss on it was ‘for love and luck.'

When the minute passed, she carefully placed the last ornament on their tree. As always, she'd saved the best for last: the miniature inflatable raft ornament with a sparkling crystal tied to the front by a teeny red ribbon. She smiled down at it, remembering, then looked over to the fireplace where Paul's stocking hung by the chimney with great care. She gave a deep sigh.

It would be a lonely Christmas without him, but that was sometimes the fate of an Army wife. She'd known what the deal was when she'd signed on and she accepted that. He'd rotate home after the first of the year and they would have a wonderful celebration when he got here. After all, Christmas wasn't just a specific day on the calendar. It would be their holiday time WHENEVER he made it home to her. She kissed her fingertips, reached over and placed them lovingly on the heart of the stocking's bear and smiled. Her Sweet Army Ranger Bear.

She went back to decorating the tree with tinsel, gently laying the strands one by one. There was a click and whir as the CD changed and after a few moments Marcy began to hum along with the new tune, then sang softly, "… Christmas Eve will find me… Where the love light beams… I'll be home for Christmas… If only in my dreams…"

Merry Christmas, Sweetheart. Be safe and warm and come home to me soon. Christmas is wherever you are, whenever we are together. I Love You.


Tied With A Bow by Anne Elizabeth

<p>Tied With A Bow by Anne Elizabeth</p>

Anne Elizabeth is a marketing consultant and the monthly columnist for RT BOOK Reviews on the topic of comics, manga, and graphic novels. She has a BS in Business and MS in Communications from Boston University and has over a decade and a half in the corporate and private business sectors, though she prefers writing, interviews, research, and reader events.

AE is a member of the Author's Guild; Romance Writers of America; and a regular presenter at the Romantic Times BOOK LOVERS Convention. Among her published credits are the Atria/Simon & Schuster anthologies, CARAMEL FLAVA & HONEY FLAVA, and the Highland Press sweet collection, RECIPE FOR LOVE; the Spec Ops Military Anthologies OPERATION: L.O.V.E. and HOLIDAY OP and the soon-to-be released book: FOR YOUR HEART ONLY. Her graphic novel, PULSE OF POWER, debuts with the Dabel Brothers in February 2010.

She enjoys Kenpo, hiking, mountain biking, yoga, Body Rev, painting, and kayaking. Her husband is a retired Navy SEAL, and they are active in the West Coast Navy SEAL community. Her favorite motto is “Passion is the breath of life. Live boldly!” Also, a quote inspired by her grandfather gathers much of her creative advice into one sentence, “Look inside, find the message that is yours to share, and give it to the world."


Dedication

<p>Dedication</p>

This fictional story is dedicated to the outstanding men and women of the United States military. With much gratitude to those who protect and serve, eternally we salute you with the greatest respect and praise we may share. Thank you!

With many thanks to Lori Avocato, Tara Nina, DC DeVane, and Lia DeAngelo for participating in the collection, and to Christina Skye for her cover quote; to Leanne Burroughs for her vision, support, and belief in the collection and the anthology series, and for allowing us to continue to donate to the SOWF; to Patty Howell for her terrific edits; to Charles DeVane for all things computer-related; to my brilliant mentor, my cherished friends, my talented agent, and enormous HOOYAHs to the EOD guru-for help with the facts and advice on the fiction; to the BBers-Brenda, Rose, Mary, Jan, Ing, Stephanie, Catherine, Mic, Lynn, Ginger, Robin, Beki, Peg, Erika, and Cindy; to Izaline and Frank who celebrate family; to my blessed and dearly missed brother; to my amazing parents-I love you-you are THE BEST; and to my wonderful husband, Carl who reminds me every day that life must hold pleasure, joy, fun, smiles, and enormous bouts of laughter as well as everlasting love.


Chapter One

<p>Chapter One</p>

A bead of sweat rolled down his back. Christmas music played in the background despite the heat in the office. Eight floors high, and it was as hot as California's Sultan Sea on a spring day.

Noise battered his ears. His job was difficult enough without orders and misguided shouts coming through his ear COM. Know It All on the other end knew nothing. That's what happened when the Washington D.C. Police Department hired consultants to be Incident Commander. He had a lot of respect for the police force and the rest of the law enforcement agencies, but if personnel weren't stretched so tightly during the holidays, there wouldn't be non-professionals in such an important role. The Incident Commander had to be capable of managing a crisis, or at the very least a person who knew enough to let him do his job. Navy EOD was here, asked to participate in these emergencies, because they were known for being effective.

Did he mention yet another spoofy rendition of Jingle Bells blaring over the central office speakers? If he were a different kind of person, he just might be tempted to slip out the back after disabling the bomb.

But this was his job, what he did and who he was. He was an EOD Specialist. Performing Explosive Ordnance Disposal for the Navy, saving the public and his men from harm, was his sole reason for existing.

A plethora of someone else's family references were in this office. A tree. Candy canes. Presents. Cards. Pictures. But for him, there was no family, no gifts, and no holiday remembrances past his teenage years. When his parents had passed away, he'd traded one foster home after another until he enlisted in the Navy.

Pushing away the excess thoughts, muscles tensed as Captain Devin Walds reached out a hand and grasped the green wire. But, boy, looking at this bomb, he had to admit the holidays did encourage folks to do bizarre things. This was the strangest bomb he'd ever seen. Now, focused completely on his task, he noticed, although the wires were placed very precisely, there were all these unusual knots and kinks.

"You're about to cut the wrong wire!” The voice he wished he could block screeched over the COM. “It's the blue wire! Listen to me, Captain Walds. Don't block me out!"

"Shut up! Let him do his job!” In the background the new CO tried to silence the Incident Commander-IC. “It's an IED-Improvised Explosive Device. Get it-it's improvised. There's no manual. Walds is our best."

The IC had already caused four traffic pile-ups and an electrical cut on three buildings two blocks over. More serious casualties, because of the man's incompetence to lead the situation appropriately, were only a matter of time.

Hand steady, Devin brought the knife up and in one swipe severed the green wire.

The clock sped, counting down.

Screams issued over the COM. “He did it wrong! Walds screwed up!” The IC's panicked voice barked commands with a high-pitched yell. “Evacuate! It's going to blow! Go! Go! Go!"

Deliberately, Devin pushed aside several wires until he found a small black one. Calm pervaded. This was what he was looking for. The cutoff.

The clock ran down the minutes. Seconds remained.

The knife sliced the wire and the clock froze. Three seconds blinked at him from the digital display.

This was what he did. Defuse and disable bombs. Welcome to Navy EOD.

He relaxed. Leaning back, he settled himself in the pale butterscotch leather ergonomic chair. This one had to have cost hundreds of dollars, definitely top of the line.

Rubbing his eyes, he stretched. Luxuriating in the fact that all his body parts were still attached, he waited for command center to realize there hadn't been an enormous BOOM!

Oddly enough, chaos still ensued. Captured loudly on his COM, it was a contrast to the calm atmosphere in the office. Another Christmas carol keyed up over the office speaker. “Hark, the Herald Angel's Sing."

What was with Command Central? It was unheard of for an IC to create such a dangerous situation with so much melodrama.

He clicked the mic twice. “This is Santa One, all clear."

Looking at the bomb, he thought, Fate's a fickle creature, but skill is skill.

Devin wondered if the new CO was shaking his head and trying to calm the IC. It had been a riot listening to him explain to the heads of the Intelligence Community departments the reason why they weren't using robots right now. These latest techno toys had been encountering interference, and no one had been able to determine from what. On the last job, something had jammed the signal between the remote and the robot, and the team had lost two topnotch operators, a building, and their best robot unit. When they'd reviewed the footage afterward, it had seemed as though something else had controlled the final devastating moments. But nothing could bring back his men. The loss marked his soul.

He stared out the window. Willing the view to entice him. It was a decent day outside. No clouds, only bright sunshine. The light painted a prism of rainbows along one wall of the room. He'd noticed the tiny crystals at the sides of the window. They were mostly octagons. Some even shaped as animals.

In here, the office was serene. A nice place to work, probably. The name on the degrees on the wall read Brenda Rosing Pente.

The room had a woman's touch. He wondered what she was like. The lady who'd decorated this room. A delicate variation of blues and creams, it was gentle on the senses, and the art was engaging, too. Garden-scapes with a jewel-toned impressionist flare, but there was a texture on top of it. Like they held a dual meaning. Places he could find peacefulness in, a feeling he relished.

The Christmas tree stood next to a big credenza. On it sat several pictures-large sailboats; NASCARs; three people, perhaps a father and mother with their proud daughter at her graduation; that same woman dressed in business attire kissing a guy in a matching colored suit; and two women arm-in-arm. Sisters? The resemblance between the two was startling, except one had vivid, light green eyes. Both had athletic builds and warm expressions. Of course, trying to guess a woman's age could get a man in trouble.

He looked closer at the photos in back. The ladies had raised funds for cancer research, and one had donated bone marrow to a soldier in need. Several more shots showed her donating paintings and proceeds to hospitals, VA facilities, and shelters. These were extraordinary souls.

It shocked him to realize he'd like to know her.

Settling back in the chair, he thought about that as snowflakes dropped from the sky.

He waited for his team and word from down below. Overall, though, he couldn't complain. This was a nice setting. The office… where strangely enough, someone had set a bomb.

His military mind switched back into gear. Why here?

It was strategically located. An explosion here was capable of taking out several Washington, D.C. blocks. He was ninety percent sure the children's center below was the main target. This office might have simply been the most convenient in the building or perhaps there was a link to the occupant.

He looked again at the medical license on the wall. Dr. Brenda Rosing Pente was a shrink. Too bad the bomb-maker hadn't been able to talk to the psychiatrist. Therapy might have helped. A pretty sick guy to aim a bomb at kids, but terrorists only seemed to care about striking terror and harming children would do it.

Definitely the wrong move for a terrorist. The perpetrator would only incite entire families and groups to start hunting for him. Americans never forget and don't forgive innocent deaths. It's our culture. We're protective of what's ours. And, religion, well, that was a whole other enormous layer.

Where was the lady shrink anyway? Hopefully, the FBI or the cops were looking into it. No doubt, the Secret Service would have a finger in it too since the bomb's location could have affected the President. The Secret Service had been the original agency to report the threat. They'd received actionable documentation from a reliable source. Then the Washington D.C. Police Department put a plan into action and contacted his EOD team. With the holiday season cranking up the crisis levels, Devin was on one of five extra military teams in the nation's capital, assisting with possible threats and incidents.

Looking at the clock, Devin realized people were still in panic mode and yelling on the radio. Whoever had been watching on the hat cam had obviously tuned in to another station.

Well, nuts! Guess I better give someone the 411.

He cleared his throat. “Testing. 123. This is Santa One calling with an ALL CLEAR."

"Building's going to blow, man. Get the hell out!"

Devin didn't recognize the voice, but it was time the chaos halted. “Not unless there's another bomb someone hasn't told me about. This one's disabled."

"Wha-at?” Bennett Blicksen, IC and now Acting Command Center Chief and liaison between the Naval EOD Group and the Secret Service, shouted. “Devin?"

"With all due respect, Sir, that's Captain Walds.” He could barely contain the tautly held emotion in his voice as he addressed the IC. The man was unskilled and a glory hound. From what he'd learned so far, Blicksen was all about “acting” like a hero, not about saving lives. Unskilled and acting were a recipe for disaster. But what could Devin do?

He knew his values were old fashioned. He'd been taught to respect his elders and those in charge. But when a callous fool was playing Russian roulette with the public's safety because he didn't know which chamber held the bullet, or in this case which wire was which, then Devin felt perfectly comfortable standing up for what was right.

Among it was safety and… the familiar use of his first name. Only his friends and true superiors who had earned his respect could call him Devin or Dev. Everyone else had to take a number and seriously get to know him first. This guy… well, he didn't know his way around an incident or an operation or any other kind of scene. So, he planned to go with the formal approach and leave when he could. He'd ‘Sir’ this guy to death until then! “Sir, did you copy? The bomb is disabled, Sir."

"What do you mean disabled?” Blicksen's voice was incredulous. The sound of spit hitting the small mic was enough to make Devin wish he could ditch the thing. Not a good sign when the IC salivated this much.

Rolling his eyes, he crossed his legs and reached for his cell phone. Flipping it open, he texted to his CO. What next?

BZ on bomb! BZ was Bravo Zulu, which meant Good Job.

Devin nodded humbly. He was always grateful it went well.

The next text said: Wrap it!

A vision of the new CO sitting next to Blicksen ran through his mind. Why the government would let an untried lead take the helm was beyond them. Not to mention, it was downright dangerous. Was the agency personnel stretched that thin?

Another text: Nox is on his way up. Bellows and crew will scoop. Gab, grab, and go! Beers on Bends at Brinkley.

Roger Wilco! typed Devin. He'd have to file a ton of paperwork on the job. He took a couple of extra pictures with his phone and sent them to some registered accounts to assist with his backup later.

When the crew arrived, he slapped skin and took a ton of lip about getting off easy. Banter was always good after a job well done, and he let it roll off of him as he prepared to face Blicksen.

The trip down to the lobby was quiet. “Dashing through the snow” played over the speaker, while CNN rolled the tape showing the outside of the hotel. The visuals showed children being trampled by adults and men pushing past women. Two elderly women lay near the front door, crying. Their outstretched hands slapped away as people ran past.

His own buddies ran up and picked up the women, getting them to relief crews and ambulances. The men had been positioned on the periphery, watching for suspicious individuals and handling issues that came up. Blicksen was still yelling at everyone. It was obvious he didn't know what he was doing.

People were being brought by on stretchers. Their injuries were evident of trample marks and a few bullet holes. This guy was hurting more lives than he was helping. He'd created havoc where ordered calm would have served. It was a skill… being functional and effective in a crisis. Who was going to make sure this type of mess didn't happen again?

Devin's feet moved him through the lobby. Facing Blicksen came faster than he thought. Maybe he should have prepared better, calmed, or made his peace. Because the next second Blicksen was in his face, yelling at him about Devin's inability to follow orders.

In the blink of an eye, Blicksen lay on the ground, looking up at Devin from the pavement. The IC's eyes were open, but no one was home.

A woman broke from the sidelines and ran to Blicksen. She knelt on the ground and put her arms on his chest. Obviously, Blicksen had brought a civilian to the scene. That was a major no-no. When the woman looked up at Walds a string of comments laced with anger were directed at him. What he wanted to say to her was what are you doing here? This is supposed to be a secure area. What he said was… “Sorry, lady.” Devin took a step back, and he was too. If this man were hers, she'd put up with more chaos than she probably wanted. “I'm sure he'll be fine… unfortunately.” The last word was mumbled, but he was away from the whole mess. All he wanted was to do his job and disengage.

Blicksen would have a souvenir for a few days, to remember Devin by. A broken nose for sure. But if Lady Luck were still with him, it'd be a broken upper jaw, too.

Stepping over the prone man, Devin walked away. Leaving the IC to his unconscious state.

His new CO would chuckle in private, but without a doubt militarily he'd give Devin an earful. There was little to no tolerance when it came to fighting in public. Then again… the sidewalk had been slippery and his fist might have saved Blicksen from a very bad fall.

Devin squared his shoulders. He would take his share of whatever needed to come. It had been worth it. Besides, Blicksen was lucky, and he'd gotten off light. If I'd really had my way, he wouldn't put anyone else in jeopardy ever again. Because what Devin really wanted to do was kill the man who'd caused so much unnecessary chaos and danger to those around him.


***

It was empty, a blank page. The white paper sat devoid of emotion, decision, input, or treatment. Instead, it waited to become, to hold something of importance. There was no predetermination or denouncement from it, only a willingness to be patient and to accept what she would place upon it.

This was a judgment free zone. That's what she liked to call it. There were no rules here. Even the absence of them didn't make it have to be something in particular. What this environment and experience was could be classified as a continual flow. Because here she acted on her most primal instincts and encouraged those who entered her realm to do creative work to act as they must, too.

The sensation of freedom was palpable. Like a tangible quality it flowed all around as if the air held a magic elixir upon which creation could continually burst with newness.

Kathryn Marie Pente looked at the wooden plaque near her easel. It was an 8 1/2” x 11” celebration sheet and on its shellacked top were quotes sealed for their protection. They read: “A painting by Kathryn Marie has substance, and will stand as a tribute to nature's upheavals and life's remarkable beauty,” Bing, The Village Voice. “Turning your senses on edge could make you doubt your own eyes, unless Pente has inked its direction. With magnificent strokes, she has outdone her contemporaries and created watercolor masterpieces,” The Times, Xander, Art Critic. “Sharing your soul is never easy, but Kathryn Marie Pente's art opens hearts and the door for everywhere,” Courier News, Doc Beston's art column. “To the best sister ever. I love you! May your art always make the world take notice and praise you beyond your need and expectations,” Love, Brenda.

Her sister had made this cherished keepsake, to remind Kathryn Marie that her dream of painting was worthwhile. Brenda had been the first to believe, and had stood strong by her side ever since. Even her parents had eventually come around, especially when they began to see the acclaim from the public.

Her cell phone vibrated with messages. At least fifty calls this morning, but none of them buzzed with Brenda's ringtone. Billy Joel's “Just The Way You Are” was her sister's favorite song and unless that rang through, Kathryn Marie wasn't answering.

People had even come to the door, but she didn't want to see anyone. It was part of her process and there were times that she tuned out the world. No one was allowed through-not a neighbor, a cop, or anyone else-except her sister.

She frowned. Where was Bren? Why hadn't she returned any of the phone calls from yesterday or the day before? Almost Christmas and it was so unlike her sister to be out of touch this long. They hadn't even made plans for the holidays yet. It was impossible to escape an ever-increasing feeling that something was wrong. Kathryn Marie wasn't psychic or given to precognition or premonition, but something was seriously wrong when her only blood didn't call back. She loved Brenda. A sister was forever.

Stroking a hand over the soft wood, she allowed herself the peacefulness that came from admiring the Chippendale desk upon which the plaque was set. This heirloom furniture piece, overloved with use, had come from her great-grandmother. It had several deep scratches-love notes from her great-grandfather-and had decades of protective polish.

Add in her three oriental rugs and a small porcelain statue, and these were the items that had a family vibe and remembrance to them. Everything else here, the paintings on the walls, the couch, table, chairs, and bed, had been her doing. Choices made years ago when she was in college. Now, living in San Diego, across the country from her only other family member on the face of this earth, she considered picking up and moving. What was here for her? No boyfriend, a few acquaintances… though, she enjoyed the gallery she worked with in La Jolla and she adored painting. The manager, LuJean, was always kind and welcoming, and he got a terrific price for her work.

She sighed. Okay, she liked the weather, too. It was relaxing to be able to put on a bathing suit almost any day of the year and swim or kayak in the ocean. Other than missing her family, specifically her older sister, she was pretty much at ease in her world. Surrounded by paints, canvas, paper, and water. Life and the leading of it were of her own making, and these choices had been deliberate. What she made, if she liked it, carried forth into the world and if it didn't, then she destroyed it or threw it away. She was the creator, and she had control. She liked having control over her life.

Songs from “Winter Solstice” issued from the radio like a sea-salt bath for the nerves. She relaxed into the instrumental harmonies and let the music sweep her away.

Kathryn Marie wet the lapis block on her plastic pallet with a dab of water from the fan-shaped, synthetic bristle brush. The watercolor became a small pool of wet potency. Dipping her brush, she lifted it to the paper and drew a feathery stroke across the paper. The white space filled with shapes making the picture transform. The page filled with a bold and wild seascape.

Waves crashed, and the scene was tumultuous and harsh. White crests flooded over rocks and the beach, drowning the plants and covering the small caves inset in the cliffs.

The violence was intense. Something was wrong. She could feel it, and her painting showed it.

She painted nonstop, tears streaming down her cheeks as her chest heaved. Her breath hurt as she drew it in and forced it out.

"What's wrong with me?” Taking a break, she turned the radio off and walked to the TV switching it on.

Visuals assaulted her immediately. Sound in a jumbled cacophony accompanied the graphic awfulness.

Emotion poured out in a scream. Kathryn Marie saw a picture of her sister's building plastered on screen behind the announcer. “Brenda!"

The news played in the background. “This is CNN. Our lead story, the bomb that threatened to devastate several Washington, D.C. blocks close to the White House has been disarmed. It's been six hours now, and we have more information. The bomb was considered a handmade device, and happily authorities have recently given an all-clear status for the area. Residents will be able to return to their homes and offices tomorrow morning. Unfortunately…"

Kathryn Marie gulped, trying to make the air stay inside of her body. Suddenly, too much breath poured out. But her heart and lungs squeezed so tight she could barely take the pain.

Her mind screamed… no, no, no.

An aerial view of her sister's building flashed on the screen as the announcer continued. “… In late breaking news, the body of a prominent psychiatrist, well known in governmental circles and within homeland security for her work on stress recognition and hypnotherapy, was discovered in the Dumpster behind the building. The bomb had been planted in the eighth floor office by an unknown source. Authorities are still trying to contact the family of the victim.” Her phone went off again jarring her nerves.

"The private residence hotel housed several doctors’ offices as well as serving as short- and long-term housing to many government officials. No other deaths have been reported at this time. Stay tuned to CNN for more details or check our website, CNN.com."

She knew. It was her sister who had been killed.

Walking over to the vibrating phone, she dialed her voice mail and listened. Her vision was blurred by tears and breathing felt foreign. The police. And so many more individuals wanted to speak with her. Closing the phone did not end the deluge.

The news played over and over. Rage and pain poured through Kathryn Marie as it cycled again and again.

How could she go on! How was she supposed to survive the death of her sister?


Chapter Two

<p>Chapter Two</p>

The West Coast suited him. In less than ten hours since he'd defused the bomb, Devin was back on home base.

His best friend would tease him that there were advantages to playing badly with others. He was just lucky there had been no TV cameras to capture his behavior. If there had, life would be pretty different right now.

Getting a verbal berating was the worst of it, and he was grateful for that. He knew he wouldn't be so glib in the future. If it ever happened again, that he had to work with Blicksen, he'd follow the appropriate channels for reporting the guy. That was how the bureaucracy worked.

Bright sunshine warmed his skin. He grinned as he pulled his dolphin gray Porsche into the parking lot of the VONS grocery store on Orange Avenue in Coronado, California.

Checking the time on his heirloom Rolex, he noted he still had two hours before he had to be at the EOD training facility. His temporary change of assignment was going to be superb. Working at the Amphibian Base, teaching the ins and outs of EOD was right up his alley. He preferred it to the political pussyfooting he had to do when he worked with D.C. agencies. Courses on ‘getting along’ and diplomacy weren't his cup of tea.

The thought made him chuckle. He preferred coffee or beer-in other words, locating the source of the issue, taking care of it, and moving on. That was his forte. With the other agencies-anything that wasn't Navy-he had to share info, play nice, and be polite. He wasn't thrilled with the “I know, you know” concept. From his training, he'd learned “keep the Intel close.” This concept saved lives. He would gladly leave the issues up to his CO.

The punch in the face to Blicksen had landed him with a verbal reprimand, but nothing further. The new CO had written a small cock ‘n bull paragraph about stress and reassigning duties, and off Devin had headed to home base for a new assignment.

Ah, San Diego and its beautiful weather made up for a lot of long nights being stuck in snow and slush. If he became forlorn for the white stuff, he could drive to the mountains of Julian for fresh homemade apple pie, the local tourist specialty, or head up to Big Bear for snowboarding.

He exited his car and made his way to the back entrance of the grocery store. Lunch and H2O were pretty much the only items on his list, but it never hurt to walk the aisles. When he stepped inside, cool air bathed him and the scent of baked goods teased his nose.

Life was good!

Turning into an aisle, a woman smashed into him, covering his happy thoughts with… strawberry shortcake. Sticky, gooey, and messy stuff clung to his uniform.

"Oh, I'm soooo sorry!” Light green eyes held his.

He stared for a minute. It was she, the other woman from the picture. The incredible things this woman had done-raising money, donating to others-there was so much to admire. Her eyes had drawn him to the picture when he'd first seen it, and they mesmerized him now. “It's you!"

Her eyebrows crinkled. “I don't know what you mean. Do I know you?"

"Yes. No. I mean… I'm sorry about your sister.” Those words seemed to be verbal bullets that struck her body hard. She wobbled. Horror covered her face. Backing away from him, she dropped the rest of the cake to the ground.

There was only one way to go, the way she came. She disappeared into the store.

He didn't hesitate. Following the trail of shortcake and strawberry squish, it ended at the ladies bathroom. He knocked. No answer. Pushing the door open, he looked in. There was another door, and she'd used it.

Brenda Pente's sister had left the building.


***

What had she been thinking? Leaving the house for cake hadn't been a good reason. Not good at all! Anyone could have recognized her or said something and she would have freaked. She hadn't been ready. Why did I go?

Not more than an hour ago, the police had been here. Talking at her as if she were a toddler with a hearing issue.

Going to the freezer for the fiftieth time, she looked for something sweet to eat. Nothing there. Only frozen butter, ice cubes, and a box of baking soda. Nothing good was ever located there when she needed it most.

Closing the door, she leaned against the refrigerator. The pile of wrapping paper and presents mocked her. It was her sister's turn to come here for the holidays. They would go get a tree on Christmas Eve and decorate it.

Tears welled, spilling over. Her eyes slammed shut and she put her face on the metal. The cool surface eased the puffiness she could feel around her eyes. Pain eased back slowly.

An image popped in front of her eyes. That man.

Who was that guy? Did he know her sister? He wouldn't have just said something because he recognized the resemblance between Brenda and her, would he? He couldn't be that crude, could he?

Pushing back from the fridge, she didn't think so. The guy was in uniform. Unlikely he was a reporter. She was pretty sure she'd deck one of them if they'd startled her like that.

The guy… there was something. She shook her head. Maybe it was just the clothes. She always felt better, more comfortable, around members of the military. It was one of the reasons she lived in San Diego. Dad had been stationed here on Coronado for a while. He was a West Coast man through and through, and Mom was an East Coast preppy. They were no Ozzie and Harriet. Rather, observers would see their passion and designate them a Jolie & Pitt from Mr. & Mrs. Smith or the Robinson parents from Lost in Space.

Her whole life she'd wanted that kind of love and connection. Brenda wouldn't have that now. A knot formed in Kathryn Marie's throat. Tears that couldn't be restrained fell.

For a second time, she asked herself, should I have stayed instead of slipping out the back? That guy looked like he needed to speak with her. Did he know something?

Leaving the grocery before she had confronted the military man didn't give her any answers. That was one of the problems with splitting before you knew what the issue was. On the other hand, she was such a wreck she wasn't sure what she could and couldn't handle. Her brain felt hypersensitive. Like it could only deal with a few thoughts, and then it shut down completely and there was absolutely no reviving it and putting it back on track.

Sunburn gave her skin a similar reaction. Made it impossible to wear clothes. It was the only thing she could liken it to.

Did other people have these problems? Or, was she thinking randomly?

Was there a right way to grieve?

The tears stopped for now.

She shrugged. Second-guessing herself wasn't helpful. If she stayed on these thoughts, they'd continue to loop in her mind. Best thing she could do was let it all go. If she were meant to have answers, they would come. With the military guy, if they were meant to meet again, it would happen. She had to believe that.

Slipping out of her jeans and blouse, she pulled on her dad's old boxer shorts and her mom's sorority T-shirt. Navy SEAL on the bottom and a Tri-Delta on top, it was an interesting combination, no doubt. Of course, that's what Dad had been, Team ONE, and Mom was the looker and the sorority girl staying at the Hotel del Coronado on spring break. A chance meeting at McP's, and they'd fallen madly in love and had married by the end of the week.

Swallowing another rising knot in her throat, she avoided looking at the mass of pictures on the far side of the desk. Her parents had passed when their forty-foot boat had been caught in a storm. What a heart crushing blow that had been to her and her sister. Now, Brenda was gone. She was alone.

Knees buckled as she crumpled to the floor. Emotion grew like a tidal wave crashing over her, and tears flooded down. Sounds, guttural and harsh, poured from her mouth.

Pain. It was too much!

Death wasn't fair.

Oblivion dragged her into a blessed darkness.

Some time later, arms lifted her, picking her off the floor. She was disoriented, but warm. A feeling of safety swept through her system and she snuggled deeper against someone.

Daddy?

Whatever was happening, she refused to wake. Nothing was going to disrupt her first feelings of calm in a long, long time.

Eyes squeezed tighter, she relaxed more, drifting further into the dark. Sleep was a gift-oblivion was even better.


***

Devin sat on the lounge chair next to the bed watching her. A poinsettia was at his feet. He'd remembered his mom had liked them, so he'd bought one at the grocery store.

In person, she was prettier than the picture on her sister's credenza. But even then he'd felt a tangible pull toward her. He hadn't understood it then, any more than he did now. What were the odds that he'd meet her in person? If his mom were standing here, she'd say destiny had a hand in it. There were no accidents, only “mean to” moments. He missed his mom and dad.

Joining EOD had happened that way-mechanical skills combined with chance. He scratched his chin, thinking about those treasured early days with his dad. The times they had spent tinkering on all sorts of things. When his dad retired from the SEAL teams, Devin had been really young. Running every day, working out together, learning a multitude of skills from his dad had been a natural fit for them both. Until, his dad and mom died in a car crash.

Coupled with that turning point in his life-the day when he had disarmed a bomb at a grocery store-the Navy had approached him within twenty-four hours. They asked him to join up in exchange for a college degree, and he'd agreed. Joining the Navy made him feel close to his dad. He'd even achieved his master's degree in mechanical engineering, breezing through the classes and drinking in the theoretical information like it was soda. The Navy had been good to him. Different departments continued to seek him, but EOD remained his favorite spot.

If it weren't for the whole diplomacy issue, he'd still be in the field dismantling, defusing, and generally disarming stuff as well as sorting through the latest intelligence information, going on assignments, etc. Of course, the duty he pulled now was on the sweet side. Teaching-he really did enjoy it.

Checking his watch, his dad's SEAL Team Rolex, he had to leave soon. A buddy of his had taken the first class. He'd have to be there, though, in another couple of hours for some hands-on work.

In the meantime, a beautiful woman with eyes that glittered like pale emeralds lay in front of him. What was he supposed to do with her? His mind had a million ideas and his body was all too ready to hope those thoughts might come true. He closed his eyes and pondered them.

Smack!

He rolled flat to the floor without even opening his eyes. When they finally sprang open his gun was drawn and he was aiming the barrel at Kathryn Marie Pente. So much for falling asleep.

She glared at him. What was he supposed to do! He was required to carry a sidearm.

Her lips drew into a thick pursed pucker.

Man, she was beautiful! Staring daggers at him like Queen Boudica of the Britons, her anger was breathtaking. He'd always had a soft spot for strong, independent women, especially one's who made a difference in their community. Of course, the angel before him had golden hair and a melodic voice, unlike the queen who was known for her piercing war cry and her flaming red hair, as well as leading a tribal uprising to protect her people against forces of the Roman Empire. He'd loved that story from high school. Kathryn Marie made her own stand to save the world, as evidenced by those pictures in her sister's office. She was a powerhouse, a wee one he wanted to know better.

A smile spread his lips wide. He'd bet serious bucks this woman didn't know how pretty she was.

The green-eyed vision shook off the mantel of her anger and squared her shoulders. His smile must have done the trick, for her lips finally lost their tension. On her face was an expression of pure resilience and courage. “The gun."

"You first.” He nodded at the pillow she held at the ready.

Humor lit her eyes for a few moments. “No way. This is my house. Owner's privilege."

Devin holstered the gun. He backed up until he felt the chaise behind him and then he sat. “Fine, I'm game. But if you discharge that weapon, I reserve the right to… uh, duck."

Lowering the pillow, a smile slid over her lips before disappearing. But she followed suit, perching herself on the end of the bed. “Who are you? And what are you doing in my home?"

"My name is Captain Devin Walds. I'm an EOD expert and the one who disabled the bomb in your sister's office.” His eyes held tight to hers as he said, “I'm so sorry about the loss of your sister."

Her eyes filled with pain, but she didn't look away. According to what he'd found out, she was a Navy brat and must have met her fair share of sailors through the years. Her eyes held the contact and he watched a core of strength rise in her. It tightened her features and made her eyes glitter like diamonds. This woman had strength. He'd be loath to admit that to anyone, but he admired that trait. Especially when it came to holding one's ground. It said a lot about how a person progressed in life.

She nodded. “Thank you, Captain."

"Call me Devin or Dev."

"Okay. I'm-"

"Kathryn Marie Pente,” he completed.

"Yes.” Turning her head to the side, like a puppy trying to see the world from a different angle, she asked, “So how did you know me? Was it the picture of me on the news? Or, did you look me up?” Her breath caught and she gulped. “You haven't been watching me, have you?"

"No!” He reached toward her, but she pulled back slightly, causing him to retract his arm. “I wouldn't do that to you. I saw your picture… when I was in your sister's office. After I dismantled the bomb, I sat there waiting for my team to come up and remove it."

"Bren's office.” Tears filled her eyes, but she blinked them back. “She was my big sister."

He nodded. If she started crying, he wasn't quite sure what he would do. Should he comfort her? Gather her into his arms and tell her everything would be okay? That's what a woman wanted, right? But, he wasn't sure her life would be okay. No one had caught Brenda's murderer, and there still was no sign of the terrorist who set the bomb.

"Was it you who decorated the office? I see the same color scheme here.” His tone was soft, gentle.

She nodded.

"There's a serenity and comfort in the design.” Trying to give her more time to steady herself, he looked at her easel and scattered brushes, then continued. “Did you paint the paintings in her office, too?"

"Yes.” She swallowed, took several deep breaths, and found some steadiness. “I'd painted them at my grandparents’ beach house in Old Greenwich, Connecticut. My mom grew up there. A lovely place, it's right on the water. Only a stone's throw from the public beach, and yet our little piece of heaven was perfect. Big enough to entertain family and friends, sunbathe, paint, play with the dogs, swim, and sail off of…"

He couldn't keep his eyes off of her. He'd never been able to pin the word ethereal to a woman until this one. An inner glow seemed to light her countenance: her skin, hair, face, and eyes radiated.

"Please don't let me stop you.” He could listen to her for hours. “I like learning about you."

"Why? You don't know me, and I'm not sure I want you to know this much about me.” She mumbled a few words that sounded close to-at least not yet.

She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. “I should have called the cops the minute I awoke and saw you.” An emotion passed over her face. He wasn't sure what it was, but it seemed to be tenderness. Or did he just hope that's what he saw?

"Why didn't you?"

Rubbing her arms, she looked away. This was the first time he hadn't seen her confront her feelings. In her mind, she might still be in the process of making a decision about him, but her body language was there. Kathryn Marie liked him. A feeling he wasn't used to pulled at him at that thought.

He groped for a topic, anything to keep her talking. “I think we have more in common. Were you a SEAL pup?"

Her eyes widened as he used the term. “Yes.” The sun shone through her features like the light originated from inside of her. Even without words, he could tell she was proud of her dad, and never minded being called a SEAL pup. The term they gave Navy SEAL children had too much endearment attached to it.

"Where were you?” she finally asked.

"My dad was Team TWO on the East."

"I don't meet a lot of pups. Do you?” There was something she was searching for, needed to ask him. He'd make it easy on her.

"Just ask what you need to. I'm an open book."

"Okay.” Placing her hands on the bed, she braced herself and looked him in the eye. “What made you feel you had a right to break into my home?"

"I brought cake,” he teased. “And a plant."

But her jaw pushed out. Her expression grew stony and serious.

He didn't know what to do with her reaction. What could he say? That he'd researched her and knew her father was a SEAL too, or that he just wanted to assure himself that the connection he felt might be there-was. He sighed. Didn't she want the cake? Should he have gotten her a Christmas cactus instead? Why wasn't relating to women easier?

A mere six feet separated her from him. He wanted to respect her. She was vulnerable. Her clothes-the T-shirt and boxers-revealed sexy lengths of skin. Gold, tanned, and not a single scar, just long expanses of flesh. It wasn't right to think of her as sexy and desirable right now. She needed him to just be a friend, someone to lean on. He could do that.

He swallowed and shifted in his seat. Tucking his libido back into place, he concentrated on the woman before him. She'd been through a lot, and he didn't want to rush this. For some reason he couldn't shake this overwhelming feeling, a need to protect her, make her feel safe and secure.

"Okay. You're right. I owe you an apology. I shouldn't have just walked in. Though, until the person who killed your sister is caught, you should probably lock the door.” He nodded toward the front door.

"I did!” Kathryn Marie stood quickly. Every muscle in her body was tensed. “I never forget. Honest."

He was on the move before she could take another step. It was a small one-bedroom apartment with a balcony, and with his careful search he established it was definitely empty. “All clear."

Devin saw her eyes glance over the cake sitting on the counter in the kitchen. Momentarily, there was warmth, until she zeroed in on the desk.

A look of fear crossed her face.

Watching her walk to the old desk by the window set off his radar. There was a piece of brown paper with the message: “You're next! XoXo!” A lock of gold hair lay on top sprinkled with white flower petals. The shiny tress was almost the exact shade of Kathryn Marie's, only slightly different, and the petals were fresh and too white.

She looked at him. Terror filled her face. “Devin!"

The one word said it all. Then she slipped to the floor in a dead faint.


***

This time when she woke, Kathryn Marie didn't feel warm, comfortable, happy, or safe! Her head and neck ached and she was tucked into an overstuffed armchair. Devin stood nearby, looking down at her.

Seeing him within arm's reach made every Knight-in-Shining-Armor fantasy come true. Logically, she knew she should probably put all her trust in the cops, but there was something about him that she liked. They had common ground. A SEAL pup was worth believing in. Also, inside her-her inner voice said he was a good soul. She wanted to know him better.

Right now though as she came awake, a lot of people were in her small apartment. They looked like cops. She wished the thought of them eased her senses, but she didn't particularly enjoy law enforcement. She respected the need for them. It had to be a tough job. But, she was frustrated, thus far none of them had found her sister's killer; and until this moment, she hadn't personally felt at risk. Who was going to make the world feel safe again? Could she do it?

"Miss Pente? Are you aware enough to answer some questions for us?” asked a man in a highly-tailored brown suit. The dark brown of his Gucci tie was almost too much.

"You're not a cop, are you?” It wasn't subtle, but she didn't particularly care for souls who beat around the bush.

"FBI. I'm Agent Skylark.” He sat in a twin chair across from her. “I'd like to ask Mr. Walds to step outside while we speak."

"No,” she replied quickly. “I don't know you and I'm tired of the unknown."

"From what I've learned, you haven't known him very long either.” Agent Skylark studied her, his eyes traveling up and down.

"That's not your place to judge, that's mine.” She was done. Not a huge fan of law enforcement, she did the best she could. The feelings were left over from the death of her parents, but she tried to push past them. “Here's the scoop. I don't know anything. Take the flower petals, the note, and the hair, and see what you can find. Dust my doorknob, do the voodoo you need to do, and then please leave.” Standing, she nodded at Devin. “Can you stay until they go?"

"I… yeah. But I do need to go to work shortly.” Devin looked a little taken aback, but he flowed with it. Good man.

She crossed the room, entered her bedroom, and locked herself in the bathroom. Turning on the faucet, she splashed water on her face. The cool water refreshed her.

Was there really someone out to get her? Well, they could bank on this. She wasn't going down without a fight.


Chapter Three

<p>Chapter Three</p>

The cake tasted heavenly!

Strawberries layered with cream and frosting, delicate, spongy ladyfingers coated with candied sauce, held on a base of angel food cake, and surrounded by white chocolate icing. The man made a great choice. This was a perfect dessert.

Her mouth was on yum overload, and her senses could only feel one thing. Pleasure.

Halfway through the second piece, the delight began to give way to heaviness, and by the time she was three-quarters through, Kathryn Marie couldn't go on.

Pushing the plate aside, she put her head down on the table and wept.

The poinsettia was on the small table and she couldn't help thinking about all the loneliness and loss in her life. When she could take no more, she lifted her head. Picked up the plate, washed it, and then tucked the rest of the cake safely away.

A stray thought fumbled through her brain. Maybe she'd invite him over later.

That gave her pause. Did she like him? Yes. There was a sensibility-a warmth and generosity of heart. Her hormones kicked her. There was the chemical attraction too.

Walking over to her easel, she picked up a fresh piece of paper, secured it to the board, and looked over her paints. The one she wanted, blue, was all gone. If she really wanted more, she'd need to go to the store. She did have work commitments to keep. There was the piece she had to do for the Children's Ward at Scripps Green and the pencil studies for the Liver Transplant Art Auction.

The clock read noon. She needed to work. There was an entire day to get through and she was a woman of her word, especially when it came to commitments.

Routine would be the only thing that could keep her frightened and grief-stricken thoughts away. Slipping back into the clothes she had previously discarded, she felt ready to go. Grabbing her purse and keys, she locked up tight and headed for her car.

Maybe she'd buy a present for Devin.

An emotional pang hit her. Even this was hard.

Her sister had helped her pick out the Jeep when they were in high school. Granted, it had seen better days, but it still had the base stickers and all the usual growing up bumper stickers of support on it. GO NAVY! HONK IF YOU LOVE SEALS! KISS ME I'M SCOTTISH! Well, that one was partially scratched out. Boys had actually kissed her and her father hadn't been thrilled. Never make a Navy man mad. They have a multitude of modes, but their thoughtfulness and action could blow your socks off.

She smiled. Okay, there were too many good memories not to get lost in.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw movement. A man in a gray SUV, whose eyes were focused on Kathryn Marie's actions, gave her the heebie-jeebies.

Jumping in her car, she hurriedly locked the door, clipped the belt, and turned the engine over. Shoving the Jeep into gear, she peeled out, but the SUV that had been so close to her apartment followed her.

Leading the driver on a merry chase, she drove through all of Coronado's favorite speed traps, but no cops were there to take the bait.

Fear laced into her like cold spikes. She didn't want to drive to a store and embroil a friend, or go where she would have to force someone to listen to her. What she wanted was someplace safe!

Her hands were turning the wheel. Mind and body finally shared the message, but she knew the direction she was going. They were heading to the Amphibian Base.


***

Devin hated leaving her. But it was work and as much as he bent the rules, he'd never break them. Respect for what one did came from who one was. That was a Dad-ism. He had a ton of them rattling around in his head.

He was glad he'd insisted she program his cellular number in her phone. With good reason, she was upset and he wanted to be there for her. It was a good sign she was willing to accept his help. Liking this woman, however big or small the complications, was worth it. That wasn't something he'd felt with other women. Kathryn Marie was special.

There was a creative quality that appealed to his soul and then there was the philanthropic aspect. His mom had been like that, and he admired her giving ways. On top of that, his heart had kicked him. She'd really caught his eye. He'd felt it in her art the first time he'd seen it in her sister's office. In person, the volume of that passion was louder and more tangible. Coupled with the fact she was a SEAL pup, there was a solid platform for building forward.

Man, he was thinking Big Picture-marriage, children, and the future. Holidays spent together, forevermore. The realization didn't startle him. On the contrary, suddenly it felt right.

Rolling up to the gate, he presented his ID. The guard saluted him, and Devin drove his Porsche through. It bumped over the lethal tire blades groove, and he drove the requisite 25 mph through the base. When he reached the EOD building, he pulled into a slot and killed the engine.

Time to work. He was ready.


***

The key to being successful in any discipline-know the science and the mechanics inside and out. Understanding how something works and why provides an opportunity to improvise if a variation or unknown variable were to come along.

Devin could roll with the punches. It definitely made life more interesting. Especially, when the woman-you-want-to-date shows up at work.

He opened the door of his classroom and stepped out into the hallway of the stark, utilitarian building. He looked left, then right, before spotting her standing at the far end by the door, beneath the exit sign; her back to the wall.

One of the men had come into his class and told him she was waiting outside in the hall. Devin had gone to full alert in a heartbeat. “Kathryn Marie?” He was moving before he was even aware. His buddies and the entire class had followed. Hey, he couldn't fault them. He hadn't ordered them to stay.


***

The door opened and Kathryn Marie's knees grew weak with relief as she saw Devin step through and turn toward her.

Her fingers still hurt from holding the steering wheel so tightly. Now, she was wringing them-she had to calm down. She took a step toward him, and another. And then he was there in front of her.

"Are you okay, Kathryn Marie?"

Squeak! Her eyes flew wide and her heart dropped as she saw the man who'd followed her come through the door at the other end of the EOD facility's hallway.


***

Devin was an immovable object. “Heard you were no longer a consultant for the D.C. Police Department. Something about not following protocol and interfering with an expert at a sensitive juncture-"

"Damn hotshot!” Blicksen mumbled under his breath. “I knew what I was doing. You should have let me do my job and take charge. Why couldn't you just shut up and take orders?” Blicksen's face darkened. “All I needed you to do was take the freaking steps I asked."

Man, this guy didn't let anything go

Devin stayed calm. “How many hours have you logged with IEDs and where were you trained in bomb disposal? This is my job and my life. I was given the task and I did it well.” He leaned his head slightly forward. “If I hadn't, you'd be dead and so would most of the people on that block."

"Son of a-"

Leaning back out of reach of a fairly amateur swing, Devin nodded to a buddy of his. “It's time to go, Blicksen. This is a government facility and you haven't been invited to this party. Your ID will only get you so far.” He wasn't going to make the mistake of mixing it up, fighting again. It was proper channels all the way.

"I need to speak to Miss Pente.” Blicksen remained adamant. “Now."

Devin glanced back at Kathryn Marie. “Then you can do it right here. In front of all of these witnesses, don't give me a load of bullcrap about it being official business, because I received a message from my CO that you are no longer associated with any law enforcement agencies. Remember, I mentioned that when you first came in."

"Fine.” Blicksen was practically on fire, his emotion read so loud. Finally, he seemed to swallow his anger and his voice became more rationale. “My girlfriend likes Miss Pente's paintings, and I want to ask her to do a commission, as a Christmas gift and…"


***

"For this you followed me around and scared me half to death!” Kathryn Marie cried. Now, she was pissed. “Why not call my gallery or go on the Web site and e-mail my agent? There are normal channels of communication."

Blicksen looked at his shoes. Reaching around, he put his hand on the door. With one look back, he said, “This is important.” He looked past her. “I could be pressing charges on your boyfriend here-for hitting me."

"I could have pressed the point you allowed a civilian into a secure scene. I bet your violation would outweigh mine.” Devin glared at Blicksen.

Her words broke into the silence. “He's…” She couldn't say he wasn't her boyfriend. Because even though it had been such a short time, it felt like he was and she wanted him to be. Licking her lips, she contemplated the idea. Inwardly, she was glad he had struck this Blicksen character. There were deceptive qualities about him. But, what could she do to help Devin now? “Okay,” she said to Blicksen. “We can talk."

Every eye swiveled toward her. Devin's face was the most priceless, like he'd been kicked in the gut.

"Tell me what you need.” Her voice was flat and businesslike. She could be cool, and in front of all these people that's exactly what she would be. Professional.

"A winter rose, also known as the Christmas rose.” Blicksen reached in his pocket and extracted a picture of a lovely blossom.

Kathryn Marie took it and examined the photo. “Five thousand dollars.” Business was business.

Several of the men coughed, covering their smiles. But Blicksen wasn't daunted.

"Agreed. I need it in three days.” Looking at Devin, he said, “It's almost our anniversary, too."

Kathryn Marie wondered what kind of macho thing men had about women and possessions, but she was willing to help turn this situation around. It had been caused by her fear, and she'd jumped the gun-so to speak. With a little understanding, she'd created a happy ending. At least, she hoped she had.

"I'll call you when it's complete.” Kathryn Marie accepted the card he handed her.

Blicksen nodded, and left.

When the door finally closed, the hallway was empty save Devin and Kathryn Marie. Military men could be as stealthy as smoke.

"I'd like to be there when you give him the painting, if that's acceptable.” Devin stepped closer. Slowly, he reached out and pulled her into his arms. She didn't protest. “You scared me."

"Me, too,” she replied. “I'd like you to be there."

"I don't scare easily.” Lips caressed the edge of her ear as he held her. His voice had a deep tenor and it made her heart race.

Pulling back with an even slower pace than the one he'd used for reaching out to her, she looked him in the eye. Studying those rich blue pools, she could spend weeks exploring their depths. Then, she smiled, leaned in, and kissed him.

Sweetness. Hunger. Titillation. And, pure passion rose within her.

She wanted to strip him bare and spend weeks, months, and years getting to know him. Why now? Why hadn't she met him before?

"Fate,” he said. “Fate brought us together."

"What?” She was confused. Had she spoken aloud?

"I was thinking about what my mother would say if I told her that I met the woman I want to-"

"You were thinking of your mother when you kissed me?” He didn't strike her as a momma's boy, but one never knew. Kathryn Marie started to wiggle away.

He held firm. “When we kissed, only one thought went through my head. She's the one I want to know better."

She stopped pushing against him. “Go on."

"Never have I wanted to spend time with one particular woman. I didn't connect with them here,"-he pointed at his head, then his heart-"and, here.” Brushing his lips over hers, he said, “Until you came into my life."

Her reply was to nod and rub her lips along his. “What, no words? I bare my soul and you nod?"

She smiled. “Get to know me. You have my permission to learn about every part of me."

"That's a date, then.” His phone buzzed. “I have to go back to work."

"I'm going to buy paint, and then go home and work, too.” She kissed him one more time. “When's our date for?"

"Every night for the rest of our lives.” He winked, and then he was gone.


Chapter Four

<p>Chapter Four</p>

Kathryn Marie could hardly breathe as she slipped into the Jeep and secured the seatbelt around her. Had Devin just proposed or did he just want to date her forever? No one could love someone that quickly, could he?

As she drove through the gate, a red Sedan with black tinted windows pulled in behind her. It followed her down Orange Avenue.

This time she refused to buy a seat on the emotional hyper train. Her choice was to believe it was a coincidence. So, she went to her favorite paint shop, bought her beautiful blue watercolors and more, left, and pulled up in front of her building.

Maneuvering the bundle of packages and bags was a feat. It was impossible to leave the store without new brushes, canvases, etc. Shopping in an art store was like being a kid in a candy shop or a toy store.

Finally, she managed to get the door open and step through before the packages and bags tumbled to the ground. She had to laugh at herself, because the mess it made had her thinking of kids and Christmas-all the paper ripped off, ribbons taken by the dog, and what remained were piles of presents. She'd loved the bows and wrappings. Her mother would spend hours on it, but their dog, Trident, always took off with them. They'd end up in a wet heap under her covers. That dog really loved her!

The thought of spending the holidays alone this year was acute. This was her reality now. She could invite Devin over. Funny how her mind went to him, and they hadn't known each other long. Yet, he fit inside her head like a puzzle piece or something she hadn't really known was missing.

"Do you need a hand?” A woman's voice sounded behind her.

Kathryn Marie stepped over the pile, her steps taking her farther into the apartment. When she turned, a woman with pale skin and white blonde hair dressed in a two-piece red suit stood in her doorway. There were black accents-a handkerchief in her pocket, Dooney & Bourke handbag, and a pair of stunning red shoes.

"Those shoes are Stuart Weitzman!” Kathryn Marie exclaimed.

The blonde woman pulled Kathryn Marie's keys from the door lock and tossed them in the air. She caught them in her hand. “I recognize the style from Vogue. You have excellent taste."

"You, Ms. Pente, have good fashion sense.” The woman looked her over from head to toe. “Even if you don't show it… on the surface."

Stepping inside the apartment and closing the door, the bolt clicking in place woke Kathryn Marie up. The gun in the woman's hand didn't exactly put her to sleep either. “For that I'll make sure you don't die too slowly."

Kathryn Marie paled. Oh, God! I thought the bad guy would be a man. How could I have been so wrong as to not suspect my own sex? “What… what are you doing?"

"I'm going to kill you, Ms. Pente.” The woman secured the chain across the door. “I'm sure you won't mind if I call you, Kathryn Marie."

Reaching in her pocket, Kathryn Marie clicked the text button on her phone. Like most of the individuals in her generation, she could text in the dark or in this case in pants. She was grateful Devin had insisted his number be added to her Blackberry and at the top of her list. She typed: 911 home, and clicked send. “Why not? Shouldn't every killer be on a first name basis with her victim?"

"Ha, ha, ha.” The woman laughed. “You are witty, Kathryn Marie, and a lot less stuck up than your sister. She tried to talk me out of killing her, too.” She waved a hand in front of her face. “All that psycho-babble."

The blonde tossed a length of long hair over her shoulder and began walking around the pile. The gun stayed steady between them. The Heckler and Koch.40 caliber looked like a cannon pointed in Kathryn Marie's face.

She swallowed the anger bubbling up within her. “There are a few things I'd like to know before you kill me. Think of it as a last request."

Pausing, the woman said, “Fine. That's workable. Sit over there."

At the direction of the gun barrel, Kathryn Marie walked over to the desk, pulled out the chair, and sat. The gunwoman remained standing. “Okay, I'm sitting. Please start with your name, and tell me why you're here."

"My name is Albina. I came to this country to undermine its infrastructure. Your sister devised a program that works with government employees and stress. It was quite brilliant actually and her techniques were beginning to have an effect on how astute and aware officials were in the workplace. Linking neuro-linguistic programming to motives, spies, and terrorists were being discovered. We cannot allow this greater observation to continue, and worse yet, spread.” Sitting on the couch, she waved the gun. “First, I went to speak with her, to talk about the program. I told her to cease her research and interaction, to put an end to her efforts, but she refused."

No kidding! Bren was a thousand different kinds of stubborn! She was the daughter of a Navy SEAL, and so am I.

"I was so frustrated, and she kept asking me to calm down, to explain what my issues were. Why didn't she understand, Kathryn Marie? Why didn't she listen to me? Why did she make me kill her?"

Kathryn Marie sat speechless. She was watching a horror movie unfold in real life with full interaction in her living room!

"When she reached for her phone, I brought my gun into sight.” Albina looked at her gun and then waved it about to emphasize her words. “We have been through so much together, this gun and I. That was when it got worse. She walked around the desk and asked me questions that no one should know.

"Did I have a lover? When was the last time I saw him? Didn't I miss him and want to see him again? Did I know what I was doing in bringing a gun in here? Who had touched me last?” The gun hand finally steadied and pointed directly at Kathryn Marie.

"As I groped for answers to her questions, she launched herself at me. I pulled the trigger and she fell a mere few feet away.” Albina's eyes darkened and her nostrils flared. “Her dying words were, ‘Don't do it.’”

"I assured her I would, and that her office would be the origination point of a bomb as big as Oklahoma City. They used ammonium nitrate. My bomb was more clever, and the finale is to kill you. The little sister whose paintings hung on her walls.” Tension streamed out of her. “This to me… is poetic. A loose string snipped and the last note played.” She sighed and relaxed. “It feels good to tell the whole story. Only my love was to hear it, but it is a good last request you've made. It is not as childish as to ask to call your mother or have an alcoholic drink.” She pushed her long hair over her shoulder. “But your mother is dead, so it is of little use anyhow."

The comment struck Kathryn Marie hard. She ground her teeth. “Saves you the trouble of killing her, doesn't it?"

"Yes, yes it does. Brava, Kathryn Marie.” She shifted forward. “I am ready to kill you now."

Kathryn Marie glanced at the clock. Only five minutes had passed. She needed to keep the woman talking. Devin had to make it here on time. “But, I didn't get to ask why you do it? Set bombs? Kill people? Commit these horrid acts?"

"Horrid? They are tributes and acts of glory. Everything I do is in the name of al-Qaeda, and my dearest love, Habib.” She put her hand on her chest, over the place where her heart was. “I miss my Habib dearly. It was a torment to date Blicksen. More than you shall know."

"Blicksen?” That was the man she'd met on base with Devin. All of the pieces suddenly fit together. “So that's how you received inside information? Knew targets that might be vulnerable."

"Yes, the man saw only my face and body, not the actions or instigations of my mind. Blicksen talked incessantly about the projects he did with law enforcement agencies. I knew the best places to strike because of him.” Her lips flared, baring her teeth. “Though some choices were personal vendetta, I have been at this for many years."

Kathryn Marie swallowed-fear would not get the best of her. “I… I believe Blicksen took his role as boyfriend very seriously.” Kathryn Marie spoke softly.

Albina spat on the floor. “I allowed Blicksen to touch me as a means to what I wanted. He is simply a loose thread now, one I will snip after I have dealt with you."

"He commissioned me to do a painting for you. A picture of a Christmas Rose."

"Ah, the White Rose-the Angel Rose-said to have been given as a gift to a small child so she might have something to bring the Christ child. It is a sentimental tale, and a powerful plant. A deadly poison may be made from its bloom, and this was my first kill. I reveled in mocking the myth.” She blew out a low breath. “With my beloved, Habib, gone from this earth, I look forward to joining him someday too.” Her gaze steadied, the sentimentality gone. “But not yet."

This reminiscence chilled Kathryn Marie to the bone. Rose. Why hadn't I connected the rose with the petals? Please, please, please let Devin get here soon

"It is hard for women to prove their worth to men. Especially when they see them as expendable.” Albina's voice was hard. “The kills I have are precious to me. Though, I might have enjoyed a painting of my favorite rose."

Kathryn Marie caught movement out of the corner of her eye. Devin!

She resisted sighing with relief. He was coming up the back outside staircase. It was impossible to see from the road as the back was completely fenced in. But Devin would figure it out. Leave it to a SEAL pup to know how to sneak up on someone. As to the EOD and military training, she could only imagine all his covert skills.

"It is too bad I have to kill you. Now that you've seen my face… There is much to be done."

"Why me?” She persisted, trying to draw it out. “Why do you want to kill me?"

"Your sister knew the truth about me. I don't know what she told you. But I couldn't risk my real identity being known.” Tossing her hair over her shoulder, she sneered. “Besides that, you are one of those do-gooders. I like to kill you best of all."

The gun steadied. Pointed directly at Kathryn Marie's head.

"I don't know anything about you. I knew my sister worked with Homeland Security and other organizations on extreme stress recognition and its significance with fighting terrorism, but-"

"Goodbye, Miss Pente.” Albina thumbed the hammer on the pistol and laid her finger against the trigger. Before she could fire, a rock flew in through the window, knocking the gun to the ground.

Both women dove for it, grappling in a tangle of arms and legs.

Kathryn Marie kept her eyes on her opponent and their hands grabbed the gun at the same time. When a large fist closed over it, and started to yank it out of their grasps, it discharged.

A sound issued from someone's mouth.

Slowly Kathryn Marie's hold went slack. Blood seeped around her.

"I will be avenged,” said Albina as the passion, anger, and drive left her eyes.

A cold stare, reflecting only death peered at Kathryn Marie. Devin untangled them, verified that the terrorist was dead, and then pulled Kathryn Marie to her feet.

He didn't say a word. Only ran his hands and eyes over every inch of her and when he was assured she was fine, he turned her away from the dead body. Only then did he hug her tight.

The dead terrorist lay in a puddle of ever-growing blood on the floor. She was still in his sight, and the gun was tucked safely into his pocket when he said, “That explains a lot."

"What does?” She spoke into the side of his warm neck. His presence was heaven-sent as comfort flooded her. Devin provided security and joy in a way she could barely describe.

"The bomb I disabled looked like some of the knots were tied in bows. I'd never seen anything like it before. But women are crafty-neat, tidy, precise, and very creative. Makes sense that it was a woman, because we were looking for a man.” He brushed his lips over the top of her forehead.

"I could find a lot more interesting things to do with a bow.” She whispered into his shirt.

"I bet you could.” Devin smiled as he reached into his pocket. He dialed the police and the FBI. Homeland Security would probably want a piece of the action, too. For now, he relayed the pertinent info. When he gave his full focus back to Kathryn Marie, his words were gentle. “A lot of people with a ton of questions will be here shortly. Are you up for it?"

"Well, I doubt I have a choice.” She squeezed her arms tight, hugging him close. “I mean, at least the threat is over."

He pulled back a little. “For now. It never really is… this is our reality. The best thing we can do is enjoy what we have. Live our joys, our present, and our happiness.” Devin kissed her with such passion-his lips drinking from hers and feeding such love in return. “You are the best gift I've ever been given."

"Same here. I'm grateful for you.” She swallowed an instant lump that formed when she thought of him not being here. “Thank you for seeking me out."

"I had to. Your eyes held me, captured me, and I had to know you. Those paintings of yours, they feel like part of your spirit… running free."

Their lips locked again, and the pleasure and passion grew.

A thought crossed her mind and she pulled back. “I wonder if Blicksen will want his painting now? I mean, who would he give it to?"

"It's almost the holiday season. I'm sure he could find someone."

She wrinkled her nose.

He laughed. “Everyone loves someone.” Rubbing his nose on hers, he said, “I am especially blessed, I love you."

Her heart pounded in her chest. Devin was incredible!

She returned his seal kiss-nose to nose-and then placed her mouth close to his. “I love you, Captain Devin Walds, and I'd like to spend the rest of my life getting to know you, too.” As her lips touched his, she knew that life didn't give neat little packages that tied up perfectly in a bow. What it did provide were chances to live and to love. It was up to her to make the most of it.

Being with him, living the best of their time together, and enjoying their careers and worlds, this was the glory her sister would want for her. This would be how she honored those who had left too soon. All of this happiness, she was going to hold tight and celebrate for as long as she could. Time and happiness were fleeting and way too precious.

Life with him, she could wrap this image around her heart and tie a very beautiful, yet flexible ribbon around it. This gift of the heart, she'd look forward to unwrapping… every day.


Christmas to the Rescue by Lia DeAngelo

<p>Christmas to the Rescue by Lia DeAngelo</p>

Lia DeAngelo makes her author debut in the Highland Press anthology, Holiday Op. She began her love affair with writing fiction when she set pen to paper writing LADY PATRIOT, a historical romance set in eighteenth century America, which was awarded second place in the historical category of NEORWA's 2004 Romancing The Novel Contest, third in the SVRWA's 2004 GOTCHA contest, and third in the NTRWA's 2005 Great Expectations contest. She then turned to contemporary romance and finished FOR LOVE OR RAVIOLI, which was a 2009 Golden Heart(R) Finalist in the contemporary series category, won first place in RWASD's Spring into Romance contest, and took first in the 2007 RWI's Where the Magic Begins Contest. Ms. DeAngelo also owns and manages L.D. Writing and Consulting, providing business development, resume writing, and commercial writing services to small business and individual clients. She spent nine years as a Wall Street professional, holds a Bachelor of Business Administration in Finance and Economics from the University of Richmond, is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA), and is a Certified Professional Resume Writer (CPRW). She lives in Cave Creek, Arizona with her best friend and companion, Lucy the dog.


Dedication

<p>Dedication</p>

My wonderful Mom and Dad, who are my most ardent cheerleaders. I wouldn't be here without your loving support and understanding.

The Ls-Lona, Laurel, and Laura-for your unending patience with me, especially when I run myself around in circles over a story.

Lucy, you fill every day with joy and humor just by being you.

Anne Elizabeth, for thinking of me and being the kind of special friend that comes along but a few times in one life.

My Phoenix girls, Amanda, Donna, Jill, and Carmin, for listening to me talk about this dream and encouraging me every step of the way.

My brother, Jeff-you are in my thoughts and my heart.

The Ruby Slipper Sisterhood. There's no place like the bestseller lists!

One day we will all get there.

To the men and women of the military who put their lives on the line for our freedom and our survival, every single day.


Chapter One

<p>Chapter One</p>

Petty Officer Annabelle Foster let her duffle bag drop to the ground, crossed her arms over her heavy orange jacket, and glared at the jolly holiday nightmare formerly known as a Coast Guard Patrol Boat. Decked out in flashing red and green Christmas tree lights, sporting a Charlie Brown Tree, a Menorah, a dancing Santa Claus, and the kitchen sink of holiday ornaments, the thing looked like something from a holiday episode of Pimp My Ride.

"This is the reason you called me back to base?"

She shook her head, unable to not gape.

To think she'd come rushing back to base, adrenaline pumping, heart racing, ready to jump aboard a helo destined for search and rescue in the black, freezing waters of the Bering Sea. Instead, the only soul drowning on this December, Alaska night was Annabelle-in a sea of holiday hoopla.

George Stanton, her new commander, smiled and puffed out his chest. “Foster, meet your very first mission for Team Kodiak."

She blinked snowflakes out of her eyes. “You can't be serious."

"Do I look like I'm joking?"

Wearing a red scarf wrapped around a navy blue bomber jacket, munching on a giant Snowman cookie, the man informally known as Stickler Stanton looked like he'd lost his mind along with all the other holiday nut jobs around this place.

Not that she would say so. The new kid should probably mind her Ps and Qs. Hardly a week had passed since she'd transferred from New Orleans to one of the most prestigious positions available to a Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer.

A post in Kodiak, Alaska.

It didn't get much more dangerous, more challenging, or more rewarding. And Annabelle was more than ready. What she wasn't ready for was this joke of a mission blinking red and green and blaring the Beach Boys Christmas Album.

"What exactly am I supposed to do here?"

Crumbs sifted down the front of his jacket as Stanton popped the last of the cookie into his mouth. “You, my friend, have been elected one of two esteemed Coast Guard representatives for the Kodiak holiday parade. You'll ride that float suited up just as you are, doing your best beauty queen wave."

Somehow she couldn't picture a beauty queen wearing an orange life vest, wet suit, and black winter cap. “Sir, do I look like a beauty queen?"

He turned his piercing eyes on her. “You'll do."

Gee, thanks. “Why me?"

"Foster, people like heroes. Especially those of the female variety."

Annabelle swore under her breath. It had been years since her name made the papers for a series of dramatic rescues performed in the eye of Hurricane Katrina. The last thing she wanted to do was strut around in her first week like some returning war hero. She wasn't here to be trotted out like a prize pony; she was here to save lives. End of story.

"Foster, hop on board and get your Christmas face on.” Dusting off the front of his jacket, he sent her a stern look. “That's an order."

What if she didn't have a Christmas face? Why did people think everyone automatically loved all things Christmas? The last time her family even halfway celebrated the overblown occasion, she was seven years old. And that year, Santa never showed up. Of course Dad carefully explained how he'd left them alone out of respect because of Mom's passing. As if Annabelle hadn't long before guessed Santa's true identity, and couldn't figure out that days and nights spent in the ICU didn't allow time for Christmas shopping.

It was just as well. All the toys and new socks, shiny red ornaments, and tinsel couldn't bring Mom back. And after that, the holidays never seemed all that bright and merry. Honestly, it was just a day. A day on which she was often called upon to help those that lost their good sense amid all the merrymaking.

But orders were orders. And Annabelle was a team player.

Muttering, she yanked off her cap, shoved it in her bag, and climbed into the boat, where the Beach Boys crooned out Merry Christmas, Saint Nick!

Blech.

The term Semper Paratus, Always Ready, had just taken on new meaning.

"Welcome aboard!” A man wearing a white chef coat and black dress pants stepped out of the cabin carrying a plate of the same cookies Stanton had been eating. Annabelle's gaze honed in on the giant white snowmen, their little blue scarves, and miniscule carrot noses. They were probably that perfect mixture of crunch on the outside, soft and buttery in the middle. Mmmmmm.

On second thought, this mission might not be so bad…

Her gaze lifted to the bearer of the tasty treats.

On third thought, this mission could be downright dangerous.

Cookie Man came bearing not only nice treats, but also the naughtiest little smile she'd ever seen. Maybe it was the way his black baseball cap shadowed a pair of intense blue eyes. Or the dark dusting of five-o'clock shadow along his jaw line. Whatever it was, he had something interesting cooking up the pristine, white sleeves of his chef jacket. Something other than iced snowmen.

"Care for a cookie?” he asked.

There was only one good thing about the holidays-the cookies. “Why thank you.” She plucked one off the plate and took a small, tentative bite. She chewed slowly, letting the flaky, yet still soft and chewy goodness flood her taste buds. It was one of the most decadent things she'd ever tasted. The Rolls Royce of sugar cookies, to say the least. Another bite. Oh my… Spectacular.

Just like those electric eyes watching her every move.

In a visual game of chicken, she kept her gaze locked on his, and continued to devour her snowman, limb by delicious limb. Mr. Mysterious didn't look away either, probably expecting her to flinch first. A tactical error on his part. Because she never gave in. Give a man an inch and he'd take a mile.

Anyway, if he was like most guys, he'd look away first and never look back.

Without breaking eye contact, he reached out his hand. “Petty Officer Foster, pleasure to finally meet you in person."

Annabelle blinked as her cold fingers wrapped around his large and surprisingly warm hand. “Should I know you?"

"Sure, if you watch the Food Network."

"I watch Law and Order and CSI."

"In other words, you live under a rock."

"Of course not,” she snapped.

"Did you know that Team Coast Guard won the Armed Forces Iron Chef competition and scored an invite onto the Food Network?"

"Well… no."

He sucked in a breath. “Must be a mighty big rock."

Wow. Five minutes and he was already ready for a throw down. Bring it on, buddy, bring it on. “You got a name, or should I just call you Smart Mouth?"

He smiled, eyes crinkling. “Food Service Specialist First Class, Petty Officer Tony Lombardi, at your service."

Annabelle eyed him up for a moment and then helped herself to a second snowman. “So, Lombardi, is this all you've got in your bag of tricks?"

"Not even close.” He winked. “Come on inside. You can help me package up the cookies for the kids."

As in… more than one kind?

Oh boy, she was in trouble. Just because she did her daily push-ups and training exercises without fail, showed up five minutes early to everything, and kept her gear clean at all times, just in case, didn't mean she was a frigging saint. If he expected her to bag cookies without touching a single one of them, he was in for a rude awakening.

Or a whole lot of empty cookie bags.

Annabelle shoved her duffel bag in the only corner not occupied by holiday paraphernalia, and followed Tony through the doorway of the small gray cabin.


***

Tony settled into the driver's seat, letting his long legs take up most of the space in the small cabin, and took the opportunity to study his companion for the evening. She was a firecracker, all right. All business. Down to the orange jumpsuit, tight auburn ponytail, and fresh, natural pink cheeks. So this was the new hard-as-nails rescue swimmer.

He shook his head. Something didn't compute.

Like that soft, sensuous mouth.

And the little groans of pleasure she'd made when she took her first bite of cookie. Probably didn't even realize it. She was that focused on the cookie. Any woman with appreciation for food was someone he wanted to know better.

She sat in the other seat and surveyed the spread of cookies he'd laid out on every available surface. She kept licking her lips, making them shine in the moonlight.

"Like what you see?” He more than liked what he saw.

She glanced his way, caught his gaze, and narrowed those big, hazel cat eyes at him. For whatever reason, she was sending him a very clear signal-get too close and you might get bitten.

Go ahead, sweetheart, give it your best shot

Cuz you might get bit back

"I hope you're hungry,” he said.

That perked her up. She tilted her head, arched a brow. “So tell me what's on the menu here."

How about… me?

Forcing back a chuckle, he gestured with his head to the first plate. “What do you say to butter balls to start with, followed by a second course of chocolate kiss peanut butter cookies, a main course of mini pecan pies-"

"Did you say pecan pie?"

"Sure did."

More lip licking. God help him.

"Is there anything else?"

"Greedy little thing, aren't you?"

She waited. Stared him down.

Hooooaa, she was feisty. He loved it.

"Last, but not least,” he finally said, “brown sugar chocolate fudge, which I have hidden away in a cooler for after the festivities."

She closed her eyes, and he could practically see little pecan pies and hunks of fudge dancing in her head. This was going to be fun. He pulled out a box of plastic Baggies and red ribbon, handed her a supply, and began loading each with a sampling from each plate. Annabelle followed his lead, but instead of mimicking his efficient assembly line, she added a step.

One for the bag, one for Annabelle, one for the bag, one for Annabelle…

"Gee, not much of a sugar junkie, are you?"

She laughed, a gorgeous sound he wanted to bottle up and take with him. “I could eat this whole spread in about five minutes flat."

He scoffed. “Yeah, right. What do you weigh, a hundred and ten pounds?"

"Didn't anyone ever tell you not to ask about a woman's weight?"

"It was a compliment. You're in phenomenal shape."

"In other words, you've been checking out my butt."

He threw back his head and laughed, putting his hands in the air. “Fine, guilty as charged.” She was a sharp one, for sure. Sobering, he swiveled to face her and scooted to the end of the seat. “Admit it, Foster, you've been checking mine out, too."

"Have not."

"Have too."

She sent him one of her ‘back off’ looks again, but she didn't move away. Instead, she licked her lips again, leaned back against the seat, and looked him straight in the eye. “All right. So what if I was?"

"The question is, what are you going to do about it?"

"Absolutely nothing,” she said.

"I don't believe you."

Her mouth fell open. “You sure are confident, aren't you?"

"Likewise."

She shrugged. “I'm good at what I do."

"As am I,” he said. “So I guess we have something in common."

Her brows shot up.

Oh, so she wanted to be all holier than thou because she was a member of the Coast Guard ‘elite.’ “Don't believe me?” He leaned closer, enough to smell the ivory soap on her skin and an unexpected hint of something floral, maybe her shampoo. “Come by the station holiday party this Friday night at the Northern Lights Rec Center. 1900 hours. You won't be disappointed."


Chapter Two

<p>Chapter Two</p>

The week breezed by in a flurry of training exercises, false alarms, and administrative blah. Annabelle retreated home each night to a steady diet of frozen dinners, leftover cookies, and fudge from the parade. Not exactly the fuel of champions, but it comforted her in her sparsely furnished, lonely one-bedroom town home located five minutes off base.

Not so comforting was the constant reminder of the dashing Tony Lombardi.

And that stupid holiday party. Which was-tonight.

She curled her legs underneath her, nestled into the hideous, brown mustard Barcalounger Dad had passed on when he moved to Florida. It was the only piece of furniture she'd paid to move all the way from New Orleans to Alaska. Some comforts of home were simply priceless.

Tonight, she loved the feel of the familiar, indented upholstery at her back. It would be so easy to stay right here, order a pizza, and polish off the couple of beers she had left in the fridge. Or had she finished those the other night?

Annabelle walked into her matchbox of a kitchen and yanked open the refrigerator door. The shelves were barren save for a bottle of hot pepper sauce, a mostly empty jar of kosher dill pickles, and the plate of fudge Tony Lombardi had sent home with her after the parade.

The one he'd exchanged for a promise to join him at the holiday party.

She dug the heel of her hand into her forehead. Parties were so annoying. She could see it now. Mucho decorations, blaring Christmas music, a bunch of holiday drunks, and her, wishing she was tucked under a blanket at home with a tub of chocolate peanut butter ice cream.

What a blast.

But then again, a certain Food Service Specialist would be there. One who might volunteer to keep the drunks at bay and provide more of those excellent cookies. Oh, and he did have the finest rear end she'd ever seen on a man.

Not that Tony Lombardi, or any man, was anywhere near the top of her to-do list. Was he a nice guy? Sure, probably. Did he give good food? Hell yeah. Beyond that, whatever had passed between them last weekend was dead in the water. She didn't have time to get cozy with anyone. Her head belonged squarely in the game of search and rescue, not in the game of flirting.

But she had to be honest; dinner pickings were slim. There were only two pieces of fudge left. The freezer offered nothing but frozen peas, several blocks of mystery meat, and the corpse of a dead mouse in an improvised Ziploc body bag.

Oops, forgot about that.

"Ugh.” She slammed shut both doors.

It was a toss up. Pizza, Chinese, or…

Dinner a la Tony Lombardi.

Annabelle pulled out the collection of takeout menus the former tenant had left and perused the options. What was it gonna be? Meat lovers’ pizza, Sesame Chicken, egg rolls… Or Butter balls

… Or Mini Pecan Pies…

No contest! She tossed the menus on the kitchen table.

So what if Lombardi got all up in her Kool-Aid again? She could handle him. She could handle anything. And it would buy her a decent meal, a night away from the deafening quiet of her new home, and maybe, some entertainment.

What the heck?

Ho ho ho… here I come.


***

Or maybe she should have been thinking, bah humbug.

Annabelle stopped dead at the main entrance of the Rec Center. Not only was everyone dressed to the nines, they were wearing Santa hats. Every stinking one of them. Annabelle peered down at her dark-wash boot cut jeans, forest green cable knit sweater, and practical brown snow boots.

Will someone, please, shoot me now?

Underdressed was the understatement of the year. Especially since every other woman in the room was wearing some sparkly top with a pretty skirt or a dress. Stares were already heading in her direction. Maybe they were spouses? Guests? Whatever. She was an enlisted woman. She had to retain some level of dignity, right? Right.

Now, where was the bar?

Annabelle squeezed her way through an obstacle course of warm bodies and strong perfume before finally reaching an empty bar stool, where she planted her too-casual rear and ordered a Guinness.

"A woman after my own heart,” crooned a caramel voice in her ear. “Make that two."

She jumped and turned in her seat to meet the bracing blue stare of Tony Lombardi, looking good enough to eat in a brick-red button down shirt and camel trousers. He tossed a ten-dollar bill on the bar.

So that's what his hair looked like. No longer covered by a hat, his near-black curls looked like someone had just run their hands through them. Something she could imagine herself doing in a different time and place.

Now where did that come from?

"You snuck up on me,” she said.

He threw his arm across the back of her chair and leaned in close, inserting his aura of home and hearth cooking smells and a woodsy aftershave into her space. “You're the one that snuck in without saying hello."

"I didn't see you."

"Oh, but I saw you."

Well, duh. Plain Jane was kinda hard to miss amid the glitz and cheer. Annabelle rolled her eyes and turned back to her beverage. Gripping the cold, sweaty glass in both hands, she took a sip of bitter goodness. “So where's the food? More importantly, where's dessert?"

Tony circled around and slid onto the barstool beside her. “I'm starting to think you only like me for my cooking."

Her lips twitched. “Anything's possible."

"Just when I thought we were getting to be friends."

She allowed a small smile. “Sure, okay, if that's what you want to call it."

"You're still only here for the food."

"Probably."

"Well then I guess I better play up my strengths if I'm going to impress you.” He flashed her that naughty grin, sending a tickle down the inside of her sweater. “Come on, I'll give you a special preview of the provisions."

Annabelle took her beer with her and followed Tony through a doorway at the back of the room that led to a large, commercial kitchen. Several chefs in white jackets and black Coast Guard baseball caps were busy stirring sauces, arranging platters, and singing along with I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus. Every single one of them had to be tone deaf. But it was priceless. These guys were actually putting Christmas music to good use!

"This is my crew. We've commandeered the kitchen here for the night. Guys, meet Petty Officer Annabelle Foster, Kodiak's newest, highly esteemed rescue swimmer."

The crew waved, never missing a beat. Every one of them was elbow deep in huge meat, potato, or vegetable platters. Tony led her around the kitchen, pointing out each dish in succession. Sweet Potato Casserole with Pecan Topping. Roasted Red Potatoes with Rosemary and Garlic. Herb Crusted Beef Tenderloin. Honey Ham. Green Bean Casserole. Roasted Butternut Squash with Maple Pecan Butter. The list went on and on and on.

Annabelle mingled and explored the Rec Center while Tony finished up in the kitchen. When the crew finally served the food, the party was in full swing, dancing and all. Tony loaded up plates for each of them and led her to a table next to a stone fireplace. The fire blazed and crackled, sending off waves of heat.

Placing a napkin in his lap, Tony shoveled several bites of ham into his mouth, chewed, and smiled at her. “So, what do you think?"

"It sure beats condiments and frozen peas.” She tore into a slice of beef tenderloin. The savory tastes of garlic, rosemary, and thyme filled her mouth.

"That's all I get, huh?"

She flashed a half smile. “You done good."

"You're a tough crowd."

They ate in silence for several minutes, trading meaningful glances and irrepressible smiles. What was it about this guy that had her mouth twitching and a giggle on the tip of her tongue? There was something about the way he looked at her. That smug smile… That light in his blue eyes… Her stomach was in constant motion every time she looked at him.

Watching her, he plucked a corn muffin off his plate, tore it in two, and ate half in one gulp. Those hands… Large, decisive, and corded. No hesitation in the way they moved. They would probably feel firm and steady planted on her waist. The way it ought to feel when a man held a woman.

Annabelle tore her gaze away and tried to focus on the crowd amassing on the dance floor. She wasn't here to fantasize about Tony Lombardi's mitts. She was here to eat, relax, and enjoy the holiday party comedy routine.

"So what's your pleasure?” he asked. “Dancing? Drinking."

"Negative on the dancing."

"Not even a slow one?"

She slid her gaze over his chest, noting its finely sculpted peaks and valleys. Would it feel as hard against her body as it looked inside that shirt? Hmm… best not to go down that road. Talk about trouble. Not to mention distracting. Her work here at Air Station Kodiak required every ounce of her dedication, focus, and mental strength. No room for mistakes. No room for mooning about some guy.

"I'm better at drinking,” she said.

He pushed his plate aside. “I got an idea. I'll scare us up a couple beers. You go score us some pool sticks and I'll wipe the table with your hide."

Laughter exploded from her chest. Seriously! “You think I can't play?"

"I'm sure you can, just like I'm sure I can win."

"You are such an egomaniac."

Grinning with his lower lip between his teeth, he leaned back in his chair. “I double dog dare you to beat me."

Oh really? Now there was a challenge she wouldn't turn down. “Fine, you want to play it that way.” Annabelle leaned forward and crossed her arms on the table. “It's on."

Mr. Macho was about to find out that Annabelle Foster never let a man win.


Chapter Three

<p>Chapter Three</p>

Tony chalked his stick, eyeing his opponent as she did the same at the other end of the table. She was a hell of a woman, a hell of a human being for that matter, and she was hot to boot. It didn't get much better.

He'd better make this game count.

Annabelle eyed him across the table, her creamy complexion made soft in the glow of the pool table chandelier. Walking toward him, her hips swaying with the Bee Gees tunes spilling from the dance floor in the next room, she tossed her silky, mid-length auburn hair away from her face and pushed up the sleeves of her sweater. His gaze drifted from her angular shoulders, lower to the narrow taper of her waist and beautifully toned forearms.

"I hope you're ready to come to Jesus when this is over,” she said.

"Not gonna happen. I play to win.” At pool, and pretty much everything else for that matter.

"What's winning worth to you?"

Tony twirled the stick between his fingers. This was getting more and more interesting by the second. “What's it worth to you?"

"I asked you first."

Ah, she liked a man to make the first move. Good to know. “I'll make a deal with you.” He never took his eyes from hers.

"Why do I feel like I'm making a deal with the devil?"

His only answer to that was a slow smile.

"What sort of deal?"

"I win, I get a date."

Her brows lifted sharply. “A date?"

"You know, the kind where you get dolled up, I slap on some cologne, we break bread together over candlelight and great conversation, and at the end, well…” He winked. “You get the idea.” There. It was on the table. Her move.

"I was thinking more along the lines of ten bucks."

"Nah, too boring."

"What if I win?” she asked.

He pondered that a moment. “A personal chef for a day."

"I do just fine cooking for myself."

"What do you cook?"

She shrugged. “Oh you know, the basics."

"Like?"

Her gaze drifted away. “Lean Cuisine, Hungry Man, Hot Pockets, Ben and Jerry's. The four frozen food groups."

Tony burst out laughing. “You need help."

"Says you."

"Says every health expert on the planet."

She crossed her arms over her chest. “I get by just fine on my own."

Tony stepped toward her so he had to look down into her face. “And getting by is good enough for you?"

Annabelle blinked up at him. Her eyes grew serious.

Bingo.

"All right, fair enough,” she said quietly. “Let the game begin."


***

Annabelle's first shot echoed like a lightning crack, scattering balls across the table. Two stripes made it in. Yes. A strong start. Several shots later, she had cleared off two more stripes, and then missed by a hair. Didn't matter. She was still in control of this game.

"Your table.” She straightened.

Tony bent low to take his shot, giving her a bird's eye view of his strong, hard features. He watched a solid red ball sashay off the edge and swish into a corner pocket. Then he lifted his gaze, caught her staring, and winked. Like he knew exactly what she was thinking.

Which was impossible because she didn't even know what she was thinking, getting involved with a guy like Tony Lombardi. An obvious flirt and player. Not that he'd flirted with anyone else here, but still… just look at him. Glossy dark curls, blue eyes that put the Gerber baby to shame, an imposing, muscled but not-too-large build. In other words, a hunk of burning love.

The kind of burn that left a scar.

Not to mention, getting involved with a fellow Coastie. Yikes. Trouble. And yet, here she was. Suiting up for another go-round. Because either way this game went, he'd guaranteed himself more face time with her.

No one could say he wasn't clever.

Watching him strut around the table with that square-legged swagger, she couldn't stand it anymore and turned to watch the dancing. This was unexpected, this… invisible magnetic draw between them. More than unexpected, it was completely off track.

Nothing distracted her from a singular ambition to be the best damned female rescue swimmer in the Coast Guard. Sure, there had been men in her life. Mostly short-lived flings long on good times and short on commitment. That suited her just fine. She was a loner by nature.

But this guy. He was something altogether different.

Annabelle turned slowly to find Tony chalking his stick, watching her. The strangest realization hit her; he liked her. Despite the fact that she was underdressed, she had a smart mouth, and she didn't do the coy little girl routine. Not to mention he didn't seem the least bit put off by what she did for a living.

Amazing.

Not many men, or women for that matter, understood why she put herself in danger for the sake of others. Tony accepted it. Respected it. The idea unfurled something inside her, like a cold, clenched hand finally relaxing and stretching toward a warm fire. If this wasn't unchartered territory, she didn't know what was. Give her a stormy night, violent seas, danger, and lives to save.

That unknown, she could handle.

"You're up,” he said.

Annabelle took her shot, landing a stripe in a side pocket. She glanced up, arched a brow. “Take that."

"I'm still winning."

"Not for long."

Another shot. She missed.

He shook his head. “It's looking pretty grim for you, Foster."

She straightened and sent him a sidelong glance. From this angle, up close and personal, he looked much more approachable, more… real. If so inclined, she could reach out and trace the laugh lines around his mouth and eyes, or press on the indentation in his chin, or feel the rough stubble framing his mouth.

Annabelle turned around and perched a hip on the edge of the table. “So what made you decide to become a Coast Guard chef?"

"Well, I've always loved food. Hard not to when you grow up on all day progressive holiday meals."

"Ah, right, you're Italian."

"Hundred percent.” He easily dropped two more balls.

"Where does the Coast Guard fit in?"

He didn't answer right away, but looked thoughtful. “It all started with an article in the newspaper about a Coast Guard rescue off the New Jersey Shore during a nor'easter. I was obsessed after that with everything Coast Guard. What can I say, I was a kid, my parents had just died in a car accident, and I needed… something.” He shrugged, as if the story were just a piece of his life's roadmap. “And I guess I've always wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself. Plus, I needed an education. The Coast Guard turned out to be my ticket."

She didn't say anything, merely watched him. He tried to underplay it, like it all just happened this way. But Annabelle knew one thing; nothing just happened.

"It turned out to be a great place for me. People think I'm a behind the scenes guy, and technically I am, but everyone has to eat. I take care of my people, their stomachs, and their morale, and they take care of business."

Annabelle took her shot, scratched.

"What about you?” he asked.

"I come from a long military pedigree."

"Which branch?"

"Navy. Going back two generations."

"And you became a Coastie?” He set up the cue ball, aimed, and sank his last ball. “Bet that went over well."

She nodded. “Yeah, it was kind of a given that I would go into some kind of military service, most likely the Navy, but I wanted to do my own thing. I didn't want to be thought of as Foster's daughter for the rest of my life."

Tony shot at the eight ball and missed. “So you're a trailblazer."

"You could say that."

He stared at her for long seconds.

"What?"

"Oh nothing."

"You're giving me a look."

A slight smile softened his features. “I'm impressed."

The hand unfurled even further. “Flattery will not distract me."

"I wasn't trying to flatter you, I was being honest.” He leaned against the table beside her as she took a shot and sank her last stripe. “Not every day I meet a beautiful woman whose resume is also impressive."

Annabelle straightened and faced him, her fingers inches away from his on the edge of the table. “This doesn't bother you."

"Why would it?"

"Why wouldn't it?” she countered.

"Looks like you've been meeting the wrong kind of guys."

"And you're the right kind?"

A slow, knowing smile. “Damn straight."

Annabelle angled herself in position, took a shot, and missed. Tony watched her face as he circled the table, slow and intense, each step predatory. Then he leaned down, surveyed the angle at eye level, pointed, and aimed.

Crack.

The eight ball disappeared into a side pocket.

Just like that, he won. Not only the game, but also a date, and the upper hand. Annabelle replaced her stick in its place and turned to face the victor. Reaching beyond her, he replaced his own stick, never taking his eyes from hers. Then he shoved his hands into his pockets and smiled.

"What next, champ?” he asked. “Dancing?"

"I've had enough humiliation for one night, thanks."

"So that's it?"

She nodded. “Stick a fork in me, I'm done."

"I'll walk you out."

Tony retrieved their coats from the coat check, took down her address for their date, and exchanged his phone number for hers. The cold arctic air washed over them like ice water as they walked through the parking lot. The night was still and cold, the stars twinkling in a black sky.

Her pace slowed as they reached her navy blue Ford Explorer. She turned, passing her keys back and forth between each hand, stomach torn up.

"I wasn't kidding when I said I was impressed with you, Annabelle.” It was the first time he'd used her first name. The syllables rolled off his tongue like balls of cookie dough. “I want to know you."

"Isn't that what we're doing?” What was she doing?

Tony leaned one hand against the driver side door, halfway trapping her between his body and the car. She could escape now if she wanted, slip away from him, create distance. But she did no such thing.

"I think we're dating,” he said.

"We agreed to a date, as in singular,” she said softly.

"Oh don't worry, you'll be back."

She rolled her eyes. “I was beginning to think you had a modest side."

"I know what I have to offer, and it's good stuff."

"Oh yeah? How good?” Had she really just said that? What alien life form had snatched her body and put a sexpot in its place?

He waggled his brows. “Stick around long enough and you'll find out."

"Are you playing hard to get?” That was it. She was out of control. Nothing was going to shut her up except complete and total extraction from the situation. Like right now.

Get. In. The. Car

Still, she didn't move.

"Maybe,” he said.

"I don't like games. That's why I don't date.” Among many other even more valid reasons. Like the way she was feeling right now. Ready to throw up or throw the man down on the hood of her car.

"No games here. Just you and me, and what could be. If you're open to it.” He licked his lips, gaze never leaving hers. “Are you?"

Her breathing grew shallow. She felt like a helo was hovering over her head, rotor blades whirring, louder and louder and… Oh, God. Was she? One week ago, the answer would have been absolutely not. But in a matter of two meetings, Tony Lombardi had seduced her senses with Frosty the Snowman cookies and Sweet Potato Casserole.

She swallowed. “Possibly."

His other arm closed in, trapping her completely, as he angled his head toward her. Pausing, he looked into her eyes and smiled. This was her last chance to stop this thing. Except that was like trying to stop a freight train by standing in the middle of the tracks. Who was stupid enough to do such a thing?

Not her.

Annabelle grabbed the front of his coat and yanked him against her. Within seconds, mouths engaged, arms clawed, and hands raked. A switch flipped, turning on every nerve ending in her body. She wanted to drink him in gulps, not sips. Feel everything he had to give. Have all of him-now.

Annabelle pressed a hand to his chest and broke the kiss, gasping. “You need to go.” Before she did something really stupid.

"How's that for possibility?” he asked, breathless.

She couldn't even answer him. All she could do was breathe in and out, in and out, drawing as much oxygen into her constricted lungs as they would allow.

He backed up, hair still mussed from her roving hands. “Tomorrow night. 2000 hours. I'll pick you up."


Chapter Four

<p>Chapter Four</p>

Annabelle bolted upright in bed the next morning, clutching her burning gut, slick moisture coating her neck and chest. How long had she slept? What time was it? She glanced at a clock sitting on the cardboard moving box that served as a nightstand. 1600 hours. Saturday.

The morning after her first real mission for Team Kodiak.

Annabelle flopped back down onto the ultra firm mattress so hard the box spring whined in complaint. Staring at a ceiling covered in glow-in-the-dark stars, she gathered air into her lungs and forced it past the closing walls of her throat. The scene of the accident, called in the wee hours of the morning, blinked back to her like camera flashes.

Dark, angry ocean swells.

Frothing white caps.

Snapping wood.

They dragged her under in waves, choking moisture from her heavy eyelids. Gone was the drone of rotor blades overhead, the crackled voices of the crew, and screaming wind. Only the sound of an airplane cracking in two under the weight of the Bering Sea echoed in her mind.

Not one soul had survived the crash. Not one.

Two froze to death in the water, waiting for help. Waiting for her.

Annabelle threw back the sheets and lowered her feet to the chilled wood floor. Suck it up, Foster. It wasn't like someone had fooled her into thinking this post would be a cakewalk. She'd deplaned that first day in Kodiak, welcomed the crisp, salty sea air into her lungs, and told herself she was the luckiest Rescue Swimmer in the Coast Guard. What awaited her was opportunity-to achieve things no woman before her had even attempted, to become stronger and better, to save lives.

That was her calling.

Crying over the ones that couldn't be saved was a waste of good energy. Let it go and focus. How many times had Dad drilled that into her head? She knew what he'd say to her tears. He'd tell her to have her moment and move on.

All right then, moment over.

She peeled off her damp T-shirt, threw on jeans and a gray sweater, and stepped out onto her tiny apartment terrace for some fresh air. Streaks of orange and yellow flamed across a darkening winter sky. Flurries were just beginning their lazy, drifting descent. She breathed deeply of the sweet pine air.

Tony Lombardi would be here in a few short hours.

To pick her up for a date.

"Oh, God.” She covered her eyes with the back of her hand. Then she dropped her arm to her side and began pacing the small space. In the light of day, without the hypnotizing flicker of holiday lights and sparkle and a year's worth of sugar coursing through her veins, Annabelle's face burned as she mentally replayed the previous night's activities.

She kissed Tony Lombardi. Kissed him. A fellow Coastie!

What was she thinking?

Simple, she wasn't.

At which precise moment in the evening's festivities had her brain stopped working? When she'd agreed to that insane bet? Nope, way before then. Sitting across from Tony eating up his flirtations along with his delicious food? Getting closer… Ah, wait, she had it. It all started at the bar, with a pint of Guinness, that killer smile, and a generous helping of pheromones.

Annabelle closed her eyes, rolled her neck around on her shoulders to release the kinks. Who was she kidding, thinking she could let this thing go any further? A relationship between two Coasties with different schedules and intense, demanding jobs was complicated, almost impossible at best. At worst, someone would get hurt, get distracted, and the ripple effects would follow.

This was about more than just the two of them; people depended on their work for their safety, their lives. People like the ones she'd tried to save last night, but who instead, were at the bottom of the ocean.

In the face of that, what did it matter if this was the first man in, oh… forever to get her thinking about something other than her job? The first one who made her feel as though she were coming out of her skin with the need to touch him. Did he feel as much as she did? Or was he playing around, as guys like him were wont to do?

When the initial glow wore off, he'd inevitably see she wasn't like other women. Sure, he said that was okay now, but down the road… maybe not. What would he think if he saw she still lived out of cardboard boxes, used TV trays as end tables, and vacuumed maybe once a month, if she was lucky? Not exactly the domestic type. And probably not the kind of woman most men dreamed of having in the long run.

Just look at all the things stacked against them.

Why bother?

Because you like him. As in really, really like him.

Why him? Why now? Of all the times for someone to walk into her life and shake it up, this was the worst. Starting a new post, getting acclimated to a new place, where she was completely and utterly unknown. It wouldn't do her career any favors to become that girl that hooked up with coworkers. She could just imagine the stares, the snickers behind her back. How humiliating!

That decided it.

She was canceling this date.

Annabelle took the next fifteen minutes rehearsing what she would say in her mind. Then she dialed the number Tony had programmed into her phone. It rang, and rang, and rang. Good. No opportunity to talk her out of it.

She left a lengthy, if somewhat rambling message about too much eggnog, great food, and silly bets that shouldn't count in the light of day. Then she made some reasonable excuse as to why the date was a bad idea. And hung up.

There. Done.

Annabelle had just finished showering and dressing in a white tank top and dark blue terrycloth shorts when someone knocked at the door. She opened it to find Tony standing in the hallway, wearing a crooked Santa hat, a green, long-sleeved T-shirt, holding two paper grocery bags. Basically, he was a nightmare of Christmas cheer, straight down to the toothy grin and twinkle in his eye.

"What are you doing here?” she demanded.

"You don't have a chimney, so I had to use the front door."

"Ha ha. Funny. No really. Didn't you get my message?"

"Sure did."

"Then I'll ask again, what are you doing here?"

"I'm here for our date."

"You mean the one I canceled."

Tony leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb, shifting the grocery bags in his arms. “Yeah, about that. I'm not buying it."

"Why not?"

He tipped his head to one side and narrowed one eye at her. “Foster, come on, you're no wuss. You took me on in pool, which maybe was because you don't know me and my many talents, but still… you fight a good fight. I like that about you. But that message…” Head shaking. “That was weak."

Annabelle crossed her arms. No one, absolutely no one, called her weak. “Maybe I'm not interested. Ever think of that?"

"Not interested or not open minded? Seriously, what's the harm in one date? You got something more fun up your sleeve? Washing your hair? Doing laundry? Eating frozen food?” His brows arched. “I cannot believe you would choose a meal out of a box over a date with me. I'm good company, and the food will be awesome."

She allowed a brief smile. “I'm sure that's true."

"Then what's the problem?"

Me. “I don't think it's a good idea to get involved with another Coastie.” Not to mention the fact that she couldn't handle the way he smelled, a mixture of soap and hard work. No one had a right to smell this amazing. How was she supposed to concentrate on her job, or anything for that matter?

"You're throwing the fraternization book at me?” More head shaking. “That's a copout. We don't work anywhere remotely close to one another."

"Still, it makes things complicated."

"You've done a pretty good job of talking yourself out of this."

"Or maybe some things are better left alone.” Like trying to make the impossible work when in the end, someone would inevitably get hurt. Namely, her. Because she already felt too much, wanted too much, too soon. It wasn't just one date; it was the opening of a giant, messy, uncontainable can of worms.

"There's only one problem with all that,” he said.

"What's that?"

"You can't stop thinking about me, and I can't stop thinking about you."

She snorted.

"Tell me I'm wrong."

Well fine, she couldn't.

"I don't know about you, but I like a challenge."

A challenge? Like she was the female equivalent of Mount Everest? “Great, you're one of those guys."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

Annabelle stepped toward him, planting her fists on her hips. “What happens when I'm no longer a challenge? Then you're Hit The Road, Jack, right? All I'll see is your pretty backside running for the hills?"

"Someone's a little cynical."

"Realistic. There's a difference."

Tony brought his face to hover over hers. “Lady, I'm as real as it gets."

What a cocky, arrogant, forward, domineering, presumptuous piece of work! Annabelle grabbed the doorknob. “Watch your toes, I'm closing the door."

"Not so fast.” He dug his shoulder into the closing door. “Let me guess, you've got a delicious slab of crap defrosting in your microwave as we speak."

Which was a whole lot better than the line of crap he was feeding her.

"You could eat that. Or…” He paused for effect. “You could dine on butternut squash ravioli in a sage pecan brown butter sauce, Caesar salad, pumpkin bread pudding, and… cookies."

Unbelievable. Now he was bribing her with food!

Which of course, had worked in the past. But not this time. No siree, she wasn't going to give in to that little game, nuh uh.

Wait. Had he said pecan brown butter sauce? Cookies?

"You're thinking about it."

"Stop that."

"What?"

"Reading my mind. I need to think."

Because this was no longer about a plate of cookies or a slab of delectable beef tenderloin eaten by the fire in the public safety of the Rec Center. It was about inviting him into her home, into her life, into…

Who knew where else.

"Pumpkin…” Tony waggled his eyebrows.

"You are a bad, bad man."

"Like Bad Santa?"

"Worse."

"But maybe you like it."

"Maybe."

And maybe she could entertain a possibility, for one evening at least, and enjoy another taste of what Tony Lombardi had to offer. Annabelle slid the door open just enough to let him slip inside.


Chapter Five

<p>Chapter Five</p>

"Where's your knife block?"

Tony eyed the small space someone actually called a kitchen. More like a closet with a stove in it, but no biggie, he could work in any space with the right tools. What mattered was she had let him in. Now all he had to do was keep his head in the game and avoid saying or doing something stupid.

A guy only got one chance to know a woman like Annabelle Foster.

"I don't have one,” she said.

"Then what do you cut with?"

Annabelle opened a drawer, pulled out a butter knife, and handed it to him. He looked at it, raised his gaze to hers, and let out a whoop of laughter. “Are you serious? This is what you call a knife?"

"It serves my purposes."

He was going to have to improvise. Tony pulled out his keychain and used the attached Swiss army knife to slice up vegetables for them to munch on. Then he opened a bottle of ruby red Toscana, poured them each a glass, and held his up. “To the holidays."

She clinked her glass to his. “I'm not much of a holiday person."

"That why you don't have any decorations?"

She shrugged. “It seems like a waste."

Tony opened a bunch of cupboards and found a beat up saute pan on the third try. He set it on the stove, dropped in a stick of butter, and turned up the heat. Browning, it filled the kitchen with a nutty aroma. He dug out a decent sized pot, filled it with water, and set it on the stove to boil.

"I take it you love the holidays,” she said.

"Around my house, the holidays are sacrosanct. Big tree, tons of outdoor lights, gnomes on the lawn, the whole bit. What about yours?"

"It was just my dad and me, takeout Chinese food, a couple of old stockings, and a Charlie Brown tree in the window. Dad was a fan of the no fuss Christmas."

Tony added pecans and sage to the sauce, stirring slowly until it was soft and fragrant. One thing he'd learned about Annabelle, she needed the right setting to let her guard down and open up. And that was perfect, because he was the master at setting. The right food, good smells, the right questions.

"So your dad, he was a pretty straight-laced guy?"

"He wasn't sentimental, especially not after my mom died."

Tony glanced around the Spartan townhouse. Now it all made sense. Annabelle wasn't a woman who had grown up with extras, materially or emotionally. Clearly no one had ever paid her the kind of attention every woman deserved. Tony wanted to be that guy. Starting tonight.

"When did your mom die?"

"Christmas eve, the year I turned seven."

Letting the sauce rest off the heat, he turned and leaned against the counter. Annabelle was sipping her wine, staring at the floor. The puzzle was coming together. “That must have made the holidays a tough road to hoe after that."

She tipped her head slightly. “It was a long time coming. Breast cancer."

"That doesn't make it any easier, does it?"

She looked up at him, eyes uncertain. He could feel a shift in the air. She was thinking about opening the door further, giving him a few more inches. “Do you have any photos of her?"

Annabelle glanced around, looking a little guilty. “I don't have any photos.” She said it like it was the first time she'd realized it.

"Still packed away?"

She shook her head. “I never put any up in New Orleans either."

"Why not?"

"I guess it makes things easier, without all the sentiment and gushy stuff. Makes it easier to do what I do without…"

Without feeling.

Tony reached across the counter, took her hand in his, turned it over, and stroked the inside of her palm with his index finger. She didn't move a muscle, just watched the motion of his hand where it cleaved with hers.

"What are you doing?” she whispered.

"Taking care of you."

She looked at him with genuine confusion. “Why?"

"Because you need it. And I'm good at it."

She took her hand from his, pushed her hair back from her face. A gesture he was beginning to recognize as a defense mechanism. He was getting too close to the fire and she didn't like it.

"I don't know if I can do this, Tony. I don't do relationships. I don't have guys up to my place. I don't even have pictures up on my walls. I live my job. Is that what you want?"

A small shrug. “I don't see those things. I see a woman who fights for her beliefs, for her country, and for the lives of other people, while also managing to stay cool as hell and enjoy the greatest things in life. That's a person I don't meet very often. And a person I want to know very well. The question is, can you handle that?"


***

And the answer was… she had no idea.

Annabelle snuck glances at Tony as he finished their meal, adding a dash of this and that, then slipping the raviolis into the sauce one by one. The kitchen smelled amazing, a combination of nutty, herbal, and sweet.

A person could get used to the royal treatment.

But it came with a level of honesty that had her reeling. No one, man or woman, had ever said anything like that to her. And meant it! The heat in his eyes, the certainty of his voice, the way he held himself-he was no joke.

He was the real thing.

Was she?

The guy had just said the most amazing thing in the world, words any woman would kill to hear, and all she could do was stand and stare at him like he was some unfamiliar alien life form.

In a way, he was.

Tony Lombardi wasn't like any man she'd ever met. He was good looking, sexy, passionate, and giving… annoying, stubborn, persistent, and arrogant. The truth was, she couldn't find anything wrong with him, at least not anything that should send her screaming in the opposite direction. Quite the contrary.

So that left one piece of the equation.

Her.

She was the one who wanted to shut the door on him not an hour ago. She was the one who had tried to cancel this date. She was the one who deflected him each time he tried to deepen their budding knowledge of each other.

When in the deepest part of her, she wanted nothing more.

That did it. She was going to do this. Open her mind to Tony Lombardi and everything that came along with him. Including the wonders he was creating in her kitchen, and possibly, her life.

"Bon appetit."

Annabelle slid into a chair at the kitchen table and stared at the gorgeous plate Tony had created. The raviolis were enormous-about the size of her palm. They were swimming in a decadent, creamy sauce, dotted with pecans and pieces of sage. It sure beat Lean Cuisine, but it felt strange, sitting at her plain table, preparing to tuck into a meal fit for a four-star restaurant.

"Wow,” was all she could manage.

She felt giddy just looking at the food, ruby red wine translucent in the candlelight, fresh salad glistening with dressing, some fresh crusty bread, and… Tony.

Annabelle placed a bite of ravioli into her mouth and began to chew. It was velvet on her tongue, the sweet nutty tang skipping along her taste buds.

For the first time in so long, she wasn't thinking about the next emergency call, the next rescue mission, the next time she would plunge into the deep, endless darkness of the sea. All she felt was pure pleasure.

She realized she'd closed her eyes and opened them to find Tony watching her. “Aren't you going to eat?"

"In a minute."

"Okay…"

"I like watching you. This is why I cook, to watch people enjoy it and leave everything else behind."

Which was exactly what she'd done.

This man had accomplished what no massage therapist, no long hot bath, no mind-numbing television show had ever done-he'd gotten her to let go. To let down her guard. She took another bite of ravioli, chewed slowly, thoroughly. Letting small sounds of contentment fill her lungs.

"What have you done to me?” she asked, still chewing.

He picked up his fork, speared a bite of ravioli, and popped it into his mouth, smiling all the while.

"Who are you?"

"You'll find out,” he said quietly, without doubt.

And she believed him. She understood what it meant to let someone in, to let someone care for her. It didn't make her weak or incompetent. It felt warm and fuzzy and deliciously satisfying.

Annabelle soaked up every ounce of sauce on her plate with not one, but three slices of bread. She ate like she'd been starved for years. In truth, she had been starving herself of all the creature comforts and companionship that made life worth living. No, she hadn't been living; she'd been existing. Getting by.

Tony was right. Getting by was not enough. Life was too short for that.

Tentatively, she reached across the table… and looked into his eyes, asking him now for what he had wanted to give her all along, hoping beyond hope the offer was still good. He looked at her hand, then at her, as if asking if she were really in. Then without a word, he met her hand squarely in the middle.

"Looks to me like you're angling for a second date,” he said.

"So, what if I am?"

He smiled, rubbing a thumb along the inside of her wrist. “In that case, we better end this one on a good note."

Tony pulled the pumpkin bread pudding from the refrigerator along with a plate of snowman cookies, placed the desserts on the table, and turned down the lights. He raised his wine glass in one hand and a cookie in the other.

"To your first Christmas in Kodiak,” he said.

Annabelle raised a cookie, touched it to his. “To our first Christmas.” Then she bit the whole head off at once and savored the first crunch, the soft middle, and finally, the very best part-the sweet, enduring aftertaste of no regrets.


All I Want for Christmas Is a Marine by Tara Nina

<p>All I Want for Christmas Is a Marine by Tara Nina</p>

Tara Nina is a Romance Novelist with a flair for the erotic paranormal, contemporary, and romantic suspense. She writes for The Wild Rose Press, Ellora's Cave Publishing, Highland Press Publishing, and DCL Publishing. When she's not at home, she enjoys meeting other authors and readers at her favorite conferences such as, the Romantic Times Booklover's Convention, RWA National, Comic Con, and the Ellora's Cave Romanticon.

For a sweet Military adventure, check out Highland Press for the “Operation: L.O.V.E. Special Operations Romance Anthology.” Her contribution of “Mission: Devil Dog” highlights the attributes of a hot Marine sniper who meets his equal in another Marine female sniper. Coming soon with Highland Press is “For Your Heart Only” an anthology to which she contributed “Mindwarp."

She is a Southerner living in the northern wilds of New Jersey complete with kids, pets, and a mountain man for a husband. Thanks to her family, friends, editors, and readers, her life is going forward in a more adventurous direction every day.


***

All I Want for Christmas Is a Marine is dedicated to every soldier separated from their families during the holidays. Most traditions bring families together during these festivities while the proud, dedicated American soldiers give freely of themselves without thought of harm even though they miss being with their loved ones. Thank you for all that you give to this country so we may be free.


Chapter One

<p>Chapter One</p>

Rain dripped in his eyes, but he never lost sight of the objective. In and out. That was the plan. Locate, identify, observe, and report, that's what Staff Sergeant Mitch Sinclair's squad of Force Recon Marines did best. Their assignment had been to uncover the truth of Kim Jong-il's health. Was he dead or gravely ill? Rumors contaminated the media. At 0800 hours, their mission changed from green ops-collect intelligence-to black ops-direct action. Separated from returning to their battalion by a sudden surge of North Korean militant action, they adapted to the situation.

Now, their job entailed extraction of the daughter of an American scientist from the North Koreans. With the way the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il hated Americans, Mitch found it ironic the dictator's youngest son, Kim Jong-un, ordered the capture of an American in order to help their cause. The attempt to kidnap David Summers, creator of the highly classified MD-3 missile navigation system, failed. So instead, they took Summers's daughter to use as leverage to gain the knowledge they desperately needed to back their nuclear claims. Intelligence out of Pyongyang helped thwart the scientist's capture, but it came too late to prevent Jong-un's backup plan. Take the only child of a widowed eccentric scientist and hold her hostage in exchange for missile guidance technology.

What the North Korean's didn't know… Allie Summers was the key to unlock that information. Due to her father's high level of intelligence, he lacked focus without her at his side. That little bit of information, Mitch hoped the enemy never discovered. If they did… he sighed heavily. He hated to think what they'd do to her to obtain the secrets they wanted. Torture was a way of life for these militant groups and the North Koreans held the charter on nasty techniques. This he'd learned from studying the Korean War and listening to stories from his uncles who'd been there. He never thought he'd be following in their footsteps in another disagreement with North Korea. This time the issue was nuclear.

Hopefully, he prayed, North Korea would back down from the pressure of strict sanctions from the UN. A smidgeon of doubt about Kim Jong-il's sanity and health clouded that hope. From everything Mitch read, this dictator lacked the foresight to understand the repercussions of using nuclear weapons. Everyone suffered from the fallout and not just the country fired upon.

Now, because of this lunatic, Mitch and his squad were in North Korea's mountainous terrain watching and waiting for the perfect moment to strike. Part of him hungered for the chance to take out a few of the enemy, but the good Recon Marine in him knew his job. Get in and out without being seen or firing a shot and save the hostage from harm. Forty-eight hours was a long time to be captive. If he could help it, tonight would be her last night as a victim.

A pair of dark brown eyes haunted him. The picture of Allie Summers seemed tattooed inside his head. Something about those big, brown eyes captured him the moment he studied her file. Mitch swiped the back of his hand across his eyes removing the excess water from the driving rain. Returning his gaze to the practically non-detectable camouflaged building in the distance, he waited and watched for the chance to complete this mission.

From a smattering of intercepted coded conversations, Mitch and his men gathered the fact a package was due for delivery. The low rumble of an engine cut through the steady pound of the rain. Mitch slid his night vision goggles in place and studied the unmarked panel van making its way along the narrow dirt road. When it came to a stop, six men exited the building and surrounded the van.


***

Bounced around in the back of a cold vehicle, Allie struggled with her bindings. Pain burned into her wrists and sizzled up her cramped arms. Both feet were numb and she ached to wiggle them, but she'd long since lost the ability to even move her toes. Wrapped in a dirty burlap sack, she couldn't see. Slivers of light snuck through the tiny weaves of the fabric informing her when day turned to night. From her calculations, she'd been in this bag for roughly forty-eight to fifty hours. With the ability to roll around, she assumed she was in the back of a van or cargo truck of some sort.

The gag in her mouth prevented her from speech or swallowing. Desert dryness coated her tongue, making her hunger for water. The sound of rain pounding the roof of the moving vehicle almost made her laugh. If not for the gag, she would have. A torrential downpour outside and not one drop for her to drink.

Eyes closed, she tried to make sense of the past two days. How had she gotten here? One minute she was stepping out of a cab to represent her father at a scientific awards ceremony, the next she was here. From the dialect she'd heard, her captors sounded Asian. An eerie sensation in the pit of her stomach suggested she wasn't in the States any longer. Somehow they'd managed to smuggle her out. But to where? And why?

Then it hit her. An image flashed inside her brain of a recent news break she'd watched. North Korea… oh God, had she been taken by the North Koreans? The vehicle halted. Rain still poured outside. The doors opened and shut on the vehicle's front. Somewhere close, another door opened. Heavy footsteps fell. Allie strained to hear, but couldn't decipher the voices. Did they know the truth?

Inhaling deep through her nostrils didn't ease the sudden knot in her chest. It only managed to fill her lungs with stale air and induced the need to cough. Fear gripped her system, but she refused to relinquish command to such weakness. She needed strength to think straight. Focusing on her father, she gathered a calm from deep within her soul and willed her senses to right. Think, she reprimanded. How could they have discovered she was the driving force behind her father's ideas? No one knew. She'd made certain over the past few years to cover their family secret from scrutiny. He'd fallen apart when Mother died. To protect her father's reputation, she stepped into her mother's shoes as his assistant and helped keep his gifted intelligence on track.

No one knew she'd done more than assist. She worked closely with him on this latest system. Being the daughter of a genius had its perks and its downfalls. As a child, she'd hated being the smartest kid in class, so her parents shielded her from the hurt and homeschooled her. Through a variety of online colleges, she earned several different masters degrees, one of which was nuclear physics. There wasn't a schematic in this guidance system she didn't understand since she helped create the design.

There's no way the Koreans knew. She made Father promise not to state the extent of her participation in this project in his documentation. The memory of that disagreement brought momentary joy to her heart. He wanted to share acknowledgement of the accomplishment with her, but she refused, convincing him her time to shine in the scientific world would eventually come. She wanted him to remain billed as one of America's top scientists until the day he died and she didn't care how much of her work went into keeping him at the top. In truth, she feared losing him. He guided and pushed her forward, urged her to propel into new venues of science. Without him…

Allie bit against the gag in her mouth hoping to somehow chew through it, but couldn't. Each movement of her hands dug the binding deeper into her wrists, instead of loosening it. There had to be a way to escape. She needed to get back to her father and make sure he was safe. Without him, she'd be lost and alone. Together, they were a brilliant team. Moisture coated her cheek as a tear rolled from the corner of her eye. He was all she had left.

Her eyes widened as the thought struck. Did they have him, too?

Panic thrashed her system. She had to get out of here and find him. He had to be safe. Breathe, she reminded herself. Now was not the time to hyperventilate. In, out, slow and easy, she forced herself to inhale and exhale until her nerves settled. If her father were in danger, she'd need her wits about her to think things through and get them out of here.

Allie lay still listening to the rain and straining to hear the voices of her captors. Male, distinctively male. A loud grate of metal upon metal broke the air. The vehicle's rear doors opened. Cool wind blew in, causing her to shiver. A foreign tongue echoed as a hand clasped her ankle. With no regard to her safety or comfort, he dragged her across the floor to the door. Bumped and bruised, she managed to hold her head up to prevent it from bouncing on the hardness, desperately trying to prevent being knocked unconscious.

Cold steel touched her skin and she stilled. Tightness left her ankles the moment he sliced the ropes. One shoe on and one shoe off, they dragged her from the van to stand. Silence filled her ears, echoed by the steady beat of rain on the ground. The canvas bag blocked her view. She sensed several stood around her as she struggled on stiff legs to remain upright. The rip of cloth, the sensation of material parting and the occasional nick of the blade made her fully aware they removed the burlap shroud. Blinking, she held her head down until her eyesight adjusted. A fist in her hair jerked her head upward shooting stars behind her eyes. Shifting her weight to her bare foot, Allie attacked the assailant's knee with the other still sporting a six-inch black leather stiletto.

The sudden release of her hair and his simultaneous howl granted her a brief instant of freedom. Running haphazardly, she dodged two men before another tackled her from behind sending them skidding face first in the mud. Before he could get a good grip on her, she twisted and turned trying to escape. With her mouth gagged, she couldn't bite. Both hands were still tied tight together, but she flailed her arms like a club knocking him in the side of the head.

The point of a rifle in her face followed by the heavily accented word, “Halt,” caused her to capitulate. The mud-covered man on top of her jumped to his feet. For several long seconds, she lay still, catching her breath and assessing her surroundings. Rain pelted her face washing away some of the mud. It stung her eyes, but she hesitated to wipe them with her dirty, bound hands.

They wanted something from her or else she'd already be dead. Allie swiped the gun barrel out of her face as she sat upright. Covered in thick mud, she struggled without help to her feet. She maintained as much grace and dignity that a one shoed, soaking wet, mud-covered woman could muster, and stared the wielder of the gun in the eye.

His silence and steady stare provoked her anger. She was in no mood for any further games. Cold, tired, and hungry, and though she hated to admit it, fear made her insides quiver. Not relinquishing his stare, now that the canvas bag was no longer tied around her, she managed to wiggle her fingers under the gag and together with the push of her tongue removed it from her mouth. She caught enough rain to coat her tongue and wet her mouth. Slowly enunciating each word she demanded. “What… do… you… want… with… me?"

"Nothing."

She spun to see a man in the open doorway of a building. At roughly five feet, he stood several inches shorter than she. The light positioned behind him gave his lean frame an eerily dark appearance and hid his features from view. Obviously, he was the one in control. Clipped commands in what she suspected as Korean and the men scurried to please. The man with the gun lowered the barrel, produced a knife, and removed the bindings from her wrists. Men on each side of her nudged her toward the door, though she hesitated to move. She simply stared at the shadowed, short man. He sidestepped, keeping his back against the door, and waved a hand inward toward the warm, inviting glow of the room.

"For now you shall be treated as my guest."

A solid push from behind and she was forced to close the gap between them. As she stepped into the doorway, he leaned close. His voice turned sinister as he warned, “Try to escape again and the punishment will be unpleasant."

Faster than she'd ever seen anyone move, he brought the man to her left to his knees with a series of swift blows and showed no mercy when he snapped his neck ending his life. The gasp froze in her throat as the sight of the man she'd stabbed with her shoe crumpled into a heap.

Heated words left the killer's lips and the dead man was quickly dragged into the night. Her knees threatened to buckle. She'd never seen a man murdered and prayed she'd never see it again. Pulling her eyes from the disappearing corpse she stared at their leader. She managed to force one word from her lips.

"Why?"

"It is a weak man who cannot keep a hold on a woman, especially one that's bound and gagged. His death proved to the others failure is not tolerated."

He spun on his heels and marched into the room. Not sure whether from fear for her life or the man who nudged her in the side, she followed the supposed leader into the lighted room. If nothing else, it was warm and dry.


Chapter Two

<p>Chapter Two</p>

Mitch couldn't believe his eyes. The woman was incredibly beautiful and feisty. A black strappy stiletto caught and held his attention when they slid her from the back of the van. Sexy shot through his head for a millisecond before he shoved it from his thoughts. Missing a shoe didn't matter. Her legs were lean and sculpted from what he could see. Inch by slow inch, they cut the burlap sack revealing a beautiful woman. It reminded him of a magic trick.

The skillful placement of her stiletto amazed him and brought a smile to his lips. The woman had style. Dressed in a mid-thigh black evening dress, she handled her captors with grace and the finesse of a greased pig. They couldn't get a hand on her for a matter of minutes as she did an awkward bob and weave, eluding them in the pouring rain. He bet if she had on a matching set of shoes-or better yet, sneakers-they wouldn't have caught her.

He stiffened at the sight of her being tackled from behind. The pair slid for several feet until they stopped. It didn't faze her. She continued to fight for her freedom. He caught sight of the gun before she did and instinctively placed the man in his crosshairs. One wrong move and he'd drop him where he stood. They'd been instructed to bring her home alive and he planned to complete this mission. He couldn't help but snort heavily when she sat upright and shoved the gun out of her face. Either she was the bravest woman he'd ever seen or she was insane. At the moment, he couldn't decide which.

When she turned toward the open door, he followed her line of sight. Damn, he hissed under his breath. Kwan Sung-hee. The worst of the worst stood in the doorway of the building. Short, powerful, and deadly. Known for severe torture tactics and brute force. This wasn't good. Kim Jong-un employed one of the deadliest and most elusive mercenaries in the world.

Keeping the gun level, he never lost sight of her. Soaking wet and covered in mud, she managed to maintain an air of dignity and defiance. Even at such a distance, he sensed strength radiate off her. The only glitch, she wobbled for a split second when Kwan killed the man she'd spiked with her heel. Death was a given in his profession, but he knew it wasn't in hers.

The moment the door closed he lost sight of her. Dread settled in the pit of his stomach. They had to get her out of there as quickly as possible before that monster turned her inside out. Three clicks of his tongue to the sensitive mic inside his highly specialized helmet and he got the information he needed. They were ready at his go. Armed with the latest weaponry, his band of Force Recon Marines were the top in their field. This wasn't the first hostage removal they'd completed.

Switching to thermal heat-sensing binoculars, he located and counted the enemy. The dead body lay in the back of the van as one drove it away. Two men patrolled the front of the building while another two guarded the back. He located the other two inside the building along with Kwan and Miss Summers. No, he chided himself. Never give the package a name. It turned the mission personal and that wasn't allowed. Shaking off his momentary lapse in Marine judgment, he relayed the info to his brothers.

Once he knew they each understood, they waited for the right moment to pounce undetected and recover the hostage. But for how long? How long would she survive should Kwan decide to interrogate her by way of one of his horrendous methods?

Moments later, the hostage was led to a room on the far back right corner of the building. Not surprisingly, they locked her in. What happened next stilled the air in his lungs. She undressed. Every ounce of moisture dried in his mouth. It wasn't right to watch, but he couldn't help it. From her movements, she entered a shower. Though he tried not to, his eyes glued to her actions for several long seconds before the dedicated Marine in him reminded him he had a job to do. Mitch swallowed hard as he readjusted his position to ease the sudden heaviness between his thighs. Never had he reacted to anyone as he did to her, especially while on duty.

The sound of a throat clearing whispered through the built-in headset of his helmet jerking him back to reality and let him know he wasn't the only one aware of her actions. Every man on this mission was equipped to the hilt with the latest computer enhanced gadgetry. They saw what he saw. Heat filtered up his spine. For a reason he couldn't explain, he didn't like that fact.

Mitch closed his eyes for a split second, took a deep breath and cleared his head. Think mission and nothing else. Extract package, return it safely to base, submit report and return to the field. That was the way of his world. It didn't include a woman. Not now, not ever.

Opening his eyes, he caught sight of the guard's movement. One remained at each door, while each of the other two rotated. While a man walked to the left and around to the front the other walked to the right and rounded to the back. Glancing at the time, he realized it happened at exactly fifteen minutes from when they'd taken their posts. Perfect. A smile tugged at his lips. If they did it again, it would be their downfall.

Within minutes his men were in place. They knew their jobs. Take down the guard they were assigned without making a sound or being seen. Not a problem. Exactly fifteen minutes passed and the guards rotated. The instant each turned the corner, they hit the ground with a silent thud. The men located at the front and back doors were silenced as well. Mitch wasted no time. He entered through the window of the room where she was held.

Looking into the open bathroom, he froze. She stood wrapped in a towel. Moisture glistened her skin. He knew the moment she spotted him. Her eyes widened and he reacted quickly. He couldn't let her scream.


***

Both legs trembled, but Allie refused to let her captor see her fear. He'd killed a man in cold blood. Would he do the same to her? Swallowing hard, she didn't doubt it. One, two, three she counted each step trying to calm her nerves. When he turned to face her, she stopped, tilted her chin and straightened her spine. Even though she leaned, wearing only one stiletto, she grappled for an ounce of dignity and hoped she portrayed a serene, calm, collected manner she truly didn't feel inside.

To level her gaze on his, she lowered her chin. At five-feet seven inches tall, she towered over him. Yep, she was right. He barely cleared five feet. In his case, height didn't matter. She'd witnessed his deadly capabilities first hand. Though heavily accented with an Asian flair, his English was well pronounced.

"Miss Summers, as long as you are here you will be considered my guest. I have taken it upon myself to make you as comfortable as possible. My men have been informed to protect you by any means."

The gleam in his eyes sent a cold chill down her spine. His attempt at a smile gave her the willies. It wasn't full-toothed or happy. It twisted more like a sinister grin, speaking volumes of the pain he knew how to inflict rather than easing her nerves and making her comfortable. Gathering as much saliva as possible, she managed to speak on a grated whisper.

"Why am I here?” Uncontrollable shivers set in, causing her to rub her arms against the chill.

"You are cold.” He grabbed her elbow and it was all she could do not to pull away. “Let me show you to your room."

Refusing to move at his attempt to guide her, she repeated, “Why am I here?"

His eyes narrowed, but she maintained a slim grasp on her fear, keeping it buried beneath the surface. After several seconds of silence and staring at her as if scrutinizing her intelligence, he spoke.

"You are a mere pawn in a much bigger game."

"You're after my father,” she stated bluntly, not wavering from his intimidating glare.

"Ah… Intelligent as you are beautiful.” He released her arm, but continued to walk as if they were having a casual conversation. She followed. “Your father has something my employer wants."

"What makes you think that?"

"Don't play coy with me, Miss Summers. Your father created a missile guidance system which is worth far more than the United States government has given him."

"My father is a patriot.” She stiffened. “He believes in his country."

"Do you? Are you willing to die if he refuses to exchange the information for your life?"

"I trust my father."

"Then for your sake,"-he sneered as he stopped and opened the door on the far right side of the room-"let us hope he makes the right choice."

Allie opened her mouth to speak, but closed it instead.

"Your room, Miss Summers. You will find a bathroom complete with toiletries. Also, a change of clothes can be found laid out for you on the bed.” The touch of his hand down the back of her gown to her waist caused her to flinch. “Of course, it is nothing to match the finest silk that you wear. Too bad the rain and your attempted escape ruined it. Do not try that again. It would be a shame to preempt your life before its time. There are armed guards surrounding the building. While you refresh, I shall see to your nourishment."

The moment the door closed, the distinct sound of the lock clicked. There was no getting out that way. She scurried to the window, glanced from side to side, but saw nothing. It too was locked from the outside. Caged like a lab rat. Dried crusted mud made her itch. Coldness settled deep into her flesh making her shake from head to toe. She needed to think, but at this rate hypothermia would probably set in before she managed to engage her brain.

Allie walked into the bathroom, noting there was no door. It contained the basic needs, a shower surrounded by a wooden stall, a toilet, and a sink. Nothing fancy. Simple bar soap sat on the sink. A toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb, a towel, a white washcloth, and a roll of toilet paper rounded out the amenities of this no-star establishment. She snorted at her attempt at humor. She doubted this place existed on any of the Internet vacation booking sites. When she started the shower, she saw no shampoo so she grabbed the bar of soap from the sink.

Wiggling out of her single stiletto, she frowned. They were the best leather shoes she'd ever owned. As quickly as she could, she peeled the dress and her undergarments from her skin. She opened the creaky wooden door and stepped into the shower. Uncomfortable with the inability to lock the bathroom for privacy, she quickly scrubbed the mud from her hair and body. No way did she intend to be caught naked if that midget of a maniac decided to pay another visit before she dressed. Every muscle ached, causing her to linger longer than she should have in the heated water. Tears ran down her cheeks.

God, she prayed Father was all right. From the sound of it, he wasn't a captive. Only she was a prisoner. That thought released a smidgeon of the knot in her stomach. Hopefully, his sister, Myra, would remain with him until Allie returned. If she returned. She wiped the tears from her eyes and shut off the water. Tears equaled weakness and she refused to yield to that bodily function again. Not until she was home.

She stepped from the shower, dried, then wrapped in the towel. She ran the comb through her hair, brushed her teeth, then stilled. Did she hear something? A quick turn of the knob and the water flow to the sink stopped. Straining, she heard nothing. She turned, walked into the bedroom and froze.

A man clad from head to toe in American military camouflage and heavily armed stood staring at her. Before she could speak, he moved lightning fast. A hand covered her mouth while the other tugged her close from behind.

"Shush.” His warm breath tickled her ear. But his deep, southern drawl touched her in other places making her shiver as he continued to whisper. “I'm Staff Sergeant Mitch Sinclair with the Marines, ma'am, and we're here to take you home."

Allie bit his hand lightly, causing him to jerk it free from her mouth. She twisted in his grip, grappling for the towel that had loosened, leveled her gaze on his, and whispered on a hurried breath, “I can see that. Give me a second to dress and I'm out that window behind you."

Without giving him a chance, she shrugged from his grip, dropped the towel and lunged for the clothes on the bed. She tugged on the sweatshirt and sweatpants without bothering with the undergarments. Grabbing the socks, she noticed there were no shoes, so she tossed them back on the bed.


***

Mitch's jaw dropped. The most perfectly rounded bottom stood within arm's length and he couldn't do a thing about it. He spun on his heels, weapon drawn and guarded the door while she dressed. Think mission. Think bad guys. Think Kwan.

That did it. Pure heat sizzled up his spine to curl in his gut. Images of some of the grisly innocent deaths inflicted by that man's hand flashed inside his head, chilling the unwanted sensation of desire. But not for long. She touched his shoulder and he turned to face her. Deep, brown eyes framed by wet golden hair melted his soul.

"No shoes,” she whispered.

"It'll have to do. Let's get you out of here first."

Mitch cautiously peeked through the open window. With a nod, Sergeant Lou Randle appeared on the other side. He helped the hostage through the window, then followed. As his feet touched ground, he noted the undergarments still lay on the bed. Knowing she wore nothing under those sweats sent a spike of need straight to his loins. What was wrong with him?

A knock on the door jarred him into combat stance as he backed away from the building. The moment they hit the woods, Kwan Sung-hee discovered he no longer held Allie Summers captive.

"Find her. Kill her,” echoed behind them in heated Korean.

Mitch had no intention of allowing that to happen.


Chapter Three

<p>Chapter Three</p>

Lou took point of the four-man team, leading the way through the thick trees. Radio controller Sergeant Eric Wise fell in behind Lou. Sergeant Dean Richards brought up the rear making sure the enemy didn't engage. Even with the woven canopy of branches and leaves, rain pelted them. Mitch followed Allie making sure she didn't fall. Bare feet made her slip and slide through the torrential downpour. Though she didn't complain, the wooded terrain and underbrush attacked her feet. He shifted his weapon to hang easily accessible across his chest. Matching her shorter strides, he strode beside her just in time to catch her when her foot caught on a root.

"Thank you,” she managed to whisper.

"Not a problem, ma'am.” He scooped an arm under her knees and wrapped the other around her waist, tugging her against his weapon and his chest. She gasped. Both arms laced around his neck as if frightened he'd drop her. A smile threatened his lips, but he swallowed it. He bench-pressed three times her weight. There was no way he'd drop something as light as this hot morsel. Awareness of her feminine essence captivated his system. Cradled in his arms was a temptation he struggled inwardly to resist. Visions of her naked bottom flashed behind his eyes as he readjusted his grip. Thinking of her like that was wrong. He reprimanded his libido to back down, took a breath and forced a natural even tone. “We've a long distance to cover. It's too difficult to do without shoes and keep pace."

"I…” The retort stopped dead in her throat.

"You managed about a quarter mile barefoot. Leave the rest to me."

As if she'd accepted her fate as his burden to carry, she leaned into him no longer fighting the predicament. He sensed her exhaustion as she lowered her head onto his shoulder and closed her eyes. Dean whipped out a neatly folded, camouflaged rain poncho from his side pack pocket.

"This might help warm her some.” He draped it over her like a blanket, tucking it in around her.

Each tuck of the poncho tightened her presence in his arms. His intent had been simply to increase their pace and alleviate any further damage to her feet. The discomfort in his chest had nothing to do with the dig of his weapon into his flesh and everything to do with the woman in his arms.

"You done?” Mitch stated in a point-blank tone.

"Thank you,” Allie mumbled from beneath the cocoon of rain-resistant nylon.

"You're welcome, ma'am.” Dean touched the brim of his combat helmet, shot Mitch a raised eyebrow told-you-so look, then fell into place guarding the rear.

Hours passed and the rain didn't let up. He was grateful for the unusual warmth in the late November climate. Otherwise, no matter what gear they wore, they'd be fighting hypothermia. Clutching her close, Mitch forged through the woods and, along with his men, kept moving south at a steady pace. With the persistent downfall, the odds of flash floods in this region increased. The trek to the Imjin River consisted of miles of treacherous terrain downhill. During the rainy season, the river was prone to torrential currents yet it would provide their greatest chance of escape. It had been their main entrance into North Korea without being seen and if luck remained at his side, it'd be their exit without incident.

Crossing the DMZ-demilitarized zone-and entering Yonchon, South Korea was their only hope of refuge. Captain Hayward waited at the base camp set up outside Yonchon for word of their mission. There would be no formal military action to rescue Mitch and his men should they fall under fire or capture. Their top-secret objective warranted no scrutiny from the press. The outside world wouldn't know of their victory or failure. It was the way of the Force Recon Marine. Knowing they'd completed their mission successfully equaled the only glory Mitch required. For fifteen years, the Marine Corps had been his life, his reason to live.

Holding the phenomenal length of woman in his arms, his world seemed to hunger for a new direction. Mitch glanced at the sleeping beauty. Her lips pursed in a slight pout as if begging for a kiss. Thick eyelashes fluttered for an instant and he sensed she dreamt. The sudden twitch of facial movements led him to believe a nightmare tormented her rest.

Before he could stop himself, he leaned in and whispered, “Rest, Allie. You're safe. I promise no one's going to harm you.” Not sure why he did it, he brushed a gentle kiss across her furrowed brow. The momentary touch caused his mouth to water and increased his desire to taste her lips to their fullest. The insatiable need jolted him upright, straightened his spine taut, and instinctively tightened his grip around his precious prize.

Oh, God, give me the strength to complete my mission and walk away to live another day as a Marine


***

Allie started to balk when he first lifted her into his arms. She was an independent woman and needed no assistance in walking or running for that matter. Exhaustion gripped her system overriding her normal strong-willed attitude. The ache in her legs and the sting of multiple cuts to the bottoms of her feet aided in her decision to accept his help. The pit of her stomach heated when he shifted her close and carried her like a damsel in distress. Out of the two men she'd dated, neither ever lifted her, much less treated her as delicately as this big, tough Marine.

This was a man she'd enjoy getting to know. She shivered, trying to prevent her mind from wandering in a non-professional direction. Apparently, saving her was his team's mission. Nothing more, nothing less. It wouldn't do to let her imagination create an incorrect scenario. But her hormones whipped along at a rapid pace, twisting her thoughts back to the romantic.

Was there a hint of an underlying warning in the way he snapped 'you done' at his fellow soldier? Nah, she decided. Even though she'd sensed an electric spark from her head to her toes the moment she laid eyes on him, she doubted he'd experienced the same. Camouflage didn't hide the healthy male specimen from her trained eye. Without the dark face paint, she bet chiseled features surrounded his sexy, bright blue eyes. The helmet hid the color of his hair making her itch to unravel that mystery by removing it. And if he smiled, she'd probably melt. Thank God he didn't smile.

The steel of his weapon lay between them digging into her side and hip. Though it bit into her comfort, she was grateful for the cold barrier it placed between them. Without it, she wasn't certain she wouldn't embarrass herself by snuggling tighter against this massive machine of a man. They'd walked for miles and yet he showed no signs of fatigue. His fortitude astounded her and kept her libido ramped on high, even though she tried desperately to tone it down. The rhythm of his gait lulled her to sleep in the sanctity of his arms.

For now, she was safe.

Deep sleep wasn't possible, but a catnap engulfed her system though she tried to fight the inevitable. Bumped and bruised tossed around wrapped in a burlap sack, hours dissipated, lost forever. Rain poured, mouth dried. Visions of a strange man's face danced behind her eyes. His macabre smile tormented her soul. Eyes filled with a history of torture, resentment, and hate gazed directly at her as if daring her to run. Tiny hands twisted a man's head, snapping his neck, sealing his fate. Her chest constricted. The gasp froze in her throat.

Would she be next?

Refusing to open her eyes for fear of seeing the short little man with the deadly skills, Allie stiffened against the cold hard steel.

A warm breath touched her ear. Whispered words of comfort unknotted the coil wrapped tight around her chest, allowing her to breathe with ease. Whether intentional or not, the cradle of his arms cuddled her closer, coaxing her system to relax. The realization she was no longer held captive emerged from her sleep-induced haze. The brush of masculine lips across her brow sealed the need to get to know this man better. He knew nothing of her nor she of him, but deep in her heart, the desire to learn and explore his attributes ignited.

If she thought too hard about it, she'd convince herself she suffered from some sort of hero worship syndrome. After all, he had rescued her. His sudden stop stirred her from the momentary haven of safety. Muffled noises sounded in the distance.

Allie peeked from beneath the rain poncho and whispered, “Where are we?"

His brilliant blues met hers and for a split second she thought he'd kiss her. Wrong. Instead, he communicated the need for silence with a shake of his head. Damn the romantic notion. This man was all business. She swallowed hard. Considering the situation, she needed to remain levelheaded and listen to these highly trained specialists if she wanted to survive. Instinctively, she followed his lead and lowered to her feet. Instant coldness replaced the warmth he'd given her causing her to internally shiver. The moment she had her balance, he readied his weapon and shifted into a combat stance, keeping her close behind. She placed each step carefully in the indention of his boot print in the mud.

Where he stepped, she stepped.


***

It took great inner strength to resist the temptation to kiss her. Those sleepy, dark brown eyes of hers relayed desire mixed with fear. And fear was an emotion he refused to touch. He'd already made a wrong move by kissing her brow. The salt of her skin left a flavor sealed to his lips he would never forget. The essence was pure Allie, an intelligent woman with an air of refined innocence.

Her file read like an encyclopedia of knowledge and achievements. The woman he protected maintained a high IQ, not to mention several master's degrees in science, math, art, and the one that worried him the most, nuclear physics. Did Kwan know that? If he did, there'd be no way he'd give up on such a prized commodity easily. Her value to the mercenary would triple. Kwan would torture her to extract every ounce of information he could, then either sell it, or her, or both to the highest bidder. Kwan knew no loyalty to any employer.

The low rumble of off-road vehicles seemed to hover within a half-mile radius. It surprised him they used quads for mobility. But given the tough terrain, it seemed a logical choice. For the last hour, the engines’ groans echoed through the trees from several different directions behind them. Mitch gave thanks for the rain. Though it slowed their return to the location where they'd hidden their boat, it also covered their tracks and hampered Kwan's progress. The night before, they'd traveled up river via a high-speed, silent, motorized inflatable boat. The hike up mountain through thick, wooded terrain hadn't fazed his well-trained Marines. One glance over his shoulder and he read the fatigue in her eyes. She looked lost in the oversized rain poncho. And surely her bare feet took a beating. Allie didn't have the physical stamina or hours of military training under her belt he did. This wore on her and seeing that touched a soft spot in his heart. She needed him. Mitch forced his gaze back to scanning the area. With the cover of the storm, he hoped they'd still be able to access the boat and the river without being seen.

Lou's whispered warning through the communications system in their helmets made his jaw clench. Now, they had a new threat. A band of North Korean militants camped, blocking the most direct route to the Imjin River. They'd have to work their way around, but it wouldn't be easy. On Lou's cue, Eric took point and they switched to a due east heading, giving the camp a broad radius. Lou shifted to the rear, keeping watch with Dean, making sure no movement came from the militants. Allie stayed within the tight net of Marines as they increased their pace. The sooner they got out of range of that group, the better.

It didn't take long before the roar of engines entered the camp behind them. Angry voices echoed through the trees. Mitch strained to hear, picking out a few words from the wind. Shouted commands knotted his chest. Kwan had a connection with these militants. His orders filled the woods with armed vigilantes searching for Allie and whoever helped her escape. Bodies crashed through the underbrush and the rumble of off road quads let them know the hunt escalated, tipping the scales in Kwan's favor.

Though Allie didn't complain, she winced with every footfall. Her feet had to be badly damaged. Mitch stopped short, turned and caught her before she ran head first into him. On a hoarse whisper, he commanded, “We've got to move faster. Piggy back now."

He turned and stooped before her, cutting a darkened gaze across his shoulder at her. The snap of a limb nearby made Allie jump. She didn't hesitate. She hoisted onto his back, wrapped her legs tight around his waist, hooked her feet together and grasped his shoulders. Mitch made one quick adjustment to the added weight, but never released his weapon. It was up to her to hold on. The team fell into combat ready mode as they hustled through the trees, trying to place distance between them and the enemy without giving away their location.

The heat of him between her legs warded off the chill of the ice-cold rain. They must look ridiculous racing through the woods as if they were kids playing a game of chicken in a pool. Drenched as she was, she could have easily been in a pool. An image of Staff Sergeant Mitch Sinclair wearing a bathing suit kicked up the heat in her veins. Allie would have smiled if the situation weren't so dire. Ominous echoes reverberated through the trees reminding her death followed on their heels.

Closer and closer the engines hummed. Branches cracked. Voices carried angry shouts she could only imagine equaled her demise. Her heart beat in her throat and she readjusted her grip to lace her arms around his neck, pulling her snug against him. The man beneath her didn't falter. Neither did the band of men around them. Each movement in-sync with the other, like a magical military dance, awed her. Her life lay in their refined capabilities.

The rise and fall of his breathing against her chest caused an unexpected reaction. Allie tried to prevent it by clenching her abdominal muscles and sucking in tight, but it failed. Both breasts reacted with each brush against his back. God, she hoped he hadn't felt them before arching her shoulders, placing a gap between them. A thin layer of cool filled the slender space. It didn't help. Instead, she shivered, involuntarily scraping the taut renegades across his shoulder blades. If they were any sharper they'd have cut through both their clothing. That thought almost made her giggle, but she managed to swallow it. It had to be the total exhaustion making her giddy. Allie buried her head behind his and struggled for control.

On a heavy sigh, she determined it had to be the extreme circumstances for this overreaction. At least that's what the analytical side of her brain tried to convince the hopeless romantic in her soul. Fear thrashed through her system with each noise closing in on their proximity. Allie clawed tighter to his neck, but quickly loosened her grip when he flexed letting her know she choked him. She wanted to whisper sorry, but didn't dare break the silence.


***

They moved like creatures of the night. Hand signals and occasional clicks of their tongues were their main mode of communication at this point with the enemy closing in. Eric brought them to a halt. Several feet ahead, water roared its way down the mountain like a giant waterslide.

Mitch stood rigid on the bank of what twenty-four hours earlier had been a minor stream that fed into the Imjin River. With the torrential rain, it now was a rapid flowing tributary. A decision needed to be made. Continue winding down along the bank or use this new fast paced waterway to their advantage. He and his men could navigate it without a problem, but doubted Allie would make it without help.

As if they'd read his mind, Eric, Lou, and Dean were quickly making their gear watertight. Mitch helped Allie to her feet. The glide of her body down his sent an arrow of need straight south of his belt. Never had he reacted in such a manner to a woman. Usually, they were a temporary ornament in his life, then they were gone the moment they got too serious. Something about this one piqued more than just his interest. The brush of her nipples with each step he'd taken weakened his resolve to do his duty, uphold his oath, and not ravish the beauty on his back. Did she realize what she did to him? He cupped her chin as he placed a finger to his lips. Her nod relayed her compliance. The look in her eyes made him doubt she understood the full strength of her feminine wiles. Pure innocence stared back at him for a second before he turned and quickly waterproofed his gear as best as possible. The rain soaked everything, but they didn't need their weapons becoming waterlogged while body surfing downstream.

Mitch took Allie's hand and guided her ankle deep into the coldness. He pointed at Eric who eased in, laid out straight on his back, held his head and his plastic wrapped weapon up, and let the river sweep him away. Lou waded in to his hips, then waited for Mitch to escort Allie in deeper. Dean remained on guard until it was his turn.

Reading the indecision in her eyes, Mitch leaned close to her ear and asked on a soft whisper, “Do you swim?"

Allie shook her head. Tears welled in her eyes and for the first time since she'd been pulled from the van, he thought she might cry. He forced a smile hoping to ease her anxiety. Keeping his lips close to her ear, he whispered, “Turn around, keep your back to me, knot your hands together on your chest and once we're in position, cross your ankles and keep your legs straight. Do your best to hold your head up and your mouth closed so you don't swallow too much water."

She turned as commanded and placed her hands in a ball on her chest. Mitch positioned himself behind her, tucked his plastic wrapped weapon between them and wrapped his arms around her waist. With Lou's help, they eased back as one unit-bodies tucked tightly together, her head level with his chin, legs captured between his. Her taut round bottom nestled firmly against his pelvis was the only thing killing him on this ride. Cold water or not, his body reacted into a semi-hard condition he hoped she didn't notice.

For someone unable to swim, the way she molded into him amazed him. She relaxed allowing him full control. They rode the waterway like a fine tuned pair of body surfing professionals. Did that mean she trusted him? Mitch tightened his grip as they rounded a bend. When he leaned, she leaned. She mimicked his every move and never released her ankles or her hands. She made it easy for him to guide them. They followed Eric's bobbing head in the distance. After several miles of riding the water rush, they needed to exit the cold before hypothermia set in. His men would know this as well. The lower they descended, the water slowed, making it easier to maneuver toward the bank. Mitch watched for Eric's lead. Seeing him wade ashore, Mitch guided them toward the shallows. As soon as possible, he stood, lifting Allie to her feet.

She spun facing him, shoving her soaked hair back from her face as she sputtered, teeth chattering, “That was fun."

"Shush.” Mitch reminded her of the need for silence even though her delight thrilled him to the core. Allie nodded as she visibly shivered from head to toe. Cold settled into him as well, but he refused to acknowledge it. She needed warmth and fast.

Lou and Dean landed within a few feet of them. It didn't take much to communicate they desperately needed to get Allie dry. Her teeth rattled. She rubbed up and down her arms as she did a little dance in place. Mitch scooped her into his arms and carried her into the cover of the trees before anyone spotted them. Dean remained with him while Lou and Eric scouted for a place to recover and regroup their situation. Time ticked and seemed like hours before Eric returned. He motioned for them to follow. Less than a hundred feet from where they landed, a small village lay nestled at the base of the mountain.

Their reconnaissance found an empty house on the farthest end away from the water. Dinnertime smells filled the air making their stomachs growl. The village consisted of a total of fourteen houses in various sizes, from the simple hut to adobe type dwellings with straw thatched roofs. One dirt road led into and out of the center. Beside two of the larger homes, ancient cars sat and looked as if they hadn't been driven in years. No doubt due to the rain, no one milled about the village. All seemed content to remain inside and dry.

Dry. That was one thing Mitch wished he could make happen for Allie. Her lips were turning blue. Relief washed over him the moment they entered through the back door of the empty house. Heat filtered across his exposed skin and Allie gave an audible sigh.

Lou started a fire in the fireplace. The only two windows were covered, not allowing light from the fire to alert the outside world anyone was there. With the dark skies and heavy rain, Mitch doubted the smoke from the chimney would be noticed. The house was small with only three rooms, a kitchen/living area, a bedroom, and a primitive bathroom. Lou stood from the fire and pointed toward the bathroom.

"There's running water, but no hot. I heated some over the fire for you.” He smiled at Allie and Mitch's gut clenched. “It's not much, but it might help warm you up. Toss your clothes out here and I'll hang them to dry."

"Thanks,” Allie managed to reply before Mitch clutched her elbow and guided her toward the bathroom. One look and he noticed there was no door. The bedroom didn't have one either. Great. Knowing she'd be naked in the tub again wreaked havoc on his resolve. But he knew she needed to soak in a warm tub to help relieve the cold from her system. If it were up to him, he'd slide in that old, claw-footed tub right along with her and help soothe her senses with a good dose of body heat. His body heat.

"Make it quick,” Mitch stated in a much gruffer tone than he meant. “We've got to keep moving as soon as you're rested."

"Thank you for stopping. I'll only take a few minutes.” She licked her lips. “The man who started the bath, what's his name?"

"Sergeant Lou Randle,” he practically growled on a low whisper. For some reason, it irked him that she wanted to know Lou's name.

Mitch turned on his heels, marched into the bedroom, and jerked the blanket off the makeshift mattress on the floor. He hung it haphazardly over the bathroom door, granting Allie a smidgeon of privacy.

"Are you sure this place is secure?” Mitch turned to Lou.

"According to a letter I found, they've gone to visit their daughter and newborn grandbaby in Kosong."

Mitch read the note and was reassured the couple wouldn't return anytime soon. The letter informed them of the birth, which occurred two days prior. Knowing the Korean culture, they'd probably stay a month with their daughter to help, especially since it was her first child.

What would a child of theirs look like? Where the hell had that come from? Mitch tossed the letter back on the table as he grappled for control over such ludicrous thoughts. Cold wet clothes landed at his feet. Turning he caught a glimpse of Allie's smile right before she closed the makeshift curtain. Every ounce of him hungered to cross that line between duty and desire. He gathered her clothes and hung them to dry. Think Marine. Think duty and nothing else.

While Allie soaked, they stripped off their outer layers and hung them to dry around the fire. Each left on his camouflaged pants and tank top undershirts. They checked their weapons, ate, and then took their places. Lou sat at the back door. Dean took the front and Eric moved into the bedroom where one of the two windows was located.


***

Allie lowered over the edge of the small claw-footed tub. Instant heat warmed her toes, her calves, her thighs, and then her bottom. Cupping the water in her hands, she brought the glorious heat to her face. She sighed as she sank into the half-filled tub. Eyes closed, she envisioned a certain hunky Staff Sergeant and wished the situation were different. Why couldn't she have met him in a better place?

Because you live in two separate worlds. Allie's eyes sprang open wide. Would she see him again once this was over? God, she hoped so. But she lived a quiet life, working in a science lab at her father's side. And Mitch was a Marine whose life was filled with adventure. Sitting upright, she quickly ushered the water all over her body soothing the ache and the cold to ease. Before the water lost its allure, she stood and got out. There was no way she'd slow them down.

She grabbed a towel from the single shelf, wrapped it around her. Noticing it didn't cover much, she lifted the edge of the blanket and looked into the room. Mitch stood with his back to her. Lou sat leaning his head back against a wall beside the back door. The other two weren't in sight. As quickly as possible, she lowered the blanket and wrapped it around her as well, leaving only her head visible.

The sight of him without his helmet, back turned to her standing in his undershirt, camo pants, and boots stole her breath. Sandy blond hair in a high and tight cut made her palms tingle with the urge to touch it. Was it soft? Broad shoulders stretched the green tank top taut. Biceps flexed as he removed some sort of instant meal from a pack. Allie's mouth watered and she doubted it had anything to do with the food. When he turned and lifted his gaze to hers, she swore her heart stopped for a millisecond. Get a grip, Allie. He's just doing his job nothing more.


***

Mitch battled the urge to close the short distance between them and gather her in his arms. Allie looked like a lost angel wrapped in a blanket. Those big, brown eyes presented him with an invitation he couldn't accept. Her lips were no longer blue, but held a rich rosy hue, begging him to taste. She was naked beneath that thin layer of cloth and that knowledge set his insides on fire. He swallowed hard and forced his voice to work and his libido to back down.

"Hungry?” He held an open container her way. “It's not much, but it'll take the edge off until we get you to safety."

"Thank you.” Their fingers brushed as she accepted the meal. Heat sizzled up his arm to pool in his chest. He couldn't help but watch as she lowered to sit in front of the fire while she ate. The way her feet folded under her tush turned him on even more. The blanket's thin fabric caressed her skin like a glove, clinging to her luscious curves. Every ounce of blood in his system shifted to one location causing him discomfort.

"What about you and the others?"

Her question snapped him out of his dumbfounded, teenage crush-like stupor. Shaking his head, he regained a grasp on his senses. “We ate the MRE's-meals ready to eat-while you bathed."

"Then I won't take long.” The sensual gaze she shot him across her shoulder nearly crumbled the fragile wall of restraint he had left. “I promise."

Forty minutes had passed since they'd first entered the house and he knew they pressed their luck. Mitch turned, grabbed his shirt and dressed. The others returned and followed suit. At least the inner layer was warm and dry. The outerwear still maintained a fine sheen of dampness, but it wasn't dripping anymore and at least was warm on the inside. When he turned to hand Allie her semi-dry sweats, she wasn't by the fire. He spun on his heels and caught sight of her coming out of the bedroom. The man's shirt and pants she wore gave her a tomboy appeal. The pants looked more like a pair of Capris.

"The gentleman of the house must be short,” he said.

She carried a worn pair of boots. Before she stuck her foot inside, he handed her the pair of socks he'd grabbed earlier.

"Thought you might need these somewhere along the line, ma'am."


***

His consideration astounded her. The look in his eyes warmed her heart. He'd thought about her needs when she hadn't.

"Thank you.” She managed to push past the knot in her throat and hoped he'd say something else in that rich Southern drawl. His accent tickled her ears and made her smile inwardly as a fleeting fantasy of him whispering sweetly ignited her soul.

The hidden promise within his eyes stated he was more than a Marine. He was a man in need of love. Allie broke their stare. Stop, she reprimanded. Stop thinking of this as some sort of romantic venture. Was she so desperate for adventure and excitement that she'd fantasize about her rescuer? Yeah. She was. She'd spent years in the lab with no one but her parents as companions. The only two men she'd dated were boring drones. Neither had the gumption of this hunk of male specimen. Just looking at him caused her heart to pump faster.

Determination not to disappoint him or cause this mission to fail set in her soul. She knew she slowed them down and guessed in a normal operation they wouldn't have made this pit stop. This was all because of her. From here forward, she planned to do whatever it took to help them get out of here in one piece. She shoved her feet into the boots and shimmied the rain poncho back on over her head. Digging deep she gathered her resolve and struggled to maintain a look of confidence, even though her nerves were strained and her muscles hurt.

The boots were snug, but she managed to walk well enough in them. They would do and it was better than running in bare feet.


***

Eric slipped outside first. The others followed. A beat-up truck sat along the far wall of the house. Dean worked his magic and got the engine cranked. Lou drove. Allie sat in the middle, Mitch at her side, weapon at the ready. Dean and Eric rode shotgun in the back.

They stayed on the dirt road only long enough to get within a mile of the location where they'd stowed the inflatable boat. The river still gave them the most direct and fastest route out of North Korea. As far as Mitch was concerned, he wanted to get Allie out of here as fast as possible. Not sure if it was his imagination or not, he thought he heard the low rumble of quads in the distance. Instinct told him Kwan hadn't given up.

Body surfing down the tributary may have gotten them ahead by a few miles, but it didn't mean they were safe. They'd lost valuable time by stopping to let Allie rest. He shot a sideways glance her way. She still looked tired, but at least she no longer shivered from head to toe. He lingered longer than he should have on her lips before he dragged his gaze back to scanning for the enemy. Lou maneuvered the truck as far as it could go along the rough terrain off road. Then they hoofed it to the boat. Running full force as the drone of engines closed in on them.

Within seconds, Eric and Dean uncovered the boat and started the motor. Mitch helped Allie in and ordered her to crouch in the center. They hadn't gone far when something whizzed past Mitch's head. They were under fire. Lou began evasive maneuvers. Mitch, Eric, and Dean took combat positions and prepared to return fire on Mitch's command. Normally they were in and out, no shots fired unless fired upon. That was the way of the Force Recon Marine. Repeatedly, shots came close but failed to reach them. They were out of range.

Something in Mitch's gut told him it wasn't over. They wouldn't stop there.

Dark skies and continuous rain provided a cover of near invisibility for them as they forged downriver headed for the sanctity of the DMZ and the safety of South Korea. Allie crouched low in the middle of the boat as he'd asked. He and the others provided a wall of protection, but none would be a complete shield in the eye of a well-placed sniper. Mitch's chest tightened. Soon they'd reach the one area of the river they were most vulnerable. The last half mile of North Korean territory consisted of steep cliffs on both sides and nowhere to hide.

Kwan wasn't stupid. If he planned an ambush, that would be the most logical location. At least in Mitch's trained mind, it seemed the best. All he could hope was they didn't have the capabilities to outrun them and get ahead of the high-speed boat. Every muscle tightened the moment they entered the cliffs. Mitch scanned the upper regions for any signs of life.

Nothing. But he didn't relax. He wouldn't until the package had been delivered to safe ground. The package. Swallowing hard, he couldn't completely convince himself to think of her as a package. Although she had a nice package he wished he could unwrap and explore. Visions of her naked form danced behind his eyes tormenting his self-control. It had only been a glimpse, but it had been enough to ignite a burning curiosity he couldn't deny.

When this was over, he truly needed to rethink his decision of living a life alone. He lifted his night-vision goggles to rest his eyes. Glancing at her, he knew those big, brown eyes stared his way even though he couldn't see her. He could feel the heat of her stare. Not condescending, not judgmental… simply sensual, which shocked him to the core. What would a woman of her stature, her intelligence want with a man like him? She had a family, a life, and a career. And he, Mitch sighed, sliding the goggles back in place, he came from nothing, had nothing and lived for only one reason… to serve as a Marine.

The goggles were barely in place when he caught sight of a movement in the distance high on the far bank. A quick adjustment zoomed in on the area. From this distance, he couldn't get a fix on what they were doing, but he sensed it wasn't good. A spark and a trail of smoke widened his eyes.

"Incoming,” he yelled, causing Lou to counter the attack with an evasive maneuver. The grenade landed several hundred feet short, sending a wave of water hustling after them. The wave hit with a solid force. Lou's skill had them riding it with the ease of a surfboarder.

"The border's in sight,” Dean called out, pointing at the lighted compound.

Twin guard towers stood on either side of the waterway entrance. The sudden flash of strong beams of light on the river lit up their position as if it were daylight. Damn, might as well draw a bull's-eye on their backs. They just had to cross under the fence and they'd be safe. A shrill whistling in the air snapped his head around to see another missile-fired grenade headed their way. This had more stamina and seemed like it wouldn't miss. Must've been shot from an RPG-7, he mused right before it hit the water within ten feet of them.

"Brace yourselves,” Mitch screamed as he turned, dove, and wrapped himself around Allie.

A solid wall of water lifted the boat six feet into the air, tossing it end over end like a toy. As the boat flipped, so did the well-prepared Marines. Lou, Eric, and Dean entered at angles, landing them closer to the safety zone. Mitch and Allie hit the water curled in a ball of bodies. Seconds passed with no sight of them. Mitch hit bottom, twisted, loosening his legs from around Allie, then shoved off propelling them upward. He guided them to the surface. The sound of her gasp when they broke the top sent relief crashing through his system. They hit the water and went under so fast, he hadn't gotten the chance to tell her to take a deep breath and hold it. But she was smarter than that, he laughed at himself. Common sense made a person hold their breath before going under. It was a natural reflex to prevent drowning.

"You okay,” he gasped over the roar of the river as he held her in the rescue swimmer position. Her back pressed to his chest, his arm under hers around her chest while he maintained buoyancy for them both.

"Yeah.” She tilted her chin trying to see his face. “You okay?"


***

Mitch wrapped around her equaled ecstasy in her book. The cold water gave her a momentary shock when they first hit, but she managed to capture enough air in her lungs to survive. Sinking deeper and deeper, her heart raced, but she refused to succumb to fear. He had a hold on her and she believed he wouldn't let her drown, although it seemed like forever before he brought them to the surface. They'd been fired upon and nearly killed, but he'd saved her again. Cradled in those strong arms gave her the confidence to relax in the water even though she didn't know how to swim.

In her position, she spotted the others frantically searching the powerful currents for them before Mitch did. Unable to do anything else for fear of causing an issue in their progress, she gave a loud sharp whistle, hoping to catch their attention. Lou spotted them and motioned to the others. Once they regrouped, they swam for the border. Allie kicked her legs in an effort to help speed the motion.

Cold seeped into her bones and she prayed she'd never be this wet again. Powerful strokes brought them closer and closer. Bright lights shone on them. Voices called out in foreign tongues. It surprised her when Mitch replied. He spoke Korean. Lou, Eric, and Dean crossed through the fenced gate that the border patrol opened. They lifted from the water and stood on the dock while she and Mitch brought up the rear. They were a few feet away from crossing the line when water exploded behind them.

Mitch curled in a ball gloving around her as if forming another layer of skin for her protection. He tucked her head under his as they tumbled over and over through the giant wave. They bounced from one object to another like a ball in a pinball game. The mound of muscle that was Mitch softened the repercussion of the blows. Several feet inside the safety zone, they washed up on shore just past the docks.

Lou reached them first. The sound of his voice called to her from somewhere far off, tugging her back to consciousness.

"Miss Summers, Mitch can you hear me?"

Seconds ticked away before she pried her eyes open. On a hefty bout of coughing, she cleared the water from her lungs and grappled for air. Mitch didn't move. His eyes were closed.

"Mitch,” she gasped.

He didn't respond.

"Mitch, man can you hear me?” Lou tried to pry him from around her.

Even unconscious he still protected her. His breathing seemed almost nonexistent. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Over and over, she called his name to no avail. Eric, Dean, and several medics for the Marine Corps ran to their aid. It took three men to unwrap Mitch's arms and legs from around her.

On hands and knees she crawled to his outstretched body. Please, God. Please let him live.

"His vitals are weak,” one of the medics stated.

"Let's get him inside,” the other replied.

Allie struggled to her feet as they placed him on a stretcher. Lou grasped her elbow and wrapped an arm around her waist right before her knees buckled. Lifting her gaze to his, she commanded on a graveled breath, “He's got to live."

"Mitch is strong. He'll make it."

"He has to."

Exhaustion controlled her system as her legs weakened and her eyes closed. Nothing mattered to her but Mitch.


Chapter Four

<p>Chapter Four</p>

Six weeks later Stateside

Sergeant Lou Randle entered the hospital room. As she'd done every day for the past six weeks, Allie sat at Mitch's side. She shot a weak smile across her shoulder at Lou and stood. He nodded in acknowledgement.

"Any progress?” Lou asked.

"No, but I'm sure he'll come around any day now."

She leaned over the man in the bed, kissed his brow and then whispered in his ear. Turning on her heels, she gathered her things and headed for the door.

"You do that every time.” Lou smiled. “What do you tell him?"

"My Christmas wish,” Allie said. “I won't be here tomorrow, Sergeant Randle. It's Christmas Eve and I promised to share the time with my father. But, I will return to spend Christmas Day with Mitch."

Lou touched her elbow. “He's a lucky man to have a woman like you."

Allie looked over her shoulder at her wounded soldier. Medical tests showed no definitive answer to why he lay unconscious. The doctor claimed his body had taken such an extreme beating it seemed his system had gone into some sort of dormant state to recuperate. Broken ribs and a bruised lung would heal in time. Would the rest of him? She swallowed hard, hoping for the best. Sadness filled her soul. She'd met the perfect man and didn't know what she'd do if she lost him before they got the chance to explore the feelings ignited between them.

"It doesn't look like he's got anyone else. No one has come to visit him except us and the other Marines in your group. Doesn't he have family?"

"No, ma'am.” Lou shook his head. “Mitch grew up an orphan. He entered the Marines right out of high school. We're the closest to family he's ever known."

Tears threatened to fall, but she blinked them back. Mitch was alone. She glanced at him and smiled. Not anymore. No matter what happened, he had her.

"Watch over him for me.” Allie stared at Lou. “Merry Christmas, Sergeant Randle."


***

"Merry Christmas, Miss Summers.” Lou paused, then added as she stepped into the hallway, “If you need anything, please don't hesitate to ask. I'm at your beck and call, anytime of night or day."

"Thank you. I'll keep that in mind."

Lou stood and watched her walk down the hall, then turned back toward the bed. As soon as he reached the bedside, a gravelly voice grabbed and held his attention in awe.

"You hitting on my woman, Sergeant?"

"OhmyGod, you're awake. Let me catch her."

Mitch caught his wrist before Lou could move. It took great effort, but Mitch managed to turn his head, open his eyes, and continue.

"I've got a better idea.” He took a deep breath, licked his lips then added, “But I'm going to need your help to pull it off."


***

Allie took the last tray of cookies from the oven and placed them on the cooling racks. It was the third batch of gingerbread men she'd made that resembled Marines. Oh God, who did she have on her mind? This was the first time in five weeks she hadn't sat at his side, talking to him, reading a book or newspaper to him, praying he'd wake. With a shake of her head, she truly didn't need an answer. Only one Marine-Sergeant Mitch Sinclair-had won her heart and soul.

The ring of the doorbell snapped her from another daydream of the hunky Marine. She issued a silent prayer for his safekeeping and wellbeing as she exited the kitchen and crossed the living room. Her father descended the stairs as she reached the front door.

Swinging it open, her heart skipped a beat and her jaw dropped. Dress blues never looked so good. From his head to his toes, he stood regal and strong. One would never have known he'd lain in a dormant state for the past weeks. Sword at his side, gold buttons shined, and his white hat positioned jauntily, shadowing what she knew were a set of gorgeous brilliant blue eyes. She couldn't speak for fear she may be suffering from some sort of delusion and he'd disappear the moment she opened her mouth.

His words came loud and clear on his thick southern drawl touching her heart and sealing her fate.

"I understand someone in this house asked for a special gift for Christmas."

Allie's voice shook. “How… how are you here? When I left you last night, you were unconscious."

She wanted to touch him, but kept her hands knotted in her apron. Yet, if she reached for him, would he dissipate and this turn out to be a mere dream? She wasn't sure she could handle such a grand disappointment. The last few weeks were tough, between trekking to the hospital daily, to taking care of her father, to dealing with loving an unconscious man and not knowing if she would ever see the wondrous shade of blue again. Everything weighed heavy on her spirit and soul, but a sliver of hope had kept her going. If this was a dream, God, she prayed she'd never wake.

"I had a little help getting here.” Following the direction of his nod, she noticed Sergeant Randle leaning against a car in the driveway. Odd, she hadn't seen him earlier, but her eyesight had been narrowed by a vision from heaven that filled her doorway.

"Oh, my God, it is you.” Allie fell into his arms, crying and laughing at the same time. Her prayers were answered. “This isn't a dream."

Mitch cupped her chin, lifting her gaze to meet his. “I'm here because of you. Everyday, a sweet voice whispered to my tired soul. It was you who guided me back and gave me the strength to heal."

He ran his thumb across her trembling lip and brushed the hair from her eyes.

"Allie, it was your Christmas wish that touched my heart and led me to you. I heard your voice every day. You were there for me when I needed someone in my life the most. I couldn't let you down."

Allie swallowed hard against the lump in her throat and stated on a shaky whisper, “All I want for Christmas is a Marine."

Mitch leaned in close, gathered her in his arms, and smiled. Hovering within millimeters of her lips, he stated right before he captured her mouth in a passionate embrace…

"Wish granted."


Mission Mistletoe by Lori Avocato

<p>Mission Mistletoe by Lori Avocato</p>

After working thirteen years as a registered nurse, four of which she felt like ‘Hot Lips Houlihan’ while serving in the United States Air Force, Lori Avocato picked up a book and said, “Hm. I can write one of these.” Yeah right!

Now as an award-winning author, Lori is multi-published with fifteen books currently sold in which her humor lends itself to her comedic voice. She writes contemporary novels and often uses her military, medical, or a combination of both backgrounds in her plots.

As an Air Force veteran, Lori belongs to RomVets and The Nathan Hale Chapter of Military Officers Association. As a writer, she belongs to The Author's Guild, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and Romance Writers of America along with several local chapters.

Lori lives in the New England area, raising two teenage sons (Heaven help her!), and, of course, continuing to write novels. She'd love to hear from you via email at LAvocato@cox.net


***

This story is dedicated to all the men and women in the military both past and present.

Thanks to my mom, who was in the WACS during WWII, for encouraging me to follow in her military footsteps.


Chapter One

<p>Chapter One</p>

"Good Lord! Please don't make me get in one of those flying coffins so close to Christmas! I'd really rather not take the helicopter runs this week-or ever.” Prue leaned forward as if her chief nurse, Colonel Fisher, would agree to her plea-merely by the subordinate officer's body language-even though she was on the medical/surgical unit's telephone. Somehow she felt the gesture would help through the phone lines.

Come on, lady, those helos don't make me feel very safe. I mean, one ‘Jesus’ bolt holding on the blades. Blades? Does that tell you something? “Ma'am, the Air Force regulation says the fire truck has to be at the helipad every time a chopper lands. That reg… well, it doesn't make me feel very safe."

"I'm well aware of Air Force regs. As a matter of fact, I have a few years on you in that department, Captain, and I certainly wouldn't want you not to feel safe. My goodness. No. I mean, I'm sure you joined the military in wartime to sit on a fluffy chair eating bonbons."

Wow. Suddenly it dawned on Prue that the colonel's voice wasn't at all very motherly. Made her homesick for Connecticut. Ah, Connecticut. Where Christmas was made. Holiday cards always had Currier and Ives pictures of New England. Not, New Mexico-even in December. No wonder she didn't care if she spent Christmas on duty.

No family around.

No snow.

No man.

And she wasn't about to count the horny paratrooper who trailed after her around the base the last few months. Slick she'd called him since he thought he was so cool, jumping out of airplanes to save the injured. Well, she sure didn't want him jumping after her… or her bones! Those PJ, no matter how hot and hunky, were a breed of their own as were the fighter pilots. They should all be forced to have a ‘beware of your heart’ emblem on their sleeves.

The colonel cleared her throat. Whoa boy. That always came before the woman spewed out a direct order. So, in her usual rebellious military nature, Prudence hurriedly said, “I know, ma'am! Here's a thought. I can cover the OB unit while Lieutenant Foster takes the chopper run. She loves flying. Doesn't even vomit! Wait! Oh, you'll love this. I'll do an extra shift on Christmas for you! What a deal! Like an early Christmas present, ma'am."

"I'm Jewish, Captain Hamlin, and you will take the chopper run calls for the entire week. All seven days. Merry Christmas."


***

"You gonna get some sleep or just sit there waiting for the phone to ring, Prue?"

Prue looked at her roommate, Captain Annie Hallstead, and shut her eyes. “You know if I fall into a deep sleep I'll never hear the phone ring and even if you do and tell me it's for me, you also know I'll be very confused upon waking up and probably say I'll be right at the hospital ASAP-and then fall back to sleep.” She leaned back and let her head fall against the couch. “I'm doomed. If I get called, I'll be tired and still have to take the run and then go to duty tomorrow. Colonel sure as hell won't give me the time off.” She looked at her friend. “Did you know she was Jewish?"

"What the hell are you talking about? Yes, I knew that and what does it have to do with anything? Go get some sleep, girl, or your ass will be grass with the lady tomorrow when you fall asleep mid medication pour."

"Nothing as far as the Jewish part goes except I'd already bought her a Christmas present."

Annie looked at her and they started to laugh, which soon could be classified as hysterically, bordering on cackling, since they were talking about Colonel Queen of the Witches. When they calmed down, Prue said, “I'm goin’ for a walk."

Waving her hand toward the door, Annie said, “No, you're not. Liar. You're going to the commissary to buy something sweet. I'm guessing chocolate."

"You're guessing right."

Annie shook her head. “Get me a six pack of Coors. Not the light crap either.” She flopped onto the recliner, grabbed the remote from the nearby table and started clicking away.

Prue went into her room, stuck on her socks and sneakers, grabbed a twenty from her wallet and decided a nice early evening jog would be just the thing to get her to fall asleep later-and not be listening for the phone. Phone. Rats. Had to take it with her at all times. She stuck her hand into her uniform pocket and pulled out her cell. Sure as heck didn't want to miss a call saying she had to fly with a patient to the nearby Army hospital trauma center-on the flying coffin-lest she end up in Leavenworth.

Whose ridiculous idea was it for her to join the Air Force anyway? If she didn't border on getting seasick on a raft in a swimming pool, she'd have joined the Navy. If she looked better in khaki, she'd have joined the Army. And if she-hell, she didn't have the guts to be a Marine.

So her form of escape was the Air Force.

Once outside, the cool air conditioning of the bachelor officer's quarters made the New Mexico heat seem all the hotter. And this was the Christmas holiday season? Bah humbug. She yearned to be back in her mother's saltbox house, circa 1776, sitting by the fire stringing popcorn and cranberries for their tree and watching it snow. Ah.

Who was she kidding?

The last time she made decorations for the tree she'd been thirteen, her parents were still married, and her brother had been home from college for the first holiday season.

Despite the heat, she started to jog faster-trying to chase away the memories of running away from home, her past life, her parents. That's what had gotten her into the military.

A few tumbleweeds crossed her path, giving her a chuckle until the usual dust devil spun around like a dirty demon causing her to cough and crave a glass of water. Damn the dust storms around here. When she got back to her quarters there'd be a pile of dirt on her windowsills even though the windows were shut tight. Damn it. More work cleaning to pass the next inspection. The fools cited her for having trash in her trashcan on inspection day! She had to bite her tongue in order not to say, “Where should I put it? The fridge?"

Could this place be any less Christmassy?

Despite the elements, the base was a safe place for a single twenty-three year old to be running when it was already dark. She decided to take the long way and run past the bowling alley, the chapel, and the movie theater to see the planes land and take off since that headed away from the dust devil.

With all the activity in the Gulf, the pilots and crews practiced non-stop, including night sorties, deployed like clockwork, and came home-changed airmen.

She'd seen way too many of them at the hospital.

The thought had her stop. She looked at the last jet take off and said a silent prayer that whomever the jockey was flying the F-18 would come home unscathed tonight and every other night. Having grown up with the nearest base hundreds of miles away, she remembered how shocked she was that in the military planes crashed during routine missions.

That'd been the hardest part of her job. Covering the ER after a crash. With a shudder despite the heat, she plowed forward and made it to the door of the commissary with record speed-and sweat. Whoever said sweat evaporated because of the dry heat probably never lived in New Mexico. Sure it did in some fashion, but whenever she went for her daily jog, after she stopped, her Yankee blood cooled itself with the grossness of soaked clothing.

Now, combined with the dust, she was certainly a sight for sore eyes as her mother used to say. But this time it was true. Cold, damp, and dirty. Hopefully she wouldn't run into the Witch Colonel or one of her patients, which could cause her to lose a lot of credibility where her nursing skills were concerned with these looks.

And right now, the dampness was pretty damn uncomfortable when the automatic door opened and a wave of cold struck her. But what was worse-make that who was worse-stood behind her, his reflection clearly visible in the glass doors.

"Crap!"


Chapter Two

<p>Chapter Two</p>

"Hmm. I see someone's working on their fantastic body despite the dust devil warnings tonight."

Oh, Lord. Prue swung around to chest level with Slick, still wearing his camouflage uniform, including the much-earned cranberry beret of the PJs. She'd never heard about the dust devil warnings for tonight but they were pretty unpredictable at times anyway. Then again, weather reports weren't as much a part of a nurse's duties as they were a paratrooper's. Patients came in rain, sleet, snow, or dust.

She took a step back. Then another. Not that she cared about her personal space all that much, but the guy was annoying and she needed her Lady Right Guard. No, she needed a hose-down like one of the cargo planes with about as much water as it took to clean those babies. With a quick look to prevent herself from staring-after all, Slick was a looker-she stepped back once again. Cocky as hell, but nevertheless, with dark black hair, Newman blue eyes and teeth she convinced herself were Da Vinci porcelain because no one was born with such a perfect smile, he was a damn looker.

And if nothing else, Prue had learned to look and not touch in the many fights she'd had over taking her brother's toys as a kid. “Ha. Good one and goodnight.” She swung around, but his hand caught her arm. While she turned, or maybe he turned her, she found herself staring into those Newman's.

Drat.

"Let go, Slick, or I'll deck you."

His laugh vibrated in the doorway of the commissary. It vibrated inside her too. Eek. She had to get out of here sans chocolate and beer. And what made her think, not to mention say, she could deck him?

She looked down at her watch. “Oops. Time to go. Duty calls.” Then realized she wasn't wearing one. When she eased free and looked up, his freaking, hypnotic grin made her nearly crumble.

And Prudence Hamlin was not a crumbling kind of gal. She'd been first in her nursing school class-and why not since she worked her rear-end off-aced all the officer's training classes, and was a heck of a nurse if she had to say so herself. After all, most of her patients always lived.

Yet, she was crumbling.

"Duty? At this time of night? I thought you worked the first shift?” He leaned closer as if he knew it would get to her.

It got to her.

She stumbled over her words-and that was in her head. Lord knows how they'd come out of her dust-encrusted lips. So, she took a long slow breath, watched his gaze travel down to her chest as it lifted in and out and the blasted gaze hung there a bit too long.

Yet, she didn't budge.

Crap again.

"I have to go, Slick. Really. I'm on call for ambulance and helicopter runs."

The helo word didn't seem to faze him. Of course someone who jumped out of planes and helos for a living wouldn't have a reaction to that other than maybe, “Hot damn!"

Well it wasn't hot anything for her.

He still held her. Funny, she thought she'd pulled free. Hmm.

"I'm sure you came here for something. Let me help you since you've been ‘dusted’ tonight."

It sounded sexy. Dusted. The way it rolled off his tongue. Tongue? Wow again. She'd been covered in something akin to dirt yet grittier, and he'd made it sound sexy as if she were one of those nude models whose clothes were painted on. Oh, boy. “I… chocolate and beer. Coors. Not the light stuff,” came rolling off her tongue as if she had a mental shopping list.

He looked at her. “Yum."

"Only the chocolate is for me."

One of his oh so very dark eyebrows raised. He probably thinks the beer is for a guy. Despite his running into her so often around the base, he never asked if she was dating anyone. And why would he? He wouldn't. Didn't care. He was just the typical PJ busting her-teasing her.

She'd let him think that.

"Milk or dark?” he asked, with a gentle hold on her arm.

Had he taken her down the candy aisle while still making contact and was her arm so numb from shock she couldn't feel it?

Pull yourself together, she ordered in her head, yet being the most ‘non-military’ captain in the Air Force, one who never gave a direct order to the airmen, but merely asked them to do things and they did, she had to mentally laugh at that one.

But, she did pull herself together, and peeled his fingers from her arm. Or at least that was how it felt because she wasn't going to allow herself the thought that it actually felt like little shocks when she came in contact with his skin. His fingers. Parts of his body.

"Good Lord."

"Excuse me?"

"Hmm?” Crap. She'd said that out loud. “Look, I really have to go to bed… er… get some bed… some sleep. Get some sleep since I'm on call. Bye."

When she spun around to make a hasty exit, something metal hit her arm and she turned to see a shelf taking a dive-a shelf she'd bumped.

All over their feet were green leaves with white berries.

Mistletoe.

He stood there grinning.

She started to pick them up, dropped each one like a rattler from the desert, and decided to melt into a Wicked Witch puddle at Slick's feet. So there, Colonel Queen of the Witches. Well, it seemed as if she were in a puddle since his six feet plus towered above her five three-okay, that was pushing it a bit.

With the cockiest of grins, he looked down and merely said, “According to the druids, mistletoe was traditionally considered to be the essence of the gods."

Gulp.


Chapter Three

<p>Chapter Three</p>

Essence of the gods. Essence. Oh, Lord. Prue shut her eyes so tightly, they hurt, but how else could she get any sleep? It wasn't bad enough that she had one ear to the phone to wait to be called out on a run, but now each time she closed her eyelids, Slick appeared as if in a movie, mouthing the words, “Essence of the gods. Essence of the…"

Drat!

She grabbed her pillow, stuck it over her head and after a few minutes attempting to fall asleep with her eyes open, she gave up. Turning to look at the bedside clock, which she'd forbidden herself to look at fifteen times earlier, she looked.

0245 hours. Two forty-five am.

Three hours left to get some sleep before the alarm from hell sounded, and she had to get up to work the day shift. Okay, this was going to end. How foolish to be thinking of Slick, essence, white berries, or the phone ringing.

When she tossed to the other side of the bed for the gazillionth time, she saw the candy bar on the dresser. Shamed into buying it so as not to embarrass herself any further in front of Slick at the store, she'd decided not to eat it lest it keep her awake.

She should have chowed down on it hours ago.

With the control of an Air Force officer, Prue shut her eyelids and let her mind become a blank screen and allowed sleep to take her.

Ring. Ring. Ring!

She reached over to shove the alarm into snooze mode for her usual nine more minutes in bed. The last minute she always sat on the edge to let her blood pressure stabilize, if for no other reason than she didn't want to get up yet, since she didn't have any blood pressure problems.

Ring. Ring! Ring!

"What the heck?” She decided she needed a new alarm if this one was going to act up. One eyelid opened to see if the thing looked possessed. What it looked was quiet. Non-possessed and next to a ringing phone.

0300 hours.

She'd dozed off for fifteen freaking minutes. Now she needed to answer the call that might have her airborne within the hour.

In the time she grabbed the receiver, she said a quick prayer that the dust was still kickin’ outside and all choppers were grounded, and the only means of transport was via ambulance. Nice safe ambulances through the dark desert sans traffic.

"Captain Hamlin here."

The disembodied voice of Airman Walker, unmistakable with his Alabama hominy grits southern accent, said, “Ma'am, we have a run to Fort McNally for you. Premature labor."

Prue remained silent for a second. Airman Walker? Walker? Who the heck? Airman… She yawned and looked down. The pillows enticed her to rest her head on them for just a second. A tiny little second of more rest. They almost glowed at her. “No!"

"Ma'am? I have you down on call for tonight. Did I make a mistake?"

"Oh. No. I'm on my way. ETA fifteen minutes."

"Roger, ma'am."

The phone line buzzed in her ear.


***

Prue hurried into the ER, making it there with an ETA of thirteen minutes. That, because she mentally smacked herself to keep awake, alert, and dress in record speed before this little one popped out way before it's time. But, in true female fashion, she had the foresight to grab the chocolate bar from her bedside stand on her way to the base, but hadn't had time to eat it yet.

She touched her pocket. Yes. A treat for later.

Airman Walker came running around the corner. “Room three, ma'am. Helo on its way. Fire department called."

"Ugh. Don't remind me.” She waved him on as she heard the fire truck's siren heading in their direction.

Despite the shudder for her own welfare, she hitched into nurse mode, hurried into room three, and introduced herself to the patient while she assessed the woman's condition.

"So, Airman Jenkins, you're going for a little jaunt to Fort McNally. The Army will kick this little one's butt so it'll stay inside until it ripens more.” She winked at the mom as she lay with worry lines across her forehead and fear in her eyes. “Hey, everyone knows the Air Force is the cream of the military crop, and, with that said, probably the softest. Ha! So, the Army will get your little one to follow an order. Don't even get me started on the Marines!"

Airman Jenkins, gave a soft laugh, then scrunched her face up.

Prue placed her hand on the airman's abdomen and felt her uterus harden as she watched the monitor. Great. Strong contractions and a baby whose lungs aren't ready to work on their own. With the skill she'd been trained in, Prue went to work, hurrying about, getting a report from the ER doctor that the baby was only twenty-nine weeks along, Airman Jenkins had had two previous premature deliveries that resulted in fetal demise, and she was a smoker.

Lotta odds against the kid.

Prue shut her eyes long enough to say a quick prayer, then shot into action. All the while trying to comfort the mom and get her into the chopper so they could make a hasty takeoff, she kept her hand on the woman's abdomen and timed the cursed contractions.

While the airmen strapped the mom in, the pilot pulled Prue aside. “If we have to land, give me about five minutes."

"Are you nuts?"

"I can't even hear myself think in that thing let alone be able to tell if that baby's birthday is December twenty-fourth."

Suddenly she froze.

Tomorrow was Christmas.


***

The pilot lifted the chopper off the ground in seconds as Prue watched the fire truck below become smaller and smaller. In her conversation with him, she'd gotten reassurance that the recent dust storms had died down enough for their little jaunt. Then again, he'd said, nothing prevented them from starting up in this dustbin.

Prue made her best assessment of Airman Jenkins's condition and instructed her to let Prue know immediately if she felt like pushing. Please, God, no. With that she kept her hand on the woman's abdomen and grimaced as each contraction felt stronger and stronger.

"Oh!” Airman Jenkins shouted, but not because of contraction.

Prue felt like screaming too when the helicopter shifted in the winds, and a sudden gust caused them to violently shake and toss about. Then they started to head downward-or so it felt. The pilot managed to pull up, but that didn't stop the entire crew's fears. Prue convinced herself they all felt the same as she did so she wouldn't feel like the only wimp.

A gust knocked them sideways for a few seconds.

The pilot's voice came across the headphones built into the helmets they all wore. “Looks like the wind's acting up here. We're going to low-level position. Everything okay back there? Make sure you're all strapped in good."

Prue looked at the patient whose eyes had darkened in fear. Had to be from the shaky flight. She could see the airman's mouth moving, but couldn't hear any words in this noisy tin trap. She leaned near and felt her abdomen. Rock hard. The mom's face was now scrunched up as if she needed to… Oh, Lord.

She was pushing.

"No!” Prue leaned near the woman's ear. “Don't push. Don't push! Pant. Hee, hee, hee,” she said in her ear as if that would help-or as if Airman Jenkins could even hear her.

"Hey! Land this thing!” she shouted.

"Roger, ma'am,” was the last thing she heard.

A gust of wind encircled the helicopter and Prue ended up near the door, grabbing onto something metal. Not sure what it was, she held tightly until the helicopter righted itself.

Yet it never did.

The airman in the back with her was shouting something, but no sound came through her helmet. He started to undo his seatbelt, but before she could continue to watch him, something made her turn her head and wished she hadn't. The metal thing was the door latch-and now it was open. Obviously the airman had grabbed her foot, but she didn't look at him since her thoughts were occupied by seeing a cactus heading toward her. Toward her! Surely the pilot would pull up, causing the airman to keep his hold on her and yank her…

Without even a scream, since she felt sure she was mute now, the arms of the gigantic Saguaro poked into the sleeve of her uniform, into her shoulder, and harpooned her like a little hummingbird, plucking her from the safety of the airman's hold and the chopper's doorway.

And then the darkness of the desert engulfed her.

Numb to anything, she watched the helicopter hover above her for what seemed like hours, but had to be minutes as the gusts of winds picked up-and subsequently knocked the chopper about like a toy. The airman had thrown a rope out, but the winds whisked it away.

In seconds, the craft would be smashed into the heavy desert growth-and the baby would be fighting against more than an early delivery.

"Go!” she shouted to the pilot waving her good hand to the helicopter to go higher before the low-level flight collided with the high-towering cactus. “Get the hell out of here!” Pain radiated in her body as everything she touched was a prickly spike along with the ones hurting her shoulder now.

She remembered thinking that she had never seen such tall cacti around the base. She also thought that she'd never been out in the desert this far and, by her calculations, the Army post wasn't much farther-by air miles.

A fuzzy voice filled her ears. Despite static that nearly made it unclear to understand a word, she heard the pilot say, “The mom… is… pain and water… post… ASAP. Sending… for you."

Sending for you?

Sending… help. Yeah. She would be fine.

It was then that she realized her arm was stuck to the cactus, legs dangling, body sore, blood draining down to her fingers and pain shooting throughout her mind.

Maybe she wasn't going to be fine.

She was going to die on a giant Saguaro like an ornament on her mom's blue spruce Christmas tree.

Prue shut her eyes and thanked God for the life she'd led so far.

So far. That really wasn't very much.

How sad.


Chapter Four

<p>Chapter Four</p>

Pain radiated down her arm.

Heat from something burned into her skin.

And her eyes refused to open.

That, she figured was some kind of self-defense mechanism as she had the sick feeling in her stomach that all wasn't right in her world.

With a groan, Prue opened her eyes-and then it hit her.

She'd been yanked out of the helicopter last night. Or at least she hoped it was last night and not days earlier. Then again, she might be dead by now if too much time had passed. And, she told herself in her mother's ‘strict’ voice, she had to get herself down onto the ground and… and… one thing at a time.

Gusts of dusty wind smacked at her face as if being stuck up here wasn't bad enough. Dust devils danced dangerously around, causing her to curse at the dirty winds.

They'd picked up since last night.

A scary thought, but she tried to convince herself that the pilot had told her they'd be back for her. Despite the sun and heat, the weather still sucked for flying.

Hey, maybe they'd drive up. Some military vehicles would come bounding over the ridges and sand dunes to snatch her up-or down as it were. Then again, she looked around-it all looked the same. Surely the helicopter had some kind of system to mark where she was.

Surely.

With a force she never knew she had, Prue reached into her pocket to fiddle around and see what she could find to grab onto the dratted cactus, because she had to get down from here, yet there was nothing to grab onto. Kleenex tissues, natch. Lipstick, natch, since she couldn't stand dry lips and her cell phone.

Her cell phone!

Somehow she'd managed to push her feet against one of the ‘arms’ of the Saguaro below to balance herself no matter how precariously and no matter the pain. Vomit worked its way up her throat, so she spit to the side several times, but wouldn't allow herself to even think about it. With a deep breath, she turned her head to look down.

Gulp.

Had to be about fifteen feet below.

Oh… my… God.

Speaking of Him, she said a few silent prayers, then looked up to the sky. “If you get me out of this, I'll… well, you know I'm a good person. But I'll give it all I've got to be better."

Now, Prue, let's think about the Saguaro itself. Shallow root system. Spikes that now held her captive. Wait a minute. How could this guy have yanked her out of the chopper?

Shielding her arm against the dust and sun, she saw the real cause. Forty to fifty feet cacti surrounded the area amid all other sizes. The chopper might have bumped into one of the taller ones and she got caught by that varmint, but then had to have fallen down to the lower ones.

Thank you very much. No wonder she hurt!

Prue pushed her feet to stand, hoping she could un-attach herself and fall to the ground. Or, better yet, jump and land on her feet.

Wishful thinking. Wasn't she the eternal optimist?

So, she started to push with her feet, kick as much as she could and, relying on the shallow root systems and the aged look of this captor, she continued until she caused a rocking motion.

As the cacti started to give way or at least give her freedom, she heard it.

A helo.

A helo in the distance! She had to get down and send some kind of signal. But with what and how?

Before the noise got any closer, her vision blurred into the brownish dirt of the Dust Devil himself. And she couldn't even see her hands in front of her eyes as she shielded her face and kept up the rocking, not giving a darn where she landed as long as it wasn't on another cactus.

"Prue! Captain Hamlin!” The disembodied voice filled her ears amid the horrendous sound of a helicopter, the winds and her heart pounding.

Great. She was hallucinating a hot, sexy, and familiar sounding voice. Yum crossed her mind despite the insanity. But it sure sounded as if the noisy machine was close. Then she looked up-and remembered it was Christmas day and her savior dangled from a rope several feet above her.

Whoa boy. So this is what dying was like?


Chapter Five

<p>Chapter Five</p>

Prue felt strong arms around her. She couldn't open her eyes because pain had paralyzed her, along with fear.

No white light. Only the wind and dust and someone yelling at her from a distance. Was it really the distance?

Sounded closer.

The arms pulled a bit and suddenly she felt freed from her captor, although no lessening of the pain. Then, a thud.

"Oh,” she heard herself mumble along with several groans.

"First the shelf of mistletoe takes a nosedive cause of you and now you've taken out one of the hundred-or-so-year-old Saguaro, Captain Hamlin. I can see I'm gonna have to watch my step with you."

She opened her eyes to see a foggy, dusty, dirty Slick above her. Slick? Slick? Wow. What a hallucination this was.

Then it dawned on her. She wasn't having her usual lusty reaction to him. Actually, she felt odd. Weird. That was when she realized silence filled the air.


***

"Where's the helicopter? Or did you just fall out of the sky?” She looked down and he'd torn her uniform sleeve and was doing all sorts of things to her arm, including pouring something cold and stinging onto it, and then stuck a needle into her thigh.

"Ouch!"

"Bad news is the chopper couldn't land, and with these blasted winds I barely made it down without following you onto one of the Saguaros. Whole base is out looking for you, but by land would have taken too long.” He wrapped something tight around her shoulder and arm. “Good news is, I've just given you something for the pain, and the even better news, Captain, is that I'm here now."

She opened her eyes and glared at him.

"What? Aren't you glad to have a PJ fall out of the sky to rescue a damsel in distress?” He'd fiddled around in his bag and held something to her lips. “Drink."

"What it is? I don't want anything. I'm…” Oops. Her words had sounded a bit “too many glasses of wine” slurred.

"Look, Captain, I'm a trained medic. I've risked my life to come rescue you-"

"It's your… your job… duty.” In her head it sounded as if she said “dwuty."

He leaned near.

She could see his face. His Newman eyes. A slight smile.

"I volunteered."

Prue watched Slick remove his helmet, although her vision now matched the blurriness of her speech. “You… vowuntweered?"

"Get some sleep. That morphine is kicking in now by the sound of your speaking and the size of your pupils.” He pushed her hair from her face.

Gulp.

Could morphine cause a rush inside her like this?

Or, admittedly, it was his touch on her skin. Warm fingers, male fingers, strong male fingers doing something as simple as pushing damp, dusty hair from her eyes. Great. Even knocking on the door of death, she had sensual feelings for this cocky, gorgeous, out of her league, PJ.

Sometimes life sucked.


***

Prue felt something.

Something that had made her feel good. Better. Cooler. Was the A/C on in her room? She opened one eyelid-to see she was nowhere near her room or any form of A/C.

A makeshift tent, attached to the vicious cacti on both sides, shielded her from sun. The pain in her shoulder was tolerable, and she actually wasn't as dusty and dirty feeling as she'd remembered. At least not on her face. She ran a finger across her cheek. Wow. Yep. Cleaner.

Then she looked past the lean-to to see him.

Slick knelt several feet away tending to a fire.

She pushed up on her elbows, then quickly fell back in a bout of dizziness. “Drat.” She'd said it softly, but Slick swung around as if she'd yelled across the desert. And he was next to her before she could blink. Wow. PJs sure gave good service.

"Hey.” He pushed her hair back again.

Gulp. “Hey,” she managed while he pulled a canteen out of his bag and held it to her lips. This time she drank the water without question. Even from a canteen, it tasted delicious. She swallowed, then pulled back and wiped her hand across her lips. “Yum."

It dawned on her that she must look like crap. But, his eyes still held something interesting when he looked at her. Something that made her insides quiver. And why was it that she even cared how she looked? Normally not a vain person, she found herself pushing back her hair at the same time Slick did-and their fingers touched.

Oh… my.

"You cleaned my face off,” came out before she could think of how stupid that actually sounded. “Thanks."

He smiled.

"I… when is the helicopter coming back?” She almost didn't care. She almost didn't want it to come back too soon. She almost forgot it was Christmas day and now she was stranded in the New Mexico desert with one hunk of a hunky PJ-and she wanted these few minutes to last.

Snowy, white New England Christmases seemed a thing of the past.

She looked up at him, pushed up on her elbows, and with his help, managed to sit. “Thank you.” It came out softer than she'd planned. Quieter than she'd expected, and sounding almost sensual without her planning it.

Slick moved closer and supported her back. “It's my job."

When he'd said it, her heart had sunk and her face must have shown the disappointment.

He chuckled. “A job I love and risk my life for nearly every day. I've done tours in the Middle East and survived-thank goodness. But, Prue, when the call came in last night that a nurse was in a helo accident and stranded in the desert-I instinctively knew it was you.” He touched her forehead this time and ran his finger down her cheek. Wow.

She wanted to ask, “How?” but then remembered she'd told him she was on-call. Deep inside she really wanted to know that he volunteered because he felt something too. Something like the shivers she felt right about now despite the desert sun.

"Thank you again,” came out instead. And her hand touched his as his finger lingered on her face.

What pleased her most was that he didn't pull away. Maybe this Christmas wasn't going to be so bad after all.


Chapter Six

<p>Chapter Six</p>

"Okay, Captain. We need to get you out of this place. The chopper will come back as soon as it can."

Please at least give us today, she thought not sure if she was more shocked at herself for not wanting to get to the ER and a long, hot shower, or if the shock came from thinking things… those kinds of things… about Slick.

Slick. “What's your name?” she whispered.

He turned with a look of surprise. “Oh, yeah, Captain. Believe it or not, ‘Slick’ isn't on my birth certificate."

"Is that so?” She chuckled. “And what is?"

"Kodyn. Kodyn Lang. My friends, and by friends I mean you, too, call me Kody."

"Kody,” she said. “Nice.” Her mouth dried. “Could I… water-"

Before she could finish, he was up in a flash and held the canteen out to her. “Go slow. Don't want you puking up anything after the morphine.” Then he smiled at her. “Okay. Okay. I know you're a nurse and know all that stuff, but it's ingrained in my medic mind, too. And sorry for the term ‘puking.’”

She laughed and winced at the same time.

"Need another shot?"

She did. But instead she said, “No,” because there was no way she wanted to lose her faculties and miss out on this very different Christmas-pain or not. From the day she'd met Slick, or rather Kody, there was that cliched chemistry, yet she'd always tried to ignore it and tell herself he annoyed her.

After all, he was jock material, and she'd had her fill of jocks in high school and college-and the relationships never worked out. Never worked out for her, thus her career goal of the military.

Then there was Daddy. The jock of all jocks and he treated their mother like some prized possession until she decided she needed a life of her own. It was then Prue and her brother started calling themselves “orphans” when their family, as it was, crumbled. And she'd vowed then, she'd never date anyone like her father. Ever.

She looked up at Kody. Darn, he even had the same dark hair, although Daddy's eyes were a pale green while Kody's were that fab blue. Oh so very blue. The kind of eyes one lost themselves in-as she was doing right now.

Great.

Kody lifted some medical stuff out of his bag. “Let me do a once over on you again."

Again? Obviously he must have done a complete assessment of her medical condition last night. “I'm fine. Really.” For a second, she thought, how sweet. He must care. Then she told herself how nutty a thought that was. He was a PJ. A medic for crying out loud. He'd treat any victim the same. “Really. Fine."

He merely had to look at her for her to say, “Okay. You're the boss-at the moment."

He laughed and aimed a penlight into her eyes to check her pupils. “Active and reactive to light, Captain."

"So, am I going to make it?” She smiled.

He leaned near. “If I have anything to do with it."

Without a thought, at least without a realistic, conscious thought, she lifted her good arm and ran her finger across his face and down to his lips where she gently, slowly let her finger remain. But only for a second because before she could speak or pull back, Kody kissed the tip-and Prue nearly melted into a dusty puddle.

"Oh. Sorry.” She pulled back. “I don't know what I was-"

Now his finger was on her lips, silencing her stammering.

Thank you, God.

"Don't think, Captain. Just go for it."

Oh… my… God!

Did he mean go for a kiss? Could she really? Was this the right place and right time? Was she nuts? Was she crazy? Was she suffering some mental condition brought on by her accident? Could post-traumatic syndrome start when you just got into a situation like this?

She should be thinking about the five basic needs of survival now. Personal protection like shelter and fire. Medical condition. Sustenance. Travel. And signal and recovery.

But she was having lusty thoughts about her rescuer. That had to be some syndrome like the Stockholm syndrome even though Slick, as she called him in her head still, hadn't abducted her.

Only her heart.

Yet she felt so safe, so secure, with him here. With a mental slap to herself, Prue pushed up all the way and stood, albeit on shaky legs.

Slick grabbed her. “Whoa girl. What are you doing?"

"I… I.” Good question. She had no good answer let alone any answer. I need to get away from you was her reason, but she said, “I need to walk. Cramps."

Oh crap. First thing she thought of was “female” cramps and felt her skin burn hotter than the desert sun. “Um. Muscle cramps. My legs."

"Walk where? You can't go traipsing around the desert in this kind of weather. Dust devils are exceedingly dangerous and for some reason, prolific these last few days. Some kind of weather phenomenon."

Yeah, weather phenomenon that had them trapped here together, yet her in no condition to do much about it. What rotten luck.

Christmas.

Bah humbug again.

"I know, but, when will the helicopter come back?"

"They'll be here ASAP with the first weather clearance. You can always count on the paratroopers, Captain. You know our motto-"

"That others may live,” she interrupted, because now she knew it was true. She'd been turned off by so many cocky jocks in her past that she suddenly realized she'd built up some kind of falsehood about them in her mind.

They were all not like her father. These were brave guys who thought of others first. Daddy never thought of anyone else first other than himself.

"Right, Captain. But to survive, one never can become complacent. That'd be contrary thinking to survival.” Didn't he realize he was talking to a ‘worse case scenario thinker'? If something could go wrong, Prue always thought it would. Complacency wasn't in her vocabulary-as it must not be in his.

Nice.

"Now, if you need to stretch, go ahead. But we need to stay put so we can be found. No traveling except for sustenance, which, I'm glad to say, I thought to bring. I've signaled with the fire going and my guys know where we are anyway. I'm sure you learned the basic five needs of a survivor in flight school.” He busied himself trying to communicate with the base in his assumption about her.

She merely nodded, almost ashamed to say she never applied to be a flight nurse because she wasn't all that crazy about flying.

After all, look where the helo trip had gotten her!


Chapter Seven

<p>Chapter Seven</p>

Sustenance he'd called it.

Prue called it cat food. That was her take on the Air Force's version of gourmet brown pouch food. Ick. Okay. Okay. It wasn't too bad. Well, it was when she thought about a Christmas ham, turkey, and her mom's gravy. The taste took a nosedive.

She heard a laugh and looked up.

Slick sat across the blanket he'd laid out for their ‘holiday feast’ as he'd called it, laughing at her. Earlier he'd assured her that they could eat their rations and not some cactus because they'd be picked up soon. He'd been a purposeful drop to a known location. All would be okay. With the cover blocking the dust and wind from their food, he'd become a silhouette against the backdrop-and a fantasy in her mind.

Calm down, girl. Calm down.

"I know it's not prime rib, Captain, but it isn't that bad."

"I didn't say it was.” She tried to lick the fork off, but couldn't stomach the taste any longer. And here she'd heard the Air Force had come a long way in their field rations. Not in her book.

He laughed again. Great laugh. Masculine, yet held the humor.

"I wish you could see yourself in a mirror. Your face is priceless when you swallow."

He continued to laugh, so she poked at him. “Stop it. It's just that we in the Medical Corps aren't accustomed to eating out of brown pouches, i.e. survival food. We dine in the cafeteria and eat off real dishes and use real meat and not something that bubbles up when you add water.” She joined him in a laugh and it felt rather good.

Then she felt a twinge of pain in her shoulder and looked around.

She could be dead by now if it wasn't for Kodyn Lang.

"Kody, did you find out anything about the mom and helicopter that… the one I was on…"

Obviously he sensed her concern and brushed away her words with his. “Fine. They made it to McNally in time. Sorry I forgot to tell you that. I should have known you'd think about them."

"The baby was-"

"Tiny but stable is how they put it. Bumpy chopper ride and the helo jock is sick that he lost you out the door, but all in all it turned out okay. And for once, no one got fired over an incident. A okay."

Okay?

Here she was on Christmas Day, wounded without action, dirty, wearing the desert floor on her entire body-except where he'd washed her face-and eating something unidentifiable although admittedly she was glad it wasn't boiled cacti. Obviously they had a different meaning for the word okay.

"I'm so glad. In all my pain, I forgot to ask."

He touched her hand. “But you did. And, hey, cut yourself some slack, Captain. It's understandable. You nurses are all alike. Always thinking of others before yourself."

She nodded and set her food container on the blanket. Just like you.

"Tired?” He looked concerned and set his pouch next to hers. “Pain?"

"Actually, no. I'm okay right now. It's just…” She had to turn away. Tears burned in her eyes, and darned if she'd admit the sudden feeling of homesickness, loss of her family unit, and the need to have him hold her.

That, being the strongest need at the moment.

Before she could take a deep breath and turn around, his arms were on her uninjured shoulder and with the gentlest of pressure, turning her to meet his gaze.

Eye to eye.

Of course, even sitting, she had to lift her head upward, but with a bit of coaxing from his finger beneath her chin, she did.

And then the fall, the pain, the dust all seemed a distant memory. Because, for right now, his lips on hers was the only thing going on in the world. At least in her world.

And that made everything all right within her entire universe.

His lips were soft. Tender. Delicious without having any after-effects from the brown pouch dining.

Tender?

What had she expected? Grit like sandpaper? Had she really lumped all “jock-type” guys into one category and now was surprised that one could be soft, be tender?

Had her past jaded her present and her future?

Slick ran his hands beneath her hair, pushing it back behind her ears, where he leaned over and nuzzled for a few minutes. A few mere minutes. Lord how she wished it were longer!

When he looked into her eyes, all she could do was smile back. And so did he. Then he eased her closer and held her. Just held her for what seemed like hours.

Too soon he eased free enough to ask, “You all right?"

"Um."

"Drat!"

"What is it?"

"When I'd heard the call about you, I forgot to grab something. I'd had it in my locker at the squadron, but, damn it all."

Boy did he know how to pique a girl's interest. “What? What on earth do you have in your locker for me?"

Suddenly they were laughing amid feathery kisses as he teased her, but wouldn't tell her. All the stocking stuffers in the world couldn't match the feeling.

Finally he looked at her. “A box of Godiva."

"Chocolate,” she whispered, as if he'd said a treasure chest full of gold.

"Yeah. Crud. Would have made a great Christmas dessert."

She nodded and reached into her pocket. Please let it be there.

His eyes glistened and the laughter filled their little world when she pulled out a mangled, very melted chocolate bar.

"Oh, crud. Seems as if my mishap has taken its toll on the chocolate bar. “

"Give me,” he said, and soon the bar had redeemed itself as Slick touched the mostly melted delicacy and placed his finger near her lips.

She licked it off, amazed at how sensual melted chocolate could be in the right place and the right time and with… the right guy.

"Yum. He smiled, repeated the gesture over and over, going from his lips to hers until an empty wrapper sat in his hand.

Prue leaned over and kissed him.

Very faintly in the distance, the whirr of chopper blades cracked the daylight air. The dust devils had retreated and she'd never even noticed.

Outside their lean-to the New Mexico sun cast golden rays across the grease bushes, mountains, and the cluster of Saguaro that stood for hundreds of years of beauty.

Her heart sank at the sound of her rescuers.

Because, right now, her only rescuer sat across from her with a look on his face that seemed to match what she felt inside.

If only they'd had a bit more time together.

What would happen when they arrived back on base?

What would become of the special bond that had formed in their fantasy desert?

What would become of Kodyn Lang and Prudence Hamlin?

What indeed?

As the chopper's sound increased, she watched Slick undo the upper pocket of his uniform and reach inside. “Sorry, Captain, I nearly forgot."

With that he pulled out a sprig of… mistletoe… leaned over and with the ‘essence of the gods’ above her head, kissed her lips. “Merry Christmas, Prue."

He'd never called her that before.

Now she knew what was going to happen when they arrived back to safety, to their base.

Their base.

Apparently the gods were correct.

Go, gods!

Thank goodness for mistletoe.


Lori Avocato

<p>Lori Avocato</p>
*

Anne Elizabeth

<p>Anne Elizabeth</p>
*

Tara Nina

<p>Tara Nina</p>
*

DC DeVane

<p>DC DeVane</p>
*

Lia DeAngelo

<p>Lia DeAngelo</p>
***