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Eleven months ago
"Hey, Magnet, what about her?"
Chase Carden cringed as his friend's voice boomed through the Las Vegas casino bar. Jackson was an excellent pilot, a stand-up guy and a great friend but he had no concept of volume control. Or the fact that while Jackson was loudly trying to scout out a female candidate for the one-night stand Chase's buddies were hell-bent on finding him, Chase was studiously ignoring their efforts.
Not that the redhead halfway across the bar wasn't beautiful or amenable if her stare was anything to go by. But even as her lips twitched up in a seductive smile and her eyes narrowed with appraising interest, Chase just couldn't work up the energy to care.
He wasn't interested. Not in a one-night stand with a woman he'd never met. Six months ago he'd have pushed through the throng of people, leaned down into her space and turned on the charisma that had earned him his call sign in the first place. Lately, it wasn't worth the effort. Sure as hell not three days before leaving for war. There was something about the looming experience that changed your perspective.
Yes, he was proud to go and serve his country. It's what he'd signed up to do. Flying planes was what he excelled at. But knowing there was the possibility he might not come back
"Why don't you go close the deal, Jackhammer? All I want right now is a night out with the boys."
"Shit. Anyone hearing you talk would think you're pussy whooped. I know for a fact you haven't been anywhere near a pussy for months. You need some action boy, before you spend the better part of a year looking at nothing more than sand."
A loud wave of laughter erupted from the twelve guys around him.Part of him could appreciate the joke. Most of him didn't. "Don't make me knock some sense into that thick skull of yours, Jackhammer."
The fact that Jackson was right didn't help any.
"Next round's on Jackson."
Another rousing yell of approval shook the wall behind his back as Jackson threw him a nasty look. Chase just grinned at him. That's what he got for opening his big mouth.
"You having a good time?" Mark leaned across their table and spoke above the noise of raised voices and slot machines filtering into the bar.
"Yeah. Sure." As good a time as possible, he supposed.
"What about that little blonde down at the end of the bar?"
"Not you, too."
Raising his hands, Mark chuckled. "Hey man, no hurt in looking."
"What would Nicole think if she heard you say that?"
The sheepish grin on his face had Chase chuckling too, and looking down the bar.
Twelve heads whipped around to stare at Chase, conversations silencing throughout the tables. He hadn't realized he'd spoken aloud, certainly not loud enough to stop his buddies in their tracks. Clamping his jaw shut, the reverberating shock spiked through his muscles down into his neck.
The one woman he'd never thought to see again, the one woman who'd dwelled in the back of his mind for the past six years, was sitting smack-dab at the end of the bar.
Three days before he was scheduled to fly halfway across the world to Iraq.
"What is up with this place tonight?"
Another rousing boom of male voices erupted at Rina McAllister's back.
"There's a bunch of airmen in tonight."
Rina watched as her longtime friend poured a whiskey for a guy four seats down the bar. It was nice to finally be in the same town again. It had been oh, ten years, way too long, since they'd lived in the same state let alone the same city. Despite the years apart, with phone calls, e-mails and sporadic visits, they'd managed to maintain a strong bond. She'd only been here for a few weeks, and they'd already fallen straight back into their normal, easygoing routine. Sadie was the sister Rina never had. Hell, she was family. Her only family, besides the General.
Yelling over the noise, Rina said, "But they usually aren't this loud." Or rowdy. As the newly appointed public affairs officer for the Thunderbirds Squadron she was intimately familiar with airmen. Oh, they could get rowdy with the best of them, maybe down the street at one of the seedy, hole-in-the-wall joints you could find off the strip, but not here. Not at an upscale casino bar like the one Sadie managed.
"Yeah well, several of them are leaving for Iraq in a few days. I'm cutting them some slack."
Sadie stepped away to fill a drink order. While she waited, Rina craned her neck against the Saturday night crowd, trying to see the cluster of men on the other side of the room. The curve of the bar and crush of people blocked her view for the most part, although she could see a few of them on the fringes.
Flyboys. She could smell them a mile away and they tended to group together. Living with one her entire life her protocol-thumping air force general fatherand fending off the cocky come-ons of more men than she cared to count she knew one when she saw one. And preferred to avoid them.
Fighter pilots were the worst. A special breed of macho daredevils who weren't satisfied with pulling Gsthey wanted to do it with their hair on fire just for show. They all exuded that same mix of swagger and charm, filled with the idiotic idea that they were bulletproof and unbreakable. Rina secretly thought they held special courses during their trainingego-inflating 101.
She supposed they needed that instinctive confidence along with nerves of steel in order to do their job. On the ground though, those qualities tended to rub her the wrong way. She'd spent years worrying about her father and whether or not he'd come back from the latest in a long line of missions. Once he'd reluctantly agreed to ride a deskhis body no longer able to take the torture that came with thumbing his nose at gravityshe'd finally learned to breathe easy again. She wasn't willing to take back that mantle of dread not for some flyboy.
Sadie slid back to her end of the bar for a few minutes. "Actually, you might remember one of th"
Just then the solid wall of male moved out of her way and Rina got a great view into the center of the action. And about swallowed her tongue.
"Oh my God. Is that Chase Carden?"
"And why didn't you mention this thirty minutes ago?" Rina fought the urge to reach across the polished wood bar and shake Sadie. "Didn't you think that was something I'd want to know?"
Her disgruntled tone of voice must have registered with her friend. She stopped halfway into pouring a drink and said, "Really, Rina, it's been six years. You guys didn't even sleep together"
Oh, but she'd been sorely tempted. There was just something about the man that made her brain go haywire, made her body respond, made her lose her hard-won cool, calm and collected outer shell.
They'd met the summer after her graduation from the academy. She'd gone to visit the General while she was on leave. That's where she met Chase. A fighter pilot. The worst possible man for her. At the worst possible time.
She'd known it and yet she hadn't been able to ignore him or the all-consuming sexual attraction that snapped between them. It was draining to fight against the urges pounding in her brain. Wanting him was a losing battle that thankfully had been interrupted when she'd received her orders to leave immediately.
Fate had stepped in to save her from a colossal mistake.
But even now she remembered the breathless, expectant way he'd made her crave something she couldn't shouldn'thave. And she'd often wondered what might have happened if she'd stayed.
"I would have thought you'd gotten over him by now."
Rina fought down the warm memory that flushed across her skin. "There was nothing to get over." But there was sure a hell of a lot to remember.
He was laughing. She couldn't hear the sound from this far away but she remembered the way it had rolled around inside, making her chest tighten.
He looked the same. Several years older but still the same. Dark, dark hair cut a little closer on the sides than she recalled but still long enough on the top to run her fingers through. Even from this far away she could see the stubble covering his cheeks, the dimple in the center of his chin.
A vivid memory exploded in her mind, of running her tongue up from that cleft to the seam of his full lips above. Closing her eyes against an unexpected spike of arousal, Rina turned away. It had been a completely out-of-characterand unwiseaction for her at the time. Remembering it now wasn't any smarter.
Forcing the words past the desire clogging her throat, she asked Sadie, "Has he been in before?"
"A few times, I suppose."
"When? How long has he been in town?"
"I don't know. About two years, I guess. He's at Nellis. I guess I thought you would have known."
Sure, like the place wasn't huge. She might also now be stationed at Nellis, but she'd only been there for about a month. She wrote website copy, newspaper articles and press releasesher favorite part of the job. She handled external communications for the Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron, coordinating public relations efforts at each of their show locations throughout the year. She was the point of contact for all media inquiries about the program and keeper of the squadron's public image. She did not study the attendance roster for the entire base.
"Sadie. How are you doing, beautiful?"
She'd been so lost in her own thoughts, Rina hadn't noticed him walking up to the bar.
"I was wondering when you were going to come and say hello."
"You looked a little busy when I first came in."
Two feet away from her. It was the closest Chase Carden had been to her in six years. The immediate physical reaction that blew through her body was familiar and yet somehow different. She was no longer a fresh academy graduate just starting her career and life. She was a woman, successful, intelligentand apparently sexually deprived for way longer than was safe.
Sadie reached up on tiptoe and wrapped her arms around his neck his strong, thick, tan neck. He was taller than she remembered. Broader. More muscular.
"You weren't gonna leave without saying goodbye, were you?"
"Not on your life. That's why we're here tonight. I couldn't go away without seeing your beautiful face one more time."
Rina sat in her chair and watched the exchange, remembering similar words he'd spoken to her years ago. Only that time she'd been the one leaving.
The slow-blooming smile and easy laugh made her gut turn with nerves. She wasn't entirely sure whether she wanted him to see her or hoped he'd not even notice her. Their past was complicated and he'd always had the ability to unsettle her, make her question things about her life and herself that were better just left alone.
"You remember Rina, don't you?"
Sadie walked a couple steps toward her, forcing Chase to follow her down and around the other patrons sitting at the bar.
"Of course I remember Sabrina." The force of his gaze slammed into her chest, making her forget to breathe. "How could I forget?"
Indeed. It was the only damn word her brain would form. Where was her normal quick wit? That unfailing facade of hard-assed competence she was universally known for? At the moment, the only thing she could concentrate on was the unforgiving throb of awareness pulsing at the base of her spine.
"Are you in town to visit Sadie?"
"No. I live here."
"Really?" Chase cocked his head to the side and studied her for several seconds. She fought the urge to squirm under his gaze. He had the ability to make her feel naked and vulnerable without even trying.
She didn't do vulnerable. She'd worked hard over the past six years to build a life and career that she was proud of that her father could be proud of. She was smart, controlled, independent and she certainly didn't care what this man thought of her even if the hum in her blood called her a liar.
"Listen, I'd love to catch up with you. Would you like to have a drink?"
No. Yes. "I don't want to interrupt. It looks like you're here with your friends."
Chase's lips turned up in a self-deprecating smile, glancing over his shoulder at the group of men behind them. "They'll get over it. Besides, the chance to spend time with a beautiful woman is more important."
Rina had no idea where the word came from. The last thing she wanted to do was resurrect any part of the past with this man. But somehow "Sure" came out instead of No thanks.
Several hours and a few drinks later, Rina found herself walking down the strip next to Chase. They'd stopped at a couple of places. Played a few hands of blackjack.
She wasn't drunk. Really. She never, ever allowed herself to drink too much. She was just pleasantly pleasant.
If anything, she was intoxicated by the heat of Chase, the way her body tingled from the mere touch of his palm to her back as they strolled down the strip. She was drunk on the power of knowing he was as attracted to her now as he had been six years ago.
It had been that way from the start. Their connection. His effortless effect on her body and the automatic override he had on her brain. With Chase, she felt, acted, was a different person.
Oh, she knewlike she'd known six years agothat nothing substantial could come of the sizzle between them. She wouldn't risk that kind of attachment not with Chase. Not now. Not when he was leaving for risk and death and macho feats of heroism.
But she could have this one night. This one chance to slake the physical ache thrumming low in the center of her body. In a few days he'd be gone and she'd never see him again.
The normal Rina, the perfect Rina, the live-by-the-code-of-military-conduct Rina wouldn't approve. But she'd gotten lost somewhere tonight and the adventurous Rina wanted to feel the slide of Chase's skin against her own.
He looked down at her with heat-glazed eyes full of appreciation and the center of her stomach seemed to disappear. She had to look away. Either that or go up in flames in the middle of the Las Vegas sidewalk.
A bright display of flashing colors caught Rina's attention. Blinking neon wasn't unusual, not on the strip, but the words in shiny pink were.
Fake Vegas Weddings
Punk Your Friends and Family
"Oh my God! How funny."
Tugging on his elbow, she headed straight for the sign, pulling him behind her. It was attached to a strip of shops. One of them was a tacky, touristy place where you could dress in a costume and have your picture taken. It was attached to a low-rent version of the obligatory Las Vegas wedding chapel.