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With the temperature hovering near a hundred, John Devlin climbed out of his new Corvette into the unrelenting Vegas heat, locked the car and pocketed his keys. The June sun was so brutal he considered parking closer to the market, but he dismissed the idea in a heartbeat. That was the trouble with owning an expensive sports car. You avoided dings even if it meant walking half a mile. Worth it, though, for the honey of a silver Corvette.
Any inconvenience was an acceptable trade-off because John was all about speed. In the air or on the ground, it didn't matter, damn it. That had a much better ring than having a midlife crisis at thirty-three.
He crossed the asphalt and slipped off his Wayfarers just as the store's automatic doors opened. Man, he did not like grocery shopping. Good thing he only had to do it twice a month, and only when he wasn't deployed.
His grocery list rarely varied so he headed straight for the liquor aisle, grabbed a bottle of Lagavulin scotch, then moved on to the middle rows where he picked up a box of crackers and a loaf of bread. The blonde—he was pretty sure her name was Megan—behind the deli counter spotted him and smiled.
"Hey, Captain Devlin." She had to be in high school, or barely out, but she gave him a once-over like a pro. Girls grew up fast these days. "A pound of turkey, sliced thin?"
"You know me so well."
Her practiced smile said not well enough, which he ignored by studying the cheese selection. One time he'd stopped in wearing his flight suit and it had been Captain Devlin ever since. Nice to be anonymous sometimes, though being stationed at a base the size of Nellis, it wasn't easy. He might as well have stopped at the commissary.
"You want a half pound of sliced Muenster, too?" she asked, her voice close.
He looked up to find her leaning with one hand against the glass case and checking out the front of his jeans. Jesus. "Yeah, Muenster. Thanks. I'll be back for it."
Not sure his mayo was still good, he headed down the condiment aisle, snagging a jar of green olives along the way. The Cold Beer sign caught his attention. He was officially on leave so why not? He managed to grab a six-pack without dropping everything. Barely. But he still had stuff to pick up. Sighing, he gave in and went in search of a basket. He found one near the express register and piled in his groceries.
The thought of returning to the deli counter was not a pleasant one. At the back of the store he stopped for a quart of cream and checked to see if Megan had set his order on the counter. Looking bored she stood at the meat slicer, pushing the blade back and forth, probably still working on his turkey. However, a well-dressed middle-aged woman studying the food in the glass made it safer to approach. She tapped her foot, gave him a cool glance, then looked at her watch.
If she wasn't a military wife, he'd eat his boot. Coolly elegant even if the thermometer hit 120. They didn't ruffle easily, could be ready to move halfway across the world on a moment's notice and manage to throw a dinner party the night after they arrived. But get in their way? He'd never met a more determined bunch than air force wives needing to get a move on.
He ended up checking his own watch, although he couldn't blame the woman. It felt weird being in a grocery store in the middle of the day. He was used to his routine, even if the routine was completely contingent on a dozen factors he had no control over. Still, for every flight there was mission planning, prebriefing, flying time, sortie, debriefing, qweep—all the soul-sucking paperwork—and ground ops. Never a dull moment, as they say.
Given that his time was his own for the next ten days, there was only one thing on his agenda. He had a decision to make. One that would impact the rest of his life.
"Here you go, Captain Devlin." Megan was smiling, leaning into the case and holding out his order. Her lips were red. They hadn't been earlier. "Anything else?"
"That'll do it. Thanks." John nodded at the older woman, who'd slid him a curious look. "Ma'am," he said, dropping the packages into his basket and turning to leave.
"See you in a couple of weeks," Megan called after him.
He lifted a hand without looking back.
In two weeks it could be a whole new ball game for him. He might be receiving new orders to test the latest in the F-35 series ofjets, an assignment he'd wanted his entire career, or he could be shopping for a civilian wardrobe and learning everything there was to know about the Gulfstream 650. The worst of it was he didn't know which fork he'd be taking. Not even a hint. His dependable decisiveness had gone AWOL. For maybe the first time in his life, he didn't know what the hell he wanted to do.
He paid for his groceries, anxious to get behind the wheel of the 'Vette, not so anxious to be at the mercy of the desert heat. But when he stepped outside and heard the familiar roar of a Raptor overhead, there was nothing to do but stop, slip on his sunglasses and look up at the sky.
The Raptor was a thing of beauty, ascending into the clear blue heavens. Even after studying four years at the Air Force Academy and nearly eleven of active service he still got a rush watching a bird slicing through the sky. These days it was the most excitement he experienced on the ground.
Sitting in a cockpit was a different story. Strapped in and moving fast over the world he always felt alive and focused. It was when he came back to earth that things had gotten confusing. Something was off. If he didn't know better, he'd say that being a pilot wasn't the endall, beall of his life. But of course it was. Everything he did, in or out of uniform, was preparation to take the controls. Everything.
He watched the contrail begin to dissipate, then moved toward his car. As soon as he pulled out of the parking lot he had the urge to press the accelerator, but that would have to wait. Too much traffic, and it would be slow going all the way to his condo near the Strip.
After an irritating twenty minutes of crawling behind a truck to his high-rise, John got his groceries put away in record time. Considered, then rejected, having a scotch while he checked email on his iPhone. The place smelled lemony, his cue that the housekeeper had been by. Couldn't tell by the looks of things. He wasn't home much. He didn't get a lot of junk mail or magazines or papers. Mostly because all his mail went directly to his sister in Seattle. She paid his bills out of a joint checking account, which was a real lifesaver when he was overseas.
He flipped on the flat-screen TV hanging on the wall. The remote in one hand and his phone in the other, he moved to the massive glass window with a view of the Strip. At night it was very cool with all the lights and flash. This afternoon the brown tinges of smog hanging over the valley just depressed him.
With his focus on his phone screen, he aimed the remote at the TV behind him and flipped to ESPN. He had an email from Lauren, instructing him to deduct the cable bill she'd just paid, and letting him know his two nephews were nagging for a call or visit. That one was tough. He wasn't anxious to talk to the family right now. He'd rather they didn't know he was on leave or be reminded he was up for reenlistment.
They'd be appalled he was even considering ending his military career. Especially his father. John didn't want to think about having that kind of discussion with the colonel. The old man would probably have a heart attack. But then his father had been damn lucky. During his thirty years of service he'd never lost a close buddy .
Hell, this wasn't about Danny's death. Or Sam being grounded, his career as an active duty F-16 pilot ripped away because of something beyond his control.
If the restlessness driving John crazy had anything to do with either of his friends, he'd admit it. No problem. He wasn't trying to be the strong silent type. It was not knowing what was wrong that had him tied in knots. For all he knew, he'd wake up in a couple of months and everything would be A-OK. Trouble was, he didn't have a couple of months. He needed to commit or get off the pot before this new downsized air force decided it could live without his services. Or before Tony Wagner, one of the richest men in America, got impatient and rescinded his offer to make John his private pilot.
He looked toward McCarran Airport and saw a commercial jet taking off. Leave at home was always disconcerting. Not going to the base made him feel vaguely anxious. No doubt he'd end up stopping by at some point. He'd see the guys over the next ten days. A few of his buddies were meeting for dinner and then club-hopping tomorrow night and then there was the party at Shane's house coming up.
What to do now was the problem. He didn't feel like TV or drinking alone or doing much of anything. Except driving. He hadn't given the Corvette a good run yet. Slipping his phone into his pocket, he turned off the TV, then grabbed his keys from the kitchen counter.
He'd head out to the desert and find a nice long stretch of road. And hope he avoided a speeding ticket.
"I need another pitcher. Oh, and two frosted mugs."
Cassie O'Brien looked up from the textbook she had stashed by the plate of cut-up limes, and squinted at Lisa, then toward the pool tables at the back of the bar. "Who's asking for fresh mugs?"
"Pete and Lou." The waitress made a face. "Sorry. You need me to wash glasses?"
Cassie sighed. "No, but I wouldn't mind you turning down the volume," she said, glancing up at the speaker hanging from the wall between the Grateful Dead and Sugarland Express posters.
Good thing she didn't have a gun hidden under the bar or she'd be tempted to shoot the damn jukebox. She didn't exactly hate country music, and she didn't even mind when the tunes got loud. But it was hell trying to study with all that racket.
"Your brother needs to hire another person for times like this." Lisa eyed the psychology textbook as she dragged a chair under the speaker, then climbed up on it. "You should find someone willing to work odd shifts. He doesn't know what's going on around here half the time anyway."
It wasn't so much Lisa's snippy tone but how she'd referred to Tom that tipped off Cassie that the lovebirds had had another fight. There was no doubt it was Tommy's fault. She loved her brother. She did. But ever since he'd come back from Iraq he'd been tough to deal with, and unfortunately, Lisa suffered the brunt of his slippery moods. Cassie understood his bitterness, everyone did. But Lisa had stuck by him through months of rehab, filling in when Cassie couldn't. Lisa loved Tommy, but the big dope was so caught up in his past he couldn't see what was staring him in the face now.
Cassie was going to have a long-overdue talk with him. But first she had to seriously crack the books and take her three final exams. Not just take them, ace the suckers. The job market was too tight for an average grad student to expect to land anything decent. And dear God, she didn't want to be a bartender her whole life. Or even by the time she hit thirty in two very short years.
In a week exams would be over and she would be able to breathe again.
At least until her final two classes started in September. Once she finished, then just maybe she'd find a real job before she was eligible to collect social security.
"Is that good?" Lisa asked, one hand hovering near the speaker's volume control, the other flattened to the wall to steady the wobbly chair.
"Perfect." Cassie wiped her hands on the towel hanging over her shoulder and held the chair until Lisa climbed down. "Thank you. Here's your pitcher and fresh mugs." She pushed the tray toward Lisa, blew at the annoying loose curl that had escaped her pony-tail and leaned over the bar so she could be heard in the back. "Everyone hang on to your mugs. The dishwasher is broken."
"I'll come wash your glasses, you sweet thing." It was Spider. "Wouldn't want your pretty little hands to get shriveled up."
Cassie and Lisa both shook their heads at the raucous laughter coming from his fellow pool players, most of them veteran bikers like Spider. She let him get away with more than most because he was old enough to be her father. In fact he'd ridden with her parents and the Diablo Outlaws for a few years when she was a toddler.
"I imagine you have your own shrinkage to worry about," she shot back, exchanging grins with Lisa, who picked up her tray and headed for the back.
A chorus of "whoas" couldn't drown out Spider's laugh. He was a scary-looking dude with a long shaggy beard and a dozen fading tats trailing up his beefy arms and the side of his neck. But inside he was a teddy bear. She'd heard he hadn't always been like that. He'd mellowed with age and a short prison sentence, and she was just fine with not knowing the details.
She looked around the room, recognizing every customer but one. That was how it usually worked at the Gold Strike, ever since Tommy bought the place and she'd started bartending here two years ago. A few unfamiliar strays came in throughout the week, some stayed and became regulars, the rest she never saw again.
What she liked best was the diverse mix of military vets, aging bikers, university students and staff from the nearby hospital who frequented the bar. They were a friendly lot, though they didn't all know each other by name. Occasionally a few airmen from Nel-lis stopped in, and if it happened that college women were hanging around that day, she was likely to see the same guys again.
But the Gold Strike wasn't close enough to the base to attract many active servicemen. At one time the place had been a hard-core biker bar on the outskirts of Las Vegas. When the growing popularity of the city meant residential and business areas kept spreading farther and farther out, the bikers finally said adios. Turned out to be a good deal for Tommy.
"Hey, Cassie." Pete came from the back and slid onto a stool, leaned forward, swept back a stubborn lock of brown hair and stared at her with serious dark eyes. She knew he was twenty-one but he seemed so young she wanted to card him every time he walked in. "Help me out with something," he said in a low, nervous voice while casting a cautious look toward the pool tables.
"If I can." She braced her elbows on the bar and leaned over so no one else could hear. "What's up?"
"I'm making dinner for this girl. I've only been out with her once so I wanna impress her." He swallowed, his Adam's apple bobbing in his thin neck. But his voice creaked from dry mouth and he kept sweeping stealthy looks toward the back. "I wanna buy wine, but I don't know what kind or how much I gotta spend."
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