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Nine months later
"AVOIDANCE," Lieutenant Grace Marie Lanier, Ph.D., sighed to herself with longing.
What a wonderfully passive-aggressive way of dealing with the uncomfortable moments undoubtedly in her near future. Not a particularly professional thought for a psychologist, but, well, professional objectivity checked out when it came to Bobby Ruznick. And she would be unable to avoid him for a full flipping week in their jungle mission camp in Cantou.
Grace Marie directed the unloading of her platoon's gear from the cargo plane for the joint Air Force/Army Reserves exercise in the lush jungle. A career coup that she had pulled strings to get. She wasn't here in Cantou for the job perk. Only one thing could have lured her here.
Rescuing her father.
And she could very well need Bobby's help, the reason she had by name requested his crew.
Grace Marie kept her eyes off the steaming expanse of sky where his CV-22 aircraft would crest the horizon any minute now. She'd arrived earlier today in a cargo plane with her equipment. Bobby's Special Ops craft would bring the troops.
Damn it, she needed to focus on her father, not Bobby. Yes, nuclear scientist Matthias Lanier touted more brain power than any Mensa think tank, but when it came to common sense, the man might as well still be in kindergarten on the buddy system for field trips.
A shadow stretched over her onto the tarmac, reminding her to get her head out of the clouds before genetics kicked in and she morphed into her absentminded old man. She pivoted to find one of the cargo-plane pilots rocking on his heels beside her Rodeo, another Air Force flyboy. But this one was her friend, a very treasured and dear pal.
"Hey there, Flipper."
Grace Marie cringed at the use of her honorary call sign given to her by her Air Force buddies. Thank God, most of them didn't know the reason why and she sure wasn't sharing the details of that mortifying event.
My, how they loved their nicknames. She'd learned early on the different military services had different group personalities. Knowing that aided her in dealing with these people. Air Force service members tended to be more laid-back than their Army compadres, which wasn't a problem for her. She simply needed to understand how best to approach the different mind-sets, something she usually managed with ease thanks to her training, except when it came to Bobby Ruznick.
But Rodeo — Derek Washington — was a friend, easy to relate to. His Denzel-like good looks drew plenty of female attention, but for Grace Marie, Rodeo tamed any lady-killer tendencies in honor of their friendship.
She relaxed her Army stance for the less rigid Air Force at-attention. "Something I can help you with or are we just catching up on gossip?"
He gestured to the back hatch of the cargo plane, a military van rolling down the tracks with loadmasters controlling. "Just passing time while they unload. Did you bring any good shoot-'em-up videos for us to watch via your surveillance van?"
The equipment would also provide infomercial-type films for the camp and area military to teach ways to win over the hearts and minds of an enemy in the hope of avoiding war. Or, at least softening up some of the enemy to lessen casualties.
"Capture their minds, and their hearts and souls will follow." She winked. "My unit's motto."
Heart. What an interesting word choice. She knew she and Rodeo weren't interested in each other that way.
She'd gone out with him a couple times after breaking up with Bobby, only for Rodeo and Grace Marie to find after a few kisses — no spark. Definite friendship realm. Most likely because they were both stuck on other people.
And why did it seem the monkeys were cackling louder at her thoughts right now?
Rumor had it Rodeo's call sign had been earned because he always shouted the wrong woman's name during sex and one particular time got bucked off in under eight seconds flat, bare butt landing on tile.
Grace Marie didn't have any firsthand naked experience with Derek on the subject. However, according to a late-night drunken conversation between them in an Officer's Club bar, he confessed he always called out the same woman's name.
Since Grace still couldn't ditch thoughts of Bobby, she and Derek made a pretty good team. They offered each other a no-strings way to keep others from hitting on them until they could shake loose of the past.
Something she could really use this week with Bobby around.
Another shadow stretched overhead. An aircraft. Bobby's CV-22 had sneaked up without her noticing. Damn, she was off-kilter today. Derek seemed to sense that, sticking to her side like glue as if he understood full well how tough standing strong against temptation would be this week. God love him.
The cutting-edge new aircraft shadowed over her simultaneously with the noise like the sensation of someone strolling over her grave. The mammoth gray tilt-rotor roared over the towering banyan trees, right on top of them, in fact, skimming so close the branches and leaves parted, almost bowing.
The new-to-the-inventory craft differed from any other, able to operate as both an airplane and helicopter. The propellers on the wings could pivot forward, airplane style, or rotate upward so the craft could fly or hover like a helicopter. When moving forward, it could nearly double the speed of its helicopter counterparts, inserting or rescuing troops in half the time while maintaining the ability to land in the smallest of clearings.
The craft was technically still in the testing phase, Bobby one of the hand-picked few to see it through until a squadron could be stood up. Hopefully within about a year.
Another year of Bobby flying insane maneuvers to test the craft. Her gut clenched. Derek's hand stayed steady on her back in comfort in spite of the ban on PDAs — public displays of affection in uniform.
Regardless of her fears, clearly this craft was well on its way to being a major asset in the Air Force inventory that would save countless lives. She could envision spouses who would have their military husbands or wives return home through the door after combat because of the risks Bobby had been willing to take to test his craft to the max.
An awesome test pilot.
And really unsettling dating material.
Some kind of funky cawing parrot joined the mocking monkeys.
The CV-22 had to be at full speed as it skimmed the treetops. Then in a blink, it pulled up, losing airspeed as it climbed. God, would it stall? It had to.
There wasn't a doubt in her mind who was flying right now, because conservative Joe "Face" Greco would never pull a stunt like that.
The craft seemed suspended in midair, in mid-time. Even the birds and monkeys quieted. The wings transitioned from flight to hover as the nose swung around, pointing down and dropping toward the tarmac, swooshing like something from a war-movie festival Bobby took her to on one of their dates — probably because of the free admission.
Right now, however, no one could look away. Impossibly close to the ground the nose came up and the aircraft settled down just as soft as you please. From the second she saw the airplane until it was parked and spooling down could not have been more than thirty seconds. The maneuver would counter threats around the airfield, but who had the cajones to handle an aircraft like that?
God, when she was around Bobby, turmoil roiled. She'd been right to break things off with him. Although at the time, she'd been half hoping he would argue with her. Then he'd saved them all from the exploding cow, a brave and fearless act.
She'd been totally wowed. Who wouldn't be? Except she'd noticed his pulse as he sat beside her, drifting off to sleep. For a full five minutes she'd watched the throb in his neck, slow, steady, when hers had been about to explode out her ears in hyperspeed.
Any need to call back her Dear John words had evaporated, as she thought of life with her mentally ill father.
Bringing her thoughts back to the here and now, she readied to see Bobby again, CV-22 acrobatics apparently through for the moment. Grace Marie compacted her focus like a snowball in her fist, ironic since it was hot as hell out here on the runway. But she would manage as she'd done since she was four and her mama gave up custody in the divorce in exchange for big bucks.
That was a tough thing to live with sometimes, that her mother had sold her and without a second glance left her with a bipolar parent.
Still, all in all, it had worked out for the best. Grace Marie was used to taking care of her old man, who functioned thanks to the wonders of modern medicine and a lifetime supply of lithium.
His sky-high IQ brought him many exciting opportunities, such as participating in the nuclear-research project here at Cantou for the summer. But she hadn't heard from him in over six weeks and that scared the crap out of her. What if he'd ditched his meds? What might he do? He carried so many U.S. secrets in his head, what might the people here do to him?
She definitely didn't have time for romance with anyone, most especially a guy one loose screw away from a breakdown.
Screw? Bobby? Ohhhh Tingle.
Paging Dr. Freud. Paging Dr. Freud.
Screw? Yep. Interesting word choice considering Bobby's animal attraction brought that notion to mind every time he strutted right past her boundaries. And even when he was nowhere around.
But he would be. Soon. So she'd better shore up her defenses or they'd be in a lip lock against the nearest wall again. And again.
And next time they wouldn't stop.