Read an Excerpt
"Are you alone?"
The tender yet suggestive question posed by the female calling on his cell phone would have put a wicked grin on Collin Masters's face if he didn't immediately recognize that it was his sister. Watching elevator floor numbers light up as he descended from his high-rise condo, he replied, "Not for long if there's any justice in this world. I'm in the elevator on my way to meet someone who has legs more fabulous than her red hair and an appetite for champagne and yours truly."
"Cancel," Cassidy Masters replied, all semblance of gentleness vanishing from her voice. "I'm on my way over there."
Collin adored his kid sister and only sibling, but he didn't appreciate her ordering him as though he was a member of her USAF chopper crew. "Not remotely funny, Captain Masters. You stay in San Antonio at—" He never could remember which of the Texas bases she was currently stationed at.
"I'm within ten minutes of your building. I borrowed one of the club planes and flew into Addison Airport."
Although it gave him pause that she was only a few miles north of his location in Dallas, Collin opted for humor. "For your information, this is the first date I've been on in weeks. Catch my drift? Lonely boy needs some TLC."
"Keep Lonely Boy zipped away for another hour or two. This is important."
"Darn your hide—don't make me say this over the phone!" Cassidy sighed. "I'm being deployed, Collin."
The news hit him with such a jolt, he thought the elevator had abruptly jerked to a halt between floors. When instead it settled calmly on the ground level and thedoors opened, his stomach eased back in place with the rest of his anatomy, but not without aftershocklike jitters.
"Crap. Sis, I'm sorry."
"It comes with the wings… and it's not like we didn't know this could happen."
A million and one questions flooded Collin's mind. He allowed only one to be voiced. "When do you leave?"
"Six weeks. Eight tops. Just long enough to get through the training classes I'm not current on, update my shots and get my personal business in order."
Uh-oh, Collin thought, beginning to feel a new quea-siness in his belly. Yes, they had covered this subject before, but that was conveniently tucked away in the part of his brain labeled Denial.
"I take it by your silence that you're putting two and two together," Cassidy drawled. "Make the call or calls you need to and I'll see you at 1850 give or take some traffic."
She disconnected, successfully avoiding his complaint about not understanding military counting any better than he remembered base names. No, he amended, she was just guaranteeing that he wouldn't have a chance to back out of their deal. He loved her with all of his heart—save what portion wasn't owned by her precocious daughters, his nieces—but how could he do what she was about to ask of him?
A movement across the lobby caught his attention and he realized that he was standing in the open elevator probably looking like he'd free-fallen down the shaft. Across the lobby, a sweet-faced giant named Sonny—the lobby security guard—watched him with perplexed amusement.
Offering back a sickly smile and weak wave, Collin shut his phone and hit the button that would return him to his floor.
It was closer to twenty minutes before Sonny announced Cassidy's arrival. By then Collin had called Nicole, canceled their dinner reservations and downed a chilled shot of Grey Goose. Scotch would have been the shock absorber of choice, but he knew it would take more than one to see him through this meeting, and then there was the breath test concern. Cass had the olfactory senses of a bloodhound and he didn't want her thinking she was leaving her precious three-year-olds in the hands of an irresponsible drunk.
"Oh, who are you kidding?" he muttered catching sight of himself in the hallway mirror with his hair and tie already askew from anxious yanking and raking.
Deployed… his kid sister was heading off to war. This is what he deserved for assuring her that, "You can be anything you want to be," some four years ago upon learning that she was pregnant. The lowlife sperm donor that she'd called boyfriend at the time had been urging her to have an abortion because the would-be rock star thought kids would be a turnoff to fans. It sure hadn't hurt legends like Mick, Ozzie and McCartney, but afraid to test that theory, Dave from Denton had fled to parts unknown.
By big belly time, Cassie had finished her master's degree, graduating with honors. By the time the twins were two, she was on her way to flying Pave Hawk helicopters for the U.S. Air Force. To Collin, who could barely bring himself to fly commercial without one hand on the barf bag, his kid sister was amazing. But sitting in any cockpit in a war zone was an idea he'd been refusing to contemplate. Yes, there were many female pilots these days, but as far as he was concerned, the war was supposed to be over before it was Cassie's turn to serve her country on the front lines.
The knock at the door and cheery call, "There's no use hiding, I know you're in there," put an end to his lozenge-size history recap. There was nothing to do but let her in. He did so knowing his slumped shoulders and bowed head was not what she needed to see, but that was the best he could do for the moment.
The sight of his twinkling-eyed sister with her animated mouth wryly curved in a half "this sucks" twist had him opening his arms. Six years older than her thirty-two, he was big brother on every level but in intelligence and bravery. The other difference was that they looked nothing alike. Each resembled one of their parents. She was the original golden girl complete with willowy figure and natural corkscrew curls that she preferred to hide under a hat or helmet, her eyes blue enough to keep the attention of anyone with a pulse. Tall, thin, and cursed with unruly ash-brown hair, his chief attribute was sad, lost-in-the-fog gray eyes. Back in his school days, they'd saved him from far more punishment than he deserved. When a modicum of maturity stuck to him, he concluded his second asset was his wicked imagination, which he suspected ESP'd women of particularly loose morals and no great need for commitment. The gift for smooth talking—buffered by his lingering British accent—once had their maternal grandmother, who'd finished raising him and Cassie, recommending that he become a minister. "I'd be willing to bet five dollars that before you reach thirty, you'd own your own TV network," she'd declared. "That is if some jealous husband doesn't shoot you first." These days he knew there was no mistaking that Cassie had inherited her spunk and frankness from her.
"Crap," he muttered again into his sister's ear as he hugged her tightly.
"Not the four letter word I used when I got the news, but close enough," she replied.
He pushed her to arm's length to study her youthful, but somber face. "Are you scared?"
"Eventually, I'm sure I will be. Probably during the flight over, but hopefully I'll be so tired from the prep stuff that I pass out ten minutes after we take off.
Considering that the government uses charter services whose planes have about the wear and tear of dinosaur bones, sleep may prove a double blessing."
That did little to help Collin's growing dread. "Don't they realize that you aren't just a single parent, you have twins?"
"A contract is a contract. Besides, since I was attending Squadron Officer School, I didn't get to deploy with the rest of my squadron, so it's only a four-month tour. That's nothing compared to the guys who are going for six months or a year." Hands on her hips, she shook her head. "Collin, surely you've paid attention to the news? Some of our guys are doing this for the third, fourth and fifth time."
Avoiding a politically correct reply or apology with an indistinguishable mutter, he massaged the growing stiffness at the back of his neck. "Let me make a call or two. I'm sure I can get you infected with hepatitis or something within hours."
Cassidy finally laughed and shut the door behind her. "I can see that I have my work cut out for me. I'm sorry, Favorite Brother, but I need you to drop the Hugh Grant or Tom Hanks reluctant-and-awkward-hero act and be my hero."
"If only that was possible. Unfortunately, I did everything but sell my soul to a man who makes ten times the ridiculous money I first did with my firm creating advertising campaigns designed to separate people from their hard-earned salaries. The best I can do is promise to have my secretary ship you tons of product samples, few of which you are likely to use in a third world country with severe plumbing problems and little or no electricity."
This time there was the hint of tears in her eyes as she again hugged him. "Maybe this whole crazy mess is going to be a gift after all. You've been pushing me to let go of fears and reach for my dreams for so long, I think you've lost sight of your own."
"My accountant would disagree with you in a heartbeat. Unlike you, he goes orgasmic when he sees reports of my seventy-hour workweeks."
"You know perfectly well that happiness isn't about how much money you make. Especially when it comes at the cost of denying yourself someone special to share your success with. Maybe having this time with the girls will finally take off those self-inflicted blinders you wear when it comes to having a real relationship."
"Pearls of wisdom coming from—" Collin's heart did another debilitating plunge and he stepped back against the entryway table pressing his right hand to his chest. "No. Oh, no. I know what I promised, but that was when you were delirious in labor—or I was delirious with fear? At any rate, I can't keep the girls while you're gone. You're looking at a man who has never remotely craved an opportunity to change diapers "
"Then you're in luck. Genie and Addie are well past the diaper stage. They're in fast-track preschool."
"Next stop MIT?" As she lasered him with the infamous Masters's matriarchal look, he held up both hands and rethought his defense. "What was I thinking with a military mom who names her daughters versions of general and admiral?" He had teased her from day one about Gena and Addison's names, which he'd turned into those nicknames. But he had little doubt that her three-year-olds were mavericks in the making, the next evolution of all that their gutsy mother was striving to be. That made what she was asking of him all the more insane.
"Look at you," he tried to explain with unabashed awe. "You're apilot. You navigate thousands of pounds of metal through the air. You're a walking hero 365 days a year even if you never left the country." Dropping his hands at his sides, he looked at her helplessly. "What do I have to offer your babies, Cass? On weekends, when there is such a thing on my calendar as downtime, I've been known to sleep fourteen hours and wake up in the same position when I first crashed onto the bed."
"You'll adapt. Learn to do what I do. Juggle. Manage. The difference is you'll be doing it with a seven-figure income."
He bent at the waist and lifted his left knee as though she'd thrown him a sucker punch—or kick. "Ouch, girl."
Cassidy grimaced. "Sorry. Doesn't it help that even if you weren't the next in line to be the kids' legal guardian that you are the one and only man I adore and trust?"
"Give me your commanding officer's phone number." Collin snatched up his cell phone stationed on the kitchen bar. "There are issues about your judgment he needs to know about."
Unperturbed, Cass stood her ground. "If I didn't think you could rise to this occasion, I would take the offer of one of my fellow pilots' wives and leave the girls on base with them. I even asked the kids what they would prefer and do you know what they said?"
"Buy us a suite at Disneyland and sign our guardianship over to the Jonas Brothers?"
"They want 'Unca Colon.' Declared in unison might I add."
Collin almost choked. "Please tell me that you're talking to an orthodontist about that speech impediment?"
Secretly, however he dealt with a new guilt surge knowing how he'd dropped the ball as "Unca" last Christmas. Instead of spending it with them and Cassie, he'd flown to Tahiti with a redhead whose name he could no longer recall. "Tell them they'll hate it here. No presents and nothing but oatmeal and algebra. By a tutor who can barely speak English," he added seeing nothing but advantage in heaping on negatives.
Nonplussed, Cassie replied, "I was thinking more like this could be an opportunity to show them the museums and galleries in the areas. Take them to the botanical gardens over in Fort Worth plus the Dallas arboretum and zoo. Focus on something else besides the corporate bottom line for a change."
"Forgive my arrogance, but that bottom line is why you get to poke fun at my salary, kiddo."
"It's the detriment to you having a life. It's going to blow up in your face one day. I don't want you to vanish like our parents did when their balloon suddenly burst due to Dad's bad business deals."
Since he had a better memory of those shadow people that continued to haunt their past, Collin stiffened. The last thing he wanted to be accused of was emulating their parents in any variation.
"Give me a second…or a week," he replied. "I'm sure I can think of a better solution for you. One you'll end up thanking me for."
That had Cassidy sucking in her cheeks and enunciating her words with particular care. "There is no one else, Collin. And should worse come to worst, at least this way they would already be used to being around you 24/7."
Her innuendo had him dropping his head on his chest. "I beg you—do not go there." The prospect of losing her shook him to his core and he quickly tried to hide his fear in humor. "Let's focus again on my day job that— to paraphrase you—overpays me. What happens to the girls while I'm at the office? Do you realize I could quickly screw up that 'Road to MIT' plan of yours?"