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At least, that's what her mother always said, and Sara Sinclair was inclined to believe her. Glancing at the digital clock on the dashboard, she saw it was just twenty minutes before that fateful hour. And for the last few miles, she'd been following a sports car along a dark stretch of country road, keeping a safe distance as it careened crazily from one side of the road to the other, narrowly missing the guardrails. She had no trouble believing the driver was drunk, but the amorous attentions of his female passenger were probably more to blame for his erratic driving—Sara watched as the woman's head bobbed over the driver's lap, popping up briefly before disappearing again below the dashboard.
She gave a snort of disgust, and reached for her cell phone to call the local police. The driver was fortunate that he hadn't caused an accident on the winding road. At any other time, she might have found the lovebirds amusing, but not tonight. All she wanted was to get home, strip out of the confining evening gown she wore, and curl up with a warm blanket and a mug of hot chocolate. A mere six hours ago, she'd been vibrating with suppressed excitement at the prospect of attending the annual Charity Works Dream Ball, a $750-per-plate black-tie dinner to raise money for injured marines. But now that it was over, she felt empty and disappointed. Not with the event, but with herself.
Someday, she'd learn to be more assertive and speak her mind, instead of worrying about what others might think. She chanted the mantra silently: Be more assertive.
The glittering charity ball was one of the most-attended social events of the autumn season in Washington, D.C. Sara had been thrilled when her senior editor had invited her to go, especially since she was only a junior contributor on the writing staff of American Man magazine. She spent hours debating what to wear, fantasizing about what adventures the evening might hold. But try as she might, she couldn't figure out why she had been selected to attend the prestigious event, rather than one of the senior writers. Even when the guest of honor had stood up to speak, she hadn't clued in.
Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Rafe Delgado had been dazzling in his formal dress blues, and Sara hadn't been the only woman in the ballroom unable to tear her gaze away from his broad shoulders and sinfully handsome face. The man was simply stunning, and his voice could only be described as intoxicating, like dark, smooth whiskey
"That's the guy I want you to interview," her editor whispered in her ear. "I'll introduce you after the speeches are over. Delgado is a bona fide hero, and I'm counting on you to get an exclusive interview with him for the magazine."
Sara turned to her editor with disbelieving eyes. "Because he supports a charity that benefits his Marine Corps brothers?" She arched an eyebrow. "It's noble, but I wouldn't call it heroic."
American Man magazine featured stories about prominent and powerful men across the country, and while Sara had interviewed men from all walks of life, she'd never been asked to do a story on a guy simply because he'd supported a good cause. Not unless he'd backed that good cause with millions of his own hard-earned dollars, and Sara was pretty sure that kind of contribution was way above a gunnery sergeant's pay grade.
The older woman gave Sara a tolerant look. "For someone who claims to be a journalist, you're remarkably uninformed. Sergeant Delgado is the marine responsible for rescuing the three American aid workers in Pakistan."
Sara couldn't prevent a small gasp of astonishment. "That was him?"
Lauren Black gave a small shrug of concession. "Well, him and his team. But Delgado was the mastermind. Don't let his pretty face and fancy dress blues fool you. From what I hear, that guy is one tough son of a bitch. Smart, too. He speaks about a dozen different languages."
Sara stared hard at the other woman. "How do you know this? None of the news reports ever identified who the soldiers were."
Lauren smiled and gave her a conspiratorial wink. "Let's just say I have reliable sources in very high places."
Slowly, Sara turned her attention back to the man in dress blues. This was the special-ops soldier responsible for carrying out the spectacular rescue of the aid workers? She recalled the incident from the previous month, when the workers had been taken hostage by Taliban forces. Like so many others, she had been riveted by the story of their dramatic rescue. But through it all, the five men credited with the brave act had never been identified. Two of the soldiers had been seriously injured during the rescue operation, yet they had still managed to bring the three women to safety.
After the speeches were over and the dancing had begun, Lauren expertly steered Sara through the crowds until they reached Sergeant Delgado's side. Engaged in conversation with a group of tuxedoed men, he didn't immediately notice the two women. Sara took the opportunity to get a good look at him, and something fisted low in her abdomen as she studied his chiseled profile.
He'd been gorgeous from a distance, but she hadn't been prepared for the raw masculinity the man exuded up close. On a scale of one to ten, Sergeant Delgado was a ten to the tenth power. He was taller than she'd realized, and the cut of his dress uniform did little to hide the powerful musculature of his body. If anything, the short navy jacket and gold cummerbund only drew attention to his flat stomach and lean hips.
Sara was contemplating the neat fit of his trousers across his delectable backside when he laughed, and the deep sound caused delicious pinpricks of sensation to rise up on her skin. Her heart began to thump heavily in her chest in anticipation of actually meeting him, of having his attention focused on her. She must have made a noise, because all the tuxedoed men looked at her questioningly.
Then Sergeant Delgado turned toward her, and Sara went a little weak beneath the full force of his scrutiny. His black eyes drifted slowly and deliberately down the length of her body, and she didn't miss the heated interest that had flared in their depths.
"Lauren, it's good to see you." One of the men reached out to take her editor's hand. "Lauren is a senior editor with American Man magazine," he explained to the group.
"And this is Sara Sinclair, one of my best feature writers," Lauren gushed, pulling a reluctant Sara forward. "Her stories are garnering excellent reviews."
As Sara watched, Rafe Delgado's expression grew shuttered and remote before he flicked his gaze over her one last time. Sara had the sudden sense that she'd been scanned in much the way a laser beam would read a barcode. He'd examined her, identified her and dismissed her. The only indication that she'd made any impression at all was a tightening of the muscles in his lean jaw.
It took all of Sara's self-control not to inspect herself for physical flaws. She knew she looked good. Better than good, actually. She'd borrowed a cobalt-blue Carolina Herrera gown from a friend and had styled her hair in a loose, elegant up-do. She'd kept her jewelry to a minimum, opting for a pair of glittering faux-diamond earrings and a matching bracelet around one wrist, and had taken extra care with her makeup—but the way Sergeant Delgado looked at her, she might as well have been wearing burlap. A part of her wanted to turn and walk away, not only because she suddenly felt gauche, but because she knew instinctively in that moment that he would refuse to give her an interview.
Then Lauren Black worked her magic, talking with knowledge and enthusiasm about the Semper Fi Fund and the way it was changing the lives of injured marines and their families. Sara watched Sergeant Delgado's eyes sharpen on the editor, but when Lauren asked if he would consent to an interview for American Man magazine, he inclined his dark head in assent.
"Fine," he said curtly.
"Thank you," Sara replied. She extended her hand to him, but he either didn't see the gesture, or deliberately chose to ignore it. After an awkward second, she dropped her hand and curled her fingers into the fabric of her skirt. For a brief instant, their gazes clashed and Sara floundered in the depths of his dark eyes. Flustered, her breath caught when he shifted his attention downward and focused on her mouth, and she was unable to prevent the warm rush of heat through her veins.
He broke the contact first, withdrawing a card from his wallet and handing it to her. "I'm on leave beginning tomorrow. Call me and we can work out a time."
And then he all but turned his back on her. Sara stood mute with dismay at his rude dismissal of her, but before she could find the words to tell him that she had no interest in writing a story about him, Lauren had dragged her away.
"We did it," she crowed once they were out of earshot. "This will be the piece de resistance for the December issue! Make sure you call him first thing tomorrow to arrange the interview. Don't give him a chance to forget who you are or what he agreed to do."
Sara barely contained an indelicate snort. She was completely certain that Rafe Delgado never forgot anything and there was no way she'd call him in the morning. He'd probably expect her do so, and a perverse impulse made her want to do the opposite. Besides which, she wasn't exactly looking forward to the interview, not when they'd tricked him into agreeing to it in the first place.
"He thinks we're interested in doing a story about his charity work with the Semper Fi Fund," she hissed to Lauren. "How is it going to look when I begin asking about the hostage rescue, especially when he's never publicly acknowledged his involvement?"
Lauren popped the olive from her martini into her mouth and winked at Sara. "Why do you think I selected you?" she asked, chewing on the garnish. "Have you looked in the mirror lately? You could pass as Nicole Kidman's younger, sexier sister. He'll be so busy thinking about your amazing cleavage, he won't care what you ask him. Just make sure you wear something that puts those girls on display."
Sara blinked and looked away to hide her confusion. Had she really been invited to the ball because of her breasts? Had Lauren been lying when she'd made the comment about Sara being one of her best feature writers?
From the time she had been twelve years old and an investigative journalist had paid a visit to her elementary school, Sara had wanted to be a reporter. She had been fascinated by the stories that the woman, a White House correspondent, had told, and had imagined herself in the nation's capitol, uncovering scandals at the highest levels. She'd never wavered in her dream and had majored in journalism before pursuing career opportunities in Washington, D.C. Unfortunately, despite her success as a journalism student, she hadn't been able to break into coveted publications such as the Washington Post. Instead, she'd been offered the position as a junior writer for American Man magazine. Now she wondered if she'd only been hired because of her looks. She turned back to her editor, determined to say something.
Seeing her expression, Lauren made a dismissive gesture. "Oh, pish. Don't look so offended. You have great boobs, and don't think he didn't notice. And anyway, this is Washington—information leaks occur every day. He'll just think you're an astute journalist to have made the connection between him and the hostage rescue. Why else would you want to talk to him?"
Um, maybe because he was one of the hottest guys Sara had ever seen? Maybe because any woman in the room would give her left arm to be alone with him? Sara bit her tongue, but decided to make her escape from the ball as soon as she could. The magic of the evening was lost, somehow, upon discovering she'd only been invited on account of her breasts. Okay, that wasn't strictly true. The sparkle had dulled when Sergeant Delgado had looked right through her. Not that she'd expected him to fall at her feet—but to look at her as if she'd been invisible? In that regard, Lauren had been wrong; he hadn't noticed her or her breasts. Why hadn't she called him out on his rudeness? Or made a clever rejoinder? Why had she been silent?
And why did she even care?
She didn't know the first thing about the guy. For all she knew, he could be married with kids, but somehow she didn't think that was the case. A guy like Sergeant Delgado was married to the marines. Which was a shame, really, considering he had the most compelling eyes she'd ever seen and a body to die for
Sara gasped, dropped her cell phone, and stomped hard on the brake pedal as the car in front of her veered sharply across the road and over an embankment and then slammed head-on into a tree with a sickening crunch. She came to a halt, her heart slamming hard in her chest. There was no movement from inside the other vehicle, although the interior lights were on. Steam hissed out from beneath the hood in soft, swirling plumes.
Glancing in her rearview mirror, she saw that the road behind her was dark and silent. They hadn't passed another car in almost ten miles. Unbuckling her seat belt, Sara groped blindly on the floor of the car for her dropped cell phone, swearing softly when she failed to locate it. Sitting up, she looked at the mangled car and drew in a deep breath. She'd find the phone later; right now she needed to find out just how bad the accident was and if there were any injuries.
Posted November 5, 2011
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Posted November 5, 2011
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Posted October 10, 2011
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Posted May 6, 2012
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