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By Catherine Mann
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAnything Anywhere Anytime.
Major Grayson Clark whipped the crooked Velcro-backed patch free from his flight suit and slapped it on straight. The stitched squadron motto sure as hell applied today.
Muggy steam radiated from the cement, penetrating Gray's flight boots. Anticipation fired through him hotter than the stored heat from the tarmac.
Prepped and ready on the flight line, the Charlestonbased C-17 glistened in the late-day sun. The mammoth aircraft frequently flew heavy-duty cargo around the world, and Gray had logged on for a number of missions. But carting a planeload of orphans out of their war-torn country across the Atlantic would be a first for him.
An incredible first. Talk about job satisfaction. And the military was his life.
"You ready to fly?" The gravelly voice yanked Gray back to the flight line. He glanced at the seasoned loadmaster waiting beside him.
"Hell yeah, Tag. You know me, always ready to log more hours."
"Shouldn't be much longer, Cutter." Hearing Tag use the call sign "Cutter" reminded Gray of his primary function on this mission. He was a doctor - a "cutter" - first, flyer second. As a flight surgeon, he would assess the children before they left their Eastern European village for the States. He wouldonly strap into the cockpit as a relief pilot.
Gray shrugged, as if that might loosen the T-shirt long since plastered to his body by sweat and restlessness. "Five seconds. Five hours. Won't matter if we melt out here first waiting for the civilian relief team."
"Bet that's them now." Tag nodded toward the Air Force bus lumbering across the ramp like a blue whale. "Head on in while I load 'em up. The auxiliary power unit should be cranking the air by now."
"In a minute." Gray hooked his hands on his hips. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, itchy to leave, ready to roll. But the aircraft commander and copilot wouldn't need him while they ran the checklists.
Gray peered through his aviator sunglasses at the setting sun, already soaring toward the Carolina sky in spirit. Doctor. Pilot. He'd met his every goal head-on and won.
Except one. "Damn." Gray spit out the curse while sweat trickled down his spine. He'd gone five days without thinking about her. He had thought this would be it, a Lori-thought-free week.
His first in a year. Now all the talk of the children's relief organization accompanying them had nudged her right back into his mind. Lori lived for that kind of thing, making contributions, volunteering on her days off to countless NGOs - nongovernmental organizations. Always trying to make a home for everyone, even a wanderer like him.
The bus rumbled to a stop. Gray shook off the past as easily as Lori had walked out of his life. Or so he tried to tell himself. He didn't need memories screwing with his concentration before a flight.
Gray backed a step. "I think I'll head in after all, Tag."
"Good idea. I'll just get our guests settled." The loadmaster paused as if waiting to make sure Gray would leave. Tag waved him away. "See you when we're airborne."
When Gray backed another step, the loadmaster sighed and scratched his salt-and-pepper buzz cut, then along his neck. Could even an experienced crew dog like Tag be uptight about the flight? Should be a simple in and out operation. Renegade guerrilla fighting in Sentavo's civil war had left the area. But it would sweep through again, soon, thus the orphanage's SOS plea that an NGO negotiate military evacuation for the children.
Men and women stood inside the bus, ten scheduled from the NGO, as well as additional military medical personnel and extra loadmasters. Gray pivoted on his boot heel just as a pair of long, khaki-encased feminine legs descended the bus steps. Great legs, like -
What a sap. Must be because he had Lori on the brain. No need to imagine those legs belonged to -
Her. Lori Rutledge stepped from the bus. The woman who'd dumped him flat a year ago, which made her the smartest damn woman alive in his opinion.
The late-day sun caressed her face. She flipped her bourbon-brown braid over her shoulder. Khakis and a crisp white cotton shirt bearing her NGO's logo nipped and tucked along gentle curves, smoothly, without a wrinkle or mar of perspiration. Lori rarely lost her cool. Except for those moments when her incredible legs had been wrapped around his waist and -
Don't go there, pal. She lowered a foot to the next step and paused. Her eyes met his across the runway, then widened below the slash of her brows. The piercing brown of her eyes darkened in contrast with her ivory skin.
Air abandoned his lungs like an aircraft in a rapid decompression. He couldn't have looked away if a bomb detonated in the middle of the runway.
He shouldn't be surprised. He'd long ago given up trying to figure out what about this woman drew him. Chemistry was a damned unpredictable beast.
She certainly wasn't his type. Lori had one of those wholesome, pretty faces, minimal makeup, not like the Officer's Club babes who waited around for a chance at a flyboy. His mother had called Lori a classic beauty, like one of the princesses from his little sister's old storybooks.
Except princesses weren't usually drawn with full, pouty lips that made a man think thoughts far from princely.
His mouth quirked into a grin as it had when he'd seen those same lips for the first time over a year ago.
Lori blinked. Her face went blank, and she cleared the bus steps.
What did he expect? That she would blush flame red and run screaming back onto the bus? That wasn't Lori's style, and quite frankly there hadn't been enough between them to warrant such a strong reaction. They were just old lovers, after all. No big deal. Right?
You probably shouldn't go there, either, pal. Lori glided toward him, an official-looking knapsack slung over her shoulder. Stopping in front of Gray, she smiled, a perfect smile if it weren't for the tiny strain lines in the corners of her eyes. No awkward looks or shuffling, just practical and open like the woman.
"Gray." His name fell from her soft lips with a light Southern drawl, whiskey warm and just as potent. She nodded toward his arm. "Nice patch there, Major."
He glanced down at his patch. Anything Anywhere Anytime.
The insinuation crackled along the humidity-and memory-laden air.
Gray let his gaze slide back to her, strapping bravado on like a parachute. "Wanna test the motto out?"
Her laugh was husky, if a bit tight. "Same old Gray."
"Guess that's a no."
Her chin tipped. "Been there. Done that. Lost the T-shirt."
His arms folded over his chest. "You left it at my place."
"I figured you could use it to shine your boots."
"Probably the safest bet."
She laughed again, the great husky laugh of hers that rolled right into him. Just as fast she had his hormones bombarding the defenses of his reason. Of course sex, great sex, incredible anything, anywhere, anytime sex had never been their problem. But the minute they'd set their feet on the floor ...
He'd told her from the start he wasn't what she needed. It had taken her three months to agree with him and leave.
Yeah, damn smart woman. He wasn't what she needed now any more than he had been then. "Are you here as a volunteer?"
"I'm heading the team." Gray straightened and reassessed her. Not that he was surprised. Imperturbable, competent Lori could manage a full-scale deployment without breaking a sweat.
Excerpted from Grayson's Surrender by Catherine Mann Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.