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"Twenty bucks says you can't get that good-lookin' woman to come over to our table and have a beer with us," Staff Sargeant Neal Robles challenged.
Captain Gavin Jackson, leader of a ten-man Special Forces team, squinted in the semidarkness of the officers' club—a tent on the most dangerous border in the world: between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was the last day of their two weeks of rest between month-long assignments in the field. Tomorrow, they'd be back out in the badlands border area hunting Taliban. Gavin sat with his nine men. The pitcher of frothy cold beer in front of them went quickly.
The woman in question had just entered the spacious tent, catching the attention of every man in the room. She was about five foot eight, with short, curly black hair framing an oval face and high cheekbones. She was olive-skinned with light gold eyes. Then there was her killer mouth that Gavin wanted to capture and kiss. The frumpy green one-piece flight uniform that told him she was a pilot couldn't hide her assets. Curvy in all the right places. Gavin felt his body harden with desire.
He didn't know why. His relationship with another woman army pilot had crashed and burned a year ago. Gavin had sworn off women for now and women army pilots forever. Squirming in his seat, the wooden chair creaking, he shrugged as Neal Robles grinned like a wolf over the dare.
"Why her?" Gavin grunted, lifting the cold mug of beer to his lips.
Robles's dark brown eyes gleamed as he whispered, "She's hot, Cap'n."
"She's the only female in here," Gavin drawled. Indeed, the huge dark green canvas tent was packed with men— A teams coming in for a well-deserved rest, logistics, pilots or mechanics to support their missions. Women pilots were few, but they did exist. Automatically, Gavin rubbed his chest in memory of Laurie Braverman, the U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook driver that he'd fallen in love with. They'd broken up because of their mutual inability to compromise. A war of egos had eventually destroyed their relationship.
"She might be the only one," Robles asserted, "but you gotta admit, Cap'n, she's something." Robles looked at the other enlisted men around the table, all of whom bobbed in unison to agree with his observation.
Tugging on his recently trimmed beard, Gavin gave them an amused look. His team knew about his hard luck with Laurie, especially since he'd been a growly old bear for a month after their spectacular parting. "You know," he said, "it's damned hard enough to survive the border villages. Now, you want to collectively throw me at another driver?"
Driver was a common slang expression for any pilot whether they flew fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters.
Laughter rippled through his team. Gavin was fiercely protective of his men. They'd been together over here nearly a year, and they were tighter than a set of fleas on a mangy Afghan dog. He wanted to bring all of them back off this tour alive so they could go home to their families. He had visited the base barber this morning, got a wonderful hot shower, a trim, clean clothes and joined his men at the canteen tent. Although they were in the U.S. Army, their clothes were decidedly Afghani. With their beards, wearing their wool pakols, or caps, they melted into the mountainous area less a target as a result of their wardrobe. They all wore the traditional turban. The loose, comfortable-fitting top with long sleeves had pajamalike trousers of the same color, and the traditional wool vests were worn over it.
"Naw, she doesn't look like she's a man-eater like the last one you tangled with," Robles said. The table broke out in collective laughter once again. More beer was poured. A bartender came over and delivered another pitcher of cold beer, the froth foaming up and over of the top.
Gavin couldn't disagree and his gaze wandered to the woman leaning up against the makeshift bar and ordering a cup of coffee, not beer. She was probably on duty, Gavin assumed. He watched her hands. They were long, narrow and beautiful-looking. No wedding ring. But then, what did that mean? Nothing, because military combatants were forbidden to wear jewelry of any kind. So, she could be married. Frowning, Gavin felt his assistant CO, Dave Hansen, give his right shoulder a nudge.
"Go on, Gavin," he said in his slow Texas drawl, "she looks pretty docile. Invite her over. We'd all like the company of a good-lookin' woman to remind us of what's waiting for us at home. We're harmless. Just tell her we're voyeurs."
Gavin scowled at his team. "Since when are you willing to throw me to the lions? Don't I treat you right out there?"
Guffaws broke out and Gavin couldn't help grinning. They all desperately needed a little fun. The border country was violent and lethal. They'd spent thirty days in the mountains hunting out pockets of Taliban in caves. Not that the local villages along the border ever cooperated. Most of them were terrorized by the Taliban. And the tribal people had been forgotten by the government in Kabul decades ago. Out there, Gavin knew, no fiercely independent Afghan could be trusted once your back was turned on them. They'd just as soon put a bullet between your shoulder blades as look at you because of what the Taliban had done to them. Gavin's team had had several firefights with the Taliban on their last mission. If not for the Apache helo drivers coming in with heavy fire support, they wouldn't be here enjoying this beer with one another.
Gavin sat up and sighed. He knew his men needed a reprieve from their deadly work. They all had PTSD symptoms. Why not waltz up to this gal and ask her to join them? "Okay," he growled at them, "I'll go throw myself on her mercy for the likes of all of you and see what she says."
The men clapped and cheered as Gavin stood up. He smoothed down his vest and adjusted the thick leather belt around his waist that carried a dagger and a pistol. Out in the field, he'd have body armor on, but not now. He adjusted the dark brown wool pakol on his head. To anyone seeing these men riding up on their tough mountain-bred ponies, they looked like a group of Afghan men. Of course, here in the canteen tent, they were out of place, but everyone on base knew Special Forces A teams dressed like Afghans.
Giving his group a wink, Gavin said, "Okay, men, keep it down while I work some magic." They all nodded solemnly, lifted their glasses of beer and beamed excitedly like little children waiting for Christmas to arrive. Gavin shook his head and walked across the creaking plywood floor toward the bar. He noticed that although men were hanging around the bar, all of them gave the woman pilot some room to breathe. Not that they weren't looking at her. But none made a move on her. Why? They were support and logistics men and worked in the camp, so they might know something about this woman pilot he didn't.
Coming to the bar, Gavin stood about two feet away from her. The scalding look she gave him with those lion-gold eyes surprised him. He was clean, for once. He didn't smell of sweat and fear. His black hair and beard were neatly trimmed and combed. Maybe she didn't like A teams or Afghans, Gavin decided. The way her full mouth thinned, her hands tense around the white ceramic mug of coffee, told him everything. She really didn't want this intrusion into her space.
"I'm Captain Gavin Jackson," he said, pushing aside his fear of rejection. He looked at the upper arm of her green flight suit. "We've never seen a patch with a black cat on it. I was wondering what squadron you're with." That was a safe icebreaker, Gavin thought.
Nike Alexander, at twenty-six, did not want any male attention. Just a year ago, she'd lost Antonio, an officer in the Peruvian Army who had died in a vicious firefight with cocaine dealers. She glared icily at the man, who was decidedly handsome despite his rugged appearance. "I'm with the Black Jaguar Squadron 60," she snapped.
"I've been out here on the front nearly a year. I've never seen this patch. Is this a new squadron?" Gavin opted for something simpler than trying to get this good-looking woman to come over to their table for a beer. He was frantically searching for ways to defuse her tension.
Shrugging, Nike lifted the coffee to her lips, took a sip and then said, "We're basically Apache pilots in an all-woman flight program. We got here three weeks ago."
"Oh." Gavin didn't know what to think about that. "All women?"
Nike's mouth twitched. "We're black ops." His thick, straight brows raised with surprise. While it was true there were women pilots in combat, no women-only squadrons existed. "We're top secret to the rest of the world. Here at camp, they know what we do," she added to ward off questions she saw in his large blue eyes.
Under other circumstances, Nike would be interested in this warrior. Clearly, he was an A-team leader. She knew these brave and hardy Special Forces teams were on the front lines, finding Taliban and stopping their incursion into Afghanistan's space. His hands were large, square and roughened by work and the forces of the weather.
"Ah, black ops," Gavin murmured. He saw the wariness in her gold eyes. "You're new?"
"I arrived a week ago."
"Welcome aboard," he said, holding out his hand toward her. This time, he was sincere. Anyone who flew the border risked their lives every time they lifted off from this secret base.
Looking at his proffered hand and then up at him, Nike couldn't help herself and slid her hand into his. He grinned like a little boy given a Christmas gift. Despite the neatly trimmed beard that gave his square face a dangerous look, he seemed happy to meet her. Well, they were both in the army and that meant something. Her flesh tingled as his fingers wrapped gently around hers. She admired his deeply sunburned face, laugh lines at the corners of his eyes. A wild, unexpected surge of excitement coursed through Nike. What was that all about? Why was her heart pounding? She broke the contact and pulled her hand away.
Oh, he was eye candy, there was no doubt. The boyish, crooked grin made him even more devastatingly handsome, Nike decided.
"What's your name?" Gavin asked. He forced his hands off the bar, unexpectedly touching her olive-tone skin. The brief contact sent crazy tingles up and down his arm. The close proximity to this woman intoxicated him in quite another way. Gavin fully realized he was more than a little tipsy from the beer he and his team had been guzzling. But he was still alert, still fixated on this new person of interest.
"I'm Captain Nike Alexander," she informed him in a clipped and wary tone. She'd just arrived with her squadron from the USA and wanted to focus only on the mission before them. As an all-woman squadron they had a lot to prove—again. They'd done it in Peru, now it would be here. She didn't want to tangle with some sex-hungry A-team leader who hadn't seen a woman in God knew how long. Still, a secret part of her wondered what Gavin would look like without that beard. Not that he wasn't handsome with it; maybe she was just more interested than she cared to admit.
"Nike," he murmured, rolling the name around on his tongue. "That's different." He squinted and gave her a mea-sur ing look. "Are you…American?" Her husky voice had a trace of an accent. When she frowned, he knew he'd asked the wrong question.
"I was born in Athens, Greece, Captain. I was invited from my country to train and work for the U.S. Army." She turned and showed the American flag on the left shoulder of her uniform.
"Greek." That made sense, although he'd said it as if he were stunned by the information. Seeing the frustration in her large, clear gold eyes, Gavin asked, "Wasn't Nike a goddess in Greek myths?"
"She still is," Nike said in a flat tone. "I was named after her."
"I see." Gavin stood there, his brows dipping. "So, you're part of a black ops, you're a female pilot and you're from Greece." Brightening, he shared a look with her, his smile crooked. "That makes you a pretty rare specimen out here in our back country."
"You're making me feel like a bug under a microscope, Captain. Why don't you mosey back to your team. I'm not interested in anything but my mission here."
Her tone was low and dismissive.
Gavin kept his smile friendly and tried to appear neutral and not the leering, sexually hungry male he really was. It was now or never. "Speaking of that, Captain Alexander, we were wondering if you might not come and join us? My boys and I are going back for thirty more days in the bush tomorrow morning. We'd enjoy your company."
Easing into a standing position, Nike glanced over at the table. Nine other bearded men in Afghan dress looked hopefully in her direction. English-speaking women who were not Moslem were a rarity in this country. Of course they'd want her company. "Captain, I'm not the USO.
And I'm not for sale at any price. If you want female entertainment I suggest you find it somewhere else."
Ouch. Gavin scowled. "Just a beer, Captain. Or, we'll buy you another cup of coffee. That's all. Nothing else." He held up both his hands. "Honest."
"I appreciate the offer," Nike said. She pulled out a few coins from her pocket and put them on the bar next to the drained cup of coffee. "But I must respectfully decline, Captain." She turned and marched out of the tent.
"That went well," Gavin said, his grin wide and silly-looking as she exited. He walked over to his men, who looked defeated.
"You crashed and burned," Robles groaned.
Jackson poured himself another glass of beer. "She's got other fish to fry." He said it as lightly as he could.
The men nodded and nursed their beers.
At twenty-eight, Gavin understood that a little fun and laughter was good medicine for his men. Silently, he thanked Nike Alexander for her decision. What would it have been like to have her come over and sit with them? It would have lifted their collective spirits. They were starving for some feminine attention. Oh, she probably realized this, but didn't get that his invitation was truly harmless. Gavin had seen a lot of sensitivity in her face and read it in her eyes. However, she was protective, if not a little defensive about sharing that side. He couldn't blame her.