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Captain Sara Weston was on hold. Still. She left the confines of her temporary office, nothing more than a motel conference room swallowed by her charts and files, to get more legroom in the hallway. Pacing while on hold had become such a large part of her day she'd decided two weeks ago to fill the time with some useful exercise. She doubted any amount of walking would ease the tension in her shoulders or make her any less furious.
This was the third call in as many days to the public affairs office at Fort George Mead, where she'd been put off, transferred, hung up on, stalled and once, infuriatingly laughed at. She had a situation here and, by God, today she was going to have her solution or heads would roll.
In exactly one week, the Why We Serve college and job fair's western tour would begin. The bookings were set, logistics getting squared away, staff assigned, and motels allotted. The slide shows had been honed to appeal to specific audiences; the talks, with one notable exception, had been rehearsed and finessed.
Today, the notable exception would be handled. If she had to go all the way to the general of the air force, she would. She needed a flyer. an air force pilot who'd seen action, who could talk to kids, who had a story worth telling. An activeduty air force flyboy who wasn't on assignment, who could be in San Diego in twentyfour hours.
"If you transfer me one more time "
"Captain, I'm sorry, but if you want to speak to Captain Alonzo, I'll have to transfer you."
Sara held the phone away from her ear as she deeply inhaled. She was not going to lose her cool, not yet, that was for damn sure. She brought her cell back into range. "You do realize I've been playing this game for three days? That I've been transferred twice already on this call alone?"
"Yes, ma'am, I do realize that, and I apologize for the inconvenience. Captain Alonzo was inadvertently delayed. He's en route as we speak and I'm sure he'll be available in moments. I'll transfer you now."
Turning at the end of the hallway, she listened to yet another phone ring, and as she walked she unclenched her jaw, moved her neck, rolled her shoulders. She'd been in the service long enough to know that channels were channels and snafus were standard operating procedure. And that she was far less likely to achieve her objective if she told Captain Alonzo exactly what he could do with his inadvertent delay.
At the other end of the hallway, where her offices and the civilian world met, she saw Master Sergeant Mike o'Malley, his back ramrodstraight, his uniform impeccable, his scowl firmly in place, and she felt instantly better.
O'Malley looked like a pit bull and bit like one too, but Sara couldn't imagine what she'd do without him.
He was in charge of logistics, but equally as important, the old goat held the keys to her personal sanity. no one listened like O'Malley, and if she didn't get connected to Captain Fred Alonzo in about ten seconds, O'Malley was going to need to talk her down before she went postal.
She turned her attention to the phone when she heard a man's voice. Alonzo's voice. Finally.
"Captain Weston. Sorry for the delay."
Just as she opened her mouth she looked up again, and there was someone with O'Malley, blocking him. A man. She could only see his back.
The air left her lungs, her mission left her head, and as she lowered and closed her cell phone, all she could think was, What the hell is he doing here? He couldn't possibly be here. Not here. He was in Bagram, Afghanistan, attached to the 455th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron. It made no sense that he'd be standing talking to O'Malley in a Victoria Inn off the 405 Freeway in San Diego.
But she knew it was him. Lucas Carnes. No other man on the planet stood just that way, had that exact lanky build, and no one on this planet held his head just so.
Yet, it was a fullbody slam when he turned and she saw his face.
Son of a bitch.
Seeing Sara was a roundhouse punch to the gut. It took everything Luke had to stay solid, to remember he'd planned to smile, act casual. He needed this gig, and Sara could find a way to derail the whole operation before it got started.
He smiled, but for the life of him he couldn't make it feel natural. All this time he'd figured the hard part would be the talking. But looking at her, seeing her face, damn near crippled him. It had been seven years since they'd last set eyes on each other, seven years since God, she was a beauty.
The first step was forced, but then he needed to be closer, to see the little things. The hint of red in hair that looked so dark a man might think it was black. The Cupid'sbow mouth she toned down with her lipstick but that came out to play after she'd been thoroughly kissed. The way she'd smile so quickly sometimes that if you weren't watching, you'd miss it. He doubted he'd see that today. But he didn't care. He was in the same country as Sara, the same state, the same city. The same hallway.
Her shoulders in her starched uniform straightened, and that little tie tab never looked better on any woman in the service. He looked at her face, ignoring her eyes for the moment. Her mouth was tight, which he expected, but he knew those lips in all their permutations. Grinning, frowning. Opened wide, breath held as she was about to come.
Up an inch, and there it was, the little dent on the end of her perfect nose. She'd hated that thing, sworn she was gonna get it fixed one day, but he never used to miss a chance to kiss that very spot.
He could feel her impatience so he took a fortifying breath and faced her squarely.
"What the hell is this?" she asked, her voice as dark and cold as a mountain at midnight.
He pulled himself into a sharp salute, years of practice and routine helping him keep his expression neutral. "Captain Lucas Carnes reporting for duty, ma'am."
Her eyebrows, dark chevrons he'd traced with his tongue more than once, rose. "What?"
He lowered his hand. "You needed one replacement fighter pilot for your dogandpony show. I'm your man."
For a long moment she didn't say anything. But she spoke volumes. Her nostrils flared with banked anger, her cheeks flushed with it, her hands, he had no doubt, were curled into tight fists. "Orders?" she said, icy and so controlled.
He got his orders out of his kit and handed them to her, knowing that if she wanted him gone, he'd be gone. But he also knew she was desperate, and that if she didn't take him, she'd be short a fighter pilot for the tour. She couldn't have changed so much that she wouldn't put her assignment before her personal feelings.
Her hands trembled. Not a lot, but enough to make her snap the papers down and give him a glare that singed. "Why are you here, Carnes?"
So she was going with his last name. Not Luke, not even Lucas. He'd never even hoped that she'd call him Solo even though everyone else did. It was tradition, after all, for a pilot to be known by his call sign, but Sara didn't see him as a fighter pilot. Just a jerk.
"I'm here to do my best," he said, meaning it. "To make your job easier. With luck, to inspire some young people to consider the air force as a viable and valuable career."
"See Master Sergeant O'Malley for your room assignment," she said, as if he'd never spoken. She turned in dismissal. After two steps, she paused, glanced over her shoulder. "If I were you, I wouldn't unpack."
He didn't respond. She needed some adjustment time. And truthfully, so did he.
He'd been so damn sure. The opportunity had opened before him like a gift. He couldn't remember exactly when he'd heard about this tour and Sara's assignment. No surprise there. He'd always known where she was stationed, if not the details. Two months ago, he'd figured he might as well take his leave in California. Why not? It was about as far from Afghanistan as a man could get.
Then he'd gotten the news that her pilot had been hurt. Hell, he knew Captain Wiley. They'd been in training together at Sheppard. Luke was sorry about the accident, but he'd jumped all over the temporary duty assignment.
Now that he was here, though, Luke had to wonder. It might end up a holy disaster. If she shot him down, so be it. He deserved nothing less. What he didn't know, not for certain, was whether his being here would make things worse. That, he'd never forgive himself for. He'd done enough damage. More than enough.
He went to find O'Malley, deciding it would be wise to heed her advice and not expect a goddamn thing.
Sara leaned against the motelroom door. There was no denying seeing Luke had shaken her to her core. He had no business walking into her work, into her life. It made no sense.
Luke would rather have his arm cut off than be sidelined by a recruitment tour. Even before he'd become the air force pilot poster boy, she'd never known him to miss an opportunity to fly. By the time he was fifteen, he'd been addicted to flying, taking up his dad's private plane to skim the treelines of Santa Rosa. At Berkeley, even with his heavy class load and ROTC, he'd still made time to fly, racking up his hours in anything from crop dusters to Cessnas.
The only other thing he'd pursued with the same dogged tenacity had been her.
She grabbed a bottle of water from her minifridge and collapsed into her chair. Seven years since they'd broken up, and the bastard still haunted her. Seven years since he'd dumped her, scraped her off his life as if she were something unpleasant on his shoe. So much time had passed, and yet what persisted, what kept cropping up in her life over and over again, wasn't the way it ended, but the way it had been for the five years before that. She'd thought they'd be together forever, and he'd walked away without a backward glance.
She didn't want to think about that. Or anything but sending him away.
His orders told her nothing. It was a standard TDY, that's all, but there was wiggle room. She did have recourse. First, she could declare him unfit for this duty. Not every officer was equipped to handle public speaking, and she could build a solid case that he would be detrimental to the mission, despite his exemplary record. But it would mean she'd have to find the perfect candidate first, and dammit, dammit, she'd hung up on Alonzo.
Snapping her cell open, she redialed his number, not in the least surprised when it went to voice mail. She made up some crap about being cut off, but figured the way her day was going he wasn't about to call her anytime soon.
Okay, strategy two: according to Air Force Instruction 362909, if professional judgment and common sense indicate that a relationship may reasonably result in a degradation of morale, good order, discipline or unit cohesion, a commander or supervisor should take corrective action. In this particular case, she was the supervisor and Luke Carnes couldn't help but degrade good order and morale. The problem wasn't in the principal of taking action, it was in the details. She'd have to admit, on record, that she and Luke had been lovers. That she'd never truly gotten over him.
She moaned as her head hit her cupped hands. Luke wouldn't be sent awayshe would. To a psychiatric ward. No rightminded adult held on to a college relationship for this long. The very notion was ludicrous.
But really, the fact was she didn't love him, hadn't for a long time. If she felt anything it was anger, disappointment, an acute sense of betrayal. Not wanting to work with him was completely understandable. He was her worst memory, and no one should have that shoved in her face on a daily basis. It didn't help that he was still the most gorgeous guy she'd ever seen. God, what those green eyes could do to her
Sara winced. She straightened her shoulders and collected her thoughts. It was too soon to make a decision. She needed to speak to Alonzo, find out if he had someone waiting in the wings. Right now though, she would put the Luke situation aside. She had a tour to prepare, and half the time she needed to do it in.
The diner was right next to the motel. Despite the great restaurants downtown, Luke was too tired and hungry to foray. With a magazine tucked under his arm, he went inside and decided right then that he'd have himself a nice slice of that apple pie in the case. When he managed to look past that to the dining area, he saw O'Malley sitting in a booth with Sara. Her back was to Luke, and he didn't even think about it, he just walked.
O'Malley caught his eye but there was no welcoming smile to go with it. By the time Luke got to the booth, a lessdetermined man would have had second thoughts. He wasn't sure if the scowl on O'Malley's face was because Sara had filled him in or if he always looked like that. It didn't matter. The two of them hadn't been served yet; his timing was perfect.
"Mind if I join you?" Luke kept his gaze on the sergeant, but he could feel Sara tense.
"Take a seat," O'Malley said brusquely. The tension Luke had sensed from Sara a few seconds ago? That had been nothing. Especially when the older man made no move to make room.
Sara tried to wait him out, but Luke maintained his presence. Finally, she shifted over and he sat, surprised the vinyl seat hadn't frozen over solid.
He dared a glance and got her profile. Her mouth was a thin rigid line, but that was the only outward sign of her annoyance.
Before he could even think of an opening line, a waitress arrived, a pretty girl whose white spiky hair sported a swath of jet black right down the middle. She smiled at Luke. "You want a menu?"
"No, thanks. I'll have what she's having."