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"You're marrying who?"
Lilah Forrest winced and held the phone receiver away from her ear so that her father's voice wouldn't deafen her. Honestly. A lifetime in the Marine Corps had given Jack Forrest such range, he could probably wake the dead if ordered to.
"Ray, Daddy," she said, when she pulled the phone close again. "You remember him. You met him the last time you came to visit?"
"Of course I remember him," her father sputtered. "He's the little guy who told me my uniform would look less intimidating if I wore an earring."
Lilah smothered a chuckle she knew darn well her dad wouldn't appreciate. But really, just the thought of her oh-so-proper, career Marine father wearing a tidy gold hoop in his ear was enough to cultivate bubbles of laughter that weren't at all easy to subdue.
"He was kidding," she said when she could speak without a smile in her voice.
"Right." He didn't sound convinced.
"I thought you liked Ray."
"I didn't say I don't like him," he said tightly. "But what do you see in those artsy-fartsy types, anyway?"
Artsy-fartsy, Lilah thought. Translation: Any man who wasn't a Marine.
"What you need," her father was saying, "is a man as stubborn as you are. A strong, dependable type. Like"
"A Marine," she finished for him. For heaven's sake, she'd heard this speech so often, she could give it for him.
"What's wrong with a Marine?" he demanded, clearly defensive.
"Nothing," she said, wishing they weren't having this conversation again.
Lilah sighed and plopped down onto her overstuffed couch. Curling up into a corner of the sofa, she cradled the receiver between her ear and her shoulder and tugged the hem of her dress down over her updrawn legs. "Daddy, Ray's a nice guy."
"I'll take your word for it, honey," he said
grudgingly. "But do you really think he's the right guy for you?"
No, she didn't. Ray's image rose up in her mind and Lilah smiled to herself. Short, with nearly waist-length black hair he kept in a thick braid, Ray was an artist. He wore diamonds in his ears, favored tunic shirts and leather sandals and was absolutely devoted to his life partner, Victor.
But, he was also one of Lilah's closest friends. Which was the only reason he'd agreed to let her tell her father that they were engaged. Victor wasn't the least bit happy about it, but Ray had been an absolute doll.
And seriously, if she hadn't been about to go spend a few weeks with her father, this never would have happened. But she simply couldn't stand the idea of having another parade of single officers thrown at her feet. She didn't much like the idea of lying to her dad, but really it was his own fault. If he'd quit trying to get her married to some "suitable" Marine, she wouldn't have to resort to such lengths, would she?
"Ray's wonderful, Daddy," she said, meaning every word. "You'll like him if you give yourself a chance."
He grumbled something she didn't quite catch and a twinge of guilt tugged at her heart. Jack Forrest wasn't a bad man. He just never had been able to understand his daughter.
As her father changed the subject and started talking about what was happening on the base, she listened with half an ear as her gaze drifted around the living room of her tiny, San Francisco apartment. Crimson-red walls surrounded her, giving the small room warmth. Sunlight streamed through the unadorned windows, painting the old fashioned, deeply cushioned furniture with a soft golden glow that shimmered on the polished, hardwood floors. Celtic music drifted to her from the CD player on the far wall and the scent of burning patchouli candles filled the air with a fragrance that relaxed her even as her fingers tightened around the phone in her hand.
She hated lying to her father. After all, lying wasn't good for the soul. Besides, she had a feeling it caused wrinkles, too. But as soon as her visit with him was over, she'd call and tell her dad that she and Ray had broken up. Then everything would be fine.
Until their next visit.
But she'd burn that bridge when she came to it.
"I'll have someone pick you up at the airport," he said and Lilah's attention snapped back to him.
"No, that's okay," she said quickly, imagining some poor Private or Corporal delegated to driving the Colonel's daughter around. "I've already arranged for a car. I'll be there sometime tomorrow afternoon."
"You're uh not bringing Ray along, are you?"
She almost laughed again at the discomfort in his voice. Oh yeah. She could just see Ray on base. What a hoot that would be.
"No, Daddy," she said solemnly, "it's just me." There was a long pause before he said, "All right then. You be careful." "I will."
"I'm looking forward to seeing you, honey." "Me, too," she said wistfully, then added, "'Bye, Dad," and hung up. Hand still resting on the receiver, she stared at it for a long minute and wished that things were different. Wished for the zillionth time that her father could just accept herand love herfor who and what she was.
But that would probably never happen. Since she was the daughter of a man who'd always wanted a son.
"I'd consider it a personal favor, Gunnery Sergeant," Colonel Michael Forrest said, planting his elbows on his desk and steepling his fingertips together.
Escorting the Colonel's daughter around base a personal favor? Well, how was a man supposed to get out of something like that? Kevin Rogan wondered frantically. Sure, he could turn the man down. He wasn't making this an orderhell, Kevin wasn't sure he could. But then again, he didn't have to. Making it a "favor" practically guaranteed Kevin's acceptance.
After all, how was he supposed to turn down a request from a superior officer?
He bit down hard on the words he wanted to say and said instead, "I'd be happy to help, sir."
Colonel Forrest gave him a look that clearly said he was under no misconception here. He knew damn well Kevin didn't want to do this, but would, anyway. And apparently, that was all that mattered.
"Excellent," the Colonel said, pushing up from his desk to step around the edge of it. He walked across the floor of his office and looked out the window onto the wide stretch of the base two stories below.
Kevin didn't have to look to know what the other man was seeing. The everyday hustle and bustle of a recruit depot. Troops marching. Marines. Squads. Drill Instructors shouting, calling cadence, trying to whip a bunch of kids into something resembling hard-nosed Marines.
May sunshine blasted against the window, splintering like a prism as it poured into the room. A wisp of ocean air swept beneath the partially opened window and carried the faint sounds of marching men and women. The distant rumble of a jet taking off from the San Diego airport sounded like the far-off stirrings of thunder.
"I don't want you to misunderstand, Rogan," the Colonel said. "My daughter is a remarkable person."
"I'm sure she is, sir," Kevin answered politically, though inside, he wondered just how remarkable a woman could be if her own father had to practically force a man to keep her company for the month she'd be in town. He slanted a glance at the other man's desk but found no framed pictures on the cluttered surface. No help there. Already, he wondered just what he'd gotten himself into. Was she nuts? Obnoxious? A one-eyed troll?
But even as those thoughts went through his mind, he reminded himself that he knew exactly what she was. The Colonel's daughter. And because of that, Kevin would do everything he could to see to it that she had a good time while she was here.
Even if it killed him.
Dammit. A Gunnery Sergeant in the Marine Corps, reduced to being a glorified baby-sitter.
Lilah sat in her rental car just outside the gates and told herself she was being foolish. But it was always like this. One look at what she thought of as her father's stronghold and her stomach started the ugly, slow, pitch and roll that felt far too familiar.
She slapped her hands against the steering wheel then gripped it tight. Her stomach did the weird little flip-flop that she always associated with seeing her dad for the first time in too long. But then, she should be used to it, right?
"Wrong," she murmured and let her hands fall to her lap. Unconsciously, she plucked at the soft folds of her emerald-green muslin skirt, then lifted one hand to toy with the amethyst crystal hanging from a chain around her neck.
As she fingered the cold, hard edges of the beveled stone, she told herself she was being silly. "This visit will be different. He thinks you're engaged. No more 'suitable' men. No more lectures on finding 'stability' in your life."
Like any Forrest would give up that easily.
After all, she hadn't quit yet. All her life, she'd been trying to please her father. And all her life, she'd failed miserably. You'd think she'd surrender to the inevitable. But no. Lilah Forrest was too stubborn to give up just because she wasn't winning.
And she'd inherited that hardheaded streak from the man waiting for her just beyond the gates.
A flicker of movement caught her eye and she saw one of the Marine guards move out to give her a hard stare. "Probably thinks you're a terrorist or something," she muttered and quickly put the car into gear and slowly approached the gate.
"Ma'am," he said, though he looked younger than Lilah. "Can I help you?"
"I'm Lilah Forrest," she said, and lifted her sunglasses long enough to smile up into hard, suspicious eyes. "I'm here to see my father."
He blinked. Too well trained to show complete shock, the Marine just stared at her for a long minute before saying, "Yes, ma'am, we've been expecting you." He took a look at her license plate number, jotted it down on a visitor sticker and slapped it onto the windshield of her car. Then he lifted one hand and pointed. "Go right on through there and watch"
"My speed," she finished for him. "I know." She should know the rules well enough. She'd been raised on military bases around the world. And the one thing they all shared was a low threshold of appreciation for speeding drivers. Creep up above the twenty mile an hour limit and you'd get a ticket. Private or General.
He nodded. "The Colonel's house is " "I know where it is, thanks," she said, and stepped on the gas. Waving one ring-bedecked hand at the young Marine she left in her dust, she aimed her rental car and headed off to do battle.
She wasn't at all what he'd expected.
And definitely not a one-eyed troll.
Kevin shifted on the dining room chair and covertly eyed the woman sitting opposite him. If he'd had to pick the Colonel's daughter out of a group of assembled women, he never would have picked this one.
First off, she was short. Not munchkin short, but a good six inches shorter than both he and the Colonel. Kevin had never gone much for short women. Always made him feel like a damn giant. But even he had to admit that Lilah was round in all the right places and her compact body was enough to make a dead man sit up and take notice.
Her long, blond hair hung halfway down her back in a tumble of wild curls that made a man want to reach out and tangle his fingers in it. She had a stubborn chin, a full mouth that smiled often, a small nose and the biggest, bluest eyes Kevin had ever seen.
She also wore silver stars on her ears and ropes of crystals around her neck. She was wearing some soft-looking dress that seemed to float like a cloud of emerald green around her legs when she moved and her bare feet displayed two silver rings on her toes.
Who would have guessed that the Colonel's daughter was a latter-day hippie?
He half expected her to fold her legs into the lotus position and start chanting.
So now he knew why the Colonel wanted his daughter escorted all over creation. He probably didn't trust her to come in out of the rain on her own.
"My father tells me you're a Drill Instructor," she said and Kevin's attention snapped up from the purple crystal lying just above the line of her breasts.
"Yes, ma'am," he said and told himself to pay no attention to the small spurt of interest that shot through him. It was nothing special, he thought.