Read an Excerpt
"Try that again, and I'll break your freaking arm."
At the menace in her growled words and the way she wrenched his arm up behind his back, the drunk soldier beneath her abruptly went still. "Okay, okay, dammit. Lemme up!"
"Not a chance." Asshole. Security Forces Lieutenant Maya Lopez dug her knee harder into the back of his neck, pressing his face flat into the dirt while she secured his hands behind him with a plastic zip tie and pulled tight.
"Ow!" He twisted, only to stop when she leaned more of her weight against his neck.
She bent until her mouth was close to his ear. "You don't really want to mess with me right now," she warned softly. "I've just worked a twelve-hour shift that included taking down a bunch of insurgents trying to plant an IED in the road less than five miles from here." And the chatter said more activity was imminent, maybe even more attacks on the base like there had been before Thanksgiving. Everyone was extra vigilant these days. "Don't make me kick your drunken ass all over again, because I promise you, this time I won't be so gentle."
The man grunted, his face sweaty and red, but wisely decided not to fight. The sweet reek of alcohol poured from his skin. Had he been bathing in beer, for Christ's sake? The alcohol ban on base hadn't stopped him and his buddy from hoarding their stockpile.
Satisfied he would stay on his belly this time, Maya pushed to her feet. She rolled her shoulders to ease the soreness from where his elbow had caught her in the middle of her back during the initial scuffle. Her right hand was already banged up from her altercation with the insurgents earlier. If she hadn't been ready for it, this guy might have knocked the wind right out of her instead of merely nailing her between the shoulder blades with his elbow. Her cheek throbbed from where he'd managed to catch her with the edge of his hand in the struggle. It proved danger didn't exist exclusively outside the wire.
Beside her, Randall, the other Security Forces member she'd been paired with for this shift, hauled his own impaired suspect to his feet and looked at her with amusement. "You need a hand?"
"No." The bruise on the front of her ribs from when she'd blocked an insurgent's kick a fraction of a second too late ached with each breath she took. Her pride hurt worse though. She'd underestimated the slender, quiet teenager when she'd taken him into custody. A constant reminder that she couldn't afford to ever drop her guard, though she'd surprised the hell out of him when she'd suddenly taken him down. This drunk guy too.
"Didn't look like it, but thought I'd ask," Randall said with a chuckle.
Pausing only long enough to brush the dirt off her ACUs, Maya reached down and unceremoniously hauled her prisoner to his feet. The man stumbled and weaved a moment before finding his balance. His blood alcohol level had to be off the charts. Facing a possible discharge or criminal charges would sober him up quick enough.
"I didn't do nothin' to deserve being arrested," he grumbled, his words slurred.
"You got drunk, started a brawl in the middle of the MWR and busted someone's face open," Maya shot back. "Then you resisted arrest and tried to tangle with me. Now do us all a favor and just get in the vehicle without causing any more problems." She gripped his beefy upper arm and forcefully steered him to the waiting Humvee she'd just ridden in on. Stuffing him in the back beside his buddy, she slammed the door shut and climbed into the passenger seat.
Randall slid behind the wheel, wearing a big grin.
"What?" she demanded.
"That was so awesome." He shook his head. "Felled the guy like a two-ton tree. All five feet of you."
"I'm five-four-and-a-half." People always underestimated her because she was small. She took pleasure in making sure they only made that mistake once.
"Yeah, okay." Chuckling, he drove to the detention center. After dropping off the prisoners where they would sleep it off in a holding cell until they were dealt with in the morning, she headed across the base on foot toward the B-hut she shared with three other women. Well, technically two now, since her buddy Ace hadn't returned to Bagram yet.
One of her roomies, Honor, was reading on her bunk. She sat up and drew her shoulder-length red-gold hair to one side, eyeing Maya's face with curiosity. Her cheek must be swelling. "What happened to you?"
"Somebody took exception to me arresting them," she muttered, angry at herself for not blocking the blow quicker.
"Apparently. Want some ice for that? I've got a cooler with bottled water and sodas I brought in last night."
She flexed her right hand, which pulsed in time with her face. Was gonna be damn sore in the morning. "Nah, I'm good. What time does your shift start?"
"In another hour. I'm finishing up an overhaul of a hydraulic system on yet another old Chinook."
"Sounds like fun," Maya said dryly. She liked Honor and their other roommate, Erin, well enough, but it wasn't easy for Maya to get close to people. Ace had been her best friend, her only real friend. She missed her like crazy.
"Hey, don't knock it 'til you try it." Honor tossed her book aside. "By the way, any word from Ace yet on when she's coming back?"
"In her last email she said it looks like they're gonna have her come back in another few weeks to finish her tour. They wanted to let the last of the media interest around her story die down before then." God knew the media had hounded her ever since word got out that a senator's daughter and her gunship crew had gone missing in enemy territory just before Thanksgiving.
"And what about Ryan?"
Ace's man, a CCT with the ground team that fateful night, was ultimately responsible for getting her out of a lethal situation alive. "He's still here. I saw him last week over at the MWR." Maya nodded at the cooler at the foot of Honor's bunk. "Can I steal a water before I go?"
"Sure, help yourself."
"Thanks." She snagged one and stuffed a change of clothes into a bag. "Have a good shift."
With the bag draped over her shoulder, Maya chugged half a bottle of water and rolled her head around to ease the tension in her neck as she began her walk. The muscles in her upper back were knotted and stiff, as well as the knuckles on her right hand. The bruise on her ribs felt tight and sore. All in a day's work here at Bagram. A hot shower was definitely in order. Her reaction time had been too slow today. She would push herself that much harder next time she trained in the sparring ring.
The base was busy as ever this Saturday morning. The constant noise of aircraft engines and other vehicles formed a background noise she'd become accustomed to within a few days of arriving at base for her third tour in Afghanistan.
As she walked, a different sound carried over the relatively warm early March air. Faint strains of music. A piano. Passing the end of a long supply warehouse, she noticed a crowd had gathered over by where they'd set up the stage for the USO show happening the following night. She paid it only passing interest, looking forward to that shower and some rack time before she went out on patrol again tonight.
Then she heard the voice.
A man's voice. Deep and smooth, singing an old Dean Martin song.
She stopped abruptly, a prickle of awareness flashing across her skin. Something about that voice was familiar, made her heart beat faster.
It can't be him.
Pulled by some sick sense of morbid curiosity, she pivoted and strolled toward it. The stage came into sight. Whoever the performer was, he was both playing and singing. Already the crowd was growing. Maya approached the edge of the sizeable audience, staring toward the stage. Whistles and cheers rose up to mingle with that incredible voice.
She stayed back from the throng of onlookers, only partially aware that she was holding her breath. Someone pushed their way through the horde of admirers, clearing a path, and Maya got her first good look at the singer. Her hand tightened around the plastic water bottle until it crunched in her grip.
Shit, it was him. That PJ, Staff Sergeant Jackson somethingor-other she'd tangled with after Ace was rescued. For a moment her mind went blank in surprise, then flashed back to when he'd confronted her in the hospital hallway that day the CSAR crew had brought Ace back. When she'd had enough of his flippant attitude, she'd lost her temper. She'd muttered unflattering things about him in Spanish, and the normally silent and taciturnand apparently Spanish-speakingpararescueman had whirled on her, caging her against the wall with his arms on either side of her head. In that instant, she'd realized how badly she'd misread him. His long, powerful body had been only inches away from her, close enough that she could smell the wintergreen mint on his breath and feel the heat coming off him.
She might not remember his last name, but for damn sure she'd never forget his first one. Not after he'd permanently burned it into her brain with six words that had woken every feminine atom in her body and still did every time she thought about them.
My name is Jackson, he'd growled, his dark eyes daring her to defy him. Say it.
And oh, yeah, she'd said it. In a slightly breathless whisper that was completely unlike her. That surprising display of dominance and authority he'd shown still had the power to make her shiver.
Those deep brown eyes had blazed with a potent mixture of anger and arousal as he'd pinned her to the hospital exam room wall. The memory sent a tremor of feminine need rolling through her. That day she'd caught an intriguing glimpse of the warrior beneath that polite, Southern boy image. She was woman enough to admit she wanted to see a lot more of it, though she'd die before ever letting him know.
Watching him on stage now, she still didn't know how to read him. It was hard to reconcile the man in front of her with what she knew about his job. Being a Pararescue Jumper was one of the toughest jobs in the military. The training was so ridiculously hard that very few candidates ever graduated from the Pipeline in the first place. At just over three hundred active duty members, their tiny number said it all.
God, the man could sing. Since he hadn't noticed her, she stayed, eyeing his T-shirt-clad broad shoulders and muscled back as he played. Until that day in the hospital, she hadn't been able to envision him doing any of the dangerous things PJs did. She could now. That confrontation had been one hell of a wake-up call.
Maya was startled to realize she was smiling. His voice was incredible. Smooth and deep, with no hint of his usual Texas drawl. She'd never have guessed he had a talent like this. The man always surprised her, and it was captivating as hell.
He kept his gaze on the piano rather than the audience, hands gliding across the surface of the keys, that hypnotic voice striking a chord deep inside her. The timbre of his voice was intimate, warming her from the inside out. When the song faded away to the mad applause and screams from the female members of the audience, he looked over his shoulder at someone off stage.
Facing away from the mike, his voice barely carried enough for her to catch the words, "Get enough for sound check?"
His new fans wouldn't have it. "Encore, encore!" they chanted, even some of the men, clapping and whistling in unison until it seemed like everyone but Maya joined in.
Jackson faced the audience and offered a boyish grin, a little shy, as if he wasn't used to the attention. Hot. "One more?"
"More, more!" they chanted.
"All right, one more," he said in that gorgeous Texas drawl that made her think of long, hot summer nights spent relaxing on screen porches with pitchers of sweet tea and ceiling fans revolving overhead.
But mostly it made her think of long, lazy sex. The kind that would last all night and leave them both sweaty and too sated to move.
She shoved the thought from her head to halt the wave of arousal flooding her veins and refocused on him at the piano. A slight breeze ruffled his short, nearly black hair.
He launched into another ballad, and this time Maya recognized "Danny Boy." The sad, poignant lyrics drifted into the air, his clear, mellow voice raising goose bumps all over her skin. He had everyone there riveted, including her.
As though he sensed the weight of her stare, partway through the chorus he glanced up from the keyboard. When his bottomless brown eyes locked on hers, he faltered for the barest of moments, a single heartbeat. He recovered fast, and continued gazing right at her as he sang. It felt personal, as though he was singing to her alone. Then he smiled a little. A sexy, secret smile aimed right at her, and her heart fluttered. In that instant, she knew they were both thinking about him pinning her to that wall. About what might have happened if they'd had more privacy and he'd acted on the sexual energy arcing between them.
Her stomach did a tiny somersault. Held by the quiet intensity burning in that hot gaze, she was trapped. Couldn't look away.
A powerful current of sensual heat swept throughout her body, making her tingle all over. The crowd dissolved away as her vision tunneled on him. He was singing to her as his long, strong fingers caressed the keys. Watching those lean, strong hands move, she wanted to feel them drifting over her bare skin just as smoothly, for her body to be the center of that focus. He was both protective healer and lethal warrior. Which would he be in bed? Gentle as his hands were on those keys? Or fierce and demanding, giving over to the un-quenched fire she'd seen burning in his eyes that day?
The tantalizing prospect started a curious melting sensation low in her belly.
Jerking herself from her wayward thoughts, she raised one eyebrow at him and gave an impressed nod.
His grin widened a fraction before he finally looked away. A strange sense of disappointment hit her and she felt colder all of a sudden, as if the temperature had just dropped.
When the song finished, she was sad to see his performance end. This time he stood and waved at the crowd, that charming smile in place as he shook his head to politely decline their demand for more. Someone else came on stage with an acoustic guitar and set up to play. Jackson hopped down from the stage with an easy, athletic grace she appreciated, and headed right for her. She stood her ground, surprised that her heart was pounding. He made his way through the crowd, pausing only to smile and say a word or two to the people who spoke to him. Thanking them for their enthusiastic compliments, no doubt. Someone had sure taught him nice manners.
Maya waited with her arms folded across her chest and her feet braced apart, a half smile on her face as he approached. Part of her was surprised that he'd seek her out publicly after their last meeting, but it didn't bother her. She didn't give a shit what people thought or said about her. She'd learned a long time ago not to let that sort of petty crap bother her. Besides, she had a solid rep here with the Security Forces. Her superiors liked her work ethic and dedication. No one would dare accuse her of fraternization with an enlisted if she talked with Jackson here, and she was too smart to get caught if she decided to take things further with him after this.
When he was close enough to hear her, she shook her head slightly in admonishment. "I didn't know you could sing or play piano."
He gave a modest shrug, stopping a step away from her. "You know what they say about us PJs. Jack of all trades, master of none."