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Chief Petty Officer Mitzi Zahn entered the storefront Navy/Marine Corps recruiting station. Navy to the left. Marine Corps to the right. The path up the middle was known as the DMZ, demilitarized zone. Potential recruits stepping onto that worn patch of blue carpet were fair game.
For the past several months Mitzi had had the hunting grounds to herself. Which was why the jarhead standing beside her desk, holding the only framed photo to be found there, made her natural territorial instincts kick in.
Letting the heavy glass door swing shut on the sounds of the midweek morning rush, Mitzi cleared her throat. "You must be the new Marine."
Leatherneck looked up, unapologetic.
She couldn't help itshe shivered. Penetrating green eyes, eyes she knew to be hazel when he wasn't decked out in that belted olive drab uniform, gave her service khaki blouse and pants the once-over.
"Mitzi," he said in a timbre that penetrated even deeper than those eyes.
"Calhoun." She caught her breath as she said his name for the first time in over a yearmonths of devastating loss from which she was just beginning to recover.
"Have I changed that much?" he asked.
She glanced at the photo in his hand and shook her head. "I don't know, maybe," she confessed, her answer running the gambit of her emotions.
Somewhere along the way the man she'd fallen in love with had become a lean, battle-hardened Marine. And even though she'd been there for most of the ten-year transformation, it was as if she was seeing him for the first time.
But he wasn't the only one with battle scars.
"What brings you here, Calhoun?"
The obvious answer was military orders.
He'd left his garrison cap and an official-looking folder on the chair in front of her desk. He was dressed for travel in his service uniform. Sharp military creases in his pants, despite the fact that he'd probably spent hours on an airplane.
"It's good to see you, too," he said in that all-too-familiar tone. "Nice new uniform."
She snatched the picture from him, then set it back down on her desk with deliberate finality. "It's Chief Petty Officer Zahn now," she said, stowing her hat and handbag in the bottom right-hand drawer. The move served to put her behind the gunmetal-gray desk and in the power position.
After all, they were on more than just opposite sides of a piece of government furniture. If he was the new Marine recruiter, then he was her competition.
"Chief," he acknowledged.
Challenge resonated in that single word.
"A chief is the Navy equivalent of a Marine Corps gunnery sergeant," she reminded him. In case he thought that extra stripe on his sleeve meant he outranked her. "Gunny."
"For the record, Zahn, I still have date of rank on you." He'd graduated from high school and enlisted in the Marine Corps two years before she'd joined the Navy.
He'd always been at least one pay grade ahead of her. But she'd exceeded all her recruiting quotas, and one of the perks for superior performance was advancement.
"Okay, then " Just because they were no longer friends didn't mean she wanted to make an enemy of him. "Now that that's settled Still take your coffee black?"
"I like cream and sugar. You'll find the coffee mess and everything you need right over there." She nodded in the general direction of the alcove that led to the back of the building. "Feel free to help yourself," she said, in case her message needed a little reinforcement.
Do not expect me to wait on you.
Waiting on him held a whole other meaning for her.
"Like I said, Chief, can I get you a cup of coffee?"
"Thank you, yes," she responded with a saccharine-sweet smile. She'd make it through today the way she'd made it through any other. By faking it. Turning her attention to the papers piled on her desk, Mitzi struggled to keep her composure.
She'd gotten really good at faking it.
"And Gunny " She looked up as he started to walk away, noticed the hitch in his step and hesitated. He turned. It was nothing short of a miracle to see him walking again. "Please don't touch anything on my desk," she said, forcing herself not to get caught up in the drama of their shared past. "We have a no-poaching policy in this office."
He stared at her as if she'd been the one caught rifling his desk instead of the other way around. "Isn't it time we called a truce?"
"We're going to be working together." He gestured toward the empty desk on the opposite side of the room. Just as she'd suspected. He wasn't here for her. Would it have made a difference?
Maybe. Maybe not.
They'd been the best of friends once. More than friends. Now they were what? Not friends. Not enemies.
He wanted a truce. There was a time when she'd wanted nothing more than to surrender to those hazel-green eyes.
"Bruce Calhoun, Gunnery Sergeant, USMC." He offered his hand. "Marine Corps recruiter, at your service."
She heard the self-reproach behind his words.
For Calhoun there'd be nothing worse than riding out his career behind a desk. For her she'd like nothing better. She'd gotten used to the idea of being home again.
The telephone rang.
Taking a deep breath, Mitzi ignored his outstretched hand and picked up the phone. "Navy Recruiting, Englewood Station. Chief Zahn speaking." She covered the mouthpiece. "Cream and sugar."
Cream and sugar. As if he needed the reminder.
Dumping two packets into the paper cup, Bruce studied Mitzi while she talked on the telephone. She might not outrank him, but she'd outmaneuvered him.
All of five foot nothingif he hadn't seen her in action it would've been hard to believe she rescued guys like him for a living.
California. BUD/S training. A lifetime ago. Before Iraq.
Before he'd decided he wasn't worth saving.
If there'd been a spark of something left for him in those columbine-blue eyes, he'd have been here long before now. But there wasn't anything left. Not that he could blame her. He wasn't here to compare her eyes to the state flower.
Bruce scowled at the cup in his hand. He'd reached a new low in his ten-year military career, stirring cream and sugar into coffee with a swizzle stick.
His commanding officer had recommended recruiting school as a way to keep his mind active while his injured body went through the rigors of a long rehabilitation at Balboathe Naval Medical Center in San Diego.
Recommendations, requests mere suggestions from a superior were the same as an order to a Marine. And orders were meant to be obeyed without question.
When voluntold, he did his jobwhether that job involved pushing himself to the limit in some war-torn Middle Eastern country or pushing a pencil in his own hometown.
But this was by far his toughest assignment to date. It was clear she didn't want him here any more than he wanted to be here. Did she blame him for her brother's death? As he blamed himself?
The door opened and Bruce looked up to see the United States Army stride in. Tall and fit. Desert cammies and combat boots. The guy looked as if he'd walked off one of those Army recruiting posters next door. He carried a drink tray with two large cups of McDonald's coffee.
Bruce instantly recognized the enemy for who and what he was and put down the coffee he'd been stirring.
"Cream and sugar," Army announced, leaning in for a kiss just as Mitzi hung up the phone.
She pulled back with a quick glance in Bruce's direction. With that less-than-subtle rejection, the other man noticed Bruce tucked into the alcove.
"Didn't see you standing there," he apologized. "You must be the new Marine recruiter." He took two steps in Bruce's direction and held out his hand. "First Sergeant Daniel Estrada, I0th Mountain Division."
Just his luck they were all the same enlisted pay grade. Though Bruce doubted Mitzi had given this guy the same speech she'd given him.
"Calhoun," Bruce said, refusing to meet the other man halfway. "And you must be the new boyfriend."
Nice Guy Estrada had already bridged the gap and was in the middle of a firm handshake. He stopped short of an over-the-shoulder double take at the photo on Mitzi's desk and the man he was shaking hands with as realization dawned. His smile became tight. Forced. "Nice to meet you," Estrada lied smoothly.
"Dan teaches JROTC at the high school."
Bruce grunted in acknowledgment. His own four years in Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps had earned him a couple extra stripes out of boot camp.
"He also coaches the boys' basketball team," she added after an awkward silence. "Bruce is Keith's brother," she said to Estrada.
Half brother. But that was neither here nor there.
They were brothers. They had the same mother, but Keith's father was Bruce's paternal uncle. Yeah, a real blendedas in blurredfamily.
"Calhoun, of courseI should have realized," Estrada said. "Bright kid. Bright future. Couple of college scouts interested."
"Bruce played basketball in high school," Mitzi said. She could stop trying to cement a bond. That was never going to happen.
"Still play?" Estrada asked.
"Not in a long time." Bored by the subject, Bruce checked his watch. "Excuse me, I was just heading out for a haircut." He picked up his hat from the chair and nodded to her on his way to the door.
As if her kissing another man had no effect on him whatsoever, he added his blessing. "Carry on."
"You forgot to mention the new Marine was your Marine." Dan picked up the photo Bruce had been holding when she walked in.
"He's not my Marine." Mitzi took it from him. The picture was of her, her brother and Bruce. "This is the last picture taken of my brother before he was killed."
"I'm sorry," Dan apologized. "Jealousy is one of my less attractive traits. I could make you a list of some of my more positive ones."
She couldn't help but smile, relieved that with Bruce gone, some of the tension she'd been feeling had dissipated.
"For example," he said, perching on the corner of her desk. "I always put the cap back on the toothpaste. And I grew up with three sisters, so I learned early on to put the toilet seat down. Have you made up your mind yet, about Vail?"
They weren't quite at the toothpaste-and-toilet-seat stage of a relationship yetjust a couple casual datesbut she could see herself with him. Dan had asked her to cochaperone a class ski trip in Vail over the Thanksgiving weekend. He owned a cabin there and took his senior class skiing every year.
"Sure, why not?" The kids would be their chap-erones as much as they'd be theirs. She saluted him with the cup in her hand. Taking a sip, Mitzi mulled over the need for honesty in a new relationship. She decided on full disclosure in this case.
"He was my Marine," she confessed. "I mean, we were engaged. But that's all in the past."
"Okay " Dan glanced at the snapshot, then back at her. "Just let me know when you're ready to Photoshop him out of the picture." He checked his watch. "I've got a class to teach."
"Danny," Mitzi called as he reached the door. "See you tonight?"
"Of course." Without hesitation he stepped back in to give her a quick kiss before heading out again.
Relieved, Mitzi sank to her seat. Wrapping her hands around the warm paper cup, she stared out the glass front at the slushy, snow-covered street and hoped she hadn't sounded desperate.
Dan had been stopping by on his way to school every morning for weeks. He'd flirted his way to a first date. Then last night she'd taken him to the Broadway Bar & Bowl, where he'd met her father and where she'd laughed for the first time in a long time.
She was ready to date again. Dan felt safe.
Why did Calhoun have to show up now? And why did she feel this sudden urgency to prove she'd moved on?
Had she moved on?
Just let me know when you're ready to Photoshop him out of the picture.