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They called her Blue Eyes.
Ethan Quinn, a Navy SEAL, turned the ice-cold beer around in his hands as he sat diagonally across the canteen from her. The place was noisy, filled with laughter and with mostly military black ops types. Some were Special Forces, Marine Force Recons, Rangers, CIA spooks, Delta Force or SEALs. There were a couple of tables of Night Stalker pilots in one corner, guzzling beer down like it was their last day on earth. A group of women Apache pilots from the Black Jaguar Squadron at FOB Bravo had a table off in another dark corner. They were drinking beer and chatting among themselves, ignoring the testosterone at the bar looking longingly in their direction.
Ethan had been warned by his SEAL buddies from the platoon stationed at the forward operating base that Blue Eyes shot down every red-blooded American male who tried to sit at her table. Hell, he couldn't blame any of them for trying. She wasn't what Ethan would call model beautiful. No, but she had a square face with wide cheekbones, a sinner's mouth that would beckon to any man and those incredibly beautiful, large blue eyes. He liked the way her shining black hair lay around her shoulders, somewhat mussed, not perfect, but perfect for her.
It didn't hurt that Blue Eyes was about five feet nine inches tall and curvy as hell. They said she was always in her Army f light uniform, a drab green, when she came in off a medevac mission and ordered a beer. She always sat at the same small wooden table near a wall, where the light wasn't so bright. Where she could hide? Ethan wondered.
Someone else had told him over at the SEALs HQ that Blue Eyes was single. How they knew that, Ethan couldn't fathom. No one in the military wore rings on their fingers since it was against the rules. A ring could cause you to lose a finger under the right circumstances. He snorted softly to himself as he lifted the beer to his lips and drank deeply of the cold, bubbling liquid.
Some sex-starved jerk must have spread the word that she was single because he'd wanted her to be single. Not that Ethan knew anything one way or another about her. Base gossip had buzzed among the competitive Delta Force operators. They were betting which one of them would get to her first. Ethan had declined to join the bet. Women weren't pieces of meat to be sold to the highest bidder.
He felt sorry for her, being the center of so much male attention and curiosity. How would he feel under a constant spotlight like that? Blue Eyes often sat with the Black Jaguar Squadron women pilots, but not today. The women, he'd found, usually stuck together, such a small percentage versus the thousand men who worked at Camp Bravo. Talk had spread that when Blue Eyes had bad missions, she sat by herself, wanting to be left alone.
He tipped his head slightly forward so he could watch her without her seeing him stare blatantly at her. What was it about Blue Eyes that set fire to the male imagination? She did look sad. Her full mouth was slightly pursed, the corners drawn in, as if she was experiencing pain of some kind. Even in the poor light of the naked bulbs strung overhead in the canteen, he could see the breath-stealing color of her eyes.
The color reminded Ethan of the calved glaciers up in Alaska where he was born. When a glacier split and fell into a bay, the light pierced through the newly created sections, revealing a translucent turquoise blue. It was the most unearthly color he'd ever seen in his life. And now, through his short lashes, he was staring at eyes that were the same remarkable color. They were absolutely mesmerizing. No wonder guys hit on her. What would he do if he really saw her, up close and personal? Judging from the stories circulating among the SEAL platoon, guys were rendered speechless and stood like stunned, hormone-ridden teenagers before her.
Her gaze looked far-off as her slender hands held the can of beer. Sometimes she'd move her thumb, pushing beads of condensation away. What was she thinking about? Where was she? Ethan could see she was completely oblivious to the milling group of men surrounding the bar. They all watched her like hungry predatory animals on the hunt. Every last damn one of 'em. The flight suit didn't exactly spell out her lush body. Though Ethan figured he'd have to be dead not to see the way the green folds curved here and there, giving hints to her hidden assets.
She seemed lonely to him. He found himself holding his breath for a moment as she tipped the beer up and her full lips touched the edge of the can. Two things made him go hot. First, that full mouth of hers, the lower lip slightly pouty. Second, her grace as she tipped her head back, revealing the long, slender column of her throat. His juices were definitely going-and he wasn't alone.
Ethan laughed to himself. Women in combat were okay with him. They'd more than earned their stripes in battles across the Middle East, long ago proving they could get the job done. But there was just a damned demarcation line drawn between males and females. And he couldn't fully explain the pleasure of simply watching a woman move. It was magic. It was hypnotic. It was well, hell, there were way too many lonely men, married or otherwise, at this FOB. Women were a different energy, different anatomy, different in the best of ways that just hooked a man's full, undivided attention.
Ethan couldn't sit there and admit he wasn't attracted to her. He was. But so was his heart. This wasn't just about sex. Sex would be great. But there were deeper layers to Blue Eyes that he wanted to explore, ones that had nothing directly to do with sex. Maybe he was curious. Or infatuated like every other dude on the FOB.
He'd arrived at Camp Bravo last week as a straphanger, a SEAL from another platoon who replaced a man who had been badly injured. Charlie Platoon lost their radio comms guy. Ethan's specialty was just that. Patrols always wanted someone who knew how to work the radios, the laptop, the connections with Apaches. He was JTAC trained and able to talk to the loitering F-18 Hornets and B-52s on racetracks that circled forty thousand feet above them. Because when a crisis happened, it was the comms SEAL that saved the collective ass of the team out on a mission.
"Hey, Ethan. How's it goin', bro?"
Ethan looked up to see his LPO, lead petty officer, Derek Tolleson. He walked over and pulled a chair up at his table, a beer in hand.
"Okay. Just trying to get this damn sand out of my throat."
Tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed Tolleson chuckled. "Yeah, man, I know what you mean," he said as he sat down. He tipped his beer back and drank half of it. Tolleson wiped his hand across his mouth and then rubbed his unruly beard. "Thank God they let us have beer out here." He shook his head. "Don't know what I'd do if they didn't."
SEALs were beer drinkers, pure and simple. Ethan smiled a little and took another sip.
"You just got here a few days ago-did you meet
Blue Eyes yet?"
"I heard some of the guys talkin' about her last week," Ethan admitted. He turned and looked over at Tolleson, who was in his SEAL cammies, wearing a SIG pistol in a drop holster on his right thigh.
"I'd say you picked the perfect place to look without touching." He chuckled. "Nice stealth move."
"She's good-lookin'. You've got to admit that."
"I've been here three months, and that's the table she always sits at when she's not over at the Apache women pilot's table. Probably had a bad mission today and not up for chatting. Or at least that's the scuttlebutt I hear about why she sits alone." He ruffled his fingers through his short, sweaty hair. "What gets me is she looks so damned sad. Like she's going to cry or something."
"Who knows her around here?"
Shrugging, Tolleson moved the can around and around in his large hand. "She's attached to the mede-vac squadron. Flies a Black Hawk helicopter."
"Pilot or copilot?"
"I heard she's a chief warrant officer and a pilot in command. Why?"
Ethan drawled, "Well, I'm single, and if scuttlebutt is true, she's single. I'd like to meet her, warrant or not." Ethan was a first-class petty officer and warrants were out of his pay grade. They weren't supposed to fraternize per military law, but that had never stopped him before. He took a sip of beer and wiped his mouth. He needed to trim his beard because it was getting too long.
Snorting, Tolleson said, "You and the thousand other dudes here. I'm married, so I'm not interested."
"I was thinking of going over to her squadron at Ops and snooping around, getting some dope on her. Find out if she's really single or not."
"She'd see you comin' a mile away, bro. A SEAL snooping around Ops? You don't fly-you hitch rides. And she'd know in a heartbeat if you were scheduled out there on a patrol with a banana or not."
A banana was the odd-looking CH-47 Chinook helicopter, their main air transportation around Afghanistan. Ethan finished off his beer. "You're right. I'll probably just keep a tab on her here and see what gels over time. I have a lot of patience."
"Uh-oh," Tolleson muttered, gesturing toward Blue Eyes's table. "There goes a Delta dude thinkin' she's gonna swoon when he walks over to her table to dazzle her with his one-liners."
Ethan watched as a tall, muscular red-haired Delta operator strutted toward Blue Eyes's table. He had on all his gear, probably just came off an op like they had. It was the arrogance in his walk, which was typical for a Delta type, meant to impress her. Ethan had a hunch it wasn't going to do anything except piss her off.
Ethan leaned toward Tolleson. "What does she do when this happens? Shoot the dude in the balls?"
Tolleson laughed. "No, but close. She has a black belt in karate. I heard one time a CIA case agent invited himself to her table. He sat down, and she told him to leave. He didn't. She warned him that if he didn't go on his own accord, she was going to throw him out of the chair he was sitting in." Ethan grinned. "And?"
"She threw his sorry ass about five feet away and he landed on the floor, his pride hurt." He grinned. "Blue Eyes might look sweet and sad, but she packs a punch, so be warned."
Ethan didn't think he'd try that ploy on her. The whole bar quieted as the Delta dude swaggered to a halt in front of her. He gave her a big grin and put his hands on his hips. Ethan was amazed at how everything went silent in the canteen; all eyes were riveted on the confrontation.
"Sweet cheeks, what do you say I buy you a beer? You look like you need another round."
Ethan rolled his eyes. Women hated lines. Not that he hadn't thrown a few at them, too, but it almost always backfired. Judging from the narrowing of Blue Eyes's gaze, Delta's line was about as popular as a fart in a sleeping bag.
"No, thank you."
Delta shook his head. "Come on, honey. Just one for the road? I'll buy." He gave her a leering grin.
"Here it comes," Tolleson warned him in a whisper.
Blue Eyes's relaxed face went hard. Military hard. And those wide, gorgeous eyes of hers narrowed even more and became laser intense on Delta. Her luscious mouth curled into a slight sneer, and Ethan knew she wasn't going to sit still for this kind of macho nonsense.
"I really don't want to embarrass you in front of your guys, Captain, so why don't you leave while you can? That way, your pride will remain intact."
Delta jerked his head, mouth opening and then snapping shut. His eyes rounded, as if stunned by her response. His cheeks colored, and he started breathing hard, angry. "Who the hell do you think you are, bitch? I was being nice was all."
She gave him a cool, cutting smile. "Get over yourself. You black ops types are all alike. You think you're God's direct gift to women. I got news for you-you aren't."
Her voice was low and controlled. Ethan looked up toward the bar to see three other Delta operators watching and frowning. Would they be as stupid as he thought they were going to be? Jump into this little tempest in a teapot? And then, sure enough, all three of them started toward her table, as if on cue.
"Dammit," Ethan breathed, standing. All he'd wanted was an ice-cold beer and to sit and recharge after a fourteen-hour ball-busting patrol in the more than one-hundred-degree heat in that furnace of a desert. Not get into a fight with other operators.
"Yeah," Tolleson growled, following him. "Good odds for SEALs."
They walked across the plywood floor and met the three Delta operators, stopping them before they could reach Blue Eyes's table.
Ethan confronted them. "Hey, guys, let's ramp this down, shall we?"
"Get the hell outta our way, tadpole," the tallest operator snarled.
Tolleson held up his hand. "Hey, come on. Name cal-lin' isn't gonna help resolve this situation."
The big blond Delta operator sneered. "Why don't you two frogs go back to your friggin' lily pad and sit this one out? You weren't invited to this party."
Ethan glared at them. SEALs were a pretty laid-back group, generally speaking. They didn't strut around like roosters in a hen yard. They were night shadows, kept a low profile. They didn't start fights, but they sure as hell finished them. "Since when," he asked, raising his voice so everyone in the canteen could hear him, "does it take four Delta guys to pick on one Black Hawk pilot who just happens to be a woman?"
All three Delta operators colored with embarrassment as jeers, hoots and insults erupted from the rest of the men and women in the crowded canteen. They threw their middle fingers up in the air in response. The catcalls increased in volume.
Tolleson tried to calm them down. "Look, take a time-out, okay? The lady doesn't want company, so leave her alone."
Ethan looked like he was casually standing in front of the three Delta guys, who were now angry. But looks were deceiving. There was a commotion behind him. He turned to see if Blue Eyes was in distress.
"Why don't all you boys grow up?" Blue Eyes snarled as she halted and glared at them. "You're an embarrassment to the human race!"
With that, Blue Eyes spun around on her booted heel and marched angrily out the door.
More hoots, hollers and laughter broke out. The Delta dude who'd tried to pick up Blue Eyes brushed by them and went back to the bar with his buddies. Ethan looked sheepishly over at Tolleson and shrugged his shoulders.
Ethan ambled back to their table. Tolleson was grinning.
"A little excitement," he said, sitting down.
"We get enough excitement out on patrols without this," Ethan muttered. He pulled his black baseball cap out of his pocket and settled it on his head. "Later. I'm off to the showers to get this grit off my skin."