Patrick Air Force Base, Florida
"Kill one. Screw one. Marry one."
Major Liam McCabe almost choked on a gulp of the Atlantic as his pararescue teammate's words floated across the waves. Today's two-mile swim was pushing toward an hour long. A light rain pocked the surface faster by the second. Still, there was no reason to think one of his guys had gone batty.
Liam sliced an arm through the choppy ocean, looking to the side. "Wanna run that by me again, Cuervo?"
Jose "Cuervo" James swam next to him, phrases coming in bursts as his face cleared the water. "It's a word game. Kill one. Screw one. Marry one. Somebody names three women..." Swim. Breathe. "And you have to pick." Swim. Breathe. "One to marry. One to kill. One to-"
"Right," Liam interrupted. "Got it."
He would have sighed and shaken his head except for the whole drowning thing. At moments such as these, he felt like a stodgy old guy more than ever.
"So, Major?" Cuervo stroked along and over the rippling waves. Storm clouds brewed overhead. "Are you in?"
On monotonous swims or runs, they'd shot the breeze plenty of times to take their minds off screaming muscles. The distraction was particularly welcome during intense physical training.
This word game, however, was a first.
A quick glance reassured him the other six team members were keeping pace with him and Cuervo. Each held strong, powering toward the beach still a quarter of a mile away.
Feet pumping his fins, Liam shifted his attention back to the "game." His body burned from the effort, but he had plenty of steam left inside to finish up. He was their team leader. Their commanding officer. He would not fall behind.
"How about I just listen first?" Water flowed over his body, briny, chilly. Familiar. "Let one of the others start off."
"Sure, old man," huffed Cuervo, spewing a mouthful to the side. "If you need to save your breath to keep pace. Okay, Fang, you're up."
Fang, the youngest of the group and the one most eager to fit in, arced his arms faster to pull up alongside. "Bring it on."
"Topic for first three. Brad Pitt's women," Cuervo barked. "Gwyneth Paltrow. Jennifer Aniston. Angelina Jolie."
"Jennifer's hot." Fang spewed water with his speedy answer. "I would do her in a heartbeat."
Liam found an answer falling from his mouth after all. "I'd marry Angie."
"Too easy." Cuervo snorted. "You've been married three times, Major, so that's not saying much for Angie."
Which just left... poor Gwyneth.
But then he'd always had a thing for brunettes. And redheads. And blondes. Hell, he loved women. But he really loved brunettes. One brunette in particular, the one he hadn't married or slept with or even made it past first base with, for God's sake.
Focus on the swim. The team.
The damn game. "Cuervo, are we playing this or not?"
"Next trio up... topic is singers," Cuervo announced. "Britney Spears. Christina Aguilera. And Kesha."
Huh? "Who the hell is Kesha?"
"Are you sure you're not too old for this job?"
"Still young enough to outswim you, baby boy." Liam surged ahead of Cuervo. Swims were a lot easier on his abused knees than parachute landings or runs. But a pararescueman needed to be ready for anything, anywhere. Any weather.
Thunder rolled like a bowling ball gaining speed, and his teammates were the pins.
All games aside, this little dip in the rain was about more than a simple training exercise. More than team building. He needed his pararescuemen in top form for a mission they usually didn't handle-the external security for an upcoming international summit being held at NASA. Not normal business for pararescuemen, but well within their skill set to act as a quick-reaction force if anything went down. After all, isn't that what a rescue was? A quick reaction to something going down? Trained and prepared to fight back enemy-combatant forces if necessary to protect their rescue target.
This made for a tough last assignment. His final hoo-uh, ooh-rah before he said good-bye to military life. Since he was eleven years old watching vintage war movies on a VCR with his cancer-stricken mama, all he'd wanted was to be that man who took the hill and won the woman. His mother had lost her battle. But Liam had been determined to carry on the fight by putting on that uniform.
Damned if he would go out with a whimper.
Fang slapped the water. "Can we get back to the fuck-me game?"
"Hey," Wade Rocha's voice rumbled as deeply as the thunder, "no need to make this crude."
"Oh, excuse me," Fang gasped. "Now that you're married, you're all Sergeant Sensitivity." Gasp. Stroke. "I guess we'll call this... kill one, marry one..." Gasp. Stroke. "Make sweet, flowery love to one."
Rocha muttered, "You're just jealous, smart-ass."
Fang chuckled and spluttered. "Not hardly. Monogamy until I'm in the grave?" He shuddered. "No thanks. Not into that."
But Liam was.
He'd tried his ass off to make the happily-ever-after thing work. Tried three times, in fact. Problem was, he had a defective cog when it came to choosing a woman to spend his life with. Didn't help that he'd always put the mission first, something that hadn't sat well with any of his wives. A small fortune spent on marital counseling hadn't been able to fix the relationships or him.
And still, he couldn't get that one woman-that one brunette-out of his mind, no matter how many times he chanted, "Old patterns, not real, get over her."
He was a romantic sap who fell in love too easily. He kept looking for that classic silver-screen ending. Guy gets girl. Roll credits.
If only he could have persuaded Rachel Flores to go out with him once they'd returned to the States. They'd worked together rescuing earthquake victims in the Bahamas six months ago. Had become good friends, or so he'd thought. After they got back, she never returned his calls.
Sure, if they had dated, the relationship would have self-destructed like all the rest. Then he could have walked away free and clear, no regrets, no lengthy explicit dreams that woke him up hard and unsatisfied. Now he was stuck with images of Rachel rattling around in his noggin until he wouldn't even notice another woman if she were waiting on the beach ahead wearing nothing but body glitter and a do-me smile.
Except there wasn't anyone on the beach. Just a stretch of sand and trees and a five-mile hike waiting to set his knees on fire after he hit the shore.
His life had been about training and service since he'd joined the army at eighteen. Became a ranger. Then got his degree while serving, became an officer, and swapped to the air force and pararescue missions.
Training. Honing. Brotherhood.
He'd sacrificed three marriages and any social life for this and would have kept right on doing so. Except now his thirty-eight-year-old body was becoming a liability to those around him.
One week. He had one week and a big-ass demonstration left. Until then he would do his damnedest to keep his team focused and invincible. He wasn't going to spend another second fantasizing about a particular sexy spitfire brunette with as much grit as his elite force team.
Liam narrowed his eyes against the sting of salt and the pounding rain pushing through the surface like bullets. "I've got a new game, gentlemen. It's called Pick Your Poison." Stroke. Breathe. "If you've gotta die in the water..." Stroke. Breathe. "Would you choose a water moccasin? An alligator? Or a shark?"
Rachel Flores learned to break into cars when her mom rescued animals from locked automobiles. But she'd never expected to use that skill to lock herself and her dog inside a vehicle.
Checking over her shoulder, Rachel searched for military cops or a suspicious passerby around the tan concrete buildings on Patrick Air Force Base. The dozen or so camo-wearing personnel all seemed preoccupied with getting out of the Florida storm and into their cars at the end of the workday. Everyone was in too much of a hurry to spare a glance at her. Or maybe she was just that good at pretending she and her dog belonged here. Even though they totally didn't.
Death threats offered up a hefty motivator for her to circumvent a few rules.
Raindrops slid down her face, her hair and clothes slicked to her skin. She'd wasted valuable minutes trying to pick the lock, but the car was darn near pickproof. Which was actually a waste of technology, when combined with a vulnerable ragtop.
One way or another, she would get inside Liam McCabe's vehicle.
How ironic that after six months of fighting the damn-near-crippling urge to return his calls, now she was literally throwing herself in his path. Was that fair to him? No, but God, she was scared to death and Liam was a rock. If it were only her life at risk, she could have fought her own battles. But with other lives at stake, and given the explosive mess she'd landed in... she had nowhere else to turn.
Stifling her conscience and vowing to repay him for the damage, she shielded her hands from view with her body as she slid a penknife along the Jeep's canvas roof. Not a long slice. Just enough to slip her fingers inside and reach... for...
The lock popped. She secured her hold on her Labrador retriever's leash and pulled open the door. If all went according to schedule, Liam would finish work within a half hour, according to Wade Rocha's wife, when Rachel had risked calling to ask.
At least she'd been able to get on base easily, thanks to her work supplying therapy dogs to PTSD patients at military hospitals throughout Southern Florida. She'd wanted to drive straight to Liam's house off base and wait for him there. But once she'd realized she was being followed, her plans had changed. Going on base got rid of the car trailing her.
She could have kept strolling around outside, nonchalantly waiting, except for the rain. She'd already ditched her SUV in another lot on base before walking with Disco over here. She didn't want to leave her vehicle too near Liam's workplace. No need to make it easy for people to figure out who she'd gone to for help.
She shifted the front seat forward and gestured inside. "Ride, Disco. Let's ride."
Her dog sprung forward like a streak of ebony lightning into the surprisingly clean car. She'd expected to rake aside bachelor chaos. Just two neatly lined-up green canvas bags rested in back alongside her Lab. Still, a tight fit. God, hiding in here would be tougher than she'd expected. Rain drizzled down her neck.
Or was that icy perspiration?
She followed Disco inside. First order of business, cracking open a window for air. Hopefully Liam wouldn't notice, if she opened the passenger side just a little.
Next she pulled out a water bottle and small bowl from her backpack and filled it for Disco. She set it on the floor, the side closest to the open window. Once her dog started lapping away, she hunched back into the seat at an angle where she could monitor the temperature gauge on the rearview mirror, the number dropping, thanks to the rain and the setting sun.
With luck, the dark would offer a shield, along with her brown clothes and her dog's black coat, if they held still. Fear nearly immobilized her anyway as she thought of the silver sedan that had been following her for over an hour. The threatening phone calls yesterday. The mind-blowing secret she'd uncovered that made even the secured fortress of a military base unsafe for her.
She rested her cheek against her wet dog's neck. God, this was reckless and insane, but she was out of options. Liam was her last choice, last chance. Her last hope.
He was also the one man she'd been determined to avoid. The only man to truly tempt her since her soldier fiancé died during a deployment ten years ago.
Hell yes, she'd ignored Liam's voice mail messages once they'd returned from the Bahamas earthquake rescue six months ago. Her feelings for him scared her clear down to her toenails. Not just lust-although there was plenty of that oozing from her pores around him. But if it had been only sexual attraction, she could have resisted or just slept with him and moved on.
Liam made her want... more.
And if she felt herself weakening around Liam now? All she had to do was look at those three frilly garters dangling from his rearview mirror. Three reminders that the man had been married and divorced three frickin' times. The man might be a rock of support for her crisis, but when it came to relationships...?
He was a hot-as-hell train wreck.
Liam settled in behind the wheel of his Jeep, every muscle screaming for a soak in his hot tub. At least he'd made it through the swim and run, staying in front, leading the pack. He would lead his men to the end, but damn, his body paid the price.
He pitched his time-worn duffel onto the passenger seat and cranked the engine. His camos clung to his body from rain and perspiration even as the sun set. Heat still steamed along the asphalt. His shower in the locker room had been rushed, a quick rinse off. He preferred to haul his ass home and wash at his leisure there, the sooner the better if he expected to rustle up some supper before ten.
He checked his rearview mirror-complete with three lacy garters dangling a reminder of past mistakes-and waited for a dude on a motorcycle to pass. He backed out, then forward, steering onto the main roadway and into the flow of traffic. Cars spewed through the base front gate and into the civilian world as the workday ended. Rain hammered his windshield, but he slid the window open anyhow and just rolled up his sleeves. His musty clothes carried a special kind of funk. Right now, he needed that hot tub, a longneck, and solitude to nurse his aching body.
Yeah, that one word summed up his social life these days, but better that than wrecking another woman's life. Elbow hanging out the window, he cleared the front gate. Palm trees lined the road, ocean just beyond. Salty wind spiraled through, whipping around his ripe musty scent mixed with something else.
His nose twitched. He breathed deeper and smelled...
A wet dog?
What the hell?
His ears tuned in tighter and he picked up the whisper of shallow breathing. Human sounding. Not his own.
His brain shouted an alert.
He had an extra passenger.
Instincts ramped into overdrive. He was trained in rescue, medical aid...
He tucked one hand into his duffel, closing around the cool comfort of his Desert Eagle semiautomatic handgun as he worked to smoothly swerve the Jeep around traffic, over into the far lane. Close to the shoulder, without giving away his intent. Just three seconds. He only needed three... two... one.
Liam whipped the Jeep off the road and turned around in a flash. Gun level, he pointed it directly at-
What the fuck?
The woman he'd half fallen in love with six months ago, the bombshell brunette he still thought about nearly every day, was huddled in the back of the Jeep with one arm around her black Lab. Her brown eyes stared back at him, dark as undiluted coffee and just as potent. Except they held terror, which was so unlike the fearless firecracker he'd met who'd climbed on piles of shifting rubble with her search and rescue canine. She was so tenacious in her work he'd often lost perspective on how short-hell, how delicate-she really was. Every cell in his body screamed to haul her over the seat and into his arms, to soak in the feel of her. The draw to her now was every bit as much of a slam in the gut as it had been when he first saw her.
Not that she'd felt the same, which still stung more than it should for someone he'd known for all of three weeks, six months ago. So why was she here? Hiding? Her damp hair was a tangled mess, trailing down her shoulders and onto her dog until they almost seemed connected. Disco growled low in his throat.
Liam pulled the handgun back slowly, pointing it toward the canvas roof. And still the fear didn't leave her eyes.
"Rachel?" He tucked his Desert Eagle semiautomatic back into his gear. "Holy crap, woman. I could have killed you."
"But you didn't." She exhaled slowly before leaning to whisper something in her dog's ear. Disco quieted, even if his muscles flexed with tension under his sleek coat.
Liam shoved the bag to the floor and extended a hand to her. "Come up front and tell me why the hell you're holed up inside my Jeep."
"I would rather stay back here while you drive."
This was getting weirder by the second. An SUV sped past, sluicing a wall of water against the side of his Jeep. She flinched at the sound and away from his hand. Again, so unlike the charge-ahead Rachel he'd known before.
Something was wrong. Seriously wrong. The fear in her eyes intensified, reaching out to him and pushing back his own frustrations over being ignored, which was worse than being dumped.
"Are you in trouble with the law?" Not that he could fathom her doing anything illegal. His mind sifted through other possibilities as he resisted the impulse to smooth back her hair, comfort her somehow. "Is there a guy harassing you? An ex-boyfriend? A stalker?"
Now that sent his protective instincts pumping into an overdrive that rivaled anything her growling dog had going on. His hand gravitated toward his duffel.
She shook her head. "I'll explain everything while you drive. Please. Let's get back on the road and to your house."
A VW whined past, honking. Rachel huddled lower, her face paling under her honey tan complexion. He'd seen that look before on soldiers in the field-shell shock. She was right about needing to get to his house. He stood a better chance at being able to take care of her there.
"Fine, then. I'll drive and you can talk." He accelerated, wedging back into beach traffic. "How about you fill me in on what's going on here? You've gotta know you're worrying the hell out of me."
Windshield wipers slapped away sheeting rain again and again until he wondered if she was going to stay silent the whole way back. He glanced up into the rearview mirror. Her eyes met his, and damned if the air didn't crackle as if lightning had zapped his Jeep. The tug he felt to this woman hadn't dimmed one bit.
Too bad her freaked-out vibes and those three wedding garters framing the rearview mirror in satin and lace had to wreck the mood. "Rachel?"
She blinked fast, her hand curving over her dog's head repeatedly. "I'm sorry about your roof. I'll pay for the repair."
"Repair?" Just that fast he heard the whistling air and felt a hint of rain coming from the passenger side. He looked right fast and... "Shit! You cut a hole in my car."
He loved his car. Hell, the Jeep had hung on longer than any of his marriages.
"A small slice," she rushed to say. "Just big enough to reach in and unlock the door."
He dialed back his shock-and yeah, some pissed-off emotions in there too-and let reason take charge. She had to have been desperate to accomplish all of that, undetected on base. Security had some explaining to do. "Why didn't you wait at my house or in the lobby at my squadron?"
"Don't you think I would have preferred that to cutting up your car and wedging myself back here?" Her voice rose with building hysteria. "Believe me, this is-you are-absolutely my last resort."
Now wasn't that a bite in the ego? "Glad to know you exhausted all your more palatable options first."
"That didn't come out how I meant." She sagged back, her damp clothes clinging to her gentle curves. "I'm really hanging on by a thread here, Liam. Yes, I'm being threatened, but not by a boyfriend or stalker. It's complicated and scary as hell."
Her husky voice trembled. Whatever the cause, there was no denying the woman was frightened to death, the way his mom had been scared when the doctors told her she wasn't going to beat the cancer. The fight was over. His dad may have been around, but he hadn't been much on comfort. So she'd been pretty much alone, with just an eleven-year-old son trying to figure out how to make her stop crying.
"Why didn't you just call me? Rachel, you've got to know I would have been there for you in a heartbeat." Because yeah, he could kick ass in the field, play the whole master-of-his-universe role, but when it came to women, this woman? He had zip in the way of defenses. "Breaking into my car wasn't exactly safe."
Or unstable? Possible. But it seemed unlikely. While they'd worked the earthquake rescue, he could have sworn she had nerves of steel. Which only lent all the more credence to her fear now. He nailed the gas until his Jeep ate up the miles.
His house came into view, a one-story green stucco with a couple of squat sago palms and a small yard he paid the neighbor kid to mow, since he was on the road most of the time. Who would Rachel have reached out to if he'd moved?
A week from now, he would have been past the multinational summit, and his team would have completed their high-profile security assignment. After that, he would be shuffled aside to finish out his remaining months of active duty in a job where they vowed his experience was more valuable than brawn-which meant his body was shit.
But he was here, and she needed him. He could do the comfort gig, the way he'd done for his mom. He turned into his driveway, thumbing the garage-door remote on his visor. Once inside, he shut off the Jeep, the door rolling closed behind him. Sealing them together in his house. Alone.
For the first time in six months, he had Rachel with him in the flesh, and when he looked at her, the last thing he thought about was his mother.