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Anbar Province, Iraq
Navy Lieutenant Holly Durant blew out a hard breath of frustration and glanced into the passenger mirror of the five ton cargo truck. The five or six days that it would take to complete this particular assignment meant that the mountain of paperwork waiting for her back at Al Asad Air Base would be twice as high when she returned. At this rate, she'd never catch up.
Behind her, a convoy of military supply vehicles stretched for a quarter of a mile along the dusty road. She didn't typically accompany the movement of supplies to the outlying posts, but this assignment was unique. She was personally escorting her senior supply clerk, Sergeant Ramon Martinez, from Al Asad Air Base to Camp Fallujah, a forward operating base located a hundred kilometers away. She no longer trusted him with the responsibility of overseeing the massive supply operations in Iraq. At Camp Fallujah, he would work under the direct supervision of a senior officer in supplying repair parts and construction equipment to the Seabees in western Iraq. Technically, it wasn't a demotion, but she was sure he didn't see it that way. A quiet man by nature, he'd been even more so during the two hours that they'd been driving together.
Her gaze slid sideways toward the sergeant, noting the sheen of sweat that coated his skin. As if sensing her silent appraisal, he turned his dark eyes to her and Holly had to push down her own misgivings and feelings of guilt about having initiated an investigation into his activities. He had the largest, most expressive eyes she had ever seen on a man, and right now they reminded her of a dog that had just been kicked. He obviously didn't understand why he was being moved to a new location and Holly couldn't tell him the truth. She'd merely told him that Fallujah needed an experienced supply clerk, but his unhappiness was apparent in the defeated slump of his shoulders, and the way he repeatedly sighed.
"If you're getting tired, we can switch at the next turnoff and I can drive," she offered, although she knew he would refuse. Despite her suspicions, Sgt. Martinez was unfailingly polite and respectful of her rank.
His eyes widened. "Oh, no. I'm fine driving, ma'am. But thank you for the offer."
Holly nodded and turned her attention away. Maybe she should have confronted him directly. Maybe, after all, there was a reasonable explanation for what was going on. It was difficult to imagine the mild-mannered sergeant was capable of any wrongdoing. But it was too late; she had already initiated an investigation into the supply process at Al Asad and now it was up to the Inspector General to determine if any crime had been committed.
Holly suspected that Martinez was responsible for the loss of tens of thousands and maybe even hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of supplies, but she had no solid proof. Although his job required that he obtain receipts for the equipment he received and sent out, he consistently had excuses and explanations for why he hadn't acquired the requisite documentation, or why the paperwork he did have was sloppy and full of errors. He also had access to a substantial fund of money with which to procure certain supplies and services from local contractors, rather than going through the protracted process of waiting for the items to be shipped from the States.
Holly had begun the task of reconciling these accounts, but it would take her weeks to sort through the thousands of transactions. Constructing buildings, repairing runways, and maintaining an infrastructure in such a remote and inhospitable location was hard enough without somebody deliberately sabotaging their efforts. That one of her men might be responsible was intolerable, and although she found it difficult to imagine Martinez doing anything so sleazy, all the evidence indicated otherwise.
She'd voiced her suspicions to her commanding officer, Commander Comstock, several weeks ago. He'd assured her that he would look into the matter, but when she'd broached the subject to him again, just days earlier, he'd been uncharacteristically short with her. He'd curtly told her that he didn't need a lieutenant to tell him how to do his job, and that the situation was being handled. Whatever that meant.
So Holly had filed a hotline complaint with the Inspector General of the Navya brief description of what she believed was going on, including the estimated dollar lossthat very morning. She wasn't sure what would happen, but knew she risked a reprimand from Commander Comstock if it turned out that he had already initiated an investigation of his own.
Holly knew Sgt. Martinez was upset about the transfer to Camp Fallujah, but moving him was the right thing to do. Until an investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing, she wanted him where he could do the least amount of damage.
In the side mirror, Holly thought she glimpsed one of the reinforced gun trucks that had been assigned to protect the convoy. Just knowing that Gunnery Sergeant Shane Rafferty was manning that machine gun gave her a sense of comfort. She liked knowing he was close by, in case she needed him.
In case he needed her, although he'd never acknowledge such a thing might be possible. Shane Rafferty was six feet, two inches of solid, honed muscle and testosterone, and she couldn't imagine him ever admitting that he needed anyone. Especially her.
Well, except for that single night three years ago in the guest room over her parents' boathouse, when he'd finally given up all pretenses. For that one night, he had been completely hers and Holly had been blown away by his intensity. For that one night she'd actually allowed herself to hope that he might reciprocate the feelings she had for him. But when morning had come, he'd been gone. He'd returned to active duty without even saying goodbye and try as she might, Holly had been unable to get over him.
For a moment, she let her mind drift back to when she'd first met Shane, ten years earlier. She'd been fifteen years old when he and his father had moved into the three-room apartment over Benjamin's Drugstore. There had been rumors about his family: his father was a drunk and his mother had run off with another man. In the small, wealthy town of Chatham, Virginia, Shane Rafferty had stood out like a common weed in a garden of roses. He didn't even attend the public high school in townHolly had heard whisperings that he'd dropped out before he'd come to Chatham. Holly would probably never have crossed paths with him except that at seventeen, he was the same age as her brother, Mitch. Mitch attended the prestigious Hargrave Military Academy, but he'd worked with Shane at the drugstore on the weekends. Despite the differences in their backgrounds, they had become good friends.
During that year and the following summer, before Mitch had left for college and Shane had enlisted in the Marines, Shane had spent more time hanging out at her home than he did at his own, which hadn't bothered Holly at all. She'd attended Chatham Hall, a private all-girls boarding school in town, and while the school hosted dances and other social activities with the boys from Hargrave Academy, none of those boys had been as fascinating to Holly as Shane Rafferty had been, with his knowing eyes and leanly muscled physique.
But more than his physical appeal, his total alone-ness had attracted Holly. She sensed that Shane resented having to depend on anyone for anything. If the rumors were to be believed, he certainly couldn't depend on his father. In fact, it had appeared that Shane took care of his dad, and not the other way around. He'd worked full-time at the drugstore, and Holly had seen him at the Food Lion on several occasions, buying real groceries and not just junk food. It was no wonder he hadn't mixed well with the snooty boys from Hargrave; he was worlds away from their entitled, finely choreographed lifestyles. He might hang out with her brother, but Holly guessed that even Mitch wasn't allowed full access to Shane's innermost thoughts or secrets.
Holly thought it must get tiring, always having to be so strong and responsible. She wanted him to see that he didn't always need to be so separate and alone. She ached to take some of the burden from his shoulders; to let him know that he could lean on her, even just a little. That he could let her love him, even just a little.
Her parents had bought her a camera for her birthday, and she'd enrolled in a photography class at Chatham Hall. She'd carried that camera with her everywhere and had taken furtive photos of Shane whenever she had the chance. Her favorite was a picture of him sleeping on the hammock by the lake, arms bent behind his head and his face turned slightly to one side. With his eyes closed and his mouth relaxed, he'd actually looked peaceful, with none of the bristling wariness he exhibited when he was awake.
But he'd completely ignored Holly, making it clear he had no interest in her. In fact, if Holly hadn't known better, she might have believed he went out of his way to avoid being alone with her, or having to talk to her.
The more he'd ignored her, the more she'd been determined to make him aware of her. She knew he wanted her; she'd caught him watching her when he thought she wasn't looking and the raw heat in his eyes had both terrified and thrilled her. But no matter how she'd tried to get close to him, he'd kept her at a distance. But a year later he'd enlisted in the military and he'd left without a backward glance. She hadn't seen him again for two years, when he had come home for the winter holidays. Mitch was home from college for several weeks, so her parents had invited Shane to spend Christmas Eve with them. She'd been almost eighteen and a senior in high school by then, and seeing Shane again had brought all the emotions of her earlier infatuation rushing back.
He'd looked different than she remembered, leaner and harder and more serious. She'd changed, too. She'd been little more than a child when he'd left. But since then, she'd filled out nicely and had perfected the art of flirtation. She could have had any of the boys at Hargrave Academy, but she'd wanted Shane. So she'd deliberately set out to entice and seduce him, never imagining that he might not welcome her advances.
Remembering that holiday week still caused Holly to cringe with embarrassment. She'd been so young and arrogant; so sure of her own appeal. On Christmas Eve, when her father had sent Shane down to the wine cellar to retrieve several more bottles for dinner, Holly had followed him. She'd launched a full frontal attack on him and for several long, blissful moments, she'd had Shane Rafferty right where she wanted him
up against the wall with her hands under his shirt, stroking his warm, hard muscles as he'd stood stiff and unresponsive.
He'd resisted for about five seconds before he'd all but consumed her, and the heat and intensity of his passion had left her breathless and shaken. If her father hadn't hollered down the stairs, she had no doubt what would have happened in that small basement room. But the interruption had given Shane time to regroup. He'd thrust her away and gathered up the bottles of wine.
"This never happened," he'd growled, his voice low and rough. "I'm not what you want, and I'm definitely not what you need, so play your games with someone your own age. Just stay the hell away from me."
Holly had been both stunned and mortified by his reaction, and it had taken several long moments before she'd composed herself enough to return upstairs and sit down to dinner. Her brother had cast speculative looks at both of them, but if he'd noticed her flushed features or Shane's grim expression, he'd made no comment.
After that, Holly hadn't been able to stop thinking about him. If anything, their encounter in the wine cellar had only intensified her obsession with him. She'd been prepared for the same awkward fumbling and uncertainty she'd experienced with the boys she'd dated, but there had been none of that with Shane. His touch had been sure and confident, and she'd been the one to feel like a novice.
She'd thought of him constantly. They were perfect for each other. Nothing could convince her otherwise. She was meant to be with Shane Rafferty. She'd guessed that he considered her to be spoiled and shallow, but she'd prove to him otherwise. Until that moment, she hadn't planned on a military career for herself. She'd thought she would pursue a career in photography. But if joining the military would bring her closer to Shane, that's what she would do. So she'd joined ROTC and tried to squelch her feelings of guilt when her father had expressed his surprise and delight over her career choice. Personally, she had no doubts that she would do well in the Navy, but she knew that her father wouldn't approve of her real reasons for joining. But she needed to show Shane that she was more than just a pretty face. The military might not be her first career choice, but she'd make a good officer. And someday, if her plans worked out, a good military wife.
He'd come over to the house several more times during his holiday leave, and although he'd tried to avoid her, Holly had noticed how he would stiffen when she came too close, as if he barely held himself in check. She'd suspected that if she persisted, she could push past his restraint. More than anything, she'd wanted Shane to be her first, but she'd also known that the ensuing guilt he'd feel would drive him away, maybe forever. And so she'd waited.
Shane had come home with her brother one last time, to help celebrate her graduation from the Naval Academy. Despite the fact that her brother was an officer in the Navy while Shane was an enlisted man in the Marine Corps, the two men had remained friends. Her parents had thrown a party for her at their lake house in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and Holly had been both shocked and delighted to see Shane. Admittedly, she'd had a little more to drink that night than she was accustomed to. Her only excuse was that his presence had caught her completely off guard, and she'd been acutely aware of him watching her the entire night. Four years had passed since her first inexpert attempt at seducing him, but she'd learned a thing or two about men since then.