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“Welcome to Mississippi!” the smiling flight attendant hollered as a hard rain, rattling on the fuselage of the Boeing 717, did its best to drown out her greeting.
For the fifty-second time since dawn, I shoved my square-rimmed glasses higher on the bridge of my nose, checked the hour on the Cartier Roadster strapped to my wrist, and grimaced. Thanks to a surprise squall that had blown up over the southern U.S., my quick trip from Washington, DC, to the Magnolia State had turned into more of a mid-morning marathon. And while the pilot had done his best to avoid the worst of the rough weather, the ride had been a bumpy one. As a result, I was rather green around the gills. Worse yet, I was running late.
Still, I flashed the stewardess a thumbs-up as I edged past her and the cabin crew with my rolling carry-on in tow. The gangway accordioned to the side of the craft couldn’t seal out the cold, clammy scent of February so close to the Gulf Coast’s sandy shore—or the sound of the downpour beating the Beauville Regional Airport. But the briny air was a vast improvement over the recirculated stuff that had flowed through the Boeing’s tubes and vents, so I sucked in a cleansing breath, willed my stomach to settle, and hustled toward the airport proper.
Truth be told, I wasn’t worried about catching a connecting flight, or making a meeting with one of my high-risk, high-profile clients. No, as the boss of my own private security firm, I’d rearranged my schedule so I could be off the clock all weekend long because I’d been invited down south for a social visit. And I intended to be sociable indeed.
At the gate, I breezed past the steel door linking the jetway to the terminal and emerged in a carpeted waiting area filled with row after row of shabby vinyl seats, abandoned newspapers, and lost coffee cups. Across the way, electronic numbers flashed on wall-mounted monitors, telling travelers where to find arrivals, departures, and baggage claim. Exhausted parents tramped after energetic children. Porters pushed carts piled high with luggage. Businessmen and women, oblivious to everything but their cellphones, rushed past, their dress shoes snapping and clicking on the concourse’s polished floor.
In the midst of all the commotion, one man stood completely still. He wore the grays-and-greens of a U.S. Army Combat Uniform. The sleeves were rolled and cuffed at his impressive biceps the way ACU sleeves were meant to be worn in a warm climate—and he sure looked good that way.
Although he was indoors, he hadn’t doffed the black beret capping his sandy hair. This meant he was armed. Some of the travelers hurrying past him glanced warily at the black M9 handgun hitched to his hip.
I wasn’t worried about it. After all, this soldier was a military cop, and as a courtesy, transportation authorities often allowed uniformed military police to carry their weapons when business of one kind or another brought them to the airport. Besides, before he’d been banished to Mississippi’s Fort Donovan for temporary duty, this particular MP had served his country every day as a military police commander. His name was Lieutenant Colonel Adam Barrett. And he was the reason I’d flown through a winter storm that morning.
Barrett’s smile was as swift and as bright as a lightning strike, but it had been four long months since I’d seen it in person. Now it flashed as his bittersweet brown eyes met mine. And like always, that grin nearly did me in.
I wasn’t sure which one of us reached for the other first, and, frankly, I didn’t care. Despite military regulations prohibiting public displays of affection, I was in Barrett’s arms in a heartbeat. He smelled of citrus and saddle leather, and I took the time to breathe him in.
“I’ve missed you,” he murmured against the shell of my ear.
I could’ve said as much to him and more, but I didn’t. Because Barrett had someplace he needed to be.
Reluctantly, I slipped from his embrace.
“You won’t get in more trouble because my flight was late, will you?”
Barrett grinned again, smoothed a dark lock that had come loose from my ponytail, and tucked it behind my ear.
“You’ve always been worth a certain amount of trouble, Jamie Sinclair.”
“Is that so?”
I couldn’t resist touching a fingertip to the stylized maple leaf that denoted his rank. Barrett’s build could put a prizefighter’s to shame, and the embroidered emblem just happened to be Velcroed to the middle of his muscled chest. Which meant I got to touch that, too.
“Yes, ma’am,” Barrett replied with a wink. “That’s definitely so.”
Well, I wasn’t sure about that estimation, but I knew one thing: Together, Barrett and I certainly had had our share of trouble. Last October, in fact, the consequences of an unsolved crime committed in his hometown had caught up with us. The cold case, and a rash of new ones, had nearly snuffed out our relationship—not to mention our lives.
I’d ended up with cracked ribs and the undeniable realization that I wasn’t just attracted to Barrett; I was in love with the guy. Barrett, it turned out, loved me in return. But the army intervened before we could do anything about it. Because, for all the right reasons, Barrett had made plenty of wrong choices—including going AWOL.
Naturally, the military takes a dim view of soldiers who are absent without leave. Penalties can range from a simple reprimand to loss of rank or income, or even jail time. Fortunately, a pal of mine in the Drug Enforcement Agency made sure Barrett’s superior couldn’t quite throw the book at him.
However, there had still been a price to pay.
For the foreseeable future, Barrett would continue to pay that price by holding down a desk at Fort Donovan, a rambling army post where young soldiers, fresh from the rigors of boot camp, worked hard in technical schools, played harder in civilian bars and clubs catering to the military crowd, and, after hours, got rowdy more often than not. And while desk jobs weren’t bad in and of themselves, for soldiers in certain operational fields they were a career killer. As an MP, Barrett’s career soon would be dead in the water unless he got out from behind that desk.
In the meantime, he was expected to double down on duty and perform every crummy task thrown his way.
Consequently, he’d been working endless hours inventorying office supplies, compiling meaningless statistics, and producing mind-numbing reports to impossibly short deadlines. For example, did MPs on patrol burn through more ballpoint pens at the start of the month or at the end? To my mind, those figures couldn’t possibly matter to anyone anywhere in the Department of Defense. But Barrett had had to burn the midnight oil to crunch those numbers by dawn.
So, while no one called Barrett’s temporary assignment punishment, as the daughter of a former two-star general I knew that’s exactly what it was. He’d be ground down, chewed up, and spit out by the army’s own special brand of bureaucracy. And the worst of it was, he’d brought the situation on himself.
As if to drive that point home, Barrett had been granted no breathers, no breaks, and no time off. He hadn’t even had a single weekend to himself. Until now.
Tonight, his unit would hold its annual Dining Out. Afterward, nonessential personnel would have the luxury of a whole Saturday and an entire Sunday to spend any way they pleased. Since Barrett was certainly considered nonessential these days, this would give us the chance to finally spend some quality time together.
To that end, Barrett had pulled out all the stops, booking a room for me at a fancy hotel in the nearby town of Beauville. Far from Barrett’s billet in Fort Donovan’s Visiting Officers Quarters, where every soldier knew if anyone else so much as sneezed, we could open some champagne and hang out the do not disturb sign. And then? Well, throughout our budding relationship, Barrett and I hadn’t had much of an opportunity to find out what could happen. This weekend, however, I had a feeling that would change.
But Barrett’s newfound freedom would evaporate if we didn’t get him back to the post before the lunch hour was over. He had another pointless report to finish before the end of the duty day. And given Barrett’s circumstances, his commander wasn’t likely to cut him any slack if he turned it in late.
Past the airport’s sliding doors, the storm had slowed to a miserable drizzle. On the walk to the short-term parking area, the air was chilly and the scent of brine was strong. I turned up the collar of my tweed blazer, but it didn’t do any good to keep me warm. Not that that mattered. All I could think about was getting Barrett back to his desk on time.
“At least you’ve still got eleven minutes on your meter,” I told him as he stashed my bag behind the bench seat of his red Ram truck.
“Really?” He closed me into the cab, jogged to the driver’s side, and climbed behind the wheel. “Then how about you slide over here so I can give you a real hello?”
I couldn’t resist that invitation. But sooner rather than later, I remembered the drive to the post would take the better part of twenty minutes. And we didn’t have many minutes to spare.
Against Barrett’s lips I whispered, “Time to get it in gear, soldier.”
With a groan, he let me go, started the truck’s engine, and got us on our way.
The roads ringing the regional airport rapidly gave way to strip malls and fast-food joints before cutting through bayou country and running toward Fort Donovan. The heart of Beauville and the army post alike were wedged on a spit of land between the expansive Gulf of Mexico and the body of water known as the Back Bay. All the surrounding real estate had been claimed generations ago by gracious antebellum homes with their gorgeous grounds, the little pink houses of the post–World War II era, and sprawling subdivisions that had sprung up like mushrooms before the American economy tilted toward an early twenty-first-century recession.
“Landscape look familiar?” Barrett asked.
“Yes,” I replied, surprised that so little had changed.
I’d first come to Fort Donovan and its environs over fifteen years before. I’d been a bride at the time, and my husband had been a newly commissioned second lieutenant. After spending my formative years in New Jersey, the move to Mississippi was life-changing, opening my eyes to the person I could be, rather than the person others had always told me I was.
“Wait till you see the Parkway,” Barrett said.
And with another turn, we were there.