Private Maneuvers / Page 14

Page 14


She looped it around her hand but didn't move to secure the craft. "Get your party Tevas on, Doc. Crewdogs are throwing a farewell luau on the base beach. It's sure to be hokey and full of food, just like the 'Brady Bunch Goes to Hawaii' episode."

He wanted to go with her. Too much. "Thanks, but I'll have to pass. Stacks of paperwork."

She perched a hand on her hip. "So don't sleep tonight. Time's awasting, and I'll be leaving soon. There'll be ukulele solos by torchlight. More shish kebabs than you can eat in two lifetimes. You don't even have to talk to us humans if you don't want. God knows, no one can get a word in edgewise around Bronco and Crusty, anyway."

Or around her, either, but damn she was mesmerizing to listen to and watch.

Darcy inched closer. "At least give me a ride over. I'm still too wasted from yesterday's flight to hike back to base," she groused, her body screaming a vitality that mocked her claims of weakness.

He hesitated.

She scrunched her nose. "If you don't come, Bronco's going to pair me up with that new copilot. The big lug is so happily married he thinks everyone should invest in a ring and make a pack of Kodak memories. Pretend to be my date and protect me from that overgrown Cupid."

Protect. The single word reminded him of his need to keep her clear of a lot more than that. "When you put it that way, how can I say no to you?''

"You can't."

No damn kidding.

Darcy stepped onto the nose of his boat and tossed the line back to him. Her water shoes slid along the slick deck. Max steadied her. Hands to her waist, careful to keep a safe distance, he lifted her into the boat, steeling himself to keep his distance. As if the tempting give of womanly flesh under his hands wasn't already tempting him to throw away rational thoughts.

A traitorous wave slapped the boat. Darcy pitched into his arms.

Ah, hell. Warm, wet Darcy molded to him, every inch of him. Every throbbing, too-damn-long-denied, starving inch of him that was fed up with keeping her at arm's length.

He wanted to tangle their bodies together on the floor of the boat, strip away bathing suits and inhibitions. Screw the job. Screw being honorable. Just...screw everything until they both couldn't breathe.

Hell, he couldn't breathe now.

His hands tightened around her waist just as her br**sts tightened against his skin. He wished he'd put on a shirt. He knew it wouldn't have made any difference.

Her full br**sts beaded against his chest. Branded him. Her generous lips parted, lips as generous as the woman. It would be so easy to take from her.

Confusion flickered through her eyes just before she plastered on an overbright smile and stepped back. Damn, it took forever for her to peel herself away.

Okay, maybe five seconds. Might as well have been five hours for all the torture he endured.

"All righty, Doc." Darcy's thready voice drifted along the air as she made her way around a cooler of bottled water. "Let's fire up this boat and hit the beach before Crusty eats all the food." She plopped down in the passenger seat, swiping a strand of hair from her brow.

Her hands shook.

He was an ass. He'd done this, sent her confusing signals until this honest, good—totally hot—woman didn't know how to react. She deserved open emotion, and, hell yes, open desire from a guy who had something more to give her than a dried-up heart and rootless life.

But damned if he would let her find that guy tonight.

Max stepped behind the wheel of the boat and kicked it into reverse, backing away from the dock with more speed than necessary thanks to the frustration fueling his every move. Water chugged from the engine, then quieted as he guided the boat forward, chopping through the waves. Darcy stretched her legs on the side of the boat to absorb dwindling rays. If the woman glowed any more, he would be blinded.

He pulled his attention away from her and piloted the boat along the tropical shoreline, trees darker, denser in the hazy glow of sunset. The sheer cliff of Lovers' Leap stretched in the distance, about the only landmark Darcy hadn't trekked through in the past weeks. Her confidences she'd shared on the roof echoed—how her father had found her on the cliff after the kidnapping she labeled a disappearance.

Max pointed the nose of the boat away from the site. "I guess you went to luaus before as a kid, when your dad was stationed in Guam?"

The engine hummed in the silence. He glanced at her. "Darcy?"

He looked past the outward glow and found more of those shadows in her eyes.

Then she smiled, her Darcy-glow back. "Sure did. Nobody can party like a crewdog. By the time I was thirteen, I even knew how to roast a pig with banana skins and ti leaves slapped over the carcass, burlap bags over the pit to hold in the heat." She winked. "Hope you're hungry."

This woman made him hungry for things he hadn't even known he wanted. "I'll trust your recommendation."

"Rumor has it Crusty and Doc Clark are going to pin Bronco and take pictures of him in a coconut bra to post around the squadron. I'm sure they would welcome your help holding down the big lug."

More of her attempts to socialize him. Many had tried before her...and failed. "Darcy."


He guided the boat through a cut in the lurking coral reef, then sped up again. "Do you ever bother with subtle?"

"Subtle's never been my strong suit."

His hands gripped the wheel. "I appreciate your efforts to include me in your friends' flyer games. But if you wanted to hang with somebody who's at the heart of a party, you should have parked yourself in front of Crusty's room." And he was damned glad she hadn't. "This is who I am."

"Grumpy?" She softened the jab with a grin.

"Most of the time." Like now.

The boat sliced through waves, bouncing, sending showers of water up to sprinkle Darcy's skin. Cling to her lashes. "Actually, I prefer to think you just have untapped social skills."

He plastered a scowl on his face that he well knew wouldn't deter her warrior spirit in the least. "And at the moment you have untapped manners."

"Hmm." She flashed him an indomitable smile. "I've learned subtle and polite don't work with you."

He grunted.

She swung her legs from the side of the boat. Elbows on her knees, she leaned toward him. "I figured something out these past couple of weeks. You need to smile more often, Max Keagan."

"And you've decided it's your personal mission to make that happen with luaus and coconut bras?"

Memories of Eva scratched at his mind, of her trying to tease a smile from him. She would have liked Darcy.

The thought bothered him. A lot.

"What are friends for?"

Max yanked his mind back to the present as they circled round a jungle cliff and into a cove. A bonfire flickered up toward to the sky. Eyeing the hundred or so military personnel gathered along the beach, he decided she wouldn't need his protection.

He cut the engine before it could chew sand and let the boat drift only feet from the beach. "My smiles are about used up for the day, Darcy. I'm going to head on back." He forced himself to say, "I'm sure any one of the crew will give you a ride home. I won't be good company tonight."

"No one's asking you to be." Darcy braced her hand on the dash. "You don't have to play. You don't even have to smile. Just roll out one of those frowns of yours and eat. You have to eat, you know, as much as you seem resistant to admitting you're mortal like the rest of us. So come on. Luau means feast, and I am more than ready to pig out."

Her hand clenched around the dash until her knuckles whitened. "Please, Max. I don't want to go alone."

Shadows dimmed the glow in her eyes again. There was no mistaking them this time, even in the neon haze of the drooping sun.

Darcy wore her independence like a second uniform. No doubt she could conquer whatever shadows waited on that beach for her. But she'd communicated a need for him tonight far stronger than when a snake had poised ready to strike her. He might not know why this indomitable woman needed him.

But damned if he could turn away.

"Okay, Darcy, you've got yourself a grumpy, antisocial date."

Chapter 8

Darcy leaned back against her date's bare arm. Bonfire flames licked toward the sky while she tried her damnedest to resist the temptation to lick the sweat from Max's tattoo.

Well, she'd wanted a distraction tonight from memories of another luau twelve years ago. She'd found her distraction in spades. Or rather in one hunkish guy lounging half-naked in parrot-patterned swim trunks. Thanks to Max, she'd enjoyed herself. Memories of that long-ago luau lurked but didn't overpower her.

The pig pit crackled off to the side. The remains of a carcass and a few stray sweet potatoes still smoked mouthwatering scents into the ocean breeze. Darcy shuffled her attention to the crewdogs blending together in a mesh of khakis shorts, bland swimsuits and bad Hawaiian shirts. The cluster of aircrew members was mostly comprised of the deployed contingent from McChord. But in the tight C-17 community, she knew their faces anyway.

Live music mingled with the waves in an impromptu concert. Hunkered down on the sand, Lieutenant Bo Rokowsky plucked out a Clapton classic on the guitar while Cutter wailed along about Layla.

Darcy threw herself into the semblance of normalcy, all the while too aware of undercurrents tugging her with dangerous power—toward Max. He had acted the attentive, albeit quiet, boyfriend as promised. His arm draped around her shoulders. Did he know he was playing with the chain on her dog tags? God, it seemed so intimate, the way her dog tags trailed up and down between her br**sts with each tug to the chain.

They'd become friends the past weeks, a friendship marked by a definite physical distance. No touching. Until the brief, too-hot moment in his boat earlier.

Tonight there was so much touching she was beginning to believe in moonburns.

Darcy guzzled her fruity drink and let herself mellow into the light buzz humming through her, nothing compared to the full-blown buzz from Max's touch.

Think of something else. "How's it going with Lucy and Ethel? Is Lucy feeling better?"

Max's knuckle rested against the sensitive curve of her neck. "Perry adjusted her diet. She's back up to speed now."

"Good." Darcy's eyes gravitated to Max's preppy assistant.

Perry lounged against a palm tree while talking to Bronco. Coconut bra dangling from around the big lug's neck, Bronco grabbed an umbrella drink from a muumuu-clad matron passing out beverages and leis.

Personnel from the O'Club and base dive shop catered the event, a mother and son duo.

"So you'll be taking both Lucy and Ethel out tomorrow?"


That enigmatic, heavy-lidded stare of his made her long to shock it off. And wouldn't he be shocked wide-eyed if he knew what she longed to do with the drawstring on his swim trunks?


If the guy wanted her, he knew where to find her. She needed to respect his boundaries—and find some for herself before she unknotted that string with her teeth. "Perry will be helping you?"

Max nodded.

"Diving in teams, right?"

He grunted a yes. The dog tags traced slowly down the inside curve of her breast. She shivered.

Darcy tipped her head up to him, her face close to his. The scent of coconut and musk and man filled her already fuzzy senses. "Hey, Max?"

"Yeah, Darcy?

"Thanks for playing your date role so well."

"No problem."

She wanted to say much more. Like thanks for understanding she needed him here tonight, just as she'd needed him after the snake attack. For a man who proclaimed himself antisocial, he tapped into her needs well.

Her needs.

Darcy swallowed.

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