Private Maneuvers / Page 15

Page 15


She glanced at Bo Rokowsky strumming his guitar. She couldn"t help but wonder why she wasn't in the least attracted to Bo. His dark-haired perfection drew women. His sense of humor held them. He never lacked for anything to say. Problem was that Bo, a man her own age, suddenly seemed too immature.

Yeah. Thanks bunches, Dr. Maxwell Keagan. "You're doing a great job keeping the clueless Romeos and matchmaking Cupids at bay."

"Glad to help." His finger slipped along the silver chain.

The dog tags clinked. Slid. Up. Down. Up again until her br**sts beaded in longing for the firmer caress of a warm, broad palm instead of cold metal. "Problem is, you're doing too good a job."

The tags halted. "Huh?"

"Your attentive date touches are making me hot and I'm not referring to sweat."

"Hot?'' His hand fisted around her chain.

She needed space. Air would be nice, too. "Way hot. Ducking behind a dune sounds good right now, even though we both know that isn't what we should do." She couldn't keep the hint of question out of her tone.

He exhaled long and slow. Liquid fire raced through her veins, and she was too tipsy and too vulnerable to make a smart decision. This man's experience outstripped her in more than years.

She gripped his hand, slowly untwining it from her chain until they were linked by their fingers and an odd friendship that ruled out impulsive sex. "This has been great fun. But you have some baggage to get over, and I'm not any good at dealing with my own baggage, much less other people's. Please move your hand and let me up."

Without waiting for him to act, she started to rise, a painfully arousing process. Her skin held to his, bonded by the heat and light sheen of sweat, until she was free.

Except not totally. Even as she walked away, she carried the smell of him. Coconut oil, musk—man. Even in her inexperienced state she knew the scent well.

Max Keagan oozed sex.

She needed to control her world, and Max flipped her emotions until she found herself longing to take risks far scarier than plunging into combat. Never again did she want to experience the total loss of emotional control she'd felt during her kidnapping. So she'd always chosen safe relationships that she could manage.

The revelation startled her. No risk. No danger. No chance of being hurt.

She didn't like what that said about her lack of courage. Not at all. Yet, she couldn't stop herself from running tonight.

Darcy spun away to join the safety of her crewdog buds, who never shot sex-laden looks her way, making her question things about herself she wasn't ready to answer.

Max watched the gentle sway of Darcy's h*ps as she sprinted across the sand to the remains of the supper spread. She snagged a handful of chips and melded into the circle of flyers listening to the guitar-strumming lieutenant.

Where she belonged.

Her edginess crackled through the air. When had he become so in tune to this woman's moods? The notion rocked him. He didn't want this connection with her, but it was there all the same.

Darcy seemed content to let him sit on the outskirts as he preferred. Sure, she'd pushed for him to attend, but respected his boundaries. She might have military regimentation and team play down to an art form, but accepted their differences.

So, what would happen if he gave her that call once he wrapped up unfinished business in Guam? Hell, he'd see her twice a year at best.

He wasn't giving up his career and she wasn't budging on hers, either. And then there was that little matter of emotions. His were limited these days, and he knew better than to expect a miraculous personality conversion once he laid his past to rest. He'd always been a loner, even before Eva. Darcy's emotions flowed in abundance. She would grow dissatisfied with his "grumpiness." Fast.

But, man, it would be one helluva ride in the meantime. If only she wouldn't be hurt in the end.

Max could almost hear Darcy's snort of disdain. Egotistical as well as antisocial, huh, chump?

Sit tight. Keep distance and keep quiet.

The bonfire light blotted with a blocking body just before Crusty dropped down beside him, a bag of pretzels clutched in his hand.

"How's it going?" asked one of the least silent people Max had ever met.

"It's all there for you to read in the mandatory reports," Max answered absently, deciding he would keep his answers short and maybe the guy would move on.

He didn't want to discuss work. Not tonight. He wanted to stare at Darcy and tell himself there was a way he could bring her to his bed without bringing chaos to her life.

"You're making progress?"

"What?" Was the guy a mind reader?

"With your search,'' Crusty answered vaguely, his meaning clear all the same.

Oh. Hell. "If you call ruling out negatives progress."

"I do."

Yeah, he wanted this case behind him. Had wanted justice—even revenge—since the day Eva had died. Wanted it for every one of these crewdogs who could be flying over Cantou soon.

Except he'd never before thought-out afterward. Darcy made him consider tomorrow when yesterday still consumed him.

Being in Guam again held a time warp quality. It could have been eight years ago when he and Perry had first arrived. Grad students and new CIA recruits before they'd each chosen different paths—Perry opting for low-level agent status to accommodate family life until they'd been paired again for this mission.

"Drinks, gentlemen?"

Max startled back to the present, looking up at the muumuu-clad waitress, their Army CID contact working undercover as an Officers' Club caterer with her son, in reality a fellow operative of no relation. Nobody would guess Vinnie with his dreadlocks was actually a civilian employee with Army CID, even given that all branches of the military had a large percentage of civilian employees in counterintelligence.

Lieutenant Colonel Kat Lowry held out the tray. "Mai tai?"

"No, thanks." Max lifted his bottled water. "I'm fine."

"Yes, you are, young man." She passed Crusty a coconut cup and a grin as she angled closer to Max. "I didn't expect to see you here tonight. Nice reports. You're shaping up, sweetie."

Max pulled a tight smile.

She patted his cheek. Then straightened to flutter a wave. "Be good, boys."

Crusty winked. "Oh, I'm always good."

Lieutenant Colonel Lowry smoothed Crusty's rumpled hair as she sashayed past toward the next customer.

Crusty guzzled from his cup, his gaze fixed on Darcy laughing with Bronco as the big guy whipped out his key chain and flashed a dangling photo. "How many places do you think he can store pictures?"

Max watched Darcy stroke a finger along the plastic-covered photo. Damn it, she should have her own pack of family portraits.

His kid would have been almost two now.

The thought scratched at his insides like the broken shells under his legs. Max tipped back his water and forced himself to swallow.

Crusty dunked a pretzel in his milky drink and popped it in his mouth. "Back when Bronco and I took Wren to the infirmary, Cutter had her hooked up to those antivenom IVs. Cutter and Bronco started passing pictures over her like she wasn't even there." Crusty tossed another soggy pretzel in his mouth. "Bronco, yeah, I expect it from him. But even the prior die-hard bachelor Cutter babbled on about his little girl and new baby boy. Then they passed their stacks to me with big goofy-ass grins on their faces. Know what I mean?''

Max grunted. Perry waggled packs of pictures of his three sons around all the damned time, too. Max always smiled and tried not to think about his own kid who'd never had a chance to pose for photos.

Crusty drained his cup, then tossed it aside. "As if I could tell one wrinkled-faced infant from another. Next thing I knew, I had 'em all mixed up. The two dads looked at me like I'm a moron. Thank God, Wren sorted the stacks and called time-out."

"Sounds like Darcy." Max stared across the small patch of sand at the leggy dynamo flicking coconut milk into Rokowsky's face.

Crusty swiped his arm across his milk mustache. "You gonna call her when all this crap is over with?''

The shells dug deeper right along with thoughts of images never developed. "Damn it, I'm not after your precious copilot who loves babies and puppies."

"Yeah, right. Whatever."

"Doesn't she already have a brother?"

"Yeah, and a whole squadron more of them besides ready to kick your ass if you mess with her."

"This is getting old, Baker." He'd about tapped out his chitchat quota for the day, but knew Baker wouldn't leave him alone without reassurance. Max scrounged up a few more words. "So I've been watching out for her and along the way she became a friend. What's not to like about her?"

"Wren has a way of making friends easily."

Yeah, yeah, Max heard him loud and clear. No need to think he was special, and he had the distinct impression Baker had jabbed on purpose. "Exactly."

Crusty stared ahead, pitching pretzels to scavenger birds. "Those friendships have a way of sneaking up on a guy and becoming a lot more when you least expect it."

Max cut his eyes toward Crusty. Was the guy hung up on Darcy after all? But Crusty wasn't ogling Darcy. He stared out over the ocean with glazed eyes that seemed to be taking him to another place. Another time.

Hell. Max pitched aside his empty water bottle. Less than a month with Darcy Renshaw trying to socialize him and he was turning into some freaking Sigmund Freud.

Baker swiped a hand over his face, his eyes clear again. "Guys like us don't lead the kind of life that lends itself well to relationships. Too many 'can't tell you where I'm going babe or when I'll be back' moments. Too many secrets."

Memories crashed over him in a tidal wave. He'd lived that nightmare with Eva. She'd wanted them both to get out of the CIA, start a more sedate family life. Had even walked more than once. Not that he blamed her. Even when he was around, he was only half there. Distant on a good day. Distant and hungry for the next mission on a bad day.

He and Eva had weathered more than a few bad days. After his near miss in South America, she'd insisted for a month he back off and take lower risk assignments. Every time she'd traced that scar on his shoulder, she'd cried. If only he'd listened to her and changed the course of their lives, her cover might have never been blown. She might still be alive.

Screw social skills. He didn't want to talk to anyone tonight, anyway. "Get to the point, Baker."

Crusty crumpled the empty pretzel bag. "She's leaving soon. As much as you may think she's clear on the friendship issue, I know her better. As a real friend. And I can tell you, pal, she doesn't look at me the same way she's looking at you."

Max started to disagree, but just his damned luck Darcy chose that second to glance over at him. Her smile faltered. Her fingers crept up to twine around the chain on her dog tags. Did she know how those dog tags of hers turned him on? He wanted to tug her forward with them and...

"Cut her loose." Crusty interrupted Max's thoughts with harsh reality. "Unless you're genuinely interested in her. Then we'll throw you a keg party and give you an honorary call sign. Something like 'Spike' for your hair or 'Fin' for your job. Hell, we can even get you a batch of your own coconut bra pictures." Seriousness stained Crusty's eyes, all the more powerful for its rarity. "Just be careful with her, man. She's got history. She may be friends with the lot of us, but she doesn't let life get deep too often."

Even across the stretch of beach, Max could see those shadows lurking in her eyes. Had they been there from the start and he'd missed them because he didn't know her well enough then? Darcy's file chronicled her kidnapping—with conspicuous holes, thanks to her father's influence, no doubt. She seemed to have moved past it. But of course, what the hell did he know about reading people's emotions?

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