Private Maneuvers / Page 5

Page 5


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Max passed the clipboard back to Tag, circled to the passenger side of the truck and disappeared inside. Darcy exhaled a proverbial hurricane of pent-up air and energy.


Tomorrow she would find him during a break. If she and Max had a chance to talk more before their drink, she could ditch all the butterflies performing aerial maneuvers in her stomach.


She would prove to herself she wasn't afraid to take risks. Surely she'd only been avoiding them out of deference to her father's feelings. Right?


Not because dreams of a dank cement bunker still slipped past her defenses.


Darcy pressed her fingers to her eyes to swipe away sweat and memories she was beyond ready to erase. She focused her gaze as well as her thoughts on the present. The lumbering flatbed truck turned off the flight line onto the narrow road bordering the ocean.


Maybe rather than Max being a big preliminary risk, she'd found a temporary safe haven before she launched into the biggest risk of her life. Putting the past behind her. A mission more important than even her career.


Chapter 3


"If I'd wanted safe, don't you think I'd have opted for another career field?" Max asked the three military intel contacts standing beneath a palm tree. He kept his voice low, although their conversation would likely be masked by the crashing waterfall a few yards away. A pack of howling boonie dogs added to the jungle symphony of humming insects and rustling branches.


Max stared at the stony faces in front of him and knew he wasn't gaining ground. They were determined to tail his every move, had even been waiting when he'd stepped out of the water.


He draped a T-shirt around his neck and tried a different tack. "I'll concede the need for checking in with reports, but I can't keep tripping over your people."


"This isn't negotiable, Keagan." Crusty Baker hooked his hands on his hips. With his slack demeanor gone, the dark-ops test pilot's lethal edge gleamed in his eyes. All wrinkled flight suits and sunflower seed snitching aside, he made a helluva military intel contact. "Whether you like it or not, there are more people involved. Others at risk."


"You think I don't know that? That's the reason I want this operation streamlined as much as possible." His thoughts shot straight to Darcy. No way around it, her need-to-know-only status put her in a vulnerable position. Contact with him flat-out put her in danger. "This island is too small with too many unknowns. You need to step back and let me do my job."


The Army CID agent in charge of secured communications twirled a tropical flower between her palms. Not that anyone would recognize her as a lethal spook in her floral muumuu and hoop earrings. "You can send me on my way if you want, buddy boy. I'll happily pack up my encryption equipment and enjoy a vacation in the sun. But you'll find it mighty darned difficult to get those reports home by smoke signals and drumbeats."


"Okay." Max nodded his reluctant concession to the muumuu agent. "You've made your point. You I can understand. But Lurch over there..." He jerked a thumb toward the towering Special Operations para-rescueman leaning against a palm tree and eagle-eyeing every nook of the jungle. "He's gotta go. Too conspicuous."


Crusty shook his head. "Package deal. Sorry. He's in charge of physical safety. Checking for tails. Hauling your butt out of the water if things go bad."


"I don't need some baby-sitter bodyguard watching my back." Which was why he preferred to work alone. No one took his risks upon themselves anymore.


He stared out at the bay netted off into a sea pen and scrounged for a way to keep Darcy safe. "Put Lurch on another detail. Like watching the crew."


Crusty's jaw flexed. "Renshaw."


"Bennett and the loadmasters, too, of course."


Crusty snorted like Lucy exhaling.


Max gripped the ends of his T-shirt draped around his neck. "You got a problem?"


"She's really buying into the whole professor gig."


"That's the idea." What should have been an undercover victory fell flat. He should be dancing a damned jig over her acceptance of his fake persona.


Rogue thoughts tempted him.


It wasn't totally false. The professor "gig" required more than a few hours spent in the classroom. His deep cover had necessitated classroom lectures and tests to grade.


Operatives frequently had another area of expertise that offered excuses to be in places a known government employee could never enter. To talk freely with people who would clam up at the first signs of a badge.


Which was the beauty of it. Hiding in plain sight. Like with the muumuu granny operative beside him, who would suspect their accountant, bus driver, dental hygienist—professor—of working for the CIA?


Sure he was partially the doc, but his first loyalty lay with the Agency. And Darcy Renshaw had accepted a drink date from the professor, not the real Max who also worked ops in darker places. Max scratched the scar on his shoulder—a souvenir from just such an op.


He'd been diving in a South American port to blow up a submarine purchased on the black market for drug running. After setting the explosives, he'd stumbled on two armed diver guards. That scar served as a tangible reminder of how fast a mission could go bad.


Crusty squinted into the sun. "See if you can tone down the beach-boy charm."


Max couldn't stop himself from asking, "Do you have some prior claim to those sunflower seeds?"


"That's not the point."


Like that mattered. "Do you?"


"No."


"Okay, then."


"Not okay." Crusty slapped a bug on his neck. "Her father will have our asses in one of those dolphin slings if something happens to her."


"Isn't she here because of her father?"


"Hell, no. Our squadron commander doesn't give a damn about politics. Colonel Dawson juggled the schedule to give you his best pilots."


"Good enough, then. Let her do her job. You do yours. I'll do mine." And his included keeping his own hands the hell off her sunflower seeds. "She'll be gone from the island before things heat up."


Heat up? Max shut down those thoughts before they led him into more than a drink with Darcy Renshaw.


Darcy.


Unease prickled the hairs along the back of Max's neck. His instincts upgraded to red alert. He scratched a hand along the thin scar on his shoulder while scouring the perimeter.


Lurch straightened away from his tree. "Check your six o'clock. Incoming. Meeting over."


Max scanned the dense jungle and found—a flash of white.


A white shirt. Worn by Darcy.


Frustration and something else he didn't dare label charged through him. He needed to intercept and divert her before she stumbled on faces she would be better off never seeing together. Somebody had to look out for that woman as long as she stayed on Guam.


He shot one last order to Crusty, not caring how the hell the guy interpreted it. "I want Lurch assigned to watch Renshaw until she leaves."


Sprinting along the beach, Max whipped his T-shirt from his shoulders. His battered deck shoes pounded the mix of sand and ground coral.


He might not want to label the emotion that felt too close to an anticipation he hadn't experienced in two and half years. And he might not understand why it bothered him that Darcy Renshaw wanted a man who barely existed anymore.


But he knew without question he had to watch her every step, turn, move until he got her off the island.


She must have taken a wrong turn somewhere.


Darcy grasped a squat tangan-tangan tree for balance and wound her way down the moist dirt path. She kept the shore in sight as Max's assistant had told her. Meanwhile, the jungle seemed never ending.


Guam offered no half measures in bombarding the senses, and she found herself luxuriating in every step of the walk. Twining vines and flowers caressed her bare arms. Vibrant magentas and crimsons enthralled her eyes with their vibrancy, painted amidst emerald leaves of the tropical jungle. Wind drifted an intoxicating swell of hibiscus and philodendron perfumes.


A rush of hedonistic pleasure surged into sensory overload from a simple stroll. Not a response at all like her usual practical self. She couldn't help but wonder if the new awareness had something to do with a certain marine biologist with intriguing eyes and drop-dead awesome pecs.


Darcy cleared the palm trees into a thin patch of beach. A netted sea pen stretched across the lagoon. The gritty mix of coral and shells crunched beneath her tennis shoes. A dolphin arced through the glistening water below a low-slung coral ledge. Another finned back followed suit, but no trainer in sight.


Where was Max?


She scanned the beach, past the reef ledge over to the tree line. A flash of indigo and neon yellow snagged her attention with hues not found in any of the flowers she'd seen on the island.


Unless they were patterned on a pair of dive shorts.


Max jogged toward her while trees rustled with movement behind him.


A smile curved her lips. In a world full of military-issue drab olive, she found Max's unconventional flamboyance an intriguing change. That rebel quality called to her. A free spirit like him would understand her own need for soaring independence. With him, she could be herself, really fly. A guy like Max wouldn't smother her with overprotective urges.


With his every step, thick corded muscles rippled along his thighs. Damp hair matted his chest. Sunlight glinted an enticing call to her eyes straight down to his washboard abs.


Sprinting across the beach, Max tugged a raspberry-red T-shirt over his head. Which offered a perfect excuse to transfer her attention to his face.


His blue-green eyes met hers, eyes as sharp as any diamond edge. A shiver rippled through her, a tingling awareness that made her sensual walk through the jungle pale.


She'd made a grave tactical error.


This guy wasn't some ivory tower academic with minimal real-world experience. He wasn't even a simple beach bum with a brain.


Max Keagan was all man. Too much man. Especially for her.


Forget taking a stand. This might not be the wisest course of action. His eyes blazed with the experience of someone who'd lived more in thirty-some-odd years than most did in two lifetimes. Even if she had all the experience of Cleopatra and Gunsmoke's Miss Kitty compacted into her own ordinary self, she should think twice about the wisdom of finishing her trek up the path.


Not that Max was going to leave her any options. He closed the distance between them, blocking her view of the jungle. "Well, Lieutenant, what brings you here?"


"Just wanted to check out your new dolphin digs." She edged back toward the trees. "But if it's not a convenient time, I can go." Not that she was in any great hurry to place that call to her father and have it out with him.


"No." His fingers wrapped around her arm to stop her. "Now's fine."


Max palmed the back of her waist and guided her in the opposite direction. She would have questioned his determination to redirect her steps, if she could have found words.


Thoughts fled. Sensations ruled. The heat of his splayed fingers steamed through her T-shirt. That pina colada scent saturated her senses, making her thirsty and so very hungry at the same time.


Her feet moved. Or at least they must have, since she found herself standing on a jagged coral ledge overlooking the lagoon. Max stopped beside her. His golden legs radiated heat that scorched the bare skin below her shorts.


From the corner of her eye, she studied him, her gaze lingering on the tattoo below his hacked-off sleeves. Nothing flashy or large. Just a simple diver-down symbol, a small red-and-white rectangle on his upper arm. Did tattooed skin feel different? Rougher, maybe? Her gaze traveled to the thin scar slicing beside it, disappearing into his shirt.


A hard man of so many textures.


His biceps rippled the pattern as he lifted his hand, put two fingers in his mouth and whistled. Three sharp blasts.


Darcy jolted. Almost pitched off the ledge. Just as she regained her balance, the water exploded in front of her. One dolphin, then another arced through the air, landing with a splash.


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