Private Maneuvers / Page 7

Page 7


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Silhouetted by the sunset, Max stood, clasping Darcy's hand to pull her to her feet.


Robin saw the very moment Max realized they weren't alone. The slight narrowing of his eyes, followed by a quick scan of the perimeter.


Beating yourself up over losing focus and missing me here, are you? Good. Robin savored the victory and called out, "Well, hello there."


Max nodded.


Darcy dropped Max's hand. "Hi. I didn't see you walking up. Uh...been here long?"


"For a while. Mind if I join you?" Robin sidestepped stones down the rocky path to the coral outcropping, clutching the bag of sunscreen, binoculars, night vision goggles and a 9mm. "I've heard this is the best spot on the island for taking in the sunset."


Swiping an arm over his forehead, Max dried away beads of sea spray mingling with sweat. "Another time. The spot's all yours." He urged Darcy forward. "Let's get moving back to the base before those clouds open up."


"Bye." She tossed a quick smile over her shoulder. "Enjoy the sunset."


"I plan to." Robin smiled back, all the while thinking how this woman's rough-and-tumble style paled next to Eva's exotic elegance.


Max palmed Darcy's waist, ushering her around the tree and up the hill. Robin eyed their backs, a hand gravitating down to caress the concealed weapon.


The couple faded from sight, but Max's profile image as they'd left stayed imprinted in Robin's memory. A one-second, unguarded look from the man and Robin knew. The guy wasn't as immune to Darcy Renshaw as he wanted her to believe.


Maybe the ever-honorable Max had pushed her away because of his undercover mission. Or maybe out of lingering feelings for Eva.


Not that the reasons mattered in the least.


Absently smacking at a bug crawling into the bag, Robin continued to stare after them, a diversionary plan creeping to completion. The wait wouldn't have to be so boring after all.


Unnerving one little "wren" would be far more effective than a direct threat to Max. Upset Renshaw to upset Max. Thanks to insider intel on background checks for all parties involved, Robin knew just how to start.


Luckily, plenty of pests for unsettling an airborne wren scurried right on the ground.


Darcy charged up the carved-out dirt steps as fast as her tennis shoes would carry her. Her brain refused to focus on anything more than returning to her room in the VOQ, Visiting Officer's Quarters.


One little kiss and she was a mess.


Okay, so it wasn't exactly a little kiss. It had been more like a double-time scramble takeoff, from dead stop to airborne in less than five minutes.


She'd expected to enjoy it—a lot. She hadn't expected to have her mind flipped, as if that incredible takeoff had gone rogue in a heartbeat, inverting into tailspin. Even now, she couldn't tell up from down as she stumbled along the path toward the vine-covered Spanish bridge arching over a stream.


And more than anything, Darcy did not like being out of control.


Max's steady steps and breaths kept pace behind her. The heat of his chest radiated a constant reminder of the fire of his response. Her experience might fall short of her sister's, but it didn't take a rocket scientist to conclude Max had been attracted, too. Impressively so.


Not that he seemed particularly happy about it. The ill-disguised horror in his eyes when he'd heard she would be staying for three weeks relayed an oceanful of his real feelings on the subject of taking that kiss any further.


How flippin' humiliating. What had she been thinking? She'd thrown herself at the guy like some sex-starved maniac. Now that her frustration and anger at her father had cooled to a simmer, she viewed her blatant come-on to a man she barely knew with something akin to self-disgust. And that there had been a witness to her humiliation standing a few yards away...


Ugh!


Darcy plucked at her clammy shirt, still damp from the dolphins' dousing. She just wanted to make it back to her room with her dignity in tact. Soak in a hot shower. And slowly die of mortification.


Her rental car waited just beyond the lush line of trees. Time was running out if she wanted to close the book on the mess she'd made without more witnesses.


Darcy turned to walk backward. "About the drink thing. We should probably just skip it."


Max cocked his head to the side, studying her like some mysterious new organism under his microscope. "If that's what you want."


Hello!


Of course it wasn't what she wanted, but she'd already ruined any chance for easing into something simple. The real kicker was that she'd enjoyed talking to him, and now she'd blown even that. Nothing left to do but save face and cut him loose before she embarrassed herself further.


Or weakened and hit on him again. "You were right about not starting anything since we live on different coasts."


Max watched water bead from Darcy's slicked hair, down her neck and into her T-shirt. What he wouldn't give to dive right into that drop of water.


Damn, but he had to get his head on straight and quit thinking with his libido. If this woman had that much power over him with one near-innocent kiss, diving completely into that whirlpool of heat would level him.


The hell of it was that while he should keep his distance, he also wanted to keep tabs on her until she left. Like dribbling water on a parched man's tongue.


Another drop beaded from her hair, down her brow, falling, catching and holding on her lips.


Better not think about water. "Sure. And it's not like either of us has a flexible work schedule while we're here."


"Absolutely, and back home I'm TDY all over the world two-thirds of the year," she answered, jumping all over the line of excuses.


Too bad he still wanted to jump all over her. "I'm always in class, in the lab or on the road."


"Real workaholic." She backed along the dirt path.


"So I've been told." He picked up her lead, following with his words as well as his steps.


"Hey, that's how it is when you love your job."


"Uh-huh." He reached to swipe a drooping branch out of her way. The lean brought him too close. A couple inches farther and he would taste Darcy and the lingering salt of the sea and her sunflower seeds.


"This is a critical time for you."


"Right."


"You don't need distractions."


"You said it." With those legs wrapped around his waist, he would definitely be distracted.


"And neither do I."


"I don't even like sunflower seeds." Liar. He liked the taste just fine on her lips.


"Well then." Her grin lit her face as well as her eyes. "You're history, pal."


Her feet danced back inches from stepping off the path into a tangle of vines.


"Watch out!" Max grabbed her shoulders, soft shoulders in spite of all the toned muscle flexing beneath his touch. His thumbs stroked of their own volition.


They both stood, the plush ground giving beneath their feet like a feather bed. Her pupils widened. The humidity in the air upped, at least it must have since every breath felt thicker. Their newfound ease evaporated in a snap.


Damn.


A great big distraction and her legs weren't anywhere near his waist.


Darcy licked the drop from her lips. "I need to go."


Bugs hummed in the trees as neither of them moved. A foot-long lizard scuttled past.


She opened her mouth again as if to say something else, then shook her head, shrugging from under his hands. "Goodbye, Max."


"Good night," he answered to her retreating back, wondering why he couldn't let her just keep walking right on out of his life. She wasn't his responsibility, especially not since he'd just assigned Lurch to tail her. Besides, she could protect herself with the training she'd received, compliments of Uncle Sam. Darcy Renshaw did not need Max's protection.


Darcy jogged up the path, her flexing calves offering a too-enticing view. He allowed himself the pleasure of watching until she slipped around a thatch of trees and out of sight.


She might not need him, but that wouldn't stop him from checking. Max swacked a branch aside and headed back for the beach. Darcy couldn't run far enough for his peace of mind on a water-locked island where too many vermin scuttled under every rock.


Reaching into her flight bag, Darcy searched by touch for her lunch during their final approach to Guam. The past week of hauling everything from bulldozers to food rations into Taiwan had left her with little time for sleeping. Forget about regular meals.


Worse yet, today's mission off-loading medical supplies had been too turbulence-ridden for her to scarf down even a sandwich. She planned to make the most of the ten minutes before transition, touch-and-go landings.


Darcy fished out an apple and polished it on the leg of her flight suit. Max had been right. They were both too busy to breathe, much less indulge in a wild, fantasy-worthy fling on a sandy beach.


If only she didn't feel his eyes on her every time she turned around.


Yanking her mind back to work, Darcy finished punching in the landing coordinate data into the C-17's computerized instrument panel. Her job was too important to her to risk it for anyone, no matter how hot or interesting. She lived to fly. She thrived on making a difference, and while today's mission might not have been Cantou-kick-butt material, she'd made her mark. She didn't know any other way of life.


Darcy pressed the interphone button to check in with the aircraft commander in the left seat. "Landing calculations complete," she reported, crunching a bite of her apple.


The plane bucked. She grabbed for her green military bag as it slid toward the floor. "Hey, Crusty, how about giving me heads-up next time you opt for acrobatics."


"No problem," Daniel Baker slid a finger under the earpiece of his headset. "If you'll warn me before you blow out my eardrum crunching your lunch. Or better yet, let's go to hot mike so I can hear every bite."


Laughing, Darcy pitched a wadded napkin at him. "Bite this, sir."


"They sure breed copilots mouthy these days."


"I try my best." Darcy flipped the microphone to the side while she finished her apple.


The plane flying wingman eased into view, high and to the right. Bronco manned the helm, flashing a thumbs-up just before the headset crackled with his voice. "Way to pound through the skies. Did Crusty just take over the controls?"


Baker snorted. "Funny."


"What kind of flying they call that?"


"Good," Baker quipped without hesitation. "We're talking real, warrior flying, in case you didn't recognize it when you saw it. The kind that makes lesser men hurl."


"Well, go easy on your wren. Wouldn't want her ralphing up her lunch."


Darcy thumbed the mike button. "Not a chance of that."


Laughter filtered over the headset as the other plane held steady, one of the C-17s from McChord AFB. The Washington squadron had deployed a detachment unit to assist with the relief effort, packing Guam with cargo crewmen. Today Bronco crewed with his old buddy Major Grayson "Cutter" Clark, a dual qualified pilot and flight surgeon.


Crusty tore the wrapper off a Snickers bar with his teeth as he flew. "Guam approach, Reach one-four-five-two, lead aircraft level at twenty-one thousand feet, wingman level at twenty-two thousand. Request one turn around the island before landing."


"Roger, Reach one-four-five-three," the control tower acknowledged. "You are the only traffic in my scope. Cleared for one turn around the island. Call me when ready for landing instructions."


Darcy pitched aside her apple core just as they descended to seven hundred feet for a low-level approach to the island. She enjoyed this part of her job, seeing the world at its best from a primo box seat. Bird's-eye views didn't come any more magnificent than this. Waves crashed in foaming white breakers against the shoreline of the dormant volcano land base.


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