Private Maneuvers / Page 8

Page 8


Crusty was a blast to crew with, fun and edgy in the air, likely a holdover from his test-pilot days. He knew just how far to push performance boundaries for his craft. Like a kid gripping a joystick, he guided the C-17 in a soaring low-level approach that rippled the surf. Transparent water revealed the wreckage of a Japanese freighter below.

Crusty circled around a cove, a speedboat easing into sight. "Well, lookie there." The boat bobbed as a diver hauled himself up the back ladder. Sun glinted off the water as the diver combed his hand through his spiky hair.

"Three guesses as to who that is." Crusty shot Darcy a piercing, curious look. "Hey, you remember the dolphin dude, don't you?"

"Uh-huh." Tough to forget about a guy when she bumped into him every time she turned around. Who'd have thought the island was so flippin' small? Everywhere she went, she felt like someone was three steps behind her.

Crusty waggled the wings in greeting. Max stretched a hand in greeting, bringing his other hand to his mouth. To whistle?

A dolphin exploded from the water, arcing over the bow of the boat, followed quickly by the second. Regret whispered through her over things not meant to be. Worse yet, she'd made things awkward between them so she couldn't even enjoy talking to him about his work.

"Hey, Wren," Crusty said over the headset as he angled into the turn to circle the island. "Do you have anything in there besides apples? Preferably something with lethal fat content."

Darcy pulled her gaze off Max and back to her job. "How about a PBJ?"

"Not chocolate, but it'll do in a pinch."

Why couldn't she have been attracted to Captain Snickers Bar instead? His rumpled good looks garnered a steady supply of women wanting to "fix" him. Smooth his disheveled, coffee-brown hair. Iron his rumpled flight suit. Bring him meals so he didn't die from junk food overload.

Crusty jammed the last half of the candy bar in his mouth. He definitely made a better fling candidate. Except for a few minor problems: she didn't date military men; she wasn't attracted to Crusty.

And she still wanted Max.

Darcy opened her fight bag and pitched aside her checklist. Digging deeper, she shoved through charts, an orange, the gun she'd been issued prior to the first flight to Taiwan because of looting riots after the earthquake. Finally she found the half-mashed peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

Pain stabbed her hand. Up her arm.

"Ouch!" She whipped her hand out. A spider scurried across her wrist. A big, ugly spider the size of a small dog—or a half-dollar—latched on. Darcy flicked her hand.

"Holy crap!" Crusty shouted. "What's that?"

She didn't want to think about what it was. She just wanted it the hell off her.


Darcy grabbed her checklist. A quick swipe sent the spider to the floor. The hairy eight-legged spawn of Satan scuttled toward the rudders.

Toward her feet.

The last thing she needed was that minimonster climbing up her leg during landing. Darcy stomped. Hard. Ground the toe of her boot until spider guts oozed.

Gross, but vengefully reassuring.

"Wow, Wren. If this Air Force gig doesn't work out for you, maybe you should consider a career as an exterminator."

"Probably pays better." Darcy forced the light-hearted answer.

"You okay?"

She examined the bite. Two tiny puncture marks. Red but not swollen, they seemed benign enough. "Positively zippy."

Darcy eased her boot off the spider.

She hated bugs. Truly hated them with a passion born of smothering fear. Not that she would ever admit such a wimpy feminine weakness to the rest of the aircrew. Survival training after flight school had been hellish with all the creepy-crawlies, but at least she'd steeled herself to expect them. Being caught unaware, however, sucked.

The headset crackled again. "Well, Crusty," Bronco called, "who do you have flying now, the loadmaster?''

Darcy depressed the interphone button. "Just a little upset in the cockpit thanks to a surprise stowaway."

"Little, my aunt Emmy Sue!" Crusty barked. "A nasty ol' Guam spider crawled out of Renshaw's bag and bit her."

"Spider?" Cutter interrupted from the other plane, his serious doctor tones overriding more easygoing pilot tones. "What kind?"

"A dead one." Darcy eyed the glob of spider pate by her boot. The latest of many she'd stomped in the past week. There'd obviously been some kind of insect infestation since she'd been here last, either that or she'd become a bug magnet.

"Damn it," Cutter clipped through the headset. "Quit playing around and describe the thing to me."

Fear tingled up her spine like an encore spider bite. Most of the bugs on the island weren't poisonous. Right?

Darcy whipped off her glove and swept up her cuff to examine the two puncture wounds more closely. "I was too busy shaking the thing off to do a scientific classification, but I guess it was about the size of a fifty-cent piece. Hairy. Kind of colorful, green and brown. A red stripe maybe."

Cutter's sigh drifted over the headset. "Okay, no sweat, that sounds like an Orb-Web spider."

"Which is good?"

"Yeah. Mean-looking fella with long fangs for a big-time bite, but harmless otherwise," he clipped through the prognosis. "Just to be on the safe side, though, let's scratch the touch-and-gos and do a full stop so I can take a look at that bite."

Relief soothed the sting to her nerves as well as her skin.

"Sure, whatever you think's best, Doc." Darcy kept her voice steady, sinking back in her seat while Crusty and Bronco called in the adjusted landing schedule to the flight tower.

Darcy willed away the residual hum of nerves. The spider was dead, and she wasn't a kid in a prison cell being taunted by her captors. Bugs and snakes may have immobilized her into silence then, but she wasn't thirteen anymore.

She forced herself to drag her boot over the dead spider again. No, she wasn't a child anymore. But she'd sure as hell been acting like some adolescent around Max Keagan. Time to take responsibility for her actions and clear the air.

Darcy staunchly shushed the little voice telling her she was only making excuses of another kind to see him because she was rattled and needed a distraction.

She stared out the windscreen, watching Max guide the boat along the shoreline. Talking to him would be the wise and mature thing to do. She might be drop-dead tired, but she had a feeling sleep wouldn't be peaceful tonight anyhow.

Once Cutter gave her the medical all-clear, she definitely saw a swim and an apology in her future.

Chapter 5

So much for the day's swim. Max steered the boat away from the dolphin pen, toward the secluded cove where he docked his boat. A school of fish streaked alongside in a rainbow stream of color. He'd already penned the restless dolphins early at the University of Guam facilities due to the incoming storm. Fruitless searches frustrated the animals as much as their trainer.

He reminded himself that eliminating locales could be considered progress. He'd accepted early on the search could take weeks. Yet somewhere between the briefing room in San Diego and the airstrip in Guam the wait had become unacceptable. He wanted to clear this case and clear his mind of a certain tempting lady pilot. Soon.

No matter how many times he told himself Darcy Renshaw wasn't his problem, he couldn't stop keeping tabs on her the past week. He didn't have a concrete reason for the niggling apprehension. Probably had more to do with testosterone than any threat.

Except he'd lived undercover too long to ignore the value of following his instincts. Even if Lurch hadn't reported anything suspicious, Max's instincts told him to watch out for Darcy until she got the hell off the island. Damn it, there was a traitor on the inside, all the more reason to rely on no one.

Max rounded a coral reef into the secluded cove where he moored his boat. A cove that should have been deserted. Except his own mermaid siren waited to lure him in.

Lounging on a sandbar a few yards from shore, Darcy sat with her chin on her knees, soaking up the muted sun as storm clouds billowed overhead. Miles of leg stretched from her one-piece black swimsuit. Not one of those decorative scraps of Lycra, but a suit designed more for practicality than enticement. Somehow the subtler invitation tempted him all the more.

And of course there were those dog tags nestled between her breasts.

Max cut the engine power and coasted toward the dock. He tied the boat off, all the while conscious of her eyes on his every move.

Darcy cupped a hand to her mouth. "Ten bucks says you can't name all the kids from the Brady Bunch, in order."

After a too-damned long, frustrating day, he didn't have the energy or will to resist her. Max pitched the anchor overboard. "Actors or their television character names?''


"Too easy." He jumped into the shallow surf and waded toward her, waves lapping his waist. "I wouldn't feel right taking the hard-earned money of a government employee."

"You're too nice."

"Hardly." He closed in on her, stepping up onto the sandbar. "I thought you were flying today."

"We landed early."

Early? Max dropped to sit beside her, instincts itching overtime like the sand coating his legs. "Nothing wrong with the mission, I hope."

"Nope. Picture perfect." Her arm draped over her knees, she drew circles in the sand with exaggerated concentration. "We landed and off-loaded supplies in twenty minutes. Never even shut down engines before it was time to clear the ramp for the next formation of planes."

With bitten fingernails that made him wonder and even worry, she continued to sketch in the sand until her canvas of circles expanded as wide as her silence.

Something wasn't right. Like her missing smile. The edginess in a normally indomitable woman. What was she doing here? "So you decided to sunbathe."

Darcy snorted inelegantly. "I'm not exactly the sun goddess type. I just like to swim. When Dad was a squadron commander here in Guam, my sister, brother and I all but lived in the water. Snorkeling. Scuba. We loved to explore the underwater wreckages of the planes and boats."

Where was she going with this? He might not know, but he would hang on for the ride long enough to wipe away whatever had brought the pucker of worry between her brows. "Being stationed in Charleston near the beach works well for you then."

"I fly a lot. That limits how often I can dive with the twenty-four-hour restriction before and after a flight because of the whole issue of nitrogen in the bloodstream."

Max nodded. The extreme changes in pressure caused nitrogen bubbles to gather in the bloodstream. It only took one nitrogen bubble to the heart for things to turn deadly.

There was a lesson in that, no doubt. Their very different worlds of air and water weren't meant to coexist any more than he and Darcy.

Darcy abandoned her sand doodles. "You've probably guessed I didn't just happen to be here coincidentally today."

"Why are you here?" He readied himself for anything from a woman who had an uncanny knack for leveling him.

"I want to apologize."

Well, hell. A knockout before the first round. And what a knockout she was without even trying. "Apologize for what?"

"For making things awkward." She drew her knees in tight, the wind whipping her cinnamon-brown hair around her face as she rested her chin on her folded hands. The storm brewing in the skies echoed the one in her eyes.

"There's nothing to apol—"

"Please, stop. This is embarrassing enough, but I need to say it." The red burning her cheeks had nothing to do with the sun. "I'm not good at this kind of thing. I'm even worse at talking about it."

Max prayed she'd get the hell off the subject of kissing, fast, which led too easily to thoughts of laying Darcy back on that sandbar and investigating her tan lines.

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