But he didn't argue, instead slipping those long, corded legs into the cottony warmth beside her. Gulp.

"Uh, Josh? In what way have I freaked you out?"

"I've always trusted that you could hold your own in the air, but this isn't about flying. And before you go getting your back up, I really mean that. I'm okay with your fighting in combat. That's work, and you're trained."

"Then what do you mean?"

"This other thing going on...it's not about work." He stared into the open grate, flames licking higher, sparking from the logs. "I'm a man, damn it. Your husband. Call it Cro-Magnon, but it's tough for me to accept there's no way I can right this wrong done to you. Hell, give me somebody to punch or a target to take out. I'm having trouble not being able to fight back. That's why I joined the Air Force after the crap that happened in college. I needed to defend." He shook his head. "I know, I know. It doesn't make any sense. This should be about you, anyhow, not about me."

She admired the way he'd found to make something positive out of something so awful. If only she could have managed the same.

"What you're saying makes total sense. And I've pulled you into this, so it's definitely about you, too." She hugged her knees to her chest, resting her chin on them. "It was strange afterward. I wanted him to come back to life so I could file charges with the police. I wanted to take that bastard to court and make him pay, have a role in putting him away so he never hurt anyone again. By protecting others from him, it would somehow make up for not being able to protect myself. So yeah, I understand."

She'd just never expected him to understand, not her invincible husband. Something warm unfurled inside her, relaxed and spread as he became a bit more human in her eyes.

Very human. And hunky. With the sleeping bag pooled around his waist, there was still plenty of na*ed Josh left for her eyes to feast on faster than a holiday dinner.

She tried to remember the reasons they'd split, why she shouldn't reach and explore the rough texture of dark hair sprinkled across his muscular pecs. She really tried not to think of splaying her fingers along the ridges of his flat belly.

Tried. Unsuccessfully.

Her mind reeled with images of doing each of those things and much more in the past. Yet all those undeniably erotic memories didn't come close to arousing her as much as simply gazing at him now,

boundaries lowered. No secrets between them.

A little voice niggled in the back of her head, reminding her that she'd only shared her secrets with him when pressed to the wall and surely that said things about their relationship she didn't want to think about.

Not now.

With the storm raging outside, the world on hold but threats still looming, she wanted to take this moment. Explore this deepening sensation.

Explore her husband.

Restraints snapped in her mind and she winged a silent cheer that they didn't have to worry about birth control thanks to her Norplant. Her hand floated up, gliding to a perfect landing on Josh's chest. A spark tingled through her fingertips, up her arm, singed deep in her stomach, and at just one touch. How much more could she have?

He clamped her wrist. But he didn't move her away. "Alicia," he growled. "This isn't smart."

"Maybe for once I'm smarter than you are. Or wiser at least. Wisdom is more important than smarts, don't you think?"

She flipped her hand to twine her fingers with his. Gliding forward, she trapped their linked hands between them, her br**sts flattening against the warm, hard wall of his chest. Her body writhed of its own volition in a sinuous arch against him, bringing her lips closer.

"I think you want me, too," she whispered against his mouth before her other hand slid to his lap and found... Oh, yeah. Her smile caressed him. "I know you want me."

"That's never been in question." "Then what is it?" "Your timing. I'm not clear on your reasoning." Great. She wanted Josh and he wanted logic.

Still, with the throbbing evidence of his arousal under her hand, she couldn't help but be touched by the fact that he was holding back for her. "I wish I could give you some fabulously brilliant Einstein-esque explanation, but I can't. I only know that this life-and-death-struggle business has pushed aside boundaries for me. Will they be in place again once we return to the real world? I hope not. But what if we don't get the chance to find out? What if now is all we have? I want now, Josh. I want you."

His already impressive arousal twitched in her hand, which she took as a definite endorsement to continue. She stroked upward to his chest until her palm landed on his heart again, perhaps just as strong an indicator of his intent as his erection.

"And how can you be sure this is right for you?" he asked, his heart slugging against her fingers.

"Maybe there's something liberating about knowing you don't have certain—" awkward moment alert! " —physical expectations from me. It seems like now I can just enjoy what I enjoy, the process, and not worry about the rest. While I know this isn't the most festive of settings, something about the season just makes me hopeful that maybe we can work things out. Could we try to believe that for now?"

His heart continued to thud an affirmative against her fingers. If only his brain and mouth would join in.

Alicia watched the war in his bottle-green eyes, until... She saw that glint, the glimmer of a man challenged. Yes. She canted forward.

He raised a hand between them. "We need to set some ground rules."

Good God, the man was going to talk her to death. What in the world was up with that? A guy wanting to talk while the woman wanted to jump in the sack before she had time to think. "Why can't we be impulsive? You're messing with the mood here."

He trailed a lone finger along the length of her nose, down to tap the upturned tip. "The mood's going to take care of itself just fine in a few minutes."

"Really?" She wanted to believe that. So much.

"Yes. But not if we go about this the same way we have before." "I'm not following you."

"Before, you kept secrets. I may be a few IQ points ahead of the rest of the curve, but I'm not a mind reader. I need you to tell me what you want."

Big-time awkward alert. "But you're experienced."

He didn't deny it, the jerk. "The most important thing a guy can learn from experience is that every woman is different. And by the way, I don't want to talk about any other woman except you."

Okay, not a total jerk. "Fair enough. I'm not interested in hearing about them, either."

"Good. Now, on to my ground rules before either of us ends up on our back." His emerald eyes flashed with a sensual intent that seared her from the inside out. "No secrets. Tell me what you want. Exactly. In detail."

Gulp. "What about you?"

"I can guarantee that the sound of your voice telling me what your body craves will be damned near enough to send me over the edge."

Her heart rate stuttered. "Maybe I'm not sure what I want." She forced herself not to look away—or fidget—or do any of those telling vulnerable impulses itching at her. "I know you don't want to talk about past experience or who else we've been with, but there hasn't been that much for me. Just him, and one other before, uh, briefly."

She risked a glance up and caught the quick flash of surprise an instant before he smoothed his angular features.

"Well, jeez, Josh. You don't have to look so shocked."

"Whoa. Time out." He formed his hands into a T. "It's not like you have some wild reputation, but everyone knows you've dated, and you exude...physical confidence."

"A defense mechanism to keep creeps from seeing me as some virtuous challenge."

His hands fell to cup her shoulders, calloused fingers rasping a gently abrasive arousal against her oversensitized flesh. "So you're not sure what works for you."

"That pretty much sums it up." Although the musky scent of him mixing with the subtle smoky air was working well for starters.

"All right. We can amend that first ground rule."

They could? Which meant he intended to go through with this. Relief shivered through her. They would really sleep together again. If she could ever shut him up. Why wouldn't the man just get to it, already?

Didn't he know the anticipation all but had her shaking?

Or maybe he did know just that.

His fingers started a light massage along her neck much like the tantalizing hair wash earlier. "Tell me when I'm doing something right and don't hold back from nudging me in another direction if I'm a little off."

His hands slid forward until his palms rested just above her breasts, while his fingers continued caressing the base of her neck.

She swayed in a fog that had nothing to do with smoke from the fire. "Uh, won't that be kind of weird?

Me barking orders at you?"

"I like it when you get bossy, Captain." His hands inched lower, not low enough to ease the ache in her tightening breasts. "And I can guarantee you won't be barking, but I'm mighty damned hopeful you'll be shouting."

She wanted to shout at him right now to strip away her bra and touch her. Still, drops of insecurity threatened to douse the fire within her that so desperately wanted to spread. Lower. Soon. "What if I don't? Shout, I mean."

"That brings me to the most important ground rule of all." His hands stilled and he stared into her eyes, into her soul. "Honesty. If we don't hit it just right this time, then okay, we'll try again. And again." His husky promise rumbled between them and over her skin as sensuously as a caress. "You said you enjoy the process, right?"

With a lone, sure finger, he flicked aside her bra strap from one shoulder, then the other. Only a slight swipe from him would peel away her bra altogether and expose her to his touch, his mouth. She yearned.

And still he waited.

He wanted to hear from her. Fair enough. If he could stretch the need so taut inside her with a few simple strokes and this new honesty between them, she wasn't sure how much more of his "process" she could take before she imploded.

But she wanted to find out.

Alicia arched up to bring her face closer, which conveniently brought her br**sts right into the perfect cradle of his palms.

Her lips a whisper away from his, she nipped his bottom lip. "How about process this, Colonel."

Chapter 7

Processing things came easy to Josh. Most of the time. Not so much now.

Alicia bemused him, frustrated him, dazzled him at different times. Any one of which he could handle. But all at once? He hadn't been this disoriented since his first inverted spin in navigator training.

More than ever he needed balance to handle the situation, handle her, without mistakes. Yet finding level ground now wasn't as simple as taking a few deep breaths and checking an instrument panel. Today, he was flying totally by instinct, instinct being the only weapon he had left in his arsenal when dealing with this woman.

His mouth dropped to the curve of her breast. He wished he had a more romantic setting than some dank rusted-out hut and smoky woodstove firelight, but they weren't guaranteed forever.

Josh drew deeper on her through damp fabric. Alicia's breathy sigh proved as encouraging as any words.

He peeled the plaid sports bra up and off, tossing their dog tags into a tangle. He broke contact with her skin for only a second — forever for him —before returning to kiss up her neck while his hands moved lower.

He cupped the warm weight of her breasts, plucking, tugging gently at her ni**les while his tongue delved deeper and explored until a moan vibrated her chest against his. He wanted to taste more of her, now, sooner. But he held back, lowering his mouth to take her lips instead, tasting apples and warm, moist Alicia.

Her fingers trekked down his sides, slipping into the waistband of his boxers.

"Slow down. We have all night." And he intended to make full use of every minute of that long night, longer than normal thanks to the storm and lengthy Alaskan winter solstice.

She smiled against his mouth. "I'm thinking I'll enjoy the second process more if we finish the first process fast."

Ever-efficient Alicia. He shook his head.


"Definitely no." His hands slid from her br**sts around to her back, and she groaned her regret before teasing her ni**les along his chest. His vision fogged. He inhaled a steadying breath. "Plenty of time."

Swinging a lithe leg over, she straddled his lap, the heat of her burning clear through cotton underwear.

"You told me to let you know what I want."

She kissed him, long, deep, moist, and somehow the rest of their underwear went flying away without either of them breaking apart. His hands roved her back while he invested serious energy in exploring the perfect curve of her ear with his mouth.


"Yeah, my love?"

"Since you wanted me to talk," she interjected in a breathy ramble, "and just in case you're wondering, that's just right. Perfect. More would be..."

"A good thing?" "A very good thing."

"For both of us, since there's nothing I enjoy more than touching you." Making out with Alicia by firelight certainly posed no hardship for him.

She sighed into his mouth, her pleasure sparking through him. "And Josh? I just thought of something else

I like. A lot."

"What's that?" He'd be all over it in a heartbeat. Hadn't he always been first in the class?

"Touching you." The woman was a natural seductress. "Then feel free to indulge to your heart's content."

Her hands stroked him with a thoroughness that left him gritting his teeth against the need to take her. As much as he longed to lay her back on the giving softness of the sleeping bags, he also wanted to hold on to this moment longer. Nothing could equal the sensation of her hands, the sound of her whimpery sighs.

Damned straight he should go slow, but his hands glided lower, anyway, just to her hips. He could touch, grip, caress a little more of her without losing it. Right? Her gasp hitched somewhere in her throat, her br**sts branding him as surely as the woman had branded herself in his mind.

While he nibbled along the line of her shoulder, he watched the firelight playing over her body, even better than his fantasy plan of romancing her by their new fireplace with merlot because he appreciated her more now. Their struggle of the past days taught him too well how intolerable it would be to live in a world that didn't include the vibrant presence of Alicia.