But he'd grossly underestimated the amount of effort required by marriage, and all the damn logic in the world hadn't helped him figure out this woman. "Maybe we could both take leave and fly down to Mexico for a quickie. Divorce, I mean."
"I know what you mean." Her voice might be quiet, but she snapped with tension louder than the crack of fallen branches underfoot. "And you are so not funny right now."
"Yes, I am."
"Comedy and arrogance. Just what every girl looks for in a guy."
"Arrogant?" He plastered an over-innocent look on his face, chapped skin pulling tight at the effort, but it was a helluva lot easier to joke than vent his real frustrations. "How so?"
Her snowshoes slapped the ground, wafting a powdery patch. "Don't be a smart-ass."
"But I am a smart-ass." He checked his compass, adjusted their steps. "My IQ's just a fact, a fluke of birth, nothing I can take any particular pride in."
And that IQ told him he'd mastered funny, a talent he'd developed to help him fit in when he entered college at thirteen. He didn't intend to go through life as an ostracized whiz kid freak. He'd needed something to help him assimilate into the college community until he hit his growth spurt, which, thank you, sweet God, finally happened at seventeen to the tune of six feet tall.
Of course, he'd quickly learned that humor was harder than landing a perfect score on the SAT, which made it more of a challenge. And damn, but he loved a challenge.
Alicia was his biggest challenge ever, more so than studying the rim-shot humor patterns of the Three Stooges' comedic routines. Problem was, he was losing this challenge.
Losing her. Not that she'd ever really been his, with her walls so damned high.
Right from the first time he'd seen her in the Kunsan O'Club, he'd been freaking mesmerized by her uninhibited laugh and stand-back confidence. She'd worn civilian clothes instead of her flight suit. How somebody could carry off an orange silk shirt with purple jeans and black thigh boots anytime other than Halloween, he didn't know. But then Captain Alicia "Vogue" Renshaw was all about the unexpected.
For a man who pretty much had life wired through sheer intellect, her unpredictability brought him to his knees.
He'd pulled together his best laugh lines, talked to her for a half hour before asking her out. He remembered his words distinctly. Would you like to get a drink? I'm buying. Not all that original, but she'd said yes.
Then she'd invited five other guys to come along. After all, Rose-Bud was offering to pick up the tab.
Even now, a smile tugged at him. He should have been pissed. The night had ended up costing him three hundred bucks, but he'd been laughing too hard to be mad. She out thought him, and he liked that for a change.
Or he used to, anyway. Not so much anymore. "What do you want, Alicia? Do you even know?"
The question fell out before he could think, which said too much about his frustration level.
Silence answered him for at least eight trudging steps under the cover of silent trees, her arms swinging along her sides. "I want to finish this course. I want to start my job here. Simple stuff. Nothing complicated. So quit placing me under a microscope. I'm not an equation for you to figure out. I'm just...me." Her snowshoes smacked the ground with increasing force and sound. "And most of all, I am not your love. Not anymore, if I ever was."
He had loved her, damn it, before too much distance and arguing had killed it for both of them. She could just bite him if she thought otherwise.
Not that he intended to mention the point and thus offer up the rest of his heart for target practice.
"Thanks for clarifying. Consider the microscope officially packed away. We'll walk. No talking other than directions. Speaking of which, veer left at the Y-looking birch tree up there."
So now this crappy day would be silent. Fair enough. Couldn't get much worse, anyway.
Snowflakes whispered from the murky sky.
Snow pummeled Alicia.
Who'd have thought flakes could be so heavy? But after three hours of combating the early-arriving blizzard, she found every flake weighed a ton against her dwindling energy.
Nothing to do but march, focus on survival. And ignore the niggling notion that this training mission was going way wrong.
Josh plowed ahead of her, his broad shoulders cutting the gale winds to half force. She longed to argue that they should take turns leading, but if he walked behind her she couldn't have heard his navigational calls over the shrieking storm. The niggle inside scratched harder.
Damn it, they were not going to die out here. Josh wouldn't die. She refused to let that happen. Death had already hammered at her world too often.
Much as she wanted to rage at fate for sending crummy weather ahead of time, authentic survival situations didn't promise ideal weather conditions, either. At least discussion of cotton thongs versus Scooby-Doo Santa boxers had ended.
How could Josh be so perfect and such an arrogant jerk at the same time? And now she would be spending one final night with him after all.
They couldn't reach the pickup point before dark since they were barely making pace. Radio connections had been staticky, but clear enough. Find cover. Hole up until morning.
She'd wanted to dig out a snow cave, but Josh insisted he remembered a marking from a chart indicating an abandoned mine within walking distance. Give it an hour and then they would try her way.
Fifty-two minutes and counting, Magellan. What she wouldn't give for a mug of eggnog to drink in front of a fire—with a garland-trimmed fireplace, please.
Sheets of snow and ice parted around him while she shuffled behind, too numb to be cold. His big body continued its brutal pace. Unrelenting. Unconquerable. And damn it all, she admired the determination and brains he packed under a thick head of jet-black hair and body ripped with muscles.
Right now, she wanted to complete this course outside of Fairbanks with her sanity intact and start her new job in Stan Eval—Standard Evaluation—giving check rides to other pilots. She looked forward to the challenge and even the routine after life at high-speed flying cover over Afghanistan, Iraq and Cantou. By the time she and Josh transferred to Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage, she'd been stretched to the max
professionally and personally.
A military brat, she understood the pressures of moving. Before her mother died, her parents had rattled the windows with their shouts over where to hang pictures.
Of course their fights had always ended with her father smiling, then her mother tearing through her purse to unearth five dollars for Alicia to walk her brother and sister to the corner shop for a soda and candy bar. And take your time, honey.
Teeth clattering, Alicia lifted her leaden leg, shivered. One foot in front of the other. March, soldier. She was pretty much feeling like a frozen wooden Nutcracker soldier this holiday season.
Hers and Josh's final fight hadn't concluded as well as her parents'. She was running scared, a pathetic fact from a combat recipient of a Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross.
Still, she couldn't be what Josh wanted. She'd thought if she ignored the past it would ignore her. If not, she could bluff when memories from eight years ago dogged her.
She'd known she shouldn't marry Josh, or anyone for that matter, not with her unresolved feelings about Ben. But she'd been so in love with this incredibly smart, sexy man tromping ahead of her, and he'd insisted they were right for each other. His confidence was infectious. She'd relented and now they were both paying the price.
Josh stopped at a small clearing filled with mounds. The front of her snowshoe landed on the back of his.
She wobbled, fell forward, grappled to brace herself with gloved hands the size of Ping-Pong paddles.
She slammed against the broad expanse of Josh's back. His arm shot around behind him to steady her.
Swaying, she twisted to untangle herself from him before... They both landed in a heap against the hard-packed snow. This was supposed to be sexy, right— twined arms and limbs? He'd even angled to take the brunt of the fall for her.
But she had a face full of snow tingling her skin. Cold air lanced her lungs with every gasp. Lopsided snowshoes slammed against the backs of her thighs.
Definitely not sexy. Even if she wasn't pretzel-twisted, the extreme temps required too much gear for her to feel the enticing muscles banded across his chest. His washboard stomach, which she may have drooled over more than once in the past, stayed hidden somewhere beneath a parka, survival vest, snow pants, a flight suit, thermal underwear—not to mention Scooby-Doo boxers.
His hand knocked aside his snow goggles. "Are you okay?"
Emerald-green eyes burned like lasers at her with an unblinking, narrowed stare. Snowflakes drifted around wonderland-style, wind and drifts blocking the rest of the world until it was just her. Josh. And the intensity of his stare focused only on her, his mouth three inches away.
"Totally fine." O-kay. Now she understood the allure of a snow-swept embrace. Thank goodness her survival essentials included toothpaste, because in another couple of seconds she might well angle for a lip lock with her hunky hubby.
"Why'd you stop walking?" she asked, her minty breaths cloudier than could be attributed to simple speech. "I thought you were getting into this whole Lewis-and-Clark gig"
"Fifty-nine minutes." His full, sensuous lower lip enticed her as he spoke.
"What?" ChapStick. She'd applied it, right? Only for practical purposes, not because she anticipated a make-out session.
"I found the abandoned mine with one minute to spare." His cocky smile spread all the way to glint in his green eyes.
A dozen downy parkas couldn't keep her from wanting him, all the more frustrating because she knew that her desire would never be satisfied.
Talk about an icy splash of reality.
"The mine?" She wriggled to roll off him. "Where?"
"Over there." He pointed with an elbow toward an arch in the snow, the sliver of an opening showing above piles of snow.
How he'd spotted it, she would never know. But that was Josh, always beating the odds. Except when it came to them.
Her bulky snowshoes clunked against his. Her butt slid to the side while her legs remained tangled, her torso draped over his. Not too many clothes after all, because that surely was a washboard stomach under her cheek. Crap.
She shoved off him, kicking her legs free. "Lead the way, Rose-Bud."
All right. Low blow with the nickname he hated to reestablish boundaries. Guys around the squadron swore Josh's call sign Bud stood for buddy, everybody's pal.
God, she would miss his smile. Tears froze in the corners of her eyes. Wind howling past her ears, she shoved to her feet, teetered for two precarious seconds before regaining her footing, nice for a change around Joshua Rosen.
Dusting himself off, he surveyed the area around the thin crack of an entranceway showing above mounds of snow. "Looks clear. No animal tracks other than a few rabbit paths, maybe a lynx set over there. No footsteps from other people, which can be good and bad. Anything sleeping inside there would have had to come in before the storm. Shouldn't take long for us to dig through."
"I'll start gathering tinder to start a fire inside. We'll need to melt drinking water soon." Her mouth parched at the thought of sharing a sip with him mouth to mouth as they'd shared champagne after their wedding.
All that snow around and they couldn't risk taking so much as a taste until it melted. Eating snow lowered the core body temperature and risked further dehydration. "We could also rig traps. Maybe we'll luck into an arctic hare to eat."
The snare wire inside their survival vests would take care of supper.
Nodding, he unhooked his snowshoes and used one to trench aside the drifts in front of the opening. All right, they were working together without arguing. Maybe the night wouldn't be unbearably tense if they kept things professional, just two Air Force officers. Piece of cake.
Alicia crouched to block the wind from her hands—and conveniently block Josh from sight until she steadied her heart rate. She tugged her mittens off with her teeth one at a time to reveal her fitted flight gloves underneath. The green stretch fabric and leather cut some cold, but she couldn't count on that for long.
Lightning fast, she scraped birch bark, jammed it inside her parka. Rustling sounded inside the branches overhead, startling her, reminding her of hidden threats beyond just the cold. Birds broke free, white-tailed ptarmigans, almost invisible to the eye against the snow with their winter plumage. So beautiful, like one of the ornaments she'd planned to place on her Christmas tree.
She shook free from frivolous thoughts and stuffed pine needles into her parka on top of the bark. Ouch.
If they didn't luck into some heavy-duty wood inside, they could come back out. Wrist-size tree trunks snapped easily when frozen. They'd have a good fire to warm them. All night in a cave—alone.
Her traitorous eyes glanced over her shoulder. Josh still shoveled, boots braced. Broad shoulders dipped and rose.
Alicia jammed her stiff fingers into the Polartec mittens again. She straightened to find Josh stepping away from a crawl-hole opening to a dark tunnel. He tugged free the flashlight they'd been issued with their gear, then reached for his survival knife.
"That should be enough to let us in without admitting all the wind and blowing snow." He unsheathed the knife, jagged edges glinting and reflecting moonlit sparkles off icicles. "Let's pray no one else is snoozing inside."
Bears. Unease prickled over her, for Josh more than herself, because she knew all equality of service aside, he would throw himself between her and any threat in a heartbeat. This wasn't like in their airplane where they were both strapped into the cockpit with their designated roles.
She slipped her knife from the leather holster as well, following Josh as he ducked to enter. Crisp fresh wind gave way to air heavy with musty mold.
The murky cave greeted them. Dank. Dark.
Empty. At least near the front, anyway.
Tension dissolved from her kinked muscles. Exhaustion too long ignored roared to life faster than the camp-fire she would soon build. Not in a garland-and-bow-bedecked hearth, but she wasn't feeling all that picky anymore.
Josh pivoted, strobing the flashlight beam ahead. "Looks clear. We can explore once we have a fire to make a torch."
They would need to stay on guard, but at least they wouldn't freeze to death. Away from the wind, her body began warming to life with painful tingles. "Fire?" She swept off her goggles. "No problem. I've already got the tinder."