She was in trouble.
Alicia battled to stay awake. Walk. One foot in front of the other. She would hold her own. She absolutely would not slow Josh down, but she felt pretty much like an ice sculpture from an Alaskan snow festival they'd once discussed attending.
They'd stopped twice already to build a quick fire and drink. Thank heaven for his Bic lighter, faster than her flint, but probably running low on butane.
Pretty much like her energy supply.
He'd offered to drag her along, dogsled style. She'd told him to eat his shorts. She wasn't quitting. Surely they would stumble on something soon. Meanwhile, think happy thoughts.
Flying always made her happy, in control of her craft and her fate. Kicking ass and taking names. Saving lives and making a difference while following a calling to serve that hummed through her veins in a legacy passed down from generations of Renshaw warriors. The drive to serve called to her aviator sister and brother as well.
Her fingers twitched convulsively as if around the stick in her F-15E Strike Eagle. Exhaustion lured her mind back to that life-changing mission, the day she'd earned her Silver Star.
Asleep on her feet, she dreamed of the first time she'd flown with Josh...
Sweat flowed freely in the F-15E. The two-seater cockpit was overheated from stress, raising damp spots on her flight gloves. Alicia kept her hold loose, light, her thumb poised over the control buttons.
She would stay calm—even though more perspiration plastered her hair to her head under her helmet as clouds whipped past her windscreen.
She drew measured hits off her oxygen mask, microphone embedded to pick up her every word, even their breaths. Her WSO's exhalations echoed through the headset Darth Vader-style in an alternating rhythm with her own.
They'd been on their way to attack an ammunition depot when the call for emergency close air support came mid-flight. Enemy fire had downed a CH-47 Chinook helicopter full of Army Rangers. They needed close air support ASAP until a rescue force arrived.
Her first real combat engagement.
She'd been deployed for Afghanistan and Iraq, but mostly Southern Watch patrolling missions. Never had she waded into the hairy action or needed evasive maneuvers on those sorties.
Which explained why they'd paired her—a young captain—with a combat-seasoned weapons system officer for her early missions in Cantou.
Major Joshua Rosen sat strapped in the WSO's seat behind her—the fella who'd hit on her in the O' Club bar. Nothing inappropriate, just genuine interest from Major Tall, Dark and Hunky who happened to have a kick-butt sense of humor.
She'd dissuaded far pushier in the past. Yet still, something told her this magnetic man wouldn't be as easy to keep at a distance as the others.
None of which she could afford to think about now.
Easing the stick forward, she pointed the nose down, rolled in and out of the clouds. Asian jungle sprawled ahead of her, puffs of smoke rising from the trees. Little sound invaded the cockpit, just the minor whispering of air. The roar of engines filtered away behind them. The plane hauled full out, bringing them down, near.
Radar wouldn't do crap for them now. Bad guys looked pretty much the same as good guys on the screen. Visuals combined with talk-on from the ground would guide them.
Close air support was scary stuff. Any mistake could make the difference between taking out the threat —or their own people. Bud Rosen in back would be helping her scan visually with the aid of binoculars when necessary.
Her focus wired in on the stick in her hand, the voices in her headset, the five multifunction display screens in front of her.
Her headset crackled with calls from the ground. Gunfire and explosions popped and crashed through the airwaves. "Hound twenty-one, we need these guys taken out. We can't hold 'em off much longer. I need some fire on the top of the east to west ridge, north of the downed helicopter."
"Roger." Josh's response clipped through. "I think I've got it visual. Are you talking about the guys two hundred meters west of the rock cropping?"
"That's affirmative, Hound twenty-one."
More clipped instructions and questions batted back and forth through her headset as the commander on the ground talked them onto the target. Her control panel blazed like red-and-green Christmas lights.
"Where are the friendlies?" Josh asked.
"We're a hundred and fifty meters west of the target, just north of the downed chopper."
Alicia's fist clenched the stick, her eyes glued to the steering commands on the holographic images on her HUD—heads-up display. A hint of a mistake on her part and they would drop the munitions on their own troops.
No more time for questions. The call went up. Put down laser-guided five-hundred-pound GBU-12s— guided bomb units.
Circling the plane over the target, she continued her steady stream of situational awareness updates to Bud. With his head now down in the infrared scope in the back picking out targets, he needed her to keep him updated on the bigger picture. Damn, she hoped the info and her voice were steady.
Rosen put his forward-looking infrared camera on the target, squirting the laser once, locking in the range finder to compute a bombing solution. "Give me a right three-sixty. Come back to a heading of zero four zero. Bomb pickle ten seconds after roll out."
Everything else faded, the vibration of engines, blur of sky and trees. Only the target and Bud Rosen's voice, his breathing, remained. She drew on the confidence of this invincible aviator who never once questioned her ability even though there were times on the ground when she seriously doubted her own judgment.
When had their breathing synched up?
Rosen's bass pulsed in her headset. "Laser on. Here comes impact... Weapon impact complete. Looks like a shack."
A direct hit. She bit back her sigh of relief. They weren't through by a long shot.
"All right, Vogue. Bring us back around and line her up again."
Three more go-rounds left. She hoped his confidence in her would hold because she sure as hell appreciated the safety net. "Roger, Bud, coming around...."
"Hey, come around." Josh's voice echoed in her head, dragging her back to the bitterly cold present.
The snow-speckled horizon flickered in front of her face with a large gloved hand waving in front of her.
"Are you with me, Alicia?"
She blinked, the swirling haze so much like the clouds in her windscreen for a confusing second. Odd that she should have that memory now. She could make it on her own without Josh's strength, but she'd always appreciated it, continued to be grateful for it now. "Sure. I'm fine. Totally okay."
"You don't look okay."
"Okay's a relative term here." She planted her feet to combat the urge to sway in the wind like the towering pines.
"This sucks, big time. I'm freezing my butt off. I'm hungry. I'm exhausted. But I can keep going."
"Your skin's waxy." He tugged off an overmitten with his teeth, reaching to touch her face, the rasp of his flight glove a phantom caress to her numb cheek. "You look like hell."
"And your manners stink, Rose-Bud."
Even his light chuckle gusted a hefty white swell. Temps were dropping fast. She needed to hang tough for him.
"Well, I imagine we both probably stink by now and just don't know because the stink is frozen. Regardless, you're still pasty. We need to stop. You will not lose so much as a toe on my watch."
Uh-oh. Overprotective alert. A safety net was all well and good, but not at the cost of his own life.
Death, loss of dreams, loss of trust in happy endings had haunted her holiday season once too often. His, too.
When Josh had told her about the siege at his college, she'd wanted so much to tell him more about her past, but the words wouldn't pry free. Then or now. "My toes are fine. I'm wiggling them inside my boots as we speak and I really don't have the energy to waste arguing. So no, don't bother asking me what my socks and underwear look like."
"Fair enough. As long as you're sure. You're absolutely certain your feet are okay?" He jerked her to a stop, not much effort required on that one. As he leaned forward, his parka hood nearly met hers, sealing off the snowy world. "No faking for my benefit?"
"Damn it, Josh, I am not faking." She stomped her numb feet. "Do you hear me? Why in the world would
I fake anything?"
"You tell me."
The silent heat of his words combined with the somber laser of his eyes stilled her. Trees rustled overhead in the silence. Snowflakes trickled through the tree cover to dot their forest-green extreme-weather gear.
He couldn't actually be accusing her of... Oh, God, he was. He was insinuating she faked during sex.
And damn him, he was right. "What did you just say?"
Josh stifled the urge to let loose a string of curses, all directed at himself for being a dumb ass and spilling the one thing he'd vowed never to say to her. He'd been tempted to mention it—in the beginning when his ego stung like hell. But he'd kept his yap zipped, certain that with time he could work through whatever was holding her back.
Time had run out. He pivoted away. "Nothing. I didn't say one damned thing."
"Oh, no, hotshot." She grabbed his shoulder, thumping until he turned to face her again. "I heard you." "Then why are you asking me?" "I want you to be clear."
"I didn't say shit," he snapped, his words like one of those frozen boughs after enough hellish weather and life for one day. Week. Year. "Just three words to make sure your toes aren't about to fall off."
"Not buying that for even a second, Rosen." She thrust her mittened hand against his chest in what he imagined was a pointed-finger jab. "Your eyes said a lot more than three words and none of it had a thing to do with my toes."
As if he wanted to think about her toes right now. Cute pink toes that were probably as waxy as her face. "So your toes are fine. Then let's keep moving."
He levered away and charged ahead. The last thing they needed was a sex discussion where he confirmed that yes, he knew she faked the big finish.
She enjoyed the hell out of foreplay. He wasn't so dense he missed that. But near the end of the actual act, that woman could talk herself out of an orgasm faster than the emergency barrier could stop a plane on a short runway.
Not that she was actually speaking out loud during those moments. Yet he could hear the gears turning in her head until the door clanged shut on any hope of a screaming finish. Sure, she continued to go through the motions. Acrobatic motions, incredibly sensual motions.
But only half there.
Every time he'd thought about confronting her on the subject—gently, of course, he wasn't a totally clueless male— her defensive expression afterward left him with no doubts. If he brought up the topic, this prideful woman would bolt.
So he'd tried his best, read anything on the subject he could find, and worked on strengthening his relationship with a wife he couldn't come close to understanding. He'd had hopes for their leave time together in their new home, romancing her in front of the fireplace with spiced wine and presents.
Only to have her bolt before they could unpack the wineglasses or untie the first bow.
Okay, so he'd walked. Technicality. But she'd made it clear she wanted him gone.
His senses heightened back in the moment. No footsteps crunched behind him. His feet slowed, halted.
Not a man who believed much in retreating, still he appreciated the wisdom in battle prep and choosing his ground wisely. This was not it.
Staring ahead while too aware of her behind him, he forced low, controlled words through his teeth.
"Now is not the time or place. Walk, damn it."
"Why did you marry me if you thought the sex sucked?"
Ah, hell. The very reason he did not want to discuss this with her. Logic wouldn't win him squat. "I did not say that."
"Your eyes implied it."
God, it killed him inside to hear the hurt under her defensiveness. So what if they froze? Damned well looked like that might happen, anyway.
Besides, logic also told him one's mental state contributed to survival, which offered the excuse he needed to delay walking farther just yet.
He strode back to her, gripped her shoulders and tugged her under the protective cover of a tree. She really did need a break even if she was too prideful to admit it. "That isn't what I meant. Being with you is...was...incredible."
Her defiant eyes met his, her face trimmed with the white fur around her hood, which almost managed to hide the tremble of her chin that had nothing to do with chattering teeth. "Apparently not if you felt something was lacking."
His fists clenched in her jacket. "Damn it, you're not lacking, but you are trying to pick a fight." "I'm not the one who brought up faking, Colonel Freudian Slip."
How could he explain that being with Alicia when she was half there was better than being with anyone else completely in the moment? What a hellish line to walk, reassuring her about a relationship that was already over, opening them both back up to the slashing pain.
But he'd never been one to take the easy way out, and he'd once loved her enough to marry her. He owed her something, owed them both some peace.
"Okay, I admit that at first I expected things to be—" damn, but he was entering a minefield "—different between us."
"You thought because I'm unconventional on the outside that you were getting somebody more uninhibited?" She slumped back against the tree trunk, arms folded defensively over her chest. "Poor baby. What a shocker for you."
"Never mind." Screw this. He thrust away from the tree. "I'm bailing out of this conversation." "Like hell you are." She hooked both her hands around his arm.
"Let's get this straight right now." He pivoted, smacking one hand over her head and meeting her nose to
pink nose. "I was not disappointed. The attraction was there, no damn doubt about that. And that attraction was...is...so freaking intense I'm hard from just standing here with you, thinking about being inside you. The draw between us is that strong. Rare, even. Worth working for. I was certain that given time, we would have something—" heat flamed through him in spite of the arctic winds "— unsurpassable."
She sagged back, some of the fight seeping out of her in palpable waves. Her lips parted, begging to be kissed. "I am attracted to you, so much. I want you to know that."
"I know." And damn, damn, damn, but that knowledge blazed through him until he wanted her all over again. Here, now, against this tree until her cries of completion reverberated through the forest.