It’s just a little bit over 1 month away from the release of my 2nd book UNTIL THERE WAS YOU and to celebrate, I’m blog hopping with Romance at Random.
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Evan winced and shifted his assault pack to the opposite shoulder as he studied the only woman in the room wearing a military uniform. Glancing at the other woman’s name tag as he approached, he recognized Captain Sarah Anders, the support company commander. But Evan couldn’t take his eyes off Claire. A woman who ate napalm and pissed razor wire and inspired Evan to want to throttle her every time they were in the same room together.
An officer who could not spell doctrine if it was stapled to her forehead.
A woman he could barely be in the same room with without watching her body move, without wondering if she was as wild in the bedroom as she was on the battlefield.
He stopped and looked down at her where she sat, next to the massive fireplace in the center of the lodge with the support company commander. “Why are you in uniform?” His words came out too sharp, but then again, what else was new.
Claire raised both eyebrows. “I’m working, ergo I’m in uniform,” she said. “Is there a problem with that?”
“You’re in a civilian ski lodge, off-post, after duty. You should be in civilian clothes.”
She smiled coldly. “That’s rich, coming from you. You’ve practically got ‘Duty, Honor, Country’ tattooed on your ass.”
Evan sighed and shifted his pack to the other shoulder. “Fine. Sleep in your damn uniform if you want.”
“What crawled up your ass?” she said. “You’re not usually this charming until day four of a field problem.”
“Never mind. Forget I said anything.” Evan sighed hard. “I have more important things to do on this mission than argue with you.”
“I would have thought you had more important things to do in, oh, say, Iraq but you still managed to argue with me all the time over there.”
He pinned Claire with a deadpan look. “Are you trying to piss me off?”
She smiled sweetly. “I don’t actively have to try, now do I?”
“Okay, well, you two obviously have some catching up to do.” Sarah stood and Evan shifted to let her by. “Claire, call me tomorrow?”
Evan watched as Claire stood and hugged the other woman. An odd sensation caught in his throat at the genuine emotion on Claire’s face. She looked soft and appealing, in a way he had forced himself not to notice. He stared at her for a long moment before he caught himself and roughly cleared his throat.
“I need to run through the plan with you,” Evan said. Claire looked like she was about to argue but she didn’t say anything. “But I need some coffee first. Can we go to the restaurant?”
“Sure, I could use a refill,” she said.
Wary of the sudden truce, he followed her back to a quiet corner, wishing he didn’t notice the way her hips moved. There was an aching familiarity about seeing her in uniform. As though he’d been missing it—missing her, which was ridiculous. He didn’t even like her, let alone miss her.
He supposed it was just part of the transition of coming home. Every single time he returned from a deployment, he went through a period during which he wanted nothing more than to be back with the team he’d been with downrange. Seeing Claire in uniform fed the need for the familiar he’d found himself longing for since he’d been back from this most recent trip to the sandbox. Being around her was comforting, even if it was Claire.
He let himself wonder if she ever wore her hair down. He hadn’t seen it down since the first night they’d met. Was it still long, or had she cut it? It was a beautiful color—dark, dark red, halfway between copper and deep cherry.
He’d long ago come to think of Claire Montoya as all hard angles and sharp edges. Prickly. But with her head tipped forward and her hair starting to come loose at the back of her neck, she looked . . . soft. Soft and—dear lord, was he about to think desirable?
Holy hell, he needed to get some sleep if he was going to keep this little obsession under control.
The waitress saved him from any further awkward thoughts. Evan ordered a coffee, and then flipped open his files. “So let me ask you this,” he said, pulling out a timeline. “What’s your assessment of the unit? Are they prepared?”
“They’re a brand-new brigade. More than half the soldiers have never deployed and Sarah’s company, sadly, is just as inexperienced as they are. Hell, Sarah hasn’t deployed since ’04, right before her husband died. The war has changed so much since then. So the long answer to your short question is no, they’re not prepared.” Claire’s eyes darkened, the strain showing in the tension in her neck. He looked down at his coffee as she continued to sift through his files. “There is not enough time for all this,” she said, her movements stiff and jerky, and he caught the slightest tremble of her fingers. She set the papers down, picking up a sugar packet.
She sipped her coffee and set the cup down abruptly, pulling out a folded sheet of paper from her notebook and drawing his attention there. “Look at the timeline. It’s filled with things we don’t need to waste time on. We don’t have time for this stupid bonfire tonight. We need to get these guys on the range and start training as soon as possible.”
He recognized the gesture for what it was: an attempt to shift the conversation away from the worry for her friend to something she could control. He tapped the paper in front of her. “I take it we didn’t manage to get out of the bonfire?” He wondered if she would be changing out of her uniform for the evening, and then mentally slapped himself for falling down that rabbit hole again.
“No, we didn’t, and I resent the hell out of glad-handing and ass-kissing when we could be training.”
Evan sipped his coffee silently, watching her try to rein in her emotions.
“The platoon leaders brief their mission plans to the brigade commander the day after tomorrow, and the next day we start training. They don’t have enough tents, though, so they’re sleeping in their motor pools to simulate small forward operating bases in the cities. We’re back in the hotel every night instead of sleeping in the field like we normally would on a mission like this.” Her voice lowered, dark and husky and filled with unsaid things.
“Are they ready for the inspections to start?”
“The fact that these inspections are another stupid waste of time notwithstanding, no, they’re not ready. But we’re starting tomorrow, regardless.” She blew out a hard, frustrated breath. “If I were running this damn thing, I’d skip all the useless PowerPoint briefings and go straight to running missions. Training isn’t something you talk about, it’s something you do.”
A spark of passion lit her eyes when she spoke about training. Her intensity sparked a latent energy inside him, twisting in his belly. His lips curled into a faint answering smile as it dawned on him—she got a charge out of training. Call it an adrenaline boost or a combat high, but Claire didn’t just enjoy what she did, she loved it. Her eyes were dark and aroused, her body keyed up. It was singularly the most stunning change he’d ever seen in a woman.
“What?” she asked.
“The army. You really love it.”
Claire smiled, the first real smile he’d seen on her lips since their team had arrived in Colorado. “Yeah. I do.”
It wasn’t her hot temper or her fierce beauty that drew him. It was something else. A barely contained fire, a spark on the edge of a pool of gasoline, waiting for a gust of wind to ignite the world around her. And the reaction it caused in him was no less intense. No less fierce.
He shifted uncomfortably, then cleared his throat. The sound pulled her attention from the agenda and made her look up. She shifted the paper, and he gripped the edge to angle it so he could see it better. His fingers slid against hers, and he froze. She looked up, their fingers still touching, her green eyes darkening. Then she swallowed and pulled her fingers free from his touch.
This was not the woman he knew—the wildfire, out-of-control officer he was used to seeing in the tactical operations center. That woman made snap judgments and spoke before engaging her brain. This woman was restrained. Tense. This was new, a side of Claire that Evan had never seen before.
Her gaze met his, hesitant.
“What are you doing?” Her voice was thick, edgy and filled with a wariness that made his heart flip in his chest.
“Listening to your brief.” His voice sounded off to his own ears, harsh and rough.
“You haven’t heard a word I’ve said.” She leaned back in the booth and stared at him, a sharp, hunted expression in her eyes. “Don’t look at me like that.”
Silence hung over them, awkward and cold. She said nothing, and he could see her searching for the right words, fighting the edge of panic. “Like you’re looking to start rumors. Captain America doesn’t sleep with members of his team, remember? Violates some superhero code or something.”
“I wasn’t planning on sleeping with anyone, let alone with you,” he said dryly.
She laughed out loud and just like, that, the tension snapped and fizzled into an almost comfortable silence. “Well played, Captain America. Well played.” She paused then. “Do you have any issues with this training plan?”
He studied the chart that outlined the key measures of success for the convoy operations. After a long moment, he glanced up at her. Shadows fell across her face, casting it in a soft, subtle glow. “No. The timeline sucks, but the convoy stuff is a good plan.”
“All right, that does it,” she snapped.
“You’ve never said ‘good job’ to me on anything. Why are you suddenly signing off on this without an argument? What’s wrong with you?”
He stared at the simmering anger reflected in her features, his body tightening at a sudden, vibrant image of Claire rising above him, her body glorious as her hips spread over his. It slid through his veins insidiously, taunting him with Claire and suddenly so much more. No more tight hair and harsh angles. Lush hips and full, heavy breasts and wild, unrestrained passion.
Claire the woman, not Claire the soldier.
“Nothing.” Abruptly, Evan pushed away from the table and walked from the room. He had no idea where this massive error in judgment was coming from, but there was no way in hell he was attracted to someone like Claire.
Except that he was. And it shook him to the core of his soul to admit he had been from first time he’d first met her. He’d just spent every waking moment denying it since then.
It unnerved him to think Claire was suddenly more than a woman in uniform. He didn’t date army women. He didn’t bring many women into his life or his bed, and invariably, they left, and it was always the same story. He was cold. He was distant. He was too rigid, too controlled.
Maybe that was true. But it hadn’t mattered to him until now.
What he saw when he looked at Claire was a dark and primitive being. It was Evan surrendering to the wild need burning inside him.
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