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Five Years Ago: Randolph Air Force Base, Texas

Lieutenant Nola Seabrook accepted that she could face death on Monday. But for the weekend, she intended to celebrate life to the fullest.

She gripped the door of the Officer’s Club bar, preparing herself to do something she’d never even considered before. She intended to find a man—a stranger—for a one-night stand.

Lucky for her, she was away from her home base, which gave her a wealth of unfamiliar faces to peruse. Country music and the clang of the bell over the bar swelled as she swung the door wider to reveal the Friday-night crowd.

No crying. No fear. She would forget herself with some stranger and lose herself in sensations she might never feel again.

Nola shouldered deeper into the press of bodies. The room reverberated with cheering. The place was packed, as she would expect on a Friday night, but the majority clustered in a circle to the side, was the source of the whoop, whoop, whoop. And “Go, Lurch! Go, Lurch!”

Lurch? Now there was a call sign for a guy worth investigating.

Curiosity nipped, sucking her feet sideways.

She angled toward the commotion. Sidestepping an amorous couple making tracks toward the door, she caught sight of a chalkboard mounted on an easel. A bartender stood beside with a stubby piece of chalk to scratch out numbers. Ah. Bets. But what for?

She sidled through to the inner circle. Her eyes homed in on the source of the noise. The focus of the cheering was…

A man.

Holy cow, what a man. On the floor pumping push-ups in BDU pants and a brown T-shirt, he clapped between counts—ninety-five at the moment. The number hit a hundred and still he didn’t stop or even hesitate. Must be his size that earned him the nickname “Lurch” because, holy cow, he was big.

Two men in similar uniforms split from the crowd carrying a fifty-some-odd-year-old waitress on their shoulders like Cleopatra. With ceremonial hoopla, they placed her on the man’s back. His arms strained against the T-shirt, muscles bulging, veins rippling along the stretch of tendons, but still he pushed.

Up. Down. Again and again.

Ohmigod, her own tummy did a flip of attraction. Arousal. And hadn’t she come here for just this reason?

Twenty-five years old and she didn’t have anyone else to turn to for comfort, which could really pitch her into a tailspin if she let herself think on it for too long.

Her elderly parents gone. Her marriage kaput because her ex-husband couldn’t take the stress of a wife who might not live to see thirty. Zero siblings. Her best friend deployed to Turkey. Her only other friends a bunch of rowdy Air Force crew dogs who spent as much time on the road as she did, and she really couldn’t see herself showing weakness by bawling her eyes out to any of them.

Charge ahead, girl.

She made a quick check of his left hand. No wedding band. No pale cheater mark along his tan ring finger. Sheesh, she wished she’d thought to change into something other than her flight suit.

Too late for regrets. She was here now, and if she left to change, the man in front of her might be gone by the time she returned. Besides, she didn’t want to miss a second of this display.

Sweat started to pop along his forehead and even a hint along his shoulders, but still he kept moving. The man was a poster boy for health and vitality.

Invincibility, perhaps? All things she so desperately wanted to soak up right now. She found herself clapping the count along with everyone else.

“One hundred forty-eight.”

He switched to one-handed push-ups. The crowd roared louder.

“One hundred forty-nine. One hundred-fifty.”

He reached behind to steady the waitress and jumped to his feet, easing the apron-clad lady to hers, as well. With all the showmanship of his single-handed display, he wrapped an arm around the waitress’s waist, dipped her and gave her a quick kiss before setting her free. “Thank you much, Delphine.”

“No problem for you, Captain Rick. Anytime you’re in town.”

Rick. She liked that name. Solid.

However if she didn’t get her butt in gear and make a move soon, he would be gone. Nola stepped forward. And thank you, Jesus, that’s all it took.

He looked her way and his deep chocolate eyes held. Without breaking the stare, he smiled, snagged the rest of his uniform off the back of a chair and slid his arms through, slowly buttoning up over his chest.

DeMassi was stitched over the left pocket and above that she recognized the insignia for a pararescueman. He hurtled himself out of planes. Penetrated the most hostile of territories. Anything to save a downed airman, to bring someone like her home.

Honorable to the core and darn near invincible, for sure. Even his patch proclaimed That Others May Live.

He fastened the last button and started toward her. “Hello, Lieutenant Seabrook.”

“Hello to you, Captain DeMassi.”

“Do you have a first name?”

“Nola, like New Orleans.”

“Ah, classy.” He extended his broad hand toward her. “I’m—”

“Rick. I heard from your cheering section.”

“We’re all away from home, coming in from maneuvers to one of our favorite Officer’s Clubs, needing to let off some steam. They would have cheered on anybody.”

“So you say.” She folded his hand in hers, warm and strong.

More of that vitality she needed. Her imagination skipped ahead to thoughts of his hand against her skin. She didn’t need to worry about concerns of compatibility or depth. This was about the moment. She refused to let echoes of her mother’s preaching voice make her feel guilty or shallow.

Nola’s hand stayed connected to Rick’s, shaking, seesawing slower and slower, up and down like his push-ups until finally she inched away with a self-conscious laugh, wiping her hand against her flight suit leg. “This is awkward.”

“Why so?”

“I want to be all collected and say something femme fatale perfect but now I’m…” She started to turn, her nerve wobbling. “Forget it.”

His hand fell on her shoulder, heavy and warm sparking another jolt of that alive feeling she needed.

“Wait,” he said.

She looked back and what she saw in his eyes mirrored the sensations zipping through her like lightning traveling through an aircraft—not fatal, but hair crackling, unsettling, and oh so invigorating.

“Yes?” She meant the word as a statement as well as a question.

“How about this?” He held her with those deep eyes rather than his hands, as if sensing she needed space. Would he be this perceptive in bed? “Let’s not worry about saying the right things. We can say whatever we want, even if it’s a damn awful first date wrong thing to say.”

Date? She was thinking encounter, but okay. Breathe. His game had intriguing merit. The bar patrons kept their distance, even if they watched with half-veiled interest.

Hesitantly, she hitched her elbows back onto the bar. “You go first.”

He propped one arm beside her and leaned in to make his move, his shoulders blocking everything but him.

“I live with my parents.” He thumped his chest with his fist and belched. “Mom does my laundry.”

She burst out laughing. Settling a somber expression, she responded, “Speaking of laundry, I just don’t get what all the hoopla is about fancy underwear.”

“Ouch. You go right for the jugular, lady.” He grabbed his head in mock agony. “All right, time for the big guns. My doc said not to worry. It’s only a cold sore.”

“Then you should be able to enjoy our meal together.” She reached for the laminated menu wedged between the condiments. “What’s the most expensive item featured?”

“I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter since I maxed out all my credit cards.”

“Fair enough, since it will soon be our money because I’m husband hunting.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Her divorce left her scathed, but good.

“Ah, good one.” He tapped his forehead, then snapped his fingers. “As long as you don’t mind going a lifetime unsatisfied in bed.”

“As long as we get to go to bed together.”

“I’m counting on it.”

She froze and so did he. They weren’t playing anymore.

He held out his hand. “Dance with me.”

And she did. Silently. Talking softly about anything, mostly seductive. For hours until the crowd thinned and the bell rang for last call. They broke apart and he extended his hand again. She knew if she took it this time they would be heading for a different kind of dance, the one she had come here searching for.

Again, her hand fit perfectly in his. A short stroll later they had walked to his room in the visiting officer’s quarters. He kicked the door closed behind him.

She didn’t even bother telling him she’d never done anything like this before. Truth or not, she didn’t want to sound trite and she didn’t intend to see him again anyway. He seemed okay with that. No guilt for either of them. She was through with words and he seemed to feel the same way.

Between kisses, their clothes fell away until only their underwear remained. Skin to skin. Her hands explored the hardened expanse of his muscles more impressive than she’d even imagined.

And her imagination had been mighty darn amazing. She’d been right to do this. This was exactly the escape she needed this weekend to take her away from the ordeal that awaited her next week.

His talented hands made fast work of the front clasp on her bra and he swept the lacy scrap down her shoulders with reverent fingers. A long, slow exhale slid from his mouth, blowing an appreciative whistle over her exposed skin. “Wow, lady, you are something to behold.”

Gulping back emotion, she lifted his hand, placed the callused warmth over her bared breast and savored the sensation as if for the last time. Which it very well could be.

Because Monday, combat veteran that she was, she began her toughest battle ever—one that started not with a mission briefing, but with a mastectomy.

Chapter 1

Present Day: Wilford Hall Medical Center, Texas

Major Rick DeMassi forced his steel-pin-filled legs to move as he gripped the metal bars for balance. He narrowed his focus to a tunnel as he always did on missions, and no undertaking had been more important than getting back on his feet again.

Every day in rehab he resolved to end this one better than he finished his final assignment during the cleanup after Hurricane Katrina. The carnage had threatened to suck him under, but he’d kept his eyes on the teddy bear ahead, sticking halfway out of the muck. After years of search and rescue, he’d known in his gut there was a child close by.

Too bad his gut couldn’t tell him if that child was alive or dead.

Now there weren’t teddy bears to zero in on, even theoretically. His teenage daughter was long past the age of such toys. Still he wanted to greet her on his own two feet someday soon—as the hero she thought he was. So he went through the daily torture of grabbing these damn bars and shuffling one shattered leg in front of the other.

What a joke in comparison to the old days when he leaped from helicopters. Swam churning waters. Or sludged through unstable wreckage toward a stuffed toy to pull out a child.

“Careful, sir.” The voice echoed in his head. Then or now, he wasn’t sure. The stench of antiseptic burned his nose as strongly as the stench of rotting muck. “Steady is better than fast.”

One foot in front of the other.




For the kid. For his child. For the trapped child. Both merged in his head. The past and the present. Both times painful, squeezing labored breaths from his body until he thought he didn’t have anything left inside him but somehow he kept going. Running then. Shuffling now. The irony didn’t escape him, but he wasn’t a quitter.

“There isn’t much time left,” the sergeant said, an orderly watching him like a babysitter in case he fell, but the voice could have been from the past, rushing him along. Urging him to the cargo plane. But he couldn’t leave the little girl and her doll behind.