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“And safe. Thank you for all you’re doing for me. I’m not sure if I’ve said that. You’ve certainly gotten more than you could have known when you signed on.”

He skimmed his fingers over her unbelievably soft curls. “You’re more woman than anyone could have known.”

He braced his hands on either side of Nola and leaned in to kiss her. The familiarity, the rightness of it all caught him square in the gut.

Was this a second chance, too? He’d been so certain he should keep his distance, but what if…

He eased back and stared at Nola’s beautiful face that offered him sky-blue eyes to dive headfirst into for as long as he chose….

The sound of revving cars reminded him they stood in a public place, with people all around. Not the time for these thoughts or to carry this any further.

Rick stepped back and shouted over his shoulder. “Lauren, hurry up, kiddo, we’re ready to roll outta here.”

He opened Nola’s door for her, closed it behind her and made his way around the hood. Just as he reached for the door handle…

Nola’s scream split the night.

Chapter 14

Fiery pain lanced up her foot. Had she stepped on a needle? No. It felt too deep. Too horrible.

A knife?

But the agony felt more like fire flaming from her foot up her ankle.

“Turn on the light,” she panted, even as the overhead dome already blazed.

Rick leaped across his seat. Before she could gather herself to search the floorboard, Rick’s curse filled the vehicle. He grabbed her by the shirt and hauled her across the seat, out his side, shouting, “Lauren, get away from the car. Now! Scorpions.”


No wonder her foot hurt. She’d worn open-toed shoes out of vanity to show off her painted toenails. Her mind raced. Thank God, Lauren had worn those clunky—ugly as all get-out—boots. Had she even gotten in the car?

Were there scorpions in the dirt? But they didn’t have the creatures here. Her mind fogged. From the fear or toxin, she didn’t know.

Still, she forced herself to think of the others. Rick always wore boots these days, too, for the extra support. They would hopefully be fine.

By the time she finished those thoughts, the three of them were in the parking lot and Rick was barking instructions. “Check your pants. Be sure nothing crawled up inside.”

Her skin fired at the mere thought.

His hands began patting her down. “You’re fine, Nola. You’re going to be okay. I’ll get you to the hospital in minutes.”

Already a crowd gathered around her and Mako rushed to the front holding out his keys for them to use, while Rick barked instructions to secure the area in case any scorpions had crawled out of the vehicle. How long did she have? She tried to remember from her instruction in survival school after pilot training, but holy crap, there had to be like a thousand different kinds and just breathing evenly took all her energy as Rick scooped her up in his arms. One fact blared through the panic.

Her stalker had struck again.

The next morning, Rick wished he could pace in the hospital’s waiting area. That would work off some of his nervous energy, but his legs wouldn’t cooperate. Instead he was stuck waiting in one of the uncomfortable industrial chairs that was half a size too small for him while he waited for Nola to finish her release processing after her night spent in the hospital.

At least he’d gotten Lauren on a plane home with hurried, but surprisingly comfortable goodbyes. And Lauren had seemed nearly as shaken as him by Nola’s trip to the E.R.

He’d spoken to Lauren the minute she’d landed in Atlanta. Now he just needed to hear that she’d made it to New Hampshire and back into her mother’s safekeeping.

The electric doors swished open, a cool burst of air from outside swirling in along with three of Nola’s squadron friends he’d met at the party the night before.

The in-flight mechanic, Mako; the wiry genius junk-food-junkie pilot, Crusty; and the football-player-looking pilot, Bronco.

Rick shoved to his feet, determined to meet them on even footing.

Crusty pulled up to a stop in front of him. “How’s Nola doing?”

Rick nodded toward Bronco. “His flight doc wife has cleared her to leave, but stay on bed rest. Nola’s checking out now.”

The three men eyed him, chests puffing like a line of overprotective brothers. Yeah, they were all posturing, but he could see the genuine concern in their eyes, and since he cared what happened to Nola, too, he couldn’t fault them. Suddenly he realized one of these guys wasn’t married. Sure, Mako was enlisted and that was taboo for dating, but that didn’t stop plenty of people in the military.

Possessiveness pumped through him.

“I’ve got her from here.” Rick stepped forward, pulling himself to his full height, only Bronco matching him in inches, but not a chance did the easygoing guy equal him in intensity when it came to seeing to this woman’s well-being.

Mako nodded slowly. “So that’s the way it is.”

Rick narrowed his gaze. “I’m not answering that and I don’t want any gossip about her.”

Bronco grinned and clapped him on the shoulder. “Well hell, now we have to like you.”

Hmm. Apparently, he’d been accepted into their brotherhood. “I’ll tell her you stopped by. I’m sure it will mean a lot to her.”

“We’ll wait.” Crusty nodded and the Three Musketeers found their seats.

Uh-huh. They were curious about him. He could see it in their eyes. He understood about squadron unity. He’d lived it and he missed it every single day.

Right now more than ever the craving for his old life razored through him.

Everyone sat around, no one speaking and Rick wasn’t ponying up information until he had a handle on what they wanted from him. A TV droned in the background. A phone rang at the nurses’ station. The low buzz of conversations hummed in corners of the industrial chairs.

Finally Bronco leaned forward, elbows on his knees. “What’s the deal with this stalker?”

“You really should talk to David Reis at the OSI, or better yet, Nola.”

“She isn’t talking to us. Out of misplaced pride or sheer recklessness, I don’t know, but we’re worried for her.”

Why wouldn’t she tell them? That didn’t make sense. These were obviously her friends. He sorted through the events of the night and he was certain none of them could have planted the scorpions. They’d arrived before he and Nola and they’d been a fixture at a table near Carson and Nikki all evening.

Why then would she depend on a watchdog she barely knew with a broken body over her able-bodied friends? More of the pride?

Misplaced pride. Her life could well be at stake. Sure she would probably be pissed with him if she found out, but he didn’t intend to bypass help that could well keep her safe.

“The guy’s ramping up his threat level. He started out with letters. Then rigged her car to blow. When she got home, she found a box of candy on her bed, opened so that only her favorites were left in the box.”

Crusty’s foot propped on his knee twitched in perpetual itchy motion. “Sounds like this bastard is a master at psychological torture.”

“I’m not even close to finished. Next he rigged all her credit cards and bank account so she had no money. That threw me because I expected his next move to be another attempt on her life. This seemed like a step back. That made me think. Nola is very much a woman of habit. She always does things the same way. So perhaps he knew she would turn on her car by the remote control. Maybe he didn’t mean to kill her then because he knew she would use the remote. He merely wanted to scare her. That made sense, because then taking her money was a step closer because she couldn’t replace her vehicle.”

Crusty’s twitchy foot paused. “What happened after that?”

“He called, using a voice-altering device, but clearly sounded male. He made it doubly clear he’s done playing and is ready to move.”

Bronco cracked his knuckles. “Somehow he knew about the squadron gathering. God, it can’t be one of us.”

Crusty’s foot picked up its nervous energy pace again. Did the guy mainline sugar? “I’ll talk to Reis regardless. We’ve worked together on some…uh… projects before,” he finished vaguely. Apparently there was more to this guy than met the eye.

All that aside, Rick had to focus on today. A lot could happen in the twenty-four hours until Monday morning. “I want this bastard caught. I’m tired of waiting around for the cops to do nothing. And I’m tired of watching for him to make his move when Nola’s at risk every second this guy remains free.”

Bronco finished cracking the knuckles on his other beefy fist. “Dude, I’m with you on that. This sicko sounds like he enjoys the game a little too much.”

An idea came to life in Rick’s mind. His hands clenched in fists in anticipation of leveling the bastard, face-to-face.

Crusty’s foot dropped off his knee. “Whoa, are you thinking what I believe you’re thinking?”

“What would that be?”

“That you want to lure this bastard out and catch him on your own.”

“I wouldn’t kill him.” Rick held up his hands in defense—even though he wanted to throttle the stalker. But he wasn’t a lawless creep like the man who’d made Nola’s life a living hell. “That would be illegal, after all. And I’ve sworn to uphold the beliefs of my country.” As much as he wanted the man dead, he couldn’t turn his back on his honor. But he would protect those he loved.



Hell yes, he loved her. He loved her grit, her humor, her tender heart, her passion. Most of all he loved the way she challenged him. She was one helluva woman. And he couldn’t let another day go by without doing something to make sure this bastard left her alone.

“No, I won’t kill him unless the bastard guns for Nola first.” He thought of the sheer agony this criminal had put Nola through these past weeks. “But I will make his life hell before turning him over to authorities.”

Crusty nodded. “Then you are thinking exactly what I imagined.” He looked at pensive Mako on his left and oversize Bronco on his right. Both nodded. “Want some help?”

The camaraderie kicked right over him in a way he hadn’t felt since his days as a part of a pararescue team. He’d known he missed it. He just hadn’t realized how starved he was until this second.

A man didn’t operate as well alone as he did in a team. He knew that, damn it. So what had he been trying to accomplish this past year in turning his back on his family? His child?

What if Nola had shown up on his doorstep twelve months ago? He would have been too much of a moron to recognize the best thing to ever walk into his life all because of his messed-up view of what made a hero.

A solid team built itself on the strengths of a cohesive group. He had something of value to offer. He was one helluva leader and here were men asking to take on the task.

Rick extended his hand to the three men in front of him, sealing the deal one handshake at a time. “I welcome the help, but I don’t want to worry Nola while she’s recovering.” He remembered how close Nola had come to dying, a thought that shook him in his boots. “Let me get her checked out of the hospital and settled in at the hotel again where I know she’s safe. We can meet outside her room by the pool and map out some plans while she sleeps.”

A cleared throat sounded from across the room. A distinctively feminine sound.


Rick didn’t need to be a master detective to realize they were busted. He pivoted on his heel and sure enough, there stood Nola, pale but still totally curvaceously hot in surgical scrubs with tousled hair. Her bandaged foot reminded him again how close he’d come to losing her—permanently.