All the Right Moves
Author: Jo Leigh

chapter 1

WITH THE TEMPERATURE hovering near a hundred, John Devlin climbed out of his new Corvette into the unrelenting Vegas heat, locked the car and pocketed his keys. The June sun was so brutal he considered parking closer to the market, but he dismissed the idea in a heartbeat. That was the trouble with owning an expensive sports car. You avoided dings even if it meant walking half a mile. Worth it, though, for the honey of a silver Corvette.

Any inconvenience was an acceptable trade-off because John was all about speed. In the air or on the ground, it didn’t matter, damn it. That had a much better ring than having a midlife crisis at thirty-three.

He crossed the asphalt and slipped off his Wayfarers just as the store’s automatic doors opened. Man, he did not like grocery shopping. Good thing he only had to do it twice a month, and only when he wasn’t deployed.

His grocery list rarely varied so he headed straight for the liquor aisle, grabbed a bottle of Lagavulin scotch, then moved on to the middle rows where he picked up a box of crackers and a loaf of bread. The blonde—he was pretty sure her name was Megan—behind the deli counter spotted him and smiled.

“Hey, Captain Devlin.” She had to be in high school, or barely out, but she gave him a once-over like a pro. Girls grew up fast these days. “A pound of turkey, sliced thin?”

“You know me so well.”

Her practiced smile said not well enough, which he ignored by studying the cheese selection. One time he’d stopped in wearing his flight suit and it had been Captain Devlin ever since. Nice to be anonymous sometimes, though being stationed at a base the size of Nellis, it wasn’t easy. He might as well have stopped at the commissary.

“You want a half pound of sliced Muenster, too?” she asked, her voice close.

He looked up to find her leaning with one hand against the glass case and checking out the front of his jeans. Jesus. “Yeah, Muenster. Thanks. I’ll be back for it.”

Not sure his mayo was still good, he headed down the condiment aisle, snagging a jar of green olives along the way. The Cold Beer sign caught his attention. He was officially on leave so why not? He managed to grab a six-pack without dropping everything. Barely. But he still had stuff to pick up. Sighing, he gave in and went in search of a basket. He found one near the express register and piled in his groceries.

The thought of returning to the deli counter was not a pleasant one. At the back of the store he stopped for a quart of cream and checked to see if Megan had set his order on the counter. Looking bored she stood at the meat slicer, pushing the blade back and forth, probably still working on his turkey. However, a well-dressed middle-aged woman studying the food in the glass made it safer to approach. She tapped her foot, gave him a cool glance, then looked at her watch.

If she wasn’t a military wife, he’d eat his boot. Coolly elegant even if the thermometer hit 120. They didn’t ruffle easily, could be ready to move halfway across the world on a moment’s notice and manage to throw a dinner party the night after they arrived. But get in their way? He’d never met a more determined bunch than air force wives needing to get a move on.

He ended up checking his own watch, although he couldn’t blame the woman. It felt weird being in a grocery store in the middle of the day. He was used to his routine, even if the routine was completely contingent on a dozen factors he had no control over. Still, for every flight there was mission planning, prebriefing, flying time, sortie, debriefing, qweep—all the soul-sucking paperwork—and ground ops. Never a dull moment, as they say.

Given that his time was his own for the next ten days, there was only one thing on his agenda. He had a decision to make. One that would impact the rest of his life.

“Here you go, Captain Devlin.” Megan was smiling, leaning into the case and holding out his order. Her lips were red. They hadn’t been earlier. “Anything else?”

“That’ll do it. Thanks.” John nodded at the older woman, who’d slid him a curious look. “Ma’am,” he said, dropping the packages into his basket and turning to leave.

“See you in a couple of weeks,” Megan called after him.

He lifted a hand without looking back.

In two weeks it could be a whole new ball game for him. He might be receiving new orders to test the latest in the F-35 series of jets, an assignment he’d wanted his entire career, or he could be shopping for a civilian wardrobe and learning everything there was to know about the Gulfstream 650. The worst of it was he didn’t know which fork he’d be taking. Not even a hint. His dependable decisiveness had gone AWOL. For maybe the first time in his life, he didn’t know what the hell he wanted to do.

He paid for his groceries, anxious to get behind the wheel of the ’Vette, not so anxious to be at the mercy of the desert heat. But when he stepped outside and heard the familiar roar of a Raptor overhead, there was nothing to do but stop, slip on his sunglasses and look up at the sky.

The Raptor was a thing of beauty, ascending into the clear blue heavens. Even after studying four years at the Air Force Academy and nearly eleven of active service he still got a rush watching a bird slicing through the sky. These days it was the most excitement he experienced on the ground.

Sitting in a cockpit was a different story. Strapped in and moving fast over the world he always felt alive and focused. It was when he came back to earth that things had gotten confusing. Something If he didn’t know better, he’d say that being a pilot wasn’t the end-all, be-all of his life. But of course it was. Everything he did, in or out of uniform, was preparation to take the controls. Everything.

He watched the contrail begin to dissipate, then moved toward his car. As soon as he pulled out of the parking lot he had the urge to press the accelerator, but that would have to wait. Too much traffic, and it would be slow going all the way to his condo near the Strip.

After an irritating twenty minutes of crawling behind a truck to his high-rise, John got his groceries put away in record time. Considered, then rejected, having a scotch while he checked email on his iPhone. The place smelled lemony, his cue that the housekeeper had been by. Couldn’t tell by the looks of things. He wasn’t home much. He didn’t get a lot of junk mail or magazines or papers. Mostly because all his mail went directly to his sister in Seattle. She paid his bills out of a joint checking account, which was a real lifesaver when he was overseas.

He flipped on the flat-screen TV hanging on the wall. The remote in one hand and his phone in the other, he moved to the massive glass window with a view of the Strip. At night it was very cool with all the lights and flash. This afternoon the brown tinges of smog hanging over the valley just depressed him.

With his focus on his phone screen, he aimed the remote at the TV behind him and flipped to ESPN. He had an email from Lauren, instructing him to deduct the cable bill she’d just paid, and letting him know his two nephews were nagging for a call or visit. That one was tough. He wasn’t anxious to talk to the family right now. He’d rather they didn’t know he was on leave or be reminded he was up for reenlistment.

They’d be appalled he was even considering ending his military career. Especially his father. John didn’t want to think about having that kind of discussion with the colonel. The old man would probably have a heart attack. But then his father had been damn lucky. During his thirty years of service he’d never lost a close buddy....

Hell, this wasn’t about Danny’s death. Or Sam being grounded, his career as an active duty F-16 pilot ripped away because of something beyond his control.

If the restlessness driving John crazy had anything to do with either of his friends, he’d admit it. No problem. He wasn’t trying to be the strong silent type. It was not knowing what was wrong that had him tied in knots. For all he knew, he’d wake up in a couple of months and everything would be A-OK. Trouble was, he didn’t have a couple of months. He needed to commit or get off the pot before this new downsized air force decided it could live without his services. Or before Tony Wagner, one of the richest men in America, got impatient and rescinded his offer to make John his private pilot.

He looked toward McCarran Airport and saw a commercial jet taking off. Leave at home was always disconcerting. Not going to the base made him feel vaguely anxious. No doubt he’d end up stopping by at some point. He’d see the guys over the next ten days. A few of his buddies were meeting for dinner and then club-hopping tomorrow night and then there was the party at Shane’s house coming up.

What to do now was the problem. He didn’t feel like TV or drinking alone or doing much of anything. Except driving. He hadn’t given the Corvette a good run yet. Slipping his phone into his pocket, he turned off the TV, then grabbed his keys from the kitchen counter. He’d head out to the desert and find a nice long stretch of road. And hope he avoided a speeding ticket.

* * *

“I NEED ANOTHER PITCHER. Oh, and two frosted mugs.”

Cassie O’Brien looked up from the textbook she had stashed by the plate of cut-up limes, and squinted at Lisa, then toward the pool tables at the back of the bar. “Who’s asking for fresh mugs?”

“Pete and Lou.” The waitress made a face. “Sorry. You need me to wash glasses?”

Cassie sighed. “No, but I wouldn’t mind you turning down the volume,” she said, glancing up at the speaker hanging from the wall between the Grateful Dead and Sugarland Express posters.

Good thing she didn’t have a gun hidden under the bar or she’d be tempted to shoot the damn jukebox. She didn’t exactly hate country music, and she didn’t even mind when the tunes got loud. But it was hell trying to study with all that racket.

“Your brother needs to hire another person for times like this.” Lisa eyed the psychology textbook as she dragged a chair under the speaker, then climbed up on it. “You should find someone willing to work odd shifts. He doesn’t know what’s going on around here half the time anyway.”

It wasn’t so much Lisa’s snippy tone but how she’d referred to Tom that tipped off Cassie that the lovebirds had had another fight. There was no doubt it was Tommy’s fault. She loved her brother. She did. But ever since he’d come back from Iraq he’d been tough to deal with, and unfortunately, Lisa suffered the brunt of his slippery moods. Cassie understood his bitterness, everyone did. But Lisa had stuck by him through months of rehab, filling in when Cassie couldn’t. Lisa loved Tommy, but the big dope was so caught up in his past he couldn’t see what was staring him in the face now.

Cassie was going to have a long-overdue talk with him. But first she had to seriously crack the books and take her three final exams. Not just take them, ace the suckers. The job market was too tight for an average grad student to expect to land anything decent. And dear God, she didn’t want to be a bartender her whole life. Or even by the time she hit thirty in two very short years.

In a week exams would be over and she would be able to breathe again.

At least until her final two classes started in September. Once she finished, then just maybe she’d find a real job before she was eligible to collect social security.

“Is that good?” Lisa asked, one hand hovering near the speaker’s volume control, the other flattened to the wall to steady the wobbly chair.

“Perfect.” Cassie wiped her hands on the towel hanging over her shoulder and held the chair until Lisa climbed down. “Thank you. Here’s your pitcher and fresh mugs.” She pushed the tray toward Lisa, blew at the annoying loose curl that had escaped her ponytail and leaned over the bar so she could be heard in the back. “Everyone hang on to your mugs. The dishwasher is broken.”

“I’ll come wash your glasses, you sweet thing.” It was Spider. “Wouldn’t want your pretty little hands to get shriveled up.”

Cassie and Lisa both shook their heads at the raucous laughter coming from his fellow pool players, most of them veteran bikers like Spider. She let him get away with more than most because he was old enough to be her father. In fact he’d ridden with her parents and the Diablo Outlaws for a few years when she was a toddler.

“I imagine you have your own shrinkage to worry about,” she shot back, exchanging grins with Lisa, who picked up her tray and headed for the back.

A chorus of “whoas” couldn’t drown out Spider’s laugh. He was a scary-looking dude with a long shaggy beard and a dozen fading tats trailing up his beefy arms and the side of his neck. But inside he was a teddy bear. She’d heard he hadn’t always been like that. He’d mellowed with age and a short prison sentence, and she was just fine with not knowing the details.

She looked around the room, recognizing every customer but one. That was how it usually worked at the Gold Strike, ever since Tommy bought the place and she’d started bartending here two years ago. A few unfamiliar strays came in throughout the week, some stayed and became regulars, the rest she never saw again.

What she liked best was the diverse mix of military vets, aging bikers, university students and staff from the nearby hospital who frequented the bar. They were a friendly lot, though they didn’t all know each other by name. Occasionally a few airmen from Nellis stopped in, and if it happened that college women were hanging around that day, she was likely to see the same guys again.

But the Gold Strike wasn’t close enough to the base to attract many active servicemen. At one time the place had been a hard-core biker bar on the outskirts of Las Vegas. When the growing popularity of the city meant residential and business areas kept spreading farther and farther out, the bikers finally said adios. Turned out to be a good deal for Tommy.

“Hey, Cassie.” Pete came from the back and slid onto a stool, leaned forward, swept back a stubborn lock of brown hair and stared at her with serious dark eyes. She knew he was twenty-one but he seemed so young she wanted to card him every time he walked in. “Help me out with something,” he said in a low, nervous voice while casting a cautious look toward the pool tables.

“If I can.” She braced her elbows on the bar and leaned over so no one else could hear. “What’s up?”

“I’m making dinner for this girl. I’ve only been out with her once so I wanna impress her.” He swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing in his thin neck. But his voice creaked from dry mouth and he kept sweeping stealthy looks toward the back. “I wanna buy wine, but I don’t know what kind or how much I gotta spend.”

Cassie filled a glass with water and set it in front of him. This was normal. For some reason people treated her like an information booth. No question was out of bounds, even though the regulars kept trying to stump her or embarrass her, but she never minded. “Does she drink red or white?”

Pete’s eyes narrowed. “How many kinds are there?”

“Do you know if she even drinks wine?”

His lips spread in a boyish grin. “I figure she does. She’s older.” He lifted his chin at a cocksure angle that he probably assumed was macho, and that she really wanted to tell him not to do. “Twenty-three, I think.”

“Ah.” Cassie got herself some water. “Do you know how to cook?”

“Yeah.” Pete shrugged a shoulder, his chin making a sharp descent toward the bar. “What do you mean?”

She would not laugh, no matter what. “What are you planning to make for dinner?”

“I mean, I can probably follow a recipe.” He drummed his fingers on the ancient scarred oak Cassie tried to keep polished. “You have a suggestion?”

“I do.” She picked up his hand. “First, get the grease out from under your fingernails. Seriously. I know you work on cars for a living, but this is a major turnoff.”

He blushed a little, withdrawing his hand, but didn’t argue. He knew the rule, all the customers did. They could ask her anything. But they had to be prepared for an honest answer.

“And don’t try to cook. It’s hotter than hell. Take her someplace—better than McDonalds,” she added, and he rolled his eyes. “Then when it cools off, go for a moonlit walk along Lake Mead. Drink a beer or two in the car. It’s illegal but only if you get caught.” She winked. “Don’t try so hard. If it happens, it happens. Just don’t bring her here.”

Pete almost choked on his water. He used the back of his arm to wipe the dribble on his chin and glanced at his pool buddies, the merciless bunch. “No way.”

She grinned. “Now get out of here. I’m trying to study.”

He hopped off the stool. “You want me to wash this glass?”

“No. Go.” She motioned with a tilt of her head, but her gaze went to the front door when she heard it open.

It was her brother. Sitting in his wheelchair, rolling down the handicap ramp into the room.

Damn him.

Lisa walked up with her empty tray pressed to her hip and gave him the scathing look he deserved. She didn’t say a word, just turned and placed the tray on the bar so that only Cassie could see the hurt and disappointment in her blue eyes.

Unshaven, his collar-length hair poking out in search of a comb, Tommy didn’t bother to acknowledge them as he passed and started to wheel himself toward the back.

“Hold it.” Cassie stepped out from behind the bar, prepared to stop him if he didn’t respond.

But he knew better, and reluctantly wheeled around to look at her. “What?”

If the word hadn’t come out surly she might have felt more than a tug of sympathy. He was her big brother. Only two years older, yet he’d been as protective of her as a mother bear with her cub throughout their nomadic childhood going from one biker camp to the next. And she in turn had protected him in every way she knew how. But an IED on an isolated Iraqi road had taken his leg and changed him down to the core, leaving this wounded, antagonistic stranger. She wasn’t about to give up on him. No one who loved him could.

“Why are you in the chair?” she asked, blocking him so he couldn’t bolt to his buddies in the back.

“You know why.”

“If I did, would I be asking?” Her gaze fell to the T-shirt she’d given him for his birthday. “Your shirt is inside out.”

He looked down at the words Life is Good and laughed. Raising hazel eyes that were identical to her own, he blew out a sharp breath. “The leg chafes.”

“You had it refitted two weeks ago.”

“It still isn’t right,” he muttered, careful not to glance at Lisa.

“How come it only chafes when you’re feeling sorry for yourself?” Cassie held his gaze.

“Go practice your psychology bullshit on someone else.” He cursed under his breath.

Lisa turned and gave him another sour look before going to check on her tables.

“What’s her problem?”

“Gee, I don’t have to be a psychologist to figure that one out.” Cassie went back behind the bar before she said something she regretted. Part of this was her fault. She’d coddled him too much in the beginning. And when he’d bought the bar, she’d taken on the lion’s share of the responsibility, hoping like hell he’d find his strength in building something of his own. But it had been two years now, and he was still depressed, still stubbornly refusing medication or continued therapy. Unfortunately, she knew all too well that he needed to want to get better. If Lisa, who’d stuck with him through the worst of times, couldn’t get him there, what chance did Cassie have?

“You gonna pour me a beer while I go change this shirt?” He gave her a small smile, half apology, half don’t-be-mad-at-me.

That was the trouble. Maybe if she stayed angry with him long enough for him to grow up, get some counseling, they’d both be better off. He knew she had exams. He should’ve been prepared to cover for her tonight so she could study. But that wouldn’t happen. Not with him in the chair. Instead he’d spend the evening hiding from life and throwing darts with his friends.

And she’d pretend everything was going to be okay. “Yeah, I’ll get your beer.” She reached for a mug, watched him start to wheel away and decided not to let him off scot-free. “I’ll have Lisa bring it to you.”

He hesitated, his gloved hands still on the wheel rims, then without looking back, he shoved off, continuing toward the pool tables.

God, it made her sad to see him sitting in that damn chair. He should be upright, walking, doing things he hadn’t been able to do for two years. He hated the limp, but jeez, he was so lucky. He was alive. He was his own boss, he had people who cared about him. Although she’d never had to face anything that huge, so...

She streamed beer from the tap into his mug as Lisa came up to the bar. She looked defeated. Sad. If she gave up on Tom for good, Cassie wouldn’t blame her. Not even a little.

“Gordon wants another gin and tonic.” Lisa sagged against the bar. “Two more drafts for Mickey and Leroy, with shots.”

“My brother’s a first-class jerk.”

“Yes, he is.”

“Mind taking him his beer?”

“Can’t promise I won’t dump it over his head.”

Cassie smiled. “Might do him some good.”

“Sure couldn’t hurt.” The door opened and they both turned. “Holy...shit,” Lisa murmured. “Ever see him before?”

Cassie shook her head and quickly looked away. Tall, maybe six feet, dark hair slightly longer than a military cut, great body—the guy was too hot for his own good, and she wasn’t about to be one of those silly women who stared.

From her peripheral vision, she saw him take a seat at the end of the bar. She turned her head for just another quick peek and met his whiskey-brown eyes.