Night Maneuvers
Author:Jillian Burns

chapter 1

IF SHE EVER got married in a place like this, her mother would weep and wail for a month of Sundays.

Captain Alexandria Hughes, unlikely bridesmaid, looked around the small Las Vegas chapel, taking in the garish pink and purple drapery swags and the fake marble pedestals holding bouquets of fake white roses. The dozens of white candles weren’t too bad, but…the Elvis impersonator in the cheap gold jacket would have to go.

Or maybe not. Maybe her mother would be so grateful if Alex ever married at all that Mom would even agree to let Elvis officiate.

The lone daughter in a family of three sons, Alex had been her mother’s only hope for all things girly. Unfortunately, Alex had always preferred roping calves to baking pies. But that had never stopped Mom from trying. Even after twelve years, she still hoped Alex’s Air Force career was merely a rebellious phase that would end when she met Mr. Right.

The wedding march suddenly blared from speakers. She let all thoughts of Mom slip to the back of her mind and turned with the dozen or so guests to watch the bride walk down the aisle.

God, Jordan looked beautiful in that strapless white dress. The material shimmered and the full skirt flowed down to the pink shag carpet and swished when she walked.

Alex flattened her palm and pushed at an ache in her stomach. Must be nerves for her friend. She could never rock a wedding dress like that. For one thing, she had nothing in front to hold it up. For another, she’d have tripped over all that material puddling around her feet.

Luckily, she’d obtained permission to wear her dress uniform even though the wedding wasn’t being held on base. She preferred her uniform to one of those froufrou dresses. Her uniform was familiar, comfortable. The only primping she’d done was shining her dress shoes and polishing her saber. The amount of fuss most women put into their looks had always seemed so ridiculous.

Until recently.

Major Cole Jackson, er…former Major Jackson of the U.S. Air Force—now Officer Jackson of the Las Vegas Police Department—beamed at his bride as she advanced down the aisle. Pure love for Jordan shone in his eyes and Alex felt a stab of…was that envy? Nah. Jackson was a good buddy. After what he’d been through in Iraq, he deserved happiness. She’d about busted a gut cheering for them when he and Jordan had announced their engagement.

It was just the look that came over Jackson whenever he gazed at his fiancée. Like she was the missing part of his soul. Even the toughest airman might get a little knot in his throat watching that. Even McCabe.

Alex glanced over at Captain Mitchell McCabe, aka the best man. Okay, so maybe not McCabe. He was too busy winking at the redheaded maid of honor standing in front of Alex.

She clenched her teeth. What a player. But she cleared her expression and smiled as Jordan stepped up and took her groom’s hand.

The vows were short and sweet, even with Elvis curling his lip and swinging his hips to punctuate each statement. Pastor Elvis pronounced Jackson and Jordan husband and wife and then Alex and five of her fellow uniformed officers pivoted to face each other, drew their sabers, and formed the arch.

Jackson—looking fit and strong in a simple black tuxedo—extended his elbow to his bride. They passed beneath the arch and kissed. After Lieutenant Colonel Grady issued the command to return sabers to belts, everyone headed into the next room for cake and champagne.

Whew. It was over. Maybe now Alex could get something to drink and go prop up a wall somewhere. She removed her white gloves and spent the next twenty minutes nursing her beer and glaring at McCabe’s seduction routine as he hit on the redhead.

Never mind his practiced words. All Mitch had to do was stand there and women flocked to him. Even with the short military cut, his blond hair begged for a woman’s fingers to run through it. His mischievous light blue eyes and tall, muscular build were simply icing on the cake. And when he smiled? Forget it, women were down for the count. Those twin dimples were the strongest weapon in his arsenal, and even his slightly crooked teeth only added charm to his deadly grin.

Fury ramped up as Alex watched him. When she’d returned to Nellis Air Force base after a two-year stint at Langley, she’d hoped to find he’d gotten past his I’ve-been-screwed-by-my-ex-wife-and-now-I’m-just-here-for-the-party phase. But it’d been seven years since his divorce, and, if anything, McCabe was worse now. She’d thought losing that bet with Jackson, forcing him to be celibate, might be the beginning of change for Mitch. But he’d seemed to make it through the ordeal unscathed.

“Alex, come get in the picture.” Jordan took her elbow and led her to stand in front of the table where the cake and punch had been served.

The photographer fiddled with the tripod.

McCabe lined up next to Alex as Jordan gathered more people into the picture. “Aren’t you going to find someone to go home with, Hughes?” McCabe murmured into her ear. After a dozen years of friendship, it irritated her how his Southern drawl still flowed through her core like premium oil through an engine. “It’s practically required at weddings, isn’t it?” He winked at the redhead.

“I think you’ve made the quota for both of us.” She swiped her hat out from beneath her arm and clasped it behind her back.

“Aw, Hughes.” McCabe grimaced. “What happened to you at Langley? Two years away from Nellis and you’re no fun anymore.” He scooted closer and placed his arm around her shoulder as Jackson and Grady took their places on either side of them. “I remember a time when we used to race to see which one of us could close the deal first.”

“Once. We did that once. Almost a decade ago.” When she’d have rather died than let her fellow cadets know she was a virgin. Her mission that night had been to find some guy she’d never see again, get laid and get it over with. Geez, that seemed like a lifetime ago.

“Has it been that long?” He looked down at her, his eyes twinkling mischievously and his teeth gleaming white.

She scowled. “Not long enough, I guess.” Not if Mitch was still strutting around like a stag during mating season. He hadn’t gotten any better since she’d transferred out of here for Langley.

Following the photographer’s instructions, she scrunched in and placed a hand on McCabe’s back. As she smelled his expensive sandalwood cologne her stomach dipped like she’d just rolled her F-16. Damn it. She refused to let him get to her anymore. He was the reason she’d asked to transfer out of Nellis. She’d moved hundreds of miles away trying to extinguish whatever she might have imagined she felt for him.

It had hurt to see him drinking and sleeping around after the divorce. She’d understood it. Up to a point. But she’d finally had to put some distance between herself and her buddy. Watching him become more and more callous had broken her heart.

Now she was just annoyed. Ever since she’d been stationed back in Vegas, resentment burned in her gut watching him continue to behave like a shallow serial dater. She’d hoped in time his flame of hatred for his ex would burn itself out. But she could see now that Mitch McCabe was determined to be nothing more than a walking booty call.

As the camera flashed, she forced a smile, and then stalked off toward the restrooms.

MITCH WATCHED HUGHES storm away. Something nagged at him. He was glad she was done with her internship at Langley, but his buddy had changed since she’d transferred back to Nellis last year. What was eating her?

While the bride and groom posed for more pictures with family, Mitch checked his Tag Heuer. Ten o’clock already. And a Friday night. How much longer was this shindig going to last? The only single woman in the room was that saucy redheaded friend of Jordan’s. She’d flirted for a while before telling him she already had a boyfriend. Mitch’s most important rule where women were concerned: no poaching. He sure as hell wouldn’t do to some other poor schmuck what had been done to him.

Finally it looked as if the newlyweds were taking their leave. Jackson was acting like a lovesick fool, hanging all over his bride as if he had emphysema and she was oxygen. Even their buddy Grady—Mr. Control Freak—in an embarrassing public display of affection, had his wife, Lily, wrapped in his arms as he kissed her neck. Lily had wasted no time reeling the poor sucker in last year. And now that he’d returned from his tour of duty in Iraq Grady couldn’t go two sentences at work without mentioning his wife.

When Hughes reappeared, Mitch sauntered over. He shook his head and rocked back on his heels. “Pathetic,” he said under his breath. “First Grady falls on his sword, and now Jackson, slipping the matrimonial noose around his neck.”

“Jordan and Lily aren’t like Luanne, Mitch,” Hughes said.

Pain stabbed his chest at the mention of her name. He couldn’t believe Hughes had brought up his ex. Hughes knew, more than anyone else, how Luanne had destroyed him. “All women are the same, Hughes.”

She glared at him, her hands curled into fists. “Are you saying I’m like Luanne?”

He blinked down at her. “No, but you’re not really like…a woman.”

Hughes’s eyes narrowed to slits, and splotches of red appeared on her cheeks. “Not like a woman?” She ground the words between her teeth.

“Of course not.” How could that piss her off?

“McCabe, you may be the most clueless male on the planet. If I didn’t think it would upset Jordan, I’d take you outside right now and rip you a new one.”

Mitch smiled. This was the Hughes he knew how to deal with. “You and what squadron?”

The bride and groom approached and Hughes gave McCabe a menacing glare before turning to accept Jordan’s hug.

Jackson slapped him on the back and pulled him in for a one-armed hug. “McCabe, you dog. Your thirty days start today, buddy,” Jackson announced.

Mitch stiffened. “What?”

“Remember last year you lost the bet and had to play monk for a month? You couldn’t believe I was thinking of settling down with Jordan. And you once said if I ever got married you’d do without for another month.” Jackson lifted one brow.

“Now, wait a minute.” Mitch shook his head. Dread hit him low in the gut. “That wasn’t technically a bet.”

Jackson’s mouth crept up in a slow grin. “So, you don’t stand by your word.”

“Of course I do!” Mitch’s insides chilled as the legitimacy of Jackson’s challenge settled over him like a bad case of the flu. He’d forgotten he made that promise to his buddy. Celibate for another thirty days? Last time he’d been somewhat prepared. Not because he was sure Jordan would give in and sleep with Jackson, but mostly because Mitch hadn’t minded going without if that meant his buddy had a good time with the beautiful blonde. He shoved his hands into his pockets and turned on his heel, scowling at the ground. One glance at Hughes showed her smirking. The angry, hell-bent glint in her eye gave him the willies.

Jackson clapped him on the shoulder, bringing Mitch’s attention back to the departing couple just as Jackson turned to his smiling bride and gave her a deep, promising kiss. The jerk did it just to rub in what Mitch would be missing.

Then, with one last wave, the newlyweds headed outside to their waiting limo. At the door, Jordan glanced over her shoulder and tossed her bouquet.

Mitch felt a small measure of satisfaction when the cluster of flowers slapped Hughes in the face and landed in her hands before she could duck for cover. “Damn it,” she mumbled.

He chuckled. “Jordan should have been a bombardier with that kind of aim.”

Hughes turned on him, her eyes blazing like laser-guided missiles. “You better get a wrist brace, McCabe.” She gave him a surprisingly wicked smile. “’Cause for the next thirty days, your right hand’s gonna be your best buddy.” She marched out the door.

Geez, what had he ever done to her?