Night Maneuvers
Author:Jillian Burns

chapter 5

Present day


How had his life gotten so messed up? Mitch slowly ran a hand over his face, then took a deep breath and headed for his jet.

“Eat my afterburn, McCabe.” Hughes knocked into him as she passed him, striding across the tarmac to her F-16. Before she climbed up into her cockpit, she paused and smirked, then yanked on her helmet.

Mitch stopped in his tracks and blinked. This morning, in her bulky flight suit, thick combat boots and helmet hair, his old buddy looked nothing like the siren from the bar last night. And yet, all Mitch could think was, had she always had freckles? Before yesterday he couldn’t have said. But her turned-up nose suddenly seemed sweet and sexy all at the same time.

And God help him, just being near her had him fantasizing about the tightness of her nipples beneath his fingers, and the way her body had molded itself to his.

Snap out of it, McCabe.

This morning was the battle of the squadrons. They were teaching a tricky air combat maneuver to upperclassmen. With the Rolling Scissors, things could get hairy. Just the way he liked it. His adrenaline spiked as he climbed aboard his baby. There was nothing better than streaking across the sky in his F-16. It usually cleared his mind, brought life into focus.

After takeoff, the purple Nevada mountains on the horizon disappeared as he rolled over and headed for the Hoover Dam in preparation for simulated combat. Mitch loved seeing the endless expanse of unpopulated desert from this altitude. It seemed like a giant sandbox in which he got to play king of the world.

Suddenly he caught sight of Hughes’s Falcon racing toward him. But it wasn’t his buddy, Hughes, he pictured manning the cockpit. It was the woman in that dress last night.

I’m not going to sleep with you. Not now. Not in three weeks. Not ever.

Before he realized it, he’d missed his first turn, and then made it worse by overcompensating. That had never happened to him before. Not even as a rookie.

Hughes was forced to go off maneuver to avoid a crash. She bit off an expletive through the com. “What’s the matter, Casanova? Keeping it in your pants short-circuit your brain?”

Suddenly, Mitch hated his call sign. “You’d know more about that than me, Tex.” He turned starboard to get back into position. “Let’s try that again.”

“That’s what your last girlfriend said,” Hughes taunted.

Mitch grinned. Good ol’ Hughes. “Yeah, she couldn’t get enough of me.”

“Not much to get from what I’ve heard.”

Like hell! He’d show her he was more than adequate in the size department. Just wait until— Damn it. Since when did he let Hughes psych him out like that?

“No comeback, Casanova?” He heard her malevolent chuckle through his headset.

Mitch cursed under his breath. Everyone on the com could hear their exchange. “I was just trying to protect your rep, Tex.”

“Oh, yeah? How’s that?”

“Didn’t think you wanted everyone to know you were interested in my…uh, dimensions.”

Ah, the sweet sound of silence.

“Get it right this time, Casanova.” She was headed straight for him again. He concentrated on the maneuver, making the first turn with the precision he was known for. Then he “scissored” back and forth, crisscrossing paths with Hughes. Their wing tips passed within feet of each other. No question about it, she was good.

“Hey, Tex?” he called to her over the com as they got into position for their second demonstration. “What?”

“Eat my contrail.” He buzzed past her, flipped over and headed for the stratosphere.

“MCCABE! IN MY office. Now.” Commander Westland stood just inside the hangar, his arms folded, and his usually stern expression even grimmer. At least he’d dismissed the trainees before calling Mitch in for a dressing-down.

Marching in from the tarmac, Mitch kept ahead of Hughes, but she caught up to him at the hangar door.

“McCabe, you idiot! You could have been killed,” she hissed.

Was he imagining it, or was that a quiver of concern in her voice?

Hands trembling, he gave one glance back to his Falcon. It was true. He’d screwed up. Bad.

Once in Colonel Westland’s office, Mitch saluted and stood at attention.

“What happened out there this morning?” Westland never raised his voice. He didn’t have to. His menacing tone could make the most hardened gang member cringe.

“Sir, I have no excuse,” Mitch said. “I allowed myself to become distracted.”

The colonel folded his arms, raised an eyebrow, and stared at Mitch. “You want to screw around, Captain McCabe, do it on your own time, and with your own hundred-and-thirty-million-dollar aircraft, you got that?”

“Sir, I—” But what could he say? I can’t stop picturing Hughes in a red bra and panties, so I can’t fly with her anymore? Yeah, how fast could he say dishonorable discharge?

“Captain McCabe, I’m only going to ask this once. Do you have a personal relationship with Captain Hughes?” Westland asked.

“No, sir. We’re friends, sir. That’s all.”

Westland leaned against his desk and stared Mitch down. “All right.” The colonel narrowed his eyes. “Whatever’s going on with you, get over it. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes, sir,” Mitch said.

Westland pointed at the door. “Dismissed.”

Mitch blinked, saluted, then pivoted on his heels.

No way Westland believed him. Had the commander heard the rumor of their kiss? Was Hughes getting a dressing-down from Grady? That could ruin her chances for further promotion. Mitch couldn’t let her take the fall. He’d make sure he talked to Grady before he left the base tonight.

After changing out of his flight suit, he met up with Hughes at the double doors of the mess hall. Mitch glanced at Hughes. She peeked at him.

“About the screwup today—”

“I told Grady it was my fault.”

Mitch blinked. “And he bought that?”

Slowly, a grin spread across her mouth. “Partly.”

Why had Hughes come to his rescue? Twenty-four hours ago, Mitch wouldn’t have questioned her motives, but today, well, he saw her differently. She was…a woman. And he didn’t need a woman doing him any favors. Women were devious, unreliable, out for whatever they could get.

“You shouldn’t have jeopardized your promotion.”

“Hey, that’s what buddies are for, right?”

Were they still buddies? He’d never questioned that before. And he didn’t like doubting it now. Hughes used to be just one of the guys. But hell, was she?

The thought of not having Hughes as a friend shook him. She was the only one who’d always been there for him. Avoiding her gaze, he headed for the lunch line like they did every day. As they passed tables, the room quieted.

Hughes slowed down and Mitch noticed airmen staring, following them as they grabbed lunch trays. Then he saw Sanders. The only guy in the room not staring at them. He was limping toward the door at a fast clip.

Hughes ignored the stares and piled her tray with her usual two sandwiches, bag of chips, apple, a bottle of tea and a bottle of water. Just one of the many things he’d always liked about her. No false declarations of needing to lose weight and eating only enough to keep a gerbil alive.

Didn’t show on that figure of hers, though. His gaze wandered down to her butt as she moved to sit across the table from him. Her ass was in prime condition. And so was the rest of her. The clinging dress she’d worn last night had left just enough to the imagination to drive a man insane.

“Hughes got catsup on her chest?” Their buddy Grady slid in beside Mitch and set his tray on the table.

Squeezing his eyes closed, Mitch realized he’d been staring at Hughes’s breasts, picturing them as they’d been last night. He was going insane. But even more unbelievable, Hughes herself hadn’t said a word. Since when did she miss a chance to make some remark at his expense? She was studying her sandwich as if it revealed the secrets of the universe. And was that a blush on her cheeks?

“I, uh. She… We—”

“This awkwardness wouldn’t have anything to do with a certain lady in a red dress at the officers’ club last night, would it?”

Hughes’s gaze snapped up to Grady. “You heard?”

Grady grimaced. “I don’t think there’s an officer on base that hasn’t.”

Panic seized Mitch. That meant somebody had probably seen him kiss Hughes. And not just kiss, he’d groped her with about as much finesse as a horny teen.

“I don’t listen to gossip,” Grady said, giving a pointed look to Hughes. “Just wanted to warn you. You’re not in the same squadron, but you still work together.”

Mitch winced. They were both up for promotion. His career was everything. And there was nothing more important to Hughes, either. At least, to the Hughes he used to know.

“I was just finally paying McCabe back for Guam,” Hughes spoke up, and then took a huge bite of her sandwich.

Guam. That’d been, what, four, five years ago? He’d told a bar full of gamblers that Hughes was a nymphomaniac, after which she’d had to fight off a truckload of drunks. He and a few other guys on leave had jumped in and they’d all been hauled off by the MPs. Mitch almost chuckled.

Of course, he’d known Hughes’s act last night had been a prank. And yet, he’d fallen for it. Damn, she’d probably had someone videotape the whole thing and post it on YouTube. An irrational feeling of betrayal crept up Mitch’s intestines.

Not Hughes. Anybody but Hughes.

That kiss had been…real. At least, for him. And she’d acted as if it felt entirely real for her, too. Would she deceive him like that?

“You all right, McCabe?” Grady cut into Mitch’s dark thoughts.

Mitch nodded. “Absolutely.” He forced a grin. “Man, Hughes got me good. I should’ve seen it coming after losing that bet with Jackson.” He ducked his head and spoke low only to Hughes. “You know, I could get you into bed if I really wanted.”

Hughes snorted. “Yeah, right. Lucky for me you’re…er, off duty for the next three weeks.”

The derision in her tone pricked his pride. As he stared into her eyes, an electric charge zapped between them.

And suddenly he pictured her again as she’d been last night. Only this time she lay on his bed, her head in her hand as she beckoned him with a crooked finger…

Grady cleared his throat and the image shattered. “So, you ready for night maneuvers, Hughes?”

“Yes, sir.” Hughes took a bite of her sandwich. “Looking forward to it.”

So Hughes was going to start teaching night maneuvers? That meant she’d be on night rotation for at least three weeks. With his day schedule, he’d never see her. Maybe that was a good thing.

He glanced at his watch, shoved his tray away and stood. “Got a class.” He nodded at Grady and turned to go.

“McCabe!” Hughes called after him, and he glanced back.

“Don’t forget. My place. This weekend.”

Her place? He blinked as an image of them rolling across her bed shortened his breath. Had she changed her mind about—

“I’ll bring my extra rollers and trays,” Grady said.

Oh yeah. Her new house. They’d promised to come help paint. “I’ll be there.” He shook his head. “Jeez, Hughes, you wear a dress once and turn into a nag.”

He’d taken three steps when an apple thunked him on the back of the head.

Damn, that felt good.

ALEX’S HANDS SHOOK as she reached for her sandwich again. She could feel Grady’s stare on her as she took a bite.

“Just a prank?” he said quietly.

“Good one, huh?” she answered around the food tucked in her cheek.

She took another bite of her sandwich as he continued to watch her with the intensity of a raptor closing in on its prey.

“What?” She slammed her sandwich down. “You gotta admit he deserved it, after the hundreds of women he’s left in his wake.”

Grady merely raised one brow.

“You don’t seriously think I have the hots for Mi— McCabe?”

His eyes widened. “Never thought of that.”

Great. Now she’d planted the idea in his head.

“We’re friends. That’s all.”

He picked up his soup spoon. “Whatever you say.”

Alex shot to her feet. “Come on, Grady. You know me.”

Seemingly unaffected by her fuming, he shrugged and ate his soup.

She unclenched her fists and took a deep breath. She protested too much. And Grady knew it.

As long as no one else did.