Private Maneuvers Page 1

Author: Catherine Mann

Series: Wingmen Warriors #4

Genres: Romance

Chapter 1

First Lieutenant Darcy "Wren" Renshaw flung her flight checklist on the planning room table with a resounding smack. Not much of an outlet for her frustration, but the satisfying thunk on scarred wood made her feel marginally better.

While her siblings pounded dictators in Southeast Asia, she was stuck flying Flipper to Guam.

Restrained anger pinged inside her like antiaircraft missiles. Darcy spun an empty chair and dropped into the seat at the lengthy conference table, eager to start and therefore finish this mission all the sooner.

For once she didn't plunge into conversation with the other aircrew members plotting their early-morning takeoff from San Diego bound for Guam—an island that still haunted her dreams. No need to infect the crew with her rotten mood. After all, transporting marine biologist Dr. Maxwell Keagan and his two bottlenose dolphins to the South Pacific was considered an honor.

An honor for the rest of the C-17 crew maybe, but for her? Darcy knew better. She hadn't earned this cake mission, an embarrassing reality that burned over her with the devouring speed of flaming jet fuel.

How dare her three-star-general father "encourage" the Squadron Commander to yank Darcy's combat slot to Cantou and schedule her as a last-minute substitute on the safer Flipper Flight? She'd worked her boots off to be deserving of the wings on her leather nametag since the first day of pilot training. She wouldn't start quietly accepting gift-wrapped cushy assignments now.

Sounds of Air Force crewdogs at work wrapped around her, the familiar routine offering none of its usual excitement. Rustling charts, clipped banter. Pilots. Loadmasters. Ground support. Every one of them having already pulled their rotation in conflicts around the world. She couldn't allow them to shoulder all her risks as well as their own.

Once she off-loaded Dr. Doolittle and his dolphin duo in Guam, she would confront her commander. If she wasn't qualified for combat in the Cantou conflict, then he should remove her from flying status altogether.

Darcy yanked a bag of sunflower seeds from the thigh pocket of her flight suit and wrestled open the cellophane. Munching away emotions she refused to let rule her, she cracked shells, slowly, one at a time to restore her calm while waiting for Dr. Keagan to arrive. "Anybody seen the dolphin doc around yet?''

Captain Tanner "Bronco" Bennett, the aircraft commander, looked up from his chart. "What's your hurry, Wren? He's got another ten minutes."

"Eight," Darcy answered without checking her watch. "To be early is to be on time."

"Cool your jets. He'll get here when he gets here." Bronco reached into the thigh pocket of his flight suit. "Since we're waiting, have I showed everyone the latest pictures of Kathleen and the baby at the zoo?"

"Yes!" the room collectively shouted.

Bronco held his hands up in good-natured surrender. "Hey, just trying to pass time till the guy arrives."

"I'm starting to wonder if you could fit enough pictures in your pocket for that, Captain." Darcy eased her grouse with a quick grin, drumming her fingers impatiently on the gouged wood.

She hadn't met Keagan yet, having only arrived at the San Diego Naval Air Station from her home base in Charleston, South Carolina, the night before. But the guy must have some heavy-duty clout to warrant military transport for his dolphins.

String pullers weren't high on her list of favorite folks, especially today.

This time General Pops had gone too far with the overprotectiveness. Sure, she'd been kidnapped in Guam as a kid. A terrifying experience for her family, and one she still couldn't dwell on for even thirty seconds without dropping her damned sunflower seeds all over the floor. But it was time to get past it.

Darcy cracked seeds one at time to focus her thoughts and calm her pissed-off senses. Maybe the time had come to confront her father, too. If only she didn't have to confront the inevitable worry on his dear craggy face, as well.

Why couldn't her dad understand that by clipping her wings, he'd always denied her the chance to put that week behind her? Her very nature, inherited from seven generations of Renshaw warriors, demanded she fight back. Like the squadron motto on her patch, she would be ready for Anything. Anywhere. Anytime.

She hadn't expected that to include hauling cetaceans across the Pacific.

Darcy jackhammered another salty seed with her molars.

Bronco spun her chair to face him. "Geez, Renshaw. How about I get you some rocks to chew? Wouldn't be half as noisy."

Bronco's linebacker bulk filled his chair as completely as his teasing filled the room. Darcy shrugged off her irritation and slid into the camaraderie with as much ease as zipping her flight suit. Childhood years spent as a squadron mascot while her classmates earned Scout badges had left her with a slew of surrogate big brothers and the ability to hold her own around any military watercooler.

She sprinkled a pile of sunflower seeds on top of the aircraft commander's chart. "Shelling is an art form, boss man. Didn't they teach you old guys anything when you went to pilot training?"

From across the table, Captain Daniel "Crusty" Baker scooped the shells. "We old guys must have been busy inventing the wheel."

"Old guys? Ouch!" Bronco thumped his chest. "Renshaw deals another lethal blow to the ego. My wife would be proud."

Crusty pitched the seeds into his mouth, swiped his hand along his flight suit and grabbed the bag for a second helping.

Darcy snagged it away, irritation creeping through in spite of her resolve. "Get your own, moocher."

Bronco eased back his chair, a big-brother concern glinting in his eyes she recognized too well. "What's got your G-suit in a knot today, Renshaw?''

Uh-uh. She wasn't answering that one. Her feelings were her own. Always had been since the terrorist raid on her childhood overseas home.

She clenched her fist around the shells until they sliced into her palm. One rogue seed spurted between her fingers and spiraled to the carpet. She inched her flight boot over it to conceal the seed as well as her momentary lapse.

Darcy popped another seed into her mouth. "I'm sorry. Were you talking?" She scavenged a quick grin. "I couldn't hear you over my crunching."

Chuckling, the two senior captains resumed pouring over Bronco's chart.

Tipping back her seat, Darcy dragged the industrial-size trash can forward and pitched her hulls inside. Time to launch this flight and bring her closer to launching her life, as well. She rolled her chair away from the table. "I'm going to find out what's keeping Keagan so we can get this mission off the ground."

Footsteps sounded from the hall, stalling Darcy half standing. The door swung open, voices swelling through as three men strode in, two in naval khaki uniforms, one in creased pants and a bow tie.

Ah, the professor.

Just as Darcy started to look away, another man strolled through the doorway. One glimpse at him and she lost all interest in studying flight data scrawled on the dry erase board.

Holy marine mammal, the guy was hot.

Six foot two, three maybe. Early thirties? Given his laid-back air and casual clothes, perhaps he was the graduate assistant accompanying the professor on the flight. A graduate assistant who looked as if he spent all his after-school hours on a surfboard.

Sandy-brown hair spiked from his head, the tips bleached from overexposure to the sun. The damp disarray could have been styled deliberately, but somehow she didn't think so. His five-o'-clock shadow at 8:00 a.m. hinted his only comb might be fingers tunneling through sun-kissed hair.

A sea-foam-colored windbreaker was zipped halfway up his broad chest. The banded waist grazed the top of his low-riding drawstring swim trunks. Slim h*ps and an incredible tush were covered by... flowers.

Loud tangerine and purple blooms blazoned from faded nylon hitting right around knee-length, obliterating her earlier frustration in a Technicolor sensory tidal wave.

After hanging out in an almost exclusively male world all her life, she wasn't often rattled by a man's physical appearance. So why were her fingers itching to comb through this guy's hair?

The senior Navy officer paused beside the dry erase board. "Sorry for the delay. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce Dr. Maxwell Keagan, head of Marine Mammal Communications at the University of San Diego. And his research assistant, Perry Griffin. Now that they've arrived, I'll set up the computer and projector while you introduce yourselves." The officer turned to the two civilians. "Dr. Keagan, we'll be ready for your brief in about five minutes."

"Thank you, Commander."


Dr. Keagan's answer hadn't come from Mr. Bow Tie, but from the surfboarder dude with incredible pecs and horrid fashion sense.

Darcy dropped into her seat with more force than a botched parasail landing. She blinked, stared again.

Sure enough those tropical-flower-clad h*ps were advancing toward her end of the table for an introduction. Not Mr. Bow Tie. That guy was crawling along the floorboards searching for an outlet for the computer like an eager-to-please research assistant.

Surfboarder dude extended his hand. "Dr. Max Keagan."

A beach bum with a brain. Fantasies didn't come any better.

"Hello, Doctor." Standing, she transferred her sunflower seeds to her left hand and extended her right. "Lieutenant Darcy Renshaw."

His callused fingers enfolded hers, his scent chasing right up the link to blanket her with intoxicating potency. Coconut oil, salty air and a hint of musk wafted from him, like a pina colada after long, sweaty sex on the beach.

If she'd ever had such a moment.

For a crazy, impulsive second, Darcy wondered what it would be like to make that memory—with this guy. A shiver whispered through her that had nothing to do with the whoosh of the air conditioner.

Did she see an answering attraction in his blue-green eyes? Maybe the slightest narrowing of his gaze to one of those sleepy-lidded assessments she'd seen her eight kazillion pseudo big brothers give other women when—

Bronco cleared his throat just before the chair behind Darcy jarred the back of her knees. Damn. Did the big guy have to kick it so hard? Be so obvious in pointing out she was still clasping Max Keagan's fingers?

Darcy jerked her hand away and glanced over her shoulder. Sure enough, the pilots stood side by side, a mismatched Mutt and Jeff with identical smirks.

Double damn and dirt. They would razz the hell out of her all the way across the Pacific.

She willed herself not to blush. Salvaging what she could of her pride and professionalism, Darcy pulled to attention. "Dr. Keagan, a pleasure to meet you."

Pleasure? She stifled a groan at her word choice.

Bronco snorted.

Forget salvaging squat. She turned on her boot heel toward the aircraft commander. "With all due respect, sir, I'm going to roll you off the load ramp right after we cross into international airspace."

She faced Max Keagan again, unable to read anything on the man's tanned—gorgeous—face. "I apologize for him and for my, uh..." Adolescent drooling? Mortifying lack of self-control? "For staring. You aren't quite what I expected."

"No problem. I've heard the same in more than one faculty meeting." He let her off the hook with a few simple words.

Oh, man. Smart, hunky and nice enough to grant her an easy reprieve when he could have been an egotistical jerk.

She was toast.

"Let's start again." Composure thankfully back in place, Darcy made the formal introductions without a hitch. They settled into their chairs, Bronco and Crusty suddenly opting for a new seating chart that left only one place for Dr. Keagan. Next to Darcy.

Great. Now instead of teasing her, they were "helping." She had her very own hulking Cupid with a sunflower-mooching cohort.

She probably needed their help. And then some.

If only she possessed as much ease with flirting as she did with touch-and-go landings.