Anything, Anywhere, Anytime Page 1

Author: Catherine Mann

Series: Wingmen Warriors #6

Genres: Romance

Chapter 1

Major Jack "Cobra" Korba, USAF, had mastered butting heads with mountains by the fifth grade when he discovered his ability to make people laugh. But right now he suspected there wasn't a knock-knock joke on earth that could offer much help against the 6500-foot rocky peak screaming toward his windscreen at three hundred knots.

"High terrain. Coming thirty degrees left," Jack clipped through the headset to his copilot.

Adrenaline crackled inside him like the popping flickers of light across his night-vision goggles— NVGs. The gear strapped to his helmet narrowed his vision into a neon-green tunnel.

"Copy that, Cobra, thirty degrees left," affirmed his copilot, Captain Derek "Rodeo" Washington.

The C-17 cranked left, massive cargo plane hugging craggy landscape. Desert dunes and jagged ridges whipped past in an emerald kaleidoscope haze.

He lived to fly. But today he flew as lead pilot for this mission so that others might live. One person in particular.

Rodeo ran his hands along the dimly lit control panel checking readings while Jack gripped the stick. No steering yoke like with older cargo planes, the Air Force's C-17 boasted the stick and grace of a fighter jet despite its hulking size.

Four more C-17s packed with Army Rangers trailed behind in formation. Total night swallowed them, no lights on the wings or ground. Only minimal illumination on the instrument panel guided them through the roller-coaster pass in their low-level flight.

Hazardous as hell to fly with NVGs, but necessary for stealthy penetration into enemy territory to offload cargo holds full of Airborne Rangers—the final phase of the mission to seize a Middle Eastern terrorist camp. Aside from having ties to 9/11, the radical faction had assassinated the ambassador to Rubistan and taken three American hostages.

Jack worked the rudder pedals, refusing to allow the need for vengeance to chink his concentration. Mountains to the left and right posed a constant threat outweighed by the benefits of masking them from detection by enemy radar. Visually, dark aircraft blended with the thrusting backdrop of sand and rock. Sound reflected off the mountains until pinpointing a plane's locale became all but impossible.

Hell, yeah, the protection from enemy ground-to-air missiles offered a hefty payoff to counterbalance the perils of weaving 174 feet of hurtling metal through a serpentine pass. At night.

All the more reason to nail this final training run over the Nevada desert. Soon to be a Middle Eastern desert. He contained the anticipation. Had to stay focused. Training missions could prove as deadly as the real deal.

Rodeo keyed up his mike. "Sixty seconds to turn point. Right turn three-zero-five degrees. Climb to 3700 feet. High terrain this leg. Peak, right side of corridor, 4900 feet. Stand by to turn."

"Copy, co." Jack's gloved hand clenched around the throttle, nudging it forward. "Heading three-zero-five. Climb to 3700."

Clipped numbers and confirmed calls zipped back and forth, every contingency considered. Jack hoped. Damn but did he ever hope since this was their last chance to work out any bugs.

Dust swirled in a murky haze from the 40,440 pounds of thrust from each of the four jet engines powering the C-17 past the arching peak. He steadied each breath in time with his heartbeat. Only a week until the three American hostages would be rescued. Only a week until Monica's sister would be free.

Major Monica Hyatt—the one mountain of will he couldn't move. His heart rate kicked an extra beat ahead of his breaths.

And God knows he'd tried to sway her to the point of screwing up their relationship so damned bad there was no going back. Probably for the best given that when Monica discovered he'd kept the plans for this mission from her, his flight surgeon ex-lover would likely take a scalpel to him.

Only by the grace of God and connections in D.C. had he managed to land himself in the position of primary planner as well as lead pilot. Having Monica in his biscuits was a distraction he couldn't afford right now. Not that she was speaking to him, anyway.

"Cobra, check right."

Mountains dipped beyond his windscreen. Jack roped in his thoughts. The weight of lives in the plane, as well as on the ground in that camp overseas pressed on his shoulders heavier than the bulky NVGs anchored to his helmet. "Copy, co. Got it visually."

Jack angled through a saddle dip where a valley divided crests into a stretch of desert waiting to welcome the aerial assault from rangers offloaded into the drop zone. Low and slow. He eased back on the throttle.

Keep cool. Laid-back but steady, his lifetime mantra.

Time to offload the troopers from the 75th Ranger Regiment. Jack thumbed the mike button to signal the loadmaster. "Tag, level at 3800 feet."

"Roger, Major. Level at 3800 feet. Ready when you are."

The loadmaster snapped through the checklist calls and confirmations until control panel lights signaled dual doors opening with the loadmaster, Tag, orchestrating. Tag, a looming silent mystery around the squadron and a magician in the air, offloaded cargo with a swift efficiency that resembled a disappearing act.

Fifty-five seconds later, one hundred and two paratroopers from his plane split the inky sky. Jack's grip around the stick loosened. The boulders on his shoulders crumbled. Sure the C-17s still had to return to base for a no-lights landing, but it was only their butts on the line now.

He shrugged through the tension.

With pressure easing, piddly ass concerns trickled over him like the sweat down his back. Such as the fact that his arm hurt like a son of a bitch from the immunizations required for a deployment to the Middle East. His hand slid up to rub the sore inoculation site.

Rodeo nodded toward his arm. "You okay, Cobra? They pumped us full of more crap than normal for this one. Damned morphing virus strains."

"This new anthrax shot feels like the time I picked up one of my sisters' curling irons while it was still plugged in." And it wasn't as if he could call on his favorite flight surgeon for TLC anymore. "Sometimes it's tough to tell which is worse, the shot or the disease."

"You'll survive. My mama used to dose me up with every inoculation the minute it cleared the FDA, sometimes before." A military brat, Rodeo had grown up around the world, moving with his Army medic mother. The guy could party in four languages and never left a friend alone in a bar fight.

A wingman to trust.

Why then did he trust Rodeo with his life in the air, but hadn't told a man he considered his best friend about the mess with Monica? "Doesn't seem your mama stunted your growth."

Rodeo's deep chuckles rumbled through the interphone without arguing. No need since his wiry height spoke for itself. "Made any plans to kill time before we ship out?"

"Me. My pillow. One-on-one for twelve hours straight." Jack pushed the throttle forward, climbing into the opaque sky.

"Don't hand me that hangdog crap. Let's head down into Vegas and hit one of the casinos' all-you-can-eat setup before we're stuck with a week of that mess hall shit on a shingle. Crusty was telling me the Rio's got this kick-butt Carnival World Buffet." He kissed his gloved fingertips. "Everything from sushi for me to those cheeseburgers you love. Too bad Crusty's already over in Rubistan. He's always up for food."

Vegas? Irritation and memories chewed his hide. "Thanks for the offer, but my bed has a kick-butt pillow that won't take me a half hour of driving to find."

If he could sleep the night through without dreams of Monica—or nightmares about her sister who'd been taken hostage simply because she wanted to feed a few hungry peasants.

Guilt slugged him and not for the first time. He'd used those same damned connections in D.C. to wrangle an introduction for Monica's sister with the Rubistanian ambassador. Bingo, her team with the IFB—International Food Bank—had been granted entree into Rubistan.

All because he'd wanted to impress Monica.

No matter how many times logic told him Sydney Hyatt would have found her way over there with or without him the guilt stayed.

"Come on, Cobra. What's up with you? We've got a week in Rubistan and then hell only knows how long in Germany afterward."

Jack grunted, running out of excuses and not in any hurry to share, even with Rodeo.

"Ah, I get it." Rodeo nodded, his hands running over the dim neon glow of the control panel as he noted altimeter settings and airspeed. "You've already got something lined up, maybe someone to meet you on that pillow. Korba, for a hairy, ugly son of a bitch, you sure score a lot."

He wanted off this subject. Now. "Not tonight, pal. I'm taking my hairy self to bed."

"Yeah, right. What's your secret?"

Jack upped the throttle again, bringing him closer to his pillow and the end of this chat. "I start with calling a woman by the right name."

"Ah, hell." Rodeo's curse rode a laugh. "Then I'm totally screwed."

The headset echoed with laughter from Tag in back, Rodeo's call sign no great secret. His first had been "George," a link to his last name Washington until word leaked that Rodeo had a reputation for shouting the wrong woman's name during sex. Rumor had it one offended babe of the week bucked him off and onto his bare ass in under eight seconds—rodeo style.

Minutes after the tale hit the Officer's Club, somebody tapped a keg for a new naming ceremony and "Rodeo" was born. A funny-as-hell moniker if it weren't for the fact that Jack suspected Rodeo always called out the same woman's name. Something Rodeo had never shared any more than Jack felt compelled to spill about Monica.

Sympathy knocked with a reminder of how close he could come to being in the same position. Bare butt on cold tile.

Sweat iced on his back. "How about after we wrap things up overseas and get back home to Charleston, let's take some time off? Hang out. No women. I've got a line on some tickets to a Braves' game if you're in for a road trip over to Atlanta."

And damn it, he would not think about how much Monica enjoyed ball games, as at ease in jeans and a ponytail as in her flight suit and a French braid.

"Sounds like a plan." Rodeo smirked beneath the NVGs, his teeth a mocking green grin. "Well, hope you enjoy your date tonight with your... pillow."

"I'm sure I will."

When he completed this mission, he could clear the slate and move on. Celibacy was a pain in the ass, not to mention other body parts. Much longer and he'd be qualified for a call sign change to "Blue."

Problem was, he didn't want anyone else. But if he didn't get his head on straight again, he would alienate everyone around him. What the hell happened to his normal boots steady, laid-back, keeping it cool?

Cracked desert heaved and rolled with rocky out-croppings leading back to Nellis AFB, the location hosting final mission rehearsal as all the combatants from different bases came together. The city lights of Vegas stayed well out of sight in their route chosen for NVGs.

Vegas. That must be what had him on edge, too many dark-cloud memories of his last trip here with Monica. They'd been so damned jazzed over landing a joint TDY—Temporary Duty. Then the news of her sister's capture had come through and everything spiraled out of control in a flat spin—unrecoverable.

Ridiculous to think for a second Monica would hang all over him in gratitude once she found out he'd taken on the upcoming mission to save her sister. Clinging vine wasn't her gig. Fine by him. He'd never wanted her to change.


Hell, no, he didn't expect gratitude complete with waterworks and hot, thank-you sex. Well, okay, yeah he would give his left nut to have Monica na*ed in his bed again. He was human. Male. Alive.

But he didn't want her taking him back out of gratitude. Rescuing the hostages was the right thing to do. It was his job. His mission. His calling. He would do the same for anyone's sister, mother, daughter—be they from the United States or Timbuktu.

Still, he couldn't stop the bitter surge of satisfaction in knowing that once he finished, he would damn well be imprinted on Monica Hyatt's memory, if not her life, as she'd been imprinted on his.

Only one more week and he would be free to sleep without hellish nightmares or tempting dreams. He could erase her name from his brain and off his mouth. Because no way did he intend to tap a keg for a call sign change to "Rodeo Two."

In two minutes flat Monica Hyatt talked her way past the cleaning lady outside Jack Korba's room at the Warrior Inn VOQ—Visiting Officer's Quarters. Piece of cake, since she'd changed into her flight suit after flying in on a commercial airline from Charleston.

Facing Jack again, however, would be tougher and more embarrassing than taping Band-Aids over her ni**les for the bathing suit competition in the Miss Texas pageant.

She'd been first runner-up for Miss Texas. She wouldn't accept anything but a win today with the stakes a helluva lot higher than scholarship money for medical school.

Monica clicked the door closed behind her. The thud of her combat boots against industrial carpet echoed a lonely tattoo in the empty room. The need to bawl her eyes out clogged her throat, her nose, her head. She couldn't afford the luxury. She didn't lose it often, so when she did, all the bottled emotions overflowed.

And since her sister's capture, she'd been containing a flood in a Ziploc bag.

Slinging her green military bag to rest on the foot of the bed, she paced off restless energy, tugged the spread smooth again. Straightened a lampshade. With each heavy thump of her boots, she reminded herself she was in control, a combat veteran. Sure she might have only taken the Air Force contract as a way to pay her way through med school when the pageant gig flopped. But the minute she'd put on the uniform, she knew.

It fit.

As a flight surgeon she treated the aviators, specializing in ailments induced by aerospace stresses to the body. A challenging way to serve her country while fulfilling her dream of being a doctor. Sometimes she broke into a sweat over how close she'd come to missing her niche. Of course, her high school guidance counselor in Red Branch, Texas, never mentioned combat boots as an option to graduating senior girls.

She'd just never expected to lace those boots in defense of her own family.

Monica stacked loose coins on the oak dresser, avoided touching Jack's wadded-up T-shirt trailing over the edge and tamped down images of what her sister must have endured during three and a half months of captivity. Her baby sister who splashed in puddles and forgot her lunch box.

Unshed tears burned like alcohol on an open wound.

Don't think. Her feet carried her to the minifridge where she helped herself to a bottled water beside a half gallon of milk. Her eyes grazed over Jack's predictable box of Froot Loops on top of the refrigerator. A smile tickled as she thought of how he hated mornings, always carting along a quick breakfast to bypass the extra time to find a mess hall or restaurant.