Private Maneuvers Page 2

Touch-and-go. Her heart rate fired like jet pistons chugging to life. Why did a routine flight term suddenly sound sexy courtesy of Dr. Keagan?

Duh! Because his bad-boy, fine self was sitting no less than eighteen inches away, his eyes gliding over her flight suit with a heat she'd never, never had sizzle her way before from any guy. After all, men did not look at their best bud that way, even if said bud was a woman.

Darcy savored the heat all the way to her toes.

Twenty-five years of virginity, of overprotective relatives, of being everybody's pal and never the object of those sleepy-lidded stares, weighed her down like a seventy-pound survival pack ready to be shed after a marathon trek. She was tired of being slotted into safer roles.

Why wait until after this mission to go for what she wanted? Here was a big, hunky risk ready for the taking.

And she could have that risk without breaking her personal rule. No military men. No men like her father, government protectors by training, trade and blood.

Before she lost her nerve, Darcy extended her fist toward Max. Her fingers unfurled to reveal a now-steady palm full of sunflower seeds. "Want some?"

Max stared at that slim hand, up to Darcy Renshaw's wrist where a pulse double-timed in a fragile vein.

He wanted a lot more than sunflower seeds from the leggy dynamo seated beside him. Her flight suit and take-no-lip attitude assured him she could probably down the average man in five different ways. One helluva woman, no doubt.

Not that he intended to act on the impulse to accept that challenge. Following impulses could get even the best of CIA officers killed.

Or worse yet, someone else.

"Thanks. But I'll pass."

A flicker of disappointment chased through her amber-brown eyes. Followed by an impish flash of determination.

Well, damn. Flattering, sure, but her timing stunk. He couldn't afford distractions, not now when eighteen months of deep cover was about to pay off.

Finally he would discover the traitor who'd sold out Eva two and a half years ago.

Captain Baker's arm shot past toward the seeds. "I'll take 'em, Wren."

She blasted him with an exasperated eye roll. "Crusty, do you ever get full?"

"Nope. My jaws just get tired of chewing." The wiry relief pilot grinned.

The other pilot added his nod of agreement.

In need of mental distancing from the leggy distraction beside him, Max studied the three bickering crew members who would fly him across the Pacific. He slid into work mode with determined focus, mentally merging the real people with the profiles from his intelligence briefing.

Captain Tanner "Bronco" Bennett. Air Force Academy grad who'd turned down a seven-figure pro-football contract to serve his country. Combat vet. Trustworthy, team player down the line.

A dry smile tugged at Max. His father would have given his favorite fishing pole to have a son like that.

Too bad, old man. You got me.

Max shifted to the next pilot. Captain Daniel "Crusty" Baker. That rumpled flight suit housed a razor-sharp liaison to the Air Force's Office of Special Investigations. A dark-ops test pilot with a penchant for junk food — and the only one on the crew who knew Max's real mission. As much as Max chafed at checking in with anyone, he accepted the military intel contact as necessary if he wanted this operation. And he did. Badly.

He allowed his gaze to stray to the last flyer. The one he'd forced himself not to assess first simply because he wanted to look at her too much.

First Lieutenant Darcy "Wren" Renshaw. Military brat with an impressive Air Force family tree. Top graduate out of ROTC and pilot training. And Papa's pampered princess, slotted as a last-minute sub on a primo mission.

Max let his gaze linger.

Darcy shot repeated comebacks to her crew while scooping a hand into her thigh pocket. He had to admit. Those were great thighs attached to her sleek body.

She tugged out her blue military hat, then dug deeper. As she reached, he studied the back of her head, the silky cap of short brown hair.

No, wait. Brown wasn't the exact color and details were important in his job. Right?

He looked again, resisting the urge to test the texture with his fingers. Cinnamon, maybe? Like the stuff a neighbor lady of his used to sprinkle on golden-brown cookies warm from the oven.

Darcy whipped out another bag of sunflower seeds and pitched them across the room, catching Crusty Baker square in the chest. "That's it, Baker. No more mooching or I'll tell the flight kitchen to fill your lunch with raw eggs."

She turned her back on the two pilots, her full attention on Max. "Must be pretty cool wearing a swimsuit to work."

"Saves on dry cleaning." Max flipped a mental switch, shutting off all thoughts except his upcoming crew brief.

Darcy propped her elbow on the table, chin on her palm, landing smack in Max's line of sight. "So you spend a lot of hands-on time with your job?"

Hands-on? With two little words, she'd flipped that switch right back.

He told his libido to take a swan dive off the nearest cliff. "With applied science labs at the university—'' along with marine mammal training at the Pt. Loma, California, naval facility "—I spend the majority of my time in the water."

Which was true. Two cardinal rules of undercover work: keep it close to the truth; keep it simple. And a small uncorrupted part of himself resisted lying to an innocent.

Better drown that impulse, too, chump.

"Ever been to Guam before?"

Damn, but she was nosy underneath all that guileless enthusiasm.

He rolled out his rehearsed cover story that mixed in a splash of truth. "I went to the South Pacific a few years ago while writing my dissertation." Truth, minus the part that the CIA had already recruited him. He'd annotated footnotes while dodging bullets in some Southeast Asian cesspool. "I was part of the dolphin rescue team flown out when two calves beached in Guam."

"Now you're the one to set them free. How cool to get closure." She edged forward, her scent of baby powder and soap edging further right into his senses.

"Guess you could call it that." God, she smelled good. Clean and untainted, and so unlike anything he'd been exposed to in years. He'd almost forgotten people like her existed, were in fact the very reason he'd signed on with the CIA. Back in a time when he'd planned to save the world and have the secret satisfaction of showing up his father.

See, Old Man, I can serve my country as well as you, but on my own terms. Screw creased uniforms and buzz cuts.

Max nudged a stray sunflower seed with his foot. His ratty deck shoes made an appropriate contrast to the polished sheen of Renshaw's combat boots.

"So, Doc, did you always want to work with dolphins? Be a marine biologist?"

Time to turn those questions around. "Did you always want to join the Air Force?"

"Yes," she said.

But her eyes said no.

An awkward silence settled.

He studied her suddenly guarded eyes and wondered at the reason. She seemed one hundred percent military. Crisp conformity and camaraderie above all.

He knew the type well, just like his old man. The Air Force uniform on the C-17 crew might differ from his father's Navy whites, but Max recognized the military mantle that transcended service branches. All the same, he felt those glimmering eyes luring him like a mythological siren.

Not wise on the job.

Max forced himself to remember every detail of Eva's murder. How he'd been unable to save his lover, his CIA dive partner. How he'd held her in the crashing surf while she bled out. Taking their unborn child with her. All because some faceless bastard had been turning over American agents in the Pacific.

No way in hell would Max lose this chance to put a name to that traitor. Finally he'd found the link when the military reported intercepted communications. Agency intel analysis pointed to a leak in Guam, most likely a tap on one of the military's oceanic communications cables.

Time was critical now with missions being flown in the Cantou conflict. Intercepted flight-planning data could allow the enemy to shoot down U.S. aircraft at will.

Shutting down all underwater cables out of the island wasn't an option. But once he identified the tapped cable with the help of his trained dolphins, a few tantalizing nuggets of transmitted misinformation would bait the trap. Then the CIA would tighten the net around the whole enemy spy ring.

Tighten around one double agent in particular, and by God, Max wouldn't let anything distract him from being the one to reel that traitor in.

A flash from the projector jarred Max back to the present. The Navy officer dimmed the lights to half power. "All set. Dr. Keagan, are you ready to begin?''

"Of course." Max shoved out of his chair. Hell yes, he was ready to lose himself in work.

Turning from the lure of siren eyes, Max focused on his graphs projected onto the screen. He worked better as a loner anyway, always had.

The less a man had, the less he had to lose.

This time, Max Keagan will lose it all.

* * *

The operative known as Robin stood on a rocky outcropping and scanned the Pacific skyline. Soon Max would be in Guam. A fitting place to finish it since the South Pacific island earned so much history for both of them.

The rest of the world might buy that sappy cover story about freeing a couple of dolphins, but Robin knew better. Sure they would be set free. Eventually. But first the trained government dolphins would perform one last mission with CIA Officer Maxwell Keagan.

Together they would locate the tap the Cantou government had placed on a U.S. military underwater communications cable.

A mission Keagan could not be allowed to accomplish. Too much valuable information filtered through that line.

The phone vibrated in Robin's hand with an incoming call. Encrypted cell phones made this too easy. "Yeah?"

"We expected an update yesterday."

"I'm on it. Keagan takes off before sunrise." Waves crashed against the rocky cliff. Salty spray stung the skin, the eyes, rasping against every sense and demanding remembrance of another time.

"Do you need more support?"

"Negative." Definitely not. No one else would get a shot at Max. Personal debts demanded payment face-to-face. "Give me time to monitor his underwater search pattern."

"Good point. With any luck he'll be miles off. As long as he and his dolphins aren't close to the transmitter, there's no need to risk riling the Agency by eliminating him."

Robin stifled the urge to argue. Not a chance would Keagan walk away. Max would die this time, even if it meant feeding him enough information to put him and his god awful flamboyant wet suits on top of that line tap.

If only it were as simple as just popping him. But without the payoff, there would be no plush retirement.

No. Better to make Keagan's death palatable to the other side. "I'll check back when I have more."

Robin disconnected. Anticipation stung with as much power as the exploding surf.

Only a few weeks at the most until the easy life in Switzerland, thanks to money saved from years of bartering secrets to other countries. Ensuring the security on that tap of the U.S. military's oceanic communications cable out of Guam would rake in the final jackpot.

Not to mention an added bonus in the sweetest payoff of all—finally delivering lethal revenge to Maxwell Keagan.

And heaven help anyone who stood in the way.

Chapter 2

Would you please get out of my way?" Darcy elbowed aside Crusty's arm before he could swipe her sunflower seeds from the C-17's control panel. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm trying to fly an airplane."

"Show some respect for your elders." Crusty's chuckling voice echoed through the headset from his seat behind her.

"Yeah, yeah." She pitched the bag over her shoulder while keeping her other hand steady on the stick.

The night sky swam before her windscreen. Stars dotted the panorama as if dropped there, like in one of her nephew's pop-up books. Bronco sprawled in the aircraft commander's seat beside her, reading a book and periodically checking her controls.

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