Taking Cover Page 2

Her breath hitched, a glacial gasp of air freezing a path to her lungs. At the oddest times his incredible size caught her unaware. She knew his vitals. Six feet five inches. Honed 238 pounds. Good cholesterol and blood pressure as of his last physical recorded in his chart stowed inside the ambulance.

Chart stats didn't come close to capturing the magnetism of the man.

He hadn't lost one bit of his brawny charm that had so enchanted fans during his four years on the Air Force Academy football team. Then when he'd chosen service to country over a seven-figure NFL income with the Broncos— Even she had to admire him for that.

Not that it would garner him special treatment from her.

Kathleen inhaled a deeper breath of chilly air to banish a warm hum in her stomach that she wanted to attribute to sleep deprivation and too much coffee.

Tanner shuffled over to her, pain etched in the corners of his eyes, skin pulling tight around his bumpy nose. "Hey, Doc, what are you doing out so late?"

Sympathy pinched her right on her Hippocratic Oath. Poor guy had to be in agony. Of course, experience told her he wouldn't admit it.

She pushed away from the ambulance and pulled herself upright, still no more than eye level with his chest. Strands of hair blew across her face, making Kathleen wish she'd had the time for her more professional braid. She tipped her face up and met Tanner's sapphire eyes dead-on. "I'm taking care of flyers who won't take care of themselves."

He turned to look back at the plane, the twist stopping midway when he grimaced. He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, instead. "Is somebody hurt in there and I missed it?"

Yeah, she had a tough one on her hands tonight. "Your wit has me in stitches."

"I can tell."

"Trust me, hotshot, I'm laughing. Just not with you."

Getting him into the ambulance wouldn't be an easy sell. The man was as stubborn as he'd been at the Academy his freshman year, making her junior year as his training officer a challenge from start to finish. Twelve years hadn't changed them, only their jobs.

He began to turn. "Well, then, time for me to go—"

"Legal point of reference, my good Captain. Your body belongs to the United States Air Force. If you mistreat it, say you get sunburned—" a frigid gust of wind mocked her example, whipping her hair across her face "—if you can't perform your duties because of that recklessness, that's abuse of government property and grounds for a court martial."

"Geez, Doc. Do you keep the Uniform Code of Military Justice in your bathroom?"

"I happen to have a UCMJ travel edition right here." She patted her zippered thigh pocket over her wallet and comb. "They issued them to all the good officers. Didn't you get yours?"

"I was probably stuck waiting in sick call that day." He raised his hand with a barely disguised wince and flicked aside her strand of hair.

At his touch against her cheek, his eyes widened, then narrowed, colliding with hers. Her face warmed with the curse of a redhead's blush, her skin firing even hotter on the exact spot his gloved fingers lingered. They'd never touched in any way except professionally since that one moment at the Academy…

His arm dropped to his side, and she exhaled a proverbial storm cloud into the cold air.

Kathleen backed up but not off. "Okay, hotshot, let's cut the chitchat. I'm cold and I'm tired. I've got rounds at six and sick call at seven. If I'm lucky, I'll manage three hours of sleep tonight. Let's get you into the ambulance and evaluated."

Tanner shifted right then left as if trying to look around the snow-dusted tarmac without turning. "Uh, where's Cutter?"

Kathleen bristled even though she wasn't in the least surprised. Tanner Bennett had been dodging appointments with her since she'd been stationed in Charleston a year ago. She wanted to attribute it to narrow-mindedness on his part about being treated by a female doctor, but she couldn't. He never objected to seeing the other female flight surgeon when Cutter wasn't available.

Only her. "Cutter's not on call. You'll have to make do with me. Now step up, and let's take a look at that back."

Ready to end the whole awkward incident, she reached to brace a hand between his shoulder blades. His muscles contracted beneath her fingers into a sheet of pure metal beneath leather.

He lurched away, flinched, then stared at her hand as if it were a torture device rather than an instrument for healing. Stepping aside, she gestured forward for him to precede her into the ambulance.

Tanner looked from her to the ambulance and back again. His eyes glittered like blue ice chips. "Not a chance."

"Pardon me?"

He skated a glance toward the crew bus where Lancelot and Tag waited, then ducked his head toward her. "No way." Tanner's voice filled the space between them with a low rumble. "I'm not climbing up there in front of everyone."

Each word puffed white to swirl between them, caressing their faces, linking them in an intimate haze.

Making her mad as hell.

"Am I supposed to pitch a tent in the middle of the tarmac and examine you out here? Or maybe you can haul yourself back inside the plane." She jabbed the space between them for emphasis—and to disperse those damned distracting breathy clouds. "Zip your ego in your helmet bag, hotshot, and use your brain. You need to be in the hospital, not standing out here freezing your boots off arguing with me."

He blanched. "The hospital?"

"If this is anything like last time—"

"Sorry, Doc. Not gonna happen." He pivoted slowly on his boot heels and lumbered toward his aircraft commander. "Hold on, Lance. I'm outa here."

Kathleen hooked her hands on her hips, a quiet rage simmering. "Bennett."

He ignored her.

Forget simmer, she was seething. "Bennett!"

Tanner held his right hand up and kept walking, if his shuffle-swagger could be called that. Frustration fired within her until she could almost feel the snowflakes steaming off her. Of all the thick-headed, arrogant stunts he'd—

Reluctant remorse encroached on her anger as she watched him struggle to board the bus.

But what could she do? She couldn't force him to seek treatment if he wouldn't admit to a problem. If she were a gambler, she would bet he hadn't even been the one to place the call for a flight surgeon in the first place.

Not that she was one to waste her money, time or energy on chance. Logic served better.

And more faithfully.

Kathleen clambered back inside the ambulance, her exasperation over his senseless testosterone dance igniting again. Logic told her Tanner Bennett wouldn't be able to roll out of bed by morning, and she was the flight surgeon on call until noon.

She slammed the ambulance door shut. Hard. With any luck the big lug would oversleep and someone else could treat his wounded back and tender ego.

Too late, Kathleen recalled she'd never believed in luck any more than chance.

Chapter 2

Two hundred twenty-three. Two hundred twenty-four.

Tanner counted the tan cinderblocks in the wall for the eleventh time that morning. Not much else to do since he couldn't move. His reach for the telephone fifteen minutes ago had left him cursing—and shaking.

He cut his gaze toward the clock, not risking more than half a head turn.

The time—8:30 a.m.—glowed from the clock in the dim room, the only other light slanting through a slight part in the curtains.

He sure hoped Cutter had gone on call at eight.

After waking and realizing he couldn't haul his sorry butt out of bed, Tanner had shouted for Lance in the next VOQ—Visiting Officer's Quarter. Their rooms, connected by a bath, were close enough that Lance would have heard had he been around. No luck. The telephone call to the clinic had been a last-ditch resort.

Where was Cutter? Didn't the guy ever check his messages?

Tanner hiked the polyester bedspread over his bare chest. Even the small movement hurt like a son of a gun. How long before it let up? Lying around left him with too much time to think. He preferred action, needed to be back out on the flight line.

The flight line.

Images of Kathleen O'Connell looking mad enough to chew rivets blindsided Tanner when he didn't have any chance or the physical capability of ducking.

Had he actually touched her?

Awash in post-battle adrenaline, he'd found her fire stirred his, as well. With a will of its own, his hand had swiped that silky strand of hair away from her face.

Surely the impulse was only combat aftermath, emotions running high. He didn't think of her that way.

But he had before.

Tanner's head dug back in his pillow as if he might somehow dodge memories he couldn't suppress. His first day at the Air Force Academy, he'd seen Kathleen walking across the parade ground, vibrant, toned and radiating a confidence that had found an answer within him. Every hormone in his eighteen-year-old body had roared to life.

Until he'd noticed she wore a beret with her uniform, the distinguishing symbol of an upperclassman.

Relationships between upperclassmen and freshmen-doolies were forbidden. Grounds for expulsion. And he wasn't throwing away his career for anyone.

Maybe later, he'd thought…

Later she'd become his training officer and his own personal ticket to hell. Training officers were universally resented by the doolies they hammered into Academy material.

Tanner had stuffed his hormones into his footlocker and concentrated on getting through his freshman year. Becoming a pilot meant everything to him, and he wouldn't risk it.

Something that hadn't changed in twelve years.

Footsteps echoed in the hall. Closer. With a light tread that launched a wave of foreboding in Tanner. Unless Cutter had lost about seventy pounds and developed a decided glide to his walk, those footsteps didn't belong to him.

Two quick raps sounded on the door.

Foreboding death-spiraled into certainty. "Yeah. Come in."

The door swung wide, revealing Kathleen O'Connell.

His libido crashed and burned. And damn, but it was one hell of a plunge.

She lounged against the door frame, wearing lime-green scrubs, instead of her regular forest-green flight suit. Cotton hugged gentle curves her bulky uniform usually disguised. Her leather flight jacket hung loose as she hooked a hand on one shapely hip. "Well, good morning, hotshot. How's the back?"

Did she have to sound so chipper, look so hot? Small but fit, her tight body tugged his gaze into a slow glide he didn't have the reserves to resist. She came by those taut muscles honestly. More than once over the past year, the two of them had pitted themselves against each other doing sit-ups during physical training.

A stethoscope dangled around her neck, nestling between br**sts that were as understated and damned irresistible as the rest of her. Apparently, the attraction hadn't left after all, only slipping out of formation while waiting to rejoin without warning.

Time to pull out the old footlocker and replace the padlock on his hormones.

A strange thought taunted. Could their arguments have been a way of re-channeling his lust? Damn it all. "Figures you would be a morning person."

Kathleen's wicked smile creased her blue cat eyes. "And with next to no sleep. Imagine that? Come on. Hop up and let's go to breakfast. What? Having a little trouble moving are we? Hmmm." She pressed a slim finger against her pursed lips. "Guess that's to be expected when someone ignores his doctor's advice. Word around the water cooler has it that you even skipped out on your last chiropractor appointment."

Tanner tapped precious energy reserves to tuck his good arm behind his head casually. "What are you gonna do, bludgeon me with your pocket edition UCMJ manual?"

"My, we're cranky today. Just think, you could have been languishing in a Demerol daze as we speak. But, nope. You had to play the tough guy."

Prev page Next page