By Emmy Curtis
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Pretending to be engaged wasn’t the most brilliant idea James ever had. Neither was dragging Beth to his sister’s wedding. The competitive tomboy is a far cry from the type of woman his family usually pushes on him. Yet Beth is more exciting than anyone he’s ever met, and James has a feeling that if he can get her in bed, she’ll blow his mind. They’re just supposed to be acting-but as the wedding weekend wears on, Beth and James have a fighting chance at something real and much more lasting . . .
Table of Contents
A Preview of Pushing the Limit
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Khost Province, Afghanistan
"Alone at last," Walker whispered as he crouched next to Beth. Dust flew up as the crack of a bullet hitting the ground ricocheted around the valley. He flattened himself next to her.
"You are shit at taking orders," she hissed back.
He ignored her as he tried to figure out where the shots were coming from. If he could just neutralize the immediate threat, he could patch her up and get her to safety. His blood had flashed ice-cold when she radioed that she'd been hit. And she'd still been laying down covering fire for the guys when he'd found her. If she was the first taste of females in combat, bring it on.
A pool of dark blood glistened in the hazy moonlight, expanding and trickling across the sand as he watched.
Their simple mission of relieving another patrol group had gone to hell in a handbasket. Another shot echoed around them, and this time Walker was ready to identify the telltale muzzle flash. As soon as he saw it, he swung his gun and sent a shot downrange toward the insurgent.
Silence. He took that as a good sign.
"Okay, Sergeant. Turn over so I can look at that leg."
Beth grunted but complied, biting back a moan as she did.
Walker's heart dropped when he saw that her BDU pants were completely soaked with blood. A lot of it. Shit. Maybe the bullet had nicked an artery. He grabbed his knife and cut away the pant leg to expose the wound. It was about two inches below her panty line. And blood was still pumping out in rhythm with her heartbeat.
He undid her belt and pulled it off. No way was he going to let her die in this crappy valley, in the middle of Shithole City, Bumfuck. No fucking way.
As he slid the belt around the top of her thigh, trying not to touch anything that could get him court-martialed, one of the Strike Eagles he had called for screamed overhead. He threw himself over Beth, and waited for the bombs to drop.
They exploded with precision, of course. Walker had been the one to give them the coordinates. That was his job. The only air force guy on the team, he was the one who communicated with the aircraft patrolling the skies above the war zone. The only one who could give the bombers precise targets. The valley lit up with orange fire as they detonated. Rocks and scree sprinkled them, sounding like heavy rain, feeling like stones.
That should keep the Taliban out of his hair for a bit. He made to get up and realized how close to Beth's face his was. He hesitated for a split second. A bad, bad second. He'd been deployed with her unit for a couple of months and had spent most of the time dreaming about her at night, and trying to ignore those dreams by day.
He swallowed, and went back to business. "I have to tourniquet your leg. It's going to hurt like a fucker," he said as he fastened the belt as high on her thigh as he could manage. "Just think, all this time I wanted to see your panties, and finally…"
Beth opened her mouth, probably to give him hell, and he used the distraction to pull the belt tight.
"You bastard," she ground out between gritted teeth.
The wound stopped pumping blood and he silently thanked whoever was looking out for them upstairs. He grabbed the first-aid kit from his pack and took out gauze and dark green bandages. A shot sounded again, and sand flew up just inches away from his foot.
Walker threw himself down again, this time lying between her legs, face about five inches from her wound. Which meant it was seven inches from her…
"Well, this is awkward," he murmured. It worked, and in relief he heard her gasp a laugh.
"Next time… buy me dinner… first, all right?" she said between pants of Lamaze-type breathing.
He laughed quietly. "I've got to get you out of here first. Then I promise I will." He loosened the tourniquet, and watched to see if the blood flow had stopped. It hadn't, but it wasn't pumping out as it had been before. He tightened it and vowed not to check again.
"Walker," she ground out. "I have a letter. It's in my pants pocket." She groaned as if she was trying to get control over the pain. "Take it out before it gets soaked in blood. Make sure my sister gets it if I… don't make it."
He didn't waste time placating her; he stuffed his hand into her thigh pocket and grabbed the papers in there. He found the letter and stuffed it in his own pocket, before replacing the notebook and loose papers back in hers. "Got it. I'll look after it. But I'm going to do everything I can to get you home to her, okay?"
"Look!" Beth grimaced as she propped herself up on one elbow and pointed up the valley where they had left their truck. A huge cloud of sand was making its way toward them, seemingly in slow motion. She made as if to get up, but fell back down with a moan as soon as she tried her leg.
The impending sandstorm made up his mind. They couldn't get stuck in it—Beth would die in all likelihood. If they didn't move now, the storm would be on them, and no rescue would be able to get to them until it dissipated. No time for second-guessing.
A cloud passed in front of the moon, and Walker instinctively jumped up. "Put your weight on your good leg." He held her opposite hand as if they were about to shake hands, and he pulled her up. "Come on, Garcia. Walk it off."
She breathed a laugh as he bent his knees and gently slid her over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, so her good leg bore the brunt of pressure against his shoulder. She wriggled pretty weakly in protest.
"What the fuck? Put me down. I can walk," she said, her words not reflected by the strain in her voice.
Yeah, not so much. "Sure you can, sweetheart… I mean Sergeant. But we need to run. Are you going to stay with me?"
"I've got your six," she whispered.
He launched his pack on his other shoulder and took off, away from the sandstorm. He knew he could outrun it—it was slow-moving—but the quicker he could get her to a reasonable landing zone, the quicker the helicopters would land and get her to a hospital.
The cloud passed the moon and in the sudden light they were sitting ducks. Another shot rang out, whizzing past so close he could feel it rip the air next to his face. Beth's stomach tensed muscles against his shoulder and she pulled herself up. One hell of a soldier. One hell of a woman.
She let off three shots as he ran, and then she flopped back down. "Got him," she said. And then there was silence except for his own breathing that filled his head. Blood pounded in his ears as he ran. Blood pumping, and breath puffing.
In out, in out, nearly there, nearly there.
His muscles strained under her weight, and the eighty pounds of their combined body armor, but he'd trained for this, and frankly, it wasn't his first rodeo. It was his eighth. His legs kept pumping toward safety.
The familiar whop whop of a helicopter penetrated his thoughts, as well as the more constant gunshots as he neared the last of their vehicles. Five soldiers were on the ground, firing their weapons into the hills opposite them.
He skidded to a halt and laid Beth down. He dropped alongside her and asked for a sit rep from the guys.
"Marks took one to the face. We lost him. There seem to be about eight TBs left in the hillside, but they're not giving up. Only small arms fired, so I figured the helo can land over there to the right of the valley entrance." The soldier pointed to the only real possible landing zone for the choppers.
"I have to go clear the LZ, Beth. I'll be back." He looked at her but she didn't look back. Eyes closed and barely breathing, she looked like she had already checked out. His heart clenched.
No. Fucking. Way. He pulled the tourniquet tight again, and started CPR. "Hey, you." He slapped the nearest soldier on his helmet. "I need you to do CPR while I clear the landing zone, okay? Keep the tourniquet tight."
The soldier took over without question. And then realized who it was. "Shit, is this Garcia? Oh man, my wife will kill me if I let her die," he said.
"So will I. Keep that thought in the very front of your mind. I'll be back in a few." He hesitated for a second. Could he trust the soldier with her? Everything in him wanted to stay and breathe life into her himself, but he was the only one who could talk the pararescuers in, and the only one who could clear a landing zone to the pilots' satisfaction.
Walker grabbed his radio and one of the soldiers' flashlights, and ran to the potential LZ. He walked the square, checking for IEDs or anything suspicious. He didn't think there would be, because the convoy had passed over this area on their way into the valley. He could still see their tire tracks. But it was better to be safe than sorry. As he paced, he couldn't stop thinking about Beth. How pale and lifeless she looked in the moonlight, how shallow her breathing, and how totally opposite that was to how she normally was: vibrant, prickly, beautiful, and strong.
The gentle whop whop of the helicopters became much louder as he finalized checking the LZ. He took out his radio.
"This is Playboy. PJs come in."
There were a few seconds of silence, during which he checked his radio for loose wires. Then, "This is PJ one, Playboy. How're we looking?"
"We have five able soldiers, one KIA, and one seriously injured. I've set up the landing zone at these coordinates." He rattled off a series of numbers.
"Can you light it up?"
"Roger that." Walker snapped some green chem lights from his pocket, and threw them to the corners of the cleared landing zone. He would normally use flares, but he didn't want to give the Taliban an invitation to pick the PJs as their new target. Once it was clear the helo was good to land, he sprinted back to Beth. Please, God. I'll do anything if you just let me get her to the hospital alive.
The second trail helicopter opened fire into the hills, backing up the guys on the ground. Two Combat Rescue Officers ran from the helicopter toward them, weapons drawn. They took one look at Beth and started work on her. They secured her tourniquet and put an oxygen mask over her face.
Walker stood back and let them run with her back to the helo. His heart rate finally normalized, but the clenched fist in his stomach did not fade. Following the others to safety, all he could see was Beth's white face, and he wondered if she would live to have the promised dinner with him. As he unclenched his fists to climb into the Pave Hawk helo, he realized his fingers were crossed.
Womack Hospital, Fort Bragg; nine months later
Army Sergeant Beth Garcia ran with determination. She imagined flying by the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the reflecting pool, all places she'd never seen in real life… and she would have pulled off her fantasy if not for the constant chatter of the colonel running on the treadmill next to her. Bluetooth was the very devil.
Her reverie interrupted, she couldn't help feeling for her healed bullet wound. The puckered skin moved under her fingers as she ran, reminding her of that FUBAR night in Afghanistan.
Her leg was better. Had been for months, but the powers that be insisted on eight months of physical therapy before she could be cleared to go back on a deployable status. If she didn't complete another deployment, she wouldn't be competitive for her dream job: CIA Protection Officer. She didn't need another deployment, not really, but she knew it would be the one thing on paper that would negate her injury.
She didn't feel like herself when she was twisting in the wind, assigned to a desk and returning each night to her house and dog. She only felt like herself when adrenaline was coursing through her veins, and adrenaline had been hard to come by this past year.
She tried to focus on her leg and how it felt, sending repairing vibes to the wound that only gave her a small twinge every now and again.
Where the hell was her physical therapist? The sooner she could get signed off, the sooner she could flag her availability for deployment. There was only so far she could run. The odometer on the treadmill said she had already run six miles. She looked around for the person who had pushed the start button—she couldn't get off it without a therapist seeing that she could in fact run. For the love of God, where was she?
Sweat dripped down her face, throat, and back. She was going to need one hell of a shower before heading back to her unit. Just as she was losing the will to live, the therapist came back to her, hit "Stop" on the treadmill, and handed over her medical papers.
"You really mustn't overdo it, young lady," she said.
Are you freaking kidding me? I could have run for two miles if you hadn't effed off for a coffee break or torture training or wherever you went.
"Yes, ma'am," she said, all but snatching her medical certificate.
As soon as the torturer left to go on to another patient, Beth slumped over the handrail of the treadmill. Catching her breath, she gently stretched out her thigh, trying not to pull the wound in any way. She wondered if her leg would always feel as if it was a stretched-to-its-limit rubber band.
Her eyes closed, she visualized oxygen flowing through the skin and muscle of her leg, just as her therapist had taught her. As she took deep breaths, she couldn't believe the damned colonel from the next treadmill was still talking. Sweet Jesus. She snapped upright, ready to give him the stink-eye—she wouldn't dream of telling off a full-bird colonel—when she realized there was a uniformed man standing at attention in front of him.
"At ease, Walker. I'm in the freaking gym. I'm sweatin' like a pig."
"Yessir," he said.
Beth couldn't believe her eyes. She smiled, and watched James Walker do a double take when he saw her. Now what would he do? He was a sight for sore eyes. She swallowed. Still as handsome as ever—tall, broad-shouldered, with a self-assured attitude that she had secretly salivated over during their deployment together.
"Excuse me, sir," he said, not taking his incredible blue eyes off her.
The colonel followed his line of sight and raised his eyebrows at her, then frowned at Walker. She decided to do him a solid.
"Colonel. This man here risked his life to rescue me after I was shot in Afghanistan last year. I'm imagining that he's shocked to see me standing here." She wiped her sweaty hand on her shorts and stepped forward, offering it to James. "I heard you came to check on me at the hospital, and I know I wasn't really all that coherent, so in case I didn't thank you then, thank you. So much. I owe you big time."
He held her hand, even though it was still pretty sweaty, for a few seconds more than strictly necessary. Long enough for her to get a good look at him. Yup, he was definitely as good-looking as she remembered. Short dark hair, light blue eyes, and an expression of barely concealed admiration. She had figured the year before that he looked at everyone like that. But in this less formal situation she wondered about that, and liked the warmth flooding around her at the possibility that right now, that look was reserved just for her.
Probably a workout high.
"Absolutely my pleasure, Sergeant. I'm very happy to see you here. Not med-boarded out then?" he asked.
"No way." Beth laughed at the thought. This was her life. What the hell would she do in the real world, except for her dream job, of course?
The colonel cleared his throat. "Well, I'm happy to hear that you're on the mend, Sergeant, and I'm happy to hear my new Senior Master Sergeant here was in the right place at the right time. Walker? Sorry I dragged you in this close to the weekend. Go home, unpack, and report at oh-seven for PT on Monday."
"Yes, sir," he replied, before turning to Beth again. "Truly great seeing you looking so well." He stuck his hand out, and grabbed hers again.
"Thank you, again," she said, hoping he could tell how earnest she was. "I owe you."
He nodded, smiled, and turned away. She watched his broad shoulders as he left the physical therapy room. Well, maybe she watched his ass, too. Slinging her towel over her shoulder, and securing her papers in her pocket, she was going to say good-bye to the colonel, but he was already back on his phone.
Shower. Lots and lots of shower. And maybe thoughts of James.
* * *
It was fate. Kismet. It had to be. She looked just as gorgeous as she had last year, and his body had reacted to her in exactly the same way. He was glad that she had been working out, because as soon as he saw her, he was sure his hands had started sweating. Very smooth.
There was no way he was letting her out of his sight this time without asking her out. She did say that she owed him, although if he were being totally truthful, she'd kind of saved him from that shooter, too. Not that fulfilling a debt was a great basis for scoring a date. He paced up and down the corridor outside of the women's changing rooms, throwing his black TACP beret back and forth between his hands, and had a twinge of guilt at what he was considering.
He glanced at his watch. In less than twenty-four hours his older sister's wedding festivities were going to start without him. Beth would be a great distraction from the guilt that had been pin-pricking him all day. But there was no way he was attending that clusterfuck. Ex-girlfriends, parents, pomp and circumstance. He had left that part of the family years ago. And besides, every second he spent in his parents' presence was a risk to the career he loved. His father was powerful. And didn't like at all that James had elected to enlist in the air force instead of working on Capitol Hill.
Distance was best. And he knew his sister totally understood, applauded his independence, even. If his parents hadn't loved his ex's pedigree so much, if they weren't so obsessed with making him quit the air force and take up in the "family business," this would be a perfectly ordinary weekend. But add in a wedding, and the fact that he'd lied to them about his "no deployment" duties and told them he already had a girlfriend… it was a family IED waiting to explode. And his sister would never forgive him if it exploded all over her special day.
Beth Garcia had been his unattainable dream last year. One of the first females in a special forces role, and she'd fit in so well, been so squared away, she was mostly known for intimidating the male troops. A good thing, he guessed, when she was one of the only women doing the job. She was all work and duty and nothing else. It was so hot, it was insane. Drove him insane.
She emerged from the changing room with some papers in her teeth, trying to wrap her damp hair into some kind of regulation do. She stopped in her tracks when she saw him. Although her mouth was otherwise occupied, her eyes flashed with a smile as she finished pinning her hair.
When she snatched the papers from her mouth, she said, "Hello again, Senior. Congratulations on your promotion."
"Thanks, I just sewed on the new rank and moved. Got in yesterday."
"That's great." She nodded toward the exit, and he started to walk with her. "I've been here two years. I guess I have another year or so to go."
"Do you like it?" he asked, interested in her opinion, since he still had unpacking to do and had zero experience in North Carolina.
"It's okay. To be honest, this last year has been spent trying to get back on a deployment status. It's been hell, just sitting behind a desk. But"—she waved the papers with teeth marks on them—"I got them today. Maybe you're my good luck charm."
"So what are you doing to celebrate?" he asked, hoping the answer was "nothing."
"Not much. I guess I hadn't really thought about it." She put on her sunglasses when they rounded the corner to the parking lot. Inexplicably, his heart started beating faster, and he knew he had to get this right. He had a sneaking suspicion that a guy only ever had one chance with Garcia. If you fucked it up, you were over.
"Can I take you out for dinner tonight, or maybe tomorrow?"
She was silent for a few seconds, and he wished he could see her expression behind her glasses. Should he have been more casual? More subtle? Should he let her ask him out? Oh please, let me have got this right.
"Sure. The army has a long weekend. Friday's off, do you want to go tomorrow?"
He tried not to show his relief by shoving on his own aviators. "Sure. Sounds like a plan."
She stopped at a Mini Cooper convertible and pressed her key fob. It bleeped, and she opened the door. She grabbed something from the passenger seat and scribbled her address on it. "Pick me up at eight?"
As he reached to take her address, his phone bleeped. He held up a finger and read the message. It was a text from Sadie.
I have wicked cold feet or something. Please come. I need you. If you don't come, I'll send one of dad's guys to sit outside your house waiting for you. He will bring you at gunpoint if necessary!
Shit. He assumed that she was joking about the gunpoint, but he knew she was serious about sending someone for him. She'd done it before. And she knew why he wasn't attending her wedding, and until this text, she had seemed okay about it. Change of plans.
"Are you free the whole weekend?" His mind kicked into overdrive. Remembering the conversations from the Humvee when they'd been on patrol. "Would you like to go climbing? I hear there are some great places around the Appalachian Trail."
"The whole weekend?" She hesitated a second, then grinned. "Sure."
He took the address from her hand, his fingers brushing hers as he did. A jolt of awareness flashed through him, something he hadn't felt in… he didn't want to think about how long it had been. "Then I'll pick you up at eight a.m. tomorrow?"
She gave a very non-regulation salute, got in her car and slammed the door shut. A second later, the roof pulled back, revealing a very tidy interior. No surprise there. "Wait a minute. Climbing. Is this just a way to look at my ass for a weekend? 'Cause you know you'll be a pitch behind me all day, right?" She winked, grinned, and pulled out of her spot, wheels spinning.
All that was left was a grin on his face. Boo-yah.
Beth flexed her fingers around the steering wheel, trying to ignore the stickiness. She blew on her sweaty hands and shook them out to try to get the feeling back in them.
Had he just asked her out? Shit. She should have stayed and talked about some rules of engagement. Now she was left hanging, not knowing if he was expecting a date, or a relationship, or just a climb. God, it had been so good to see him again. So good.
She should have said thanks but no thanks, but seeing him again after he'd hauled her out of a battleground… all chiseled jaw and impossibly light blue eyes, the dark hair that was cut short, but not army-short. She'd just… stumbled. Hadn't given a second thought, or even a first, about her cardinal rule: no attachments. No attachments until she had a job that would have her not deploying for a year at a time. James Walker. If she hadn't been so intent on her work performance in Afghanistan, she'd have swooned over him. All taciturn and calm and built like a… she shook her hands out again. Just sexy.
Shit, what have I done? Not even I have the required amount of willpower not to jump him.
She considered returning to the parking lot, but really, how lame would that be? She thumped her fist on the dashboard in frustration. It sucked being a woman. There was no easy way to have the 'I don't want a relationship, but I also don't do one-night-stands' conversation without sounding presumptuous. And then if you left it too late to have the conversation, you were a tease.
In all probability, it probably wasn't a date. He'd saved her life, maybe he just wanted to check that she wasn't screwing it up. She was fine with that. And climbing? A thoroughly wholesome pastime that didn't really lend itself to sexy times anyway. Fingers crossed.
She never went out on dates. She'd put an end to that after the last three totally disastrous ones. And that allowed her a one hundred percent focus on work and her career path. It was a good thing. A very good thing. She didn't want anyone knowing that she had relationships. She couldn't afford to show any weakness in her unit. It was completely okay for men to be miserable about a breakup, but if a woman was, she was branded weak. It sucked, but she didn't want anyone thinking about her as less than she was. She didn't want anyone to even think of her in a relationship. She just wanted the guys in her unit to think of her as a soldier.
Not just that, but she was a firm believer that her line of work did not lend itself easily to relationships. She saw the cheating and heartbreak that went on when husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, were out of sight and mind for a year or more at a time.
In fact, on more than one deployment, she'd seen men get news of infidelity or divorce while trying to focus on their mission. Seen how they reacted, how they lost their edge, and even, in the dirt and ugliness of war, lost their will to live, too.
She was pretty sure that was why Marks, the one soldier to be killed on her last patrol, had gone home in the cargo hold instead of a seat. He had just heard that his wife had been messing around with a neighbor, and had been devastated. Whether he got distracted, careless, or had realized he didn't have anything to go home to… well, she'd seen it happen too often. Had even benched soldiers who had seemed too distracted to leave the compound. She should have seen it in Marks. Should have benched him, too.
She shook off the feeling. She'd been through enough therapy to know it wasn't her fault. But that didn't stop the bubbling feeling of guilt whenever she thought about him.
Dragging her thoughts back to Walker, she figured she had all evening to think about how to broach the subject with him tomorrow. Dating: off the table. If, indeed, it felt like the weekend was anything other than a platonic climbing one.
A strange feeling turned in her stomach. She liked him. He'd saved her life, true. He was to-die-for gorgeous, true. Basically, he was a heartbreaker on legs. So add that into the equation and this was a non-starter. She was not a risk taker in any aspect of her life. She wasn't going to risk anything on this hot airman. No sir.
- On Sale
- Oct 7, 2014
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Forever Yours