Authors: Sandra Marton
Tanner sheathed the knife and reached for the magnesium fire starter.
“No roommate around to build a fire for you?”
He said it lazily, as if it were the most unassuming question in the world, but a tension within him whispered that there was nothing unassuming about it.
“No man in your life to phone and say, hey, come on over and build a fire for me?” His tone had grown even lazier, the tension inside him even stronger. Ridiculous, considering that this was just small talk and her answer wouldn’t mean a damn to him one way or the other. “What’s wrong with those New York dudes?” he said, trying to make the question sound light.
Alessandra shrugged. “Nothing’s wrong with them. I just haven’t found one who’s interesting enough to keep around.”
“Even to start fires?”
“Especially to start fires.”
Their eyes met.
Such simple words.
Except they weren’t simple at all. He knew it, and he was pretty sure she did too.
If they’d been in a bar back home, he’d have known precisely where to take this conversation.
The truth was, part of him knew where he wanted to take it now…
A tiny flame shot up from the feathersticks. Tanner took a long, steadying breath, turned all his attention to coaxing the fire to burn.
“Great,” he said, as if he’d performed a minor miracle. “Fire’s going. Shelter’s next.” He stood. Too fast, too hard, and before he could think to prevent it, a hiss of pain slipped from between his lips.
“No. I mean, what just happened?”
“I told you. Nothing.”
“Give me a break, Lieutenant. You stood up, you turned pale.”
“It’s the contrast of the flames and the camo on my face.” Tanner rubbed his hand over his jaw. “Once the water’s hot and I wash it off—”
She shot to her feet.. “I hate how you do that!”
“Do what?” he said with all the innocence he could manage.
“You know what,” she said sharply. “Treat me as if I’m just along for the ride. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m in this mess too. Deeper in it, maybe, because I’m the fool responsible for it.”
“You’re not a fool. You were in the wrong place at the wrong time, that’s all.”
“Yes, but it was poor judgment, being out of my tent when I should have been in it.”
“That too,” Tanner said, brushing off his hands and reaching for the pot of water.
? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Madre di Dio
! You said something. I want to know what you meant.”
He shrugged, set the pot in the fire, then dug two MREs from the backpack.
“Never mind. It’s too late for it to matter.”
“Too late for what to matter?
, but you piss me off!”
He had no idea what
meant, but he doubted it was any more polite than her saying he pissed her off.
Such angry words from such a soft-looking mouth were what pissed
off. Plus, there was the indisputable and infuriating fact that he was attracted to a woman who exemplified everything he disliked.
He turned away and tore open the MREs with more force than such an easy job required.
“Just drop it, okay?”
“I am not going to drop it! I’m tired of this game. One minute, you’re Mr. Nice Guy. The next, you’re—you’re Mr. Nasty.”
He almost laughed. “Mr. Nasty?”
“You can’t seem to make up your mind how to deal with me and I want to know why. Is it because I took you away from your weekend? Did you have other plans? Is some big-eyed, big-boobed, small-brained bottle blonde pining for you?”
This time, he did laugh. Big mistake. Her eyes flashed and she stepped closer and slapped the MREs out of his hand.
“I’ll let you in on a secret, Lieutenant. I’d rather be someplace else, too. I’d rather be
nstead of here, trying to be polite to a man who doesn’t know the meaning of the word!”
Enough. Tanner moved forward. She had to tilt her head back to look at him, and for some crazy reason, that suited him just fine.
“Trust me, lady,” he growled. “If I wanted to be impolite, you’d know it.”
“You mean, this is you at your polite best?”
“This is me. Take it or leave it.”
“I don’t really get a choice, do I? It’s either you or Stubby and Skinny.”
She was trembling with anger. Well, fuck. He was angry too. He’d signed on to rescue a hostage, not to make nice-nice to a spoiled brat.
What’s spoiled about her, Akecheta?
a voice inside him whispered, and it made him even angrier that he really didn’t have an answer.
“That’s pretty much it.” Tanner bent down and snatched up the two MREs. “It’s the price you’re paying for being stupid enough to come to a place like San Escobal.”
“Really,” she said coldly. The word was clearly not a question.
“Really,” he said, just as coldly. “But then, your type never considers the consequences of your actions.”
? What in hell are you—”
“Bored little rich girls.”
She was speaking in italics. Until this second, she hadn’t even known that was possible.
“Boarding school,” Tanner said, tearing open the endless, dumb, ridiculous bags that were always tucked inside Meals Ready to Eat, as if people would actually eat the damn things if they had a choice.
“You think I went to—”
“Someplace posh. The Upper East side of Manhattan. Or maybe upstate Connecticut.”
She laughed. His gut tightened. So what if he sounded like a jackass? The last thing he needed was her laughing at him.
“Then Smith. Or Vassar. Wellesley, maybe, where you majored in dance or art or something else that’s equally useless.”
“You,” she said flatly, “are crazy.”
“And then, all of a sudden, you were out in the world and you needed something to do that would make you sound important, so you looked at all the stuff you own, everything with initials or names sewn on or engraved on, a bunch of crap nobody in her right mind needs or wants, and you said,
Hey, I can be a designer too!
She blinked. “What are you talking about?”
A good question. He didn’t know, so how could she? But he was on a roll now and, hell, a man didn’t stop when he was on a roll.
“So that’s what you decided you were. I bet you even have your own label. What’s it called? Lemme guess.
Alessandra’s Artistic Attic
, maybe. Something like that. Alliterative. And with
, of course.”
“Are you nuts?”
Yeah. He probably was. Otherwise, why was he going at her like this? She and the way she lived were not his problem. He didn’t give a damn about anything but getting her out of here…
Man, what a lie!
He gave a damn about more than that.
Forget what she was. Forget that he’d had his fill of women like her.
What was making him crazy was that he was attracted to her, goddammit, that despite everything he wanted to tear off her clothes and fuck her brains out. More than that. He wanted to make her want him the way he wanted her, and wasn’t that pathetic?
It was time to put his cards on the table. State the truth, that he didn’t like her, hear her admit she didn’t like him either, and agree to a cold-but-workable truce.
Tanner closed the couple of inches that remained between them. He lowered his head until they were damn near nose to nose.
“I don’t like you,” he said with icy precision. “You don’t like me. It’s a problem, we’re stuck with it for the next couple of days, and we need to deal with it.”
“Damned right,” Alessandra said, just as coldly.
She glared at him.
He glared at her.
Then he cursed and swept his arms around her.
Would she push him away? Would she laugh in his face?
Both were definite maybes, but she didn’t do either.
Instead, she rose on her toes, curled her fingers into his shirt, and lifted her mouth to his.
The kiss ended
almost as soon as it began.
He let go of her.
She let go of him.
Their eyes met.
Her heart thudded at what she saw in the depths of his.
Hunger. Desire. Sexual need so raw it was almost savage.
Would he reach for her again? Frame her face with his hands? Force her to hold still and accept the ravenous heat of his mouth?
Not that it would take much force.
Not that it would take any force.
She wanted—she wanted—
Unconsciously, she touched the tip of her tongue to the center of her bottom lip. His gaze followed the motion. A sound broke from his throat, something that was almost a growl, and then he swung away from her. He took a couple of deep breaths—she could tell by the rise and fall of his shoulders. Then he walked across the small clearing and bent to his pack.
“Sun’s almost down,” he said calmly. “Got to get that shelter up.”
The shelter? He was talking about something as mundane as a shelter after a mind-blowing once-in-a-lifetime kiss? Because it had been exactly that, and it wasn’t as if she had never been kissed before.
“I could use a hand, Bellini.”
He’d tied one end of a length of paracord around the trunk of one of the palm trees.
One of two things had just happened.
She’d hallucinated. Or he’d kissed her, and now he was telling her that the kiss had been meaningless. Or she’d imagined it, which took her, full circle, back to the kiss having been a hallucination.
“Hey. I could use some help.”
There was a little tone of impatience there. Amazing. He kissed her until she was close to falling off the edge of the world and then he walked away, business as usual, and said he could use some help?
So could I, big boy.
Uh-oh. She was not a one-night-stand kind of female and yet—
And yet, if that kiss hadn’t ended when it did…
Alessandra blew out a long breath. Where was your studying-to-be-a-shrink big sister when you needed her?
Something, at least, had changed. Her lieutenant was still an edgy pain in the ass. A gorgeous pain in the ass, but he was at least asking her to do something useful.
She could think of a couple of things that would be useful, but not one of them involved putting up a shelter.
“Bellini? You deaf or something? You gonna give me a hand or not?”
Was he going to feed her one-liners all night?
Alessandra rolled her eyes, crossed the small clearing, and went to offer aid and assistance to Superman.
* * *
The shelter was simple.
Tanner tied a line between a pair of palms that stood about twelve feet apart. Then he draped the tarp over the line and flared out the edges, holding them down with stones from the clearing.
Despite his request—okay, his demand for help—he didn’t let her do much.
She helped him stretch the tarp over the line. Then she held the edges of the tarp steady while he weighted them down.
That was it.
He didn’t say much, either.
when she asked if he wanted her pull the tarp toward her.
when she asked it he wanted her to pull the edge tighter. A grunt when she asked if the shelter was going to stay open at both ends, or maybe it was a sneer, not a grunt.
“I’m only asking,” she said.
“Yeah. Well, this isn’t the Waldorf.”
Brilliant. And back to basics. Superman the Surly.
Once, she’d thought she’d felt him looking at her, but when she turned around, she realized she was wrong. He’d been busy with the paracord line, frowning and measuring as if their existence depended on whether it was tied an eighth of an inch lower at one tree than at the other.
The leafy branches went under the improvised shelter in lieu of a mattress.
“That’ll do,” he said as he stood surveying the result, his hands on his hips and his feet apart.
Alessandra nodded and tried not to think about those two open ends or that there’d be nothing between them and the ground except a bunch of leaves.
She’d spent the last couple of nights under far worse circumstances, tied to a tree while her abductors snored just a few feet away. This would be fine. Really, it was an improvement—or it would have been if a tarantula hadn’t walked into the shelter just after they’d laid out those branches.
Tanner had carefully scooped up the creature and carried it into the trees.
“Go on,” he’d said. “Find somewhere else to spend the night.”
She wasn’t a fan of spiders, especially ones the size of saucers even though she knew they didn’t bite unless you startled them, and she couldn’t repress a quick shudder.
“Don’t like tarantulas?” Superman asked, the edges of his lips curling ever so slightly.
“I like them just fine,” she said, lying through her teeth.
Clearly, he liked them. Enough to save them rather than kill them.
He was also opposed to killing snakes unless it was a matter of life or death. And yet she had no doubt he’d use his rifle, his pistol or the huge knife sheathed at his hip against anyone who tried to hurt her.
He’d kissed her as if the end of the world was imminent—and, yes, of course, he’d kissed her. She had a good imagination—it was what had drawn her to clothing design in the first place—but no woman on the planet could have imagined a kiss like that.
The heat of his mouth.
The strength of his arms.
The power of that big, hard-muscled body against hers…
Alessandra looked up. He was sitting beside the fire. The pot of water was heating in the flames, and he’d picked up the two MREs he’d taken from his pack a little while ago.
“Sorry? I didn’t get that.”
“I said, you get your choice.” He held out the bags. “Chili with Beans, or Spaghetti with Meat Sauce.”
“Chili, if that’s okay with you.”
She nodded. “I’m a vegetarian,” she said, as she sat down across from him.
was meaningful. Growing up with brothers taught you lots of things, including that there were
s that meant sure, that’s fine, and then there were
s that meant just listen to that dumb female.
Tanner shrugged as he tore the bags open. “Which is it this time?”
“It’s hard to keep up with the trends.”
He was taking smaller bags out of the large bags. Apparently, supper was going to be bags of reconstituted sawdust, but her mouth began watering anyway. All she’d eaten in days were those power bars he’d given her.
“What trends?” she asked, forcing her attention away from the thought of food. She was messy enough without adding drool to the equation.
“Fad eating gigs hustled by The Guru Of The Day. I don’t know them all. The last I heard of was one called the Palo Alto diet.”
“The Palo Alto…” She raised her eyebrows. “Do you mean the Paleo diet?”
“Meat, broccoli, tomatoes, no pasta… I wouldn’t call it a fad, though I’m certainly not for it. But, you know, if that’s your thing…”
“But it isn’t yours.” He was doing something with one of the bags. Opening it, pouring the contents of another bag into it, now adding water. “So, what’s your diet supposed to deliver?”
“Lieutenant, I’m not following you. Are you asking me why I’m a vegetarian?”
“Right. Long life? Mental acuity?”
Okay. He was arrogant about pretty much everything. No surprise there.
“I’m a vegetarian because I don’t believe in killing animals and eating them.”
That stopped him. He looked up from the MREs.
“You don’t believe in killing animals and eating them?”
“Isn’t that what I just said?”
“But you make an exception when it comes to what you put on your back.”
“What in hell are you talking about?”
“It’s not ‘nothing.’ You just said something about me and I want to know what it meant.”
“Your supper’s ready.”
“Do not try to change the subject! What did you mean by that re—”
He handed her a plastic spoon and one of the bags he’d been fiddling with. The top was open, and the smell wafted up to her nose.
The frown on her face morphed into a smile of delight directed first at the MRE and then, to his surprise, at him.
Over the years, he’d taken women to dinner at all kinds of places. Pizza joints. Burger shacks. Restaurants where just reading the right-hand column of the menu gave you sticker shock.
He’d never had a woman flash him a smile that said what she was about to eat was surely going to be as good as anything Julia Child had ever cooked.
“If this tastes even half as wonderful as it smells…”
He wanted the chili to turn into lobster. No. She was a vegetarian. He wanted it to turn into whatever it was vegetarians considered a feast. Pad thai, maybe. A chocolate ice cream sundae.
To hell with that.
What he wanted was to pull her into his arms and kiss her until she was breathless. Until she melted into him as she’d done all too briefly a little while ago.
He wanted to taste her again, that soft, wild sweetness that reminded him of the raspberries that grew in the Black Hills back home. He could have feasted on that taste all night. If she hadn’t stepped away… If he hadn’t let go of her…
“This,” she said, “
is a Meal Ready to Eat?”
“It smells like food. Real food.” She laughed. “I was kind of expecting, you know, dog chow.”
Say something else.
“Yeah, well, maybe you want to reserve your opinion until you taste it.”
She dipped the spoon in, brought it to her mouth, slipped it between her lips, shut her eyes and sighed with unrestrained pleasure.
Tanner’s body turned to stone.
His brain turned to mush.
Dammit, what was wrong with him?
She was a good-looking woman. And, yes, despite everything, she had traits that, he had to admit, he admired.
Doctors didn’t come on to their patients. Teachers didn’t flirt with their students. STUD operatives didn’t get involved with those for whom they were responsible.
He was a pro.
And he was responsible for her. That was his job. Thinking about fucking her brains out didn’t have a thing to do with that job.
It could even be dangerous. For her, for him, for them both. He was supposed to have all his senses locked on his surroundings, not on sex.
He watched her eating the MRE.
She ate with gusto. No dainty spoonfuls. No delicate bites. She was hungry and she wasn’t afraid to show it.
A drop of chili landed on her thumb and she brought her hand to her lips and sucked the chili off.
He bit back a groan.
Hungering after a woman with such intensity wasn’t his thing, never had been, not even with Red. Sure, he saw a hot broad, he thought about taking her to bed, but it didn’t occupy his mind to the exclusion of everything else.
Besides, Alessandra Bellini wasn’t hot.
Okay. She was.
But she wasn’t that hot.
No makeup. Dirt on her face. A baggy T and equally baggy scrubs.
He’d never dealt with a woman quite like her before. Yes, she was a powerful man’s daughter. And yes, she had no real focus in life. A designer. Right. Weren’t they all?
Still, there was more to her, something he hadn’t yet figured out.
All that toughness. The determination. The insistence that she could do anything he could do, and he couldn’t flatter himself by believing it had anything to do trying to impress him.
Women were always trying to impress him, starting way back in high school, when he’d discovered that standing six feet two inches tall, having thick black hair and hazel eyes was a surefire ticket to success.
And what was with the jaguar thing? He’d dated women who wore fur—it wasn’t as if he was a reformer of some kind, although the waste of that kind of killing troubled him—but how did her being a vegetarian square with that?
He could ask her, but, really, there was no point. She’d probably come up with some Zen explanation that would make his head explode.
Besides, it wasn’t his business. What she did with her life had nothing to do with him.
It wasn’t as if they’d ever see each other again after they got back to the States.
She looked up, as if she’d felt him watching her. He broke eye contact, dug his spoon into the food and began eating. He had no appetite, but he needed the calories, the protein, the carbs, the nutrients some dietitian had carefully determined were necessary to keep a man fit for combat and survival.
When he’d finished, he began collecting all the small bags that had been packed inside the main one.
He looked at Alessandra. She’d opened a little bag that contained chocolates and she was eating them one at a time, eyes closed with pleasure. He watched her slick the tip of her tongue over her bottom lip and he thought that if a man was going to die of heart failure, this might be a fucking fine way to go.
It just wasn’t a good way to start the night.
No. It would be okay. She’d sleep under the tarp. He’d sleep here, by the fire.
“Aren’t you going to eat yours?”
“Oh.” He picked up the bag of candy that had been part of his meal and tossed it to her. “All yours,” he said briskly.
“Thank you.” She smiled. “I always have something sweet before bedtime, but I didn’t think that would be possible out here.”
If only he had a handlebar mustache. Now would be the time to twirl it and tell her how easily something sweet before bedtime could be arranged.
All his blood pooled in his groin. He swung away, fast. Turning his back on her was the only safe bet.
“The brass thinks of everything,” he said lightly. “Do you want coffee?”