Sergeant Major Wyatt Magnus pushed past the pain in his knee, forcing himself to finish a three-mile run in the sticky heat of south Texas. Thankfully his ribs had healed and his broken fingers had mended enough he could pull the trigger again. He didn’t anticipate needing to use the nine-millimeter Beretta tucked beneath his fluorescent vest. San Antonio wasn’t what he’d call a hot zone. Not like Somalia, his last real assignment.
It wouldn’t be long before his commander saw he was fit for combat duty, not playing the role of a babysitter for fat tourists, politicians and businessmen visiting the Alamo and stuffing themselves on Tex-Mex food while pretending to attend an International Trade Convention.
The scents of fajitas and salsa filled the air, accompanied by the happy cadence of a mariachi band. Twinkle lights lit the trees along the downtown River Walk as he completed his run around the San Antonio Convention Center and started back to his hotel. Neither the food, nor the music lightened his spirits.
Since being medevaced out of Somalia to San Antonio Medical Center, the combined armed forces’ medical facility, he’d been chomping at the bit to get back to where the action was. But for some damn reason, his commander and the psych evaluator thought he needed to cool his heels a little longer and get his head on straight before he went back into the more volatile situations.
So what? He’d been captured and tortured by Somali militants. If he hadn’t been so trusting of the men he’d been sent to train in combat techniques, he might have picked up on the signs. Staff Sergeant Dane might not be dead and Wyatt wouldn’t have spent three of the worst weeks of his life held captive. He’d been tortured: nine fingers, four ribs and one kneecap broken and had been beaten to within an inch of his life. All his training, his experience in the field, the culture briefings and in-country observations hadn’t prepared him for complete betrayal by the very people he had been sent there to help.
He understood why the Somali armed forces had turned him over to the residual al-Shabab militants that were attempting a comeback after being ousted from the capital, Mogadishu. He might have done the same if his family had been kidnapped and threatened with torture and beheading if he didn’t hand over the foreigners.
No, he’d have found a better way to deal with the terrorists. A way that involved very painful deaths. His breathing grew shallower and the beginning of a panic attack snuck up on him like a freight train.
Focus. The psych doc had given him methods to cope with the onset of anxiety that made him feel like he was having a heart attack. He had to focus to get his mind out of Somalia and torture and back to San Antonio and the River Walk.
Ahead he spied the pert twitch of a female butt encased in hot pink running shorts and a neon green tank top. Her ass was as far from the dry terrain of Somalia as a guy could get. Wyatt focused on her and her tight buttocks, picking up the pace to catch up. She was a pretty young woman with an MP3 device strapped to her arm with wires leading to the earbuds in her ears. Her dark red hair pulled back in a loose ponytail bounced with every step. Running in the zone, she seemed to ignore everything around but the path in front of her.
Once he caught up, Wyatt slowed to her pace, falling in behind. His heart rate slowed, returning to normal, his breathing regular and steady. Panic attack averted, he felt more normal, in control and aware of the time. As much as he liked following the pretty woman with the pink ass and the dark red, bobbing ponytail, he needed to get back and shower before he met the coordinator of the International Trade Convention.
Wyatt lengthened his stride and passed the woman, thankful that simply by jogging ahead of him, she’d brought him back to the present and out of a near clash with the crippling anxiety he refused to let get the better of him.
As he put distance between him and the woman in pink, he passed the shadow of a building. A movement out of the corner of his eye made him spin around. He jogged in a circle, his pulse ratcheting up, his body ready, instincts on high alert. The scuffle of feet made him circle again and stop. He crouched in a fighting stance and faced the threat, the memory of his abduction exploding in his mind, slamming him back to Somalia, back to the dry terrain of Africa and the twenty rebels who’d jumped him and Dane when they’d been leading a training exercise in the bush.
Instead of Somali militants garbed in camouflage and turbans, a small child darted out of his parents’ reach and ran past Wyatt, headed toward the edge of the river.
His mother screamed, “Johnnie, stop!”
By the time Wyatt grasped that the child wasn’t an al-Shabab fighter, the kid had nearly reached the edge.
Wyatt lunged for the boy and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck as the little guy tripped. Johnnie would have gone headfirst into the slow-moving, shallow water had Wyatt not snagged him at the last minute.
Instead of thanking Wyatt, the kid kicked, wiggled and squirmed until Wyatt was forced to set the boy on the ground. Then Johnnie planted the tip of his shoe in Wyatt’s shin with razor-sharp precision.
Wyatt released him and bent to rub the sore spot.
Little Johnnie ran back to his mother, who wrapped her arms around the brat and cooed. Safe in his mother’s arms, he glared at Wyatt.
Wyatt frowned, the ache in his shin nothing compared to the way his heart raced all over again.
The boy’s mother gave Wyatt an apologetic wince and hugged her baby boy to her chest. “Thank you.”
A small crowd had gathered, more because Wyatt, the parents and child blocked the sidewalk than because they were interested in a man who’d just rescued a child from a potential drowning.
His heartbeat racing, his palms clammy and his pulse pounding so loudly in his ears he couldn’t hear anything else, Wyatt nodded, glancing around for an escape. Fuck! What was wrong with him? If he didn’t get away quickly, he’d succumb this time. Where was the woman in the pink shorts when he needed her? Some of his panic attacks had been so intense he’d actually thought he was having a heart attack. He hadn’t told his commander, or the psychologist assigned to his case, for fear of setting back his reassignment even further. He wanted to be back in the field where the action was. Where he was fighting a real enemy, not himself.
As it was, he’d been given this snowbird task of heading up the security for the International Trade Convention. “Do this job, prove you’re one hundred percent and we’ll take it from there,” Captain Ketchum had said. To Wyatt, it sounded like a load of bullshit with no promises.
Hell, any trained monkey could provide security for a bunch of businessmen. What did Ketchum think Wyatt could add to the professional security firm hired to man the exits and provide a visual deterrent to pickpockets and vagrants?
Wyatt had tried to see the assignment from his commander’s point of view. He was a soldier barely recovered from a shitload of injuries caused by violent militants who set no value on life, limb and liberty. Sure, he’d been so close to death he almost prayed for it, but he was back as good as—
A twinge in his knee, made it buckle. Rather than fall in front of all those people, Wyatt swung around like he meant it and stepped out smartly.
And barreled into the woman he’d been following. Her head down, intent on moving, she’d been squeezing past him at that exact moment.
The female staggered sideways, her hands flailing in the air as she reached out to grab something to hold onto. When her fingers only met air, she toppled over the edge and fell into the river with a huge splash.
Another lady screamed and the crowd that had been standing on the sidewalk rushed to the edge of the river, pushing Wyatt forward to the point he almost went in with the woman.
A dark, wet head rose from the water like an avenging Titan, spewing curses. She pushed lank strands of hair from her face and glared up at him. “Are you just going to stand there and stare? Or are you going to get me out of this?”
Guilt and the gentleman in Wyatt urged him to hold out his hand to her. She grasped it firmly and held on as he pulled her out of the river and onto the sidewalk. She was so light, he yanked with more force than necessary and she fell against him, her tight little wet body pressing against his.
His arm rose to her waist automatically, holding her close until she was steady on her own feet.
The redhead stared up into his eyes, her own green ones wide, sparkling with anger, her pretty little mouth shaped in an O.
At this close range, Wyatt saw the freckles sprinkled across her nose. Instead of making her face appear flawed, they added to her beauty, making her more approachable, though not quite girl-next-door. She was entirely too sexy for that moniker. Especially all wet with her skin showing through the thin fabric of the lime green tank top.
Then she was pushing against him—all business and righteous anger.
A round of applause sounded behind him, though he didn’t deserve it since he’d knocked her into the water in the first place. “My apologies, darlin’.”
She fished the MP3 out of the strap around her arm and pressed the buttons on it, shaking her head. “Well, that one’s toast.”
“Sweetheart, I’ll buy you a new one,” Wyatt said, giving her his most charming smile. “Just give me your name and number so that I can find you to replace it.”
“No thanks. I’m not your sweetheart and I don’t have time to deal with it.” She squeezed the water out of her hair and turned away, dropping the MP3 into a trashcan.
With her body shape imprinted in dank river water on his vest and PT shorts, he was reluctant to let her leave without finding out her name. “At least let me know your name.”
She hesitated, opened her mouth to say something, then she shook her head as if thinking better of it. “Sorry, I’ve gotta go.” She shrugged free of his grip and took off, disappearing into the throng of tourists on the River Walk.
Wyatt would have jogged after her, but the number of people on the sidewalk made it impossible for a big guy like him to ease his way through. Regret tugged at his gut. Although he hadn’t made the best first impression on her, her bright green eyes and tight little body had given him the first twinge of lust he’d felt since he’d been in Somalia. Perhaps being on snowbird detail would help him get his mojo back. At the very least, he might find time, and a willing woman, to get laid. Okay, so a few days of R&R in a cushy assignment might not be too bad.
A flash of pretty green eyes haunted his every step as he wove his way through the thickening crowd to his hotel where he’d stashed his duffel bag. He wondered if in an entire city of people he’d manage to run into the red-haired jogger again. If so, maybe he could refrain from knocking her into the river next time and instead get her number.
Fiona Allen arrived at the door to her hotel room, dripping wet and in need of a shower to rinse off the not-so-sanitary San Antonio River water. She couldn’t afford to come down with some disease this week. Not when dignitaries were already arriving for the International Trade Convention due to kick off in less than two days’ time.
If she did come down with something, it would all be that big, hulking, decidedly sexy, beast of a man’s fault. The one who’d knocked her into the river in the first place. When he’d pulled her out with one hand, he’d barely strained.
Her heart had raced when he’d slammed her up against his chest. She blamed it on the shock of being thrown into the river, but she suspected the solid wall of muscles she’d rested her hands against had more to do with it.
For a brief moment, she’d remained dumbstruck and utterly attracted to the clumsy stranger. Had it been any other circumstance and she hadn’t been covered in river slime, she might have asked for his number. Yeah, right.
As the convention coordinator, she couldn’t afford to date or be sick, or for anything to go wrong while thousands of businessmen and politicians attended the meetings. She’d been hired by the city to ensure this event went off without a hitch, and she wouldn’t let a single disgruntled employee, terrorist or hulking bodybuilder knock her off her game. No sir. She had all the plans locked up tighter than Fort Knox and the hired staff marching to the beat of her military-style drum.
She wasn’t the daughter of an Army colonel for nothing. She knew discipline; hard work and using your brain couldn’t be replaced by help from sexy strangers with insincere apologies. If this convention was going to be a success, it would be so based on all of her hard work in the planning stages.
Once inside her room, she headed straight for the bathroom and twisted the knob on the shower, amazed at how much her breasts still tingled after being smashed against the broad chest of the clumsy oaf who’d knocked her into the river. She shook her head, attributing the tingling to the chill of the air conditioning unit.
In the bathroom, she stripped her damp gym shorts and tank top, dropping the soaked mess into a plastic bag. She’d hand it over to the hotel staff and ask them to launder them, otherwise she’d have nothing to work out in. Who was she kidding? She wouldn’t need to work out once the convention began.
Fiona unclipped her bra and slid out of her panties, adding them to the bag of dirty clothes. Then she stepped beneath the shower’s spray and attacked her body with shampoo and citrus-scented soap. Images of the muscle man on the River Walk resurfaced, teasing her body into a lather that had nothing to do with the bar of soap. Too bad her time wasn’t her own. The man had certainly piqued her interest. Not that she’d find him again in a city of over a million people.
As she slid her soap-covered hand over her breast, she paused to tweak a nipple and moaned. It had been far too long since she’d been with a man. She’d have to do something about that soon. With her, a little sex went a long way. Perhaps she would test the batteries in her vibrator and make do with pleasuring herself. Although the device was cold and couldn’t give her all she wanted, it was a lot less messy in so very many ways. Relationships required work. Building a business had taken all of her time.
Fiona trailed her hand down her belly to the tuft of curls over her mons and sighed. Maybe she’d find a man. After the convention when her life wasn’t nearly as crazy. She rinsed, switched off the water and stepped out on the mat, her core pulsing, her clit throbbing, needy and unfulfilled.
With a lot of items still begging for her attention, she couldn’t afford the luxury of standing beneath the hot spray of the massaging showerhead, masturbating. Towel in hand, she rubbed her skin briskly, her breasts tingling at the thought of the big guy on the River Walk.
By the time the convention was over, that man could be long gone. He probably was a businessman passing through, or one of the military men on temporary duty. Even if he lived in the city, what were the chances of running into him again? Slim to none. San Antonio was a big place with a lot of people.
Well, damn. She should have given him her name and number. A quick fling would get her over her lust cravings and back to her laser-sharp focus.
She dragged a brush through her long, curly hair, wishing she’d cut it all off. With the convention taking all of her spare time, she didn’t have time to waste on taming her mane of cursed curls. Most of the time it was the bane of her existence, requiring almost an hour of steady work with the straightener to pull the curls out. Having left her clean clothes in the drawer in the bedroom, Fiona stood naked in front of the mirror as she blew her hair dry, coaxing it around a large round brush.
This convention was her shot at taking her business international. If she succeeded and pulled off the biggest event of her career without a hitch, other jobs would come her way on her own merit, not based on a recommendation from one of her stepfather’s cronies.
When she’d graduated with her masters in Operations Management, she’d invested the money her mother had left her in her business, F.A. International Event Planner. Since then, she’d steadily built her client list from companies based in San Antonio. Starting out with weddings, parties and small gigs, she’d established a reputation for attention to detail and an ability to follow through. She’d worked her way in as a consultant for some of the larger firms in the area when they’d needed to plan a convention based in San Antonio.
Finally she’d gotten a lead on the International Trade Convention and had applied. Her stepfather put a bug in the ear of one of his buddies from his active Army days at the Pentagon and she’d landed the contract.
Now all she had to do was prove she was up to the task. If it fell apart, she’d lose her business, disgrace the U.S. government and shame her stepfather. The pressure to succeed had almost been overwhelming. To manage the workload, she’d taken out a big loan, more than doubled her staff, coordinated the use of the convention center, arranged for all the food, meeting rooms, audio-visual equipment, translators, and blocked out lodging and security for the guests.
As she dried her hair, she stared at the shadows beneath her eyes. Only a few more sleepless nights and the convention would be underway and over. She’d be playing the role of orchestra conductor, managing the staff to ensure everything was perfect. The most important aspect of the event was tight security. The Department of Homeland Security had notified her today that with all the foreign delegates scheduled to attend, the probability of a terrorist attack had risen to threat level orange.
A quick glance at her watch reminded her that she only had ten minutes to get ready before her meeting in the lounge with the man Homeland Security had insisted she add to her staff to oversee security. This last-minute addition made her nervous. She knew nothing about the man, his background or his capabilities. He could prove more of a hindrance than a help if he got in the way. All she knew was that he’d better be on time, and he’d better be good. With a hundred items roiling around in her head at any one moment, the last thing she needed was an international incident.
Fiona shut off the blow dryer, ran the brush through her hair and reached for the doorknob, reminding herself to look at the e-mail on her laptop from Homeland Security to get the name of the contact she’d be meeting shortly. Before she could turn the doorknob, it twisted in her hand and the door flew open.
A very naked man, with wild eyes and bared teeth shoved her up against the wall, pinned her wrists above her head and demanded, “Who the hell are you? And why are you in my room?”