Free Fiction on the 14th: Love in the Drop Zone

The Ides of Matt:
A free short story,
every month from the 14th-20th.

Love in the Drop Zone
by M.L. Buchman
-a Delta Force romance story-

Cindy Sue Chavez rocks Delta Force training.  However, this time the instructor drives her more than a little crazy. Almost as crazy as being called Cindy Sue.

Master Sergeant JD Ramírez believes in pushing his squad, male or female, as hard as he pushes himself. But Cindy Sue? Her he pushes the hardest of all.

When the mission calls for the sharpest Delta Force can offer, they discover  LOVE in the DROP ZONE.

1

A shadow loomed over her, blocking out the heat blast of the early morning sun striking across Fort Bragg, North Carolina’s Range 37 training area. No question who it was—he blocked out everything good about the quiet morning. Even the chatty cuckoos and the dive-bomber buzz of passing hummingbirds seemed to go silent in his presence.

“Staff Sergeant Cindy Sue Chavez.”

“Yes, Master Sergeant JD Ramírez?” Could the man be a more formal pain in the ass? She hated being called Cindy Sue and he damn well knew it, but it wasn’t a good idea to talk back to a superior rank—not even when he was being a superior asshole.

Her mother, coming from Guadalajara, had thought Cindy Sue sounded American. But Cindy was Bangor, Maine born-and-buttered and no one in Bangor was named Cindy Sue because it was just too ridiculous—doubly so with her Mexican features and long, dark hair. Her parents had slipped across the border as two starry-eyed sixteen-year-olds seeking the American Dream. They hadn’t known any better, but it still rankled. She sighed. America wasn’t big on giving out guidebooks to help immigrant dreamers along the way. She should damn well write one, at least on how not to name your kids.

Cindy’s personal mission to eradicate her middle name had been a success with most of her fellow Delta Force operators. Being a woman in Special Operations did have a few perks. Women were a rare commodity inside The Unit, as well as a reminder of home. Most grunts were inclined to treat her nicely and drop the “Sue” after the fourth or tenth time she asked. A rifle butt in the gut often helped the slow learners.

She wasn’t about to try that on Master Sergeant JD Ramírez whose dark eyes followed her every move. He positively relished how much she hated her extended name, but he was far too dangerous to risk attacking, at least directly. She loved Mama, so rather than indulging in a bit of matricide for giving her the name in the first place, she was leaning very strongly toward offing Master Sergeant JD Ramírez—from a safe distance.

The heat on Range 37 was already climbing toward catastrophic despite the early hour. Low trees struggled upward to either side of this section of the range. Today’s training course lay along the low grassy hillside with scattered scrub and dotted with cheery flowers in yellows, blues, and purples. No hint of real shade anywhere.

Ramírez wore boots, camos, and a tight black t-shirt that had clearly been thought up for men like him. He wasn’t exactly Mr. Handsome, but if it was what lay under the clothes that counted, he had Mr. Buff down. His skin had the same liquidy perfect genetic tan as hers, blemished by only a few visible battle scars that served to enhance the image. She’d never dated another Latino and—

Crap!

Some psychotic, “Cindy Sue” personality needed her head examined if she was thinking that about the master sergeant.

The fact that he was a Delta Force instructor standing on a Fort Bragg practice range—perfectly in his element—did help the image right along but she wasn’t dumb enough to fall for any girlie, daydreaming trap. Master Sergeant JD Ramírez was magnificent in more than just his looks. He was a hundred percent superior soldier. That was what she aspired to. Which was ridiculous for a woman half his size, but it didn’t matter. She’d known JD almost as long as she’d been in Delta Force and he was the finest warrior she’d never fought with. They had yet to be assigned to an action team together—merely “rubbing shoulders” in situations like this refresher training.

Ramírez still hadn’t spoken, but she was going to wait him out. She wasn’t even going to give him the satisfaction of looking up at him. Instead, she began preparing for the day.

His boots took a step away. Hesitated, then took another, unveiling the sunrise’s full glare. None of the birdsong she’d been enjoying returned. His attitude had cleared the entire zone.

“Do me a favor,” his voice was rough.

She squinted up at him. All she could see was sun dazzle, but she knew from experience that he never quite looked at her when speaking.

“What, Master Sergeant?” Not choke you to death for being a personal thorn in my backside? That was almost too big a favor to ask. And why was he haranguing her rather than the other seven operators sitting in the dirt and gearing up to survive today’s test?

JD had been on her case since the first moment of the course. She didn’t expect him to ease up just because she’d survived her first six months in Delta, hunting Indonesian pirates, but it was way past just being a “thing.” His un-favoritism was so blatant that the other operators had unwound from their arrogant male smugness of innate superiority enough to comment on it. None had offered to protest on her behalf, of course, but that was fine. As a Delta operator she could take care of herself.

And JD Ramírez was now topping her list of things to be taken care of. Not in a good way. She’d start by stuffing his head inside The Foo Fighters kicker drum. Then have Beyoncé strut her stuff up and down his back while wearing her gold-flecked spike-heel boots. If only.

Today was the final sniper stalking test. It was the last day of a month-long skills refresher. Not a lot of field stalking involved in hunting Indonesian sea pirates. Her shooting precision from a moving platform like a boat or helicopter had certainly been honed, but Delta didn’t believe in letting any skills go stale. If that meant every deployment ended with a month under the ungentle thumbs of the trainers—who were fellow operators—it was fine with her.

But she was getting a real antipathy for that trainer being JD.

“Don’t fuck up, Cindy Sue,” he finally managed to grunt out.

“Thanks, Master Sergeant. That’s real helpful.” She didn’t need advice on how to get through today’s sniper stalking test—especially not from JD Ramírez. She wished she had a few rounds in her rifle to deal with him. Maybe pepper the dirt at his feet to make him dance to her tune.

“I’ll be your spotter.”

Perfect! “Yes, sergeant. Glad it’ll be you.” So perfect that if she had a spare live round, she just might shoot herself in the foot to get out of it. She could feel the other seven of her teammates risking glances at the friendly little tête-à-tête she was having with the master sergeant. Why wasn’t he giving them any beef? They’d been working quietly together, preparing for the day.

In stalking tests, spotters were definitely not the helpful guy looking over your shoulder and calling out range-to-target, wind speed, temperature, and all of the other factors required in long-shot marksmanship.

She’d aced the shooting part of the course days ago.

Now, his job was to sit in the target’s position with a high-powered scope and try to spot her crawling through the brush to kill him—with a single round. If he could pick her out, catch her even bending a stalk of grass the wrong way, she’d flunk the test and have to start over. Three fails and she’d be bounced back to a full week of stalker training.

In other words, not a chance was she going to let anyone spot her. Especially not Mr. Perfect Soldier JD Ramírez.

She continued preparing her ghillie suit. An itchy mesh of burlap and tattered string, it broke the unnatural shape of a sniper slithering toward their target. Once interwoven with local flora, it would drape like a cloak over her head and body, making her into a small patch of slow-moving landscape. An extension of the ghillie would wrap around her rifle. She began lacing in bits of foliage that were native to this particular range. New Jersey tea and sweetfern grew well here. A small selection of the summer grasses, even now shifting from flexible green to August brittle brown, would add to the suffocating layer she’d be spending the next four to five hours underneath.

There was a certain…stench to a well-prepared ghillie suit. It reeked of everywhere it had been. Dragging it along a dirt road for a 10K run had impregnated it with Fort Bragg dust and grime. Trips through reeking mangrove swamps, snorkeling across cow manure ponds, and crawling up the insides of large sewage pipes had added their own head-spinning miasma of awful.

The Marine Scout Sniper Course had a “pig pond” to teach their snipers to go through anything to reach the target. The Delta trainers were far less kind. The old Maine saying, “Cain’t get the’a from he’a” simply wasn’t in a Delta vocabulary.

Ghillie suit smell never truly washed off the skin considering the number of hours they’d spent wearing them. The scent clung until at least a couple of layers of skin had been shed over time. It worked as a high-quality male repellent in any bar—certainly better than Deet against the avaricious mosquitos of the Maine woods on her parents’ farm.

The smell formed an impenetrable barrier to anyone—except for a fellow sniper. To them it was the sweet stench of belonging. However, repelling all would-be boarders wasn’t much of an issue after the first day into the refresher course. Delta training schedules didn’t leave much spare time in an operator’s schedule. Going to the bathroom. Maybe. Eating? On occasion. Sleep? Yep, sleep was for SEALs and other lazy-ass wimps.

She sat cross-legged in the hot sun and continued working on preparing her ghillie. She did her best to ignore Master Sergeant JD Ramírez as he glared down at her.

There had been a synergy between them since the first day—an unacknowledged one. She never shot as well as she did when JD was watching her. There was something about his mere presence that drove her to be better. At first, she’d hoped that he’d eventually notice the woman inside the soldier.

After the last thirty days, she figured she could do with a lot less “notice.”

 

2

JD did his best to look away from Cindy, but it wasn’t working. He had a full, eight-operator squad that he’d been hounding through the course for thirty days. Just as planned, they now looked battered and weary. They were completely in that head-down, whatever’s-next-bring-it-on mode that every Delta operator knew to their very core. The battle was mental. The course was partly a skills refresher, but mostly a reinforcement that mere human limitations weren’t a part of being Delta.

At least he had seven of them in that mode.

Number Eight, Cindy Sue Chavez, sat calm and collected in the blazing sun, plucking up the local plants for her ghillie as if she was collecting a wedding bouquet. Nothing he or the other instructors had thrown at her made her fade in the slightest. Hell, he was exhausted.

Delta instructors didn’t slack off—they were on rotation, in from field operations as well. If the squad did a mile swim wearing boots, ammo, and a heavy rifle, the instructors swam right beside them wearing the same gear. His shoulders still throbbed from yesterday’s ten-mile hike with a forty-pound rucksack, just before the last test day on the shooting range—an exercise designed to rate ability to shoot after a hard infiltration. He was just glad it wasn’t his day to crawl across the field hoping to god that some sharp-eyed spotter didn’t pick him out of the foliage and send his sorry ass back to the start line.

“What is it about me that you hate so much, Master Sergeant?” Cindy didn’t look up from preparing her ghillie suit. Her voice was a simple, matter-of-fact, want-a-soda tone.

“Hate? What makes you think I hate you, Chavez? No more than the next operator who slacks off.”

It earned him a single long look from her dark brown eyes before she turned back to preparing her ghillie.

Yeah, they both knew she hadn’t been slacking off and he’d been chapping her ass.

“Just don’t screw up today.” He walked away before he could say something even lamer.

Delta women were rare, but he’d worked with a number of them and was past being gender-biased in either direction. Except Cindy Chavez belonged in a gender all her own. Delta women were tough, real hard chargers, just like the men—Delta Force didn’t recruit anyone who wasn’t exceptional.

But there was something about her that blew all his calibrations about operators.

Was it her beauty? The fact that she was a top athlete? The fact that she didn’t take shit from anyone—not even him? He especially liked that about her.

He hadn’t even been able to think of another woman since he’d first met her over a year ago. It had certainly cut down on his favorite recreational pastime. He’d look at a bar babe with her bright blues and deep cleavage zeroed in on him, and then picture the slender, dark-eyed Cindy Chavez and he was outta there.

Even now he could feel those thoughtful, unrevealing eyes tracking him as if he was her next sniper target.

He walked over the broad, kilometer-long hillside slope that she would be crawling across. It was as ugly as a Kansas prairie—a place he hadn’t been able to leave fast enough. He took his seat on the raised platform for the spotter/target—last of the three to arrive. Open to all sides, it had a wooden roof that seemed to focus the heat, even if it blocked most of the sun. From the central rafter dangled a metal target that the snipers would have to hit in order to pass—hit without being spotted.

There wasn’t a breath of air. No wind to mask the sniper’s traverse through the grass and brush. None that would get in his lungs after standing so close to Cindy Chavez and watch her fine-fingered quick movements of preparing her ghillie.

JD hoped that she made it, he really did. He knew he’d pushed her harder than any of the others. But his next assignment badly needed a woman of Cindy’s caliber if they were going to survive it.

 

3

A three-hour skull-drag across the field. Never bring your head up. Never move two inches when one would do.

Four of the eight stalkers had been picked off by the sharp-eyed spotters. They’d have another try at it after lunch—by which time the North Carolina heat would be beyond brain-baking and their limbs would already be weary beyond functioning from their first attempt. Fine motor control would be out the window.

Not her.

A Marine Scout Sniper had to start a thousand meters out and crawl undetected to within three hundred meters from the spotter/target. A Delta operator was supposed to get within a hundred: the length of a football field from the best spotters in the business. A fifteen-second sprint away.

The first of the snipers to reach the start line undetected just fired off a blank to indicate he was ready. The three spotters on the platform all focused on finding him. She’d bet it was “Grizzly” Jones. His beard was as unruly as a bear’s, which was a fair description of his body shape as well. He was incredibly good.

If the spotters couldn’t find him, they’d clear him to fire a single live round at a metal target hanging over their heads. If they still couldn’t find the shooter by muzzle flash, or by the blowback suppressor stirring up the grass, then he’d pass the test.

The rule was: no one else moved while they waited for a sniper’s second shot.

They were unable to find the shooter. The spotters cleared him to fire.

Cindy heard the hard crack of his live round followed almost instantly by the sharp clang of the metal target mounted in the center of the spotter group.

The spotters continued their efforts, but miscalled his location by a good three meters. A sniper not only had to arrive invisibly, he was also supposed to avoid being shot immediately after making his own kill.

The sniper rose on the all clear signal. She didn’t bother wasting time to see who it was.

One thing she’d learned about Delta, rules were for other people.

Since the moment everyone’s attention had focused on finding Grizzly—or whoever—Cindy had been headed sideways.

 

4

Two more snipers had passed. That meant there was only one left and JD would be damned if he could find her.

The time limit was fast approaching and he didn’t want Cindy to time out. He needed her on his next assignment. He wanted this success for her. He wanted her—

The thought petered out there. An unfinished truth.

He rubbed the sweat from his eyes. The air was shimmering at even a hundred meters. The smell of baking grass, scrub, and the unique blend that was Fort Bragg dirt—that he knew so well from crawling across so much of it himself over the years—was distracting him.

What would Cindy smell like? Not in her ghillie, but instead fresh from a shower after a hard day in the field? Or still hot and sweaty, lying back among the five-petaled wood anemone? He liked that thought. It made a pleasant companion as he returned to scanning the field. The controls on the tripod-mounted scope nearly burned his hand with the late morning heat.

He figured it was okay to think such things, as long as he never showed them. To keep such thoughts about her in check—which was damned hard because she was so incredible—he made a point of keeping her angry at him. Her name had been but the latest of many techniques, but already she was growing immune to it. He was running out of ploys to avoid thinking about her.

Focus on the hunt.

A sniper wasn’t just a hunter who could kill at a distance, they were also a countersniper. The very best snipers hunted other snipers. Finding a sniper hunting him was eerie…and fun. How he’d stumbled into the best job on the planet, he didn’t know. How a woman like Cindy had charged into it simply awed him. He knew how goddamn hard it was.

Did that stalk of yellow lupine waver with the blurring heat, or because Cindy had brushed against it? Or was it a part of her ghillie suit? He wouldn’t put it past her to put a bright flower in her camouflage, simply because no one else in their right mind would think to do something so likely to draw attention.

Was the dark spot at the right edge of the field and a hundred and twenty meters out just a dark spot in the foliage, or was it the bore of Cindy’s rifle aimed his way? There was no glint of the glass of her rifle scope immediately above the dark spot, so he moved on.

There was a directionless snap of someone firing a blank round.

It had to be Cindy, she was the only one left out there. He double-checked his watch. One minute inside the time limit, she was still good. Knowing her, she’d probably been in position for an hour and had simply waited to make him worry.

A glance down the line at the other two spotters. Neither one had a clue.

He felt an itch between his shoulder blades, but couldn’t pin it down.

He called out, “Clear to fire.”

All three of them had their heads up from their scopes hoping to spot the muzzle flash. Typically, they could pin down the shooter’s location within a dozen meters before the shot, then use the scopes to pinpoint for the muzzle flash. Not this time.

Her second round slapped into the metal target. The other two trainers were still scanning the field.

JD glanced up at the battered metal target dangling over their heads and couldn’t help smiling. A thousand rounds had scarred the front of the metal plate. There was only one impact splash on the back of the target.

He turned to look behind him. He should have trusted that itch between his shoulders.

A quick scan told him that there wasn’t a chance that he was going to spot her—there was a line of dense brush behind the spotter’s platform.

The other two spotters noted the direction of his gaze. Their protests about the trainee leaving the boundary of the stalking field were immediate, but he didn’t bother listening.

He might not be able to see her, but Cindy Sue Chavez was exactly what he was looking for.

 

5

In the last twelve hours, Cindy still hadn’t gotten over JD’s knowing smile. It had been erased by the time she was called “clear” and had descended from an exceptionally prickly hawthorn tree she’d climbed into on the wrong side of the range.

There’s been no hint of a smile as he’d ordered her to prepare for immediate deployment.

“We have an assignment,” he’d addressed her without the derision that had become his standard modus operandi these last thirty days. “Deep infiltration. High risk. Masquerading as a couple. Minimum time is anticipated as thirty days. If it goes right, we may be deployed for several months together. You’re my first choice and my only choice. We’ll leave at sunset. Does that work for you?”

Deep undercover with Master Sergeant JD Ramírez? Not the pain in her ass that he’d been for the retraining, but rather the most impressive and attractive soldier she’d ever met—suddenly addressing her as an equal?

Her surprise was vaster than the hundred and thirty acres of the Range 37 shooting range and she’d barely managed to nod her agreement.

At sunset, they’d hustled aboard a C-17 Globemaster transport jet and staked claim to the steel decking of the sloped rear ramp—one of the most comfortable spots on an uncomfortable plane. It had turned southwest toward Mexico and he had done what all Spec Ops warriors did on a flight—passed out. Headed into a mission, you never knew when you’d get to sleep next, so the jet engine’s conversation-ending roar worked better than a general anesthetic on any Special Operations warrior.

Except it didn’t for her this time. Maybe it was because she’d spent six months deploying from helicopters; sleeping to the heavy downbeat of the rotors while being rocked in the cradle of a racing Black Hawk was her norm. Maybe the stability of the massive C-17 is what was throwing her off.

She didn’t want to think that it might be his enigmatic smile that was costing her precious sleep. She’d expected him to be pissed at her trick—the other two spotters certainly had been—not smile.

JD Ramírez was a classic Delta soldier—nothing about him stood out, at least to the untrained eye. It was the SEALs and Rangers who tended to have the big guys. A Delta had strength and skills like the other teams, but mostly they possessed an irrationally extreme perseverance against all odds. None of that showed on the outside.

While not overly handsome, that smile had completely altered her view of him. After thirty days of hounding her to outperform every operator around her, his smile—so clear in her rifle scope—had been beyond radiant. And not as if her success was his doing; she knew that type of arrogance all too well.

No. It was as if he was proud of her in the way her father had been the day she’d joined up to defend their new country.

Cindy would be damned if she was going to get all sniffly. That wasn’t in a Delta’s personality matrix, but she still couldn’t shake that smile. It was a long time before the engine-roar anesthetic kicked in even enough to doze.

 

6

Turning his back on where Cindy Chavez lay beside him during the flight didn’t help matters in the slightest. JD couldn’t believe what he’d seen as she’d crawled out of that hawthorn. Bloody from a hundred thorn scratches—and a smile as big as the sun in the Kansas sky.

He remembered the first day he’d seen her. He’d been the lead range instructor at the shooting test during Operator Selection. A hundred and twenty applicants were down to fifteen before they reached him. His goal was to make sure that every one of the fifteen was also a top marksman. By this point in the selection, a missed target wasn’t a black mark, instead it was an opportunity for instruction—right up until too many misses knocked the hopeful back for retraining.

You’re not reading the heat shimmer correctly.

Don’t hesitate before a heartbeat, instead plan for it. At a thousand meters, the surge of blood driven into muscle by a heartbeat could shift a shooter’s aim by several meters.

Of the twelve who made it through the shooting test, there was one he never had to give a correction to, because she never missed. He’d placed her last on the second day of shooting, by which time the wind was kicking hard and gusty over the blazing pasture of the Range 37 stalking range. Undeterred, she’d finished the test with only two misses—an incredible achievement he was only able to match, not beat.

“How the hell did you do that, Cindy?” Without even thinking, he’d rolled over on the steel decking to face her. She was so close and so goddamn beautiful that he couldn’t find the air to explain what he was asking about. He wasn’t even sure himself anymore. They were close enough that, despite the dim red nightlight of the cargo bay, he could see every eyelash as her eyes fluttered open.

The Globemaster was transporting a pair of Black Hawks and a half dozen pallets of supplies to Colombia for the never-ending drug war. The crews and equipment crammed the eighty-by-eighteen foot bay solidly. Their vehicle—a totally incongruous Dodge Viper sports car that he couldn’t wait to drive—rested on the last pallet in the line. The two of them lay on the C-17’s sloped rear ramp close beside it. They’d be getting off much sooner than everyone else aboard.

She blinked at him in surprise.

“You actually talking to me, Master Sergeant?”

“Might be,” not that he’d admit to it. And now he was close enough to smell her. The odors of the sniper exercise had survived her shower, but there was another, indefinable scent that almost had him reaching for her. She smelled of wilderness, adventure, and a warm fire on a cold winter night.

“Will wonders never cease,” she muttered, little louder than the engine roar. “How did I do what? Climb a tree with no one noticing?”

“You did that by ignoring the rules, which is one of the reasons you’re on this mission. By the way, how close were you before you did that?”

“I was inside the shoot line for twenty minutes before Grizzly shot, but once I crawled there it seemed too simple.”

“Too simple,” he grunted out. The stalking test was one of the hardest challenges there was for a sniper, and she’d shown a level of confidence exceptional for even a Delta by not just taking her victory.

She nodded.

“Where did you learn such patience?” He’d meant to ask where she’d learned to shoot. Her eyes skittered aside strangely at his new question. “Don’t lie now. You already cheated on the test this morning. One sin per day should be enough.”

Her eyes slowly returned to focus on him. Made even darker by the Globemaster’s dim lighting, they seemed to reveal more of her than they ever had before. “Are you sure?”

“Am I sure of what?”

“That one sin per day is enough.”

He propped his head onto his fist, with his elbow placed on the steel deck so that he could look at her more clearly. Unsure of what she was referring to, he shrugged and hoped that she’d continue on her own. The engine roar seemed to build during her continued silence until it wrapped around them like a cocoon.

Now it was her turn to shrug before speaking. “What’s the real reason you’ve been pushing at me so hard all month? It’s not gender bias. I figured that one out on my own.”

“I need you for this assignment. I need a top-performing woman.”

“There’s your one sin for the day. Now try again, without the half-lie.”

“Some day you’ll have to tell me how you did that.”

She shrugged maybe yes, maybe no.

JD looked at her. Really looked. They lay closer together than he’d ever been to her. As her eyes were telling him nothing, he watched her lips for some hint of her thoughts. He could just lean in and—

Get himself tossed into lockup for sexual harassment.

“I’m pushing you away because…” Because he was an idiot. He should be doing anything he could to bring her close. Though much closer and they’d be in each other’s arms.

Her gaze almost skittered aside again, but this time locked and held.

“You a hypnotist too?” he barely managed to whisper.

 

7

Cindy wished she had a US Army Field Manual on men. JD Ramírez had been pushing her away because…he was attracted to her?

“What kind of sense does that make?”

His eyes crossed for a moment as he puzzled at her question.

“You’re attracted to me?”

“No,” his voice was flat, almost harsh again.

“Then what?”

He reached out and brushed a finger along her cheek.

It sent a chill of surprise through her so strong that she couldn’t suppress the shudder.

“It’s nothing as mild as that,” he whispered. Then he blinked hard as if suddenly coming awake.

“Shit!”

He sat up abruptly, leaving her lying on the sloped rear ramp trying to gather her thoughts that had just scattered to the horizon faster than the big jet’s turbulent wake.

He didn’t go far. JD yanked off his jacket and leaned back against the charcoal gray sports car’s bumper and faced her with his knees pulled up and his elbows resting on them.

She sat up and looked at him. They were toe to toe. Beyond him she could see the 101st Airborne fliers and grunts and a couple squads of 75th Rangers. Some slept, some were joking around. There was a poker game going on in one of the helo’s open cargo bays. They were all leaving the two Delta Force operators, their hot car, and their secret mission alone.

Her insides were far less orderly. Everything was tied up in knots. JD didn’t hate her, which was news in itself. But he also wasn’t attracted to her—it was “nothing as mild as that.” What came after that was only too clear.

“You pushed me so hard so that…so that I wouldn’t want to be around you?”

He nodded, then shrugged, then shook his head. But he wasn’t looking up from his boots either.

“I’m a patient person, JD, but you’d better explain yourself because I suck at guessing games.”

“Where did you get such patience?” He glanced up at her, looked away, appeared to realize what he was doing and finally faced her squarely.

“Change of subject.”

“I asked first, and earlier.”

“No way, José Domingo.”

“That’s not my name.”

“What is it then?”

He shook his head.

She growled in frustration. “Enough shit, Jesús Dominic or whatever your name is. Speak or I’ll beat the crap out of you. Right here. Right now. Faster than even any of the 75th Rangers can save you.”

His smile invited her to try and she was almost tempted. When she didn’t, he studied the ceiling of the Globemaster’s cargo bay for a long moment before responding.

“I’ve never met a woman like you, Cindy Sue,” this time it was a friendly tease rather than derision.

So she only kicked his calf hard enough to make him flinch. He held up a hand to show that he’d finally gotten the message.

“The way you shoot. The way you look. Both sexy as hell.” He made a point of scanning down her body.

They were both dressed in para-military-civilian-on-holiday mode: well-worn boots, cargo pants with a few too many pockets, black t-shirts, and jeans jackets. She ignored his full-body scan, because she was doing the same. Out of his jacket and frustrated past speech, he looked beyond amazing.

“But it’s the way you think that truly knocks me back. I’ve read your entire record, probably know it better than you dod I’ve read it so many times. You don’t just think outside the box—you don’t even see it. I should have known you’d hunt me from behind,” he laughed with delight.

It should be irritating, but she loved the sound of his laugh.

Then he sobered abruptly. “Look. I never meant to say any of this. If you want out, we’ll scrub this mission and I’ll find another way in.”

A sleek, late-model Dodge Viper sports car. Two Deltas posing as an adventure-seeking paramilitary couple who both looked Latino and were fluent enough in Mexican-accented Spanish to sound local. Pretending to be out of work and looking for fun in the heart of Mexico’s drug country.

They were on a kingpin hunt.

Most of the cartels were personality cults run by one or two charismatic individuals. Taking out El Chapo had broken the chokehold of the Sinaloa Cartel. But others had risen in their place to take advantage of the sudden weakness. Time to infiltrate and take down some more kingpins.

It was a fantastic chance for an important and exciting assignment.

And with JD Ramírez, the best soldier she’d never served with. But what if he was more than that?

Cindy liked the way that sounded.

She liked it a lot.

“No. I’ll stay.” But she couldn’t make it too easy on him, or his ego might get out of hand. “I think this mission sounds interesting. I like a challenge.”

 

8

JD still couldn’t get a read on what Cindy was thinking. She was not a woman who wore her thoughts on her sleeve. Or on those beautiful lips.

Her smile had either said that’s all she thought the op was, an interesting challenge. Or it was some sort of double entendre about himself. He just couldn’t tell. He could hope, but he couldn’t tell.

Once they were seated side-by-side in the Viper—hot lady in hot car inside a combat aircraft, damn but he was doing something right—he reached into the miniscule glove compartment. The car’s cockpit was so tight, he was practically in her lap to do so. He still didn’t know if that was welcome or not, so he pulled back as fast as he could.

“Here’s your ID.” He handed her a battered set of Mexican papers.

She riffled them open, “Gloria Chavez.”

“I thought it would be easy for you to remember to respond to because you’re so freaking glorious.” And he really needed to remember when to shut up.

Cindy— No! Gloria, for the duration of this mission, held the papers to her chest as if they were somehow special.

Before he could ask what she was thinking—not a chance she would tell him but he wanted to ask anyway—the loadmaster tapped on the hood of the car. Then he raised a hand as if pulling up the parking brake.

JD made sure it was raised, then gave a thumbs up.

The loadmaster began knocking loose the tie-down chains on each tire.

“What’s your name?”

“I’m Juan David Ramírez on my papers.”

“What’s your real name?”

The loadmaster lowered the C-17 Globemaster’s rear ramp. It opened to reveal the dark of night and a remote stretch of a gravel road deep in the Sonoran Province south of Nogales.

He tried to find some way to not answer the question, but couldn’t find one.

He stomped down on the brake and started the car’s engine. It thrummed to life. He could feel the vibration, but the redoubled roar from the jet and the open cargo bay door completely drowned the sound out.

“Jimmy Dean.”

“Like the sausage?”

He sighed, “Exactly like the sausage. My parents wanted an American sounding name and didn’t know much English when I was conceived.”

Her laugh sparkled to life. She reached out a hand and rested it on his arm as if to steady herself. It was the first time they’d ever touched, other than that one stolen brush of his finger down her cheek—the softness of her skin had almost undone him there and then. She’d become a thousand times more real in that moment.

Now, with her fingers wrapped lightly around his bare forearm, energy jolted through him like lightning.

“You asked how I was so patient?” The laugh still bubbled in her voice.

“Yes?” JD responded cautiously. Now he wasn’t so sure he wanted to hear her answer.

The loadmaster flashed ten fingers twice. Twenty seconds.

JD slipped the car into third gear, but kept his foot on the clutch. He hit the headlights, and the outside world leaped to visibility. Beyond the open hatch and a dozen meters below, a two-lane unpaved road raced away from them. Off to the side, lay nothing but dirt and scrub brush.

“You kept me at a distance by chapping my ass.”

Cin—Gloria didn’t make it a question, so he didn’t do more than nod.

The loadmaster held up ten fingers. Ten seconds to go. They flew five meters above the road.

“I kept you at a distance with my patience. I made myself learn it so that I wouldn’t just fall into your arms.”

He risked glancing over at her. “Since when?”

Her smile was glowing. The same smile she’d worn after climbing down out of that hawthorn tree with her face all bloodied. The same smile she’d first shown him after acing the marksmanship test all the way back in Delta Selection.

“Since the first time I met you, Master Sergeant JD Ramírez. I pushed like I never had before—to get you to notice me.”

“It worked. Mary Mother of God but it worked.”

The loadmaster thumped on the hood and flashed three fingers at him.

Cindy locked her fingers around his arm.

The surge of joy passed into her as he dumped the brake and the car began to roll down the ramp.

The Dodge Viper gathered speed just as the steel ramp struck sparks and whirled a cloud of dust from the graveled surface.

Cindy braced for the jolt of the combat drop.

Her heart was racing, but not with the adrenaline of the tires hitting the roadway at just over a hundred miles an hour. Nor was it the deep throaty roar of the C-17 battling back aloft the instant they were unloaded to continue its journey south. The American military plane had never actually touched wheels in Mexico.

Glorious? He saw her as glorious.

He was right. It had worked. She was attracted, no, drawn to him like no one else in her life. That he felt the same was indeed a fantastic gift.

JD dropped the car into gear and, without slacking off the speed one bit, they raced off into the night. She could feel his muscles as he found the right gear for swooping over the rough road. She kept her hand on his arm because that’s where it belonged.

Juan David and Gloria.

Maybe they’d just choose their names permanently, as they’d chosen their careers in Delta.

Maybe, after months of playing at being a couple, she’d choose Gloria Ramírez.

As they raced through the night toward a new adventure, she knew there was no doubt about it.

When she leaned over to kiss him on the cheek, he fishtailed hard on the gravel for a moment. Then he grinned over at her and punched it up another gear.

Together they flew down the road.

 

Copyright © 2017 by M.L. Buchman
Published by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.
Cover and Layout copyright © 2017 by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This work, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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