Monday, March 28, 2016

Stark September by C.D. Bradley ♥ Spotlight & GIVEAWAY ♥ (Military Romantic Suspense)




Sometimes it only takes a moment for your whole world to change. When Captain Kira Riley begins working on base at Fort Carson, she thinks she will be paying back her debt and escape her past. However just as she tries to focus on the mission at hand her path violently collides with the one man who could unearth every wall she has ever built.
Kira had struggled for years to make it to this moment. Finally a physician! But for those from meager backgrounds dreams come at a price. In order to pay for school she would have to serve in the military for 4 years. Just being on base brings back a lifetime of painful memories. Kira has to focus, pull up her big girl panties and make this work. One problem, she never anticipated meeting Owen Stark, a Special Forces sergeant who lives by a strict code. Though Kira tries to avoid any thoughts of this rugged stranger, fate has other plans. After a steamy and awkward physical exam Kira is left breathless and shaken. She has no intention of ever putting herself in a vulnerable situation again yet this soldier stirs feelings she didn’t know she had. Beyond fraternization, Kira will have to overcome; a slew of crazy exes, the grips of a BDSM subculture, and jail to find out who Owen Stark really is.
Stark is intrigued from their first encounter but his world is set. After a decade of service to avenge past tragedy, his team was all he needed, until he met her. Her determination, wit and gentle charm captivate him. Now he must choose between the existence he has built and a chance to really live again. Separated by their ranks she is the one woman he can never have. He knows being caught will end both of their careers. Aside from that if he gets too close she will learn about his life before the military or worse how he has spent his free time for the last decade. He knows he should just walk away, but one look in those innocent eyes, and the world stops spinning. Some risks are worth taking even if you lose everything.



© 2016 C. D. Bradley

CHAPTER 1

Kira looked at herself in the mirror. What the hell have I gotten myself into?She thought, frustrated and a little panicked. The reflection staring back dressed in full fatigues was a soldier who bore an eerie resemblance to the girl of her youth. Hastily she attempted to get her unruly wet hair into some form of a ponytail.Seriously, on the first solo day of clinic I am going to be late. Why on earth did I run so long this morning? Running was her way of coping: she ran for exercise, ran for stress relief, ran away from crazy ex-boyfriends and joined the army. Kira scurried around the cramped bathroom making sure she hadn’t missed anything important like. Oh shit! Deodorant!
She had always been a bit of a tomboy, preferring climbing trees and playing in the creek, but the army? She thought back through the years of hard work and perfect grades, struggling to pay for her undergrad tuition. Despite all the scholarships, she still had to work. She manned the night desk at campus security for four years. She remembered the elation she’d felt at her excellent MCAT score and at being accepted into medical school, then the harsh reality hitting that there would be no way to pay for it. The army had seemed like such a logical choice. They pay for school, then she would serve during her residency. Perfect plan, right? Well, now it was time to pay the piper. Here she was, waiting to report for duty for her first day in an actual clinic. She tucked the last dark brown strand of hair up into her ponytail and dashed out the door. She had to get to the CO’s office to drop off the last of her paperwork before the clinic opened. How am I ever going to get used to all this paperwork? For a brief moment she considered driving, then the image of her last battle with the aging Honda Prelude flashed in her mind. She was sure a cloud of profanity still hung in the air above it. In silent frustration she hustled across the base.
Fort Carson was bustling that crisp autumn morning. The lawn was sprinkled with wet leaves despite the efforts of young privates who seemed to work tirelessly to contain them. She was careful to stay out of the way of groups of soldiers running and marching. Their voices blended in unison as their feet hit the ground to the beat of the cadence. The rhythmic sound was nearly drowned out by the howling of chilly gusts sweeping down from the surrounding mountains. The cool wet wind chilled her and she was thankful for the jacket with her army combat uniform, or ACU. As she ran, she pulled it more tightly around her. The heavy canvas was warm and reminded her of her dad. Briefly she wondered what he would have thought of her joining the service.
The base was surrounded by peaks dotted with evergreens. The mountains in the distance reminded her of home in West Virginia. Kira longed for the beautiful palette of reds, golds, and oranges that signaled the end of September and the beginning of fall. How long had it been since she had sat on her Aunt’s porch peeling apples? The crisp autumn wind carried scents of cobbler, even if only in her imagination, and made her ache for her childhood.
She climbed the steps to the CO’s office two at a time, lost in her daydream. She reached the top just as the door was flung open. What happened next was a blur. The door slammed into her and a tall dark-haired man burst through the doorway, cursing vehemently to his companion. She briefly glimpsed the sky, the stairs, and sky again as she tumbled down the steps, coming to rest on the concrete.
“Oh shit…I’m sorry. Ma’am, are you OK”? The man who had knocked her down asked with genuine concern in his husky voice. “I’m really sorry. Can you talk? Hello…?” Slowly his face came into focus. Kira struggled. Wow, those are some eyes. As she stared, Kira realized she was in the arms of the most beautiful, rugged Adonis of a man she had ever seen. He was built like a god, with deep blue-green eyes that you could sail away in.
“I’m…uh, fine. Good…and fine.” She struggled to remember how to talk. “Wow, guess you really sweep a girl off her feet, huh?” She quavered as her voice and her sense of humor came back to her. He set her upright again and helped to gather her papers. Once she stood up, he held onto her, steadying her for a moment. His hands on her back and shoulders were powerful yet felt so warm, so tender. He kept holding her, looking into her eyes as if he was waiting for her to say something. She felt her cheeks flush hot. Oh, he smells so very good. Even more embarrassed with that thought, she pulled away. “I’m fine, really. I’m OK,” and she rushed back up the stairs and into the building.
What the hell was that? I’m just shaken from the fall. Once safely inside and out of view, she leaned against the wall, taking several deep breaths. She wasn’t sure what was more unnerving—her tumble or those eyes. Oh that voice…deep and rough, yet he spoke so softly to me. Put him out of your mind this second!She remembered she was here to get a job done. Finish her residency and get the hell out of here. Seeing all these soldiers dedicating their lives to their country broke her heart. She saw her father’s face in theirs. From birth she had grown up in a military home. Despite her deep reverence for the army, she also feared what it could do to her, what it had done for him. While she felt so honored now to be a part of it, her father’s death made being here so much harder. She hadn’t thought it would be this difficult until she was actually back in this life. No, she just had to stay focused and on track, get her work done. Under no circumstances was she going to get involved with any man on this base.
With new resolve, she finished her paperwork and headed over to the clinic. Of course, the clinic was in another area of the base and required a fifteen-minute jog to get there. She was thankful for the opportunity to run off some of the adrenaline from the encounter with the sex-god soldier. She giggled but kept an eye on her surroundings, hoping she wouldn’t have to face him again. As she reached the clinic, she felt a mix of relief and disappointment. He was gone. No sight of him as she crossed the base.
Head still spinning from her earlier run-in with the soldier, Kira was thankful to settle into her morning in the clinic. The office was bustling. A whole new group of NUGs were in for their initial physicals. NUGs: New Useless Guys. Yeah, that about sums it up, she thought, looking at the group of loud, freshly crew cut kids filing into her waiting area. Well, it beats death by PowerPoint, she thought, painfully remembering her first month on base. The NUGs filed into the room one by one. Each one had the same nervous, guarded face and loud cocky attitude to cover his anxiety, brown shirt, ACU, and boots. She was assigned to a pod in the clinic where she would perform physicals on new, deploying, and returning soldiers. The duty was bottom of the barrel for assignments but it was good to be in the clinic. She was new and this was her first actual assignment. She wanted to do a good job in everything they gave her, not just to pay back her tuition, but for her dad’s sake. Kira briefly wondered if he would be proud of what she was trying to do.
She went through her morning processing one soldier after another. Her mind kept returning to the sexy soldier from this morning. Getting lost in those eyes was like drifting away in the Aegean Sea. There was an intensity and fierceness in his face but a gentleness in his strong hands. Oh and that voice, so soft and husky.
Get a hold of yourself! She snapped back to reality, realizing she had just poured coffee all over the counter.
“Are you OK?” Abbey, her charge nurse, asked. Abbey was a stout woman of about forty. She was the head nurse of that part of the clinic and she ran a tight command. “You’ve been a little off all morning.” Thankfully Abbey had taken her under her wing when Kira had first arrived on base. Abbey had proven to be not only a valuable guide but also a friend.
“I’m fine. I took a little tumble this morning. Not a big deal,” Kira said, smiling. She rubbed her still aching head and tried to look confident.
“Sounds like you should see a doctor,” Abbey joked and added, “Dr. Riley, they added a last minute physical to your schedule this morning. They called from Personnel and wanted it done today. He’s just back in country, something about the medical officer being out….” Abbey was still talking but she suddenly sounded miles away. A semi-hush fell over the waiting area. The NUGs appeared almost reverent as a man walked in.
Their eyes met. Kira felt at once nauseous and excited. An unfamiliar burning inside her caused her breath to catch in her lungs. He casually walked to the reception desk, never taking his viridian eyes off her. “Sergeant Stark reporting for a post-mission physical,” he said to the clerk. That voice again. She could feel it all over her. Her skin tingled where he had touched her.
Kira was confused. She hadn’t noticed it this morning but he didn’t look like a regular soldier. All the men she had taken care of today looked exactly alike. Sergeant Stark was strikingly different. His dark hair was longer and unruly. He had unkempt stubble on his tanned face, which made him look more like a swarthy Middle Eastern hit man rather than a U.S. soldier. A flush of embarrassment flooded her cheeks. Quickly she looked away to escape his trance. She noted how his jeans hung from his narrow hips and perfectly taut ass, barely encasing his massive granite thighs and how his T-shirt was stretched perfectly over his incredibly muscular chest.
The shattering glass, of her coffee cup on the tile floor, brought her back to her senses. “Shit,” she muttered, feeling the flush in her cheeks turn into an inferno. She avoided his gaze and grabbed a towel and began to mop up the mess.
“Are you alright, ma’am?” He was at her side in a second, his baritone voice tender with concern.
“She had a bit of a bump on the head this morning,” Abbey said, walking up behind her.
“Oh, I am so sorry about that, ma’am. I was upset and in a hurry. You’re so small I really sent you flying. You should have let me help you. I could have brought you to the doctor. Here, let me clean this up.” He bent to help her, but Kira had gathered the sopping towel and stood. “I’m fine. I’ve got this.” Kira turned and headed for the break room, leaving Stark standing empty handed in the waiting area.
“Now I see,” Abbey laughed, following her into the break room. “You really did take a tumble this morning. One might say you were swept right off your feet. Sergeant Sexy out there seems to have fried your brain.”
“Stop it,” Kira pleaded. “It’s nothing. He is just another soldier and I have a job to do. I’ve told you I have no interest in getting involved with a soldier. Ever. Just put him in Room 3.” Kira took a moment to compose herself. With a trembling hand she pushed a loose strand of hair back into her pony tail.
She could hear Abbey, in a fake sing-song voice, say, “Right this way, Sergeant. Room 3. Go ahead and undress. The doctor will be right in.” Abbey flashed her a grin as she walked back up front. “Maybe this will turn out to be an interesting day after all.”
Kira collected herself and walked in to Room 3. As she opened the door her senses were alive with the smell of him: his body wash, his cologne. The smell was intoxicating. Her heart stopped. There, on the exam table in his underwear, was this god of a man, staring at her with those eyes. She could feel herself being pulled into them. A small brown fleck stood out like a cliff in the crystal waters. What she wouldn’t give to…
Oh, Jesus. I am a professional, I am a professional. I can do this. She crossed the room to her desk, looking anywhere but at him. She did her best to appear calm and in control, although she felt like a befuddled mess on the inside. How is it possible for him to look that good? The room felt much warmer.
“So you’ve just returned from a mission?” she began. That’s it—calm, collected.
“Something like that,” he said calmly, a slight grin on his face. He seemed to be enjoying her obvious abashment.
“Were you out of the country long?”
“I’m not at liberty to say,” he replied coolly.
“What sort of environment were you in?” she asked, trying to get an understanding of disease processes about which she should be concerned.
Smiling, he replied, “Captain, you don’t have clearance for that kind of information.”
“OK, then. Have you been exposed to malaria, dengue fever, sand fleas, gonorrhea, chlamydia, or HIV?” she snapped, frustrated by the game he seemed to be playing.
Chuckling, he replied “Yes, yes, no, hope not, hope not, and no. You haven’t been in the military very long, have you?” His eyes sparkled with mischievousness. He was enjoying the game.
“No,” she answered, somewhat contritely. She tried another line of questioning. “Any new injuries or physical complaints?” Getting back into routine, she slowly regained her professionalism.
“Not really. Just a small scratch on my left shoulder. ‘Just a flesh wound, really,’” he joked in his best English accent.
Kira looked up, surprised by his dry humor. He didn’t seem like the joking type. She examined his shoulder. The wound was moderately healed and looked as though he had been burned, cut, or both a few days ago, as it had partially begun to heal. She noted how massive his strong shoulders seemed in comparison to her small hands. The definition of his shoulders and back was unnerving. “How did it happen? Or are you allowed to say?” she asked with genuine concern.
“Could have been a lug nut, a piece of bumper, who knows. These things tend to happen when a vehicle explodes in front of you. One minute it’s there, then a single flash of light and it’s gone. Happens all the time.” His voice was very nonchalant, but there was a trace of something there…pain…sadness— she couldn’t put her finger on it.
“You mean an entire Jeep exploded?” she gasped. “What happened to the driver? Or the other people in it?” She made a failed attempt to hide the horror in her voice.
“Again, for that, Captain, you don’t have clearance, but you’re a smart girl. You can figure that part out. And for the record we haven’t used JEEP in the army for some time. They’re called Humvees. You really are quite new, aren’t you, ma’am?” His voice was grave now, a little reserved. She recognized his attempt to change the subject and decided not to press any further.
She gently began to clean the wound. It was starting to show redness and slight induration. While she cleaned, she struggled to think of something to say. His eyes were upon her the entire time, burning into her. After dressing the wound with ointment and sterile gauze, she examined the rest of his back. He had a large tattoo across most of his upper back written in Chinese characters. She noticed several scars across his broad shoulders and lower back. Her fingers gently palpated a jagged scar on the other shoulder. Standing so close to him, feeling the heat off his body, inhaling the intoxicating scent of him, her mind began to wander to dark and sultry places, and she struggled to maintain her professionalism.
“Your tattoo, what does it mean?” she asked as she studied the large markings.
“Relentless,” he said, turning to meet her gaze. His voice was so low it reverberated each syllable into her.
“Is that you? Is that what you are? Relentless?” she whispered, almost afraid of the answer. His quietly intensity both frightened and excited her. She shuddered to think of him angry. She feared for anyone who was his enemy. Yet what could this quiet, gentle man do with that intensity…that relentless spirit? The thought warmed her, kindling a fire she had forgotten she could have.
“Yes, ma’am, I guess so. When I’m after something, by myself or with my team, nothing stands in the way. We move as a team and with unforgiving force to obtain our objective.” His eyes flashed dark steel. His cool tone chilled her. But his eyes were burning fire, staring deep into her. He leaned in closer and said, “Once I set my sights on something no force in heaven or hell will stand in my way.”
“That’s your work. That’s your job. How does that affect your family?” she asked, beginning to be concerned for the post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, questioning she would have to cover. The staggering numbers of service men and women suffering from these effects had been a large part of her training since arriving on base. She felt she had a grasp on what this would entail but according to Abbey she hadn’t seen anything yet.
“This is my life, ma’am. My team is all the family I need.” His quiet response was difficult to read. Kira was caught off guard by the sudden change in him. The flirtatious young man had disappeared into this career soldier. Somehow, she sensed an air of sadness under his confidence.
Kira continued her exam. She listened to his lungs and then to his heart. Standing this close, their bodies almost touching, one hand on his back and the other holding the stethoscope on his heart, she could feel his pulse quicken. The room was definitely getting warmer. She could barely hear his heart beat over her own. The spectacular ripple of muscles down his incredibly well-sculpted chest and abdomen was breathtaking. She realized she had been holding her breath. And those legs —shit, he was so built, the sheer power of his perfectly toned body had her picturing all sorts of wicked things. She did her very best to avoid looking at the massive bulge in his underwear. They remained in place for what seemed like an eternity, bodies and faces so close. Her chest tightened as her breathing struggled. Oh, to be taken by this Adonis, this relentless warrior! Snapping out of her day dream she backed up hastily, almost bumping into the desk.
“Well, that about does it. You’re cleared. I’m writing an antibiotic for your arm. Re-check with your group doc in about five days. If you have any problems, let us know,” she blurted quickly as she turned to leave. I have to get out of this room. I cannot spend any more time with this man. She slipped out the door before he had a chance to say another word.
Kira braced herself against the wall in the hallway. She had to catch her breath before making her way down to her office. What the hell am I doing?Almost sprinting, she raced for the solitude of her office. She closed the door, exasperated, excited, and half-hoping to never see him again.
* * *
Owen Stark sat speechless on the examining table as she rushed out of the room. Wait! What the hell was that? But she was gone before he had a chance to say anything.
He realized his heart was racing. Who was this crazy, beautiful girl? He looked around the modest examining room. The cold steel and clinical air of the room chilled him. His clothes sat on the plastic chair in the corner. Her seat had rolled aimlessly into the corner when she hit it as she exited hastily. What am I thinking? Fuck, she’s an officer! Fraternization is strictly forbidden. But damn, she is beautiful. His heart and groin ached mercilessly at the thought of her. The impact made him realize how long it had been.
The past few months in the hills of Afghanistan did not present an opportunity to indulge in such fantasies. While back on leave for a little R&R, he had thought to hook up with Lila or Paige, but that seemed empty and pointless now. Now all he could think of were those tiny gentle hands and that perfect pouty mouth.
He recalled seeing her for the first time that morning, sprawled at the bottom of the steps, amidst a sea of dark hair. The bewildered look on her soft beautiful face had moved him. Her eyes were such an incredibly bright blue they reminded him of cobalt. How did I not see her?
He had been in a fierce debate with his team member Sergeant Colin over the recent explosion that took the life of Sergeant Jackson in Afghanistan. The army’s lack of action where this was concerned made him see red. He had been mad as hell as he burst out of the CO’s office.
Then seeing her on the ground, realizing he had caused her to fall, his heart almost stopped. He had rushed to help her but felt suddenly helpless, looking into those innocent eyes.
When he picked her up, for the first time he could remember, he had been at a loss for words. She was a complete stranger, a sexy-as-hell stranger, but the warmth and strange familiarity of her touch made him feel alive. Really alive, when so much of him had been dead for so long. The rush he felt with her in his arms shook him to his core. Her voice was soft and sweet; it flowed from her full lips like a melody, exciting him. He had instantly wanted to claim that sweet mouth. And then she was gone.
He had waited around for a while, hoping she would come back out but he had to get ready for his post-deployment physical. Of all the fucking luck—she turned out to be the doctor who did his physical. That makes her a captain and off-limits, he reminded himself.
But he knew she felt something too. He had sensed it when she was close to him. Seeing her blush while she worked with him was so disarming. He groaned, thinking of the way her eyes sparkled as if some deliciously wicked thought was playing out in her head. Oh, I can show you wicked thoughts, baby. His cock throbbed at the memory of her standing so close, touching his skin, examining his shoulder. Her cheeks had flushed so pink…how he would like to see her pink all over. The thought of bending her over the exam table and warming that perfect ass with the sting of his hand almost sent him over the edge. Remembering he was still in the office, he quickly dressed and went out toward the reception area. There was no sign of her. He stood in the hall for a moment, listening for her voice.
“Whew! Bet that was some exam!” A nasally sing-song voice mocked. He whirled around to see the middle-aged nurse behind him. She was bossy and outspoken as hell but there was a twinkle in her eye that let him know she was on his side—an ally in his new pursuit. The crafty nurse smiled as she continued. “Sounds like you’re going to need to do some running to wear off all that energy. Don’t see how you kids do it, running morning and night up there on the new trails.” She turned as if to make sure he was still listening, then added, before sauntering into the next patient’s room, “Why, with all that running and working, it’s no wonder the doc doesn’t have time to date….”
Sergeant Stark made his way into the waiting area. He stopped at the clerk’s desk to get his script and check out. Christ, this can’t be it. I have to find a reason to stay. “Will I need a follow-up exam for my arm?” he asked in an attempt to schedule more of his sexy doctor’s time.
The clerk stared up at him dreamily. “Oh, you can follow up with your team doc or we’d be happy to see you back here,” she replied, gushing at him as most women did. He was surprised at his near annoyance to her reaction to him. Nevertheless, he thanked her and took the appointment before he turned to leave. The sight of the NUGs reminded him that they too would be getting physicals. The thought made him flush with jealousy. What the hell! Who cares, it’s her job. He realized his feelings were childish but the thought of her touching those punks or worse, the little pukes enjoying it, pissed him off. Best damn turn and cough of their lives. Fuck! Hey, I didn’t get a hernia check…shit, I should have complained about something below the belt. Why couldn’t I have had shrapnel in my upper thigh?
Stopping in front of the NUGs as he left, he leaned into the group. “On your best behavior in there you little shits, or you will pay for it for months.” His voice was cold and menacing. The NUGs nodded wide eyed and confused.
Stark walked out the door. He knew it was crazy. He knew it went against all the rules, both professional and personal. He knew it would probably be the biggest mistake of his life. But he didn’t care—he knew that some way, somehow, he had to see her again.
CHAPTER 2
Kira sat in her office thankful her work day was over. She had processed thirty-six intake physicals. After a while they had all started to run together. She was beginning to realize why this was an assignment for the low person on the totem pole. Strangely, all her afternoon patients had been exceptionally well-behaved, their cocky attitudes replaced by something else. Fear, maybe? She couldn’t be sure, but they’d all seemed like children called into the principal’s office. Though she did her best to fight it, her mind continued to drift back to him. Sergeant First Class Owen Stark. Oh holy hell, he is a beautiful man. She pulled up his file. He had been deployed several times. The medical tab was extensive: physicals from deployment returns, with notes on various minor injuries during deployments among other information. She was perturbed and impressed that he hadn’t been joking; she didn’t have clearance for information about his deployments. Most details in his file were left out or marked classified.
Stop lusting after him! She scolded herself. Do you really want to end up like your mother, heartbroken and alone? Or your children to end up like you, having to take care of themselves since their mother is too distraught to function? No, getting involved with anyone in the military was strictly off-limits.
Finally with all her charts caught up, Kira was anticipating a nice long run. She was going to hit the hills and run until she forgot Sergeant Stark, his husky voice, that scent…What was that cologne? It was mysterious, earthy, with a hint of lemon and bergamot. It enticed her into a dark, deep place with angelica, something bitter like green galbanum, and possibly cedar. When Kira closed her eyes she could almost smell him. All she could see were those blue-green eyes sparkling like the sun on a thousand tiny waves in a perfect tropical sea. Lacing up her running shoes, she willed herself to toss the fantasy out of her mind. She set off on the trail, determined.
The sweat ran down her back and breasts. She had been running for about three miles. Now I’m starting to feel good. She remembered her dad and rhythmic exchange of his worn shoes on the pavement as she ran along behind him when she was little. Kira was always in awe of his even breathing and relaxed stride while she struggled to keep up. She had definitely gotten her love for running from him. It had been their time. Her mother, while small-framed and beautiful, was not an athlete in any way. Her father, Kendal James Riley, had been a wonderful man: strong, quiet, a skilled soldier, and the fastest runner she had ever seen. Aside from running, the times she remembered most was when he read to her. The Flight of the Zephyr was her favorite book. Oh, she loved the sound of his voice as he made the pages come alive. He had taken her to meet the author once. He bought her a copy of the book and they had it signed. It was one of the best—and one of the last—memories she had of her father.
Kira kept running. Her heart ached at the memories. She remembered her mother that day the men in uniform pulled up to the curb while her father was away. The somber look on their faces spoke volumes. Her mother tried to back away and block out what they were trying to say. She could still hear her mother’s screams, her crying. The crying became uncontrollable sobs and ultimately, her mother withdrew. She just stopped. She stopped being there. She stopped functioning as an adult, as a parent. Kira’s childhood had ended. At age ten she effectively became the parent in her home.
She ran harder, pushing herself up yet another hill. She struggled on, aware that the stinging in her eyes was from the tears running down her face. Running was her solace. She put all her hurt, anger, and resentment into the run as she fought for one more mile, pressing on as if she were fighting all her demons with each step. As she crested mile eight, her legs gave way. She hadn’t eaten much at all and fatigue overpowered her. She stumbled and, panting, came to rest beside the dusty trail. Looking around, she was overwhelmed by the beauty of her surroundings. She had crested a small knob on the mountain and had an astounding view of the expanse before her. The scene was so majestic it practically took away what little breath she had left. The vibrant colors of the distant mountains were fiery displays of orange and red, so bold they almost didn’t look real. The vast valley below was still green, reluctant to relinquish the last of summer. The hillside between was dotted with rocks and cliffs. She sat basking in the immense beauty, watching the sun descend, ending the day in an array of pinks and blues. The horizon transformed into a composite of colors that lifted her soul. She sighed, finally feeling at peace with the day and the memories.
That brief peace promptly departed, when—holy fuck!— jogging toward her at a ridiculously fast pace was a very fit Sergeant Stark. Shit! How am I going to get out of here before he sees me? He was getting closer. It’s too late, he’s looking right at me. His relaxed face and body did not betray the stress of running eight miles. He looked as calm and non-effected as if he was walking into the mess hall.
“Captain Riley, you seem to spend an awful lot of time on the ground,” he chided as he approached her.
He’s making fun of me! Before her cheeks could flush, she retorted, “Sergeant, I seem to recall you like to push little girls around. I thought I’d save you the trouble this time.” Her eyes flashed and a smirk formed her lips into a half smile.
“Well, in that case, my work here is done. Care if I sit?” His amused smile was charming and infuriating at the same time. Kira knew that he could see she had been crying. She winced for a moment imagining how smudged she must look. She put on a brave face and determined to laugh through anything.
If he felt pity for her, he didn’t show it. “So, you’re pretty new to the army. If you don’t mind my saying, ma’am, you don’t seem like the military type.”
“You don’t know anything about me,” she snapped, unsure why his words stung so sharply, “and you don’t exactly look like a regular soldier yourself.”
He laughed. “That’s sort of the idea. The type of work I do, I have to blend in. I can’t stick out like a regular soldier.” He repeated her words.
I think you’d stick out anywhere. Damn your eyes are beautiful. And built like that, you belong in an underwear ad instead of a battlefield. Kira let her eyes trace over his immaculately sculpted body. A fine sheen of sweat glistened over his perfect muscles. There didn’t seem to be a trace of fat on him. Seeing him again this close made her burn inside, and she could feel her desire building. Then his words hit her. “Oh, I see. So you’re a special ops guy.” Her disappointment as she made this realization was palpable. This is like some freakish ironic tragedy. Special ops. Seriously? Surely the gods are rolling with laughter. Why hadn’t she seen this in his file?
“Yeah,” he answered hesitantly. “What do you have against special operations?” He watched her gauge her answer, pensively pressing her pouty lips together. Her dark hair, mostly contained in a ponytail, spilled over her shoulders and clung to her ample breasts
“Nothing against the teams. I have a lot of respect for the entire military but I know you guys have an especially difficult job. It’s just….” Her voice trailed off and she looked out over the mountains. She just couldn’t tell him about her dad. She stood to leave. “Look, I’d better go. Enjoy your run. Remember to take care of your shoulder.” Her voice was suddenly flat and void.
“Wait! Hey, sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. Let me start over. I was trying to say, since you’re new here, I could show you around. And you like to run—I can show you some trails through the mountains. What else do you like to do?” Owen’s words came fast and almost clumsy like a rambling kid looking for something to say.
“I love running. This is the only trail I’ve found so far.” Kira relaxed somewhat. She needed to make some friends and it would be incredible to hang out with such a hottie while she learned about the area. Can I handle this? I shouldn’t be spending any time with him. Kira seriously doubted her ability to maintain self-control when it came to him.
Taking the opening, he continued “The trail system here can be really tricky until you get to know it. But the views are spectacular.” From where I’m sitting the view is breathtaking. He sat, looking up at her silhouette against the backdrop of the mountains. The setting sun danced over her dark hair. Truly breathtaking. “It can be very dangerous too. You shouldn’t be out here by yourself. It’s not safe. There are big cats and bears.”
“And dark, dangerous soldiers, oh my!” she taunted, laughing. “I believe I’d be better off with the cats and bears.” They can only kill me.
“I’m serious. You shouldn’t be out here alone. I’ll meet you and run with you.” His voice was suddenly stern. Stark struggled to control his frustration.
“Wow, OK. I didn’t realize this was such a hostile environment,” she mocked as she consented, surprising even herself. Her instinct was to say, “Thanks for the advice, but hell no!” but the insistence in his voice, the intensity in his eyes…she felt powerless to resist. “OK, you’ve got me. I won’t come out here alone. It wouldbe great to run together until I get to know more people. But I don’t want to suck up all of your time. I imagine you’re very busy.”
Stark stood up, looking into her eyes as he stepped closer, “It’s no trouble, ma’am. It would be my pleasure.”
Hearing the word “pleasure” roll off his tongue in that rough, deep voice made her tingle deep inside. Before she could say anything he continued. “We better get going. It’s getting dark. Do you have enough water?” He looked around for her supplies. He was acutely aware of the approaching darkness and the dangers that would bring. “Where’s your light? Do you have a headlamp? Where’s your pack?”
His questions made her feel suddenly inadequate. “I was just going for a short run,” she replied hesitantly. “I didn’t mean to be out so long.” She started to slowly realize her shortcomings when interacting with this new environment. “Do you always run with a pack and carry that much gear along?” Her question was mocking but she was also slightly in awe.
“It’s sort of what I do. It’s part of the job. You wouldn’t go to work without your stethoscope, would you?” he asked, annoyed and infuriated that she had put herself into such danger. He was more aggravated that he couldn’t do anything about it, other than make sure she got home safely. “Here, let me help you put this headlamp on.” He stood with his arms around her, securing the headlamp so that she could see well. Once again, they were standing so close, his lips just inches from her forehead. Her proximity was nearly overpowering.
“Let’s head back,” he said as he finished suiting her up for the return to base. They ran through the loop to get back to base. The run started as a moderately fast jog, but their competitive spirits wouldn’t let that be it. Instead of running together, they jockeyed back and forth, escalating the electricity and tension between them. The last quarter mile was a full-on sprint, Kira giving it everything she had to outrun him. While she was fast, Stark used just enough power to stay two steps ahead of her the entire way back. As they reached the edge of the base and her apartment, she was amazed at his seemingly unscathed appearance. She had given all she had to fight through the miles, but he looked relaxed and at ease.
“So tomorrow then?” he asked, as they came to the top of her steps. He stopped and took her hands in his. “Thanks…for a very interesting day…ma’am.”
Kira felt her heart almost leap out of her chest. She ached for more. Despite everything in her screaming, “No, this is a bad, bad idea,” the thought of seeing him in the morning was exhilarating. Before she could say anything he was heading down the stairs.
“See you tomorrow,” he called over his shoulder, “0600.” And with that he was gone into the darkness.
* * *
How can I be so stupid? Kira thought as she slipped into the shower. The hot water relieved her aching muscles. But, God, he is so enticing. It’s been so long…I just want to touch him. Kira stood in the shower, breathless, thinking of the sensual man who had held her hands in his just a few minutes before. She leaned back against the shower wall, letting the day’s events play over in her mind. She felt a shiver travel all the way down to her sex as she recalled standing close during his exam, touching him, smelling him. Fervently she wished for him, imagining his hands on her, holding her, those lips on hers. After her shower she slipped into an old T-shirt and slid into bed. As she wrestled with sleep, she was tormented with dreams of past losses, new fascinations, and dark new possibilities.
Kira’s alarm blared to life at 0530. Ugh! I’m not ready to get up. Suddenly she remembered Stark would be there in thirty minutes and she was up like a shot. Donning her workout clothes and brushing her teeth, she was almost ready. The last minute battle of getting all her long brown hair into a ponytail was still underway when the doorbell rang. Even though she was expecting him, the sound at the door sent a jolt through her. Opening the door, her breath caught at the sight of him. Damn, how does he look this amazing at six in the freaking morning? He was leaning in the aged doorway of her bares-bones apartment, somehow looking like a Calvin Klein ad in the faded T-shirt and gray running shorts he wore.
Yes, please, she thought. I’ll buy whatever you’re selling!
“Hey there. You still have that headlamp?” he asked “If we hurry, I have something to show you.”
“Oh. Yeah, it’s right here.” She had set it out to return to him, but the sight of his magnificent frame in her doorway had sent her mind to other places.
“Let’s get it on you. You can keep this one and I brought you a CamelBak. When you run or hike, you should carry water and basic supplies, Captain.”
“Thanks, Sergeant,” she snapped, stressing his rank, feeling a mix of inadequacy and gratitude.
They started off into the darkness. I Will Follow You Into The Dark. She smiled at the thought of one of her favorite Death Cab for Cutie songs. He led the way up a different route than they had taken before, which was a mix of trail running and climbing. Their pace was fast as they scrambled and raced up the mountain. “Stay behind me up here,” he commanded, not wanting a repeat of the race from the night before. “It can be treacherous in some places.”
Kira was careful to stay in his tracks. Oh, this takes me back. Kira thought fondly of her dad. A strange joy welled up inside her. She was taken back to memories of running behind her dad, excited that he was taking her with him, a feeling that bold new adventures lay ahead, waiting for her to explore.
Suddenly Stark stopped, bringing her back to the present as she collided with his warm back. He reached and took her hand. “Come with me. We’ve just made it. I want you to see this.” He pulled her up onto the rock, never letting go of her hand. They were standing on the edge of a cliff in a small clearing that opened up over the vast expanse of the valley below. The first hint of light was beginning to peek out from the far rim of the mountains. The clouds were below them, giving the impression that they could just walk off into heaven. The light became brighter, spreading across the sky in a bright array of pink, gold, and blue. The bright sun became more apparent, splashing everything in gold. The clouds slowly dissipated, revealing the valley below and welcoming it to a new day.
Kira’s heart melted. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever witnessed. She realized Stark was still there beside her, still holding her hand. “It’s so lovely.” She said this softly, turning to look at him. The golden light across his strong features made him look more like a Greek god than a man.
“Yes, very lovely.” He wasn’t staring at the sunrise. He was staring at her.
Overwhelmed by the beauty of the moment and the intensity of his eyes upon her, she started to pull away and stumbled. At once his arms were around her as he caught her to keep her from falling. “Careful there, ma’am. We are on the edge of a cliff.” His husky voice, so close, caused a shiver all the way through her. His arms were so strong and she felt warmed all over, overtaken by the uncontrollable desire to be kissed by this Adonis. I want to feel those lips. All over me.
“Owen,” she whispered breathlessly as she gazed up at him, her eyes saying more than she dared. He was so close, bending near her face and a rush of anticipation flooded her. She could feel the warmth of his skin and eagerly breathed him in.
Then he stopped. With a pained expression on his face, he gently brushed against the top of her head and pulled away. “Come on. We’d better get you back.”
What. The. Hell? What was that? She thought. They ran back toward base. She was confused, angry, and disappointed. He had built up to the most amazing moment, then—nothing. All the way back she fumed silently, fighting tears. As they approached her apartment he turned to say good-bye. “So I’ll see you this evening,” he asked awkwardly, “for our run?”
“No,” she blurted. “I won’t be running tonight, or tomorrow either. I have the confidence course in the morning so I’ll get my workout there.”
“You’ll be doing the confidence course?” he asked with a sly grin, his eyes lighting up in amusement. “Well, in that case you probably won’t feel like running on Thursday. We’ll see about Friday then.” And with that he was gone, heading down the street before she could respond.
Kira went inside, slamming the door harder than she meant. She was frustrated, turned on, and hurt. Cursing, she jumped into the shower to get ready for work. Why doesn’t he like me? Why the hell do I even care? I don’t want to get involved with him anyway. This is exactly why I have to stay away! The memories of that exquisite sunrise, the golden light on his face was all too overwhelming. She chastised herself for being so easily charmed. No, this has to stop. I can’t spend any more time with him. Period. Friday I’ll just tell him I’ve found someone else to run with.
Hustling to work, Kira busied herself with patients, hoping to not think of him anymore.
“So how was your run this morning?” Abbey prodded, the look of anticipation in her eager eyes telling Kira she must have had something to do with him finding her on that trail.
“It was OK.” She said it flatly, hoping to avoid an inquisition.
“Encounter any savage sex gods out there in the wilderness?” Abbey continued. “Sure would be a shame to loose one’s sour mood to such a glorious beast,” she teased as she walked to get another patient
Kira was left standing there, mouth open, holding her coffee cup. “I’m not in a sour mood!” she hissed.
The rest of the day dragged. Kira saw patient after patient, trying desperately not to think of Owen, but wondering what had gone wrong that morning. That afternoon, just before heading home, Abbey popped into her office. “You heading out for another run after work?” Abbey’s eyes looked hopeful.
“No, “Kira said softly. “I have the confidence course tomorrow.”
“You’ve been quiet all day. Did something happen this morning?” Abbey asked, looking concerned.
Perhaps because it had been weighing on her all day or because she really had no one else to talk to, Kira opened up to Abbey about her encounters with Stark: the run, the beautiful sunrise, and the almost-kiss. “I just don’t think he likes me that way,” Kira finally said. Saying it out loud, she realized how much it hurt. “I know I shouldn’t care because it’s more trouble than it’s worth but…”
“But you can’t help it. I think he likes you more than you realize. But honey, he’s Special Forces. He’s been places, seen things, and done things you’ll never be able to understand.” With a look of guilt on her kind face, she continued, “Maybe he would be better just as a friend.” The look of pity on Abbey’s face told Kira she knew it was already too late for that.
Kira made her way home and crawled into bed. Pulling the covers around her she closed her eyes, thinking of the breathtaking colors of the sunrise. The pinks, blues, and gold splashed across his glorious face.
CHAPTER 3
0600 came early. Kira jumped out of bed, excited and nervous for the confidence course. She knew there would be several obstacles and running intervals. The running she was sure she could handle but the obstacles could be anything. She had heard horror stories of frigid water and high ropes, but the course was an unknown. Kira hated cold water. Hated it. She buttoned up her ACUs, scowling as she looked in the mirror. She knew that they were necessary in a theater of war, but severely dreaded the idea of running fifteen miles in heavy wet canvas and sloshing in wet boots. Suck it up, Captain! You knew this was part of the deal.
She would be going through the course with other officers. Several of the other medical officers were previous military; others, like her, were fresh from school. Kira reported for duty and loaded on a bus with about twenty of them. She looked around, recognizing a few of the faces. The major at the front of the bus was going through a list of rules and precautions, as well as a talk about leadership and teamwork. He stressed the importance of staying on the course, as there were live fire ranges off to the right and a controlled burn area to the left. The course stretched over fifteen miles of rugged terrain. There would be significant elevation changes over the course. He explained that this would be a timed course and was an individual race rather than a team building experience. Helping one another was allowed, but they would be judged by their individual times.
Kira felt a twinge of anticipation as her competitive spirit came alive. From the time she started school Kira had been the smallest of the army brats but one the toughest. Throughout school she had raced and usually placed with the boys. Kira loved races and the adrenaline release as every fight-or-flight neuron came alive. While she wasn’t as strong and probably wasn’t as fast as most of the guys, she knew she was light, agile, and was eager to see what she could do on the course. She wasn’t going to worry where she placed since there were only six other women in the group. She got off the bus, the nervous energy that she’d always got right before a race coursing through her.
With the shot of a gun, the course began. Kira raced forward. The first two miles were a narrow single-track trail up and down rolling hills with one final steep climb. She was in the middle of the group. The other female captains were farther back. She set her sights on one of her male counterparts up ahead. This had always been her game plan in high school track— chasing the man in front of her. Kira set her pace just a little faster than his so that she gained ground on him with each stride. They approached the first obstacle group, the red group. The first was called Belly Buster. Lovely name, Kira thought. OK, I can do this one. Belly Buster was comprised of a series of logs suspended at chest height. The idea was to run and push up onto the log, and roll or flip over it.
Kira was thankful for her background in gymnastics and all the cross-fit classes she had done in college and medical school. She knew she was at a height disadvantage for this one, but she ran hard and jumped with every bit of strength in her legs to be able to push up onto each log, propel herself up, and drop over the other side. Up and over one after another she didn’t look back. She finished with surprising speed for someone so small. Her size had been viewed as a disadvantage by every coach she ever had except in gymnastics. Kira made up for her lack of physical strength with sheer determination. She could hear her aunt’s words, “There will always be someone faster, someone stronger, but on race day it comes down to who wants it more.” Kira pushed on through the series. I want it more!
Next up was the reverse climb, which involved climbing up the underside of an inclined ladder, flipping over the top, and climbing back down. Kira felt a moment’s hesitation as she neared the obstacle. She clenched her fist and reached inside for strength. Her aunt’s weathered voice rang clearly in her mind. “Love it Kira. Don’t be afraid.” Her aunt had been an inspiration and always encouraged Kira to keep fighting. She scrambled up, hanging on with all her might, and flipped over carefully at the top. She quickly climbed down the other side. The Weave looked like a monkey bar created by sadists. She hung suspended from it, going over, then under each of the beams. Despite her limited reach and modest upper-body strength, she managed to complete these without losing much time. In fact, she thought she was doing quite well as she progressed through the course.
Then she came to Hip Hip. This was significantly more difficult as it required high stepping or climbing over rungs of logs set at a man’s hip height, but without any distance between each rung to run. I can do this. Love it. Love my fate. For some reason Kira remembered getting her brothers ready for school each day to get them on the bus and then sprinting through the woods to get herself to school since she had been kicked off the bus. She laughed recalling the reason for her exile. The stunned boy’s face and broken glasses when she had decked him square in the face for grabbing her butt as she exited the bus one afternoon was still etched in her mind. That was the last time that year she had been allowed to ride. The race through the woods each morning had made her stronger and faster. She remembered having to climb and jump over logs and fallen trees in the thick undergrowth. Love it. Kira’s heart was racing as she completed the obstacle bursting out of the other side and sprinting on.
The incline balance logs and island hopper were no problem. She sped through those, thankful for her excellent balance. This was one obstacle where she had the advantage. Like a gymnast on the beam she navigated logs on delicate and carefully placed toes. As she hopped off the last log of that group, she caught sight of Stark. What’s he doing here? She started off on her next running portion, another three miles of steep terrain. She pushed hard, hoping to make up time during the running portions. This, she had been training for all her life. But her mind was reeling. Was that really him? It had to be—that dark hair. There was no mistaking him, with those rugged good looks she found so unnerving. She fought to keep from thinking of being in his arms and how badly she wanted those lips on her skin. The adrenaline of the run combined with her wicked thoughts of being ravaged by those strong hands brought her to a new level of runner’s high. She pushed forward, running with all she had toward the next obstacle. Kira wondered if she was running away from something or toward it. Knowing the dangers that lie ahead she pressed on. Surely this was insanity. Would Owen Stark turn out to be her greatest victory or her ultimate defeat?
As she climbed the last hill she was shaken from her delicious thoughts by the sounds of splashing and the shrieks of soldiers. Her heart sank. She knew the sound was coming from soldiers as they plunged into a frigid obstacle ahead. Oh, fuck! Why, why, why cold water? Seriously! As she crested the hill she could see it. At the bottom of the embankment was a large body of water with some sort of floating barricade out in the middle. She saw soldiers ahead of her swimming like mad, scrambling to climb onto the barricade and over the other side, back into the frigid water, and swimming to the bank. As she started down the hill toward the icy water she knew that if she simply splashed in, she’d lose her nerve and wouldn’t be able to go in at all. Kira hated cold water. She could hear her cousin Byron taunting her for not wanting to play in the pond with him and her brothers. She could already feel the icy chill on her skin. Not wanting to look like some scared little girl, she took off running full-force down the hill and jumped out at the last minute so that her first contact with the glacial water would be as she plunged into its depths. No going back. Kira held her breath as the icy water engulfed her. She surfaced and began to swim for all she was worth. The frigid water stung her entire body. Involuntarily, she gasped as she fought to swim, her body trying to acclimate to the extreme change of temperature. Finally she reached the barricade and attempted to haul herself onto it. She struggled, since there was nothing to hold onto and her arms were fatigued. She couldn’t touch the bottom; the water was just too deep. In an attempt to propel herself onto the barricade, she lowered herself as far under the water as she could reach while still touching the barricade and kicked her legs, pulling up at the same time. As she did, she felt two very strong hands grabbing the shoulders of her ACUs and pulling her up onto the barricade. Their combined efforts brought her up right on top of her helper and they toppled back. Kira looked down to see the face of the soldier who had come to her aid. His blond hair was soaked and stuck to his face. His bright blue eyes were wide with surprise. Kira rolled off him. “Sorry.” She smiled. “But thanks.”
“Trust me, it was my pleasure.” He grinned, still looking up at her. He jumped up to finish the race. “I’m Captain Holt. You’re doing great! Keep it up.” And with that, he jumped off the other side and began to swim.
* * *
Stark had been sitting on a bank watching the race. Earlier he had been to the red course and was surprised at how well she was doing. He cut through the woods and now was watching the water obstacle when he saw Kira crest the hill. The look of horror on her face when she saw the water obstacle was amusing and rousing.What is she doing? He’d watched in astonishment as she barreled down the embankment and jumped into the water. Man, she is really going all out. He admired her courage as he watched her struggle to swim to the barricade. When he saw her attempt to get onto the barricade, then go under the water, he jumped to his feet. God, she went under. Before he could move, he saw another soldier grab her as she crested the water and pull her up. His relief was short-lived as he saw she’d been pulled onto the other soldier as they fell back onto the barricade. The soldier was holding Kira on top of him. Stark’s blood boiled, a blistering vengeance brewing as he watched the soldier staring up at her. Get your fucking hands off her, you piece of shit! He watched Kira roll off. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but he could read the other soldier’s face well enough to know what he was thinking. Jealousy had never been an issue for him before. Lila, Paige, hell even Zoe could do what they wanted and he never thought twice about it. He watched Kira jump back into the murky water. He had to resist the urge to go down there and escort her through the rest of the course. This is crazy! He thought. Everything in his life was calculated and controlled. She was a liability, an unknown variable. He should just walk away, but he couldn’t dream of it.
* * *
Kira continued her swim and composed herself as she reached the bank on the other side of the pond. She jumped to her feet and ran full-speed to the next obstacle called Tough One. It looked somewhat like a medieval fort with a two-story cargo net at one end, followed by an angled pie-shaped ladder leading down to a “walkway” of precariously placed log beams, ending with another smaller cargo net to the ground.
Oh, shit! Kira took a breath. This one would be easier if she wasn’t soaking wet and covered by mud from the pond. Gathering all of her courage, she began climbing the cargo net, slowly at first but then faster as she got the hang of it. At the top of the net Kira looked down. Realizing she was about thirty-three feet off the ground, sweat broke out on her palms. She felt slightly nauseous as she made her way across to the center of the moving net. She swung over onto the top point of the inverted pie-shaped ladder. The rungs were three inches in diameter and slick as shit. Fuck me! She carefully lowered herself down, one rung at a time. Her heart was racing since the distance between each beam was nearly three-fourths of her body length. Finally she dropped onto the log walkway. Balancing carefully, she began to cross, beam by beam. Right beside her, another soldier miss-stepped and fell down between the logs onto the net below. Fuck, that had to hurt! she thought. She made it safe to the other side and scurried down the cargo net.
Kira could feel someone watching her as she dropped to the ground to start the next run. Looking up, she saw Stark. The realization that he was definitely there watching her was exhilarating. A sense of arousal swept over her as she realized she liked the idea. She wanted him to watch her. She set out on her run with her wicked thoughts keeping her company. She was tired, but thinking of him set her on fire. She ran hard and fast, definitely running toward something rather than away.
As she approached the clearing, the blond soldier reappeared. “You’ve made good time.” He smiled brightly at her, looking a little surprised. He had the confidence of someone for whom things always go well. “You can do this. You’re almost done.” Holt’s message was encouraging but his tone was patronizing as if he thought she was a sweet little thing.
Kira ran on and hoisted herself onto the lower log. This last major obstacle was actually called Dirty Name. I can think of a dirty name or two for this! The contraption appeared to be a series of three beams, each one higher than the next and about three feet apart. Shit, shit, shit! It was like a twisted, psychotic version of the uneven bars. She leapt into the air, grapping the second bar. Dangling off the ground, she struggled to pull her body weight up onto the second bar. Her tired arms ached. She felt weak and wanted to give up.
“Don’t give up, Kira,” Stark’s voice growled at her. That voice! Her body obeyed his command despite her fatigue. She pulled herself up onto the beam. “You can do this!” With all the strength she had left, Kira lunged for the last beam and hung on tight. Her fingers went white as they struggled to hold, her face twisted with pain and sheer determination. She pulled with her shaky arms. “Do it, Captain!” his loud voice commanded. She obeyed, pulling her body the last few inches up and onto the beam. I did it! Kira felt a flood of excitement…then the weightless sense of falling, a searing pain, then darkness.
Stark jumped up and ran to her as she lay motionless beneath the wooden contraption. He bent to help her. She looked so beautiful lying there amidst a sea of chestnut hair.
“What the fuck are you doing? Don’t touch her!” a young voice yelled in an attempt to sound authoritative.
Stark looked up to see the little blond shit who had helped her earlier.
“Stand back,” he continued. “I’m Captain Holt. I’m a doctor. Stand back so I can help her.” The man knelt beside her and started to do an assessment. Stark did not budge. Who the hell does he think he is? Seeing the little shit putting his hands on her made him see red.
The other medical officers and field medics rushed over and began to check her out. A sudden panic rose in Stark. He desperately wanted her to be OK. He wanted the blond-haired punk to back the fuck up, but just then, Kira opened her eyes.
“Damn, I guess I blew that,” Kira said shakily as she began to be aware of her surroundings.
“You did great,” Captain Holt said softly “We’re going to take you back to the ER. You’ve had enough for one day.”
“No, no, I’m OK,” she began slowly. “I want to finish the course. I’m not really hurt…well, other than my pride maybe.” Kira’s voice gained confidence as she spoke.
“Are you crazy? You could have been killed!” Holt scolded. “If this meddling e-dog wasn’t trying to get you to do things you’re clearly not ready for, you would have been fine.”
Despite her bewilderment, Kira saw the flash of steel and anger on Stark’s face. She got up quickly to show them all she was OK.
Stark stepped forward to steady her. He reached out and braced her gently when Holt reached up and grabbed his arm. “This isn’t your place,” Holt squawked at Stark.
While still steadying Kira, Stark grabbed Holt’s arm with his other hand and pulled him in close so fast and forcefully that Holt froze. In a deadly calm voice, Stark said, “Listen to me you, little piece of shit. You’ve been a captain for about a minute. And a doctor for about a day. You don’t have the balls….” Stark pulled Holt in closer and looking down into his widening eyes, Stark’s face darkened as he continued, “…to survive one day in a theater of war. You insignificant little fuck.”
Seeing this side of Stark scared Kira. She knew he was Special Forces but had never realized what he was really capable of. She could see the restraint he was exercising and knew that he could break Holt, kill him in a second with those powerful hands. Hands that had held her so tenderly. She pulled away, breaking the tension between the two.
Stark turned to her and the devastated look on her face froze him instantly, shattering his heart. Slowly at first, she began to run.
The men stopped and watched her disbelievingly as she made her way to the finish line. She ran the last one hundred meters, with shaky legs, her heart racing and breaking at the same time. She realized that she and Stark could truly never be together. Hot tears stung her eyes as she flopped down for the final belly crawl. Under the barrier of the barbed wire, she fought her total dismay and aching heart to finish the course…and tell Stark good-bye. When she crossed the finish line she looked back across the field. Captain Holt stood there open-mouthed, staring at her. Stark was nowhere to be seen. He had gone.
CHAPTER 4
Kira poured herself into work after that embarrassing debacle at the confidence course, which ironically had done very little for her confidence. Regarding Stark, she was more confused than ever. He had been so, well, present after her fall—first attentive, then ferocious. And now she hadn’t seen or heard anything from him since. Captain Liam Holt, however, was becoming an ever-present intrusion in her life. In the six weeks since the course, he had found his way to her clinic at least once a day for various reasons.
“12:30, right on schedule,” Abbey scoffed disapprovingly as Captain Holt strode into the office. Dressed in scrubs and a white lab coat, Holt was very attractive. He was tall and well-built. Even so, his blond hair and blue eyes reminded her more of a preppy Ralph Lauren model than of an Army doctor. He brushed past Abbey and into Captain Riley’s office.
“Are you ready for lunch?” he asked Kira hopefully. “There’s really nothing worth eating here on base. We can take my car and be back before your afternoon appointments.” He stressed his car in about any discussion. The bright red BMW M6 convertible was hard to miss with its candy apple love-me paint. Kira was not impressed. To her the red convertible was too pretentious and insulting to those enlisted men like her father. They worked and gave their whole lives to this country and would never be able to afford a car like that. Lately he had managed to park beside her almost every morning. His gleaming red paint made the duct tape holding the passenger side tail light on her rusting prelude stand out like a sore thumb.
Kira evasively stepped in to the lab area where Abbey was finishing a urine specimen.
“A car like that says something about a man,” Abbey sneered. “Or at least about what he is lacking. How much compensation can he really need?” Abbey’s dislike for Holt grew daily.
Captain Holt followed Kira into the lab. “Let’s go, Kira, I’m really hungry. You can’t possibly want to stay on base.”
Kira didn’t really want to go but Holt was persistent. Silently she wondered what Stark was up to and where he had gone. Putting those thoughts away, Kira grabbed her jacket and agreed to lunch. Walking to the car, Holt placed his hand possessively at the small of her back. The sudden roar of a motorcycle caught her attention. A completely blacked-out Harley-Davidson drove by slowly, pausing at the stop sign. Every bit of chrome on the bike had been replaced by flat black including the spokes. The bike was dark and menacing but understated. No flash needed. Other people on the street paused to watch him roll by. They were all staring at him but the driver was looking directly at her. Her heart raced. Time slowed and stood still. Though the helmet was full-faced she knew it was him. The roar of her own heartbeat drowned out the sounds of the motor. Excitement coursed through her as she watched him drive away. She even stopped walking.
“Are you OK?” Holt asked.
“No” Kira said suddenly. She felt at once dizzy. How can I be this affected by this man? This is crazy! “You know what, I’m not feeling so well. I think I’ll go back in. Maybe we can catch lunch another day.” Kira turned on shaky legs and headed back into the clinic before he could say anything.
“What, no lunch at the Waldorf today?” Abbey grumbled. Kira was too unnerved by seeing him again to be irritated at Abbey’s words.
“Abbey,” Kira began cautiously, due to the other soldiers and officers in the office. “I took care of a patient a few weeks ago, for a post-deployment physical.”
Abbey’s face lit up and she was immediately paying attention. Playing along, she responded, “Oh? Yes, ma’am, Sergeant Stark. I think he had a wound on his arm.”
“Yes, that’s the one. Did we schedule a follow-up for him? I don’t remember seeing it.” Kira finished in a transparent attempt to sound professional.
Abbey got her the contact information to do a follow-up call. “Would you like me to call, Captain?”
“No, I think I should check up on him myself.” Kira took the info and went back into her office. She sat for some time staring at the number. Just call, she told herself. Kira felt as if she was standing on the edge of a vast ravine. The chasm was deep and deadly; one wrong move and she would surely fall to her death. Fraternization is a serious offence. If her fellow officers like Holt found out they could end her career and Stark’s too. I can’t do this. She picked up the phone and held it in midair. Then she hung it up again. I shouldn’t do this! God! I know better. A vision of the motorcycle rider staring at her flashed, and along with it, the dizzy feeling. That was him. Against her better judgment, she picked the phone back up and dialed.
“Hello.” A sultry female voice answered the phone. “Hello? Can I help you?”
Kira froze and her heart sank. He has a girlfriend…or a wife! Panic set in. Her first instinct was to hang up, but curiosity and blind jealousy took over. “This is Captain Riley from the TMC clinic. May I speak with Sergeant Stark?” Kira mumbled weakly. No wonder he didn’t want to kiss me. God, I have made such a fool of myself. What a mess! A wave of nausea hit her like a brick.
“Hmm, he must have made some kind of an impression. He’s in the shower, but trust me, he’s doing just fine.” The lascivious voice purred into the phone, reminding Kira of a late night ad for phone sex.
Kira’s blood ran cold, and felt as if all the air had been sucked out of the room. “OK. Um…t-t-thanks.” She stammered as she hung up the phone. Maybe that wasn’t him on the bike. Maybe she was going crazy. Kira sat there, tears stinging her eyes. She fought to keep them contained. Sadly, she pushed the folder aside.
Abbey appeared at the door. “Everything OK?” Seeing the pale skin and the expression on the captain’s face, Abbey changed tactics. “You know, this is a four-day weekend. You should get off-base for a bit. Head up to the mountains and do some skiing. You’ve been talking about that since you got here.”
“That’s a good idea,” Kira said, putting on a brave face. Putting her full emotion into skiing and then getting shitty drunk at a mountain pub would be perfect. “Actually, Abbey, that’s a great idea.” Between afternoon patients, she started making plans. Kira was rather proud of her self that by the last patient she had all the details worked out. After giving Abbey a brief itinerary, Kira took off to get ready. She threw what she needed in her beat-up Honda and set off toward the mountains. If the weather held, she would be there by nine, maybe ten at the latest. She yearned for a sense of freedom. Driving the winding roads, she rolled the window down to feel the crisp air. She embraced the beauty of her surroundings and willed herself not to think of Stark.
* * *
Stark opened his front door. He was still seething with rage. The sight of the little shit’s hand on the sexy curve of Kira’s back right above that perfect ass sent him into a rage. Feelings he had tried to block for the last six weeks came flooding back with a vengeance. Why do I even care? I barely know this girl. He had gone for a ride on his motorcycle to try to forget her. To let go. The last six weeks had been hell. He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her during his entire training mission. He kept seeing her, that vision of her sprawled on the ground looking up at him. There was something about her. He knew what he wanted was wrong but he couldn’t remember wanting anything more. He didn’t know how he had ended up at her clinic, but there it was. Driving up, he’d seen her and he’d wanted to go to her. As he got closer he saw Holt too, coming up behind her, touching her as they walked to that fucking candy-ass car. He could barely breathe. So she was with him. But the look in her eyes as she had returned his stare had seemed to beg him to come to her. He’d felt her stare holding him. He had wanted to jump off that bike and take her. Feel her. But he couldn’t. Painfully, he remembered the look on her face when he’d lost his temper at the confidence course. He’d seen fear in her eyes when he’d shown the rage he felt. He knew that if she really knew him, she would leave anyway.
Mags came running, jumping into his arms and breaking the spell. “Hey there, little girl, I missed you too,” he said, laughing. Mags planted kisses all over his face as he knelt down, ruffling her fur. The sight of Maggie always brought him back from whatever was haunting him. She had been his rock, his saving grace for the last ten years. Without her, he knew he would have died. Her bright eyes and speckled fur always made him smile.
“So you are back,” a sultry voice called from the living room. Paige sat on the couch with a glass of wine, reading a magazine.
“Hey, Paige. Thanks for looking after Mags for me,” Stark said, walking into the kitchen to get a beer.
“You OK? You look like you’ve had a rough day,” Paige began, careful not to ask too many questions. She had learned long ago that after some missions it was best to leave him alone. “I hadn’t heard from you, so I didn’t know you were back till that captain called from the TMC.”
“I was on a training…What? Who called? When?” Stark asked, surprised.
“Today, about an hour ago. She sounded all nervous, like a school girl, not a captain. You always do leave them flustered.” She laughed. “I think her name was Riley.”
Stark almost dropped his beer. She called! What could she want? His mind was racing. “What did she say?” He blurted out, with no attempt to hide his desperation.
“Whoa there, tiger! You actually like this girl?” Paige asked, alarm bells going off. “You haven’t been serious about a girl in…well, ever. Have you fucked her yet?” she snapped.
“Not now, Paige.” He began searching for the TMC number. “Did she leave a number?”
“No, but don’t worry I told her you were doing just fine,” she retorted, hurt and accentuating the last words, stressing the implication.
“Damn it, Paige!” Stark yelled, now frantically searching for the number. Finding it, he dialed, praying someone would still be there. His hand tugged hard at his hair in exasperation.
Abbey had just finished the rest of her paper work and was looking forward to a long weekend with her husband. She started to leave but went back for her purse. As she paused for a moment, glancing in the captain’s office, the phone rang. Leave it! she thought. It’s time to go. She turned to leave, but something drew her back.
“Hello, TMC Office, Clinic Four, Abbey Pistole speaking.”
“This is Sergeant Stark, ma’am. I’m returning a call from Captain Riley.” He sounded calm and cool but Abbey sensed the quiet desperation in his voice. Although uncertain about what the future would hold for those two, she could see the spark between them. That kind of chemistry you only find once in your life.
After a pause that seemed like an eternity to Stark, she spoke. “She went to the mountains, to Aspen, to get away from everything for a while. She’s confused and upset.”
“She’s going over the mountains in that death trap of a car?” he asked in sudden panic “There is supposed to be a storm and that thing has the ground clearance of a hamster. Is she crazy?”
Stark’s alarm shook Abbey; she hadn’t thought of the danger Kira was putting herself in. Quickly she gave Stark Kira’s itinerary and cell number, as well as her own. “Call me if you run into problems. And Stark, with all due respect, if you hurt her, I will make your life a living hell,” Abbey finished quietly.
Abbey walked out the door silently praying for Stark and Kira. She was so lost in her thoughts that she almost ran into Captain Holt. “Where’s Captain Riley?” he demanded. His demeaning tone ruffled her as usual. But she smiled sweetly and replied, “Oh, Captain, you just missed her. She had to fly home to see her family. She’ll be back in town on Tuesday.”
“Did she leave a number or anything?” he asked, looking annoyed and dejected.
“The captain wouldn’t give me that kind of information.” Abbey smiled innocently, knowing his superiority complex would buy that. Her distaste for Holt was as strong as her growing affection for Stark. Abbey was a civilian. A damn good nurse, and the wife of Sergeant Major Joshua Pistole. She had been an army wife for well over twenty-three years. She saw a lot of her husband in Stark and could see how he felt about Kira. Holt, on the other hand, had come into the military as a captain. His arrogance oozed from every pore and sickened her. “See you Tuesday, Captain. Have a lovely weekend.” Abbey made her way to her car with a very satisfied smile on her lips.
Kira stopped for gas at the base of Mt. Elbert. She had been on the road for a few hours. She shivered as she got out of the car. The air felt much colder, and the wind bit as she pumped gas. As she started back on the road the first snowflakes began to fall. How pretty, she thought, oblivious to the danger. In her haste Kira had failed to check the weather before leaving. When she had quickly made her reservations the hotel clerk had warned of a possible storm coming in. She silently cursed herself for not being more careful. What has gotten into me? I can’t be this idiotic over a man!
As she continued up the mountain, the wispy flakes became more abundant. After a few miles, they looked like a blanket covering everything. The road was completely white. As darkness approached, Kira realized it was taking a lot longer to get to her destination than she had planned. The snowfall had increased to near whiteout conditions and she struggled to see past the front of the car. The wind had blown snow into drifts along the road and obscured the edges, making it difficult to tell what was road and what was not.
Darkness surrounded her and headlights glared off the snow and ice. The road was icy in places, and her car began to slip this way and that. She struggled to maintain control. She thought of pulling over but couldn’t tell where the edge of the road actually was. She continued on at a snail’s pace, her knuckles white from gripping the steering wheel. A string of curse words escaped her lips as she realized the situation she had gotten herself into. As she crested the next hill, she was gripped with fear. At the bottom of the hill lay a sharp curve to the left. Shit, shit, shit! The car picked up speed as it began descending down the steep hill. Kira tried carefully tapping the brakes, attempting not to slide. Please don’t let me go over the edge, she prayed as her car began to slide and spin. Thoughts of her family flashed through her mind as the snowy edge raced toward her. Panic set in when Kira realized she no longer had control of the car. For a fleeting moment time stood still. The image of Stark slowly going by on his bike filled her mind. Kira held on tightly as her car slammed into a snow embankment.
Stark had packed quickly and set out on the road. He knew she had at least an hour lead on him. He ran into the storm well before reaching the mountains. The roads were nearly impassable. He pressed on, knowing she was out there somewhere and he had to get to her. Mile after mile of worsening conditions filled him with dread. He pictured her driving that crap car in this weather. He wanted to find her, hold her, and then spank her damn stubborn ass for driving in this snowstorm.
His heart almost stopped as he saw the crumpled rear bumper of her Honda sticking out of a snow bank. He reached the car and began frantically digging the car out, fear gripping him, images of what he might find flooding his mind. He stopped suddenly, looking in disbelief at the empty car. She was gone. He knew at once she had set out on foot. He jumped back in his truck and took off in a desperate search. After a painful fear-drenched mile he came to a diner. He stopped, hoping she would be there or that someone had heard from her. He parked next to a line of rigs that must have pulled off to weather the storm.
He reached the door, his heart racing. As he opened it he heard a loud cheer. Entering the room, his eyes found the source of the truckers’ delight. There, at the other end of the bar, dressed in the sexiest jeans he had ever seen, was Kira. Surrounded by an adoring but defeated crowd of truckers, she was gleefully saying, “OK, best three out of five?” Her long chestnut hair whirled as she turned to get more darts for another game. She looked up and their eyes met. It was as if everyone else in the room disappeared. Her breath caught. He crossed the room in two long strides and pulled her to him.
“Sergeant Stark, what are you doing here?” she asked quietly, looking up into his eyes.
“I thought you were…I mean, I saw your car and I thought….” His voice broke. He couldn’t even say it out loud. Unable to control his emotions any longer, he picked her up, kissing her deeply, all the need and restraint exploding in this one kiss. Holding her up in his powerful arms, pulling her tightly against him, he continued kissing her passionately.
Kira felt her entire body melt. His expert lips and tongue claiming her mouth, she reached up, holding onto his dark hair. He growled at her touch. Kira stepped back, stunned from the exquisite kiss. As her senses came back to her, she became aware of the room full of people once again. Kira looked around, then back at Stark, the blush creeping up her face, betraying the composite of emotions swirling within her. She was at once angry and eager for more. She had wanted this man desperately from the first time she had seen him. She had practically begged for this that morning on the mountain. But this was not on her terms. She had resolved to put Stark far out of her mind. She could see that she was heading down a dark and dangerous road.
“Kira, let’s go. Let’s get you out of here,” Stark began, his voice tense with wanton need.
“I can’t. What about my car? We can’t just leave it in the snow,” she protested.
Stark started over to the counter to make arrangements about her car with the owner of the diner. The burly trucker who had been playing darts with Kira, stood from his ragged stool beside the bar.
“It seems to me she said she don’t want to go with you. Maybe she wants to stay here with me,” he bellowed, looking down at Stark. The trucker’s semi-toothless grin and wild eyes startled Kira. Though slightly inebriated and a little grabby he had seemed harmless before Stark walked in. Now he stood ready to stake his claim. He was enormous, but Stark was unaffected. Despite standing nose-to-chin with the large fellow, Stark replied, completely in control, “I wouldn’t ever make her do anything she didn’t already want to do.”
Kira couldn’t help but be stirred by the double meaning in his words. She was sure her need was palpable. Despite her eagerness for Stark, she panicked, remembering his fury at the course. The trucker was so much bigger than Stark and she feared his temper would get the better of him this time.
Stark continued to the counter without further acknowledging the hefty trucker. The large man reached out to grab Stark. “I’m talking to you,” he sneered. Before the trucker could touch him, Stark grabbed his hand and bent it…hard. Quietly, he said, “I have no problem with you, friend, but let me be clear. This doesn’t concern you and if you insist on being involved, then that’s your right. But you have that right because I have fought to give it to you. As for Kira, I just drove a hundred miles through blinding snow to be with her.
________________________________________
End of this sample Kindle book.

     
   



C.D.Bradley is an emerging author who has worked as a medical professional in the emergency room for several years. When the Fifty Shades series became wildly popular she read the books along with several nurses. What captivated her more than the books was the reaction and hunger that the nurses had for the stories and their desire for more. CD has always been one who pursued her dreams as if limits to her abilities did not exist, so she began by writing a short story that by popular demand grew into the Novel before you.


   

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