Mukluks planted on the flight deck, Lieutenant Colonel Joshua "Bud" Rosen, USAF, prepped to hurtle from the hovering helicopter onto the arctic tundra.
Over the years he'd been shot at by MiG-29s, pulled mind-blowing G-forces in his F-15E Strike Eagle, launched missiles on targets no bigger than a blip on his radar. But never had he faced anything more terror-inducing than this imminent mission. And he faced a jump of only five feet.
Of course, the knot in his gut had nothing to do with the snowcaps below and everything to do with his assigned partner.
Josh braced in the open door of the Army's Blackhawk helicopter, bitter winds howling. Chopper blades stirred a cloudy void waiting to swallow him, and his partner as well. Just the two of them. Alone. Not at all how he'd planned to spend the holiday season with her.
His hands fisted inside his gloves. Only twenty-four more hours left of the Air Force's five-day Arctic
Survival Training—"The Cool School."
Before assuming his newly appointed position as second in command of the Alaska based F-15E squadron, he needed to complete the extreme weather survival course. Just his luck, his teammate for the final land navigation exercise was none other than his soon-to-be ex-wife, Captain Alicia Renshaw-Rosen.
Freezing his ass off was the least of his worries.
His spouse of less than six months stood beside him in the gaping portal, ready to leap into this mock-up of a crash-survival scenario. Her feathery short blond hair stayed hidden beneath the fur-trimmed parka, only a small oval of weather-chapped skin visible, but enough to assure him her pert nose wasn't sporting its habitual smile-scrunch. Then she flipped her snow goggles down, shielding even more of her face from sight.
A five-foot-six dynamo, his pilot wife packed curves and confidence even layers of drab, green cold-weather gear couldn't disguise. Not that he would ever see her strip away her uniform again, and damn but that grieved him as much as the loss of her uninhibited laugh in his life.
How ironic that once they'd finally received a joint assignment to Alaska they'd split before unpacking even half their boxes.
"Go!" called the helicopter crew chief. "Go! Go!"
The repeated words snapped Josh back to the present. Finally, action. Screw musing.
He plunged into the alabaster void. Frigid winds locked around him, burned through layers of protective clothing, froze a path to his lungs.
"Ooof." Boots slamming to hard-packed snow, he hit the ground, rolled to his side to absorb the landing shock, a helluva lot less than if he'd actually punched out of his fighter with a parachute.
"Alicia?" he shouted over the growl of the hovering Blackhawk. He shoved to his feet and crunched through the caked tundra.
"Here and in one piece." She scrambled up through the swirling powder. "Let's haul butt."
Side by side, they trudged at a molasses-speed run toward the tree line, clearing the area before the departing Blackhawk kicked up a fresh blizzard. Ten yards later he dropped to his knees beside Alicia, aircraft behind them. He covered his face while she mirrored his actions. The chop, chop, chop of the helicopter blades swelled, faster. Wind beat his back. A flurry of white blinded him. Howling winds and sheets of ice dominated his senses.
So why could he still hear Alicia breathing beside him?
Would it suck this bad all day, with him completely aware of her every breath? Talk about a never-ending afternoon.
Only one day past the winter solstice, the actual daylight hours would be short, about four hours of full sun plus the haze of dawn and dusk. But every minute stretched before him twice as long. Hell, the past days "camping" with her and their classmates had already stretched tension to a frozen thread.
Slowly, order was restored in the outside world at least. Snow settled. Quiet descended.
Standing, he took his bearings—tree line to his left, iced spruce and stark birches. Snowcapped mountains from the Alaska Range tipped the horizon. They faced a four-hour walk at most before dusk. Thank God the overnight portion of the newly implemented land navigation exercise had been scratched due to an incoming storm.
He extended a hand—which she ignored to rise on her own. Alicia swooped her bulky mitten-gloves over her parka to dust snow free. And poof. Just that fast an image of her magnificently and illogically na*ed in the drifts popped to mind. His very own voluptuous snow angel wore nothing but her short blond hair all whispery around her face, frost flakes glistening on her eyelashes and...elsewhere.
"C-crap," Alicia chattered. "It's c-cold out here."
Not where he was standing.
Batting along the fur ringing her hood, she knocked off persistent ice. She paused midswipe, angling her head his way.
"What's wrong?" She arched around to check behind her. "Did I drop something in the jump?" Just all her clothes in his imagination. "You've got snow on your nose there."
"Oh. Thanks." She dabbed at her face. Staying dry was critical. Getting wet could equate to death out here.
A grin twitched, cracking along his frozen face already dry and raw from days of exposure during training. Chuckles rumbled, drawing icy air into his lungs. He laughed, anyway. Long. Hard. Echoing through the pines. Why not? His personal life was so screwed up, there was nothing left to do but laugh.
Alicia unhooked her snowshoes from her gear and began fitting them to her mukluks. "Nice to know I amuse you."
"Well that's an egocentric thought. What makes you think I'm laughing at you?" He was too busy laughing at himself for panting after this woman until even sub-zero weather and an impending divorce couldn't cool him.
"Don't see anyone else around."
Like he needed reminding of that. Damn. He definitely wanted to bail out of more than an aircraft right now.
But this course was too important to half-ass. A military flyer's life consisted of constant refresher training, such as annual updates on his initial combat and water-survival classes. Compared to three weeks of eating bugs in the wilderness or being dumped alone in a shark-infested bay for a full day, this should be a piece of cake.
Keep it light. Easy. Pretend they hadn't ripped each other's hearts out.
Straightening, Alicia stomped her feet to test the fit of her snowshoes. "Let's not waste energy talking.
We need to focus on finding the pickup point before those clouds overhead unload. I just want to sleep, eat, wake up. Get home in time to call my family and wish them merry Christmas."
"No problem. You'll be in your own bed by tomorrow night, the twenty-third. Plenty of time." Hanukkah had already passed for him, spent unpacking in his new office before heading back to his solitary bed at the BOQ—bachelor officer's quarters.
Reaching inside his parka, he tugged his compass from his survival vest. "We'll take a heading of one five zero."
Her brow scrunched in a frown. "But the pickup point is one nine zero."
He set his teeth. "Are you arguing with a navigator?" "I thought you back seaters preferred to be called wizzos."
"Technicality." No matter what they called it, he enjoyed the hell out of his job as an F-15E wizzo—WSO, Weapons Systems Officer. Pilots rowed the boat while WSOs shot the ducks.
And he knew his stuff. "If Chris Columbus had me with him, he would have known he wasn't in India."
"Goody for you. But the pickup point at the river is still one nine zero." His pilot wife's huffing breaths grew whiter, faster, fuller.
Ah, hell. So much for keeping things light and easy. She was getting fired up, which would fire him up with neither of them standing a chance of finding an outlet. "You know you're arguing just to argue."
"Could be." She flicked her goggles up to her forehead, pinning him with coffee-brown eyes. "But how about you explain your reasoning to me, anyway."
He wasn't used to people questioning him. Hell, he was a freaking genius after all. Literally. Just ask
But Alicia always questioned him, something he actually respected most of the time. Today, the supply line ran short on patience. "The pickup point's on a river, right? If we navigate directly to one nine zero and step as much as one degree off, we'll miss the point. Problem is when we do hit the river, we won't know whether to turn left or right. But if we aim distinctly to the left of the pickup point, when we hit the river—"
"We'll know to turn right and follow the shore."
"Exactly." His irritation eased. Yeah, now he remembered why he didn't mind her questioning him. She always could follow his logic. She kept him on his toes, sharpened his thoughts, giving the world an edge he missed with others. "We'll walk a little farther my way, but we won't risk getting lost."
"Okay, Magellan, you've made your point." Bending, she tugged the bulky green pants over her mukluks, yanking the ankle zipper a final inch.
"Good." He stomped his snowshoes once, twice, testing the give of the ground. "Time to move out and we'll have you home in time for pumpkin pie."
He started toward the tree line, which would hopefully break the wind. When Alicia made those calls to her father, brother, sister, would she tell them about the breakup? He'd likely spend Christmas at the squadron, wading through stacks of paperwork in the silence. With tense crap shaking down in Cantou, he itched to be in his new office, anyway. Cantou might be a tiny-ass country over in Asia, but it har
bored numerous terrorist-training camps.
Cantou's deposed dictator was still on the run, with powerful ties and a hunger for nukes. Recent CIA intelligence indicated the nutcase's minions were smuggling uranium out of the U.S. and Russia.
Thoughts of Cantou brought him too quickly back to memories of Alicia. A year and a half ago, they'd met flying missions in the Cantou Conflict, ousting that dictator. Alicia had strutted into the Officer's Club bar on her first day at Kunsan Air Base in Korea. That walk of hers managed to be cocky and sexy all at once, knocking him flat on his butt.
Watching her trudge ahead now, he wondered how she managed a strut even in snowshoes. It boggled the mind and the laws of physics.
A half hour later after endless ready-to-explode-his-head tension, he needed a distraction. Well, one other than thinking of her every other second while she ignored the hell out of him.
How freaking inconvenient that even when the love left, attraction still clung with tenacious claws that would put a polar bear to shame. "Damned boring, just walking, no talking."
He really hated being bored. Almost as much as he disliked being ignored by this woman when he couldn't stop snow-angel fantasies.
"Solve quadratic equations in your head," she answered without missing a step.
That might work. He'd done it often enough in grad school at sixteen, caught in the middle of keg parties with hot co-eds all too old for him.
By eighteen, he'd completed a master's degree, worked at NASA while earning a Ph.D. until he was old enough to enter Air Force flight training at twenty-one. NASA, navigator training and a below-the-zone promotion had brought plenty of women in his path. He'd saved the equations for work then.
Here he was, thirty-five years old and back to equations. Damn. "Excellent suggestion. Something like calculating the clamp pressure required from my teeth to rip off your panties should keep me occupied."
Ignore that, Renshaw.
She stopped. Turned with a grace that defied those damned snowshoes. Nailed him with a look frostier than the icicles spiking from the trees. "Thong or French cut? Cotton or satin?"
Oh, yeah. Now they were talking. "Obviously what you're wearing today." He swept aside a branch weighted low by snow, startling an artic hare from the underbrush. "Why would I care about anything else? If you're feeling shy about sharing first, allow me. I'm wearing Scooby-Doo boxers with a holiday theme since Scooby's sporting a Santa hat. Granted, they aren't very military-looking, but the regs only require that while in flight I wear a hundred-percent cotton."
"Thanks for enlightening me, but I'm so not interested in your Scooby snack right now."
Yeah, he pretty much got the message on that one loud and clear. Not for the first time he wondered about that dude in her past, the one she'd almost married except he'd died first. What secret had the poor bastard carried to his grave about understanding this woman?
"Ouch." Josh thumped his chest with his oversize arctic gloves. "You know how to wound a guy. But I recover fast.
Now, back to your underwear. I do believe I've solved the mystery." "Oh, goody. And how did you manage that?"
"Elementary, my dear Renshaw. Since we just finished slipping the surly bonds of earth in an aerospace vehicle owned by the Department of Defense, I deduce, as per regulation, your undergarments are one-hundred-percent cotton."
Damn, it had been a long four days in the survival class with her, but at least they hadn't been alone together—until now. Stupid though it may be, he wanted some kind of reaction from her. "As far as what design? While you do have the butt for a thong, I'm going to guess necessity overcame fashion and you opted for something a little more practical."
Sighing, she hitched her hands on her hips. "You know, I really hate you sometimes. If only your brain and shoulders weren't so hot."
"You like my...brain?"
"Fine," she snapped. "You win. You want to talk? Let's discuss who gets what when we split up the household goods."
His humor faded faster than his breath puffing vapors into the sub-zero air. "One in four decisions made while cold will be incorrect, my love."
All the more reason he shouldn't be thinking about sex.
His traitorous Scooby snack throbbed, anyway. Good God, it was cold as hell. Just what he needed, a frozen erection.
"Don't call me that." Her chin trembled. From anger? Or something softer?
"Call you what?" "My love."
"Why not? You can call me all sorts of things—Josh, Colonel, Bud, Rosen. Jerk. Take your pick.
Meanwhile, I have..." He quirked his gaze up to the murky sky, ticking through numbers on his fingers. "Seventeen more days until our appointment with the attorney to start the process whereby we officially begin making you no longer 'my love.'"
After streaming a long cloudy exhale ahead of her, she ignored him. No surprise. He deserved her disdain. He was being an ass and he knew it.
He should shut up, except damn it all, he was working to survive on a lot of levels today. Must be the whole holiday season dragging him down. Since a gunman's siege at his college right in the middle of December semester exams, he dreaded this time of year. He'd hoped to make happier memories with Alicia in front of a fireplace with a bottle of merlot, some mistletoe and no clothes.