USMC Sergeant Isabella Ramos cursed as her ammo clip hit the dirt on the other side of the wall. Sergeant Connor Maher could not help but notice. He didn’t write the rules of nature. A real man’s always gonna look, and this particular gal’s derrière, albeit camouflaged in the uniform of the day and plenty of dust, made for a choice view. What red-blooded, all American male wouldn’t?
One minute she was seated all nice and comfortable on that three-foot wall. The next, she was bent over it, damn near ass over teakettles with her boots, legs and butt on display. He glanced away, not wanting to be caught looking—at least not by her.
He and his buddy, Jamie, were part of the United State’s military response to the increased violence of the Iraqi insurgency in Fallujah. Both short timers and counting the days, this was their final tour together unless Jamie got another brilliant idea to re-up. With home only a couple months away, Connor was antsy. All he had to do was stay alive. In Iraq. During one of the hottest USMC campaigns of the war. Stolen commercial breaks like this show with Ramos made the grind endurable.
She’d gotten the short end of the stick when their commanding officer decided someone ought to show the two newly arrived non-commissioned officers the lay of the land, and voilà. Just like that, they got a snappy tour of U.S. Camp Baharia and along with it, a floorshow that couldn’t be beat.
The good thing about the predominantly USMC camp was the large clear water lake in the center of it. The bad thing was it was still in Iraq. The once-upon-a-time desert resort town was now filled with hard-core military men and women who sometimes forgot how to behave. Like Lance Corporal Jamie Ramos, who by sheer coincidence shared the sergeant’s last name, but obviously, not her dedication to the Corps.
Already passed over once for promotion, Jamie was headed for trouble with his CO. He didn’t seem to have a problem with his rifle qualification or combat fitness, but his true talents lay in another direction—entertainment. Jamie was a tease to the mathematical power of a gazillion, and that innate need for attention would land him in the brig one of these days.
“You know you want to.” He elbowed Connor again, urging him to do the unthinkable. “Just one little smack. It’s easy. I’ve done it a million times. No one else will see you. Just walk over, lay one on her ass and run like hell. She’s short. She’ll never catch you. Go on. Do it.”
“Shut up,” Connor muttered out of the corner of his mouth, glancing again at the ass in question and doubting the ‘I’ve done it a million times’ line. “You know better than to treat women like that. Knock it off.”
“What’s she gonna do? You’re both the same rank,” Jamie persisted. “It’ll be fun.”
“Cut the crap. She’s a lady.”
“No, she ain’t. She’s a jarhead just like us. She’s GI. Loosen up, Maher. Walk on the wild side for once in your geeky life.”
Connor glanced at the ass in question again. Damn. It was spank-a-licious and hard to keep his eyes off of. This dark-haired and olive-skinned beauty had potential in his book. Lots of potential. He didn’t want Jamie’s crazy antics to blow his chances before he knew if he had any.
Raised in a house filled with six younger brothers and no sisters, women still perplexed Connor. Sometimes they loved a guy who only two seconds earlier they’d hated. He couldn’t keep up.
Besides, his mother had taught him early what Jamie’s education must have missed. A real man does not disrespect women, even when they cussed like sailors. He’d grown to appreciate Bridgette Maher’s wise sayings more now that he was out of her house. Treat a woman like a lady and she’ll never turn into a nag.
With a twinkle in his eye, Jamie edged closer to the irritated sergeant’s backside, a big cheesy smirk on his trouble-making face. She tipped farther over the wall, the toes of her boots nearly off the ground and still cussing a blue streak. No way was Connor getting close to that action. He shook his head and mouthed a definite, No. Don’t do it.
Jamie’s eyes brightened with, Are you daring me, man?
Connor didn’t know whether to nod or shake his head. Either way spelled trouble.
Jamie’s left eyebrow spiked into an incredibly wicked, Here goes. His arm lifted higher.
Connor shook his head, disgusted for letting Jamie take a prank this far. He stepped forward to halt the wise guy before things got anymore out of hand. Retrieving the clip in question would solve the Sergeant’s problem and torpedo Jamie’s stand-up comedy once and for all.
“Excuse me, ma’am—”
Jamie’s perfectly white teeth flashed a big shitty grin. His flattened hand lifted over the rump in question.
Apparently, Ramos hadn’t heard Connor yet, leaning over the wall like she was. He was nearly behind her. “Ma’am, let me get that for—”
The sergeant tipped one booted foot to the sky and exclaimed, “Finally. Got the damned thing.”
Crap. Sergeant Ramos came off that wall so fast she landed in Connor’s arms. The deadly scopes of a deadly sniper skewered her one man viewing audience.
Oh, sweet Mother Mary and Joseph.
He gulped and caught a peripheral of his trouble-making buddy. Jamie was on his knees. At the end of wall. Out of sight. Clear out of sight.
Ramos could only see—him.
Those sizzling brown windows to a she-devil’s soul were pointed straight up at—him.
Crap. I’ll be busted back to private first class.
He should’ve pushed off. He should’ve been a gentleman and apologized for the inappropriate contact. He should’ve done anything, but no. Generations of hopeless romantics from the Emerald Isle had led him to this pivotal moment. His fingers refused to unclench from her biceps. Looking down into two dark pools of what felt like the strongest, bitterest, sweetest coffee, Connor was doing good just to keep breathing.
Hot damn. If I’m dying, it’s gonna hurt, but I’m going to heaven.
Equal rank or not, something about this diminutive spitfire had stomped the hell out of his ego from the first moment he’d seen her. With the meanest reputation in the squad, she could teach the drill sergeant’s How to Be an SOB class all by herself. Ramos was a cherry bomb with a short fuse and right now, he was cannon fodder. Nothing but.
“You want to die right here and now, Boston?” she hissed, her shoulders rolling along with her swagger. How could a gal with such sexy brown eyes be so mean and sound so tough? His eyes refused to move off of her, even though her top lip was curled over a wicked Devil Dog bite.
And here he was holding her. Not just holding her, but chest to breast kind of holding her, and either she didn’t mind the contact or he was in for one helluva lesson in smack down, hand-to-hand combat. The woman was pure muscle, her biceps as hard as her eyes. Contempt glittered there, and just maybe something else. Mischief?
“Ahh, no, sir – I mean—no, ma’am—I mean—” He dropped his hands and took a full step back to get out of her personal space, stuttering like an idiot.
Jamie was still crouched with his hand clamped over his big fat mouth he was laughing so hard. Right then and there, Connor should’ve handed his buddy over, but real men don’t do that either.
Ramos stomped right back under Connor’s chin, her eyes dark and deadly, full of the promise of nothing but pain. Maybe death. “You think hitting another soldier’s ass is funny, do you?”
“No, ma’am, I do not.”
God, she was so damned gorgeous. Yeah, she radiated a certain amount of radioactive hostility, and he was pretty sure he glowed already, but damn. What a package. His nose filled with the lovely whiff of roses and incense. How fitting. The sweetness of flowers mingled with the unmistakable hint of burning ash. He’d been an alter boy. He ought to know.
That drab green T-shirt peeking up from her uniform didn’t conceal the rounded landscape beneath from a man of his height, either. Six-foot-three should be the one doing the intimidating instead of peering down a woman’s shirt like he was. The thought of peeling her out of those desert cammies tweaked what was left of his common sense. He wanted to touch. Hell, he wanted to fondle, pet, and a whole lot more.
Should I pour on the Maher charm?
Sizzling death glowered up at him, not even blinking once and full on daring him to keep breathing.
Ah, maybe not.
The verbal assault commenced. “I’m gonna make you wish you died during boot camp, you pig-faced, camel-lipped, piece of...”
On and on she went. He took it like a man. Almost. His jaw kept moving, but sound had ceased coming out. Article 128 of the United States Code of Military Justice flashed through his blood-deprived brain.
Question: Is a slap on the butt considered sexual battery?
Answer: Damn straight. Don’t touch. Don’t tell. And all that stuff.
Jamie howled, at last overcome by his own hysterics.
Ramos shot a scorching look over her shoulder. “You!”
The instant she looked way, the magic faded. Connor was half-inclined to cup her chin and direct her gaze back to him. Just him. Not Jamie. But he was afraid to touch her. She might be too hot for him to handle.
“Why don’t you grow up?” Kicking a boot scrape of sand in Jamie’s face, she stalked off, which only made him laugh harder. The dumb ass looked like he was having a heart attack the way his face was all screwed up.
Oddly, Connor felt a chill when Sergeant Ramos left. A chill in Iraq? How’d that work? He watched her walk away, her dark brown ponytail twitching side to side in time with her butt, both sassy as hell. Taking one step forward to follow and apologize, he came to his senses and stopped short. Not now. Let her cool off. Mad women were unpredictable.
“You shoulda... You shoulda....” Still laughing his guts out, tears streamed over Jamie’s cheeks. “I mean it. You shoulda seen the look on your face!”
“You could get me court-martialed,” Connor ground out, even as his gaze returned to the command tent where Ramos had gone. He wasn’t so much scared as interested. Maybe it was all those blond brothers he’d grown up with, but dark-eyed girls always caught his attention. Hers seemed darker than most, full of sparks, promise, and a whopping dose of cayenne. The moment he’d seen her, he knew. They would spend time together.
“Oh, hell.” Jamie pulled himself onto the wall, dusting his pants off. “Don’t worry. She won’t do anything. You’re safe.”
“Yeah, right.” Connor huffed out an aggravated sigh. “You ever heard of friendly fire? She was an MP sniper, jerk-off. Now I gotta watch my back the rest of my rotation.”
Jamie guffawed through another laughing attack. Connor had half a mind to kick his friend’s ass if it would douse the hysterics, but he doubted it would. Jamie was a fun-loving, risk-taking Hispanic who could charm the socks off most ladies. Didn’t seem to have any effect on the sergeant, though.
Finally, he turned semi-serious. “Don’t worry. I’ve got your six. You know that, Bro.”
“Bullshit, you do,” Connor shot back at him. “You’ve got nothing.”
“No, really. I’ve seen how you look at her.” Jamie almost sounded sincere. “Listen, Connor. Remember how I told you I’d never seen her before in my life, how lots of us Hispanics got the same last names only it don’t mean we’re related? You know, like Martinez, Gonzales, Sanchez, Moreno, Garcia?”
“So what?” Connor could feel it coming. The joke wasn’t over yet.
Jamie winked. “I lied. That’s Izza. My sister.”