Archive for March, 2011


I almost didn’t get published….

August 2010 was a very eventful month for me.  My husband left on Sunday, August 1, for a task force assignment with the Department of Justice.  Being alone with the kids was nothing new, and I didn’t even think twice about him not being around, until the following morning.  On Monday, August 2, my middle son, Daniel, came screaming in the front door, crying.  Mom immediately went on alert and since David, the youngest, wasn’t with his brother, I just knew something had happened to him.

“David says he broke his leg,” Daniel cried.

I immediately grabbed my keys, left my purse, and screeched out of the driveway, following Daniel’s directions.  I came around a corner and saw David laying in the middle of the street, and I could hear him screaming from inside the van.  Every mother knows how that sound sends shivers racing up and down one’s spine.  I stopped the van and jumped out.

As I am kneeling on the ground, in the  middle of the street, a patrol car with the local police department cruised by.  I tried to flag the officer down, but evidently  my frantic waving was seen as a friendly gesture and not a call for help.  The officer waved back and kept right on rolling.

Well, long story short, David had broken his femur, with his brother’s help.  He was transported from the local hospital by ambulance to Children’s Hospital in Oakland, CA, where he underwent surgery the following morning to insert two titanium rods into his leg (I wonder if he’ll set off airport metal detectors?).  David and I then spent the rest of the week living in the hospital.  When he was discharged on Friday, August 6, I took him home and the long process of rehabilitation began.

How does this fit into me almost not getting published?  Well, during the months of June and July I had been submitting one of my manuscripts to publishers.  Up until that point I had gotten nothing but rejection letters.  Now, for those unfamiliar with the submission process, an author will submit the first 30 pages of a manuscript to a publisher, along with a cover letter, a synopsis, and a self-addressed-stamped-envelope so the publisher can return your 30 pages to you.  Believe me, it’s cheaper than reprinting the same 30 pages over and over.

Anyway, the day I got home from the hospital with David, I made a trip to our private mailbox to pick up the past week’s mail.  In that mail was a 9X12 white envelope from Black Velvet Seductions (BVS) Publishing.  I took one look at it, rolled my eyes, and tossed it on my desk.  “Another rejection.  Great.  How can this week get any worse?”

More than a week went by before I looked at that envelope again.  It sat there on my desk, mocking me, pouring salt on the wound, whispering in my ear that I was a crappy writer and might as well give up now.  With a heavy sigh, I sat down and opened it, bracing for the traditional form rejection letter and hoping that perhaps I had at least received some constructive criticism.  Just as the letter opener sliced through the thick, white paper I had an epiphany.  I hadn’t submitted a hard copy of my manuscript to BVS.  I had submitted to BVS electronically via e-mail with the full manuscript as an attachment.  My hand froze, my heart stopped, I couldn’t breathe, and for a second the world stopped moving.

“It can’t be,” I thought.  “No freaking way.”

Swallowing the frog that had moved into my throat, uninvited I might add, I pulled the contents of the envelope out.

Dear Leslie Wirtley:

Thank you for thinking of Black Velvet Seductions as a possible home for (name withheld). I have reviewed the manuscript and am pleased to be able to offer you a contract for publication….


I sat there staring at that cover letter for almost five minutes, a million thoughts spinning in my head.  Had my mood been one smidge worse the day I’d picked up that mail, my publishing contract would’ve gone straight into the recycle bin.  I would never have known someone thought my writing was good enough to publish.  So many “what-ifs” went through my mind.  Then, I heard a little whisper, not in my ear, but in my heart, and I truly believe it was God.

“After the past couple of weeks, did you really think I’d do that to you?”

God is so good.


Final Kill – Chapter 1

Final Kill

Chapter One

She remembered the face of the first man she’d ever killed: the rest of them . . . not so much.  Regulating her breathing, Cat peered through the scope of the .416 rifle as snow fell fitfully, almost as if it didn’t want to reach the ground.  The snap of AK fire bounced around the ravine below her interspersed with the shouts of the Taliban firing the Russian-made weapons.  She scowled.

Half an hour ago she’d been sitting in a hidden mountain cave, relatively warm, monitoring two-way radio and cell chatter with a pair of specially designed headphones, using very expensive, top-secret, brand new, state-of-the-art technology.  Now, because of what she’d heard she was laying on a ledge in the snow with her rifle, more than a kilometer from her relatively warm cave.

“Do you have them?” she whispered as the crosshairs found one turban-clad head.

Tripp adjusted the focus on his binoculars.  “The SEALs are less than half a klick in front of them and losing ground.”  He grunted.  “What the hell are they doing out here?”

“Dying,” she replied.  She gave him a solemn look.  “But we’re not going to let that happen, are we?”

Cat listened carefully as Tripp rattled off the firing solution, adjusting her scope as he did so.  In all she’d counted seven pursuers, but the only one she was concerned with at that moment was the one in her sights.  Cat exhaled completely, held her breath, and squeezed the trigger.

The rifle recoiled, and before the first bullet reached its target she had cycled the bolt and was honing in on terrorist number two.

“Hit,” Tripp reported.

She squeezed the trigger again, cycled the bolt, found her next target, and fired a third round as Tripp confirmed a hit on the second shot.  She cycled the bolt again and paused.

“And number three is down.”  Tripp chuckled.  “Keep ‘em coming, Tiger.”

It was then the rest of the group realized three of their compatriots were dead.  Cat watched the four remaining men scramble for cover as they tried to discern her location.  The clap of the .416 echoed off the hills, bouncing back and forth between the walls of the ravine, making it impossible for them to figure out where the deadly shots were coming from.  Her fourth shot hit the target in the upper chest, dead center at the base of the neck.  His head went spinning through the air like a macabre Frisbee, the blood-spattered turban flapping wildly.  After that the extremists went to ground in the thick, mountain brush.

“Nice!” Tripp said.  “He really lost his head with that one.”

“Very funny.”  Cat scrutinized the distant hillside and smiled grimly when she spotted a turban.  She adjusted her aim again, but the turban disappeared.  “Does Tonto have them?”

She could hear Tripp breathing as he scanned the gorge below.  “Affirmative.  He’s leading them up the back way.  We’re good.”

“Not yet,” she said.  “If any of these guys get back to whatever hole they crawled out of they’ll be right back here, messing my shit up.”

“They’ll be back anyway,” Tripp replied.  “Not them, I mean, but more like them.”

“I know,” she agreed, “but eliminating these last three will give me a little more time to pack.  I have a lot of expensive equipment to evac.”

“Always thinking ahead.”  There was a brief pause.  “Maybe you should leave just one so there’s someone to tell the tale.”

“Nah,” she replied with a smirk.  “Let ‘em wonder.”

Several minutes passed with no movement, but Cat knew terrorist wasn’t a synonym for dumb.  Snow continued to fall and a deathly quiet descended over the ravine.  It seemed even the wind had died, not a twig, branch, or bush moving.  A shiver traversed her spine, but Cat shook it off and stared through the scope.

“Anything?” she asked in a whisper.

“No . . . wait, hold on.”  He moved his spotting scope just a fraction.  “Got one.”

He did some quick calculations and then read her the numbers.  Cat smiled when she focused in on her fifth extremist.  He was half-hidden behind a pine tree, and the only part of him she could get a clean shot at was his right leg.  She squeezed the trigger and less than a second later the man’s hip exploded, his leg launching like a missile as the force of the impact spun him around.  He landed face-first on the bloody snow and never moved again.

This was enough to send the last two into a panic.  They started scurrying back the way they’d come, obviously overwhelmed by their fear.  Survival instinct had kicked in, effectively silencing any common sense.  Instead of staying hidden, they had decided their only option was to run.  She felt a spurt of pity for them then took aim.

Despite the zigzag pattern they ran, she picked them off with relative ease.


“Not even Superman can outrun a bullet,” Cat said in a low voice.  She reloaded and peered through the scope.  “Superman can only stop a bullet.  Turns out a terrorist can, too . . . once.”  Another squeeze on the trigger.

“And last one is down,” Tripp said shortly after her final shot.  “Can we go now?”

“Yep,” she said.  She capped her scope, folded the bipod, and quickly gathered her empty casings.  After scooting back from the edge she stood and swung her rifle over her shoulder.  “Let’s get back to the cave.  We need to finish packing.”

“You realize it won’t matter you just saved a SEAL team,” Tripp commented.  “The boss is gonna be pissed at you for doing this again.”

I didn’t do anything,” she said with a roll of her eyes.  “This was a team effort, and if it really upsets him that much he should send us stateside.”  She glanced at Tripp.  “He should know by now we’re not going to sit around and listen to our boys in uniform get killed, especially if we can stop it.  After the last two incidents you’d think he’d have figured that out.”

Tripp grinned.  “You’d think.”

“Besides,” she continued, “it’s almost time for us to be out of here anyway.  We just advanced the timetable.”

“You really do enjoy getting his jock strap in a twist, don’t you?”

Cat chuckled.  “It’s almost as much fun as sniping bad guys and babysitting all of you, Tripp.  Almost.”


Lieutenant Ryan Heller, US Navy SEAL, followed the stranger dressed in snow-cammies deeper into the tunnel.  Digger leaned heavily into Ryan’s side.  On Digger’s other side was Mack, who gave Ryan a quizzical look as they followed the dark, winding passage.  Grady walked behind them loaded down with their weapons, and he was being oddly quiet for a man nicknamed “Mouth.”  Ryan had no idea who the stranger was or how he had materialized out of the snow, but he didn’t really care.  All he cared about was getting Digger to a

Gradually he detected noise and light, and his eyes widened when they entered a large cavern packed with computer monitors and illuminated by electric lights.  Apparently the stranger was accustomed to finding electricity and advanced technology in mountain caves because he just kept walking.  Ryan counted five other people all dressed the same as their quiet counterpart, but they were busy taking apart the computers and packing up the various components.  He glanced over Digger’s head at Mack, who just shrugged and continued on.

On the far side of the cavern was another tunnel, and the four men followed silently.  After about 20 meters the tunnel opened up again with several smaller caverns formed off the main passage.  The guy led them to one outfitted with a gurney, an overhead light, and a small cabinet for medical supplies.  As Ryan and Mack lay Digger on the bed their rescuer finally spoke.

“Wait here,” he said.  “Doc will be with you in a moment.”  His message delivered, the stranger turned on his heel and disappeared down the passageway.

Ryan looked at Grady who had dropped the weapons and was examining the supply cabinet.  Then Ryan glanced at Digger who was barely conscious.

“Great,” he said, “not even a Better Homes & Gardens to flip through.”  He shook his head and started to unbutton Digger’s jacket.  “What are doctor’s offices coming to these days?”

“Who cares?” Mack said, leaning against the rough stone wall.  “I want to know who was manning that rifle.  That first shot had to be . . . what?  Fifteen hundred meters?”

“At least,” Ryan replied as he pulled a knife from his belt and sliced through the material of Digger’s clothes.  “Whoever the guy was, I plan to buy him a case of beer when we get back to Bagram.  There’s a Brit who owes me one for kicking his ass in poker.”

“A case?” Grady repeated.  “I was thinking my firstborn would be a good start on payment.”  He grabbed a nearby metal chair, spun it around and straddled it.  “Don’t like kids much, so it’ll be a win-win.”

“Are they military?” Mack asked.

“I don’t think so,” Ryan replied.  “There are no rank or MOS insignias, no unit patches, and no identifying marks on their uniforms.”  He scratched his beard.  “No, these guys aren’t military.”

“Then what?” Grady asked.  “Private security, NSA, CIA?”

“Pick one,” Ryan said.  “We have an entire bowl of alphabet soup to choose from.”  He heard footsteps coming from the direction of the tunnel.  “It’s not important now.  Zip it.”

“Sorry to keep you gents waiting.”  A man also dressed in snow-cammies entered the medical bay and walked up to the gurney.  He was young, mid to late twenties Ryan guessed, with blonde hair and blue eyes, and a tall, lanky build.  He snapped on a pair of latex gloves then bent over Digger.  “I’m Corpsman Tom Massey, but everyone calls me Doc.  What have we here?”

“Took one round to the chest,” Ryan replied, watching closely as Doc carefully examined the wound.  At least the guy seemed to know what he was doing.  After a thorough inspection, the corpsman donned a stethoscope and listened carefully to Digger’s chest.  He then checked Digger’s visual acuity and blood pressure.  Ryan leaned closer.  “What’s the verdict, Doc?”

Massey straightened, his expression neither grim nor hopeful.  “Well,” he began, “there are decreased breath sounds on the left.  The bleeding has stopped, but without an x-ray there’s no way to tell what’s going on inside and trying to get the bullet out could do more harm than good.”  He met Ryan’s gaze briefly then turned his attention back to Digger.  “I can keep him stable for a while, and provided we get him to a surgical unit in the next couple of hours I think he’ll be okay, but I’m only a corpsman.  I’m not equipped for this.”

Ryan nodded.  “Good enough for me.”  He turned to Grady and Mack.  “You guys stay here.  I’m going to see if I can find out who’s in charge and get a timetable.”

Ryan strode back down the tunnel and entered the main cavern just as two more people walked in from the opposite side.  These, too, wore Arctic camouflage, both of their heads wrapped in turbans, their faces covered by scarves.  The one in front was about 5’10” with a lean build and Ryan’s brows rose when he saw the .416 rifle over his shoulder.  The name stitched on the front of the jacket read Beckett.  The guy in back was an inch or so taller than Ryan, roughly 6’4” and powerfully built, but it was obvious the shorter man was in charge.  Beckett walked around a table in the center of the room that was draped with a map, presenting Ryan with his back.  He pulled the scarf from his face and leaned his hands on the edge of the table.

“Sitrep,” Beckett said.

At least he sounded military.  That gave Ryan a small measure of comfort.

An Asian guy with a fancy looking laptop and a headset spun in his chair and rolled over to the table.  Over the right breast pocket of his cammies was stitched the name Lee.

“There’s definitely been an uptake in chatter,” Lee said, “and I’ve triangulated their position to . . . here.”  He marked a spot on the map.  Ryan edged closer as the man continued.  “They probably realize the ambush didn’t go down as planned, and once they decide to send out a recon team it’ll take them less than half an hour to reach the kill zone.”

“Perfect,” Beckett said.  He peered at the map.  “Once they get there it won’t take them long to locate us, especially if they find the spot Tonto picked up the SEALs.  Our Injun didn’t try to cover their tracks so it won’t be hard to follow them.”

“Hey, you said move fast so we moved fast,” said the man who had led them to the caves.  “That would preclude hiding our trail, boss.”  Obviously he was Tonto, though his nametag said Nizhoni.  He was standing opposite Beckett, and Ryan could see the Native American heritage in the strong, aquiline features.

“Doesn’t matter anyway,” Beckett said.  “It’s still snowing so that will help.”  He straightened, put his hands on his hips and exhaled slowly.  “Well, don’t stand there looking at me.  Finish packing.”  He pointed to a tall, beefy man with the name Kealoha on his jacket.  “Techno, forget about loading it all.  Get the important stuff: hard drives, scanners, mikes, dishes.  You know what is and isn’t necessary.  If it’s not important, top-secret, or insanely expensive, leave it.”

Kealoha had the distinctive features and large build of a Pacific Islander with massive hands, a barrel chest, and a thick neck.  The man snapped to and grinned.  “You got it, boss.”


A man sitting at a computer monitor turned around to face Beckett.  “Yeah, boss.”

“Coordinate with Techno that we’ve got all the important stuff out, then start wiping hard drives and prepping the rest of the equipment for evac.”

Burgess nodded.  “You got it, boss.”

Beckett checked his watch.  “Bam-Bam.”

Another man, who was of average height and build with remarkably unremarkable features straightened and stepped forward.  His hair was sandy brown and so were his eyes, giving him a flat, monochromatic appearance, until he looked at Beckett.  When the two made eye contact a predatory gleam entered Bam-Bam’s eyes that made his whole face come to life.  Ryan blinked.

“Whatcha need, boss?” Bam-Bam asked.  He fidgeted, obviously anxious to be about his master’s bidding.

“It’s not Christmas,” Beckett began, “so the only gift I want those assholes to get when they find these caves is a really, really warm welcome, if you get my drift.”  As Bam-Bam scurried off Beckett leaned on the edge of the table again.  “Lee, Double check that the cas-evac they were prepping for the SEALs is still on the way.  Bagram can consider it requisitioned.  Contact base and let them know how much gear we’ve got, how many personnel, and that we have wounded.  Be certain they have the right coordinates for the LZ this time so we don’t have to play radio tag in the mountains again.”

Lee laughed softly and started tapping on the computer.  “On it.”`

Ryan watched as the people returned to scurrying around.  While it was frenetic, there was nothing unorganized or panicked about the evacuation.  Everyone seemed to know exactly what to do, and they were doing it without having to be told or directly supervised.  Impressive.

Beckett and the tall man he’d come in with were conversing quietly, looking at the map, and the .416 still hung over Beckett’s shoulder.  Ryan watched them for a moment then approached slowly, not wanting to interrupt.  As he did Beckett reached for his turban and pulled it off and Ryan froze.  A long, thick, red braid fell down Beckett’s back.  His jaw dropped and he stared, but in his periphery he saw Beckett’s companion had noticed him and was tapping Beckett on the shoulder.  Ryan managed to close his mouth just as Beckett turned to face him.

Ryan found himself looking into the most beautiful green eyes he’d ever seen.  They were large, lined with thick lashes, and distinctly feline in appearance with tipped up outer corners and a vivid, unwavering gaze.  His pulse jumped.  He saw the surprise there, as if she’d just remembered why she needed a rifle.  She smiled and something in his chest melted.

“Lieutenant,” she said.  “How is your man?”

It took him a second to find his voice.  “Your corpsman thinks he’ll make it to Bagram, ma’am,” he finally replied.

“Then he’ll make it,” Beckett said.  “Doc is the best I’ve ever worked with.”  She waited a moment.  “Is there something you need, food or water maybe?  We’re a little busy but I can get you something to eat or drink if you need it.”

“Um, no, ma’am, we’re good,” he ground out.  “I just wanted to say thanks for saving our asses back there.  That was some pretty impressive marksmanship.”

“Yeah,” agreed the taller man.  His jacket read Trippler.  He had dark hair cut in a high-and-tight, and pale blue eyes.  “She does okay . . . for a girl.”  He chuckled and looked at Beckett.  “Need to get my stuff, darling,” he said, affecting an awful British accent.  “You can tend to our guests without me, can you not?”

Beckett looked at him out of the corner of her eye and fought a smile.  “Get out.”  She turned back to Ryan.  “Sorry, Lieutenant.  Tripp likes to infuse humor into tense situations.  It’s a coping mechanism, and a character flaw.”

“He your spotter, ma’am?” Ryan asked.

She had a generous mouth with full curves, and that mouth widened into a you-have-a-gift-for-stating-the-obvious smile.  He noted the gentle features, the slender nose, and the elegant brows.  She was stunning which, oddly enough, irritated him.  SEALs weren’t supposed to be stunned by anything, or anyone.

“Indeed he is,” she replied.  “And stop calling me ma’am.  Now, I’d love to chat but we have to get out of here.”

“Can I help?” he asked, a bit too quickly.

Her smile deepened, revealing a set of dimples that transformed her from cover-girl beauty to girl-next-door approachable, an unnerving and fascinating combination.  His heart did an uncharacteristic flip but Ryan schooled his features into what he hoped was an impassive mask and waited for a reply.  Thankfully, she had pity on him.

“See to your men, LT,” she said.  “When we bug out you’re going to have to help your wounded to the helo, but thankfully the terrain isn’t as rough on the other side of the hill from where you met your new and, sadly, deceased friends.  Should be a relatively easy trek.”  She turned and started to walk away.

“What’s your name?” he asked, again, a little too quickly.

She lifted one brow and glanced down at her name stitched so neatly on the Arctic camouflage.

Ryan frowned.  “I can read,” he said.  “What’s your name?”

She studied him for a moment, her gaze sharp and probing but still friendly.  “Catharine,” she finally replied, “but you can call me Cat.”

“I’m Lieutenant Ryan Heller,” Ryan said, “and you can call me whatever you want, but the guys call me Reaper.”

“We call her Tiger,” Lee said without once looking up from his computer, “but you’re not qualified for that yet, Lieutenant.”

“Nope,” said Techno as he walked by with an armload of what looked like computer hard drives.  “She has to like you first.”

“Maybe she does like him,” Bam-Bam commented as he affixed a round, black disc to the wall with a metal spike.  There was a circle of red dots blinking on the front of the disc, and Ryan realized it was some type of explosive, a type, oddly enough, he’d never seen before.  Bam-Bam continued, his expression fierce as he concentrated on setting another charge.  “After all, she was actually polite to this one.  The others she hardly even glanced at, and when they questioned her she showed them why we call her Tiger.”

With that everyone went still and silent and turned to stare at him.  It would have been comical if the situation hadn’t been so serious.

“Get back to work,” Cat snapped.  Immediately the noise resumed and she looked at him.  “My apologies, Lieutenant.  We rarely get guests so the children are quite unsure how to behave.”

Ryan smiled for what felt like the first time in days.  “It’s okay.  I’m just glad you’re on our side.”  He paused, leaned toward her, and lowered his voice.  “You are on our side, right?”

Cat laughed softly and put a hand on his shoulder.  “Cut us and we bleed red, white, and blue, LT.”  She turned him toward the tunnel.  “Now, wait with your men, please.  When it’s time to go I’ll come get you.”

“And how long will that be, ma’am?” he asked with a mischievous grin.

Cat frowned, but when she saw his smile she chuckled and shook her head.  The change in expression was dramatic and Ryan had no trouble understanding why they called her Tiger.  When she scowled he had almost expected fangs.  Her appearance was fierce, primal, and her stare was just as arresting as that of an angry Bengal.

Ryan knew snipers were a solitary lot who associated mostly with other snipers or their spotters.  Their line of work required an entirely different skill set than what was needed to be part of a regimental combat unit, and camaraderie wasn’t top of that priority list.  Snipers were lone hunters.  He was friends with a few of the military marksmen, though not a close friend, and often they were regarded with a mystical reverence bordering on fear.  Her first four shots had taken less than 40 seconds, and while he had no way to know if she’d hit all her targets the fact their pursuit had stopped told him she probably had.  But, unlike some snipers he’d met, he didn’t get the hair-raising vibe from her.  Nevertheless, he’d just met her.  Perhaps a woman sharpshooter had a different disposition from the men he was familiar with.  Until he knew her better, he thought it wise to allow himself to feel some of that reverent fear.  After all, discretion was the better part of valor and if he pissed her off she could probably kill him from a mile away.  Ryan shook himself as that creepy vibe finally registered.

“We’ll be out in less than an hour, Lieutenant,” she replied, breaking his train of thought.  “Don’t worry about your comrade, either.  Doc will make sure he’s ready to travel.  He’s aware of the time constraints.”

Ryan snapped to attention and extended his hand.  She looked at it for a moment then wrapped her fingers firmly around his.  A faint tingle crept up his arm and he cleared his throat.  “I feel like I should salute you or something,” he said, “but since you’re not a military officer, a handshake and my sincere thanks will have to do until we get back to Bagram.”

Cat tipped her head to the side.  “And what happens when we get back to Bagram?”

Unexpected heat burst inside him as he pictured what he’d want to happen, but he managed not to say anything.  Pushing those mental photos aside he thought about her question for a moment, choosing his words carefully.  “Whatever you want,” he said at last.  “If it’s within my means it’s yours and you deserve it after what you did for us.  We wouldn’t have made it out of that canyon if you weren’t such a crack shot.  We owe you our lives.”

He thought he saw just a hint of pink creep into her cheeks, but in the half-light of low wattage bulbs it was hard to say for sure.  What he did know was she was still holding his hand, and that tingle grew stronger.  It was strange, but he found he quite liked it.

“Why don’t you buy me a cup of coffee when we get back to base and we’ll call it even?”

His brows rose.  “Really?  That’s it?  I would have thought dinner at the mess hall would be your first choice, but hey, if coffee’s your thing . . . .”  He frowned.  “I did say whatever you want, right?”  She chuckled and released his hand, much to his disappointment.

“Well,” she began, “if we make it to the helo perhaps I’ll give it some thought on the ride to base.”  She met his gaze.  “Can I get back to you?”

“Of course, and I have a feeling no matter where I am on base you can find me,” he replied.  He gestured toward the rifle.  “Just use that scope . . . finger off the trigger preferably.”

A smile curved her mouth.  “Deal.”

“Great.”  He turned and started to walk away then looked at her over his shoulder.  “Now I’ll go wait with my men.  Thanks again . . . Cate.”  He gave her a wink then turned away.

Cat blinked and watched the tall sailor walk confidently down the tunnel and felt something inside her she didn’t like one bit: warmth, and a strange tingling at the base of her spine.  His demeanor, his manner, his genuineness was so unlike many Special Forces soldiers she’d met.  That particular breed of men possessed a certain type of arrogance, a necessary arrogance that often bordered on narcissism.  She understood it, but she didn’t usually like it.  The utter confidence in oneself and one’s abilities exhibited by most SEALs, Green Berets, and the like sometimes triggered a negative response in her, but not with this one.  She remembered the shock of surprise that had registered when she’d met those crystalline blue eyes and the unwelcome jump in her heart rate.  Cat crossed her arms over her chest and stared down the tunnel.

He was older than his men, probably mid-thirties, taller and bigger than most SEALs, about as tall and nearly as broad as Tripp.  That was roughly five inches taller than her.  She knew there was no set standard for the height and weight of SEALs, but shorter, wirier, lighter men usually performed better in the arenas SEAL teams worked in.  This meant Lieutenant Heller possessed some impressive physical abilities to have overcome the disadvantage his size had presented during the qualification process.  And while he wasn’t as muscle-bound as Tripp he was still muscular in an athletic, beefy way, like Russell Crowe in all his Gladiator glory.  His eyes were dark blue, his black hair longer than the typical military cut because of his current location, and even the full beard did nothing to lessen his appeal.  Lieutenant Heller was a very attractive man, and it annoyed her that she found herself attracted.  This just wasn’t the time or the place, and yet she couldn’t remember the last time a man had affected her like he did.

“Admit it, you like him,” Lee said from behind her.

Cat turned a sharp gaze on the man and he immediately returned to what he was doing.  With a huff she set off down one of the side tunnels toward her quarters.

Since she traveled light she didn’t have much to pack, and in less than five minutes she was finished in the small alcove off the secondary tunnel that served as her “bedroom.”  Cat hefted her backpack over the shoulder opposite the rifle and walked back toward the main cavern.  Everyone was there except Techno, who was no doubt gathering all the top-secret listening equipment from outside.  She glanced at her watch and saw 25 minutes had passed since initial contact, but nearly everything was done.  Bam-Bam sat on a crate near the entrance tunnel, and she approached him.

“Ready to welcome our guests?” she asked.

Bam-Bam nodded.  “All that’s left is to laser-trip the entrance.  After everyone else is out I’ll laser-trip the exit tunnel in case anyone makes it through the first car of the welcome wagon.”  He pulled a small monitor about the size of a cell phone out of his pocket and grinned.

“What’s that?” Cat asked, almost afraid of the answer.  Although Bam-Bam was the best at what he did, sometimes his enthusiasm for explosives bordered on the disturbing.

He stroked the smooth, black surface as if it was a lover’s hand.  “If I don’t hear the charges, this little baby will tell me when both sets of explosives have been tripped.”  He gave her a look that was slightly maniacal.  “When that happens . . . .”  He reached into his other pocket and pulled out what looked like a dead-man switch.  “When that happens I push this . . . and the whole top of the mountain explodes.  Thanks to me this hill will be a couple hundred feet shorter by close of business today.”

Cat clapped him on the shoulder.  “You really like keeping the geologists busy, don’t you?”

He grinned, an expression that would send children scurrying to hide behind their mothers.  “It provides job security for them and hours of amusement for me.  It’s a symbiotic relationship ensuring a positive outcome for all, like those little fish who eat parasites off sharks.”

Cat stepped back and shook her head.  “You worry me, Bam-Bam.  You really do.”

Techno strode by with an ammo box in each hand.  “You’re up, blast-man.”

“Don’t set the laser until I’ve had a chance to go look out front,” Cat reminded him.

Bam-Bam nodded and his face lit up like a child on Christmas.  He rubbed his hands together and disappeared down the tunnel.  Cat grabbed Techno’s arm.

“How many boxes do we have?”

Techno wiggled his brows at her.  “Well, I worked my magic so one each, boss.  Lee will carry two since he doesn’t carry a weapon, and two can be loaded on the stretcher with our injured SEAL.  That will free you, Tripp, and the Bam-master up.  I already cleared it with Doc.”

“Did you magnetize everything else?” she asked.

“Of course.”  He smiled and patted her hand.  “You can thank me later, Tiger.”

“I may just kiss you later,” Cat replied.  “Thanks, Tech.”

“Anything for you, Tiger.”

Cat watched him disappear down the exit tunnel then stood on a crate to address the room.  “All right,” she began, “is there anyone who’s not ready to leave?”  She scanned the cavern, but the men just stood there, silent and resolute.  Cat smiled.  “Good.”  She glanced at Lee.  “What’s the ETA on the helo?”

Lee looked at his computer then at her.  “Five-zero minutes,” he replied.

Cat glanced at her watch.  “It’s less than a klick to the LZ, which means we should get there just before the chopper does.”  She paused when Lieutenant Heller, his uninjured men, and Doc entered the room.  Their eyes met and again her pulse did a split-second leap.  The SEALs looked ready to go, their weapons slung over their shoulders.  Cat took a breath and continued.  “Techno has the boxes by the back door so grab what you can carry on your way, minimum of one each.”

Lieutenant Heller stepped forward.  “My men and I can help.”

“Doc?” she asked, looking at the corpsman.

“I just need one guy to help me with the stretcher,” Doc replied.  “Other than that, we’re good and ready to go.”

“Okay,” Cat said with a nod.  “Lieutenant, pick someone to help Doc carry your guy, and whoever is left can help with cargo.”

“Roger that,” Heller replied with a small smile.

“All right, people,” she said, clasping her hands behind her back.  “You all know the way to the landing zone so move like you have a purpose.  Aside from our Navy guests, the most important cargo are those boxes, so I expect all of them to reach the LZ in the same condition you found them.  Techno will take point and Tripp, Bam-Bam, and I will bring up the rear.  No matter what you hear, gunfire, explosions, Toby Keith singing, do not stop.  Get your asses and that equipment to the helo and back to base.  Understood?”

“Understood,” was the unified reply.

Cat put her hands on her hips and dropped her chin.  “Move out.”