Lance Wheeler should’ve been at his wedding.
He had the rings. The church. The tux. The reception hall, the caterers, and the flowers and cake and photographer. He had next week off for his honeymoon.
But as of five days ago, he no longer had a fiancée.
As of an hour ago, he’d ditched his friends and their efforts to cheer him up.
Somewhere between the time he’d met Allison and this past Monday, when she’d decided her life was going in a different direction, he’d lost his taste for the party scene.
Would’ve rather been up at thirty thousand feet, just him and his bird dancing between the earth and the sky. Flirting with the heavens while he worked out this weird mix of pain, loneliness, and a surprising tremor of relief. Unfortunately, his commander had grounded him while he got his head back on straight.
So here he was, on a hard wooden stool on a lonely Saturday night, a full beer taunting him on the bar.
This was what he was supposed to do. Get drunk. Find a chick. Screw around.
Problem was, he couldn’t remember how.
Someone shuffled to the bar beside him. “Gimme a tequila, sugar. And if you got a chaser that’ll make my ex disappear, I’ll take that too.”
Lance twisted his neck to investigate and almost fell off his stool.
She couldn’t have stood taller than five-four and had the right amount of curve on every inch of her petite body. The breasts under her pink T-shirt, the hips in her tight jeans, even her slender arms and neck had graceful arcs to them. Her blond hair fell in waves about her smooth, round cheeks, and her eyes were sparks of blue mischief even while her pink lips were drawn into a fierce line.
Her hands trembled. She fisted them and pressed them into the bar.
His groin stirred. So did his pride. Some guilt, too.
She flicked a glance in his direction.
He should’ve gone back to minding his own business.
But when she did a double take, her eyes widening and her lips parting, all of his blood converged south.
“Evening,” he said.
Her knuckles were white, but she was smooth, coordinated grace when she nodded to his beer. “You fixin’ to drink that? Because if not, I’d be happy to toss it on back.”
An honest smile tugged his lips. That hadn’t happened in six days. “All yours so long as I get to watch.”
“It have anyone’s name on it already?”
It did, but she wasn’t there.
And the she in question didn’t drink beer. Or do shots. Or say fixin’ to. “Nope.”
The blonde flicked a look over her shoulder. Her left cheek twitched. She slid onto the stool beside him, twisted so her knees touched his thigh, and pulled his beer to her spot. “Too kind of you.”
“Anything to help a lady in distress.”
Guilt stabbed him in the chest again, but he shook it off.
He wasn’t married. He wasn’t engaged. He wasn’t dating anyone.
He was absolutely, one hundred percent single. He was free to flirt with a sexy blonde.
Even if being a bachelor was still a foreign sensation.
Was Allison out drinking tonight? Was she with someone?
And would it honestly bother him if she were? Why should he want a woman who didn’t want him?
“You from round here?” the blonde asked.
“Today.” Not much longer if he had his choice. “You?”
She chuckled. “Sure, sugar. I’m from round here today too.” She angled closer to him, those perfect breasts mere inches from his arm.
He might’ve been out of the dating scene for the last three years, but he recognized a woman on a mission to make another man jealous.
And he didn’t mind a damn bit.
Would’ve been doing the same if his ex were sitting in the bar, watching him.
The bartender delivered her tequila. She licked the salt off the rim with a dart of her quick pink tongue, tossed the glass back, and then expertly sucked the lime.
“You from round here just today?” he asked.
She winked as she finished the lime. “I’m from round the corner most every day.”
He slid a glance around the bar. Two guys were playing pool. Couples and groups occupied nearly every other table. A few people looked their way, but Lance couldn’t immediately pick out a jealous ex-boyfriend staring him down.
Just an older dude watching them.
Couldn’t blame the guy.
The blonde reached up and plucked at his short hair. He’d even gotten his wedding haircut before Allison dumped him.
“Got a little piece of something up there,” she said, but her eyes said this was all a game.
“You really want to make him jealous, don’t you?” he murmured.
“If it was legal, I’d strap the man to a rocket and send him back where he came from. But since it’s not, I’ll settle for demonstrating for him that I’m moving on. That okay with you?”
“Sure, seeing as I’m here today.”
“Awful darn nice of you.” She crossed her legs and put a hand on his knee. “I’ll owe you one. But I’m off men right now. Just so you know.”
“Even just for…today?” The words slipped out before he realized he’d even thought them, but he didn’t want to take them back.
Because her eyes locked on his, shimmering and intrigued, while her hand tightened on his knee. “What kind of girl do you take me for?”
“The kind who didn’t just get up and walk away.”
His heart knocked at his breastbone. His fingers shook. There was every possibility she would throw his beer back in his face.
Probably needed it. Would be a good wake-up call.
“You military?” she said.
“Don’t you ma’am me. What do you think I am, old enough to be your momma?”
“Old enough to be the sexy schoolgirl around the corner.” He didn’t even know her name, but flirting with this woman was making him feel more normal, less off-kilter and more focused than he’d been all week.
She’d probably shoot him down, but what the hell did he have left to lose?
“Just today, hmm?” She slowly licked her lips.
The sight of her tongue sent his remaining blood straight to his dick. “Today’s all we ever have,” he said.
Her other hand came to rest on his thigh, and she leaned all the way in to him. “So you know,” she whispered, her breath hot on his ear, her spicy-sweet scent tickling his nose, “I’m not usually this kind of girl.”
She leaned closer, those pink lips parting, her lashes fluttering down to touch her cheeks, and his brain short-circuited.
This sexy, outspoken woman wanted him.
This could be a setup, a hazy part of his brain whispered.
She could be batshit crazy, another part suggested.
But she was warm. She’d made him smile. And she’d also made him harder than he could ever remember being.
Because she was new.
The complete opposite of the wife he’d almost had.
Exactly what he needed tonight.
His body was on fire. She was gorgeous. A firecracker. And unlike a certain other woman no longer in his life, she wanted him.
He was a master of control on the flight deck of his C-130 Hercules, but his hands shook when he splayed his fingers over her back.
Her lips touched his, and instinct took over.
He angled his mouth against hers and tasted her lips. Her hands slid up his shoulders, up his neck, around into his hair, and her mouth parted for him. He plunged his tongue in, tasting salt and lime and sweet, hot heaven.
Allison’s problem hadn’t been Lance. He wasn’t broken. She hadn’t dumped him because there was something wrong with him.
There was nothing wrong with him.
He was strong. He was attractive. He was hot and hard and throbbing. He could have any woman on the planet, and the proof was right here.
With this sexy blonde practically climbing into his lap, her tongue in his mouth, her hands tearing at his shirt.
Allison’s life was going in a different direction?
Lance’s life was going in a different direction too.
His life was headed in the direction of getting laid.
Now, right here, in some bar, with—
“Who are you?” he gasped.
He didn’t know her. Her name. Her history. Why she needed to make out with strangers in a bar.
“You go on and call me anything you want.” She hooked her hand behind his neck again, her touch hot and confident and sexy as hell, but also—
He didn’t know her name.
He was kissing a woman, thinking about stripping her down and feasting on her most intimate parts, and he didn’t even know her name.
On the night he should’ve been getting married.
To a woman whom, just a week ago, he’d sworn he would love forever.
“Don’t stop now,” she whispered.
Pled, really. As though she wanted to disappear into the oblivion of him as much as he wanted to disappear into the oblivion of her.
To not be whoever she was anymore.
To live a different life through him.
He jerked back. “Sorry,” he muttered.
He couldn’t look at her. He ran a hand over his stiff hair and fumbled off the stool.
He could still taste her on his lips, still feel the brand of her touch on his skin, still hear the rush of his pulse banging in his head as his life came back into focus.
The gut-wrenching, heart-bending, bleak reality of who he’d almost become.
“Sorry,” he said again.
And before she could say another word in that sassy voice of hers, he charged out of the bar.
Four weeks later…
Kaci Boudreaux might’ve been born with the face of a Southern belle and the brain of a quantum physicist, but she had the heart of a redneck. And today, for the first time in too long, that heart was in hog heaven.
Twenty feet down the way, the macho team from Gellings Air Force Base pulled the lever to release their catapult.
A satisfying thwack of wood and springs bounced through the air, followed by the even more satisfying crunch of a pumpkin exploding upon takeoff. Orange innards soared a measly twenty feet beneath the crisp October sky and rained down on the dry grass.
She whooped—a good ol’ rebel yell—and high-fived Zada Koury, her team’s student captain. “We got this, ladies!”
The Gellings team had one more pumpkin left to chuck in the fall festival today, but their catapult had too much torque, and the gourds didn’t have the surface tension necessary to withstand the force of the air pressure that came with the launch velocity. There wasn’t a pumpkin in the world with skin thick enough to survive being launched off that thing. Kaci would’ve loved to see it loaded down with a watermelon, or maybe a cannonball—man, that thing would probably give a boulder wings—but she was more excited about pending victory.
Her students, all ladies from the Physics Club at James Robert College, were about to be the first all-female team in the history of the Gellings Fall Fest to take home first place in pumpkin-chucking. And for tossing a gourd over a third of a mile at that.
If there was one thing Kaci Boudreaux knew, it was how to design a catapult. She’d nearly gotten herself a juvie record with that knowledge. But Ichabod, the catapult her team had entered, had been completely designed and built by the students.
“This means no homework for a month, right, Dr. Boudreaux?” Jess Peterson, a freshman who’d jumped right into the Physics Club with both feet at the start of the semester, flashed an impish grin.
“Why would I deprive anyone of the fun of physics homework? I’m fixin’ to treat all y’all to some ice cream though.”
The military boys were loading up their last shot. One of them snickered. Another shoved a third. Three more huddled over their pumpkin, rubbing it and whispering.
The judge said something to them, and all eight or nine backed up. Two of them wiped their hands on their pants.
“This is it,” Zada whispered.
Kaci’s team crowded together.
“Think it’ll break again, Dr. Boudreaux?” Jess said.
“Darn near certainty.” Kaci pointed to the catapult. “See how tight they’ve got it wound down?” She geeked out, rattling physics principles and design theories until she realized she’d lost them, then fell silent and waited for that beautiful sound of wood cracking and pumpkin crunching into pie in the sky.
One of the guys pulled the release, and the catapult sprang straight with that perfect, reverberating ka-THUD!
But there was no accompanying squish.
No pumpkin guts.
Just a beautiful orange gourd slicing through the blue sky, a perfect arc, perfect height, perfect angle, perfect speed.
“Nuh-uh,” Kaci whispered.
“Wow,” one of the girls murmured.
“That can’t beat us, can it?” Zada said.
The black-shirted boys were all hollering, arms up, fists pumping, chest-bumping each other like Neanderthals.
Their pumpkin started its descent to the ground, a pinprick in the distance, too far away for the satisfying crunch of smashing pumpkin on impact.
And the boys were still hollering.
“That thing went a mile!”
“Did it land on the road?”
“If it did, that road’s sprouting pumpkins next spring.”
Zada angled closer to Kaci, her brown eyes thick with worry. “That went at least as far as ours, didn’t it?”
It didn’t make sense.
That pumpkin should’ve been guts on the ground before it ever took flight.
“Y’all did great,” Kaci said to the team. “I am so proud of every single one of you.”
“Great magic formula, Thumper,” one of the guys crowed.
Several others hushed him.
The judge, a pretty lady in her mid-forties, winked at him.
The head judge’s voice came over the loudspeaker. “Two thousand eighty-six feet,” he announced.
The black-shirted bandits all erupted in deafening shouts.
The best Ichabod had done for Kaci’s girls was a penny past two thousand.
Those boys had just beaten her girls by eighty feet.
“But—but…” Jess mumbled.
Given the materials, height, and leverage mechanism those danged military guys had used to construct their pumpkin chucker, not to mention the launch velocity and the way they’d cranked the arm down even lower for the last shot, it should’ve been physically impossible.
It was physically impossible.
They’d put something on the pumpkin to keep it from exploding on takeoff.
They’d lubricated it to reinforce the skin.
And the judge had seen them do it.
She’d winked at them.
Kaci’s blood vaporized and her temper spiked madder than a wet bumblebee.
She didn’t mind losing. But she minded losing to cheaters, especially when her students were being robbed of a prize they’d not only earned but needed. She had a hair up her butt to show those cheaters just how redneck she could be.
If Kaci had learned anything from her mother, Miss Momissippi and second runner-up in the Miss USA pageant, it was the power and advantage of chin up, shoulders back, and belle them to death first.
Then they’d never see the redneck coming.
“Y’all stay here and get Ichabod hitched up to the Jeep,” she said.
She wanted to charge headfirst like a bull over the trampled fairground grass to show those macho, cheating dingbats how this lady handled problems. Instead she put a sway in her stride and a smile on her lips while she approached the other team.
The team’s shirts all bore the logo for the Wild Hogs, Gellings Air Force Base’s 946th Airlift Squadron. Military men in general made her twitch—especially lately—but flyers were enough to induce a seizure.
“Excuse me, gentlemen.” She stopped at the edge of their group and ran her finger down the closest one’s arm.
Eight close-cropped heads swiveled in her direction, and all their backslapping and pompous self-congratulations over their victory trickled to a stop.
She curved her lips into a coy smile. “I just wanted to say that y’all did a spectacular job today. I have never seen a pumpkin sprout wings like that.” She batted her lashes. Lull them into safety, then get them to admit they cheated so they’d be disqualified. “Y’all must be so strong. And smart. Me and my impressionable young friends would love some pointers on how we could get our poor little thingie over there to work half as good as yours.”
The one with the aviator sunglasses flashed a wolfish grin. “Well, miss, it’s all in getting the right torque.”
“And a really good pumpkin,” the fresh-faced one added with a snicker.
She treated him to a smile and a subtle tug on her pink V-neck, exposing the barest hint of cleavage. Four of the men went slack-jawed. Three more angled closer to her.
The young pups were so easy. They had a few years on her girls—couldn’t be pilots without a good bit of schooling—but she doubted any one of them was pushing thirty.
“Y’all got a magic pumpkin?” she whispered.
“Close—” The fresh-faced one’s voice came out on a prepubescent squeak. He cleared his throat and covered with a wink. “Close enough, miss.”
“No magic pumpkin,” Aviator Sunglasses said. “We’ve got something better.”
No magic pumpkin, her ass. And she’d bet anything his something better was Vaseline or beer rubbed all over its skin. She fluttered her lashes while glancing at the pop cans, rags, and tools scattered about the ground. Had they used Coke?
“We’re just a poor group of college kids doing our best on a small budget and limited brains,” she lied. “We’d love to hear more about your methods.”
Such an easy half lie to tell. And for a good cause.
Her girls were mostly second- and third-year students who had been busting their tails designing and building Ichabod since they’d all come out to the fall festival and observed the competition last year. They’d lost sleep, boyfriends, and weekends for this. Every last one of them was on a scholarship or financial aid of some kind, and half of them worked part-time jobs to keep their heads above water.
And these men had cheated their way to the top and robbed Kaci’s girls of splitting prize money that would’ve gone a long way toward next semester’s books for each of them.
Not to mention the publicity of having an all-girls team win. Too few women believed they were smart enough to go into science and technology careers.
She tugged her shirt a millimeter lower. “We’d be most grateful if y’all would be willing to share a few pointers with little ol’ us.”
The flyers all shared a glance.
A guilty glance, in her opinion.
“Sorry, miss, but it’s proprietary,” the fresh-faced one said.
She fluttered a hand to her chest. “Oh, that kind of proprietary?” she whispered.
“What kind of proprietary?” a new voice said.
She turned. A tall, lanky, dark-eyed man with barely-within-regs jet-black hair had his legs spread and his arms crossed while he stared her down. He was in the same black T-shirt as the rest of the crew but, unlike his buddies, he had his dark gaze trained on her eyes with an authority and a confidence that seemed to be daring her to look away.
Her stomach dropped.
Bad enough they’d taken her girls’ trophy.
But he was on their team? Mr. Kiss-and-Run? Mr. In-Town-Today-Only? Mr. Left-her-with-his-tab?
This was so not her day.
She subtly shifted her posture to make her breasts stand perkier and waved a hand at the fresh-faced guy. Hell if she’d let this flyboy see her sweat. “I was just asking your boss here if you strong, capable men might be able to help my little ol’ group make our pumpkin thrower thingie better.”
His lips twitched. Barely a fraction of an inch up, but it was enough to make her ovaries sit up and notice. Something hot pulsed between her thighs, and her brain train stuttered to an emergency stop.
“Aren’t you with the Jim Bob team?” His accent was subtle—Southern in a Momma’s-in-the-Junior-League way, rather than thick country hold-my-beer-and-watch-this—and his eyes had game. Take-no-prisoners, accept-no-bullshit, jump-right-in-and-play-along game.
Just as they had the night she’d first met him. The only night she’d thought she’d ever see him.
“Second place by a landslide?” he prompted.
The man needed to quit talking before her feminine parts overruled her brain.
He’d been a damn fine kisser. Until he ran away. Which was probably best for both of them, but she’d had a bad day. She should’ve been the one leaving him. “Oh, sugar, a man like you surely understands there’s no glory in second place.”
“Sure isn’t. But you get a monstrosity like yours to fling a gourd that far, don’t think you need any help from us.”
“My momma always taught me it was proper to be sociable with your competitors.”
His gaze dropped to her chest. And he didn’t have to say a thing, but she heard the message anyway. Your momma teach you to always use your boobs to get your way?
It wasn’t often that Kaci blushed—at least, unintentionally—but this man calling her out on using her feminine wiles spiked the temperature in her face.
As if he were innocent in the wiles department. “I’m doing my darnedest to deal with all y’all politely, but there ain’t no way in hell that last pumpkin was normal.”
“Because we busted the first two?”
“Because that eyesore of a catapult isn’t physically capable of not busting a pumpkin on takeoff unless that pumpkin was juiced.”
His lips finally spread into a full smile, but it wasn’t a nice smile. “It’s not an eyesore. It’s mine. And it’s physically capable of anything in the right conditions.”
“Aha! You admit you greased your gourd.”
He took one large step toward her, let his hands drop to his sides, spread his shoulders wide, and aimed a don’t-insult-my-pumpkin-chuckin’ warning glare at her. “I admit I made a better pumpkin chucker than you did, and that’s it.”
“By cheating.” She clenched her thighs together and told herself the excitement building in her chest was from the thrill of a challenge. Not from an irrational, sexually-charged memory about what those large, long-fingered hands had felt like on her body, or how his smoldering brown eyes had looked in the dim bar.
She should’ve known he was a flyer. Wild, unpredictable, and dangerous to that little organ pumping erratically in her chest.
His gaze stayed steady on her. If he recognized her, he was doing a dang good job of hiding it. “Only thing we rubbed on our pumpkin was luck. What are you? Senior in college? Grad student?”
Not anytime in the past decade. “Didn’t your momma teach you it’s not polite to ask a lady’s age?”
“Word of advice, Pixie-lou. You want to build a machine like this, gotta get out of your momma’s house and live a little outside the books.”
Pixie-lou? The man was asking to have a firecracker aimed up his nether regions. “You have no idea—”
“I have no idea, but it’s okay for you to come over here, flash your boobs at my friends, and accuse us of cheating?”
She refused to flush again. He’d liked her boobs just fine a few weeks ago.
Until he up and left in the middle of kissing her like she was his oxygen.
Lordy, she was about to have a hot flash. She gritted her teeth. “The laws of physics don’t lie, and the laws of physics say it’s impossible for you to stay within the rules of this contest and still launch an intact pumpkin that far. Your takeoff speed was too high for the surface tension of a normal pumpkin.”
“Or maybe it was just right. We didn’t grease our gourd. And even if we had, it’s still within the rules.”
She sucked in a breath.
Was it within the rules?
“Can’t help that you didn’t win,” the fresh-faced one said, “but I’d be happy to comfort you tonight.”
Oooh, these flyers were so stinking arrogant.
Her dark-haired, sinful-eyed nemesis smirked at her. “We’re gonna go get our prize. Load her up, boys. Time to celebrate.”
An irrational disappointment flooded her chest. “You’re robbing eight hardworking ladies of a prize they deserve.”
“Happy to introduce you to someone who can teach y’all how to be gracious losers. Good life skill.”
Several of the men snickered while they broke away from her and headed toward the makeshift stage.
Her daddy never would’ve acted like that. And she was horrified that she’d actually considered taking that man home.
Thank goodness he’d up and left her panting at the bar.
“Hope that trophy keeps you warm at night,” she muttered. “Because there’s not a woman in town who’ll take the job.”
Except the judge, apparently. And half the women out here today.
And Kaci herself.
Lordy. She had issues.
The fresh-faced kid slapped the pompous, dark-haired loser-proclaimer on the back. “Thumper here ain’t ever had a problem with that, miss. None of us do. But we appreciate your concern all the same.”
The lot of them laughed at that.
Thumper didn’t spare her another glance.
“They really built that themselves, Dr. Boudreaux?” Zada said when she returned to their group.
“So they say,” Kaci said.
“And their pumpkin wasn’t rigged?”
“Seems not. I’m still super proud of all y’all,” Kaci replied. Were they right? Was it within the rules to pad the pumpkins? She hadn’t looked—she’d simply assumed they used the standard Punkin Chunkin rules, even if this wasn’t an official national contest.
But if they were right, then the only one acting like an ass out here today was her.
Her cheeks flamed up again. “We’ll get ’em next year. Ice cream on me once we’ve got Ichabod put away.”
“Rather have a beer,” Jess muttered.
“And I’d rather not hear about it until you’re twenty-one,” Kaci chirped. “C’mon, y’all. Time for the awards. Let’s get up there and smile like we mean it.”
What else could they do?
But later…later, she would fix this. Somehow, she’d make it right for her girls.
* * *
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