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Authors: Merline Lovelace

One of the Boys

BOOK: One of the Boys
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Praise for MERLINE LOVELACE

“Strong and clever characters populate the Lovelace world in stories that sizzle with a passion for life and love.”

—
New York Times
bestselling author Nora Roberts

“Merline Lovelace's stories are filled with unforgettable characters, scintillating romance, and steeped with emotional depth. She's the brightest new star in the romance genre. Each new book is an enjoyable adventure.”

—
New York Times
bestselling author Debbie Macomber

“This absolutely wonderful story will alternately steam your glasses with sizzling romance, make you chew your nails and laugh hysterically. Wow!”

—
Romantic Times
on
Bits and Pieces

Dear Reader,

I'm thrilled to see my first two novels packaged together in this special Signature Select Spotlight edition. Both stories take place at Eglin Air Force Base, where I was privileged to serve as Support Wing Commander.

Maggie and Her Colonel
looks at the research and development phase of Eglin's incredibly vital test mission. I had such fun with that novella I jumped right in and wrote a longer story.
Bits and Pieces
explores the operational end of the test business, which occurs after a weapon system completes initial R & D. I've updated the story to reflect Eglin's current mission. I also had fun rewriting a few scenes to allow the characters in both stories to interact for this edition.

So here you have 'em—two highly educated, supremely qualified heroines matching wits with two super-sexy colonels. I hope you enjoy these glimpses of test operations at the biggest and best base in the air force!

All my best,

MERLINE LOVELACE
One of the Boys

BITS AND PIECES
Chapter 1

W
ithin five minutes of opening the door, Maura Phillips knew she'd made a mistake. A
big
mistake!

She'd come flying in from the back patio and swung open the door on the third ring of the bell.

“Hello, Jake,” she said breathlessly, smiling up at the tall, dark-haired man standing on the step of her rented cottage. “Sorry I didn't hear the doorbell. I was out on the patio.”

Colonel Jake McAllister, deputy commander for Operations at Eglin Air Force Base, lifted a brow. “Hello, Maura. I didn't get the dates mixed up, did I?”

“No,” she laughed, raking a hand through her breeze-tossed brown bob. “I'm just running a little
late. I still can't get used to this gorgeous Florida sunshine after all those years of L.A. smog. Every time I go out on the patio and see sunlight sparkling on the water, I fall into a daze.”

Maura stood aside as he entered the house. Her own brows arched delicately at her first full view of Jake McAllister in something other than his air force uniform.

Tonight he wore tailored dark slacks and a crisp blue cotton shirt with the sleeves folded back neatly to reveal tanned forearms. Shiny leather loafers and a chain-link ID bracelet on his right wrist gave him a casual, elegant look. With his dark hair and cool gray eyes, he exuded an aura of restrained sophistication. Very restrained. Even in civilian clothes, the colonel carried an air of authority.

The first warning bell sounded in Maura's mind.

“Why don't you wait in the living room? I'll just be a moment.”

Nodding, he followed as she wove a path around the half-unpacked boxes littering the hall.

“Just moving in?”

“No. Actually, I rented this place through a real estate agent sight unseen and had my things shipped out from L.A. Bea and I have been here going on a month now.”

She nodded to the massive ball of orange fur rubbing itself against a chair leg. Turning back, she just caught the expression on Jake's face as he did a quick sweep of her disordered living room.

Uh-oh, she thought, he's not into clutter. The second warning bell began to ping.

“I call it the primitive look,” she told him, a deliberately bland look in her hazel eyes. Housekeeping wasn't very high on her list of priorities in life. In fact, it didn't even
make
the list. But she was darned if she was going to apologize or explain herself. She'd done enough of that before she'd left L.A.

Jake sensed he'd offended her, and his face softened. One side of his mouth drew up in a rueful smile, crinkling the skin at the corners of his eyes.

“I guess we military types are more used to packing and unpacking. Moving every few years or so, we get compulsive about putting the nest in order quickly.”

Maura took the proffered olive branch with a smile only a few shades less brilliant than her normal cheerful grin. “I'll bet you're one of those disgusting types who have all the boxes unpacked, the shelves put together, and your books lined up by color and size before the moving van even leaves.”

“Well, no. I line them up alphabetically by author,” he confessed, his smile widening.

Fascinated by the way a simple rearrangement of a few facial muscles could transform the strong, angled planes of his face into a lopsided—and devastatingly potent—male grin, Maura almost missed his next comment.

“I'm probably a little early,” he continued. “Another compulsive military trait, I suppose. Please, take whatever time you need to get dressed.”

Maura blinked and caught her jaw in middrop. She was as dressed as she intended to be for a casual dinner at the home of a co-worker. All she had left to do was drag a brush through her hair and dig through the boxes in her bedroom for a light wrap.

She glanced down at her turquoise leggings and matching, thigh-length silk tunic. Okay, they might look a bit like lounging pajamas to the uninitiated. Or to conservative, polished-loafer types.

Warning bells were going off like Klaxons now. For a few moments, a desire to tell a certain colonel what he could do with his gracious offer of time warred with her ready sense of the ridiculous. Her sense of humor won. The man wanted dressed, dressed he'd get.

“Thanks.” She responded to his offer with only the tiniest hint of dryness in her voice. “I shouldn't be long. The bar's over there. Help yourself to a drink if you like.”

Nodding to the antique sideboard shoved up against one wall, she started down the short hall leading to her bedroom. She'd taken only a few steps when Jake's startled exclamation stopped her.

“Hey! Let go, cat.”

Maura turned to see him extracting a set of claws from his pant leg. “Beatrice! For heaven's sake, behave yourself.”

Hurrying back, she scooped up the lump of orange fur. The cat hung from her arms, its eyes a picture of limpid innocence.

“Sorry about that. If it's any consolation, Bea just used up her entire energy supply for the next week. You're safe now.” Stroking her pet's thick fur, Maura turned a wide, guileless gaze on the man watching them both warily. “She doesn't seem to like men for some reason.”

“She probably senses it's mutual.”

With another stern admonition to behave, Maura put the cat down. The animal settled itself on its haunches and fixed the visitor with an unwavering stare.

As his date for the evening disappeared down the hall, Jake's glance drifted to the malevolent-looking creature hunkered at his feet. Nothing like a set of claw marks to start the evening off right. Deciding to take Maura up on her offer of a drink, he made his way through the jumble.

There was no other word to describe it. A sophisticated computer perched precariously on an impromptu desk made of heavy boards and concrete blocks. The laptop battled for space with stacks of manuals and haphazardly piled books. A miniaturized set of stereo components sat in one corner, with speaker wires strung carelessly to the four corners of the room. Bright floral rattan furniture, obviously rented with the house, sat side by side with what his assessing eye pegged as genuine antiques. That makeshift bar was a genuine Sheraton sideboard, Jake knew. His ex-wife hadn't left him with much, but she had given him an appreciation of fine old furniture.

As he poured a neat Scotch, his thoughts turned to the owner of all this clutter. From the little he'd seen of her at work, the woman had a personality as contradictory as her interior decorating scheme, or lack thereof. With her sleek brown mane, colorful attire and cheerful grin, Maura Phillips turned heads every time she breezed by. The fact that her undeniably delectable body housed a razor-sharp mind only added to the stunned amazement she left in her wake.

Jake had been in one or two meetings with her since her arrival and had to admit she knew her stuff. He just couldn't reconcile someone with a Ph.D. from Stanford with her flashy good looks and this hodgepodge house. An engineer to his bones, he liked things neat and precise on the outside as well as the inside.

As he made his way back across the room, a long, slow hiss warned him to watch where he stepped. He restrained the impulse to hiss back and wished he'd declined this dinner invitation.

Absently, Jake swirled the Scotch. What was it about his divorced state that made his friends and co-workers think they had a moral obligation to fix him up with every available female of their acquaintance? Usually Jake managed to finesse their not-very-subtle matchmaking attempts. He and his wife had split up more than three years ago, but the regret—and wariness—still lingered.

Their daughter was the one bright, shining joy to survive the bust-up. She was staying with Jake for
the summer and he'd planned to take her to a movie tonight. Against his better judgment, though, he'd let himself be talked into dinner with Pete Hansen, his wife, and Maura Phillips.

Assuming
they even made it to Pete's in time for dinner, Jake amended, glancing down at his watch. He tried to shrug off the delay, but lateness, like untidiness, offended his orderly soul. He downed a swallow of Scotch and wondered what the heck was taking so long.

Down the hall, Maura attacked the boxes stacked beside her bed with a determined glint in her brown eyes. Someday, she thought. Someday she'd learn to listen to her instincts. So this Jake McAllister was a world-class hunk, not classically handsome but lean and strong and all male. So he looked as good in his air-force uniform as he did in the casual clothes he wore tonight. So he had a breath-stopping smile that made her heart thump. He was all wrong for her and she knew it.

The man radiated cool authority in every inch of his body. Having worked for most of her adult life in a career field dominated by men, Maura had long ago learned to hold her own against these authoritarian types. She'd also stopped trying to curb her own ebullient personality to fit their preconceived notions of how she should look and dress.

Still, she hadn't missed the faint disapproval in Jake McAllister's gray eyes when he surveyed her home—and herself! Maura wished fervently she'd
declined Pete's invitation. Or at least insisted on driving herself when he suggested Jake pick her up, since she was still learning her way around the Gulf Coast.

Oh, well. She might as well make the best of the situation and have some fun. With a grin, she pulled a wide magenta belt out of the box and fastened it low on her hips. The purply red stood out like a bold slash against her turquoise tunic. More digging produced dangly earrings composed mostly of bits of seashells and feathers on varying lengths of colored leather. On impulse, she exchanged her low-heeled sandals for strappy platforms with ties that wrapped around her ankles.

Teasing her hair unmercifully, she pulled a thick swatch to one side of her head and caught it with a sparkly gold lamé scrunchie left over from some Christmas party. A few quick strokes dramatically deepened the eye shadow and blusher she'd put on earlier.

There, she thought with a wicked smile as she surveyed herself in the mirror. That's dressed!

Stopping to pick up the bouquet of fresh flowers she was taking as a hostess gift, she sailed down the hall.

“All set.”

Her transformation put a startled look in Jake's eyes, but he refrained from comment. Smart man, Maura thought as they strolled out into the Florida night.

 

From that inauspicious beginning, things went downhill fast. As they drove through the soft summer evening, Maura's suspicion she had little in common with this man aside from the fact they both worked at the base became absolute certainty. Politely, they agreed to disagree on music and their preference in cars, and not so politely on the St. Louis Rams' chances this season. Obviously struggling to find a safe topic, Jake finally steered the conversation to work.

“So how do you like Eglin?”

“I love it,” Maura responded with a touch of her usual enthusiasm. “A friend of a friend who used to be stationed here told me about the base. When I saw an ad in a trade journal for a test manager with my specialty, I decided to send in my résumé. But I had no idea how gorgeous this area really is, or how exciting the work would be.”

He shot her a quick look. “You made a major career move based on third-hand information from a friend?”

“I believe in following my instincts,” she replied, a distinct challenge in her tone.

Most of the time, she amended silently. She just had to learn to follow them better when it came to uptight, controlled men.

“Haven't you ever done anything just because you knew instinctively it was right, not because it was logical or prudent or expected?”

“Not since I passed puberty,” he responded dryly.

“Oh, come on, Colonel. You're a test pilot. Surely flying one of the world's most advanced high-tech aircraft is as much instinct as skill?”

An amused smile hovered at the edges of his mouth. “You've been watching too many Tom Cruise movies. What we do up there takes years of training and a precise mind, along with the ability to make split-second decisions.”

Maura battled a growing irritation. The analytical side of her intellect knew he was right, but the romantic in her didn't want her illusions about dashing test pilots reduced to cool calculation and a slide rule.

“So how did you get into the business of flying?”

“It's all I've ever wanted to do,” he replied with a shrug. “Even as a kid, I planned on going to the academy and then flying. Every assignment helped improve my skills.”

Maura caught the unspoken message. He'd set a deliberate career path and followed it. Unlike her, whose professional goals were erratic at best. With a sigh, she gave up all attempts at conversation and turned to watch the scenery rolling past the open car windows.

They crossed the bridge linking the small town of Fort Walton Beach with Santa Rosa Island, a long, narrow strip of sand that ran for fifty miles along the Gulf of Mexico. On one side of the island Maura could see the emerald-green waters of the Gulf
crashing in lacy waves against snow-white beaches. On the other side, Choctawhatchee Bay stretched to the horizon. Along a distant curve of the bay, she could barely make out the huge hangars and tall buildings of Eglin Air Force Base.

Since Eglin owned most of the eastern half of Santa Rosa Island, the land was protected in its natural state. Maura relaxed, enjoying the sharp tang of the ocean and the sight of tall, feathery sea grass swaying in the evening breeze.

After crossing a second bridge over the narrow inlet where the bay washed into the sea, they reentered civilization. High-rise condominiums crowded against neon-lit tourist shops and restaurants in what had once been the sleepy fishing village of Destin. Pete Hansen lived in the tallest of the condominiums along the shore.

When her co-worker opened the door a few moments later, he eyed her bright plumage appreciatively.

“Maura, you look so, er, vibrant. Come on in. Honey, this is Maura Phillips, the new test manager I told you about.”

BOOK: One of the Boys
6.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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