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The Maverick

The Maverick by Rhonda Nelson
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PECKER FILETED WITH a butter knife.

Balls removed with flaming pinchers. Starving hyenas feasting upon his privates. And those were the least gruesome scenarios of what Guy McCann would rather be facing—or more accurately where he'd rather be at the moment, he thought with a smirk as he waited impatiently in Colonel Carl Garrett's outer office.

Fort Benning, Georgia—the last damned place on God's green earth he'd ever wanted to be again.

Though there was absolutely no true humor in the situation, he chuckled darkly anyway. A grenade of nausea sat in his gut, threatening to detonate and his entire body vibrated with the need to flee—to be anywhere but here. It was too much. Too hard. Regret, failure and grief twisted his insides until his fists involuntarily clenched and he squeezed his eyes tightly shut, forcing away the image of his fallen friend.

Danny Levinson. Killed in action. His fault. Guy released a small breath and massaged the bridge of his nose. While other people gazed across the beautiful grounds of Fort Benning and saw a rolling landscape dotted with enormous old trees, Guy only saw...hell. His own personal variety, because being here was like being plugged directly into the worst part of himself.

The last time he'd sat outside Garrett's office it had been to barter for his freedom. He'd thought at the time that he'd be willing to pay any price, would grant Garrett any favor—the colonel's fee for pushing their clearance papers through.

He, Jamie Flanagan and Brian Payne—his friends and Project Chameleon comrades— had been involved in an off-base brawl that could have held them up indefinitely. And considering that the army had tried every way in the world to get the three of them to rethink leaving the military to start with, Guy had to admit that they'd handed the top brass the perfect opportunity to make that happen. Garrett had pulled a hat trick and for that he would be forever grateful.

Grateful enough—grudgingly, of course— to even come back here for a week. As an instructor, no less.

But it was only a week he reminded himself. Actually, less. Five days. He blew out a breath. Five miserable days, then the rest of his life would be his own and he could return to Ranger Security—his post-military career choice—a free man. Not free from the guilt, of course. He'd never get past that, wouldn't allow himself the luxury. But free from Garrett and the military, at any rate.

It was a start, however feeble. "The colonel will see you now," Garrett's secretary said, startling Guy out of his unpleasant reverie. He nodded briefly at her, then stood and strode into Garrett's inner sanctum.

An impression of power and the strangely comforting scent of cherry tobacco greeted him the instant he entered the room. Garrett sat behind a large gleaming desk, but found his feet and extended his hand as Guy approached.

Despite Garrett's choice in their favors— Jamie had been sent to Maine under the impression that he would be guarding the colonel's granddaughter only to arrive and discover that he was supposed to seduce her away from another man, and Payne had been dispatched to Gettysburg, the object of a bet, to retrieve a pocket watch which had been rumored to have belonged to General Robert
E. Lee—Guy had nevertheless always had the utmost respect for Garrett. He was a patriotic old warhorse whose piss-and-gravel voice had been honed on the battlefield, then later respected in the boardroom.

Furthermore, only a hell-raiser could recognize another hell-raiser and Guy had caught that reckless fuck-you identifying spark in Garrett's sharp blue eyes the instant he'd first looked into them more than four years ago.

"So, how does it feel to be back?" Garrett asked, his face wreathed in a knowing smile.

"It sucks."

Garrett chuckled. "Blunt as usual, I see."

"Blunt works." He settled himself in one of the chairs positioned in front of Garrett's desk.

"It doesn't leave much room for misunderstandings."

His expression remained bland. "It would serve you better if it were tempered with a little tact."

True, Guy conceded with a small shrug, but tact had never been his style. He'd walked on eggshells around his miserable old man until he'd gotten big enough to fight back. At that point he and tact had parted ways and Guy didn't give a damn if they ever reunited. Wit, strength, luck and his ability to never mince words had served him well over the years. Being of the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it school of thought, Guy wasn't interested in changing the status quo. The world could accept him for who he was or go to hell. It was as simple as that.

"I'm not here to receive a lecture on tact," Guy told him. "I'm ruining your Sunday— and Gladys's—" he added, jerking his head toward Garrett's secretary in the outer office

"—because I'm here for instructions. I'm assuming you've got them?"

Garrett leaned back in his chair and scowled, his brushy brows forming an intimidating line. "If it's all the same to you, McCann, I'll set the pace for this meeting. You'll get your instructions in due time." He paused. "As it happens, we're waiting on someone and I'd just as soon not have to repeat myself."

A chill landed in Guy's belly and all his senses went on alert. He arched a brow. "Waiting for someone?"

Garrett picked up a small crystal paperweight and carefully polished it on his sleeve. "Yes."

When he failed to elaborate, Guy exhaled an irritated breath and asked the obvious question. "Who?"

"Julia Beckam."

The name didn't ring any bells of recognition, but for whatever reason, a warning sounded instead. And that was ridiculous, dammit. It was merely a name, that of the feminine variety, admittedly, but just a name all the same. Guy gritted his teeth, waiting for Garrett to supply further information.

Naturally, he didn't. "Who exactly is Julia Beckam?" Guy asked tightly.

Garrett looked up. "She's your co-instructor." A premonition of dread sent a wash of cold chills over his suddenly hot skin and his first instinct was to leap from his chair, tell Garrett to go to hell and leave Fort Benning so fast it would make the world spin in the opposite direction. Images of his newly shackled and affianced friends loomed largely in his mind, no small wonder considering they'd been taunting him with predictions of falling in love on his mission for Garrett, as well.

Ironically, both Jamie and Payne had found the love of their lives while repaying their favors. To make matters worse, he'd not only taken a ribbing from his smug friends, but had been forced to listen to their significant others—Audrey and Emma—gleefully ooh and goo over how fabulous it would be to see the wind knocked out of Guy's sails.

Or more to the point, find him anchored with a ring around his finger.

Like hell.

A tornado of rage swirled around his brain, making it difficult for him to speak without growling. "I wasn't aware that I had a co-instructor."

Garrett actually smiled at him. "How would you know when I hadn't told you yet?"

Feeling every muscle in his body atrophy with anger, Guy shifted forward in his seat. "I think you've mistaken me for Payne," Guy said, his voice lethally controlled. "Duty has never been my strong suit. I will not be misled like Jamie, nor lied to like Payne. In fact, you can safely assume that unless you level with me completely, right now, then favor or not, I will walk out of here and you'll play hell ever getting me back. I owe you. I know that." He shot Garrett a hard look. "But I will not be manipulated."

A beat slid to five while Garrett considered him. "The only manipulation I'm guilty of is leaving Ms. Beckam's involvement in this training session a mystery to you," he finally said, evidently opting to take Guy's threat seriously. It was a good decision, Guy thought, since he'd been fully prepared to back it up.

"And you did that because?" Guy prompted. Garrett shrugged. "Would you have come if I'd told you that a female relationship therapist would be teaching alongside you?"

"Hell, no," Guy replied quickly. A relationship therapist? He snorted. "You've paired me up with a shrink?"

"She's a therapist," Garrett corrected. "The daughter of an old friend of mine and she's at the top of her field. Recent studies suggest that the dynamic between teams and couples share many of the same facets. Trust, of course, being the most important in both. A spouse who doesn't trust or respect a partner leads to trouble. It's the same scenario with our special forces teams.You know that. If you don't trust the guy who's giving the order, if you don't respect him, what happens?" Garrett pulled a face. "Everything goes to hell in a hand-basket. The chain of command is broken."

Harlequin; October 2006
247 pages; ISBN 9781552546406
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Title: The Maverick
Author: Rhonda Nelson
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