Eric Cruz straightened his tie, buttoned the jacket of his dress blues, and smiled.
Then, he smiled a different way, hoping for something that approached real.
With a shrug, he gave up. It wasn't like he could pull it off through the entire evening anyway. His teammates were way too smart. They could be fooled for a while, and maybe even tonight since they'd all be working to be sociable. They wouldn't pay close attention to him.
But the girls—a different story. It wasn't the first time he wished for the good old days—before Nic married Julie, before Gabe married Claire—and what the heck, before Mac married Lily.
Girls were harder to fool—at least the unavailable ones. They'd zero in on him, peer unblinking into his eyes and pat his arm, all in an attempt to get him to admit that he wasn't okey-dokey.
Tonight, everyone would be decked out in their dress-up clothes. The women would look gorgeous. Everyone would smile.
And, by God, so would he.
He'd smile and try not to call attention to the fact that he was stag. When was the last time he went to one of these ridiculous things without someone stunning on his arm?
Crap. The girls would notice. They'd ask him why. And worse, they'd probably know the answer. They'd want him to admit it.
That wasn't going to happen.
With a sigh, he brushed off his determination and sneered at the man in the mirror.
It had gone okay. The guys were all pretty much ogling the women. Cowboy and Clancy each had dates—and fairly gorgeous ones if Cruz were pressed—and were very attentive. As if they didn't have only one goal in mind.
Lily kept Claire and Julie's attention—what a break for him—with the latest batch of pictures of baby Chloe Lilith Frasier—Daniel and Sophie's new daughter. Eric steered clear of them. Babies looked pretty much alike anyway. Small. Though if Chloe got her mom's looks, then Daniel would have his hands full.
Sometimes, he missed Daniel. The new SAR guy was fine, he supposed, but Daniel was cool. Very smart. A nice change to talk to.
Eric stood against the wall and surveyed the room. Not a bad turnout for a charity function. He cleared his throat as Lieutenant Quillen approached.
"No date tonight, Hollywood?"
"Of course. You?"
David smiled, catching his drift.
There had been a time when David was one of them. When he'd left the enlisted ranks and gone to OTS, he'd promised he would be the same guy when he came back. Maybe he was, but the line was still there. It was a shame really. David was one of the best. Eric missed hanging out with him, too. But that had been, what, three years ago? Long time.
With little else said, David drifted away to talk with Mac and Lily.
He snagged a glass of champagne from the tray that passed, carried by a pretty brunette that smiled broadly at him.
He nodded, dismissing her.
When Eric looked up, Kit Sheridan walked through the door and sucked all air from the room.
He turned away, but not before noticing everything about her—her long, straight, red hair that fell in soft shimmers past her shoulders. Her smiling green eyes, the face that haunted his dreams, the body that he never stopped wanting.
She looked like a princess.
With effort, he relaxed his gritted teeth and sorted through his options.
He could leave—slip out through the kitchen, run for his life.
He could stay—and spend the rest of the evening ignoring her, staying as far from her as possible.
He could approach her, make small talk, ask her about Pegasus Air, about how her partnership with Mac was working out, talk about the SAR missions she'd flown, be totally cool.
Or he could walk over there, kiss the daylights out of her, challenge her to walk away again, tell her that he was here alone. What a great idea that was—why not just rip his heart from his chest—again—and throw it at her feet to stomp on?
In the end, there really was no choice. He drained the glass, set it down, and without looking back, circled the bar, through the doors into the kitchen, and apologizing to the staff, made his way out the back door.
SPRING. . .
"I thought you'd left already, man," Eric said as he passed Chris Gabriel on his way to the med supply room of the Section—PJ Headquarters.
"I meant to, but now, it looks like we'll leave after lunch. You need something?"
"Nope. Just saw the 'Vette wasn't out there…"
"Traded with the lieutenant," Gabe replied.
"Yoda's driving the 'Vette? That should be interesting. Maybe the guy can get a girl.”
Lieutenant David Quillen, called Yoda by his teams for his incessant philosophizing and his general lost-in-thought state of being, was not the 'Vette kind of guy. He drove a Subaru Forester. Not a bad car, but kinda boring, like Yoda himself. Actually, the lieutenant was a great leader to work for. Still, kinda boring.
Well, that might not be fair either. Who knew if he was boring or not? Yeah, he showed up at the Oasis—the PJ bar—on occasion. Even then, though, he faded into the background.
Gabe was quiet, too, but he never faded into the background. Six foot four made that a tad hard. That, and the way women ogled Gabe. Not that Eric really cared. For that matter, Lily had once told him that she thought the lieutenant was, in the looks department, second only to her Mac.
"The 'Vette isn't exactly a road trip car, especially if we hit snow on the way," Gabe said, bringing him back to the car-switch thing.
Cruz considered the chances. Spring could bring snow. Doubtful, but possible. Gabe and Claire were going to Vegas to celebrate their first anniversary—months late, that is. There'd been a real anniversary trip planned for last October, but Claire's leave had been canceled at the last minute.
"My feelings are still hurt, you know," Eric said with a shrug. He'd been instrumental in the wedding even taking place. Both on the aborted anniversary trip and on this one, he'd argued that he should be invited.
Gabriel laughed. "Claire wanted to invite you, but I don't need you, Hollywood."
"Did I bother you last year?"
"No, but Yoda said one of us had to keep the home fires burning."
"Oh, Yoda said. Okay, fine. Whatever."
Now Gabe stepped closer, engaging him with his trademark, but rarely used, hawk-like stare. He could freeze water with that look. "You look like hell."
Eric tried to sidestep him and his sudden interest, but Gabe moved to block his way.
"Yeah. Let's just say I can't go back to the Swizzle Stick any time soon."
"That's, what? Three times in maybe six months? And that's without us, right? You were alone?"
What the hell? Eric raised his gaze to engage Chris, stopping him with a raised hand. Chris didn't flinch.
"Just go on your trip, and have a good time without me."
Gabe didn't budge.
"Are you alright, man?"
"I'm fine," he replied, then changed the subject. "Is Claire here to stay, yet?”
Chris and Claire had been carrying on a long-distance marriage, Chris here in Merced and Claire in D.C., still at JAG. She was leaving the military, though, and coming to Merced to start a criminal practice. Eric had sort of lost track of her separation date.
"Two weeks ago."
"Like I said. You're spending too much time alone."
"Oh, well maybe if all my friends quit up and getting married we'd all be getting eighty-sixed together. Is that what you want, Angel?"
Gabe took a step back, shaking his head, letting Eric pass.
To Eric's back, "I'm not your enemy, Cruz."
"I know. Sorry. Have a great trip. See you when you get back. Oh, and Gabe?" Eric turned.
"Kiss your wife for me."
"Oh yeah. That could happen," he said, chuckling. He turned the corner and Eric continued on his way.
The lieutenant showed up about ten thirty. Gabe left just before noon.
And the rain started a little after two.
It had been raining for going on twenty hours with no letup.
It was officially called the Pineapple Express, moist air brought up from Hawaii to the West Coast by a subtropical Pacific jet stream, blah, blah, blah. Or at least that's what the weather guys were saying over and over again from the small TV blaring from the far corner of the hangar.
In the rescue business, it was called hurry-up-and-wait.
Over the last three hours, Kit Sheridan and Rick McIntyre had gone over every inch of the helicopter. Twice. Checking fittings, electronics, supplies, everything.
Nothing left to do but turn up the thermostat and wait.
Apparently, the SAR guys were ready and waiting as well.
As were the PJs.
Still, Kit jumped when Rick's cell phone jangled in his pocket.
"Pegasus Air, this is Mac.” He answered without checking caller ID. "Hi, beautiful."
Kit retreated to her office, leaving Rick to chat with his wife. She'd give him privacy. And she'd give herself a reprieve from listening to their ongoing marital bliss.
If ever two people were perfect for each other, Rick and Lily were those two people.
If you believed in that.
Kit didn't want to believe.
But she did, probably always had.
With a sigh, she drifted to the window and stared out into the nonstop rain.
Trying to ignore the constant barrage of rain against the metal roof, Eric hid in his favorite cubbyhole in the back room of the Section. His jacket was zipped against the chill. It was a hard building to heat.
His equipment was together. There was no need to check it again. Some of the guys were obsessive about stuff like that.
While they waited, the best thing to do was sleep.
It might be a very long time before they got more than catnaps for the next…who knew how long?
Some of the guys were in the dayroom watching The Weather Channel. But, Madre de Dios, how many times could you hear the same report?
And even if the crawler at the bottom of the screen announced the declaration, it wasn't like they could do anything until the general called the colonel who would then call Lieutenant Quillen.
In the meantime, they could obsess about lives that might be in danger at this very moment. They could recheck the jump kits, or the duty list.
Or they could sleep.
Right. Like Eric was actually sleeping.
His eyes were closed.
Didn't that count?
But his gut was twisted with that mix of anticipation and apprehension that always came just before a mission.
From the hallway, the lieutenant shouted, to be heard above the rain. "Hollywood. Cowboy."
Eric dropped his feet from the desk and stood up. With a sigh, he opened his eyes.
Matt Wiley led the way into the LT’s office.
"Sir?" Cowboy said for them both.
"Yeah, guys," Quillen said, without looking up, "I'm sending you to the airport."
There was a yeah-and moment. Eric and Matt exchanged shrugs. The LT looked up.
Now Quillen cleared his throat and glanced away.
Cowboy stuck his hands in his pockets and smothered a grin.
Eric closed his eyes, hoping that when he opened them, this would all be a colossally ridiculous dream, that he was back in the cubicle doing what he'd been trying to do—sleep.
He opened them to Quillen's apology.
"Sorry, Cruz. They requested you."
"Has the call come in then?" Cowboy managed, avoiding the subject altogether.
"Not yet, but the colonel just called and said to deploy to the birds."
"Yeah, ‘cause then we can wait around on the concrete floor of the hangars, nice and comfortable," Eric muttered.
With the word Pegasus, his whole day went right to hell.
"Ours is not to question why…" Quillen said. "And if your next question was why you, Cruz, then you'll just have to ask them."
"Trust me, I will," Eric said, turning to leave.
"Cruz.” It was David's officer voice.
He stopped, turned, straightened despite his feelings.
"You'll do great," David ordered. Then to the both of them, "We'll probably see you in passing. Let me know if you need anything or if there are any problems.” Then to Eric, "There won't be though. Right?"
"Right," Eric replied, trying very hard not to roll his eyes—the better part of valor.
"Stay safe, you guys."
"You too, sir," Eric and Matt said in unison.
Kit reached for the ringing phone as Rick stepped through the doorway into her office.
She circled her finger in the air even as she listened to the details and scribbled as Colonel Scott rattled off all the pertinent information.
They'd be flying to Paradise, California, a small town in the northern Sierra. They'd land in a field behind the high school. The military birds would be flying out of an area just north of town, but all the command and control would be at the school.
Air traffic control would be handled from Chico and a few other airports the further north they went. At the high school, Kit and her team would report to the Butte County undersheriff, Lloyd Alvarez.
"Your PJs," Colonel Scott said, "are on their way."
Her PJs were on their way.
Her PJs were on their way.
There was absolutely no reason to suspect…but…
When she glanced up at Rick though, she knew. He shrugged. She glared. He turned and fled. She finished with Colonel Scott.
"Thanks a lot, Mac," she hollered as she returned the phone to its cradle.
"Not my fault, Red," he hollered back. "I wanted someone who'd worked out of our bird before and Gabe's on leave."
That left Cruz. And they were headed to Paradise.
"Lovely," she muttered.
Her PJ was on his way.
The last few months—nearly nine to the day—had been peaceful, almost to the point of humdrum, without the constant turmoil that Cruz effortlessly stirred.
Kit stabbed the pen at the paper she'd written on.
"Apparently," she returned at the top of her lungs, standing and ripping the paper from the pad, "you think our history with Hollywood is worth more than I do."
"Apparently," came the reply from the doorway. But it wasn't Mac.
Her PJ had, indeed, arrived.
Eric blew out his breath and hit his internal reset button.
The last time he and Kit actually talked was right here at Pegasus Air. He'd come to apologize for being a complete ass, for treating her with less respect than she deserved. She'd let him apologize. But she'd firmly squashed any possibility of starting over.
You're a player, Cruz. And you always will be.
It had taken him months to come to terms with the fact that she thought he was a player and she was unwilling to see him any other way.
There was nothing he could do but move on. And that's what he'd done at last.
Pretty much. Sort of.
God, she looked beautiful.
Hit the reset button.
"We're good to work together, right?" he said, "Because—"
"Of course," Kit said, straightening.
Her gorgeous red hair fell down her back in waves that left Eric trying to rejoin the conversation. "You're a great pilot, Red.” That's all that mattered at the moment.
She didn't respond. Just looked at him for a moment as if she were going to speak.
Pointless to continue standing there, so he retreated to the hangar where Cowboy loaded their medical gear onto the bird and Mac watched—apparently deep in thought.
"Before you ask, Kit's flying the mission because her stamina is better than mine. She'll fly the missions. I'll be the magic elf that gets the bird ready while you guys sleep. And I chose you because—"
"Deny it all you want—you two are a great team."
For the record, he wasn't the one that denied it, but he wasn't about to put that into words again. Rejection sucked. The way to deal with uncomfortable emotion—just turn it all away at the gate. End of story.
And hit the reset button.
"I'm just here for the rush," Eric said, trying to lighten the mood. "I'm sorry you can't play, Mac."
"I can, short-term, but these could be long days.”
"Has the call come in?"
"Yeah.” Rick nodded toward a small television in the corner. Due to the rain, Eric couldn’t hear what the news guy was saying by he read the news ticker on the bottom. "California governor declares state of emergency.”
"You guys ready?" Red asked as she approached.
"Your wish is our command," Eric replied with a slight bow.
He retrieved his duffel bag, put his head down, and jogged to the bird. Without a word, he followed Cowboy on board, slid on his headset, and buckled into the back jump seat.
Rick flew to Paradise.
And wasn't that just priceless? Flying with Kit to Paradise. Ugh.
The first few minutes, all four of them on headsets, were tense.
"Knock, knock," Mac said as they followed I-99 north.
Red didn't respond.
Cowboy did. "Who's there?"
"Argue," Mac replied while Red audibly sighed.
"Argue who?" Cowboy asked good-naturedly.
"Argue gonna let me in oudda da rain?"
Cowboy groaned. Then laughed.
Five or six knock-knock jokes later, the tension seemed to have subsided and Red was smiling. Twenty-three minutes later, Rick set the bird down behind the sprawling Paradise High school, alongside three other civilian helicopters.
For the moment, it actually wasn't raining.
Eric jumped out and turned in time to see Kit step out of the copilot's seat. Time warped as she pulled off her helmet and shook her long red hair. He swallowed hard on the lump that rose in his throat.
That day, he'd made a sexist comment, and she'd returned fire with sarcasm. And so it had begun.
But that was then.
And that was over and done.
Picard would say Make it so.