Authors: Julie Miller
Ethan gulped as J.C.'s words and his thoughts got tangled up in one vivid, erotic image. Her nakedâ¦sitting in front of him. “I didn't mean it that way.”
“What way is that?” She smiled at him across the table.
“You know, likeâ¦” Did he really have to spell it out for her? He pictured her left breast. The right one. What color were the tips? How would they taste? Her butt. He'd already grabbed a handful of that, but his fingers itched to feel skin, not denim. “Like I was asking to have sex with you.”
There. He'd said it. Out loud.
“Do you want to have sex with me?”
. Practicality answered before lust could. “No, of course not.”
Her eyebrow arched at the unintended insult.
Ethan flushed. He'd give a month's pay to get himself out of this mess right now. “I mean, I'm not against the idea. I would love to have sex with you.”
Her amusement was tempered by the downward focus of her eyes. Her fingers circled the rim of her cup. It didn't take much for Ethan to picture those
fingers touching the shell of his ear or trailing along the length of his arousal. As if right on cue, the little major popped to attention.
Uh, now what?
Back when I was teaching, our school always celebrated Veterans Day by inviting local veterans and active duty personnel to a school assembly. Our high school band would play a medley of hymns from each branch of the serviceâand as each tune was played, we invited the marines, soldiers, sailors, airmen and coastguardsmen to stand and be saluted. I always cried.
You see, I'm the daughter of a marine. I'm the big sister of a marine who's served in the Gulf. I have some idea of what these men are aboutâthey've always been heroes to me. And I always knew that one day I wanted to write a story about a marine, one with my dad's character, my brother's devotionâand okay, yeah, with one of those hard warrior bodies they keep in such tip-top shape!
I wanted my heroine to take a journey and discover, like me, all the wonderful things that make that military man more than a hunkâthey make him a hero. Please visit my Web site at juliemiller.org.
719âKANSAS CITY'S BRAVEST
779âLAST MAN STANDING
For the Pageturners reading groupâ
Linda W., Amy, Mel, Linda S.
Thanks for introducing me to iced coffee drinks,
expanding my literary horizons,
sharing my love for books
and letting me be one of the bunch.
And for the real Marines in my lifeâ
Dad, George, Uncle Ed
and students over the years.
Time and again you've shown me it's
the man or woman who makes the uniform.
NEED A MAN
Josephine Cynthia Gardner repeated the statement her editor had just expressed and sank into the chair on the opposite side of the newspaper editor's cluttered desk. She could tell this wasn't going to be good.
“Isn't that a sort of old-fashioned view for you?” J.C. questioned.
“Oh, honey. We could all use a man in our lives every now and then.” Her editor, Lee Whiteley, dug into the sleeve of the turquoise silk caftan she was wearing, fishing for a tissue to dab her nose. Her garish outfit matched her personality. She'd never been shy about voicing her opinion. “Don't you miss sex?”
J.C.'s eloquent splutter betrayed her unattached, career-obsessed, too-long-without-sex status.
“Just as I thought.”
“I don't have to test every position for myself before writing about it or recommending it.”
“Oh,” Lee tutted, “poor thing.”
J.C. bristled at what sounded like genuine sympathy. She didn't need it. She tugged down the hem of her royal-blue blouse and sat forward to correct the misconception. “Not poor thing. Professional. I read, I research, I interview people. I can find what works and doesn't work in a relationship without muddying up my own life with a man I don't need right now.”
“But you do.” Lee leaned forward. With at least one ring on each finger, she braced her hands on top of her desk. “I have a topic for your next series of articles that simply cries out for firsthand experience.”
This definitely did not sound good. “Firsthand experience?”
“It came to me in a dream last night, J.C.” Lee splayed her bejeweled fingers like the grand
of a cut-rate magic act. “American heroes. It's a hot topic right now, and I think you should jump on it.”
J.C. twisted her lips into a skeptical frown. “You want me to jump on an American hero?”
Lee shot her fingers through the hair at her temple, leaving the carrot-red strands sticking up straight from their gray roots. “Listen to me, Dr. Smart Mouth. It's a plum assignment. I'm asking you to surround yourself with some of the most gorgeous men in the country and tell me what's to love or not about them.”
J.C. threw up her hands in surrender. “Maybe you'd better explain this dream of yours in more detail before I start to think you're asking me to prostitute myself for the paper.”
“Fine.” At last Lee sat back in her chair and assumed as businesslike a pose as a woman wearing turquoise and glitz with carrot-red hair could manage. “I look for all the news that's fit to print, not just your column. You might be earning a pretty penny in syndication, but it's still headlines that sell my papers. Heroes are in. Men in uniformâcops, firefighters, soldiers. Readers want to read about them. They want to know how to find a hero of their own.”
J.C. definitely didn't like this idea.
“Men are more heroic when it comes to serving their
country than they are when it comes to serving their families. That civilian adoration is a power trip.”
J.C. had grown up in the empty shadow of such a supposed military hero. Her father had used his uniform as an excuse to stay away from his wife and daughter. He'd used it as a calling card to seduce women all over the world. He'd even worn it to marry a gullible woman when he'd been stationed in the Philippines, conveniently forgetting to notifyâor divorceâJ.C.'s American mother.
She knew the truth behind the myth Lee wanted her to profile. She waved her hand aside. “The creature you're talking aboutâa dependable uniformed loverâdoesn't exist. You might not like the tone of my columns.”
Lee harrumphed in her chair. “Well, that's damn cynical of you. You don't turn thirty until December, and yet you already sound like an old crone.”
“I sound realistic. I'm not knocking the institutions of law enforcement and the militaryâI know we need them, and I appreciate that they're here to defend me.” Lee wanted firsthand experience? She was an expert on busted relationships and martyred hopes and fruitless dreamsâand how to steer clear of them. “But I am not going to recommend to my readers that they can solve their loneliness by dating a man they have to salute and call âsir.”'
J.C.'s bitter diatribe didn't seem to dissuade Lee from the idea. In fact, judging by the twinkle in her hazel eyes, Lee liked her star columnist's opposing point of view.
“Why don't you approach the articles from that perspective?” Lee challenged. “Infiltrate the military. Get to know some of those hunky scoundrels and find out what makes them so darn irresistible to women whenâas you sayâwe should know better. Is it the broad shoulders? The shoot-from-the-hip attitude? The ribbons and shiny
brass trim on their uniforms? The way they pop to attention so easilyâ¦”
Lee's voice trailed off, and her eyes fixed in a dreamy stare behind the rhinestone-studded half-glasses perched atop her nose.
J.C. quirked an eyebrow, wondering just what kind of fantasy her editor was conjuringâor rememberingâright now. She leaned forward and snapped her fingers. “Hello? Earth to Lee.” The editor's gaze blinked back into focus. “What were you thinking about just now?”
” came her devilish reply.
Despite her love for flash over fashion, Lee Whiteley was a brilliant, insightful woman. Besides sharing a feminist streak, J.C. had always appreciated the way Lee's mind worked, and how her unique blend of creative energy and business savvy had helped produce some of the best writing of J.C.'s career. Lee's cutting-edge topics, penned with J.C.'s professional expertise and frank, witty style, had been picked up over the wire from Lee's weekly newspaper,
J.C. credited her editor almost single-handedly with conceiving the idea for her Dr. Cyn advice and editorial articles, saving her from the need to sign on to dull university research projects to supplement her dream of becoming a full-time writer.
But this was a distinctly soft side to Lee she hadn't seen before. Curious. And suspicious. This meeting to discuss her next series of columns had been a setup from the moment she walked through the door. A shameless match-making ploy to get her sex-and-relationship columnist back into some sex and relationships.
“Okay, I'll bite.” J.C. suppressed a wary groan. “
were you thinking about? And why is this going to change my mind?”
The older woman's eyes twinkled with mischief. “PFC
Robert Tortelli. Now there was a soldier for you. I sent him off to Vietnam with a smile.”
Was this a story about great sex back in high school? Or of a lost first love? J.C. shook her head and brushed a lock of short, chestnut hair behind her ear. “But you've never been married. Private Tortelli apparently didn't come back. At least not to you.”
“Oh, he came back, all right.” Lee sighed and twirled the giant turquoise and silver ring around the index finger of her left hand. “I welcomed him home with a big smile, too.”
“So the sex was good?”
“The sex was great.”
“But he didn't stay, did he?” Relieved the memory hadn't had a tragic outcome, yet pleased that she'd predicted the man's love-'em-and-leave-'em behavior accurately, J.C. pushed to her feet, seeing the opportunity to make her point. “I never said a soldier couldn't make great sex. I said he doesn't make a good long-term partner.”
“The reason Bobby and I went our separate ways had nothing to do with his career in the army.” Lee was still smiling as she stood and crossed to the microwave in her office to zap some heat into her herbal tea. J.C. planted her fists on her hips, controlling the urge to reach out and shake some sense into yet another woman who seemed willing to forgive a sexy male brute for not sticking by her. “I saw him again at our fortieth high-school reunion. He's been married almost thirty years and has two boys in college now.”
“His wife must be a saint.” She struggled to control it, but sarcasm still managed to work its way into her voice. “Or a fool.”
“Neither. They're very much in love from what I can see.”
“Then they're the exception to the rule.” J.C. wasn't going to concede without making her point. “But he still hurt you. He probably sweet-talked you into bed. Gave you some kind of âthis is my last night in the country, I'm going off to face who knows whatâmake it memorable for me' speech.”
Lee shrugged as she turned, dismissing the argument with a sexy grandma smirk on her face. “It was the sixties. Free love was everywhere. He had a tight butt and silky, dark hair, and he was great in the sack. I got what I wanted as much as he did. And that was long before he met his wife. They seem very happy together.”
“But nothing. You're too young to be this jaded about men. And until you have sex with a man in uniform, you can't really argue that they're not a good catch.”
What? “You do want me to prostitute myself.”
“I want you to get out and practice a little of what you preach to your readers.” The microwave dinged and she pulled out her tea, ignoring the accusation. “You're the one who's advised a number of women in your column that it's okay to enjoy sex just for sex's sake. As long as you protect yourself and both partners understand the expectations. I wasn't hurt. I was ahead of my time.” She toasted J.C. with her mug. “I think you're behind your time.”
J.C. was going to lose this argument and get stuck mingling with the type of man she hated most if she couldn't think of something, fast. “Maybe men in uniform just aren't my style. You know I prefer men who are more cultured. Well educated. My Ph.D. seems to intimidate a lot of guys.”
Was Lee clicking her tongue? “Haven't you ever heard of Westpoint? Annapolis? Some of the finest minds in history have graduated from military schools.”
She was grasping at straws now. “What about the short haircuts?” She fingered the soft strands that hugged her nape. “I hate dating men with hair shorter than mine.”
“Expand your horizons. A good crew cut shows off the shape of those intelligent heads.” Lee peered over the top of her glasses, clearly seeing something that J.C. could not. “They don't have those studly reputations for nothing, dear.”
J.C.'s stubborn streak was still looking for a way out. “How can I do in-depth research on military relationships with the deadlines you expect from me?”
Lee carried her tea to the desk. “You once told me you were a Navy brat. Surely you still have some connections you could draw upon.”
Her family's past was the one place she absolutely refused to go. Lee was her boss, not her best friend. And though she'd become a pal and mentor in the months they'd worked together, J.C. had never told her much about the man who'd fathered her. She'd never told anyone about the hurt and humiliation she'd lived with for so long. She was protecting her mother's feelings, she'd always reasoned.
Her mother, Mary Jo Gardner, had been reduced to a fragile shell of the vibrant beauty J.C. remembered from her earliest childhood. Believing the best of an absent, philandering husband had a way of sucking the life out of a woman. And J.C. had been there for years to witness the deterioration of her mother's soul firsthand. She'd vowed time and again never to be swayed by a man in uniform. And now that her mother had remarried a safe, sedate, reliable homebody and found happiness again,
there was even more reason to keep the truth about the swashbuckling sailor who'd knocked her up and ruined her life a family secret.
“I've lost touch with my family connections,” was all J.C. said. Like she'd ever been connected to her father in the first place. J.C. circled the desk and leaned her hips against the edge right beside Lee. She had to make her understand her reservations about this project. “I just have a bad feeling about this. I don't want anyone to think the armed forces is this gourmet smorgasbord of men waiting for some lonely heart to have her pick. There's a false hope implied there I don't want to be responsible for.”
“You're the lonely heart I'm worried about.” Lee reached out and clasped her hand around one of J.C.'s tension-radiating fists. She was frowning. “You don't have a romantic bone in your body, do you? You have degrees in counseling and sex therapy, and you're an insightful observer and a dynamite writer. But you don't believe in happily-ever-after's yourself, do you?”
J.C. stared down at the supportive clasp of hands, wondering if Lee sensed how fraudulent she now felt about dispensing advice on long-term relationships. “Not with a military man.”
Of course, she hadn't made it work with a botany professor, a stockbroker, or a meteorologist, either. But she'd helped countless other couples find and maintain the happiness she couldn't find for herself. She'd rescued stale sex lives and coached readers and clients to find a fulfillment she could not. That had to count for something, didn't it?
Lee patted her hand. “Think of it as a cautionary piece, then. What to look for. What to be wary of. How far is safe to go with a man in uniform? Are they good in bed or is that macho facade all for show?”
“You said you wanted heroes for your headlines.” J.C. hugged her arms around her waist, already accepting that the assignment was a done deal. “What if my research supports
theory and I don't find knights in shining armor among all those eligible men?”
“Readers are hungry for relationship advice of any kind. They're not all necessarily looking for marriage. Some simply want to meet someone. Share some laughs. Have fun. Maybe you could find out which branch of the service is the best in bed. Or who has the worst pickup lines.” No matter how painful the proposition might be, Lee's ideas sold papers. J.C. could see the potential popularity of a series of columns focusing on the available man market. “Maybe you could offer practical tips on keeping a long-distance relationship strong. Surely you'll be able to find something to recommend about a man in uniform.”