I thought Burke was someone else when I tried to spy on him.
Now I can’t get rid of the guy.
He’s gorgeous, charming, and sweet.
There’s no way this can last.
Before Cass dropped into my life I had no idea smart girls could be so much fun.
I can’t get enough of her or the way her mind works.
My new self-assigned mission is chasing after her.
One of these days maybe she’ll believe me when I say I’m here to stay.
Challenging Burke is a lighthearted steamy military romance with an HEA
Release date: September 7, 2021
Content advisory: contains mature themes
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I know I’ve got a seriously geeky side although I never thought I’d cream my panties over a piece of tech. But that little drone is fine. As soon as they call for volunteers, I’m not only raising my hand, but I stand up and walk to the podium. Up close it’s even more impressive. It’s a true micro drone, not compromising on any of the bells and whistles. It’s got a full HDR video stream, audio, night vision and it fits in the palm of my hand. Who wouldn’t want to play with that?
There are some grins and giggles behind me, but not from the woman with the microphone who is wearing a peach suit that is vastly inappropriate for the muddy environment, matching heels, and a concerned expression. “Are you sure, um,” she glances down at my nametag, “Cassidy? This might be a great opportunity for you to break through some barriers?” She really says that last bit as if she knows me personally and thinks I’m shy.
I’m perplexed for a minute, wondering if she’s confused me with someone else before it hits me. Oh, my face. I’m so over other people somehow thinking it’s all new to me. “No, I want that drone.” I look her straight in the eye and dare her to challenge me on it further. Her gaze drops, and she steps back.
And I do want it. I have serious plans for that little baby, not all of them on the up and up. But HR lady who’s determined to make me feel like a victim of society or genetics or something doesn’t need to know that.
A few other women who weren’t quite so bold come up when they’re called (after raising their hands) and join me. They look nervous and excited — I think this might be pushing at their comfort boundaries already, but I can’t wait to get started. My older brothers are going to be so jealous when I tell them. Hopefully, all the details aren’t classified because that would be a real bummer. It’s rare that I have better stories to tell than they do. I don’t want to miss my chance at the next family get together.
Another woman comes up and hands each of us a few sheets of paper with basic instructions on where to go and what our mission will be. Then she takes our names and tent assignments. All told it’s a group of five that become the mini drone squad. We start training in the morning.
Once that’s squared away, I return to my uncomfortable gray metal folding chair at the back of the tent and let the rest of the presentation roll over me. My role for the next two weeks has been determined so I don’t feel a great need to pay attention to how to seduce a man the HR-approved way. Which quite frankly sounds ridiculous and like something out of a 1950s video about being an ‘asset’ as a decorative secretary. No touching, no nudity, but batting eyelashes is fine. Blah, blah, blah.
The woman next to me mutters “fucking idiots” under her breath. I turn to her with a grin that she returns with an embarrassed whisper, “Sorry!”
I turn back so I’m facing forward but whisper to her out of the corner of my mouth, “Do you think anyone follows these stupid rules?”
She snorts softly. “Maybe that woman up there in the front row, the one with the ruffles.”
My eyes trail along the row of chairs far in front of us to see who she’s talking about. Oh. Her. There’s a woman of indeterminate age, at least from the back, whose street clothes consist of what looks like a pink and green ruffled pinafore. Her dark hair is in some kind of fancy braided up do. “Probably a stripper,” I whisper back to my neighbor, who giggles loudly before slapping a hand over her mouth.
“I’m Violet, by the way,” she says softly when she regains control.
“Cassidy,” I respond back.
“Want to get lunch together? I’m not sure I can take much more political correctness.”
“Sure. Is it coming soon?”
I can hear the smile in her voice. “The schedule says fifteen minutes.”
Well, they have been keeping to a schedule like it really is the military. Which it isn’t, but try telling that to any of the testosterone jocks employed by ACI.
The lady doing the talking starts going faster as if she can see a countdown clock and has to get through all her words before then. Her razor-cut blonde bob swings with her fierce enthusiasm over personal growth. And maybe there is a clock because there’s a soft gong and suddenly everyone is on their feet, heading to the aisles as if they were poised on the edge of their seats, just waiting for the signal. I exchange a look with Violet who now that we’re standing is about a half a foot shorter than me and cute as a button. I’ll bet she hates that. Her dark hair is making perfect corkscrew curls. I have no idea if it’s always that way or just doing something special because of the humidity. Already I’ve noticed my own hair has taken on a life of its own. I’ve yet to decide if that’s a good thing.
It’s just starting to rain outside, big swaths of mist moving between the large evergreens on the edge of the compound. I can’t wait to explore the woods here because I hear there are no poisonous critters to watch out for, but I have yet to set foot in them. I guess you can’t have trees growing up right against the runway.
We follow the crowd to the big mess hall, which is in another giant tent two down from where we were being held in HR purgatory. And wouldn’t you know it, all those military guys got there first. They already have filled most of the cafeteria tables, and the last few men are making their way through the lines.
“Fuckers,” I mutter. I’ll bet they knew when we would be arriving and timed the end of their presentations to finish five minutes earlier. We’ll be lucky if there’s any food left.
There is, but it’s mostly ‘girl food’ as in salads and fruit smoothies. Violet and I exchange eye rolls before filling our trays with what we can find and claiming one of the tables that’s already being vacated by big, tough men dressed in green camo. I eye their retreating backs, wondering if any of them are about to report to me.
That’s part of my personal secret mission. I’ve been given a promotion. Only just last week and it’s not been made public yet. And I’m scared out of my ever-loving mind because not only am I five years younger than the youngest person on my new team but they’re all combat veterans. I don’t talk that talk and I definitely don’t walk the walk. But now I’m their boss, well I will be in three weeks’ time. And three of the five men are here at the war games somewhere. I know their names and I’ve read their files, but I don’t know their assignments here. I’m hoping I can figure that out tonight when they post all the ‘meet your teammates’ stuff that they’ve promised. Then I’m going to do a little spying that has nothing to do with the games’ objective of capturing Airstrip #1. All the big tents are pitched on the tarmac of Airstrip #2 so at least that won’t be a point of confusion. I hope. Some of these guys look tough but like maybe they don’t have that much processing capacity. I’m desperate to get a sense of the men reporting to me before they know I’m watching, so I have some idea of what I’m up against. I know I can’t be their buddy, but I’d like it if it didn’t have to be all out war. And it shouldn’t be. I mean, I want them to succeed and I want to succeed too. Shouldn’t be in conflict, right?
Getting old sucks. It’s not the number, or even the subtle creaking in my knees, it’s my damn response time going down by whole seconds. Even when I work out an extra hour a day and feel fitter than I ever have. The clock doesn’t lie. And the time on the clock says I’m no longer the fastest rescue swimmer in or out of the Navy. Not by a lot. And I’m starting to feel the cold in ways I didn’t ten years ago.
I know what that means, my support staff know what that means. Retirement to another job or the dreaded coaching position held by so many former champions. I haven’t decided which one I hate least but I’ve got about two weeks to make up my mind. Because while I might be able to continue rescue swimming in low-risk environments like this one, where it’s unlikely anything serious is going to happen, the days of high seas adventures are clearly over. Part of me says fine, let the next generation suck in too much salt water and bang sharks on the nose. And another side of me rails against fate, mostly because nothing more exciting has come along to lure me into my forties with enthusiasm.
It doesn’t help that I’ve got this little two-person tent by the water’s edge to myself. Pablo, the other swimmer who’s supposed to relieve me on duty, having decided that this tent is much too far away from the female contingent, has removed himself to the big barracks. He won’t get any sleep but can leer at girls over breakfast first thing. Or something. If he thinks he’s getting any, he hasn’t figured out that the women are also in group tents and don’t have any privacy. Or maybe that doesn’t bother him. I don’t care enough to find out.
I’m stretched out on my narrow cot, staring up at the khaki fabric ceiling, wondering how long before the rain pounding on it starts to seep through. No sign of it yet, but I don’t see canvas winning the battle against Mother Nature. At this point, this is the most exciting thing I have to look forward to.
A high-pitched buzzing catches my attention and my first thought is a mosquito, because what else could add more pain and irritation to the day now that it’s almost over? But when I glance around, trying to track the microscopic motherfucker, I see a drone instead.
It’s tiny. I didn’t even know drones came that small — about the size of a small apple, complete with a blinking red eye and four little rotors. I watch it move across the tent towards the stack of reading material I was given. Not all my reflexes are gone to shit because I’m able to upend a water glass over it with minimal effort. The glass was empty, so I doubt any damage was done to the drone. Now I can take my time figuring out who the fuck is spying on me and why.
I mean I know this is a war games but I’m here purely in a support capacity in case of emergency, not part of the assigned feuding sides. Which means I should be about as boring as it can get to anyone looking for intel. Maybe the little drone is just lost. Except as Pablo pointed out multiple times, this tent really is a long way away from everything else. Huh.
The tiny machine is hopping and buzzing, trying to shift the glass off the stack of books through sheer force of will. It makes me smile watching it. The glass is heavy, and the drone isn’t. Eventually it settles down as if waiting for something, and I eye it cautiously. I want to examine it more closely, but not at the expense of having it fly away. I’ll check it in the morning. Surely those things have batteries that will wear down by then?
I’m feeling more energetic now just having something new to think about, so I decide to change into running clothes and head out for a jog on the beach. I’m used to running in the rain. If anything, it’s invigorating, and it tends to keep everyone else out of my way. I’m committed to this plan until I strip down. With my pants down around my knees I’m startled by the furious buzzing of the tiny drone. It whirrs back to life and turns around, its red light blinking furiously at the wall.
For the first time in forever, I laugh so hard I have to sit down. Who knew drones could be embarrassed by human nudity? And honestly, I’ve spent so much of my life parading around in nothing more than a tiny lycra bathing suit that I don’t think too much of it with humans either. I mean, I usually remember to put on more clothes to go to the grocery store, but not always. They fucking mean that no shirt, no service thing, so I’ve had to resort to keeping spares in my car because I’m always forgetting when I live in a warmer climate.
So this little dot of tech practically blushing is fucking hilarious. And it means only one thing. There’s a girl on the other end of it, I’d bet my life on it. And now my interest in jogging has flown out the window and I want to know more about her and why she’s flown a micro drone into my tent. I mean, I really want to know. I snag a pair of sleep pants that I brought thinking it might be cold here and pull them on. I’ve no idea if the drone has audio but I’ll bet it does so I say as gently as I can, “You can turn around now. I’m decent.”
There’s a long pause and then it slowly and almost reluctantly rotates back 180 degrees. The rotors are still spinning, but I ignore that and sit back down on my cot. Time to do a little research into all the propaganda they send out for these things.
It takes ten minutes but I finally find it. And I’m quirking an eyebrow at the drone while staring at it. It’s not moving, but I feel like it’s watching me. I glance down at the paperwork again. According to this, any drone operator who loses physical control of his or her drone for twenty-four consecutive hours is declared ‘dead’. The same as if they were shot by one of the paintball guns. My drone girl is in some serious shit. And I’ll bet my cozy little tent that she’ll be by sometime later tonight to try to reclaim her equipment. Which means if I want to get a good look at her and find out her name, I’ve got some work to do.
“Sorry, sweetheart,” I say cheerfully as I drop a towel over the glass-covered drone and then I move it and the stack of books over into the far corner. Next I reposition the cots so that the only way to the drone is over my bed. And I double check the back walls to make sure there’s no easy point of entry under them either. Just to be safe, I put a box over the drone ensemble and pile some more shit on top.
Now for the girl. I’ve no idea what size she might be, but it’s highly unlikely I can’t take her. But I don’t have anything to restrain her with, like handcuffs, and I doubt very much she’ll be in the mood to sit and chat. I eye my jacket and assorted other crap lying around. I’m not exactly neat — and don’t believe what those recruitment posters tell anxious mothers. Yeah, I used to get in trouble on a regular basis for my mess, but that never made me any neater. I suppose I could smother her in clothes, tie the arms together or something. I don’t want to hurt her, so sitting on her seems like not a great idea.
It would really help if I had some idea of who she is. I flip back through all the materials and even look online. But there are too many people and no mention of drones. Must have been something that was doled out on site. Guess I’ll just have to be patient for a few more hours.
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