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A Soldier with Secrets.
Immortal Viking Wulf Wardsen once battled alongside Beowulf, and now serves in Afghanistan. He's trusted the mortal men on his elite special operations team to protect his secret, until an explosion lands Wulf in a place more dangerous to him than a battlefield: a medevac helicopter.
A Doctor with Questions.
Army captain Theresa Chiesa follows the rules and expects the same from others, even special forces hotshots like Sergeant Wardsen. She's determined to discover the secret behind his supernaturally fast healing, and she won't allow his sexy smile to distract her.
An Enemy with Nothing to Lose.
Even as Theresa's investigation threatens to expose him, Wulf dreams of love and a normal life with her. But the lost Viking relic needed to reverse his immortality is being hunted by another—an ancient enemy who won't hesitate to hurt Theresa to strike back at Wulf.
After six months in-country, Theresa ranked the lavish mess hall food provided by Black and Swan contractors on par with cold med school pizza. Crispy shrimp, loaded burgers, and surf and turf were better than the chicken breasts she cooked, but she missed her empty apartment fridge in Texas. At least when she opened it after a night on call, the half-and-half carton and jar of olives were hers.
While she stopped at the dining hall entrance for the mandatory weapon safety check, a soldier exited and the cold burst of air-conditioning brought the promise of dinner. Tuesday’s meal rotation included the one item she still desired: deep-fried chicken cordon bleu. She usually substituted salad for fries, but no monthly weigh-in could make her give up cordon bleu.
Inside the metal building, she headed for the hot line as the server slipped the last golden mound to the private in front of her. She hadn’t run four miles on a treadmill for iceberg lettuce. “Excuse me, are there more?”
“Two minutes, ma’am.”
A green tray slid behind hers on the line. “Are they bringing another pan?”
Theresa glanced at the speaker and froze. This close his eyes were as compelling as they had been across the gym, but now she could see brown-and-amber flecks around the iris—a rare combination that gave depth to the blue—and a star-shaped scar on his left temple that she hadn’t cataloged earlier. She imagined he’d hit a corner of a board or rock and left it unstitched.
She broke the stare and read his name tape. Wardsen.
“You!” She studied his body. Feet planted firmly on the floor, weight distributed evenly without favoring a leg. His uniform pants stretched across his thighs and tapered down his calves to tuck into tan boots. Nothing in his posture hinted at a concealed injury. She raised her eyes to his chest, and he obligingly took a deep breath. The line of his shirt across his shoulders didn’t appear to hide evidence of bandaging. When he’d been wearing less clothing in the gym, she hadn’t seen bulky wrappings, but then she hadn’t known he was the elusive Staff Sergeant Wulf Wardsen.
“Would you like to check my teeth?”
She snapped her gaze to his face and collided with his smile. It transformed him from a carving of a thunder god into a heartthrob.
“You give a thorough exam, Doc.”
“You weren’t shot!” Her heart rate notched up as she prepared for a second confrontation.
“Good to know.” He lifted an eyebrow, its toffee color darker than his hair.
Her eyes narrowed. “Why did medevac report you?”
“I didn’t realize they had.”
“Then what are you hiding?” He must have overheard her exchange with Chris, but he wasn’t making it easy to argue with him.
“Nothing.” His smile didn’t budge, his eyes didn’t shift, his expression didn’t flicker.
“I will find out what’s going on.” She focused on the small, steady beat at his neck. His skin didn’t have the ruddy tone of most fair-colored people, as if the stones of Afghanistan had scoured away any hint of pink long ago. Blond hairs showed above the neck of his T-shirt. Unlike the rest of him, they looked silky soft. “The flight medic got reamed by my commander. Whatever you’re up to, other people are paying for it, so knock it off.”
“Understood.” He nudged his tray until it touched hers. “Are you going to keep holding up the line?”
She turned her shoulder to cover her embarrassment. First she’d stared at him like he was a particularly succulent entrée, then she’d chewed him out. “I’m waiting for cordon bleu.”
“That one?” He nodded at a plate sitting on the serving hood.
Grabbing it, she turned to the salad bar. As she piled lettuce and cherry tomatoes on her plate, the hair on her arms stood up, letting her know he’d lingered.
“Captain Chiesa.” He put the correct Italian spin on her name, pronouncing the first sound like “key” instead of “chee.”
She concentrated to avoid spilling salad dressing. Having him watch her made her hands not work the way she intended.
“About that misunderstanding in the gym.”
“What misunderstanding?” She set the vinaigrette next to the other bottles. Her palms were slippery, but she didn’t want to wipe her hands on her pants in front of him, so she gripped her tray and hoped it wouldn’t drop.
“Captain Deavers came down a little hard.” He looked at the floor as if struggling with how much to say. “I’m sorry. The team’s sorry.”
It sounded like a genuine I’m sorry, and her stomach muscles unclenched, the tension replaced by a feeling almost like the euphoria that came from eating dinner after having missed lunch. Sergeant Wardsen had apologized for the humiliation she’d felt talking to a bunch of men’s rears.
“He’s receiving rough email from his wife. She’s not coping well alone with their new baby. He’s worried she has…postpartum depression?” He said the words as if using a foreign language guidebook.
“Thank you for telling me.” The awareness that Chris had bigger problems, and yet she’d hounded him about medical records, embarrassed her enough that she wanted to slink into a hole darker than Tora Bora. To be successful in private medical practice next year, she’d have to clue in better to patients’ unspoken needs. “Maybe I can help?”
“Please. That would take a worry off the team’s minds.” Wulf suspected the doctor fulfilled her promises. The way she’d barreled across the gym for his paperwork told him she was determined, and the glare when she’d ordered him to stop involving flight medics in his team’s escapades had rivaled desert heat. “Maybe you could be subtle?”
“You don’t want your commander to know you talked to me?” Captain Chiesa spoke over her shoulder as she carried her tray to the beverage dispensers.
If he didn’t want to shout loud enough for the guys to hear, he had to follow the damp ponytail bouncing in front of him. She’d tucked her dark hair under and up in one of those styles used by female soldiers. It made some look like bobbed horses, but on her it highlighted her cheekbones and eyebrows. “The captain’s a private guy.”
Captain Chiesa rolled her eyes. “And I had the impression you were all over-sharers.” Humor added cinnamon and cloves to her brown eyes, and the dimple that flashed in her cheek turned the steamroller into somebody’s girl-next-door. But not his. He couldn’t afford a soft spot for a woman.
“His wife’s in charge of the family support group.” If he prolonged the conversation, he might catch a whiff of her shampoo. Women’s hair had mesmerized him since he had watched his mother plait her braids. “Might reflect badly with higher-ups if she can’t hold it together.”
“Can your wife help her?”
Centuries had blunted the ache of losing Zenobia enough that he didn’t clench his fists or lock his jaw or betray with his eyes what that word had once meant. Instead he lifted his mouth in a half-assed smile. “If the army wanted me to have a wife, they’d issue one.”
“I wasn’t asking…” Her olive skin darkened at her cheekbones, broadcasting embarrassment with a color lighter than the angry flush she’d shown in the gym. “So, what post are you guys from? Maybe I know someone who—”
“Fort Campbell.” He handed her a bottle of water to cut her off. She wouldn’t like to be caught babbling. Bits of frizz softened the sharp widow’s peak of her hairline, and he wanted to trace the heart-shape with his finger. Better to grip his tray. “The lieutenant’s wife should be able to reach the captain’s wife. Shall I get their emails from the LT?” He bit his tongue as she nodded. Now he was the babbler, because of some straying hair and the fact that she cared enough about people to jump in and help a flight medic. Damn. Even if army rules didn’t prohibit touching to find out if those curls felt as soft as he suspected, he could never get close to a doctor. Faster than other women, she’d notice he was different.
“I’ll remember your assistance.” He withdrew two steps, a strategic retreat, but his stomach flipped as the distance between them stretched greater than his reach. “Thanks.”
“Don’t get shot for real.” Her wish sounded so damn sincere. Her smile seemed so damn wholesome. Her tilted head revealed the curve of her neck and a smooth expanse of skin so damn vulnerable that he couldn’t help sucking air between his teeth.
“If I do, I’ll make sure my paperwork’s complete.” He laid a hand over his heart.
Her eyes followed the gesture. When she looked up, her gaze didn’t rise past his lips.
He could almost feel her fingers brush across his mouth. A woman’s touch was a rare treasure in this hole.
No. He shook his head and broke whatever linked him to Captain Chiesa. He didn’t know her first name, but already he’d built a fantasy that risked the life he’d constructed.
She blinked twice and muttered something that sounded like, “My food’s getting cold,” before she walked away.
He nearly sagged against the counter as he filled two glasses with milk, but her reflection on the stainless-steel dispenser kept him standing tall. She crossed the room to her friend, probably another doctor. They stuck together as much as his A-team did. The army was a big gathering of small clans who spent their days working and eating and bunking together, which made it easy to hide in plain sight. Like the doctors, his team stayed apart from most others except the Night Stalker aviators. His men’s silence, their separateness, protected him.
His tribe had gathered midway from the flat-screen television. Tonight the commander and lieutenant had chosen to eat with other officers, so nine pairs of eyes stared as he sat in the last-man seat closest to the door, with his back to the room. Nine brothers, each as concerned as his blood kin at the chance he’d be exposed, but he couldn’t rewind ten minutes to skip his conversation with Captain Chiesa. Even if he could, he wouldn’t. He liked the spark he’d felt when he looked at her hair and eyes, and he’d liked it especially when she told him off.
“Took you long enough.” Sergeant Kahananui broke the silence. “Cruz volunteered for recon patrol.”
Ignoring the big Hawaiian, he bit into his corn on the cob. Chewy, no crunch. Frozen too long between an American field and this dining facility fifty klicks from the Pakistani border.
“That doc jacking you?” Sergeant Cruz started to rise, but Wulf shook his head.
“Don’t think our high-speed leader is getting jacked. Yet.” Kahananui had usurped Wulf’s usual spot, from which he could observe the whole mess. “Need us to run interference?”
“I’m fine.” He hadn’t told the doc anything that was an actual lie. With luck, he’d deflected her questions. He chomped another bite. Spray-on butter instead of corn flavor, but it was still good fuel.
“Mmm-hmm.” Kahananui raised both black eyebrows and curled his lips, like he’d pulled the pin on a grin and was about to let it rip. “Had a funny view from this seat.”
Men’s stares ping-ponged across the silent table between him and Kahananui, but he wouldn’t talk with his mouth full.
Cruz took the bait in his place. “What?”
“Saw a wolf separate a doe from the herd,” Kahananui said.
The guys always joked that Caddie’s three dozen women traveled in packs and never gave a lonely soldier a fighting chance. Most of his team had stable marriages, wives and kids waiting stateside, so they loved to flip shit at guys who didn’t, like him and Cruz.
“Didn’t know he was on the prowl, did we?” the Hawaiian added.
The three men closest to the Big Kahuna snorted. Another one fluttered his eyelashes and murmured a falsetto, “Oh, Wulf, want to taste my Italian dessert? It’s a tir-a-miss-you.”
“Knock it off,” Wulf said. Another mistake, but no stupider than trying to catch a whiff of Captain Chiesa’s shampoo.
The rest hooted while Kahananui whooped like a pickup backfiring in subzero. “Got a live one, boys.”
“Look, I convinced her to drop the medical records request.”
“Hardship duty, huh?” Kahananui flashed a shaka hand sign at Wulf, thumb and little finger sticking out from his fist. “Capital H-A-R-D—”
“Enough already. She’s an officer. And a doctor.” Noise buried his last words as the engineering NCO lifted his palms across the table for high fives. Wulf sank his face in his second glass of milk. Fine. Better they think he was flirting with the doctor, which he wasn’t, than that he’d asked her to help the commander.
Anna Richland lives with her quietly funny Canadian husband and two less quiet children in a century-old house in Seattle. Like the heroine of FIRST TO BURN, she joined the army to pay tuition, a decision that led to an adventurous career on four continents (if standing on the bridge in Panama that divides North and South America counts as two).
She donates a portion of her book proceeds to the Fisher House Foundation, which provides housing for families of wounded soldiers in the US and Great Britain, and Doctors Without Borders, which delivers emergency medical care in more than sixty crisis zones world-wide.
To find out about her October novella, HIS ROAD HOME, and the next Immortal Vikings romance, THE SECOND LIE, visit her website at annarichland.com and sign up for her newsletter.