Alexis Grant brings you the first in an explosive new series featuring the dedicated, deadly, and dangerously sexy Men of Delta Force.
Mia Santiago has fought long and hard to become an expert in weapons technology. But her successful career didn't come without sacrifices, namely Ryan Mason, the only man she's ever loved. When she and Ryan chose their careers over a relationship together, she thought their goodbye was for forever. So running into him at a conference is both a dream come true and a disturbing distraction―how can she focus on presenting her research when the man who's haunted her dreams for years is suddenly close enough to touch?
Losing Mia is Ryan's one regret in a lifetime of dangerous risks, even if he knows the work he's done around the world as a member of the military's elite fighting unit, Delta Force, has saved countless lives. Now he has to keep Mia from the terrorists bent on using her research for catastrophic violence―and bent of kidnapping her and inflicting unspeakable harm upon the one woman he's never been able to let go. But outrunning danger isn't easy when the fire between them can't be put out. And this time, their future together is a matter of life and death...
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Alexis Grant is a penname for used by Leslie Esdaile Banks, AKA L.A. Banks. She lived in Philadelphia, PA, where she worked as a comic script writer, a screenwriter and a professional speaker. Sizzle and Burn is her first work of romantic suspense.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Washington, DC …
Mia walked up the steps of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural Science, but stopped for a moment to marvel at the profusion of cherry blossoms that dotted the landscape. The city had finally climbed out of the long, bleak winter that had paralyzed it with brutal snowstorms and icy highways.
This time of year DC was awash in pink splendor. Witnessing the delicate beauty always gave her pause, as well as the stinging reminder that sometimes something so beautiful could also be ephemeral. Try as she might, and as much as she hated to allow the old memories to bathe her like the warm morning sunlight, there was no escaping her thoughts of Ryan during this time of year.
Even after a brief but turbulent engagement to another man that was fraught with career jealousy, the decade-old memory of Ryan Mason still haunted her.
What they’d shared was fast, intense, and damned near insane. Theirs was a spring that flowered suddenly, beautifully, and was gone before they’d hardly had a chance to catch their breaths. The breakup had nothing to do with incompatibility, bickering, or infidelity, like the relationships she’d experienced since that magical spring. It was simply that they’d both made irrevocable choices, then.
A light breeze lifted her ponytail and caught the front edges of her hair, making it spill out from beneath her faux-tortoiseshell headband. Ryan used to gently smooth back her hair, tucking strays wisps behind her ear just before he’d bring his lips to hers. Mia briefly closed her eyes and adjusted the sash on her Burberry raincoat—an extravagance she’d allowed herself when she’d successfully completed her dissertation—then hiked up her Coach briefcase on her shoulder—a gift from her mother upon graduation. She released a small wistful sigh, remembering, as she watched a few lone blooms blow across the pavement beyond the steps.
Thirty-one years old, with all the education in the world, making forty-seven thousand dollars a year on a postdoctoral fellowship … and no man … no children … no prospects. This was not how she’d envisioned her life, even though her entire family viewed her as the poster girl for success. Yes, she’d made all the right educational and career moves and was tracking to have a very solid future, but what about the gaps and holes in her everyday existence? What about laughter and happiness and some of the hard-to-describe intangibles, like love? Ryan Mason was probably a general by now, she mused, and then shunted the thought away. And probably married with beautiful children or in love and happy. It wasn’t her business. The past was dead and buried, she told herself. What did it matter, anyway?
Fate had a cruel sense of humor; it gave with one hand while it took away with the other. She’d been granted a full fellowship at Cornell University after a summa cum laude performance at Vassar. Immediately following his graduation from West Point, Ryan was commissioned as a second lieutenant of Infantry and headed to Infantry Officer Basic Course at Fort Benning, Georgia, after only two weeks of leave.
There was no time, save that glorious, intoxicating two weeks of promises followed by his three weeks of Airborne School, immediately followed by nine weeks in the grueling, elite U.S. Army Ranger School—then a demanding first year in the 82nd Airborne Division as a rifle platoon leader at Fort Bragg that included deployments all over God knew where.
A yellow school bus that brought in girls from the surrounding colleges had brought them together, and dreams and ambition ultimately drove them apart. Neither could relent. How could two kids, one from Bed-Stuy and one from Spanish Harlem, ask the other to give up on their dreams, especially after having fought so hard to get out of their neighborhoods?
Pulling herself away from the past and determined to get mentally settled before entering the building, Mia watched small birds quarrel and then take flight from the blossom-laden branches. She remembered feeling what it was like to fly.
A minority academic scholarship got her to Vassar; heavy recruitment to play football, a chance to play Division One level at that, and a full ride for college with a salary, too, got him to West Point. From there it seemed as though the sky was the limit. They’d found each other, had found out that life held infinite possibilities … found out that they could have it all … maybe just not all at the same time.
They’d lost contact while he was in Ranger School. Back then, nine weeks felt like nine years. There’d be no letters or phone calls while he was cut off from the outside world. A chance internship for her to study seismology for a semester in Indonesia, then an internship in Yellowstone National Park sealed their fate. The distance and lack of communication was just too much. That was the thing: you could never go back. Like her abuela always said, “Once the egg is broke, the egg is broke.”
Mia pushed past the memory with an impatient huff of breath and walked up the steps and into the building. Henry Jackson, the elderly security guard there, greeted her with his customary wide smile.
“Good morning, Dr. Austin,” he said, tipping his hat and beaming at her. His voice was filled with pride as he added extra emphasis to her title. The vicarious pleasure he took from her success was palpable—it had been that way since the day they’d met. Now their warm, coded greetings were an unspoken dance performed every morning and every evening without fail.
“Good morning to you, Mr. Jackson,” she replied brightly, giving him back the cheer he’d so generously offered her as she swiped her badge across the security gate. His smile felt like a touch of home and was so sorely needed right now. His wise eyes made her linger just long enough to offer a bit of small talk. “It’s so pretty out today. Pink is everywhere.”
“Indeed it is … blossoms probably came out just for you.” He gave her a jaunty nod as though confirming his theory as fact. “You have a very nice day and stay blessed, Doctor.”
“You, too, Mr. Jackson.”
Mia watched the crinkles around the older man’s eyes deepen as he stood up a little taller when she passed him. No one else called him by his last name, much less put the respectful Mr. around the acknowledgment. But to a man who was easily her mother’s senior, she knew a simple gesture like that meant the world.
She frowned but kept facing the elevators when she heard one of her co-workers enter behind her and hail Mr. Jackson as Henry. Yet Mr. Jackson had called her co-worker Dr. Lewis. Mia cringed inwardly. Would it have killed Josh to call the old man by his full and righteous title? She also didn’t want to turn around to see the defeated deference she knew would be in Mr. Jackson’s eyes once Josh had passed him. She’d seen it in her abuela growing up and hated to see it in any brown-hued elderly eyes.
Sometimes she’d go with her grandmother when her abuela used to travel all the way from Spanish Harlem to clean other people’s houses and watch other people’s children. They called her Isabel, never Mrs. Martinez, even when she used their titles and surnames as a gesture of respect. Mia learned early on that such slights were part of her reality as a half African American, half Latina … a “blatina” as they said back home.
It brought her a measure of comfort to know that, like Mr. Jackson, her parents and all her aunts, uncles, and cousins took pride in her degree as though they’d earned it themselves. Maybe by extension, her abuela and Mr. Jackson had. Maybe her entire family had. It was the one thing that kept her going. Mr. Jackson’s quiet, daily reaffirmation that a lot of people were looking up to her kept her going.
Rankled, Mia pretended not to see Josh as he rushed forward when she entered the elevator, but he unfortunately caught it.
“Hey,” Josh said, forcing the doors to open for him.
“Oh … hey, Josh. Didn’t see you,” she said blandly, trying to chase the annoyance out of her tone. “Sorry.”
“No biggie,” he said, and then took an exaggerated slurp of his Starbucks coffee and pushed the button for their floor. “Heard old man Cortland is letting you assist on the presentation in New York. I sure am glad they didn’t rope me into doing it.”
It was just like Josh to add another layer of stress to a situation that was already secretly freaking her out. He was such a competitive little weasel. Mia just stared at him for a moment as the elevator doors closed.
“I’m ready for it,” she finally replied, summoning a way to block him out of her mind. She felt entombed with Joshua Lewis standing so close and invading her personal space. If he didn’t back up, a Spanish Harlem flare might erupt within her like a sunspot flash. He had to get out of her face. But rather than go there, Mia backed up, feigning the need to find a mint in her purse.
“Well, I sure hope so—because you know this is either a chance to shine or really leave a career stain. Whew … I don’t know if I could take the pressure. Everybody is going to be there in New York, and I mean everybody.”
Mia stared at the slowly ascending numbers as they lit on the elevator panel. Joshua Lewis was such a social irritant, and this was just another of his blatant attempts to undermine her.
“And you’re getting to actually present,” he continued. Do you know how huge that is? With everything that’s been going on recently with natural disasters and with the White House’s focus on them, all papers and presentations will get high visibility. International visibility. Career make-or-break visibility.”
Joshua hesitated, taking another deep slurp of his coffee as he stared at her from behind his thick horn-rimmed glasses. “You know, we’re both here on this grueling twelve-month fellowship in earth and planetary sciences that doesn’t pay jack. So it’s like we’re sorta in the trenches together, right? We’ve gotta watch each other’s backs, professionally. I wouldn’t mind helping a colleague, especially a beautiful one.”
So that was his plan—to horn in on her presentation, and possibly in on her. This was a conversation she so didn’t want to have. The elevator sounded, and for her it was a bell of salvation. Forcing a smile and civility into her tone, she quickly gave Joshua a sidelong glance, focusing on his pocket protector as the elevator doors opened. “Thanks so much, Josh. I’ll definitely keep that in mind.” Then she bolted.
“But the summit is tomorrow!” he called behind her. “I can come over to your place tonight, if you want, so we can pull an all-nighter. I don’t have plans.”
“I’ll text you if I get into trouble,” she said over her shoulder, hastening her pace toward her mentor’s office. “But thanks. Gotta go.”
It took everything within her not to break into a flat-out dash down the corridor to escape. The Division of Petrology and Volcanology, just like the Department of Mineral Sciences’ Division of Seismology, used to be one of her sanctuaries. However, since she’d mysteriously removed her engagement ring six months ago and wouldn’t talk about it beyond saying “It didn’t work out,” and Dr. Cortland had announced that she’d be co-presenting with him at the Global Earthquake and Volcanic Activity Conference—not only had she been evading dating inquiries from on-the-job suitors, but she’d also been fending off professional encroachment on her project.
Quickly waving at her colleagues as she passed their cubicles, Mia made a beeline to Dr. Cortland’s office, one that the Smithsonian generously allowed him to keep as their inducement to have him stay on well beyond his retirement. By the time she’d reached his secretary’s desk, she was almost winded.
“Hi, Mia. Good morning. He’s in there.” The older woman smiled at her as she peered over the tops of her glasses and smoothed back the edges of her graying blond bun. She then sent her merry blue gaze around Mia’s body to peer down the corridor and bit her lip, holding back a full smile for a moment before dropping her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “And you’d better get in there quick before Josh comes up with yet another reason why he should go to the conference in Dr. Cortland’s suitcase.”
Mia laughed, and that finally made Hannah’s restraint crumble. Theirs was a relationship forged by mutual agreement to drop the formality, a decision made day one. It was so simple a thing that sealed their bond. Mia had addressed the older woman as Mrs. Wiseman, and she’d replied, “Oh, don’t be silly. Call me Hannah.” That was all it took. But the small attempt at civility had endeared Mia to the older woman. From then on, Hannah looked out for Mia as though she were a daughter.
“Oh, my God, Hannah, and good morning to you, too,” Mia said, blowing out a hard breath through a very bad case of the giggles. “The guy is relentless.”
Hannah waved her hand as though shooing away a gnat. “You’re telling me?” She shook her head and gave Mia a wink. “And don’t let him scare you—your presentation is fine without him. He’s been lobbying Dr. Cortland to let him assist you, as though you need his help. Please.”
“He went to Dr. Cortland behind my back?” Mia’s giggles faded as she stood before Hannah stupefied.
Hannah nodded. “But you didn’t hear that from me. It really ruffled Ian, though. He hates sneaks. So Josh only hurt himself with that little back-alley move.”
“Wow…,” Mia murmured, surprised but then again not.
“Just remember why Ian chose you for this honor. He knows your work, your attention to detail, and he knows you’ve worked hard with him for years and deservefor people to know who you are. Break a leg.”
“Thanks, Hannah,” Mia said in a quiet tone and then slipped past her to knock on her mentor’s door.
“Come in, come in,” Ian Cortland called out, but before Mia could put her hand on the knob, the door opened. “Good morning, my dear. How is my favorite research fellow?”
“Good morning, sir. I’m having a case of acid reflux brought on by this opportunity, but I’ll survive.”
He issued her a lopsided grin as he ushered her into his office and shut the door behind them. “I figured as much. Oh, I threw up right before my first major presentation. I hate public speaking—did I ever tell you that? Well, it’s half the reason why I’m sending you out there.” He gave her a wink and then chuckled. “But the real reason is because you’re damned good. Today is T-minus-twenty-four-hours till you make your debut. A case of nerves is only normal.”
Dr. Ian Cortland stood in front of her, a robust five feet, six inches’ worth of tireless energy. She looked down at him with a warm smile of appreciation. His white beard was a mangy confection about his face, and the tufts of silvery white hair on his head stubbornly rimmed a gleaming, rose-tinted bald spot in the center of it. He wore a light blue sweater that suffered from lint and strained over his belly, with a dingy, white oxford buttondown shirt that needed a good starching and was open at the collar. His Dockers pants were rumpled; his penny loafers were in sore need of a resole and good shine. But the man’s brilliance and warmth of spirit made all that invisible to Mia.
Small gray eyes blinked at her with curiosity behind round wire frames, and the slight scent of pipe tobacco in the room suggested that he’d either violated the institution’s rules about smoking inside the building or just come in from indulging one of his vices. You could never tell with Ian Cortland.
With a wave ...
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