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Authors: Emmy Curtis

Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary Women, #Erotica, #Contemporary, #Fiction

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BOOK: Pushing the Limit
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Chapter Seven

The storm had deposited more sand than usual on the decrepit roads leading to their site, so the ride was slow. And the tension in the truck was palpable.

Everyone seemed to be on edge except Harry, who was suffering only because she could feel everyone else’s stress. Mueen wasn’t pleased about Matt’s presence, although he’d said nothing. He’d just looked at him long and hard, an inscrutable look on his face. He’d looked at him so long, Harry had been forced to clear her throat to dispel the tension.

She didn’t know why Jason was so abrupt with Matt, but she planned on talking to him about the level of professionalism she expected when dealing with people outside their team. Molly? She would have to wait until she got her alone to figure out what was going on there.

Meanwhile, they all had to work together if they wanted to complete their job for the Megellin Foundation. The client had to come first because they were the ones who were paying for the team to be there in the first place. All they could reasonably do to accommodate the military presence was use their ground-penetrating radar first, rather than last.

As they got closer to their on-site trailer, Jason and Molly peered out the windshield.

“What the hell?”

Harry squeezed between the seats so she could see what they were talking about. “Oh.” The storm had washed sand halfway up the side of their trailer, thankfully the side without the door. But the terrain was now completely different from what they’d photographed the day before. “This happens sometimes, folks. Welcome to the desert.” She grinned. This is why desert surveys always had an extra week or so built into their schedule. To allow for the beautiful shifting sands.

“This is an excellent learning opportunity for you two. I’d like you to take more photos today so we can clearly see a before-and-after view on the effect of weather. Jason, in particular, this will be important to your thesis.”

Jason nodded and grabbed his camera from behind the seats. As soon as they came to a stop in front of the trailer, he hopped out and clambered onto the roof of the truck to get the same vantage point as he had the day before.

In fact, Harry couldn’t believe how dramatically the sands had changed. There was a huge dune in the middle of their sector now. She looked at Matt, inscrutable behind his sunglasses. She wondered how he felt. If he would ever forgive himself for the perceived slight against Danny. She sighed, which prompted him to look at her.

After a second he said, “Do you mind if I go look?” He pointed across the site to the boundary flags.

“Not at all, knock yourself out.” She watched him walk methodically around the flags and sighed again.

“You should not have brought him to our door, madam,” Mueen said, following her gaze.

It was unusual to even have him speak to her, without his wife present, let alone verbalize an opinion. She turned her full attention to him. “What do you mean?”

“The man. He will disrupt our life here. No good will come from this.” Mueen looked at Matt, who was barely visible behind the dune. His accent turned more and more American as he spoke, reminding her that he’d studied at UPenn.

“Anytime outsiders come, our village life is changed in some way.” He shook his head. “I sense he will be bad for us.”

“Do we disrupt your village life when we come?” she asked. This was her second trip here and the second time Mueen had acted as guard and translator, although the time before, they had to also have three extra armed guards. Thankfully, security could be lighter now. Having four armed guards with military-grade weapons was embarrassing and couldn’t have done more to point her out as a foreign woman.

He smiled at her, revealing his perfect teeth. “Yes, of course. But my wife loves you so, that my house is good when you are here.”

She laughed. “I love Ain, too.”

“She wants you to come to dinner tonight. All of you.” He bowed slightly as he offered the invitation.

“We would be delighted. Ain is such a wonderful cook.” She was thrilled, actually. Ain was lovely. A ballsy yet demure woman in a man’s world. “Is Matt invited, too?”

Mueen looked back at him for a second and laughed softly to himself as Matt appeared to stumble in the sand. “Maybe you should tell him that walking in sand is an art form in itself,” he said. “Yes, he may come. I will come for you at six tonight.”

“Perfect. Please tell Ain I’m so looking forward to seeing her.” Harry had bought some perfumed oils from an aromatherapy store in the U.S. for her and was happy that she could give them to her herself.

Mueen took himself up to the roof of the trailer, and Harry watched Jason and Molly prepare the ground-penetrating radar that would give them, and hopefully Matt, some insight into what lay beneath the surface of the sands here. Although a small worry niggled her; with the shifting sands, they may not get the results they hoped for.

* * *

Just being in the desert brought back memories, good and bad. He tried to concentrate on the job at hand. If this was the scene of an air crash, or at least a crash landing, it was going to be hard to find evidence on the surface. Especially after all this time.

There was an excellent chance that this was nothing but a piece of errant metal, transported here accidentally by who knows what. There’d been so few downed aircraft in Iraq, he was still mystified as to why his commander saw fit to send him here in the first place.

What he needed was to go home. He needed this to be a bust. He just wanted to be out of the sandbox and back on the friendly beaches of Hawaii. He didn’t want to get involved with Harry any more than he already had. He blew out a puff of air. In all honesty, Danny would probably piss himself laughing at this scrape he’d gotten himself into. The EOD unit had always had some weird stories of hookups gone bad to entertain each other with. Danny used to say he lived vicariously through their misadventures with women. This was a story for the ages.

He crested the dune and looked around. He saw other people working about half a klick away to the west, and made a mental note to ask Harry about them. There were some old-looking bricks or mortar poking out, the same color as the sand, ruining the otherwise smooth surface of the desert. He checked the compass on his wristwatch and went to the far eastern side of the site. He definitely saw some movement over to the east, too. Busy time of year for archaeology maybe.

When he got back to the trailer he asked about the other teams.

Jason and Molly looked up from what they were doing on a small laptop encased in a steel bounce-proof case. “There are others here?” Molly asked.

Harry squinted at them in the sun. “I ran into Malcolm Rapson at breakfast. He has a team surveying to the west of us. I didn’t know about anyone to the east, but knowing Malcolm’s here, it wouldn’t surprise me. I guess the foundation is just trying to find the best and most archaeologically rich area for the students to dig.”

Interesting. Maybe he’d have to check their sites, too. Depending on the velocity a plane was traveling on impact, wreckage could cover more than half a mile. More paperwork. If he found any more evidence, any other metal shards, he’d have to call in a proper team. He couldn’t do this alone, and neither should he. They had plenty of experts who would make quick work of this. Not to mention those who liaised with the local government to actually allow them access.

“Fancy private university students. Some of us had to work sites that were absolutely barren of things to learn from,” Molly grumbled. “Lucky bastards.” She looked around. “Now I really want to plant stuff here to completely confuse them.”

“Don’t even joke about that. A, I will kill you, and B, karma is a bitch,” Harry said. She stood with her hands on her hips, looking like a tiny chief master sergeant. He tried not to smile.

“Don’t worry. I wouldn’t. I just enjoy fantasizing about it.” Molly went back to the machine that looked like a short lawn mower but with probes instead of blades.

“All right, people. Let’s get going. You two move on out, and I’ll check the feed on the computer as you pass it over the area. Do you have your walkie-talkies?”

“Yes, boss,” Jason said, patting his hip.

“I’ll call you if I need you to go over anything again. Set up along the western flags, and I’ll give you the go ahead when I’ve had a quick check of the site.” She turned to Matt. “Did you see anything interesting out there?”

Nothing as interesting as what is standing in front of me right now. “I saw some old-looking bricks, maybe made out of sand? That’s it.”

Her eyes lit up, and she virtually bounced. “That’s awesome. The storm must have exposed them.”

“Come. I’ll show you,” he said, shoving his hands in his pockets and nodding toward the northeastern side of the dune.

She called Molly and Jason on her walkie-talkie. “Hey, leave the equipment and join us over by the dune. Matt says there’s something there.”

“Copy that, boss,” Jason’s tinny voice came through.

Harry and Matt beat the younger two there. “Wow. This is nice. I can’t wait to see what these belong to.”

Matt was scanning the horizon for other people. Just an instinct probably, and in EOD they learned to always trust instinct over intellect.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Harry bend over. He slipped a glance at her denim-clad ass. Dammit all, he was going to hell.

“Hey, moneybags. You dropped these.” She stood upright and handed over three one-hundred-dollar bills. He took them. They weren’t his. “Are there any more?” he asked evenly.

They both looked around. Matt found one, under a brick. “Can I move this to get this one?”

“That’s strange. How did it get under the brick if you dropped them today?”

“They’re not mine. I didn’t drop them.” He fell silent. His mind was running at a hundred miles an hour. Who the hell had money like this, in U.S. currency, to flash around in the middle of the desert? It was trapped under a brick, so it must have been before the storm. By the weathering on the bills, even before. He peered at them closer. They were real. He could tell by the watermark.

“Then who did?”

“They’re old. The storm must have somehow brought them to the surface.”

Harry bit her lip. “I don’t like this. I get heartburn enough thinking about looters, but if anyone finds out about this, this whole site will be a disaster. It’ll become too dangerous for us to do anything here.”

“Let’s not tell anyone. We’ll keep it between us. Just us two. That way we can be sure it stays a secret.”

Jason and Molly came into sight. Matt stuffed the bills in his pockets.

“Look at the masonry here.” Harry pointed to the exposed brickwork.

“Look at the money you’re throwing around,” Molly said to Matt, holding out a couple more hundred-dollar bills.

Matt hesitated, then took them. “Thanks. Careless of me. Let me know if you find any more.”

“Sure we will,” Jason said, and with his eyes hidden behind his glasses, Matt couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or genuine.

After a second, Harry gave more orders. “Okay, as you were. We will circle this area, and all three of us will manage the geo-phys here so we don’t move anything.”

“On it,” Molly said cheerily as they turned to trudge back over to their equipment.

He and Harry walked back to the trailer in silence. He was definitely worried now. He needed to call this in. The only people moving around this kind of money as far as he knew was the U.S. military or terrorists. Billions of dollars of cold hard cash had gone missing during the war, and although a lot of it had been accounted for, still many millions hadn’t. If these serial numbers lined up with that money, Harry, Molly, Jason, and he had just stepped onto an IED. All they could reasonably expect now was the mother of all explosions.

Chapter Eight

No more cash was found that day. Thankfully. Harry was perfectly content to have Matt handle that. If indeed there was anything to handle. She suspected that some rich Iraqi had been fast and loose when pulling money out of his pocket in the storm. Although nearly all commerce was done in Iraqi dinars since the allied forces had left.

Anyway, with Matt checking out those bills, she could concentrate on finishing the project and moving on to the next one. Which, if this trip ended on schedule, meant being an extra set of hands on a temple excavation on a beautiful Greek island.

She imagined that for a second. A Greek isle, Matt doing unspeakable things to her on isolated warm sandy beaches. Cocktails in the bar, Matt doing unspeakable things to her in their villa.

She shook her head. She’d be surprised if she would even get him to talk to her about anything other than his mission here, ever again. Of all the unlikely places and ways to meet one of Danny’s friends. It beggared belief.
Really
. And he was so hot. It was so unfair.

For all her inner fantasies, a small part of her was devastated for his obvious pain and wanted to help him. Help him move on. But how? Maybe that was just something one had to do by themselves, like she had.

After Danny’s death, in retrospect, she’d been too young to know how to deal with the fallout. She’d moved in with his parents, who although well-meaning, tried to make her into their daughter. They insisted on choosing the college she attended and the friends she made, and she was just too young and devastated to fight back. Even when they picked college courses that Danny had planned on doing with his G.I. Bill education benefit.

When she’d finally broken away from their control, she’d changed her name back to Markowitz, a name Danny had always loved. She hadn’t been turning her back on Danny when she changed her name, as his parents had claimed, but celebrating the life they had before their very short marriage. Their life before the military.

She shook off the memories and got ready to meet the others downstairs. She wore a maxi dress made of cotton, with long, loose sleeves, and a scarf wrapped around her hair. She swung around in front of the mirror and watched the dress billow out. She almost looked like an Arabian princess, except for the light eyes and hair.
Would Matt like it?

Damn, must not think about Matt.

She grabbed her bag, the gift for Ain, and locked the door behind her.

Everyone was already there. Matt and Jason sat on opposite sides of the foyer, the latter playing with his phone, and Molly and Mueen were standing chatting at the bottom of the stairs.

“You look lovely,” Molly said.

“So do you. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you out of pants before,” she replied with a smile. It was true. Molly was wearing a long jersey skirt, with a crisp white blouse and a belt that fell low on her hips. Usually she wore jeans and cargo pants cut at various lengths, depending on where they were going. She wondered whose benefit the skirt was for. She hoped Jason’s, because the thought of Molly and Matt together made something in her stomach ache.

“Am I late?” she asked Mueen with a little concern. She always messed up the time on her watch when she changed time zones.

“Not at all,” he half bowed to her. “Everyone else was quite early.”

Harry laughed. “I’m sure Molly’s been telling them about Ain’s food. I, for one, can’t wait!” She looked toward Matt to find him staring at her, expressionless. That nagging in her stomach twitched again, and she wondered if she’d have an ulcer by the time this project was over. She beckoned to him. “Molly, go get Jason. We should get going.”

Matt strode to her. All in black he looked like he was ready to smear boot polish on his face and go into the night on a mission. His jacket showed a slight bulge, and she wondered if he was armed.

“Are you okay?” she asked, shoving her arm through his almost forcibly.

He tensed and then relaxed his arm so he could escort her. “I’m starving,” he said with a tight smile. She stroked his arm, meaning it to be a friendly gesture, but her fingers scraped his bare wrist, and the heat radiating from his skin made her hand hesitate there. His wrist was thick and strong, and just having skin-on-skin contact, no matter how innocent, scorched her in a very personal way. She felt her whole body drawn to his.

He looked down at her, and she wondered if he’d somehow felt her body’s reaction to him. She snapped her hand away from his and smiled brightly. And then she started to jabber. Badly. “I’m so glad you decided to come. I didn’t know if you would. But you can’t pass up a chance to taste Ain’s cooking. It’s divine. I swear if I could, I’d come to Iraq just to eat her food…”

He seemed amused for the first time. He smiled like an indulgent uncle. “Are you okay? Hypoglycemic perhaps?” he asked.

“Oh, shut up,” she said. She was pretty sure he laughed under his breath.

“Take a breath, sweetheart. Everything’s going to be okay.”

She wanted to ask, What? What was going to be okay? The dig? The evening? Their effed-up encounter? But they reached the truck and climbed in. Molly and James sat in the front row, leaving Harry and Matt to slide in the back.

With no air-conditioning, and just the open windows to provide ventilation, it was too noisy and windy to say much. Her thigh was plastered against Matt’s on the small seat, although if he closed his legs a little, they’d have their own space. But he didn’t. And as they bumped over rocks and holes in the road, he snaked his arm around her shoulders and kept her anchored to him. It was a good job, too. She was so annoyingly tiny that the slightest bump had her whacking her head on the roof of the truck. Another downside to Mueen’s truck not having seatbelts.

A frisson of excitement slid through her as he held her to him. Was he merely being chivalrous, or had he forgiven himself? She tentatively laid her hand on his large thigh, half helping her keep her balance over the bumps, and half… not. He didn’t seem to notice.
Okay
.

They arrived in good time, the traffic dwindling as they approached Mueen’s village. It was really just a small outcrop of brick houses in the middle of nowhere. Last time she came, they’d explained that this was the site of Ain’s father’s village, and his father’s, and as far as Ain could tell, her ancestors’ back to biblical times. So families had taken down the old huts, and old houses, and gradually built newer and newer ones. Keeping the tradition of the area, with the amenities of the twenty-first century.

Her last excavation had been twenty-five miles south of the village, and the local sheik had offered Mueen as her bodyguard, along with three other machine-gun-wielding men from another part of the region. Mueen had been the only one who spoke good English. It was lucky for her that this new project was close enough to Mueen that he could guard them again. And even nicer that the security situation had changed sufficiently that only one guard was necessary.

They arrived at the house just as the sun was sending its last rays of the day to illuminate the red tile roof.

Mueen led them in, through several rooms of the house until they were outside again. Cardamom spiced the air, and the scent took Harry right back to two years before, when she was here last. Ain was lighting incense and candles.

“Ain!” Harry said, and then gasped when the slender woman turned around and opened her arms. Though slender from the back, on turning, her belly protruded through her smock. She looked to be around seven months pregnant. “Oh my gosh. Congratulations!” Harry said, claiming her first hug. “Mueen didn’t say anything.”

“I know,
ma chérie
. I wanted it to be a surprise,” Ain said with her delightfully accented English. She’d been educated at the Sorbonne and sometimes lapsed into French, which Harry could just about keep up with. “I’m so happy you could come.”

“Wild horses wouldn’t have kept us away. I’m thrilled for you. When are you due?”

“In seven weeks. It will be an equinox baby.”

Molly interjected. “Oh, Ain. If we’d known you were pregnant, we wouldn’t have had you cooking for us, we would have taken you out somewhere.”

Her eyes sparkled as Mueen put his arm around her waist. “Exactly. You know my home is my kingdom. I prefer to be in charge here.” She batted her eyelashes at Mueen who nodded in acceptance of her words.

“Can you imagine how my life would have been had I told you our news?” He shook his head as if the thought didn’t bear thinking about.

Harry loved how Mueen changed when he was with Ain. It was as if he’d found the center of his world. He radiated warmth around her, and it made Harry ache for the same feeling. Except, no. She’d had that feeling before. Once was enough. One love was enough. But that part, the warmth, the familiarity, seemed to be dimming in her memory.

Harry smiled and took a seat on the blankets next to Matt, tucking her legs under her. The terrace was laid out with a fire in a pit away from the structure of the pergola they sat under. Candles flickered around them, and a long colorful blanket lay in front of them. Soon it was filled with plates of
mezza
: marinated pistachios, olives and cheese, hummus, and Ain’s specialty of spicy lentils. Everything was served with huge naan breads. Heaven.

Silence fell among them as they dug in. Eyes closed, and appreciative sounds accompanied their first bites. They ate with their fingers, which somehow slowed them down. This was the gift of Middle Eastern eating rituals. It was as if the world had slowed down as they reached for dishes, tore at bread, and sampled different textures and tastes.

A balmy breeze blew in, ruffling Harry’s scarf ends. She closed her eyes and tipped her head to feel the breeze.

After five minutes or so, chatter started around her, everyone urging everyone else to try the dishes that were passed to them. Even Jason and Matt seemed relaxed. And with that, the stress fell from her shoulders, too.

* * *

Matt hadn’t wanted to go anywhere that night. He was still jet-lagged and soul-heavy from what had happened in the past day and night. But Harry had been anxious to have him attend, and he figured going with them and acting as part of her team would reduce any risk for her, or for him.

The U.S. military wasn’t supposed to be in-country, but his commander figured that as long as he wasn’t there as a combatant, there would be no harm, no foul by him just checking in on Harry’s dig. But Matt wasn’t stupid. He was obviously American, and obviously not a business executive, so he thought it best to blend in with the team.

And then he got to sit next to Harry in the truck, and all his logical reasoning went out the window. The first time the truck had hit a pothole, she’d hit her head on the window. He didn’t think she’d even noticed or paid too much attention to it. But he did. And he thought he should at least protect her from a road injury. He wrapped his arm around her and clamped her to his side. Protecting. He was protecting her.

Yeah, right.

Her tiny, tight body against his had him desperate to kiss her again. Flashes of her half-naked in the rain, completely naked in the mirror had invaded his brain, and he’d used every countermeasure he knew to keep his dick in check.

He was going to hell. But he couldn’t help remembering the feel of her in his arms, naked, brazen. Everything was so wrong in his head.

And then they got to the guard’s house. As soon as he stepped inside, the feeling of safety and warmth invaded every suspicious nook in his mind.

The way Mueen and Ain seemed together warmed his black heart. That the universal feeling of love and honor and new life still pervaded this war-torn country, and it made him feel like anything was possible. That war didn’t, couldn’t, destroy some things.

The food, as promised, was incredible. Especially since his last time in Iraq had seen him eating MREs and whatever the closest airdrop to his firebase had brought. Which had usually been just apples. Ain’s lentils were spicy, yet fragrant with herbs and spices, and her bread was fluffy and chewy.

After the feasting was done, he felt very much a spectator as Ain showed Molly how to grind spices, and Mueen played chess with Jason. Harry leaned against the doorjamb with a glass of hot tea, watching in amusement as Mueen kicked Jason’s ass with his aggressive moves on the board.

Matt pushed aside a hanging bamboo curtain that led to the garden and stepped out into the cool night. The lights from the small house illuminated the garden. Herbs he recognized and a bunch of stuff he didn’t grew in wooden raised beds. Probably where Ain got her seasonings. A raised bed at the end of the enclosure had nothing but flowers along it. A riot of bright jewel-colored blooms covered the whole seven-foot-or-so bed. He was not that into flowers, but even he appreciated the beauty of it. Looked like it took lots of tending to.

In among the stems he saw a small cross. Odd.

He looked back at the house and then peered closer at it. It looked like two sticks of cinnamon tied together. But it was definitely a cross. Not improbable in Iraq, a country with Christians, but he knew this family was Muslim by the prayer mats he’d clocked in their front room as they’d walked through the house. Idly he looked back at the house and then at his watch which had a compass. Yup. The prayer mats had been facing Mecca.

“What are you doing out here?” Harry came up behind him, carrying an extra glass of tea.

He took it and sipped. “Just looking at the plants. They seem to not have any insect enemies here. In my yard these plants would have been eaten in days.”

She laughed quietly. “I know nothing about you. I was just surprised you had a yard, but I don’t know why. Where do you live?”

He took a relaxing breath as he imagined his house near the beach in its quiet neighborhood. He should be back there by now. Maybe he could leave tomorrow. “Hawaii. You?”

“I have a house in Boston, but I’m rarely there.” She turned and looked at the other plants that he’d passed to look at the flowers.

Suddenly he didn’t want to be alone with her. Not here, in a garden at night. It reminded him too much of what he’d done to her at the rehearsal dinner. He took a breath, and immediately Danny’s face invaded his brain. Laughing, eyes closed as he belly-laughed, and as he always did, he spun out in slow motion, leaving nothing but a pink mist of blood and vaporized body parts.

BOOK: Pushing the Limit
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