"How long's it been?" Courtney crossed her legs on the sofa, and shrugged. "Couple of years, maybe. I really was out of the dating pool for most of my last year modeling."
Scarlett, beside her, turned away from Casablanca and blinked. "Really? But wasn't that when you were doing that ad campaign with… with… drat, I forget his name. That guy with the amazing green eyes."
Courtney opened her mouth to agree—then blinked back. "Shana, how…"
Scarlett had the good grace to blush. Or maybe it wasn't good grace, it was the fact that with that white, white skin, when Shana got embarrassed, the whole world knew it—especially in winter. Courtney smirked—sure, she was probably one of the world's deadliest women, but Shana O'Hara could look—and act—like such a sweet Southern redhead sometimes! "Hey, no! My sister had such a crush on him, okay? I think she has every issue of Vogue from that year."
Strangely, considering that it was Scarlett, Courtney could actually believe it? "Well… yeah," she shrugged, "He was nice-looking, wasn't he? But I got sick of pretty guys really early." And she hated the fact that pretty guys knew that they were pretty, and it was like… like every move was a pose, with them. Which worked very well for modeling, but in real life? Ugh. "What's wrong with liking a little, you know, power?"
Truthfully, the whole waify-male actors and models that she'd hung out with for so many years? Really not Cover Girl's type. Oh, sure, she knew very well that the camera gave them pounds that none of them wanted to show, which was why they had to be as thin as they were—all of them, male and female alike.
But she'd been one of the few girls who'd kept herself in shape in her modeling years with martial arts, not the South Beach diet and the gym… and yes, she knew that quite a few of the men she'd worked with had found that whole concept rather hot.
She, however, had never found the idea that she could break most of her partners over her knee anything but, er, rather sad, actually.
Cover Girl kicked Shana—hard—when her teammate raised an eyebrow and murmured, "Power? Uh, hello, Cobra Commander, aren't you looking awfully feminine today?" but… eh, kicking someone with as many black belts as Scarlett had was kind of unsatisfying. Mostly because she knew Shana had let it land.
"I'm just saying," Cover Girl complained. "I like a little muscle, okay? A little strength."
"Muscle? Strength? Hey! Hands off my ninja!" Scarlett laughed.
Jaye, on the other side of Scarlett, choked on her sip of beer.
O-kay, she was with Allison on this one: talk about things that had never even occurred to her. "Oh, you mean the psychologically and physically scarred ninja whose automatic reflex is to cut off the hands of anyone who touches him?" Cover Girl snorted. Snake-Eyes did move in a way she'd never seen out of anyone else, and with what he wore, the only way that amazing body could be more on display would be if he ran around in his skivvies. Sure, she'd admit that when the man was doing what he did best, he was nice to look at. But.
Courtney liked Snake-Eyes—she really did: he was solid, even if he wasn't at all social, and she'd been very surprised to discover that there actually was a really steady, sweet personality under all that black commando gear. But number one, the man could probably grow issues on his issues, like mushrooms, and number two, he was so thoroughly Scarlett's that most of the time, he seemed like less of a guy, and more of a combination of SMART bomb and deadly extension of the redhead.
"Yeah," Cover Girl chuckled, wryly, lifting her can of beer in a silent toast. "No-o-o problem. He's all yours."
"Thank you." Scarlett narrowed her eyes—playfully. Courtney hoped. It was hard to tell with her sometimes.
"And before you even say anything," she glanced over at where Lady Jaye was grinning, her mouth already half-open to toss in her own two cents. Sometimes it really sucked to be the only girl on the team without some kind of communications degree. "Your guy's got a nice body, too, but I've seen the things you guys talk about for fun, and no thanks. I can feel my brain leaking out of my ears already."
But Allison just grinned, and shrugged. "No, I know that. Besides, I'd cut off his hands. But… you know, I could have guessed that you prefer guys who are, you know, guys."
Courtney laughed. "That's exactly it! Yeah. But…" her eyes narrowed a little. "How…?"
"Well," Jaye pointed out, taking a handful of cheese puffs from the bowl on Shana's lap and casually popping one into her mouth. "For one thing, you're a tall woman, and you play hard. And you don't take any nonsense from anyone. Besides, what with the tanks and the way you get all gooshy over muscle cars and all. It makes sense that you'd like tough guys."
"Hey! I don't get gooshy over muscle cars!" Courtney protested.
Okay, maybe she did, a little, but just a little—
"Uh… you don't?" Scarlett raised the other eyebrow.
"Really could have fooled us," Jaye replied, her eyes wide and so suspiciously innocent. "Hawk should send you out on more Covert Ops missions, Cover Girl, because obviously you must be a stunning actress as well as a lovely model—"
Courtney threw a cheese puff at the linguist. "Hey! Look, okay, so I like my muscle cars a little. They're big, they're tough, no-one bullies them… what's not to like? Besides," she smiled, and okay, maybe it was a little dreamy. "Isn't there just something about the way they growl when you rev them up that sends a shiver down your spine?"
Scarlett laughed, and raised her beer to her lips, shaking her head as she sipped. "No wonder you don't date, Courtney—you're all the way in love with your Mustang already!"
"…well… hey, you know…" Jaye's mouth was smooth and curved in just the most innocent little hint of a smile—and the idea of Allison Hart-Burnett's smile being at all innocent really should have tipped her off before she'd even let Jaye continue. It really should have. "If you like your guys like you like your cars, then there's no problem."
Cover Girl blinked, and cocked her head. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Big? Tough? Doesn't get bullied by anyone?" Jaye raised her fingers and started ticking things off, her brows furrowed, her expression serious. "Growls and sends a shiver up your spine while he's doing it? Okay, so maybe it's a shiver of fear, and you know that it means that you're going to be running laps until they raise the flag tomorrow morning, but—"
Courtney had her pillow up and swinging by the time Shana started laughing.
Considering that the night ended with both Scarlett and Jaye piled on top of her—and she really didn't think it was at all fair, one of them had enough black belts to stock a dojo and the other one had probably learned how to pillow-fight in that all-girls' college of hers—Cover Girl really didn't have that much hope for PT the next day.
So when, the next morning, one of the obstacle course footholds gave underneath her weight just as she pushed off it, letting go of her handholds to snatch for the top—she actually wasn't all that surprised.
The sharp crack of bone snapping when she hit the ground sounded very loud in her ears. That was a surprise.
The roar of blood and pain when she crumpled across the pounded dirt, her hip and shoulder hitting the ground with bruising, breathless force when her foot suddenly wouldn't hold under her, sounded even louder.
"Whoa! Courtney!" that was Allison.
A presence, a hand suddenly on her shoulder—that was Snake, he'd been just in front of her, she hadn't seen him step where she had but, Hell, Snake barely needed to touch the obstacle course wall before he was over it, and—
"Dammit, girl, can't you do anything right?" an unmistakable voice roared from behind her. Yeah… and that was her very favorite person on the G.I. Joe team. "It's got fuckin' climbing pegs in it, and you can't even—"
Cover Girl twisted to yell back into her asshole drill sergeant's face—but that put pressure in just the wrong places, streaking all the way from her ankle to grab her voice in a vice grip, and it came out as a sharp gasp instead.
For some reason, that stopped him. Which was… unexpected. Then he crouched down beside her and started scowling a truly ferocious scowl underneath that green mask he wore, which was not unexpected, and his fingers were rough against her jaw when he turned her face towards him. "What the Hell, Cinderella, spent too much time in the dancin' shoes last—"
"Beach Head—" Allison, again. Cover Girl glanced over, jerking her chin out of Beach's hands. Jaye had been right behind her, and the petite Counterintel agent was standing at the wall now—frowning at she tiptoed to finger the damned spot that Cover Girl had known had had a small, almost unreachable foothold peg in it, it had… "I think…"
Courtney narrowed her eyes, blinked away the fog of sweat and pain. There was something left sticking out of there, where Jaye was touching. It looked like… what was that? A little piece of red-brown metal, protruding out from the dirt coating the obstacle wall, but geez, she wasn't stupid enough to try and put her foot on a peg that didn't even have a foothold cover in it! Much less a broken-off rusty little nail like that…!
Courtney heard the sharp hiss as Beach Head glanced over, away from her, towards the wall… and he sucked in a long breath as Snake-Eyes picked up something from the foot of the wall, and tossed it at him. He snatched it out of the air—cupped in his hand, it looked like a small, fist-sized rock. Well, it really did, but… did rocks have what looked like a piece of rusty nail sticking out of them? "Ah. No. Fuck."
Cover Girl also could have sworn that she heard him mutter, "Damned physical," too, but… that couldn't have been right, could it?
Their drill sergeant pushed himself back to his feet, shoving the rock—that's what that was: her former foothold!—into his pocket. "Fuckin' made-in-China peg… rusted right through the middle, an' it caught itself a good big fishie this time when it went down, huh, Cover Girl?" He shook his head, growling in a low rumble. But to her surprise, Beach Head leaned over and actually held out a hand for her to grab.
It was almost automatic to reach upwards to take his hand and pull herself back to her feet—but Cover Girl stopped herself, just in time, slipping her fingers out from his. Oh, geez. That would have been bad. His eyes narrowed. "What's the matter with you, Princess?"
"I don't… I can't stand up." And she sheer depth of humiliation at having to admit that to him, of all people, was going to haunt her to the end of her days! Courtney tried to move her ankle—maybe it wasn't too bad, maybe she'd just jarred it a—ohfuck that was not a nice feeling. "I… I, uh, felt something snap when I fell." And she'd just felt something grind when she'd tried to move it.
Beach Head straightened up with a jerk and pulled off his mask, tucking it into his belt—yes, there was that glare again. Courtney glared right back at him—yeah, her ankle hurt, and yeah, she was so not in the mood to deal with Beach being Beachly right now. It wasn't that she thought he was intimidating—he wasn't a pussycat or anything, but what was the worst he could do to her, right now, anyway? It wasn't like any of this was her fault, and it wasn't like he could give her laps for getting injured on his own damned PT obstacle course!
But he wasn't yelling—which was a first. Instead, he propped both hands on his hips and stared down at her for a long moment, swearing in a stream that was more Southern whiskey than words. This time, it wasn't just "damned physical," he was muttering, it was "goddamned fuckin' physical."
Cover Girl found herself sucking in a soft, startled breath—and it wasn't pain, and she tried to tell herself it was pain, but… she really wasn't very good at denial—when Beach Head simply reached down and picked her up in his arms. Effortlessly.
Her calves, the back of her knees, slid over the soft, sweat-damp cloth of the sleeve pushed up over his elbow, his other arm curving around her shoulder, hooking underneath hers and pulling her up against him. One big hand molded against her ribs. His chest and abdomen were a support of solid, compact muscle against her side, and despite the sharp ache pulsing up her ankle when it dangled into the air…
Okay, him holding her like this?
Cover Girl had one brief, stunned second to understand that, actually… it felt really, really nice.
Oh, no, this was not okay, and in fact, it was less okay than her damned ankle!
"Ack! Hey!" Cover Girl complained, twisting as he lifted her into the air and against his body in one smooth rise. "What are you doing?"
"Stop squirmin'," he muttered, shifting her easily until she was cradled securely against him. Damn it—he wasn't even breathing hard!
"Put me down!" Like right this very moment!
Beach Head raised an eyebrow. "You givin' your Master Sergeant orders now, Corporal?"
The eyebrow was almost a little playful. The words were… Courtney narrowed her eyes at him. "I'm just saying, sir, that there may be other alternatives to you carrying me." Like maybe her just lying down and dying on the spot at even the thought of enjoying the way this felt! For crying out loud, this wasn't some Prince Charming carrying her bridal-style, it was Beach Head!
He grunted—she couldn't tell if it was satisfaction at her calling him 'sir'—which, she had to admit, she did only when it was conveniently insulting, or when someone made her do it—or him knowing she'd had those words dragged out of her with pain and pliers. Cover Girl had the sinking feeling that it was the latter. "Yeah, sure, 'cause you're gonna walk your own pretty ass over to the infirmary?"
"Because—because—" because the last time a guy had cradle-carried her, it'd been for a photo shoot? She'd been maybe forty pounds lighter and her ribs had been visible when she stretched, and she'd actually enjoyed the experience so much that she'd hopped into bed with him several weeks later? And actually thoroughly enjoyed the whole relationship before they'd gone their separate ways—him to Europe for a contract, her to Japan for a show?
No, that was too long of an explanation.
Yeah, and it was also something she was never, ever, ever in all her life going to say aloud, and especially not to Master Sergeant Wayne Sneeden!
And especially since Courtney was realizing that she didn't have an arm draped over his shoulders, helping him support her, and it was like it didn't even matter! Jesus, it was like she didn't weigh anything more than a rucksack to him!
"Look, can't it wait for a stretcher, Beach?" Courtney exclaimed, as he started to walk.
He didn't even bother to look down at her—which pissed her off more than he usually did. "No."
It was even more annoying that not only did he not even budge when she shoved at his chest, he didn't so much as acknowledge that she'd done it. And it was like shoving at a warm, sleek wall. Damn it, this would have even been sexy if it had been anyone else. "It wasn't an actual question, Beach Head, it was—"
"Yeah, an' it wasn't an option, either," Beach Head retorted, but his voice was, much to her surprise, very calm. "I'm carryin' you to Doc's, and that's that, Cover Girl." And to her surprise, Beach Head looked down at her, and his hazel eyes were almost gold in the soft, clear early morning sunshine. Almost gold, and very sure, because Beach Head was always very sure. "Now shut up."
"Beach…" and maybe it was the pain, or maybe it was the solid strength of him, or maybe it was the fact that he was tucking her close and moving carefully and smoothly enough that her hurt ankle wasn't even bumping against him as he walked. Or maybe it was because she'd just had the really, really shocking realization that Wayne Sneeden was… actually a handsome man, with those brilliant eyes and firm mouth and high, blade-sharp cheekbones over smooth-shaven cheeks. Not pretty. No, definitely not pretty. "Just… why?"
They weren't friends. No, she wouldn't call them friends. Enemies, maybe. Rivals, always. Yeah, he looked at her—she wasn't blind—but yeah, he yelled at her a lot more than he looked. And there wasn't anything that… that… was there?
Damn it, now she was letting the pain talk for her!
There was a long pause. He didn't stop moving. He didn't look at her. But for a second—just a second—Beach Head's expression was… almost thoughtful. Almost… careful. His mouth twisted with something that wasn't anger quite so much as it was… was… what was that? "'Cause." His voice was a soft, quiet rumble. "You got hurt on my watch, Courtney."
Then it was neither, it was Beach Head again, and she blinked, wondering what the Hell she'd just seen, and if she'd really just heard him call her by her actual name.
"An' besides, if you're hangin' out waiting in the middle of the obstacle course, no-one else can finish PT, Princess!" he snapped, louder. Maybe there was something in her expression, now, because he frowned down at her. "What, you think I'm haulin' you around 'cause I like it?"
Before Cover Girl even had the chance to say anything to that, Beach Head—still walking—turned his head and yelled over his shoulder, "And did I say you could stop, maggots? If I get back an' all of you ain't done and drenched with sweat besides, it'll be another run-through for every last damned one of you!"
Then he did stop, and added—with the kind of truly pissed-off glare that she'd once thought could probably mow down a Cobra batallion all on its own, "An'… Chickadee. Jaye. I don't know what the fuck the two of y'all think is so damned funny, but you can both give me a nice, round hundred push-ups before I'm back here!"
From behind their drill sergeant's back, Cover Girl heard Scarlett yell back, "What? We can't finish the run and a hundred push-ups in the time it takes you to get back, Beach!"
Well, she'd always thought that Scarlett had more pluck and fire than a Cobra batallion.
He didn't turn back around. But Beach Head actually smiled, at that, to Courtney's shock—just the faintest twitch of the corner of his mouth, a crinkle in those hazel eyes, and she had just the briefest moment to think it was weird that she could recognize that expression on his face before he started walking again, his arms holding her safely, securely, against his chest. "Well, that ain't my problem now, is it?"
Courtney groaned, and tipped her head back to dangle over the crook of his elbow.
Now she really was never going to hear the end of this, was she?
August 17, 2009