The Challenge – Prologue

Prologue

 

“Well, Corelli, looks like the best man won the Challenge.” Ellie Ryan raised her bottle of beer. The rest of the men gathered around a table at The Cockpit bar, followed suit.

“Except the best man in this instance is a woman.” Vince Corelli clinked his longneck to hers and noted for one-millionth time Ellie Ryan was a damn fine-looking woman. Ellie was the real deal. An awesome pilot and man’s wet dream rolled into one. After six months of working side by side, Vince was ready to take his Ellie-inspired, constant hard-on and hit the road.

“How’s it feel to be bested by a woman, Corelli?” Goose, Ellie’s copilot teased. “Gotta be rough on the ego.”

“Nah, real men don’t have inflated egos.” Vince wiggled his bottle and signaled the waitress to bring another round.

“Says the man with the two-hundred mega-watt ego.” Ellie wrapped her lips around the rim of her bottle. What Vince wouldn’t give to have those lips wrapped around his cock. “I’m still trying to figure out how you even found a helmet big enough to fit that big head of yours.”

Samuels slapped his beer onto the table. “Fuck the helmet. I want to know where the major general found a cockpit big enough for Corelli’s head.”

Another circle of laughter surrounded him. “You do know men with big egos have a big cocks.”

“Wait a second, Corelli. Didn’t you just tell me and the guys you didn’t have an ego?” Ellie’s eyes swam with laughter. Her excitement and happiness was contagious.

Wilson stood and made a few obscene gestures with his pelvis. “Ryan’s got you there, Corelli.”

The new tray of beers arrived and Corelli rose and held his out. “Seriously. I want to wish Ellie Ryan the best in her new position as pilot of the XK8 prototype. You kicked my flying ass out there and no one deserves the honor more than you, Chief.” He clinked his bottle to hers. “Bottoms up.”

The rest of the crew tapped their bottles together and downed their brews. The group was loud and for the most part obnoxious, but damned if he wasn’t going to miss working with them. Even with his constant boner around her, he’d miss Ellie, too. Hell, he’d miss her the most.

Ellie stood, still clutching her bottle. “Thank you, fly-boy, for your kind words. They touched me right here.” She tapped her bottle over her heart. “Even if they were totally bullshit.”

More laughing.

“You were neck and neck with me throughout the Challenge. Picking a winner was a toss-up, I’m sure. And unfortunately in the end, the committee went with the better looking competitor…me.”

“Having my ass beat by a beautiful woman sounds pretty kinky to me, Ryan.” He wiggled his brows at Ellie.

“We all know the pilot with the biggest set of balls won The Challenge.” Wilson raised his bottle. “But I think we’re gonna miss you, Corelli.”

“Like a bad STD,” Sammy added.

The men were full of jokes tonight.

“Thanks, Ryan, and everyone else. Your insults tonight have touched me deeply. I’ve never felt so loved. If I can ever do a favor for any of you, don’t fucking call me. I screen my calls.” He took a swig from his bottle. “Fuck that. I’m gonna block all your numbers.”

“Ah, the fun never ends when you get a bunch of drunken crew members gathered together.” Goose faced Vince. “Kidding aside, Corelli, it’s been a true pleasure flying with you. Will you apply to the program when they open it after the testing phase is over?”

“I’m thinking it’s time to move on to other things. I’m opting out and taking a job in the private sector.”

“Black ops?”

“What else?”

“Working as a pilot?”

“Wouldn’t take a job if it didn’t include flying.”

Ellie moved between them and wrapped her arms around their shoulders. “Y’all got a lovefest going on over here?”

“Jealous, Ryan?” The heat where Ellie’s bare wrist touched the skin on his neck was instantly scorching. Spontaneous combustion was a threat.

“Of what, fly-boy? Your bromance?” She pulled them into a bear hug before releasing them.

Thank God she stepped away and he could breathe again. He glanced at his watch. He’d stay another fifteen minutes at most. There was paperwork and packing needing his attention. Not to mention a round of solo sex in his near future.

 

***

 

Ellie took a bathroom break and when she returned to the table her heart skipped a few dozen beats. Corelli was gone.

“Where’s Corelli?”

“In the head. Don’t look so panicked, Chief. You’ll still have time to poke fun at him.” Sammy pulled her chair out. “Take a seat. It’s a big day for you.”

It had been a great day for her. She’d won the challenge and the coveted prototype-pilot position. The downside—depending on how she looked at it—was Corelli’s exit from the program. She’d enjoyed spending time with him learning and competing. He was a more experienced pilot than she, but was generous sharing his knowledge. As he’d pointed out numerous times, more experience did not mean better.

And Corelli wasn’t hard on the eyes. He was all man, tall and lean, and built like a warrior. His brown bedroom eyes called to her most primitive desires. The program to pick the XK8’s pilot was called the Challenge. Ellie had decided after the first month of competition, the real challenge was to not throw herself across the controls and into Corelli’s lap.

She’d spent many hours daydreaming about the multiple ways she and Corelli could have sex. Standing, sitting, lying down. In the bedroom, the kitchen, the shower, and on and on. The possibilities were endless. She would’ve challenged the alpha in Corelli for control in the bedroom…if she’d been given the chance. Now six months of wet panties was about to end without her even getting a taste of the man.

“You gonna sit, Chief?” Sammy still held the chair for her.

“You guys are the best, but I think I’m going to head to my room and call home. I want to share my great news with my family.” Not to mention she didn’t really have the heart to say goodbye to Corelli. It wasn’t like her to become so attached to anyone. She had her sister and aunt. They were enough for her. “Catch you all tomorrow. Thanks again for all the hard work during the Challenge and for celebrating the win with me.”

She hurried outside to her car for the short ride back to the base and stopped two cars over from hers. In the blinking neon lights of The Cockpit Bar, she made out the silhouette of a man leaning against her older model Camaro. “What the hell?” Her arms swung as she marched towards him.

“Corelli? What’re you doing out here? Sammy said you were in the bathroom.”

“I needed a moment alone with you. With all the jokes and bullshit going on inside, I wanted to be sure you understood how truly happy I am for you taking the win. I wish you luck with the program.”

Now that was not what she expected to hear. “I appreciate that, Corelli.” She leaned against her car next to him. “I’ve learned a lot and enjoyed our time together.” Boy did she.

“I hear you. To be honest, I kind of hate to see it end.”

“You’ll be around from time to time, won’t you?”

“Not likely. I took a position with Resolutions. I join their team next month.”

“Congratulations. I’ve only heard good things about Hutchinson’s operation.” She pushed off the car. “I guess it’s really good-bye, then.”

“Yep.” Corelli glanced down at his feet and spread a few pieces of gravel around with his boots.

Ellie hugged him. Her head rested against his hard chest and sent chills racing down to her toes. She closed her eyes and breathed in his scent. Damn, she hated to let him go.

He tilted her chin up and wiped a finger over her cheek. It came away wet and she was mortified. Had she just shed a few tears for Corelli?

“Looks like you got something in your eye.” He made another swipe.

“Yeah, probably parking-lot dust.” She rested a hand on his chest, could feel his heart beating beneath her palm. “I guess this is it.”

He nodded, but didn’t totally release her. “I guess.”

“Then I better go.”

“Fuck this, Ryan. I gotta at least taste your lips. I’ve earned it after six months of lusting over you in that damned cockpit.”

Before she could protest, he drew her to him, and his mouth covered hers. Six months of dreaming about him and here he was in the flesh, kissing the holy shit out of her.

Daydreaming about him had always made her wet. Kissing him had her panties flooding. He was as skilled at kissing as he was at flying. She didn’t want it to end.

“It doesn’t have to, Ellie. We can take this to the hotel down the road.”

“What?”

“You said…,” He whispered between kisses. “… you didn’t want this to end.”

“I said that out loud?” Dammit.

“Yes.” He took her bottom lip between his teeth, nudged her face upwards with a finger, and released her. “What do you say? Let’s grab a bottle of expensive champagne and take this celebration elsewhere.” He ran a hand inside her shirt and thumbed a nipple into a hard peak.

“Throw in a pizza and you’re on, fly boy.” She could barely speak. “No-strings-attached sex?”

“Agreed. No strings. No regrets.”

This might end up being the biggest mistake of her life, but it was going to be a hell of a lot of fun making it.

 

***

 

Vince lay with Ellie’s leg wrapped around him like a vise. Every inch of skin that touched hers was on fire and made him burn with need. He’d love to wake her and bury himself so deep it would take forever to pull them apart. Just one more round before he left. But if he woke her up, he might not be able to leave. And he had every intention of leaving.

If he had to look into her eyes and see the desire—or disappointment—in them, he’d never walk out the door. No, it was better to sneak away like a cat with his tail between his legs. Normally he wasn’t a lowlife, but damned if this didn’t make him look like the biggest fucking coward around. He’d rather look down the barrel of an AK47 than face the woman he’d fucked half the night. He wasn’t afraid of her. He was afraid of what he felt for her.

Ellie didn’t deserve to be run out on. Of course, people didn’t always get what they deserved. He certainly hadn’t deserved a cheating fiancée, who emotionally castrated him. Ellie would be fine. She’d asked for a night of no-strings-attached sex and he’d given her exactly what she wanted. Hell, it was what he wanted, too. It was better this way. He couldn’t take a chance on another woman breaking his heart again—no matter how much he enjoyed spending time with her.

If he was so sure she would be fine with his leaving without a good-bye, why the fuck did he feel like such a bastard?

 

***

 

“Mmmm….” It was all Ellie had the strength to say. She and Corelli had made wild, wicked love all night long. She’d be lucky if she could walk today. “This was a great idea, Corelli…I mean, Vince.” He’d insisted she call him by his first name. Maybe she’d adjust her no-strings-attached policy for Vince.

She rolled over and reached for him. His side of the bed was empty, the sheets cold. Ellie pulled on her tee shirt and padded to the bathroom. She knocked on the door. “Vince? Are you in there?”

No answer. She pushed the unlocked door open and peeked inside. The only sign that he’d been in the bathroom was the pile of used condoms in the trash can.

Ellie pulled the door closed and glanced around the rest of the hotel room. His shirt that had been left next to the empty pizza box was gone and so were his pants that she’d tossed over the TV. Vince had run out on her. She kicked the empty champagne bottle across the room and sat on the side of the bed, her head buried in her palms. Why did she fall for this crap every time? She knew better. Never depend on a man or trust them. They’ll fuck you every time…literally.

How could she have read the signals so wrong? Vince and she had worked together for six months. She’d let herself believe he was different. She walked around the room, picking up her clothes. The son of a bitch left without a good-bye, a kiss my ass, or even a thanks for the fuck.

Okay, so maybe making one huge mistake wasn’t that much fun.