Breaking the Rules

By: Tawny Weber

Prologue

Sergeant First Class Maximilian St. James, EOD squad leader, stood at attention at the foot of the hospital bed. Next to him stood the general, also standing ramrod straight. The blistering Afghanistan sun shone through the army medical center window. The sharp scent of antiseptic filled the air.

Specialist Rico Santiago, his leg in traction, returned the general’s salute, waiting until the man glanced away before winking at Max.

His face impassive, Max saluted the general and waited for the return salute. As soon as the ranking officer stepped aside for him to pin the Purple Heart on Rico’s pajama top, Max rolled his eyes at the look of heroic suffering on his buddy’s face.

“Good work, gentlemen,” the general concluded, dismissing them both.

Only when the man moved away did Max let himself grin.

He tapped Rico’s cast and arched his brow as if to say, “Told you so.”

“I’d have been fine if you’d presented it,” Rico muttered, but Max could tell the guy was seriously proud to have been pinned by a four-star general.

“You deserved a little pomp,” Max claimed. He’d made sure his man got it, and had pushed to have Rico brought 8

Breaking the Rules

to the joint theater hospital instead of the closer units. Now, shoulders tense from being at constant attention, Max wished for just a second that they’d stuck with a more low-key hospital.

It had nothing to do with being nervous in the presence of brass. Max had cut his baby teeth on brass.

He’d never had one of his men hospitalized before, though.

He was handling it fine. It wasn’t as if he wanted to wince at the sight of the cuts and bruises on Rico’s face. The guy’s leg all trussed up, with pulleys and contraptions wrapped around it, didn’t make his gut clench.

He didn’t feel ill whenever he closed his eyes and flashed back to the paralyzing terror of watching the RPG, or rocket-propelled grenade, hit the ground. The dust and flying dirt had made it impossible to see how bad Rico had been hit. For a heartbeat, he’d frozen when the dust cleared and he saw his man lying there on the ground.

Yep, he was handling it all just fine.

Rico was a smart guy, though.

“Dude, quit feeling guilty. It wasn’t your fault.”

“It was my call to go in and defuse that bomb,” Max muttered, giving in to the need to chill by dropping into the chair next to the bed.

“You didn’t know we’d be ambushed.”

Max shrugged. It should have been a simple bomb detonation. Intel hadn’t offered any insurgent warnings. The village had been peaceful with early morning quiet. Standard bomb disarming operation, just like any other day.

Max had assessed the situation and made the call to go in.

It’d been a bad call.

“That grim look on your face is messing up my hero moment here,” Rico joked.

“You look pretty in your new jewelry,” Max joked, flicking Tawny Weber

9

a finger over the commendation on Rico’s chest. “Still, I feel bad leaving you lying here.”

“Dude, you’d be going home whether I was busted up or not. Quit being all mama hen and enjoy your leave.”

Max smirked, always amused at the hokey folky sayings coming out of a big, macho bruiser like Rico. The man was right, though. Max was due to go stateside in twenty-four hours. It was coming up to the anniversary of his father’s death, so whenever possible he took leave to be with his mom on that day.

“But you know…” Rico said, his smile dimming.

Max lost the smirk.

“If you don’t mind?”

“Sure, buddy. Anything.”

“You’re going back to the Bay area, yeah?”

“Yeah.” There had been a St. James of the St. Jameses on Nob Hill as far back as the 1800s. Sure, the house had been rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, but the snobbery of the family hadn’t changed a bit.

Which meant that while he’d have preferred to spend his month-long leave knocking back tequila with a half dozen bikini-clad hotties on a beach somewhere, that wasn’t gonna happen.

Unless orders prevented it, he was expected to spend Februarys at home. Max had learned the rules at his mother’s knee. As he’d grown older, he’d learned which ones mattered, which could be ignored and how to bend them all to work in his favor.

“A little favor?”

From the look on Rico’s face, a combination of a sheepish grin and the look he got before he pulled one of his notorious pranks, Max figured he’d better hear this standing. He rose slowly, preparing.

“My sister is right outside San Francisco. I told you that, right?” He waited for Max’s nod. “She’s a peach. A real sweet-10

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