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MacKenzie's mission (Chapter Eight)

She drowned in sensuality that weekend. The two rooms of that impersonal hotel suite became very personal, imbued with the aura and memories of their lovemaking. They didn't leave the suite at all, relying on room service for their food, and never dressing in anything except the bathrobes.

As a lover, he more than matched the strength of her passion. Caroline never did anything in halfway measures; she had been fiercely virgin, and now she was just as fierce in the giving of herself. He had never before given free rein to his appetites, but with Caroline he could. He sated himself with her, and yet never felt as if he had had enough. The hunger would roar back, again and again.

He had no inhibitions. He was earthy and powerful, sweeping her along with him, introducing her to more variations, techniques and positions than she could have imagined. Sometimes he was on top and sometimes she was; sometimes he was behind her. Sometimes he used his mouth, and he taught her how to use hers to pleasure him. He made love to her in the bathtub, on the couch, on the floor, wherever they happened to be.

He had a beeper on his belt, but the beeper remained silent and the outside world didn't intrude on them. She had never before been so completely, overwhelmingly involved with another human being, to the exclusion of everything else. She didn't think about work, didn't fret for a book to read. She simply experienced.

By Sunday morning the initial frenzied hunger had been fed and their lovemaking had become more leisurely, bringing with it the patience to linger over both arousal and satisfaction. An hour of sensual play had satisfied them for the moment, and Joe ordered a late breakfast; then they lounged in the parlor with their feet up while they watched television and caught up on the news. Caroline curled against his side, heavy-eyed with contentment.

He lifted a pale strand of her hair and let it drift down, the sunlight catching the gold and making it glitter. "Where are your parents?" he asked absently, paying more attention to the play of light than to his own question.

"Usually, or at this exact moment?" Her voice was just as lazy as his.

"Both."

"Usually they're in North Carolina, where they teach. Right this moment, they're in Greece on a summer-long cultural tour. They're supposed to come home the middle of September."

"Were you lonely when you were little?"

"Not that I noticed. I wanted to learn," she explained. "I couldn't learn fast enough to keep myself satisfied. I wasn't a comfortable child to be around, I don't think. If I hadn't had them for parents I probably would have been a complete wreck, but they helped me handle the frustration and didn't try to limit what I learned."

"You were probably a holy terror," he said dryly.

"Probably." She felt comfortable with it. "What about you?"

He didn't answer immediately, and a tiny quiver of unease intruded on her massive contentment. He would talk easily about his experiences as a pilot, about work, but he kept his private life very private. He had relaxed his guard a little in telling her that he was a half-breed, and that he had three brothers and one sister, but very little else. He hadn't related any childhood experiences to let the conversation get very close to him. Of course, she reminded herself, she hadn't known him for long at all, actually less than a week. The speed and intensity of their relationship dazed her, made the flow of time seem exaggeratedly long.

"No, I wasn't a holy terror," he finally said. She sensed the remoteness in his answer.

"Are any of your brothers or your sister?"

Because she was so close to him, she could feel the subtle relaxation of his muscles. "Just my sister, and it isn't that she's destructive or bad tempered, just very determined to have her own way. She's a little steamroller."

His deep love for his family was evident in his voice. She snuggled closer to him, hoping to keep him talking. "How old are your brothers and sister? What are their names?"

"Michael is eighteen. He's just gotten out of high school and starts college next month. He's interested in cattle ranching and will probably start his own spread when he gets out of college. Joshua is sixteen, and he's the best-natured of the bunch, but he's a jet freak, just like I was at his age. Damn his hide, though, he wants to be a Navy flier. Zane is thirteen, and he's… intense. Silent and dangerous, like Dad. Then there's Maris. She's eleven going on a hundred. Small for her age, so delicate she looks like a breeze would send her airborne, and a will like iron. We're all good with horses, damn good, but Dad is sheer magic with them, and so is Maris."

"What about your stepmother?" Anything to keep him talking.

He gave a quiet laugh. "Mary. She's even smaller than you are."

She sat up. "I'm not small." Her chin jutted out belligerently.

"You're not exactly tall, either. Not quite average, I'd say. I'm almost a foot taller than you." He pulled her back down against his side, her head nestled in the hollow of his shoulder. "Do you want to know about Mary or not?"

"Go ahead," she grumbled, and he kissed her forehead.

"Mary is warm and open and loving, and when she makes up her mind to do something she's unstoppable. She's a teacher. I wouldn't have made it into the Academy without her tutoring."

"So you didn't mind when she and your father married?"

"Mind?" He gave that quiet laugh again. "I did everything I could to throw them together. Not that it was all that difficult. Dad was like a corralled stallion. He was determined to have her, no matter how many fences he had to kick down or go over."

His ease and earthy understanding of his father's sexual nature made her smile. For her part, she simply couldn't imagine her own parents as intensely sexual beings, probably because they weren't. She was proof that they did have sex, but both of them were low-key and concerned more with intellectual matters than those of a physical nature. Their love life was probably warm and affectionate, rather than the raw, raunchy, intense lovemaking Joe had swept her into.

"What about your dad? What's he like?"

"Tough. Dangerous. And the best father in the world. Even when I was a little kid, I always knew he'd fight to the death for me."

That was an odd way to describe one's parent, but looking at Joe she could easily believe that his father was dangerous. They were probably mirror images of each other.

"That's enough about me," he said abruptly, though very little of the conversation had actually told her about him. She sensed that wariness in him again as the steel door guarding his inner thoughts clanged shut. He lifted her astride his lap and pushed her robe open, closing his hands over her breasts. "I want to find out about you."

She shivered and looked down at her breasts, at his bronze hands covering the soft, pale mounds. "That's no longer virgin territory to you."

"So it isn't." The blue of his eyes grew darker, more intense. He stroked one of his hands down her belly and into the notch of her legs, lightly probing. "This isn't, either, but it's even more exciting now than it was before. I could only imagine what you'd feel like before, but now I know how tight and hot you are, and how you start getting wet as soon as I touch you." He circled her delicate opening with one rough fingertip, using exquisite care. She shuddered as pleasure rushed through her, hot and sharp, tightening her muscles and giving him the dampness he sought as her body immediately began preparing to receive him. He pushed his finger a little way into her, and her body quickened, her breath sighing in and out of her lungs, a fine quivering seizing her.

Joe pushed his own robe open. He was as ready as a stallion, his thin nostrils flaring at the female scent of her. With his hand on her bottom he urged her forward, positioned her, then reached down to hold himself steady as she sank onto him with a soft, wild cry. She enveloped him, and he moved his hand, using it to urge her closer.

"Now I know how soft you are," he whispered, "and how you shiver around me, how all those sweet little muscles try to grab me tight and start milking me when we're… damn!" The last word was low and fierce. Caroline scarcely heard it. She began moving on him, hungry for him, desperate for the release already luring her.

His hands bit into her hips almost as if he would stay her movements, and she whimpered, but then with another muttered curse he grasped her buttocks and moved her in a hard, quick rhythm on his invading length. This wasn't one of the leisurely times; it was fast and ruthless and basic. She grabbed at his shoulders for balance as she began convulsing and only a heartbeat later he joined her, his head arching back, veins and tendons cording in his muscular neck.

Recovery took longer than the act itself. She slumped forward to lie in exhausted silence on his chest. He smoothed her hair away from her face with gentle fingers, then held her close to him. "I haven't been taking very good care of you," he said quietly. "That's twice."

She couldn't think of any way he could take any better care of her. "What is?" she murmured.

"That I've taken you without protection."

"But I asked you to." She closed her eyes, savoring in both memory and actuality the intimate feel of him, "I wanted to know everything, feel everything, about you."

"The first time, yes. Even then, I should have had better sense. And there wasn't any excuse for this time."

At the hardness of his tone she sat up and squarely met his gaze. "I'm neither a child nor an idiot, Joe. I know the risk and the consequence, and the responsibility is half mine. I could have said no, but I didn't. The risk isn't that great. One of the benefits of having an inquiring mind is that I'm curious about almost everything, so I read about it. I know all about rhythm and timing, and we're fairly safe. Safe enough that I'm not going to sweat and watch the calendar."

"There's no guarantee on that. All the timing can give us is better than even odds, and I told you, I'm not a gambler."

"Would you mind so very much?" she asked steadily.

"Wouldn't you?"

She shook her head. "No." Her voice was quiet and rock solid.

He gave her a piercing look. She waited for him to ask her why, but he didn't. Instead he said, "I want to know if your next period is even a day late."

His tone of command was so obvious that she snapped off a sharp salute and barked, "Yes, sir!" Sometimes he was very much the colonel.

He laughed and swatted her lightly on the bottom as he shifted her off his lap. She stood up and tied the robe around her. "When do we have to leave?"

"I arranged for a late checkout," he said. "By six tonight."

So their remaining time locked in their private little world could now be counted in a dwindling number of hours. It was amazing how quickly she had grown accustomed to room and maid service, to having him all to herself, to the intoxicating delights of the flesh. Probably this seclusion would wear thin if it stretched out for a week, but she would like to have that week. It wasn't to be, however. Tomorrow they would both be back at work, she on the ground and he in the air. Tomorrow she would have to deal with the fear all over again, because the man she loved was doing something dangerous and she couldn't stop it. It would be obscene to even try. Joe was an eagle; only death or age would ground him. She would gladly endure years of quiet terror, if only they would be granted.

For now, she didn't want to waste even one minute before they were forced to face real life again.

She didn't know what this weekend had meant to him, maybe only a prolonged, intense roll in the hay, sufficient for the pleasure it provided, but for her the man and the weekend had been the catalyst that had unlocked the passion of her nature. She felt… changed inside, somehow, freer, more content. It was as if she had been viewing life through a gray veil and it had been ripped aside, letting her see the true, vibrant colors. She no longer felt set aside and isolated, but part of it all. She was no longer alone, as she had essentially been for most of her life, from the time she had first realized that her brain made her different. In giving herself to him, she had gained rather than lost, because she now had a part of Joe that would never leave her. He had given her memories, experience… ecstasy. Under his earthy tutelage, she had bloomed inside herself, learned the rich depths of her own nature.

Abruptly, despite her own common sense and in full recognition of the difficulties it would involve, she hoped that the timing had been wrong for her and she was carrying his child.

"What?" he asked, black brows lifted, and she realized she had been standing in front of him staring intently at him for God only knew how long.

A slow smile broke across her face, lighting her up like dawn. "I was just thinking," she said seriously, "that a lot more women would enlist if you'd just pose for recruiting posters in the nude."

He looked briefly startled, then gave a roar of laughter as he surged to his feet. He grabbed a fistful of robe and hauled her to him. "Do you mean you'd share me with the women of America?"

"Not in this lifetime."

"Not even if my country needed my services? Where's your patriotism?"

She reached into his open robe and firmly cupped him. "One place it isn't," she replied sweetly, "is here."

He began to fill her palm as he responded to her touch, despite their recent lovemaking. "I'll give you two days to stop that, then I'm calling the police."

"We don't have two days," she pointed out. She looked at the clock. "We only have about eight hours."

"Then damn if I'm going to waste a minute of it," he replied, swiftly lifting her into his arms. He preferred the bed for prolonged lovemaking. As he carried her into the other room she clung tightly, wishing that time could stand still.

It didn't, of course. It couldn't, despite her wishes. It felt strange leaving their intimate cocoon, but by six-thirty they were headed back to the base. She sat silently, trying to brace herself for the abrupt end to the intimacy they had shared for the past two days. She would sleep alone that night and every night, until the weekend came again. Perhaps even then. He hadn't said anything about tomorrow night, much less next weekend.

She glanced at him. It was a subtle difference, but the closer they got to the base he became less her lover and more the colonel. His thoughts were already on Night Wing, on those sleek, deadly, beautiful planes and how they responded to his skilled hands. Maybe the change in him was that he became their lover rather than hers. They flew for him; they carried him higher and faster than she ever could. She only hoped they would protect him as fiercely, and bring him back to her.

Long before she was ready, he was depositing her at her door. He stood in front of her, those clear, bottomless eyes lingering over every detail of her appearance. "I'm not going to kiss you good-night," he said. "I won't want to stop. I'm too used to having you."

"Then… good night." She started to hold out her hand, then quickly pulled it back. She couldn't share even a handshake with him. It was too much after the concentrated intimacy of the weekend, too much of a temptation, too sharp a reminder that tonight they would sleep alone.

"Good night." He turned abruptly and strode to his truck. Caroline quickly unlocked the door and stepped inside, not wanting to see him drive away. The tiny quarters, luxurious as they were in comparison with most of the temporary quarters on base, were both desolate and suffocating. She quickly turned the air conditioner on high, but nothing could ease the emptiness. Nothing, that is, except Joe.

She didn't sleep well that night. She kept reaching for him, searching for his warmth, for the big, hard, masculine body she had slept draped over and entangled with for the past two nights. Her own body, abruptly deprived of the sensual orgy it had become accustomed to, ached with frustration.

She was awake well before dawn and finally gave up on sleep. Work had always been a panacea for her, so perhaps it would be again. She was assigned to the project to work, after all, not to moon over the project manager.

It did help. She managed to lose herself quite satisfactorily in preparation for the day's tests. Joe didn't stop by, for which she was oddly grateful. She was just now getting her bearings back; if he'd kissed her, she would have been lost again. She would probably also have been stretched out across one of the desks with her legs wrapped around his waist. Typically, he had seen the temptation and resisted it. She wasn't certain she could have.

As usual, Cal was the second to arrive. "Where were you this weekend?" he asked casually. "I tried to call a couple of times to see if you wanted to catch a movie."

"In Vegas," she replied. "I stayed there."

"Wish I'd thought of that. It's a fun town, isn't it? Did you hit the casinos?"

"I'm not much of a gambler. Miniature golf is more my game."

He laughed as he got himself a cup of coffee. "You'd better watch living in the fast lane like that," he advised. "Too much excitement can make you old."

If that were the case, she would have aged at least a hundred years over the weekend. Instead, she felt more alive than she ever had before.

Joe wasn't in the control room when the laser team arrived; the pilots were already in the aircraft, engines screaming. The assignments were the same as they had been on Friday: Joe and Bowie Wade in the Night Wings, Daffy Deale and Mad Cat Myrick in the F-22s. All the project teams gathered around their assigned monitors so they could scan the sensor readouts during the flight.

The birds lifted off.

It went smoothly at first, with the lasers locking on to the drones just the way they were supposed to do. Caroline let out a long sigh of relief. She wasn't naive enough to think there wouldn't be any more problems, but at least that particular one seemed to have been solved. They ran through it time after time, at different speeds and ranges. Yates was smiling.

On their return to base, Mad Cat was on Joe's wing and Daffy was shadowing Bowie Wade, to provide visual verification during the flights. Caroline was still idly watching the monitor when suddenly Bowie's target signal lit up. "Did he hit the switch?" she asked aloud.

Yates and Adrian turned back to the monitor, their brows knit with puzzlement. Cal looked up from his own computer. Almost simultaneously, the computer started flashing the red firing signal and all hell broke loose on the radio and in the control room.

"I'm hit, I'm hit!" Daffy screamed, and Bowie was yelling, "This goddamn thing just went off! What the hell happened?"

"What's the damage?" It was Joe's voice, deep and cool, the authority in it overriding everything else.

"No control, my hydraulics are shot to hell. I can't hold it." Daffy's voice was tight.

"Eject!" Bowie was yelling. "Stop screwing around, Daffy. You can't make it!"

The voices were stepping all over each other, and the control room was in an uproar. The pilots there were turned to stone, their faces frozen masks as they waited to see if one of their own made it back or was going to die right in front of them.

Then Joe's voice again, roaring. "Eject-eject-eject! Now!"

The iron authority got through to Daffy as nothing else could have, and the computers registered a pilot ejection.

"I see a chute!" It was Mad Cat. "He's too low, he's too low-"

Then the radio exploded with noise as the F-22 augered into the desert floor.

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