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MacKenzie's mission (Chapter Five)

The tests went well that day, which was a good thing, because Caroline was in a daze. Adrian made a snide remark to her when they were alone and she confounded him by giving him a vague smile. She was alarmed at her own lack of concentration. That had never been a problem before; her ability to concentrate was so strong that one professor in college had made the comment that she would be able to read during an earthquake, and he hadn't been far off the mark.

She would never have believed that a man could totally disrupt her thought processes, especially since he wasn't paying her any particular attention. He didn't have to, she realized. He had made his intention plain the day before, and he'd been seen kissing her goodnight; as far as everyone on base was concerned, she was Colonel Mackenzie's woman. He was the alpha male, and none of the other men would challenge him for his chosen mate. She was a little appalled at this demonstration of how little things had changed since prehistoric times, even though she had done her part by going along with him. Now there was food for thought. Had she gone along with him because his suggestion had made sense, or because he was the alpha male and she had felt subconsciously compelled to obey him?

Nah. She had never felt compelled, subconsciously or otherwise, to obey anyone. She had gone along with him because he made her heartbeat go crazy, pure and simple, and it was useless to keep looking for extenuating circumstances with which to excuse herself.

When they were back in the office going over the day's test results and preparing for the next day's flights, Cal rolled his chair over to hers. "So, how'd it go on the date with the boss man?"

Despite herself, her hands immediately started trembling and she laid down the paper she had been trying to read. "Very casual, low-key. Why do you ask?"

To her surprise, his friendly eyes were full of concern. "Well, I've never known you to date before, and I guess I just wanted to make sure he wasn't twisting your arm. He is the head man on this project, and he has a lot of influence, not just with the base commander and the men here, but all the way to the Pentagon."

She was touched. "And you thought I might feel I had to go out with him to stay on the team?"

"Something like that, yeah."

She patted his hand, smiling. "Thanks, but everything's okay."

"Good. Adrian isn't bothering you too much, is he?"

"I haven't paid any attention to him, so I guess he isn't."

Cal smiled and rolled back to his own desk.

Caroline checked the time. Three and a half hours until seven o'clock. She had always found her work engrossing, but along with her loss of concentration she had evidently become a clock-watcher, too. No one had ever warned her that associating with men was efficiency-destroying.

For almost the first time in her life she stopped work when everyone else did. She hurried to her quarters, turned the air conditioner on high and jumped into the shower. It was only as she was stepping out of the stall that she realized she didn't know where they were going or how she should dress.

She stared at the telephone. She could call him. She didn't know his number, but that wasn't any problem, because the base operator would. It was the sensible thing to do. She was a big believer in being sensible, so she sat down on the bed and placed the call before she talked herself out of her own common sense. He answered on the first ring. "Mackenzie."

God, his voice sounded even deeper on the phone. She took a deep breath. "This is Caroline. Where are we going tonight?" There, that was just right. To the point, no silliness, a simple request for information.

"Wear a skirt," he replied maddeningly, cutting through her no-nonsense question to the reason behind it. "Something I can get my hands under."

The receiver clicked in her ear, and she stared at it. The damn man had hung up on her! And her heart was racing again. Damn him, damn him, damn him. It wasn't fair. She was all but in a panic with anticipation and fear and wanting, and his heartbeat was probably as steady as a rock.

A skirt? After that comment, he was lucky she wasn't running for the hills. There was no way she could get in that truck with him expecting at any moment to feel those hot, callused hands sliding up her thighs. If he'd kept his mouth shut she would probably have worn a skirt because it was cooler, but if she wore one now, she would automatically be giving him permission to put his hand up it, and God knows what else. And it wasn't that she didn't want him to, just that he'd said they would go slow and that didn't sound slow at all to her, and even if it was, she would like to have a little control over the situation. What she would really like was to destroy his control, to have him as hot and bothered and on the verge of madness as she was.

She sat down on the bed and took several deep breaths. Maybe nuns had the right idea. Men were obviously detrimental to a woman's mental health.

She put on khaki fatigue pants and a tailored white shirt. That was as close as she was going to get to a skirt… not very close at all.

He knocked on the door at seven o'clock precisely, and when she opened it he burst out laughing. "What have you been thinking?" he asked, still chuckling. "That I'm a big bad wolf all set to gobble you up?"

"The thought crossed my mind."

He watched as she double-checked the appliances in the small quarters, then locked and double-checked the door. She was a cautious woman indeed. He put his hand on her waist as he walked her to the truck. "You don't have anything to worry about," he said soothingly. "I'm not going to eat you." Three seconds ticked by before he murmured, "Yet."

He felt her jump. Her peculiar blend of inexperience and sexuality was slowly driving him mad. When he kissed her, she responded with a heat and intensity that brought him to the brink of violence, but at the same time he sensed that she was ready to bolt at any time. She reminded him of nothing so much as a filly when a stallion is brought to her for the first time, nervous and apt to bite or kick, while at the same time her scent was telling the stallion she was more than ready for his mounting and he was going wild trying to accomplish it. Well, he'd calmed many a mare for both riding and servicing, and he knew just how to go about it.

He lifted her into the truck before she could change her mind and went around to the driver's side. The proposition she had put to him that morning had been in his mind all day, as had the blunt, forthright way she had done it. Caroline didn't know how to be flirtatious or sweetly cajoling; she had just laid it on the line, and her ego with it. He had wanted to take her in his arms and hold her, tell her that she needed to learn how to protect herself better than that. She had no defenses and didn't even realize it. Everything about her was straight ahead, no detours or subterfuges. He'd never had a woman ask for him like that before, ask him to teach her about men and sex. He'd been half-aroused all day, silently cursing the constrictions of his uniform.

Now he was in his customary off-duty jeans and boots, but the jeans were even more restrictive. He shifted position uncomfortably, trying to stretch his leg out to give himself more room. Damn it, he either needed to get out of his pants or get rid of his hard-on-preferably both, and in that order.

"Where are we going this time?" she asked, pushing her wind-blown hair out of her face.

"Do you like Mexican?"

Her eyes lit up. "Tacos," she purred. "Enchiladas. Sopapillas."

He laughed. "Got it." As she pushed her hair back once more, he said, "Would you rather I put up the windows and turned on the air conditioning?"

"No, I like it." She paused before admitting, "My'vette is a convertible."

He was smiling as he returned his attention to the road. Her name should have been Paradox, because she was one conflicting characteristic after another.

They went to his favorite Mexican restaurant in Vegas, where the best enchiladas she'd ever eaten, coupled with a frozen Margarita, relaxed her and made her forget that she was nervous. Joe drank water with his dinner, something she found curious. "I thought pilots were supposed to be hard drinkers," she said.

"Most of us put away our share of pilot juice," he said lazily.

"But not you?"

"Nope. There's a time limit within which you aren't supposed to drink if you're going to be flying the next day, but I think it's too close. I want perfect control of myself and my machine. The laws of physics and aerodynamics aren't very forgiving at Mach 2." He lifted his glass of water in a little toast. "Not only that, I'm a half-breed. I don't drink. Period."

She gave a brief nod as if admitting the wisdom of that. "If it's so dangerous, why do any pilots drink?"

"To wind down. You're so tense for so long, with the adrenaline burning up your veins, that you can't come down from the high. Our lives are on the line every minute up there, even on routine flights. Hell, there's no such thing as a routine flight"

She started to ask a question about Night Wing, but remembered where they were and left it for another time. Security wasn't something she took lightly.

After dinner she said, "What now?" then wished she hadn't. She also wished she hadn't had that Margarita. She saw his point about needing perfect control.

"Now, sweetheart, we play."

When he said play, he meant play. Ten minutes later they were on a miniature golf course.

She hefted the putter experimentally. "I've never done this before."

"Looks like I'm going to be first with you at a lot of things," he replied with that maddening calm of his.

She scowled and lifted the putter like a bat. "Maybe not."

He kissed her even as he relieved her of the putter with a move so fast she saw only a blur. Disgruntled, she thought that if he'd lived in the Old West he would have been a gunfighter.

"Your first lesson," he said, turning her so her back was to him and putting his arms around her. He folded her hands around the handle in the correct manner and showed her how to swing, smooth and level, hitting the ball with carefully restrained power. Strength wasn't a factor in miniature golf; the game required judgment and coordination.

He made a hole in one on the first green. "You've done this before," she accused.

"Among other things."

"New rule. Each innuendo will add a stroke to your score."

"Good. Added strokes means it'll last longer."

She wanted to throw her ball at him and stomp off the green, but instead she shouted with laughter and firmly added another stroke to his score. Rules were rules.

To her surprise, she seemed to have the needed judgment of distance, force and direction, and challenged him even though she had never played before. He was too aggressive by nature to give her the game and set himself to the task of beating her, displaying intense concentration and superb hand-eye coordination. Caroline was just as determined, and the game was largely played in silence, to a tie. He pointed out that it was a draw only because of the penalty stroke she'd added to his score.

"So let's play another," she challenged. "Throw this one out, and the best two out of three wins."

"Deal."

They had to play five more games, because two others ended in draws. He won the first game, she won the second, and the next two were the ties; he finally ended it by winning the fifth game by one stroke.

She was scowling as they turned in their putters, and Joe was reminded of the look on her face the night before, when the slot machine had kept taking her quarters without making a payoff. He had had the idle thought that she was on the verge of dismantling the machine when it had finally paid out. No doubt about it, Caroline made no pretense of being good-natured about losing. She didn't like it. He understood that, because he didn't like it, either.

On the drive back to the base he slowed and pulled off the road, then drove about a quarter of a mile into the desert before stopping. He killed the lights and motor, and the night silence poured in through the open windows.

"Are you ready for another first?"

Caroline tensed. "What kind of first?"

"Parking."

"Thanks, but I had to pass a test on that when I got my driver's license."

He chuckled at the testy comment but sensed the nervousness behind it. "Here are our rules on making out. Number one, I'm not going to make love to you.

Your first time is going to be on a bed, not in the front seat of a truck. Number two, we're going to keep most of our clothes on, because if we don't, your first time will be in the front seat of a truck."

She cleared her throat. "It sounds pretty frustrating."

"It is. That's the whole point of parking and making out." He laughed and slid out from behind the steering wheel, then scooped her onto his lap. A little more shifting and he was sitting with his back propped against the passenger door, his long legs stretched out on the seat, while she was lying pressed against his right side, half on the seat and half on him, her head on his shoulder with her face tilted up, and he was leisurely kissing her.

If the windows had been up they would have fogged over. His mouth was slow and hot and demanding, making her forget about time. The slow beat of pleasure began to pound in her veins, and her arms wound about his neck.

His palm covered her breast and the shock jolted her, making her tear her mouth from his. He ruthlessly took it again, stifling her instinctive protest, so she could only whimper into his mouth. As the shock faded, she began to whimper from the pleasure of it, and her nipple beaded tightly beneath the layers of cloth.

"Do you like it?" he murmured. "Or do you want me to stop?"

She liked it, maybe too much, but she didn't want him to stop. Her breast was tingling and throbbing, the heat from it spreading down to her loins. His strong fingers were slowly kneading, taking care not to hurt her, then he found the turgid nipple and rubbed it through her shirt. She moaned and arched against him.

"Caroline?" he prompted. "Do you want me to stop? Or do you want more?"

"Don't stop," she said, her voice hoarse with strain. "Please, don't stop."

He kissed her reassuringly. "I won't. I'm going to unbutton your shirt and slip my hand inside. All right?"

How was she supposed to stand that when she felt as if she were flying into a thousand pieces right now? But as soon as he said it, she knew that she wanted his hand on her naked breast, that the barriers of cloth between them were too maddening to tolerate. "All right," she whispered, and somehow her hand was busy with the buttons of his shirt as he unfastened hers. She wanted to feel his bare skin as much as she wanted his touch on hers.

His long fingers dipped inside her open shirt and trailed lightly along the edges of her bra, pausing at the front center fastening. "Umm, good," he said, and deftly unfastened the garment. She felt suddenly vulnerable as it loosened; then he slid his hand inside, and all her nerve endings rioted. His palm was hot and rough, the callused skin rasping over her swollen nipples as he rubbed and lightly pinched. She heard herself moan and buried her face against his shoulder to stifle the sound.

He shifted on the seat so he was more on his side and she was lying flatter. She felt like a doll, helpless to prevent him from moving her as he willed. He spread her open shirt wide, exposing her breasts to the bright starlight shining through the windshield. She had seen men do it to women in movies, but still she was unprepared when he bent his head and closed his mouth over her nipple, drawing it in with a curling motion of his tongue. Caroline arched wildly under the lash of a sensation so exquisite and unbearable that her entire body quivered. He controlled her with those incredibly strong hands of his and the pressure of his iron-muscled legs, pressing her down into the seat, and somehow he was on top of her.

Her heart was beating so hard it hurt, and her blood was pounding through her veins. She clung to him, barely able to breathe as her body adjusted to his weight and unyielding hardness. The jarring unfamiliarity of it was matched by a deeper, more primitive sense of lightness. He moved his thighs, spreading her legs and settling himself between them, pushing the hard ridge of his manhood against her soft folds. "This is how we'll be when we make love," he whispered, pressing slow kisses on her neck and collarbone, then moving down to suckle deeply on both her breasts, leaving her nipples tight and wet and painfully sensitive to the night air when he lifted his head. He eased the coolness with the hot pressure of his chest.

His voice was a low, almost soundless rustle in her ear. "I'll move like this, slow and easy, until we're both ready to climax." His hips rocked leisurely, rhythmically pressing his sex against hers. Caroline's whole body lifted into the contact, her slender hips straining and reaching. She wanted to speak, to beg him to do something to ease this unbearable tension inside her, but all she could do was gasp for air and dig her nails into his shoulders in an effort to communicate her need to him.

"Then, when it's time, when we can't stand it any longer, I'll start moving harder and faster, going deeper and deeper into you."

She made a high, wild, pleading sound, spreading her thighs wider and lifting them to clasp his hips. Her ankle banged the steering wheel, a welcome distraction, because the slight pain eased her body's primal attention, but it wasn't enough. She twisted under him, frantic with heat and need and a deep, empty ache.

Joe caught his breath at her wild beauty, fierce and demanding, with only the starlight shining across her face. Her body was hot and tense and untamed, demanding a satisfaction she hadn't yet known, but the lure of which was compelling her ever closer and closer to the edge. He wanted to unfasten her pants and drag them down, then bare his own loins and drive into her, hard and fast, just as he'd told her. He wanted her naked, lying stretched out before him on a bed to cushion her from the force of his thrusts. He wanted to take her with swift, rough lust, plunging into her hot womanhood from behind so her buttocks slapped against his belly with the raw sound of sex. The blood of his ancestors ran hot and thick through his veins, the blood of warriors, uncomplicated, as forceful as the elements. He saw himself taking her with the sun burning down on their naked skin and nothing beneath them but the hard, hot earth. And she was clinging to him, a warrior's woman, as fierce and demanding as he was. He had known she was wild the first time he'd seen her, a wildness that had been stifled and controlled, but it was there, just waiting to break out

He hadn't intended to go this far, but she was pure flame in his arms, her response immediate and strong. His hardness stretched painfully beneath his jeans, demanding his own release, and grimly he knew it wouldn't take much. But the seat of his truck wasn't the place to take her virginity; it was too cramped, too awkward, too inconvenient, and he had also promised her that he wouldn't make love to her tonight. Caroline needed to know that she could trust him, so he grimly fought for control. It wasn't easy; he was close to climax himself, racked with frustration, but his iron will slowly won out, and he eased himself from the clinging embrace of her arms and legs.

"We have to stop," he said, making his voice even. It took more effort than he liked. "If we don't, you'll lose your cherry right here."

"Yes," she whispered, reaching for him again. She didn't care if her first time was in a pickup truck. Her body burned and ached, and she needed the surcease of his possession.

He caught her hands and firmly held them down. "No. Not here and not now."

She stared at him, her eyes wild with frustration; then anger exploded hotly through her veins. She shoved at him, fighting to sit up in a flurry of tangled arms and legs, and scrambled away from him. "Then why did you let it go that far if you didn't intend to finish it?" she shouted. "You… you tease!"

Frustration frayed his own temper. Damn it, did she think it had been easy for him to stop? "Because I got carried away, too!" he snapped.

"Yes, I can tell," she said with a sneer. "It really shows. Your breathing speeded up a little bit there."

Furious, he grabbed her hand and carried it to the front of his jeans, pressing her palm hard against the rigid length of his manhood. "Maybe this feels unaffected to you, but you came damn close to finding out just how involved I am." His voice was guttural with rage, and that made him even angrier, because it was evidence of just how far his control had eroded.

She jerked her hand away, even though the feel of that thick ridge was fascinating. She was too angry to be diverted. "I didn't say no, did I?" she demanded hotly. "Just what was wrong with here and now?"

He ground his teeth together, savagely fighting both his anger and a violent resurgence of sexual need. It had been a mistake to force her hand down on his groin. "Here isn't a bed, and now isn't enough time. When I get in you, I'm not going to get up for a long time. A cramped quickie isn't what you need or what I want."

She crossed her arms and stared furiously out the windshield.

He was silent, too, as he mastered his temper and his voice, reaching deep down to find the icy control for which he was famous. He was astonished at how quickly she had made him lose his temper, something he couldn't remember doing since childhood. He had been angry, but losing control was something he didn't permit himself to do. It seemed Caroline had an astonishing knack for breaking through to his primitive impulses, and, even more disturbingly, she wasn't even trying. He had always controlled the relationships he had with women, letting them get only as intimate as he wanted, ending things when he wanted. The first night he had met Caroline he had coolly decided to have an affair with her, but on his terms and his timetable. It was disconcerting to realize she could not only tempt him to break his own rules but could actually make him fight to control himself.

"My quarters are in the BOQ," he finally said evenly. "I can't take you there. It would be just as inappropriate to use your quarters. Tomorrow is Friday, and I'm off duty this weekend. We'll check into a hotel in Vegas and spend the weekend there."

He assumed she was still willing, she thought angrily, and was disgusted with herself because she was. But he'd made it plain that it had to be his way or not at all. He was the man in control.

"All right," she said through clenched teeth.

The drive back to the base was completed in an atmosphere more like that between adversaries rather than two people who had just decided to begin an affair. When they reached her quarters, she opened the door and jumped down without waiting for him.

He left the engine running and caught her just as she reached the door, catching her arm and whirling her around. "My good-night kiss," he reminded her, and hauled her into his arms.

There was no way anyone watching could have mistaken that kiss as polite or friendly or in the getting-to-know-you stage. He held her plastered to him from knees to breast, her head bent back under the pressure of his kiss. His mouth was hot and angry and overwhelming, forcing her to acknowledge his dominance. For a few seconds she tried to push him away; then she yielded abruptly to the penetration of his tongue and pressed herself even closer to his hard frame, accepting his aggression and meeting it with her own.

He released her abruptly and stepped away, his eyes glittering. "You won't need to pack a nightgown," he said.

She stood silently glaring as he walked to the truck and got in. "I hadn't planned to," she muttered as he drove off.

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