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MacKenzie's mission (Chapter Fourteen)

It was almost anticlimactic. The danger the night before had been very real, but it wasn't long after dusk when they veered back close to the road and a car came by, cruising very slowly, shining a spotlight off to the side. Caroline gasped and started to hit the dirt, but Joe kept her upright with a firm grip on her arm. His eagle eyes had spotted something she couldn't make out in the darkness: the row of lights on top of the car. Literally dragging her in his wake, he strode out into the road.

The car stopped. The spotlight wavered, then settled on him. "I'm Colonel Joe Mackenzie, out of Nellis," he said. His deep voice carried that unmistakable note of command. "I need to get back to the base as soon as possible."

The state trooper switched off the spot and got out of the car, "We've been searching for you, sir," he said in a respectful tone. Military personnel or not, there was something about Joe Mackenzie that elicited that response. "Are you all right, injured in any way? A van was found-"

"We know about the van. We were in it," Joe said dryly.

"We were ordered by the governor to give every assistance to the military in finding you. A statewide search was started this morning."

Joe put his arm around Caroline and ushered her into the back seat; then he went around and took a seat up front. Caroline found herself staring at the back of his head through steel mesh.

"Hey," she said indignantly.

Joe glanced back and began to laugh. "Finally," he said, "I've found a way to control you."

"The sensor alarms went wild," Captain Hodge said. "Once when Ms. Evans entered the work area after she was already recorded as being inside, and again when you entered without your ID tag, Colonel. The first guard was there within two minutes, but the building was empty. They must have dragged both of you out immediately and then panicked. They loaded you in Mr. Gilchrist's van and bolted.

"Ms. Evans' quarters were checked and she was discovered missing. Amazing. I didn't know anyone could get out a window that small," he said, glancing at her.

"I'm not very thick," she replied coolly.

He cleared his throat at the look in her eyes. "I tried to notify you, Colonel, and found that you were missing, too, though there was no record of you leaving the base. Nor had Ms. Evans attempted to leave. There was a record, however, of Mr. Gilchrist leaving immediately after the alarm had sounded."

"The other guy must have been hidden in back with us," Joe said.

"Who was he?" she asked. "He looked familiar, but at the same time I didn't know him."

Hodge looked at his ever-present clipboard. "His name was Carl Mabry. You'd probably seen him in the control room. He was a civilian working with the radar."

"How did Gilchrist get involved with him?" Joe asked. "And there are others. Have you found out anything about them?"

They were sitting in his office. Both he and Caroline had been checked over by the medics and declared basically sound. Somewhere along the line, Caroline's clothes had vanished and the well-meaning nurses had tried to stuff her into one of the too-revealing backless, shapeless gowns that were standard for every hospital. Caroline's sense of style had been outraged, but the green surgicals had appealed to her. She was wearing a set now and somehow looked dashing in them.

"Evidently, Gilchrist was recruited after he began work here," Hodge said. "Mabry belonged to a radical group that opposed defense spending. You know the type. They want the money for humanitarian purposes, even if they have to kill to get it."

"Then just how," Caroline asked in an awful tone, "did he get security clearance?"

Hodge winced. "I-uh, we're still checking on that. But he didn't have clearance into the laser building."

"So how did he get in without triggering the alarms?" Joe asked impatiently.

Caroline snorted. "The program has a major weakness. The alarm is set off by a body entering or leaving without a card-but not a card entering or leaving without a body."

Hodge's hair was too short to pull, so he ran both hands over his crew-cut head. "What?" he almost yelled.

"Well, it's obvious. I certainly didn't go into the building with Cal when he was supposedly searching for my tag, but the computer said that I did, which means he must have had the tag with him and flashed it so the sensors would pick it up, thereby destroying any record that he had entered the building alone and discrediting my story of having misplaced my tag. There wasn't anything Cal didn't know about computers. He probably figured it out not long after he started work on base, testing it by swinging the tag through me doorway on a string, or something like that. If he'd been caught, he wasn't doing anything he would be arrested for, just playing with the computers like any hacker would. Evidently he picked up my tag when I lost it, but left at the same time I did that day so the sensors weren't set off. He carried it off base and had it duplicated, then returned the original to me the next morning so there wouldn't be a report on it The night we caught them-" She paused, looking confused. "When was it? Just last night?"

"Seems longer, doesn't it?" Joe commented, grinning at her.

"Anyway, he would have entered with the duplicate tag, then tossed it through the doorway to Mabry, who would also have used it to enter. If you check the logs, you'll probably find entry, exit, then reentry with just a few seconds between. If you had been on your toes, Captain Hodge, you would have made certain my code had been immediately deleted from the computer instead of waiting until morning, thinking you had me safely under guard."

Hodge was crimson with embarrassment. "Yes, ma'am," he mumbled.

"Likewise, instead of assuming you had the problem contained, the entire laser team should have been restricted to base until you were certain."

"Yes, ma'am."

"The sensor program needs to be rewritten. It's humiliating to think of a sophisticated security system being bypassed by two people tossing ID tags through a doorway like kids playing catch."

"Yes, ma'am."

Joe had covered his mouth with his hand to hide his grin, but his blue crystal eyes were shining. Poor Hodge, by-the-book person that he was, was no match for Caroline at her most haughty, and his little hedgehog was most definitely feeling put upon. He decided to intervene before the captain was reduced to a sense of total inadequacy. "You used the past tense when speaking of Mabry. Is he dead?"

"Suicide. Gilchrist, by the way, was doing it for the money, not for any ideological reason, but Mabry firmly believed that the Night Wing program should be scrapped. They intended to cause so many problems with the tests that funding wouldn't be granted. Good plan, considering the economic and political climate. Pressure is high in Washington to spend money only on things that work. We've tied Mabry to a group called Help Americans First I don't know if we'll be able to implicate any of them without his testimony, but we might be able to turn up a paper trail that ties them to it. We know they were willing to kill both you and Ms. Evans to complete their sabotage of the lasers, so we aren't talking about innocent do-gooders here."

"I want them nailed, Hodge," Joe said softly.

"Yes, sir. The FBI is working on it."

Caroline yawned. Despite sleeping all day, she was tired; it had been an eventful twenty-four hours. Joe leaned back in his chair and hooked his hands behind his head, watching her. It gave him a deep sense of contentment to watch her.

"You're the first to know, Hodge," he said lazily. "Ms. Evans and I are going to be married."

To his amusement, a look of disbelief crossed the captain's face. Hodge looked at Caroline the way he would have looked at a wild animal that had suddenly been turned loose, as if he didn't know whether to run or freeze. She returned the look with a sort of warning indifference.

"Uh… good luck, Colonel," Hodge blurted out "I mean-congratulations."

"Thank you. And I'll probably need that luck."

Two weeks later Caroline whirled in her husband's powerful arms to the strains of a waltz. Washington society glittered around them. The huge ballroom was resplendent with silks and satins, jewels both paste and real, bright chatter and serious dealing. Intermingled with the formal black, gray and midnight-blue tuxedos of the civilians were the gorgeous dress uniforms of the various branches of the military. Joe looked magnificent in his. Caroline saw more than one set of feminine eyes following him wherever he went, and she had been forced to glare several of the owners of those eyes into submission.

"We should have waited," she said.

"For what?" His arm tightened around her as he swung her around.

"To get married."

"For God's sake, why?"

"For your family."

He laughed aloud. "Dad understood. When he decided to marry Mary, he had the deed done within two days. It took me three."

"General Ramey seemed pleased," she commented.

"He is. The Air Force likes its officers to be married. It makes us more settled."

"Sure," she replied doubtfully. "If going Mach 3 is considered settled."

The funding for Night Wing had been granted by a wide margin in Congress the day before. Joe had had to testify before the committee, requiring his presence in Washington, and he had categorically refused to be separated from his wife, so Caroline's presence had also been required.

The federal investigation into Help Americans First was ongoing, as was the final phase of testing on the Night Wing project, but the aircraft and laser systems were all functioning perfectly. The damage Cal had done to the computer program had been rectified. And Caroline was slowly beginning to realize what it would mean to her life to be married to a career military officer. When the final testing was completed he would be taking over as wing commander of the 1st Tactical Fighter Wing at Langley AFB in Virginia. She had learned a lot about the military in the ten days they had been married and knew that Joe would be up for his first star after that posting. He was thirty-five years old and would probably make general before he was thirty-seven. She would never admit it to him, because she felt he needed someone who didn't jump every time he issued an order, but sometimes she was a little in awe of his abilities.

He pulled her closer, and the movement of the waltz brought her lower body into firm contact with his. Her gaze flew up to meet his, and she saw his arousal reflected in the glittering blue depths of his eyes.

"I like you in white," he murmured.

"That's good. I wear it a lot." She was wearing it now. Her ball gown was pure, snowy white.

"You look better on white sheets than anyone I know."

"Hmm. I'm going to take flying lessons, so maybe I'll need to have several jumpsuits made in white."

Incredibly, she felt his shoulder tense under her hand. "Flying lessons? Why? If you want to fly, I'll teach you."

She gave him a calm smile. "No. I'd turn you into a trembling wreck if you tried to teach me how to fly, and I'd be ready to kill you. But I need to know, so I'll know something of what it's like for you up there." She figured it was the best way to get over the fear she felt every time he went up. Rather than risk clipping his wings, out of his concern for her, she would grow her own wings.

He still looked uneasy. "Caroline…"

"Joe," she replied firmly, "I'm good at anything I decide to do. Physics, computers, sex. I'll be good at flying, too. And having babies."

He stopped dead in the middle of the dance floor. "Caroline!"

She lifted her brows, ignoring the smiling glances directed their way. "What?"

"Are you pregnant?"

"It's possible," she said serenely. "The timing wasn't right during our weekend in Vegas, but what about since then? Name one time when you used any protection. If I'm not now, the odds are good I will be before the end of the year."

He couldn't seem to breathe. Hell, she probably was pregnant. As she had said, she was very good at anything she decided to do, and so was he.

"It'll be interesting," she said, "to find out if you make girl babies or boy babies."

A slow grin moved his hard, beautiful mouth. "As long as I make you, I'm happy."

"Oh, you do make me, Colonel Mackenzie. Very well indeed. When are we going to Wyoming?"

He adjusted to her lightning change of subject without a pause and resumed the dance. "Next month. I'll only have a week, but we'll get back for Christmas."

"Good. I've talked to Boling-Wahl, and they'll try to keep me assigned to projects in your general vicinity, though of course I won't be working on any project for the Air Force. I may be working in Baltimore while you're at Langley, but the commute isn't bad."

"Not bad," he said doubtfully, "but I don't really like the idea of you having to battle that traffic."

She pulled back a little and her brows slowly rose. "Me?" she asked after a delicate pause.

He stifled a shout of laughter. "I have to be closer to the base than that," he explained, keeping his voice level with an effort.

"Oh." She considered the situation for a moment, then said, "Okay, I'll do it this time. But you owe me, big time, because I believe in being comfortable, and fighting the traffic violates that belief. I'll let you know when I think of some way you can make it up to me."

He tugged her closer, still fighting laughter as he savored the feel of her in his arms. "Mary's going to love you," he said under his breath.

* * * * *

Mary did love her.

The two women were immediate friends, sensing a basic likeness in each other. Caroline fell in love, not only with his family but with Ruth, Wyoming and the prosperous horse ranch on top of Mackenzie's Mountain. The place was beautiful, and the ranch house was one of the most cheerful places she'd ever been in her life.

Mary Mackenzie was a slight, delicately formed woman with soft blue-gray eyes, pale brown hair and the most exquisite complexion in the world. At first sight she struck Caroline as rather plain, but by day's end her gaze had accustomed itself to the glowing purity of Mary's features and she thought her mother-in-law incredibly beautiful. Certainly Wolf Mackenzie thought his wife was beautiful, if the obvious love and lust in his black eyes every time he looked at her were anything to go by.

She had never seen two men more alike than Joe and his father, the only real difference being that Wolfs eyes were as black as night while Joe's were that brilliant, diamond blue. And looking at Wolf, she could easily understand why Joe had thought his father would kill the man who had abused him, if he had known about it. Wolf Mackenzie protected his own. Like his son, he was pure warrior.

Mary was dwarfed by her sons, even thirteen-year-old Zane, the intense one. Michael was off at college; it would be Christmas before she would meet him. But Joshua, at sixteen, was almost as big as Wolf and Joe. Josh was as bright and lighthearted as Zane was dark and quiet, his gaze watchful. The same dangerous intensity that burned in both Joe and Wolf was evident in the boy.

Then there was Maris. At eleven, she was small for her age, with Mary's slight build and exquisitely translucent complexion. Her hair was pale, her eyes as black as Wolfs. She was her father's shadow, her small hands gentling and soothing the fractious horses as well as Wolf's strong ones did.

For the first time Caroline saw Joe with horses, and another element of his character fell into place. He was infinitely patient with them and rode as if he'd been born in the saddle, which he almost had.

She stood at the kitchen window watching him and Wolf and Maris in the corral with a tall black mare who was currently Maris's favorite. Mary came to stand beside her, knowing instinctively who Caroline was watching. "He's wonderful, isn't he?" Mary sighed. "I loved him the first moment I saw him, when he was sixteen. There aren't many men in this world like Joe. He was a man even then, and I mean it in the purest sense of the word. Of course, I'm prejudiced, but you are, too, aren't you?"

"Just looking at him gives me shivers," Caroline admitted dreamily, then caught herself with a laugh. "But don't tell him that. Sometimes he can be very much the colonel. I try to keep him from being too commanding."

"Oh, he knows. The thing is, you give him shivers, too. Keeps things nice and balanced. I should know.

His father has been giving me shivers for almost twenty years now. Do you suppose it's inherited?"

"It probably is. Look at Joshua and Zane."

"I know," Mary sighed. "I feel so sorry for all the girls in school. And all those poor girls in college with Michael haven't had time to get used to him, the way the girls he grew up with did. Not that it did them much good."

"Maris will balance it out with the boys."

Through the window she watched Joe lightly vault the fence and start toward the house. Wolf tousled Maris's hair and followed his son, while Maris remained with the mare.

Both men entered the house, their tall, broad-shouldered forms suddenly making the kitchen seem too small. They brought with them the earthy scents of the outdoors, horse and hay and clear fresh air mingled with their own male sweat

"You two look guilty," Joe observed. "What have you been talking about?"

"Genetics," Caroline replied.

His brows lifted in that characteristic way. She shrugged. "Well, I can't help it I'm probably going to be very interested in genetics for the next eight and a half months. Do you want to lay odds on whether it's a boy or a girl?"

"Oh, it's a boy," Mary said, her entire face lit with delight. Joe had gone weak at the knees, and Wolf was laughing at his son as he helped him to a chair. "Joe's a Mackenzie, hardly a female sperm to be found. Mackenzies have to work really hard to have daughters. That's why they appreciate them so much."

Epilogue

Mary was absolutely right. John Mackenzie, eight pounds and two ounces, made his debut right on time. His heritage was immediately apparent in the thick black hair, blue eyes and straight black brows of his father. After his birth Caroline slept, and Joe dozed in the chair by her bed, his son lying on his chest and making squeaky little grunting noises. Caroline awakened, her drowsy eyes moving around the room until her gaze lit on the pair by her side. She reached out, first touching her husband's hand and then the tiny hand that lay curled on his chest.

Joe's eyes opened. "Hi," he said softly.

"Hi, yourself." He looked wonderful, she thought. Kind of grubby and rumpled. He was still in uniform, having been summoned straight from the base. The nurses were probably all swooning at his feet. She grabbed his tie and pulled him closer. "Give me a kiss."

He did, his mouth lingering hungrily over hers. "In a few weeks I'll give you a lot more."

"Umm. I can't wait." He made a few lascivious promises to her that made her heart pound, and she laughed as she took the sleeping baby from him. "You shouldn't talk like that in front of him. He's too young."

"It's nothing new to him, sweetheart. He's been well acquainted with me from the very beginning."

She looked down at the tiny, serious face, and this time her heart swelled, blooming until it nearly filled her chest. It was incredible. This magnificent little creature was incredible. Her parents, having decided to stay in Greece for a couple of years, were on their way, but the flight was so long and the connections so horrible that it would be another ten hours before they arrived. John's other grandparents, however, had managed to get there before he was born, and he'd already been in their arms.

"Where are Wolf and Mary?" she asked sleepily.

"In the cafeteria. They said they were hungry, but I think they wanted to give us some time alone."

"I wish they'd brought Maris and the boys."

"They were taking final exams at school. They'll see him soon enough."

She looked back down at the baby, tracing the downy cheek with her fingertip. To her surprise, he abruptly turned his head toward the touch, the tiny mouth opening as he sought it

Joe laughed and said, "That isn't it, son. You need to fine-tune your targeting a little."

The baby had begun fretting. Caroline opened her gown and gently guided the avid little mouth to her breast. He clamped down on it with a grunting noise.

"He's a typical Mackenzie," she murmured. "Which means he isn't typical at all."

She looked up and met Joe's eyes, brilliant and filled with more desire and love than she'd ever thought to see in her life. No, there was nothing typical about this man. He was on a fast track to the stars, and he was carrying her with him.

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