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MacKenzie's mission (Chapter One)

She was the most beautiful bitch he'd ever seen, fast and sleek and deadly. Just looking at her made his heart beat faster. Even parked in the hangar, her engines cold and wheels chocked, she gave the impression of pure speed.

Colonel Joe Mackenzie reached out and touched the fuselage, his long fingers caressing her with the light touch of a lover. The dark metallic skin of her airframe had a slick feel to it mat was different from every other fighter he'd flown, and the difference entranced him. He knew it was because her airframe was a revolutionary new composite of thermoplastics, graphite and industrial spider silk, which was far stronger and more flexible than steel, meaning she could withstand far greater force without breaking apart than any aircraft ever before built. Intellectually he knew that, but emotionally he felt that it was because she was so alive. She didn't feel quite like metal; maybe it was the spider silk, but she wasn't as cold to the touch as any other airplane.

Developmental programs were usually given code names that didn't reflect the program's nature, which was why the earlier SR-71 Blackbird had been code named "Oxcart." This particular bird, a second-generation advanced tactical fighter, bore the unusually descriptive code name of Night Wing, and when it went into production it would receive some suitably macho designation like the F-1S Eagle or the F-16 Fighting Falcon, but to Colonel Mackenzie she was "Baby." There were actually five prototypes, and he called them all Baby. The test pilots assigned to the program under his command complained that she-whichever "she" it was-always acted up with them because he had spoiled her for other pilots. Colonel Mackenzie had given them his legendary ice-blue stare and replied, "That's what all my women say." His face had remained perfectly expressionless, leaving his men uncertain if that was the truth or a joke. They suspected it to be the truth.

Joe Mackenzie had flown a lot of hot planes, but Baby was special, not just in her construction and power, but her weapons system. She was truly revolutionary, and she was his; as program manager, it was his responsibility to get the kinks worked out of her so she could go into full production. That was assuming Congress came through with the funding, but General Ramey was confident that there wouldn't be any problem there. For one thing, the manufacturer had brought her in on budget, unlike the overrun fiasco that had killed the A-12 in the last decade.

For a long time stealth technology had detracted from a fighter plane's agility and power, until the advent of supercruise had alleviated some of the power problems. Baby was both stealthy and agile, with vectored thrust that let her turn tighter than any fighter had ever turned before, and at higher speeds. She super-cruised at Mach 2, and broke Mach 3 in afterburner. And her weapons system used adjustable laser firing, ALF, a mild little acronym for what would someday revolutionize warfare. Mackenzie knew he was involved in the making of history. Lasers had been used for targeting for some time, the beam guiding missiles to the selected location, but for the first time lasers were being used as the weapons themselves. Scientists had finally solved the difficulty of a manageable energy source for X-ray lasers and teamed it with sophisticated optics. Sensors in the pilot's helmet allowed him to spot a missile, target or enemy plane in any direction, and the adjustable targeting system followed the direction of the sensors in the helmet. No matter how an enemy plane turned and juked it couldn't escape; a target would have to go faster than the speed of light to escape the laser beam, something not likely to happen.

Baby was so complex that only the best of the best had been assigned to this phase of her development, and the security surrounding her was so tight that an ant would have had a hard time getting into the hangar without proper clearance.

"Anything you need, sir?"

Joe turned, shifting his attention to Staff Sergeant Dennis Whiteside, known as "Whitey," who possessed fiery red hair, a multitude of freckles and a mechanical genius that bordered on miraculous where airplanes were concerned. Whitey considered Baby his plane and suffered the pilots touching her only because he couldn't figure out a way to prevent it

"Just checking her over before I turn in," Joe replied. "Weren't you supposed to go off duty hours ago?"

Whitey took a rag from his back pocket and gently polished the spot where Joe's fingers had touched the plane. "There were some things I wanted to make sure were done right," he replied. "You're taking her up in the morning, aren't you, sir?"

"Yes."

Whitey grunted. "At least you don't jerk her around the way some of those guys do," he said grouchily.

"If you notice any of my guys treating any of the birds rough, let me know."

"Well, it ain't rough, exactly. It's just that they don't have your touch."

"All the same, I mean what I said."

"Yes, sir."

Joe clapped Whitey on the shoulder and headed for his quarters. The sergeant stared after him for a long minute. He had no doubt that the colonel would indeed make any pilot pray he would die and go to hell just to escape his wrath if any of them were caught being careless or stupid with any of the Night Wing prototypes. Colonel Mackenzie was notorious for accepting nothing less than perfection from his pilots, but at the same time they all knew that he valued his men's lives above all else, and maintenance on the buds had to be top-notch, which was why Whitey was still in me hangar long after he should have been off duty. Mackenzie demanded the best from everyone in this program, with no exceptions. A mistake in maintenance on the ground could lead to the loss of one of these eighty-million-dollar aircraft, or even the death of a pilot. It wasn't a job for anyone with a casual attitude.

As Joe walked through the desert night he saw a light on in one of the offices and turned his steps toward the metal building. He didn't object to people working late, but he wanted everyone to be awake and alert the next day, too. There were some workaholics assigned to the Night Wing project who would work eighteen hours a day if he didn't ride herd on them.

His steps were silent, not because he was trying to sneak up on anyone but because that was how he'd been taught to walk from the time he'd taken his first step. Not that anyone in the offices would have heard him approaching anyway; the air conditioners were humming, trying to offset the late July heat and never quite succeeding. The metal Quonset huts seemed to absorb the blistering sun.

The building was dark except for the light in a cubicle on the left. It was one of the offices used by the civilian laser-targeting team, working on-site to troubleshoot the glitches that inevitably showed up when a new system was put into operation. Joe remembered that a new technician had been scheduled to arrive that day, to replace one of the original team who had had a slight heart attack a week before. The guy who'd had the attack was doing okay, but his doctor didn't want him working in the hundred-degree-plus heat, so the company had flown in a replacement.

Joe was curious about the replacement, a woman named Caroline Evans. He'd heard the other three members of the team grousing about her, calling her "the Beauty Queen," and their tone hadn't been admiring. The team might be civilian, but he couldn't allow friction within the group to affect their work. If everyone couldn't get along, he would have to tell the laser-systems people to replace their replacement. He wanted to talk to whichever of the team was working late, find out if Ms. Evans had arrived without incident and exactly what the problem was that they didn't want to work with her.

He walked silently up to the open doorway and stood in it for a minute, watching. The woman in the office had to be the Beauty Queen herself, because she sure as hell wasn't anyone he'd ever met before. He would have remembered if he had.

It wasn't any hardship to watch her, that was for certain. His erect posture slowly stiffened as every muscle in his body surged to alert status. He'd been tired, but suddenly adrenaline was humming through his system and all of his senses became acute, just the way they did when he kicked in the afterburners and went ballistic.

She wore a straight red skirt that ended well above her knees. Her shoes were off, and she was leaning back in her chair, her bare feet propped on the desk. Joe leaned his shoulder against the door frame, leisurely surveying the smooth, curved legs that had been exposed. No stockings; the heat made them impractical. Nice legs. Better than nice. Verging on stupendous.

A sheaf of computer printouts were on her lap, and she was checking each item, referring occasionally to a textbook beside her. A cup of pale green tea was gently steaming within easy reach of her often blindly reaching hand. Her hair was a pale, bell-shaped curve, combed straight back from her face in the classic style and just long enough to bounce on her shoulders. He could see only part of her face, enough to note her high cheekbones and full lips.

Suddenly he wanted her to face him. He wanted to see her eyes, hear her voice.

"Time to shut it down for the night," he said.

She shot up from the chair with a stifled shriek, tea spilling in one direction and the computer printout in another, long legs flying as she brought them down to the floor, the chair sent spinning across the room to crash into the filing cabinets. She whirled to face him, one hand pressed to her breast as if she could physically calm her heartbeat. A very shapely breast, he noticed, for her hand had pulled the fabric of her cotton blouse tight across her flesh.

Anger flashed like lightning across her face, then was just as suddenly gone as her eyes widened. "Oh my God," she said in a hushed tone. "It's G.I. Joe."

He caught the subtle undertone of sarcasm, and his black eyebrows lifted. "Colonel G.I. Joe."

"So I see," she said admiringly. "A full bird colonel. And a ring-knocker," she added, pointing to his academy ring and using the less than complimentary term for an academy graduate. "Either you mugged a colonel and stole his insignia, had a fantastic face-lift and dyed your hair black, or you have a sponsor with some heavy-duty juice who's rushing you through me grades."

He kept his expression bland. "Maybe I'm damn good at what I do."

"Promotion on merit?" she asked, as if it were a concept so impossible it was beyond consideration. "Naahh."

He was accustomed to women reacting to him in varying ways, ranging from fascination to a certain intimidation that bordered on fear, always based on a very physical awareness of him. He was also used to commanding respect, if not liking. None of that was in Caroline Evans' expression. She hadn't taken her eyes off him for a second, her gaze as steady and piercing as a gunslinger's. Yeah, that was it; she was facing him like an adversary.

He straightened away from the door frame and held out his hand, abruptly deciding to put the situation on a professional standing and let her know who she was dealing with. "Colonel Joe Mackenzie, project manager." Service protocol stated that shaking hands was a woman's choice, that a male officer should never extend his hand to a woman first, but he wanted to feel her hand in his and sensed that if he gave her the option, even that touch wouldn't be allowed.

She didn't hesitate but firmly clasped his hand. "Caroline Evans, replacement for Boyce Walton on the laser team." Two quick up and down pumps, then she withdrew her hand.

Since she was barefoot, he could accurately estimate her height as around five-four, the top of her head was even with his collarbone. The difference in their sizes didn't intimidate her, even though she had to look up to meet his gaze. Her eyes were a dark green, he saw, framed by dark lashes and brows that suggested the gold of her hair was chemically achieved.

He nodded toward the printout on the floor. "Why are you working so late, especially on your first day on the job? Is anything wrong that I need to know about?"

"Not that I know of," she replied, stooping down to pick up the accordion of paper. "I was just double-checking some items."

"Why? What made you think of it?"

She gave him an impatient look. "I'm a chronic double-checker. I always double-check that the oven is off, the iron unplugged, the door locked. I look both ways twice before I cross a road."

"You haven't found anything wrong?"

"No, of course not. I've already said so."

He relaxed once he was assured that nothing was wrong with the targeting system and resumed his leisurely and enjoyable survey of Caroline Evans as she took a roll of paper towels from a desk drawer and used a couple of sheets to blot up the spilled tea. She bent and twisted with a fluid ease that struck him as sexy. Everything she had done so far, even the barely veiled challenge of her gaze, had struck him as sexy. His loins tightened in response.

She tossed the wet paper towels in the trash and slipped her feet into her shoes. "Nice meeting you, Colonel," she said without looking at him. "See you tomorrow."

"I'll walk you to your quarters."

"No thanks."

The immediate, casual dismissal of his offer irritated him. "It's late, and you're alone. I'm walking you to your quarters."

She did look at him then, turning to face him and putting her hands on her hips. "I appreciate the offer, Colonel, but I don't need those kinds of favors."

"Those kinds of favors? What kind are we talking about?"

"The kind that do more harm than good. Look, you're the head honcho. If anyone sees you walking me to my quarters, within two days I'll be hearing snide comments about how I wouldn't be on the team if I wasn't playing footsie with you. It's a hassle I can do without."

"Ah," he said as understanding dawned. "You've run into this before, haven't you? No one thinks you can look like that and have a brain, too."

She stared at him belligerently. "What do you mean, 'look like that'? Just how do I look?"

She had the temperament of a hedgehog, but Joe had to fight the urge to put his arms around her and tell her that he would fight her battles for her from now on. She wouldn't appreciate the gesture, and he wasn't certain why he wanted to make it, since she appeared more than capable of waging her own wars. If he were smart, he would play it safe, make some noncommittal comment to keep from treading on her toes any further, but he hadn't become a fighter pilot because he wanted to play it safe. "Fetching," he replied, and his eyes were hard and bright and hungry.

She blinked, as if startled. She took a step back and said, "Oh," in a soft, befuddled tone.

"You have to know you're attractive," he pointed out.

She blinked again. "Looks shouldn't enter into it. You look like a walking recruiting poster, but it hasn't hurt your career, has it?"

"I'm not defending discrimination," he said. "You asked the question, and I answered it. You look fetching."

"Oh." She was watching him warily now as she sidled past

He put his hand on her arm, stopping her. The feel of her smooth, warm flesh under his palm tempted him to explore, but he resisted. "If anyone here hassles you, Caroline, come to me."

She darted an alarmed look at his hand on her arm. "Uh-yeah, sure."

"Even if it's a member of your own team. You're civilians, but this is my project I can have anyone replaced if he causes trouble."

His touch was making her visibly jittery, and he studied her for a long minute, his brows drawing together in a slight frown, before he let her go. "I mean it," he said in a gentler tone. "Come to me if you have any trouble. I know you don't want me to walk you to your quarters, but I'm going in that direction anyway, since I'm turning in, too. I'll give you a thirty-second head start, so we won't be walking together. Is that okay?"

"Thirty seconds isn't very long."

He shrugged. "It'll put about thirty yards between us. Take it or leave it." He checked his watch. "Starting now."

She immediately turned and fled. That was the only word for it. She all but hiked up that tight skirt and ran. Joe's eyebrows climbed in silent question. When the thirty seconds were up, he left the building and caught sight of her slim figure, barely visible in the darkness and still moving at a fast clip. All the way to his own quarters, he pondered on what had turned an Amazon into a skittish filly.

Caroline slammed and locked the door to her Spartan quarters and leaned against the wood as she released her breath in a big whoosh. She felt as if she'd just had a narrow escape from a wild animal. What was the Air Force thinking, letting that man run loose? He should be locked up somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon, where they could use him for their posters but keep the susceptible women of America safe.

Maybe it was his eyes, as pale blue and piercing as the lasers she worked on. Maybe it was the way he towered over her, or the graceful power of his muscular body. Maybe it was his deep voice, the particular note in it when he said she was "fetching," or the heat of his lean, callused hand when he'd touched her. Maybe it was all of that, but what had all but panicked her had been the hungry, predatory gleam in those eyes when he'd looked at her.

She'd been doing well up until then. She had definitely been at her off-putting best, both arrogant and dismissive, which had never before failed to keep men at a safe distance. It was a trade-off; it kept her from being friends with her co-workers, but it also stopped any sexual advances before they started. She had battled her way out of so many clinches during college and graduate school and her early days on the job, that she had learned to go on the offensive from the beginning. With all of that experience, she should have been able to keep her composure, but one look from Colonel "Laser-Eye" Mackenzie, one slightly admiring comment, and she had lost both her composure and her common sense. She had been ignominiously routed.

Well, that was what happened when you had Ph.D.s for parents. They had seen the signs of superior intelligence in their only offspring and taken immediate steps to give her the schooling she deserved. All through elementary and high school she had been the youngest in her class, due to her accelerated progress. She hadn't had one date in high school; she had been too weird, too gangly and awkward as she went through puberty two or three years after her classmates.

It hadn't been any better in college. She had started her freshman year right after her sixteenth birthday, and what college man in his right mind would go out with a girl who was legally still jailbait, when there were so many legal lovelies both willing and available?

Isolated and lonely, Caroline had devoted herself to her studies and found herself finishing her senior courses during her eighteenth year. At about the same time the guys in her classes had realized that the Evans girl might be an egghead, but she was easy on the eyes. This time, there was no issue of age to protect her. Having never learned dating skills with anyone her own age, she was totally at a loss on how to handle these… these octopuses who suddenly couldn't seem to keep their hands off her. Disconcerted, alarmed, she had withdrawn further into her studies and begun developing a prickly shield for protection.

Her transformation as she reached maturity wasn't drastic enough to equal that of an ugly duckling into a swan; she had simply grown from a gangly adolescent into a woman. Her menses had been late in coming, as if her body had to balance nature by dawdling along while her mind raced ahead. It was all a matter of bad tuning. When her classmates were going through puberty, she was still literally playing with dolls. When she went through puberty, they were already settled into the dating game. She never matched them in terms of physical or emotional maturity. When she was ready to begin dating, she found herself being groped by boys accustomed to a much more sophisticated level of intimacy.

In the end, it was just easier to drive them all away.

So here she was, twenty-eight years old, genius IQ, a bona fide specialist in light amplification and optic targeting, possessed of a Ph.D. in physics, reduced to idiocy and panic because a man had said she was "fetching."

It was disgusting.

It was also a bit frightening, because she sensed Colonel Mackenzie hadn't been alienated as she had intended; instead, he'd looked like a man who enjoyed a challenge.

She hit herself on the forehead. How could she have been such an idiot? The colonel was amp; jet jockey, for heaven's sake. He was a member of a different breed, a man who positively thrived on challenge. The way to keep from attracting his attention was to appear meek and mild, with maybe a little simpering thrown in. Problem was, she didn't know how to simper. She should have gone to a finishing school rather than graduate school. She would have taken Simpering 101 over and over until she had it nailed.

Maybe it wasn't too late. Maybe she could act sweet and helpless enough to fool him. No-that would invite attention from the men who did like that sort of behavior in a woman. She was caught-damned if she did and damned if she didn't.

The only thing left to do was put up a good fight.

When Joe reached his quarters he stripped out of his uniform, then stood under a cool shower until he began to feel human again. The desert in July was a real bitch, sucking the moisture from his body until even his eyeballs felt dry, but Baby required tight security, and Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada supplied that, in spades. Despite the discomfort and spartan conditions, he was grateful for the security and didn't look forward to taking the wraps off Baby, as would happen when Congress voted on funding. The media would see her then, not that her revolutionary nature was evident in her appearance; her design wasn't radically different from that of the F-22, which was what made it possible for them to do the test flights at Nellis instead of Edwards in California, where test flights were traditionally made. Snoops looked for something different at Edwards, but here at Nellis, with so many different types of aircraft taking part in the war games they conducted, she wasn't so obvious.

The other pilots based here had to notice that they were doing test flights with an aircraft that wasn't exactly like the F-22, but no one who wasn't working on the program was allowed a close look at the Night Wing prototypes, and security was a way of life here anyway. Baby's differences were in her skin and in the electronics suite, her weapons system; when she was unveiled, she would galvanize every hostile espionage agency in the world, and security would have to be even tighter, though he didn't see how it could.

He'd been thinking of Baby, but suddenly the image of Caroline Evans filled his mind and he grinned, wondering what it would take to tame the little hedgehog. His skin suddenly felt hot and tight, despite the cool water, so he shut off the shower and stepped out of the cubicle. It he could get her in the shower with him, they would probably turn the water to steam.

He stood in front of the air conditioner, letting the cold air blow over his wet, naked body and enjoying the shivers that rippled over him, but it didn't do much to ease the sense of fullness in his loins. Grimly he pushed thoughts of Ms. Evans out of his mind. When he was dry enough not to drip, he went, still naked, into the tiny kitchen area and slapped a sandwich together. The freedom from clothes let something inside him relax. He had spent almost half his life in the military, surrounded by regulations and wearing uniforms, and he felt comfortable with it at home, but at the same time there was still a primitive part of him that sometimes said, "That's enough," and he had to strip.

He had grown up on a horse ranch in Wyoming and he returned there every chance he got; spending a week or two riding the roughest broncs on the ranch satisfied the same wild restlessness in him, but he was tied up with the Night Wing project and couldn't get any free time, so the clothes had to go. The only garment he ever regretted having to remove was his flightsuit; if he could just spend all his time in the air, he'd be all right.

Damn it, the higher he was promoted, the less he flew. Responsibilities and paperwork took up more and more of his time. He had accepted the position of project manager on Night Wing only because he'd been guaranteed he would be able to fly the babies. The Air Force had wanted its best in the cockpits of the new planes, and the pilots assigned were all top-notch, but more than that, it had wanted the hands-on opinion of the best of the best, and Colonel Joe Mackenzie still stood head and shoulders above all the others.

Joe wasn't vain about his skill with a fighter, because he'd worked too damn hard to attain it. He'd been born with the intellect, eyesight and lightning-fast reflexes, but the rest was the result of countless hours of study, of practice, of drilling himself in the flight simulator until every reaction was automatic and instantaneous. Even at the age of thirty-five his reaction time was still faster than that of the young Turks coming out of flight school, and his eyesight was still better than twenty-twenty. He had a lot of flying time left, if the military would let him have it. He'd shot up through the ranks so fast that he would probably get his first star in another year, and then he'd be lucky if he could wrangle enough flying time to remain qualified.

The alternative was to resign his commission to take a job with an aircraft manufacturer as a test pilot, throwing away his years in the military. He liked the Air Force, didn't want to leave it, but the idea of being grounded was unbearable. Life would be flat without the challenge of mastering both nature and machine, and knowing his life hung in the balance if he didn't do it right.

Caroline slid into his mind again, a challenge of a different sort plain in her gunslinger's eyes. He could plainly picture the color of those eyes, dark green mostly, mingled with a bit of blue, and gold flecks lighting the depths. The thought of those eyes looking up at him as he moved over her in bed made his heart begin pounding hard and fast, just the way he would take her.

He wanted to make the little hedgehog purr like a kitten.

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