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MacKenzie's mission (Chapter Six)

Caroline couldn't find her ID tag the next morning. She searched the dresser top where she usually put it, the kitchen table, the cabinet tops, under the furniture, in the dirty laundry where she had thrown the clothes she had worn the day before, even the trash cans, but it wasn't to be found. She sat down and tried to think what she had done with the thing, since she knew she had worn it the day before, but she drew a complete blank. Joe had had her so distracted that she might have eaten it for all she knew.

She couldn't get into the buildings without that tag; they were coded and electronically scanned at the entrances, and anyone entering a classified area without the proper ID set off an alarm that had the security police swarming with weapons drawn. She was mortified that she had so carelessly misplaced it. Security was so tight that cards couldn't be duplicated; the lost or damaged one had to be voided out of the computer system, a new one issued with a new code and that information fed into the computers. Also because of the security, a jillion forms had to be filled out in quadruplicate to authorize and verify the change. Probably even the base commander, Major General Tuell, would have to sign off on it

She had had it the day before; she couldn't have gotten into the buildings without it. She distinctly remembered it snagging on a file folder. The tag had just been clipped on, so could it have been tugged loose without her noticing it? Probably. Joe's kisses had turned her brain into mush, and she hadn't been able to concentrate on anything but seeing him that night

If the tag was lying somewhere in the office, why hadn't the alarm been set off when she had left without the proper identification? Or was the scan positioned so that it only read the tags of those entering the building, on the theory that if no one without identification got in, they didn't have to worry about who got out It was a logical theory; she had no problem with it Her problem was how to find out if her tag was in the office.

She considered her options. If she called the security police to have them check, it would mean reports and explanations, the very thing she wanted to avoid. So she called Cal to get him to search the office for her. If he didn't find the tag, she would report it lost and face the hassle.

It took him several rings to answer the phone, and his voice was groggy. "Hullo."

"Cal, this is Caroline. I'm sorry to wake you, but I think I dropped my ID card in the office yesterday, and I need you to look for it before I report that it's gone."

He made a grunting noise. "Wha-?" He sounded bewildered and still half-asleep. "Caroline?"

"Yes, this is Caroline. Are you awake? Did you understand what I said?"

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm awake. I got it." He yawned into the receiver. "Look for your ID card. Lord, Caroline, how'd you misplace something like that?"

"I think I snagged it on a file folder."

"So wear it on a chain around your neck instead of clipping it on."

Since she had roused him from a sound sleep, she allowed him his disgruntled advice. Maybe it was a psychological thing, but she didn't like chains around her neck, even when they were called necklaces. Instead she would make a mental note to add her ID card to the list of things she double-checked.

"How long will it take you to get dressed?" she asked.

"Give me five minutes." He yawned again. "What time is it?"

She looked at the clock. "It's 5:43."

He groaned audibly. "I'm on my way. Actually, I'm trying to focus my eyes. You owe me one. I wouldn't do this for just anybody."

"Thanks," she said fervently.

She met him outside the Quonset building five minutes later. He was unshaven, his hair rumpled, his eyes bleary, but he was dressed, and his own ID tag was hanging on a chain around his neck. She stood outside while he shuffled through the door, still yawning. He was back in less than three minutes, carrying her tag, which she took with a stream of thank-you's.

"It was under your desk," he said, blinking owlishly at her. "What are you doing going to work this early?"

"I usually do," she said, surprised. She thought everyone knew her habit of going in early and staying late.

He suddenly broke into his normal, easygoing grin. "I'm going to have to revise my opinion of Colonel Mackenzie downward, since he obviously isn't keeping you up late. I'm disappointed in the man."

She lifted her eyebrows in feigned astonishment. "You thought he would let anything interfere with work? Surely you jest."

"Evidently I do. Well, have fun. I'll mosey on back to shower and shave and mainline some coffee. More moving-target tests today. We need to be on our toes, and I'm barely on my feet."

She gave him a quick kiss on his beard-roughened cheek, "Thanks, Cal. It would have taken forever to get it replaced, not to mention all of the reports."

"Anytime, anytime." Then he snickered. "Or you could have called Adrian to look for it."

"I'd rather face the security police."

"That's what I thought." With a wave, he began trudging back to his own quarters, and Caroline firmly clipped the tag in place with a sigh of relief.

At six-thirty, she was engrossed in running through the tests when a low, melodious whistle caught her attention. She burst out laughing and looked up, and two seconds later Joe silently appeared in the doorway.

"Another first," he observed. "No flying cups, reports or fists."

He was dressed in his flightsuit, though he wasn't in full harness yet. Her heart was suddenly in her throat. None of the other flights or tests had made her nervous, but abruptly she felt stricken, barely able to breathe. She had never cared before, and all of a sudden her objectivity was destroyed.

It took a special type of man to be a military aviator, and even more so to qualify as a fighter pilot. The numbers were still overwhelmingly male, though women were now accepted into fighter training. Analysts were finding that the female jet jockey shared some personality characteristics with the male pilots, mostly coolness under pressure and situation awareness, but in other significant ways the female pilots were indubitably different from the males. The men were naturally arrogant and supremely self-confident; it took that kind of man to be a fighter pilot, to have the kind of assurance that would not only allow him to climb into a machine and streak through the sky at three times the speed of sound, but to have the bloody confidence that he could master not only the machine but anything that might happen, and live to do it again. Fighter training only reinforced that supreme self-confidence.

She stared at him, seeing not only the cool confidence in his eyes but the actual eagerness to strap on that lethal beauty he called Baby. He enjoyed the speed and power, the risk, the ultimate challenge of it He had no doubt in his ability to make the aircraft perform as he wanted and bring it safely to earth again. His air of arrogant invincibility was almost godlike in its fierceness.

But for all his skill and superiority, he was a man, a human being. And men could be killed.

"You're going up today," she said, barely able to force the words through her constricted throat "You didn't tell me."

One eyebrow rose in a faintly quizzical expression. "I'm going up today," he replied mildly. "What about it?"

What was she supposed to tell him, that she was terrified because his chosen occupation was one of the most dangerous in the world? She didn't have the right to impose her fears on him. There was no commitment between them, only an agreement to have an affair, which officially hadn't even begun yet. It wasn't his fault that she was falling in love with him, and even if he returned the sentiment, she wouldn't tell him she was afraid, because she wouldn't risk the possibility of distracting him when he needed to concentrate wholly on his job.

So she swallowed her fear and fought for control. "You're too…um, I think overwhelming is the word, in a flightsuit. What do you have on under it?"

The diversion worked. The other eyebrow rose to join its twin. "T-shirt and shorts. Did you expect me to be stark naked?"

"I didn't know. I'd never thought about it before." She made a shooing motion with her hand. "Go on, get out of here. You destroy my concentration. I couldn't work all day yesterday after what you did, so I'm not letting you near me this morning."

As soon as the words were out of her mouth she realized she should have known better. The light of battle gleamed coolly in his eyes as he walked toward her. She had inadvertently issued a challenge, and his dominant nature compelled him to call her on it.

She was still sitting down, and he leaned over her, bracing his hands on the arms of the chair and capturing her before she could scramble away. He kissed her, slanting his hard mouth over hers and using his tongue with devastating thoroughness. Her toes curled in her shoes; she surrendered without even the pretense of struggle, accepting his intrusion and welcoming it with unguarded eagerness.

He shuddered and instantly straightened, his face hard with lust. "What are you wearing tonight?"

She struggled to gather her senses, so easily scattered by his touch. "I don't know. Does it matter?"

She had never before seen his eyes so blue and intense. "No. You'll be naked five minutes after we check into the hotel."

The image was shattering. Helplessly she closed her eyes, her mouth going dry. When she opened them again, he was gone.

If she affected him even half as much as he affected her, he wouldn't be able to fly the damn plane. The fear rose nauseatingly in her throat again, surging back at full force. It took all of her willpower to force it away, but she managed it, because she knew that when it came down to it, that cold-blooded control of his would shut out every thought that didn't pertain to flying, the real love of his life. The truth hurt, but she took comfort in it, too, for as unpalatable as it was it would keep him safe, and that was all she asked.

Cal had been making a point of arriving in the mornings before Adrian, but she had disrupted his schedule that morning and was still alone when Adrian came in. He gave her an almost automatic look of dislike, poured a cup of coffee and sat down without speaking. Adrian didn't bother her much, anyway, but that morning she was so on edge that she scarcely even noticed he was there. She sat at her desk, torn between fear and anticipation. Part of her mind persisted in dwelling on the dangers of test flights, while the other part kept sliding away to sensual images of the coming night. She couldn't believe she was actually looking forward to it, but not even the realistic expectation of discomfort, at the least, was enough to quell her fever. She wanted Joe, needed him desperately, with an instinct so primal that the threat of pain was swept aside like a toothpick in a flood.

But first she had to live through the flights today.

"Dreaming about lover boy?" Adrian asked nastily.

She blinked at the interruption. "What? Oh-yes. I was. Sorry. Did you ask me something?"

"Only about your love life. I'm a little surprised, though. I didn't think it was men you liked, or have you decided to try some variety?"

Inexperience was not the same thing at all as ignorance, and she knew exactly what he was hinting at. She gave him a cold look, suddenly relishing the idea of a good, clean battle, free of entangling emotions. "Did you know I was always so much younger than the boys in my class that I was almost through college before I was mature enough for any of them to notice me?"

The question startled him; the puzzlement showed on his good-looking face. "So?"

"So they came after me hot and heavy, expecting me to know the score, but I didn't know anything at all about men and dating. I'd never been around kids my own age. I'd never been kissed, never been to a prom, never learned the things other girls learned at parties and on double dates. When those guys came on so strong it scared the hell out of me, so I said and did whatever it took to run them off. Are you getting the picture?"

He didn't, not at first. His incomprehension was plain. But then understanding broke through his hostility, and he stared at her in shocked disbelief. "Are you saying you were afraid of me?"

"Well, what else could I be?" she flashed. "You were grabbing at me and wouldn't take no for an answer."

"For God's sake, I'm not a rapist!" he snapped.

"How was I supposed to know?" She stood up and shook her fist at him. "If you hadn't been so damn sure of yourself and thought no woman could resist you, you might have noticed that I was scared!"

"You didn't act scared!"

"So I get belligerent when I feel threatened." She was standing over him now, glaring and all but breathing fire. "For your information, Colonel Mackenzie is the first man to notice how uneasy I was, and he doesn't attack me like a hungry octopus." No, all he did was make love to her with that infuriating control of his, reducing her to mush while he remained perfectly clearheaded. That, however, wasn't any of Adrian's business. "I'm tired of your snide remarks, do you understand? Put a sock in it, as of right now, or I'll stuff one in for you."

The shock left his face, and he glared back at her with a return of hostility. "Am I supposed to feel guilty because you're a social misfit? You're not the only one with problems, lady. I'd just gone through a god-awful divorce, my wife had dumped me for a weasel who made twice as much money as I did and I needed a little ego building myself. So don't blame me for not noticing your delicate psyche and pandering to it, because you sure as hell didn't notice mine!"

"Then we're even," she charged. "So get off my back!"

"With pleasure!"

She stomped back to her chair and flung herself into it. After glaring at the spec sheet for about thirty seconds she muttered, "I'm sorry about your wife."

"Ex-wife."

"She probably isn't happy."

Adrian leaned back in his chair, scowling at her. "I'm sorry I scared you. I didn't mean to."

It was an effort, but she growled, "That's okay."

He mumbled something and turned to his own work.

She had sought relief and distraction in anger, and it had succeeded while it lasted, but now that the confrontation was over her edginess came creeping back. Still, it looked like the air might have cleared some between Adrian and herself, or at least settled down, so it had been beneficial in that way.

Yates and Cal came trooping in, Cal still looking rumpled and sleepy, but he gave Caroline a grin and a wink. Then they all went over to the control room for the day's flights. The pilots were still there, four of them suited up in full harness, with straps and hoses and oxygen masks, and wearing speed jeans. Joe and Captain Bowie Wade were flying the Night Wings; Daffy Deale and Mad Cat Myrick were flying chase in the F-22s. Joe was totally absorbed in the job at hand, as she had known he would be, and the knot of fear in her throat relaxed some to actually be able to see it.

She tried not to let herself stare at him but the impulse was irresistible. He was a lodestone to her eyes, and she was fascinated by him. It wasn't just his tall, superbly muscled body or the chiseled perfection of his face, but the aura surrounding him. Joe Mackenzie was a warrior-cool, nerveless, lethal in his controlled savagery. The blood of countless generations of warriors ran in his veins; his instincts were those honed in past wars, in numberless bloody battles. The other pilots had some of the same instincts, the same aura, but in him those things had been condensed and purified, meeting in a perfect combination of body, intellect and ability. The others knew it; it was obvious in the way they looked at him, the respect they automatically gave him. It wasn't just that he was a colonel and in charge of the project, though his rank garnered its own respect, but what they gave him as a man and a pilot they would have given him even had they all outranked him. Some men stood out from the crowd, and Joe Mackenzie was one of them. He could never have been a businessman, a lawyer or a doctor. He was what he was, and he had sought the profession that would let him do what he was so perfectly suited to do.

He was a warrior.

He was the man she loved.

Somehow she had lost the ability to breathe, and it didn't matter. She felt dazed, mired in unreality. There couldn't be any more fooling herself. She had admitted her vulnerability to him, but never the immediacy of it. She had warned herself against the danger of letting herself fall in love with him, fretted that she might be losing her heart, but it had all been an emotional smoke screen to keep her from admitting that it was already too late. She'd had no more control over it than she had over her own body whenever he touched her, which should have been enough warning by itself. Her only excuse for her own blindness was that she'd never been in love before and simply hadn't recognized it.

She couldn't look at him as he and the three other pilots left the control room. If he'd glanced at her, everything that she was feeling would have been plain on her face, and she didn't want him to see it, to maybe think about it at the wrong time. She felt absurdly naked, stripped of all her emotional protection, every nerve ending exposed and agitated by the merest stirring of air.

All four birds lifted off, and technicians crowded the terminals, intently studying the information already pouring back in from the sensors embedded in the skins of the Night Whigs.

Within half an hour they were in position over the test site, where drones would provide them with moving targets at which to aim their lasers. Caroline always anticipated trouble, because in her experience no new system worked in practice exactly the way it worked in theory, but the tests had gone well so far, and she was optimistic that there wouldn't be any major problems. That day, however, seemed to prove her right in her anticipation of trouble and wrong in her hope that it would be minor. The targeting systems refused to lock on the drones, though they had done so the day before. Two different aircraft were up there today, however, and a totally disgusted project manager ordered the day's tests scrapped and the birds back to the base for a thorough check of the targeting systems.

Joe didn't lose his temper, but his displeasure was plain when he strode back into the control room, his hair matted with sweat from the helmet.

"The birds are in the hangar," he said with icy control, including Caroline in his ire as part of the laser team. "The same two are going back up Monday morning. You still have most of today to find the problem and fix it." He turned and strode off, and Cal whistled softly between his teeth.

Yates sighed. "Okay, people, let's get into our coveralls and get out to the hangars. We have work to do."

Caroline was already mentally sorting through the options. Laser targeting wasn't new; just the way they were applying it was. The problem could be the sensors in the pilots' helmets, those in the missile optics, even the switch that activated the targeting. What was disturbing was that it had happened to both aircraft at the same time, possibly indicating a basic problem in manufacturing or even design. She glanced at Cal and saw that he was frowning deeply, for he would be thinking that for both aircraft to experience the same difficulty at the same time could indicate trouble with the programming of the on-board computers. They were worrying about the problem from different angles, but both of them had realized the implications.

This had just been a peachy-keen day from the very beginning. If the night with Joe followed the same pattern, she would probably find out she was frigid.

They worked through lunch, running computer analyses of the sensors to try to pinpoint the trouble, but nothing showed up. Everything seemed to be working perfectly. They ran the same tests on the three birds that hadn't had any trouble and compared the results, again coming up with nothing. Everything matched. According to the computer, there was no reason why the lasers shouldn't have locked on to the moving targets.

It was late afternoon, and the heat had built to an uncomfortable level inside the hangar despite the best efforts of the huge air conditioners, when Cal reran the tests on the firing mechanisms of one of the malfunctioning units, and on one that was working. For whatever reason, maybe just the gremlins that invariably plagued every project, this time the computer showed a break in the electrical current in the trigger mechanisms. They were all aggravated because the problem had turned out to be so relatively simple after they had driven themselves crazy for hours and forgone lunch when it was something that could be repaired in less than an hour.

She was in a wonderful mood for a romantic assignation: tired, hungry, hot and ill-tempered. She made a point of scowling down at the ID tag clipped to her pocket before she left the building and headed for her quarters.

A long, cold shower made her feel better, though she was still scowling as she literally threw some clothes and toiletry items into an overnight bag. If he wasn't such a martinet, they wouldn't have felt so driven to solve the problem. She could have eaten lunch. She wouldn't now feel so frazzled and out of sorts. It would serve him right if she refused to go.

The only thing was, she wasn't that big a fool. She wanted to be with him more than she wanted to eat, more than she wanted anything.

It was only six o'clock when the knock came on the door. She was dressed, but her hair was still wet, and she was still hungry. She threw the door open. "We worked through lunch," she charged ominously. "We got finished-" she turned to check the clock "-thirty-five minutes ago. It was nothing-just a break in the current in the switches-but it took us forever to find it, because we were hungry and couldn't concentrate."

Joe lounged in the open doorway and surveyed her thoughtfully. "Do you always get ill-tempered when you're hungry?"

"Well, of course. Doesn't everyone?"

"Um, no. Most people don't."

"Oh."

He held out his hand to her. "Come on, then, and I'll feed you."

"My hair isn't dry."

"It'll dry fast enough in this heat. Are you packed?"

She fetched the overnight bag and did her quick, automatic tour to make certain everything was turned off. Joe took the bag from her hand and ushered her out, closing the door behind him. She stood there and stared meaningfully at the doorknob until he sighed and tried to turn it, to show her it was locked. Satisfied, she walked to the truck. He stowed the bag, then lifted her onto the seat. She had chosen to wear a halter-top sundress with a full skirt, deciding that it no longer mattered if he could slide his hand under it, since she had given him permission to do much more than that, but she nearly had heart failure when that warm, hard hand slipped up under the material and squeezed her bare thigh.

All thoughts of food fled her mind. She stared at him, hunger of another sort building, her need revealed in her suddenly darkened eyes and quickened breath. Joe lightly stroked her inner thigh with his fingertips, then forced himself to withdraw his hand. "Maybe I'll feed you first," he muttered.

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