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MacKenzie's mission (Chapter Three)

For several minutes after she had literally run from his office, Joe remained leaning back in his chair, his hands clasped behind his head and a small, satisfied smile curving the corners of his firm mouth.

So she was a virgin. He had only been guessing, but it had been a good guess. An experienced woman wouldn't have been so embarrassed or at such total loss about what to say or do. Poor little darling. For all her intelligence, she was a babe in the woods when it came to men and sex, and the reaction she had learned in her youth, when some idiot had probably scared the hell out of her by grabbing at her, had become her standard way of dealing with a man's attention.

He had been in the office before dawn, his mind on her rather than the coming flight and on impulse he had requested her file. It had been interesting reading.

From the time she had started school, she had been separated from her own age group, and she had responded to the inevitable social alienation by devoting herself to her studies, thereby widening the gulf as she outpaced her schoolmates. That wasn't exactly what had been in her file, of course; the impersonal papers had listed only numbers and accomplishments, except for the detailed security check, which had noted the lack of a personal relationship with a man-ever-but neither her psychological profile nor a detailed investigation had revealed any hint of homosexuality. Her work record did reveal a few instances when Dr. Evans hadn't gotten along with a co-worker, always male, but as the field of physics was dominated by men that wasn't in itself meaningful.

Remembering her reaction to him the night before, Joe had begun thinking. Was she so bristly because she had always been the odd man out, socially, emotionally and physically, during her childhood and adolescence? Her own age group would have shunned her, and her classmates wouldn't have been interested in socializing with someone who, compared to them, was a child. By the time she was physically mature and old enough for it not to matter, the pattern was set and she had so many defenses in place that no one could get past all the thorns.

The only way for a man to get close to her was for her to open the gate herself, something that wasn't likely to happen. But then he had seen the way she tensed when Daffy had put his arm around her waist, and the answer had flashed into his mind. A second later he had put his plan into action.

Her work was important to her. For that, she would tolerate the fiction of having a relationship with him, even though she had made it plain the night before that she didn't want to be gossiped about. He knew she was going to be gossiped about under any circumstances, because she just wasn't the type of woman who faded into the woodwork. Given the choice of having to pretend to be involved with him and putting up with the gossip, or possibly not being able to work on the Night Whig project at all, she had chosen the former. He had counted on that very reaction while he had been forming his argument.

Now the other men would leave her alone, giving him an unobstructed field, and he meant to use his advantage to the fullest. She would have to spend time with him, get to know him, learn to relax with him.

Her seduction would be the sweetest mission he'd ever undertaken. Taming that little hedgehog in bed would be more exciting than breaking Mach 3.

Caroline didn't dare return to work; she knew her discomfort would be written plainly on her face for everyone to see, and Adrian would make some snide comments about taking care of her love life on her own time. She darted into the nearest ladies' room and sought privacy in a stall.

She was trembling all over and felt strangely close to tears. She seldom cried, because it didn't accomplish anything except making her nose stuffy. Even more strangely, she had been ignominiously routed again, and it was time she faced the facts.

It wasn't anything Colonel Mackenzie had done that frightened her so; it was her own reactions to him that were terrifying. Intelligence wasn't worth anything if she hid her head in the sand and didn't admit the truth to herself. She had let herself grow too cocky about her ability to keep men at a distance by using her sharp tongue; not only was the colonel not intimidated by it-damn the man, he seemed to enjoy it!-but maybe she had been able to hold off those other men only because she hadn't been attracted to any of them. The shortness of breath, the panic attacks, the pounding of her heart and cowardly behavior, could all mean only one thing: sexual attraction. As an intelligent female, her instinctive impulse was to run for her life.

She excused herself for not having recognized it immediately, because after all, it was the first time she had ever experienced the phenomenon. She hadn't known how to drive a car the first time she had gotten behind the steering wheel, either. She had always been slightly puzzled by both genders' sometimes feverish antics when trying to attract someone of the opposite sex, but now she knew what was at the bottom of it all. Gonads. It was disconcerting to have one's glands turn traitor.

And now there was this situation she had somehow become mired in. She felt certain that if she only applied herself to it, she would be able to come up with some other solution, but her brain didn't seem to want to work. It was probably a side effect of overactive gonads. After all, thinking wasn't conducive to mating.

She tried to organize her thoughts. As the situation stood, she had agreed to pretend to be having a relationship with Colonel Mackenzie so the men would leave her alone and she would be able to work, and also so the men wouldn't be distracted by her. Did the colonel pretend to have a relationship with every woman on base? Why her? What was it about her that was so disruptive that she had to be neutralized? She knew she was a reasonably attractive woman, but she certainly wasn't a femme fatale.

And just what would pretending to be involved with him entail? Small talk and smiling? She thought she could handle that. She had never cooed like a lovesick bird the way she had seen some women do, but it couldn't be that difficult. But if he thought this pseudo-relationship involved any hugging and kissing, she would have to call it off immediately, because her heart just couldn't stand the strain. All that adrenaline rushing around couldn't be healthy.

But the situation wasn't unmanageable. If she just kept her head and remembered not to trust him no matter how reasonable he seemed, she should be all right

With that thought firmly in mind, she squared her shoulders and left her refuge. As she crossed the tarmac, the desert heat scorched the top of her head and made her arms bum. Everything shimmered around her, and her ears were assaulted by the constant roar of jet engines as planes took off and landed. Airmen swarmed everywhere, attending to the business of the huge base. The activity was exhilarating, and even more exciting was the knowledge that she was working on the most advanced jet fighter ever designed.

Work had always been her panacea. She enjoyed it, embraced it, because it was the one part of her life where she excelled, where she fit in. It was comforting and familiar, even though Adrian Pendley was certain to do his best to ruin it for her. Well, if she could ignore Mackenzie, she could easily ignore Adrian.

The colonel's darkly tanned, hawkish face swam before her eyes, forming amid the heat waves, and she stumbled on the edge of the tarmac before quickly regaining her balance. So she wasn't ignoring Mackenzie mat well; she would get better at it. For her own sake, she had to.

Sure enough, when she walked back to the office, with her clothing damp with sweat and wisps of hair sticking to her face, Adrian looked at her and sneered. "Didn't you know it's too hot for a quick tussle? You'll learn to save it for a weekend in Vegas."

Yates looked up and frowned. Caroline caught his eye and shrugged to show that it didn't matter.

The laser program was fully developed; they were there as a trouble-shooting team, and since the day's tests had gone well, there was little more to do than recap what they'd seen. Then they went over the next planned test, the first one using a moving target. The aircraft that would be used in the next tests weren't the two that had flown that day, and their targeting systems had already been checked as part of the regularly implemented maintenance schedule. All of that had been done before Caroline's arrival on the base. They did have to check the systems on the aircraft that had flown that day, and she, Yates and Adrian changed into coveralls for the job. Cal remained behind, rechecking the computer data.

"All the different systems people working on the Night Wing project have gotten along well," Yates said as they walked to the hangar. "It's been one of the smoothest operations I've been involved in."

"So don't go screwing it up by insulting any of them," Adrian said.

Yates stopped and swung around to confront Adrian. "That's enough," he said evenly.

"It's only the truth. You know she has a reputation for being hard to work with."

"I know what I'm hearing, and Caroline isn't the one who's being an ass. I hope I don't have to tell you that Colonel Mackenzie can have anyone on this team replaced with one phone call, and he'd do it in a heartbeat if he thought friction between any of us was hindering the work. If mat happens, your career at Boling-Wahl would effectively be over, and that goes for both of you."

Caroline stuffed her hands deep in the pockets of her coveralls. Though Yates had been directing his ire toward Adrian, she knew that her position at Boling-Wahl was a bit tenuous, due to her past difficulties on a couple of jobs. One of those incidents had been with Adrian. Perhaps she had been assigned to work with him as a sort of test and her job depended on passing it.

Adrian turned to glare at her. "I'll stay out of her way," he finally muttered, "if she stays out of mine." Then he strode on ahead of them.

Yates sighed, and he and Caroline resumed walking, but at a more leisurely pace. "Ignore him as much as you can," he advised. "I didn't realize the situation between the two of you was so hostile."

"I'm not hostile," Caroline said in surprise.

He gave her a thoughtful look. "No, I don't guess you are. But he is. Is it just a case of mutual dislike, or did something happen that I need to know about?"

She shrugged. "I don't suppose it's any big secret. He came on to me when I first started work for Boling-Wahl, and I turned him down."

"Ahh. A hurt ego."

"It would make more sense if we'd been involved and then broken up, but it was never that personal. I guess he doesn't take rejection well."

"That's all it was? You turned him down for a date?" Yates asked skeptically.

"Not exactly. He made a pass at me."

"And you…?"

She stared straight ahead, but she could feel her cheeks heating again. "He was… well, it was a pretty strong pass, if you know what I mean, and I couldn't seem to make him understand that I wasn't interested. I tried being polite, but it wasn't getting through and he wouldn't let me go. So I told him I'd have gone to work at a zoo if I'd wanted to be grabbed by an ape."

Yates chuckled. "Not very tactful, but effective."

That wasn't all she'd told Adrian, but she thought she had admitted to enough. "He took it personally."

"The two of you will have to get along for the duration."

"I understand. I won't snipe back. But if he grabs me again," she warned, "I won't be nice."

Yates patted her arm. "If he grabs you, knock him on the head with something."

She fully intended to.

They spent the rest of the day checking the targeting systems on the two aircraft, and everything looked good. As maintenance crews crawled in, under, over and around the sleek black aircraft, the scene reminded Caroline of Gulliver being swarmed over by the Lilliputians. Lines and hoses snaked everywhere, crisscrossing the hangar floor.

Adrian didn't speak to her except about work, and that suited her fine. He was good at what he did, and as long as he restricted himself to that, she had no problem with him. Maybe Yates' lecture had made an impression on him.

It was late afternoon before they had the two systems thoroughly checked, and Caroline was glad to call it a day. Thoughts of a long, cool shower filled her head. She returned to the office and didn't bother changing out of the coveralls, simply collecting her dress and checking to make certain everything was locked up. Security demanded that nothing be left out on their desks.

When she reached her quarters she turned the air conditioning on high and stood in front of the cold air for a minute, sighing with relief. There was a benefit to having small rooms: they cooled off quickly. She counted herself lucky to have two rooms, period. The first room was a combination living room, dining room and kitchen, meaning that a nondescript couch and matching nondescript chair, with a scratched fake-wood coffee table, occupied one half of the room and the other half was taken up by a galley-size kitchen and a battered Formica table with two chairs. The predominant color seemed to be institutional green. The room was about twelve feet square and opened directly into the bedroom. The bedroom and bath combined were the same size as the front room. She had a bed that was supposed to be double-sized but didn't quite make it, but since she slept alone it didn't matter. There was a scarred chest of drawers, a cramped closet and a cramped bathroom with barely enough room for the essential plumbing, and then only because there was a small shower stall rather than a bathtub. It was livable, but she couldn't see herself ever growing fond of it

On the bright side, one of the first things she had done had been to replace the light bulbs in the bathroom with new ones of sufficient wattage for the application of makeup. She probably had the brightest bathroom on base. She rather liked the idea.

She took the long, cool shower she had promised herself, gradually turning the hot water off as she became accustomed to the chill, until the spray was satisfyingly cold. She felt herself revive as her overheated skin drank in the moisture. She didn't turn the water off until she was shivering, then dried herself briskly and dressed in loose, cotton knit pants and a big T-shirt, which perfectly suited her notions of comfort.

Now for food. She had decided from the outset to eat in her quarters as much as possible, so she had stocked the tiny kitchen with a few staples. She was standing in front of an open cabinet door studying the contents and trying to decide on her meal when someone knocked on the door.

"Who is it?" she called.

"Mackenzie."

He didn't have to identify himself by name, she thought irritably as she strode to the door and opened it. All he had to do was rumble something in that deep voice.

She braced herself in the opening and felt the heat settle over her like a suffocating blanket "What do you want?" she demanded. He wasn't wearing a uniform, but the glove-soft jeans, scuffed boots and white T-shirt were oddly disturbing, while the inevitable dark sunglasses every pilot wore hid his eyes. She didn't like it; she didn't want to know what he was like when he was off duty.

Joe noted her challenging stance and the fierceness of her glare. Evidently she had decided that her best course of action was to simply carry on as usual. He was glad; being around her might not be comfortable, but it was sure as hell exciting, and he didn't want mat to change.

"Supper," he said.

She crossed her arms. "I'm not feeding you."

"No, I'm feeding you," he said mildly. "Remember? I told Daffy you'd be with me tonight, and everyone will know about it tomorrow if you aren't" It was an effort to keep his voice mild and his eyes on her face, because she was obviously braless. The thin T-shirt she was wearing plainly revealed the shape of her high breasts and the darker circles of her nipples. Every muscle in his big body tensed with growing arousal.

"Just a cheeseburger," he cajoled in the soft voice he'd often used to calm nervous mares. "You don't even have to change. Just slip on your shoes and we'll go off base and find a hamburger joint"

Caroline hesitated. The thought of a cheeseburger was enticing, since she had been about to choose between two brands of cold cereal.

"All right," she decided abruptly. "Give me a minute." She dashed into the bedroom and put on a pair of sandals, then raked a comb through her hair. Her freshly washed face stared back at her from the mirror, and she contemplated putting on makeup, then shrugged. A cheeseburger was waiting.

Just before she left the room she remembered that she wasn't wearing a bra and hurriedly put one on. She didn't think he would have noticed, but it was better to play it safe.

He hadn't entered her quarters but was still standing just outside the open door. Caroline turned the lock on the door and stepped out, closed the door firmly, then tried the knob to make certain the lock had caught Satisfied, she dropped her keys into her pocket

He was driving a muscular black pickup truck. Caroline looked at him in surprise as he opened the door and she climbed up into the seat. "I never would have figured you for a truck person," she said as he slid his long legs under the steering wheel.

"I grew up on a horse ranch in Wyoming," he said. "I've driven pickups all my life. What did you think I'd drive?"

"Something low and red and flashy."

"I save my speeding for the air." His ice-blue eyes flicked at her. "What do you drive? I know what you're driving now is a rental car, since you flew in, so that doesn't count"

Caroline settled back in the seat. She decided that she rather liked sitting up high so she could see, and she was feeling more comfortable by the minute. Maybe it was the truck that did it; it was such a no-nonsense kind of vehicle. "What do you think I drive?"

"Something safe and dependable."

"Oh."

The one syllable was a little disgruntled. Joe controlled a smile. "Am I wrong?"

"A tad."

"So what do you drive?"

She turned her head to the side and stared out the window. "Something low and red and flashy." She had absolutely rebelled against buying anything sedate and conservative. She had wanted power and speed and handling, and had paid a small fortune to get it.

"How flashy?" he asked.

"A Corvette," she said, and suddenly chuckled at the contrast between them.

Joe looked at her again. He couldn't keep from it. She had lived the life of a total egghead, reclusive and socially awkward, but the fire in her couldn't be hidden. It was revealed in the unconscious sex appeal with which she moved and dressed, the fierceness of her temper, the adventurous car she drove. She sat so decorously on the passenger side, but her face was lifted to the hot wind blowing in through the lowered windows. There was a streak of wildness in her that intrigued him, and he shifted restlessly to ease the constriction of his jeans.

They were checked through the gate, and he turned the truck toward the sunset, blazing red and gold in front of them. She didn't seem to feel any need to carry on a conversation; Joe was comfortable with silence, too, so he let it continue.

Caroline couldn't stop herself from glancing at him every few minutes, though she would then jerk her gaze back to the sunset. The T-shirt bared his powerful arms, darkly tanned by the desert sun. He had so many muscles, it was unnerving. She knew that fighter pilots regularly worked out, because a dense muscle mass seemed to help them resist the effects of pulling Gs, but his muscularity was somehow different He was powerful-the way a panther or a wolf is powerful-from a lifetime of work and using his body. The sun outlined his profile in gold, mercilessly revealing the bladelike bone structure, as clean and fierce as an ancient warrior's face cast on a coin.

She stared at the thin, high-bridged nose, the wide forehead and high, chiseled cheekbones. His mouth was almost brutally clear-cut. The hot wind was sifting through his thick black hair, disarranging the short military cut and her vision blurred as a disturbing vision filled it of this man with his hair long and flying around his broad, bare shoulders. Her heart thumped in a sort of painful panic, and she jerked her gaze away yet again, but it didn't do any good. She could still see him in her mind. It took her only a minute to decide mat if out of sight wasn't going to be out of mind, she might as well give in and let her eyes feast.

She turned her head toward him, and her hungry gaze slipped down over his wide, powerful chest to his flat belly. She just couldn't stop it, though neither was she brave enough to let her eyes rest on the fly of his jeans, instead hurriedly skimming on to those long, muscled legs.

She blurted out, "Aren't you almost too big to get into a cockpit?"

He briefly took his eyes off the road to look at her, though the dark lenses kept her from reading his expression. She wished he would take them off. "It's a tight fit," he replied, his voice low and slow and growling. "But I always manage to squeeze in."

The underlying sexuality of his words hit her like a sledgehammer. She was woefully inexperienced but not naive, and there was no mistaking his meaning. Now she was glad he had those dark glasses on, because she didn't want to read his expression. She wanted to hide her face in her hands. She wanted to jump out of the truck and run all the way back to the base and the safety of her quarters. Had she been mad? She had actually climbed in the truck with this man, and now here they were, alone in the Nevada desert with the sunset rapidly darkening to purple.

Then she remembered that it was her own reaction to him that frightened her, not anything he had done, and she wondered miserably if she should tell him to bail out now while he still could. The way she had been ogling him, he was probably wondering if he would make it back to the base with his pants on, though considering the notorious libido of pilots in general and military pilots in particular, he might not fight very hard. Maybe it was the contrast he presented that got to her the way no man had before, the sense of an intense, smoldering sexuality beneath that cool remoteness. And maybe, if she was lucky, he had no idea of the tumult going on inside her.

Joe was glad of the dark lenses that protected his eyes from the sun, because they allowed him to study her without her being aware of it She had put on a bra, damn it, but the thin restricting material couldn't quite disguise the pebbled hardness of her nipples. The little darling was aroused-and upset by it; he could feel her tension, see it in the faint trembling of her body mat her still posture couldn't control. His eyes went back to her distended nipples, and his hands tightened on the steering wheel as he inevitably began thinking about taking those hard buds into his mouth. She was so beautifully responsive, and she didn't even know it. If she could be so aroused by a naughty comment, what would she be like when he was actually making love to her?

She wasn't the only one who was aroused. If he looked at her nipples one more time, he might have to stop the truck on the side of the road, and she was far from ready for that. To keep himself from making a big mistake, he didn't look at her again until they had reached his favorite drive-in hamburger joint, which was just seedy enough to be interesting.

He parked beside one of the speakers and turned off the ignition, then removed his sunglasses and put them on the dash. "What do you want?"

She wished he had phrased it differently. She leaned down so she could read the menu posted above the speaker and scowled as she forced herself to concentrate on food. The heavenly aroma of frying hamburgers, onions and French fries filled the air; why did the most unhealthy food always smell the best? "A cheeseburger basket and large soft drink."

He punched the button on the speaker, and when a tinny voice answered, he ordered two cheeseburger baskets. Then he half turned toward Caroline, his wide shoulders wedged into the corner of the truck, and casually said, "I'm going to kiss you when we get back to the base."

Caroline stared wide-eyed at him, her heart going into its crazy thumping rhythm again. "I want onions on my cheeseburger. Lots of onions."

"You don't have to be afraid I'm going to grab you," he continued as if she hadn't spoken. "It'll just be a kiss, outside your door where anyone walking by can see us, and someone probably will. I won't even put my arms around you if you don't want me to."

"I don't want you to kiss me," she said, withdrawing to her own corner of the truck and glaring at him across the expanse of the front seat.

"I'm going to anyway. It's expected."

"I don't care what's expected. I agreed to come out with you tonight because it does seem to be a good way to keep all the others in line, but I never agreed to any kissing."

"Don't you like kissing?"

She glared sullenly at him. The perfect answer would be that yes, she liked kissing, but she didn't want to kiss him. The perfect answer, however, was a bald-faced lie, and from the way her heart was fluttering like a Victorian maiden's at the prospect of kissing him, she wouldn't be able to carry it off. Lying, she found, seemed to work better when performed with a certain amount of detachment.

On the other hand, the truth was the worst answer she could give him. No, she hadn't liked any of the sloppy kisses mat had been forced on her in a hit-or-miss fashion because she'd been fighting like a wildcat to avoid them, but the thought of kissing him made her light-headed, and she was afraid she would like it too much.

When she didn't reply he said calmly, "When we get back to your quarters, unlock your door, then turn and hold out your hand to me. I'll take it, lean over and kiss you. It won't be a long kiss, but it can't be a quick peck, either. Does three seconds sound long enough to you? Then I'll let go of your hand and say good-night. On a busy base, any number of people will see us, and the word will spread that we don't seem to be having a flaming affair, but we're definitely involved."

She cleared her throat. "Three seconds?" That didn't sound like very long. Surely she could manage not to disgrace herself for three seconds.

"Just three seconds," he reassured her.

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