MacKenzie's mission (Chapter Four)

The cheeseburger-without onions-and fries were delicious, reminding her of those few precious times during her childhood when she had been allowed to stay over with her mother's brother and his wife, both of them about ten years younger than her parents, and Uncle Lee had invariably treated her to the biggest, juiciest hamburger she could eat, followed by ice cream, another forbidden food. Her parents had allowed her to eat sorbet or frozen yogurt, but never ice cream. If it hadn't been for Uncle Lee, Caroline thought she might have reached the age of majority without knowing the joys of junk food. She still always felt as if she were having a special treat when she indulged.

After the cheeseburgers, he gave her a slow smile and asked, "Ever played the slots?"

"No. I've never been to a casino."

"That's about to change." He started the truck, and soon they were tooling down Las Vegas Boulevard, an endless array of flashing neon lights in every color of the rainbow. They blinked, they arrowed, they cascaded, they exploded in endless neon showers, inviting one and all to sample whatever it was they were advertising. The big casinos drew the largest crowds, of course, but a goodly number of people were just strolling, tourists determined to see everything in this town geared toward attracting them. People were dressed in clothing that ran the gamut from shorts to formal gowns.

"Do you like to gamble?" she asked.

"I never gamble."

She snorted. "Except with your life. I was in the control room today, remember? Hitting eighty degrees alpha and pulling 10 Gs isn't what I'd call safe living."

"That isn't gambling. Baby was built to give us an unlimited angle of attack, but her capability doesn't do us any good if we don't know how to fly her. My job is to make certain she does what she's supposed to do, get her fully tested out and operational and find out her limitations. I can't do that if I don't exceed what we're already doing in the F-22."

"None of the other pilots are pushing the envelope like that."

His eyes were utterly calm when he looked at her. "They will now. Now that they know Baby will operate under those conditions."

"You did it just to show them it could be done?"

"No. I did it because it's my job."

And because he loved it. The thought echoed in her mind. She had seen it that day when he had entered the control room after his flight, tired and sweaty, his eyes bloodshot, his expression as remote as ever. But his eyes had given him away. They had been fierce and… exalted, the fires of life burning white hot in him.

He parked the truck, and they strolled down the sidewalk. "Do you feel lucky?" he asked.

She shrugged. "How does lucky feel?"

"Want to try it?"

She paused before the entrance to one of the casinos, feeling the cool air gush out through the opened doors. Rows and rows of slot machines stretched before her and even spread out on the sidewalk. Most of them were manned by people automatically feeding in their tokens of worship and pulling the levers. Occasionally there were cries of delight as coins in varying numbers came tumbling out to reward their persistence, but mostly the machines took rather than gave.

"It isn't cost-effective," she said after studying the procedure for a few minutes.

He laughed softly. "That isn't the point Never gamble if you can't afford to lose, that's rule number one. Rule number two is to have fun."

"They don't look like they're having fun," she said doubtfully.

"That's because they've forgotten rule number two, and maybe even number one. C'mon, I'll stake you."

But she waited another few minutes, until she saw someone abandon a machine that hadn't paid anything in quite a while. The law of averages said it was more likely to pay out than one that had just disgorged a few coins would be to do so again. She sat down in front of it and fed in the quarters, feeling like an idiot as she did so. Joe stood behind her, softly laughing when the mechanical bandit gave her nothing in return. After she had fed in about five dollars without winning anything, Caroline began to take it personally. She muttered warnings and threats as she went through the procedure again-and lost again.

"Remember rule number two," Joe cautioned, amusement in his voice.

She told him what he could do with rule number two, and he chuckled.

She hitched her stool closer to the machine and shoved a quarter into the slot. She pulled the lever and the pictures began whirring, then one by one clicked into place. Bells began ringing and quarters began flooding out of the bottom slot, spilling out onto the floor. Caroline jumped up and stared at the silver coins as other slot players crowded around, offering congratulations, and a smiling casino employee came over. Then she gave Joe a look of consternation. "All those quarters won't fit in my pocket."

He threw back his head and began laughing. She stared at his strong brown throat and felt suddenly dizzy as that damn light-headed feeling swept over her again.

The casino employee, still smiling, said, "We'll be glad to change the coins into bills."

They did, and to her relief Caroline found that the flood of quarters wasn't a great fortune after all, only a little over seventy dollars. She returned Joe's stake to him and stuffed the remaining bills into her pocket.

"Did you have fun?" he asked as they left the casino.

She thought about it "I suppose so, but I was beginning to feel a little vindictive toward that machine. I don't think I have the temperament to be a gambler."

"Probably not," he agreed, and took her hand in his to gently pull her out of the path of a man who wasn't looking where he was going. But then he didn't release her as she had expected.

She looked down at their clasped hands. His hand was big and hard, the ringers lean, his palm tough with calluses, but his grip was careful, as if he were very aware of his strength. She had never held hands before, and the touch of palm against palm was surprisingly intimate. She was beginning to realize that fear had kept her from doing a lot of pleasurable things before, but then, she had never before been even tempted to explore them. Her reactions to other men who had tried to venture into a physical relationship with her had varied from bored and disinterested to absolute revulsion.

She could tug her hand free. That was the safest course of action, but somehow she couldn't do it. So she ignored the situation, acted as if her hand wasn't nestled in his much more powerful one like a bird taking shelter, and inwardly she savored every moment of it.

Finally they walked back to the truck, and she realized she was reluctant for the night to come to an end. It was her first date, if she cared to categorize it as such, and it was almost over.

They were both silent on the drive back to the base, and inevitably her mind turned to the coming kiss. She felt both panicked and excited. Another first for her, the first kiss she had actually agreed to and welcomed. It was a toss-up whether she would bolt in fear or hurl herself into his arms.

The moment of truth came all too soon. He parked in front of her quarters and got out to walk around the truck and open the door for her. There were a number of personnel going about their business, glancing at them with idle curiosity, and she knew he had perfectly gauged the situation.

She took out her keys and unlocked the door, then turned and faced him in the colorless glow of the vapor lights overhead. Her eyes were solemn and defenseless as she stared at him, his eyes glittering like ice.

"Hold out your hand," he commanded softly, and she obeyed.

His hard, warm hand enclosed her fingers, and he pulled her closer even as he bent. His mouth lightly touched hers, lifted, settled again. He turned his head slightly to adjust the pressure, and somehow the motion parted her own lips, so that they yielded to the molding of his.

His taste was warm and pleasant and… male. The scent of him enveloped her, and she shivered in response. His mouth was still on hers, moving gently. She felt the tip of his tongue touch and tease, making her stiffen at the jumbled memory of some uninvited, intrusive kiss, but this was nothing like that. She felt enticed rather than coerced, and his taste was filling her senses. Warm pleasure shuddered up from her depths; with a little whimper she opened her mouth, and slowly he took her.

The carnality of it was staggering, and so was her reaction to it. She heard herself whimper again, and then somehow she was pressed hard against him, her head tilted up and back to give him deeper access, an access he took with a hard male dominance that stunned her. She felt weak and hot, and her breasts tightened with an ache that contact with his hard chest both soothed and intensified. Her loins felt hot, too, as coils of pleasure tightened deep inside. She was clinging to his hand like a lifeline.

Slowly he lifted his mouth, and it was all he could force himself to do to break the contact. He gave in to the temptation to take several more quick kisses from the soft, innocent mouth that had so quickly warmed to awareness, then he had to release her hand and step back. He had promised her. He wanted nothing more than to shove her inside her dark quarters and carry her down to the floor, mounting her with quick, hard urgency, but restraint now would bring him much sweeter rewards in the future. So he controlled his rough, quick breathing and tried to control the fierce rush of blood through his veins.

"Three seconds," he said.

Her eyes were glazed as she stared at him, and she was weaving slightly. "Yes," she whispered. "Three seconds."

She didn't move. He put his hands on her shoulders and turned her around. "Go inside, Caroline." His voice was low and calm. "Good night."

"Good night" She moved jerkily to obey, and as she reached the threshold she paused to look at him over her shoulder. Her eyes were huge and dark with some indefinable emotion. "That was much longer than three seconds."

She switched on the light, then closed and carefully locked the door. Even as she turned the bolt, she heard him drive away, telling her that he hadn't been tempted to linger for even a second, or hadn't considered the idea of knocking on her door. He had accomplished his mission, which was to establish their "relationship," so as far as he was concerned, there was no reason to hang around.

She sat down on the couch and remained there, motionless, for quite some time. She had some thinking to do, and she always concentrated better if she could just sit still and totally lock herself inside her brain, or perhaps it was more a matter of locking everything else out, and that included physical stimuli.

It hadn't taken any psychoanalysis for her to understand years ago how her upbringing and accelerated progress through school had combined with her own nature to make her the odd man out, but she hadn't minded. Why should she worry that she had never learned how to associate with the opposite sex on a social and emotional level, when there hadn't been anyone of the opposite sex she was interested in associating with anyway? So she had never regretted her out-of-sync relationship with the rest of the world-until now.

Now, for the first time, she was strongly attracted to a man and wanted him to be attracted to her, but how did she go about accomplishing that feat? When other girls had been learning how, she had been studying physics. She was an expert in laser optics, but she didn't know a damn thing about flirting.

Why couldn't she have gotten her feet wet with someone less challenging, say a fellow physicist who had also spent more time with books than people and was a little awkward socially, too? But, no, instead she had fallen head over heels in attraction with a hotshot fighter pilot, a man who could make women go weak in the knees with one look from those diamond-blue eyes. She didn't have to be an expert at kissing to be able to tell that he was, and she had a sneaking suspicion that she had made a fool out of herself. All he had done was hold her hand, as he'd promised, and she had practically been all over him. She had a distinct memory of pushing hard against him and rubbing her front against his like a cat, and thinking that she was going to fall in a heap at his feet.

He'd been nice to her this evening. He'd treated her as a friend, had let her relax, and she had had fun. She couldn't remember the last time she had done something so totally useless and enjoyed it. Simple playing hadn't been part of her childhood; her parents had carefully monitored her activities to make certain they were geared toward her educational progress. No ABC blocks for her; she had used flash cards. In defense of her parents, though, she had been an impatient child, irascible when the pace had lagged behind the speed of her inquisitive, hungry intellect. Her childhood hadn't been unhappy, just different, and she had made her own choices in life.

She was groping her way through unfamiliar territory, but Caroline's approach to any problem was to tackle it head-on. She didn't really know how to use the weapons nature had given her, but Joe Mackenzie was about to find them all brought to bear on him.

The first step in solving any problem was to research the subject. It was early enough that a lot of people were still awake, and there were plenty of female Air Force personnel who turned out to be willing to lend her magazines with articles that she thought addressed the problem, and she was even able to come up with quite a bit of research on fighter pilots in general. She was an accomplished speed reader and sat up for several hours plowing her way through magazines offering such intriguing articles as "He's Bad, Bad, Bad-So Why Do You Love Him Anyway?" and "Finding The Gold in The Dross-When Not To Give Up." Double titles seemed to abound, as well as hundreds of glossy photos of women five feet nine inches tall who weighed a hundred and fifteen pounds, most of which was evidently hair and breasts. She learned how to tell when he was cheating, and how to get revenge. She learned how to break into real estate or start her own company, how to win at blackjack-she committed that to memory-and where to stay on vacation in Europe. Interesting stuff. She just might subscribe.

The material on fighter pilots was even more interesting.

She was in the office before dawn, dressed in a loose, lightweight jumpsuit. When she had been making her selection that morning, seduction had collided with comfort, and seduction had lost without even a whimper. The temperature hit a hundred and ten during the day, for heaven's sake.

She hauled out the specs for the day's tests and began rechecking them, making a mental note to ask Cal a few questions about the computer program. She had taken a second major in computer programming, which had seemed to be a good complement to physics, and it had in fact come in very handy on several occasions. She logged onto the computer and began running the tests through it, rechecking once again that everything was as perfect as they could get it.

"How long have you been in-"

She shrieked at the voice right behind her and came up swinging, overturning her chair in the process. Joe's hand shot up and caught her right fist before it could connect with his face, and a split second later he caught the left one in his other hand, the twin movements like lightning.

"Don't do that again!" she yelled, going up on tiptoe to glare at him, thrusting her jaw up to his. Her eyes were still dilated from fright. "What are you trying to do, give me a heart attack? From now on, whistle before you get to the door!"

With a deft motion he twisted her arms behind her back, still holding her fists clasped in his palms. The action brought her breasts firmly against him and encased her within his arms. "I didn't mean to scare you," he said softly. "But if your first reaction is always to attack, you should learn how to do it right, so you won't wind up in the sort of predicament you're in now." He saw interest sharpen the dark bluish-green of her eyes and knew that he had successfully deflected her attention from the fact that he was holding her captive.

Caroline considered the situation. She tugged briefly on her arms, but he held her firmly, and there was no way she could free herself from those iron hands. He was too tall for her to hit him in the face with her head. "I still have the option of stomping your instep and kicking your ankle or knee."

"Yes, but you're too close to put much power behind it. You can hurt me, but not enough to make me let you go. If I were an attacker, sweetheart, right now you'd be in some serious trouble."

She wiggled experimentally again, testing her limits of movement. His arms were locked around her, and she was pressed fully against his muscled body. She shivered a little at the unexpected pleasure of it, so surrounded by his warmth and scent. He smelled delicious; she had never noticed any other man smelling the way Joe did, and it wasn't just the fresh scent of soap lingering on his skin. It was a hot, musky scent, subtle and powerful, making her want to bury her nose against him and drink it in. The effects were strong and immediate; her breasts began to tingle and ache as her nipples peaked, and hot tension tightened her loins.

She cleared her throat and tried to take her mind off her body's reaction; they were in the office, for heaven's sake. Just because she had changed her mind about wanting to experience more of this man/woman thing didn't mean she wanted to do it here. "Umm…so what should I do when I want to attack?"

"You should learn how to fight first," he replied, and pressed a quick, hard kiss on her mouth as he released her.

Her lips tingled from the kiss, and she licked them. His gaze slid to her mouth and darkened. She tried for nonchalance to hide the fact that she was shaking all over. "So, what do you recommend?" she asked as she set the chair upright and briskly backed out of the computer program, just to give herself something to do. She switched the machine off and faced him with a bright smile. "Martial arts?"

"Dirty street fighting would be better. It teaches you how to win any way you can, and to hell with fighting fair. It's the only way you should ever go into a fight."

"You mean like throwing dirt in the guy's eyes and stuff like that?"

"Whatever works. The idea is to win, and stay alive."

"Is that the way you fight?" she asked. She desperately needed to sit down, her legs were shaking so much, but he would tower over her if she did, and the thought of that made her nervous, too. She compromised by propping herself on the edge of the desk. "Is that what the Air Force teaches its pilots now?"

"No, that's the way I was taught to fight when I was a kid."

"Who taught you?"

"My father."

She supposed it was a masculine bonding thing. Her father had taught her calculus, but that wasn't quite the same.

"I've been researching the typical fighter pilot," she said. "It's interesting reading. In some ways, you're the perfect stereotype."

"Is that so?" He showed his teeth in a very white smile, though maybe it wasn't a smile at all.

"Well, in some ways you're atypical. You're unusually tall, more suited to a bomber than a fighter. But fighter pilots are typically intelligent, aggressive, arrogant and as determined-maybe stubborn is a better word-as a bulldog. They want to be in control at all times."

He crossed his arms over his chest, dark lashes shadowing his glittering eyes.

"Fighter pilots have keen eyesight and fast reactions. Most of you have blue or light-colored eyes, so you're certainly typical on that. And here's an interesting little tidbit… fighter pilots usually have more female children than male."

"Finding out will be fun," he drawled.

She cleared her throat. "Actually, I thought you might already know."

He lifted his eyebrows. "Why's that?"

"I did notice that they called you Breed. I assumed it's because you do it so well."

One corner of his mouth moved in a slow smile. "My breeding productivity doesn't have anything to do with it. They call me Breed because I'm a half-breed Indian."

Caroline was so startled that she could only stare at him. "A Native American?"

He shrugged. "That's what you can call it if you want, but I've always called myself an Indian. Changing labels doesn't change anything else." His voice was casual, but he was watching her closely.

She studied him just as closely. His skin was certainly dark enough, with a deep bronze hue that she had assumed was a dark tan. His hair was thick and black and straight, those sculpted cheekbones high and prominent, his nose thin and high-bridged, and his mouth was typically clean-cut and sensual. His eyes, however, were an oddity. She frowned and said accusingly, "Then how can you have blue eyes? Blue is a recessive gene. You should have dark eyes."

He had been alert to how she would receive his heritage, but at her reply something in him relaxed. How else would Caroline respond to something but with a demand for more information? She wasn't shocked or repelled, as some people still were by his mixed heritage, or even titillated, as sometimes happened-though he had become accustomed to that because women were often excited by his profession, too. Nope, she honed right in on the genetic question of why he had blue eyes.

"My parents were both half-breeds," he explained. "Genetically I'm still half Indian and half white, but I got the recessive blue-eyed gene from both my parents. I'm one-quarter Comanche, one-quarter Kiowa and half white."

She nodded in satisfaction, the mystery of his eye color having been explained. She pursued the subject with interest. "Do you have any brothers or sisters? What color are their eyes?"

"Three brothers and one sister. Half brothers and sister, to be precise. My mother died when I was a baby. My stepmother is white, and she has blue eyes. So do my three brothers. Dad was wondering if he was ever going to have a black-eyed baby until my sister was born."

She was fascinated by this glimpse of family life. "I'm an only child. I always wanted a brother or sister when I was little," she said, unaware of the faint wistful note in her voice. "Was it fun?"

He chuckled and hooked his foot in the chair, turning it around so he could drop his tall frame into it. Caroline remained propped against the edge of the desk, still effectively pinned there, because he was in the way, but she wasn't paying attention to that any longer.

"I was sixteen when Dad married Mary, so I didn't grow up with them, but it was fun in a different way. I was old enough to appreciate babies, to take care of them. The best times were when I would go home on leave and they would swarm all over me like little monkeys. Dad and Mary always take off for one night alone while I'm there, and I have the kids to myself. They aren't little anymore, but we all still like it."

She tried to imagine this big, dangerous-looking man relaxed and surrounded by kids. Even just talking about them had softened his face. It wasn't until she saw him that way that she realized what a barrier he kept between himself and everyone else, because there was no barrier between him and his family. With them he would relax the iron control that characterized his every move, lose the remoteness that lay over his expression and in his eyes. The relationship he had with his men was different. It was the camaraderie that is established with a group whose members work together and depend on each other for a long time. That wasn't personal, and in a way it required him to retain his control. Suddenly she felt cold and a little lost, because she wasn't inside his intimate little circle. She wanted him to relax that guard with her, let her see the inner man and get close to him. With her recent feminine awakening came another insight, one that hurt even more: she wanted him to want her enough to lose that frightening control. It hurt because he didn't, and she knew it. What was frightening was that she knew it wouldn't matter to her unless she was already far more involved emotionally than she had thought.

She became aware that she had been staring silently at him for several long minutes, and he had been just as quietly watching her, one eyebrow slightly quirked as he waited for her to say something. She blushed without knowing why. He came lithely to his feet, stepping forward, so close that his legs were touching hers. "What's on your mind, sweetheart?"

"You," she blurted out. Why was he standing so close? Her pulse was beginning to race again. What was it about him that being close to him put her brain into neutral and her body into overdrive?

"What about me?"

She tried to think of something clever and casual, but she had never learned how to prevaricate or hide her feelings. "I don't know anything about men. I don't know how to act around them or how to attract them."

His expression was wry. "You're doing okay."

What did he mean by that? She was being her usual blunt self, which had always sent men running. This was more difficult than she'd imagined it would be. She found that she was wringing her hands and was vaguely astonished at herself, because she'd never thought she was the hand-wringing type. "Am I? Good. I've never seen anyone I wanted to attract before, so I'm at something of a loss. I know you said we'd just pretend to have a relationship so your men wouldn't bother me, but would it be too much of a bother for you if I wanted to make it more real?"

"Just how'real' did you have in mind?" he asked, amused.

Again she was at a loss. "Well, how would I know? I just know that I'm attracted to you, and I'd like for you to be attracted to me, but I've never done this before, so you're asking me to play a game without knowing the rules. Would you hand a football to some guy who'd never heard of the game before and say 'Here you go, buddy. Play ball'?"

His eyes danced at the astringency of her tone, but his voice was calm and grave when he replied, "I see your point."

"So?" She spread her hands inquiringly. "What are the rules? That is, if you don't mind playing."

"Oh, I like a little game now and then."

He was drawling again. She gave him an uncertain glance, wondering if he was making fun of her.

He put his hands on her hips and moved her a little farther back on the desk. Caroline grabbed his upper arms, her nails digging into his biceps. No one had ever touched her hips before, except for one eager beaver who had pinched her bottom and gotten shoved over a wastebasket for his effort. The steely muscles under her fingers made her doubt she would be able to shove Joe anywhere.

He moved even closer and somehow used his hard thighs to spread her legs. She looked down in shock. He was between her legs. Her head jerked back up, but before she could say anything he brushed a light, gentle kiss across her mouth. The contrast between that non-threatening kiss and his very threatening position between her legs disoriented her.

He cupped her face with one hand, slowly caressing her cheek, his fingertips moving lightly over the smooth, velvet texture of her skin. His other hand slipped around over her bottom and firmly pulled her forward until he was nestled ultimately in the notch of her thighs. Caroline's heart thumped violently, and she lost her breath, as well as her ability to sit upright. Her bones turned liquid and she sank against him, unintentionally deepening the embrace. The hard bulge of his sex throbbed against the soft yielding of her loins, and she felt an answering throbbing begin deep inside her.

He kissed her again, this time with a slowly increasing demand. Helplessly she opened her mouth to the probing of his tongue. His hips moved against her, between her spread thighs, in the same rhythm as his tongue moved in her mouth. The hard bulge in his trousers was even harder, even bigger.

Her senses were swimming, just as they had been the night before. His tongue probed deep into her mouth, stroking her own tongue and demanding a response. His taste was hot and heady, his skin smelling of soap and man. Her breasts were throbbing, and again the only relief seemed to be contact with his hard, muscled chest. It was all almost too much to bear, but the only alternative was to tear herself out of his arms, and she couldn't make herself do that.

She couldn't, but he could. Somehow she found herself being gently freed and set away from him. She swayed, and he steadied her, his hard hands clasping her arms. She stared up at him a little wildly. Damn his control! Why couldn't he feel even a little of the turmoil that enveloped her? He had gotten aroused, no doubt about that, but it hadn't affected his control at all, while she was about to go up in flames.

"The rules are simple," he said calmly. "We have to let you get accustomed to touching and being touched, and find out what you like. We'll take it slow, go a little bit further each time. I'll pick you up at seven tonight."

He kissed her again and left as silently as he had entered the room. Caroline sat on the desk, trying to get control of her heart and lungs, trying to deal with the empty ache of her body. She was in trouble. She was in big trouble. She had started something she couldn't handle, but she wouldn't have called it off even if she thought she could, and she strongly suspected it was beyond her control anyway.

Unless she was very much mistaken, Joe Mackenzie intended to have an affair with her. A full-fledged, get-naked, lovemaking affair. And she was willing; she was going into this with her eyes open, knowing full well that for him it was likely to be only an affair, while it would be much more to her. He would always be in control, the strong core of him always guarded and remote and uninvolved, while she was well on her way to losing her heart