MacKenzie's mission (Chapter Thirteen)

It was the heat that woke her. She felt rested, her headache having subsided to a distant and far more tolerable ache. Slowly she sat up, staring out at the glaringly hot landscape stretched before her, wavering in the heat: reds in every shade, yellows, browns, sand colors. Small specks of green that testified to the sparse plant life. Beautiful. Basic. Cal was probably dead somewhere out there, and despite what he had done, what he had tried to do, she couldn't help but mourn him. He hadn't wanted to kill them, had argued against harming them. Poor Cal. He'd been a traitor, but not a murderer, though what he'd been doing could easily have led to someone's death. Poor Cal. But if Joe had been harmed because of him, she would have killed him herself. Sweat stung her eyes, and she dried her face on the arm of her shirt. If it hadn't been for the sheltering rock, the heat would have been intolerable. She reached out and touched the stone, found it cool to the touch. Where the sun kissed it, it would fry eggs.

Joe wasn't there, but she wasn't alarmed. She had a vague impression that he'd been lying beside her, and the imprint in the dirt confirmed that. Probably he had disturbed her when he'd gotten up, and that had allowed the heat to intrude on her consciousness.

She felt incredibly grubby, and looking down at herself, she saw that she was incredibly grubby. She didn't think she'd been this dirty since… come to think of it, she'd never been this duty before. She had been a fastidious child, eschewing the joys of mud puddles for those of computers and books.

Stiffly she climbed to her feet, wincing as her various aches made themselves felt. Aching or not, nature called.

When she returned to the niche, she found Joe leaning propped against the rocks, looking disgustingly capable. His eyes were piercingly alert, and even though his clothes were as dirty as hers, they looked made to be dirty. Jeans and a khaki shirt were far more utilitarian than thin white cotton pants and an oversize white T-shirt. Even his scruffy boots were better suited to the desert than her loafers; she had to be careful how she stepped, to avoid getting the fine silt inside her shoes, where it would promptly rub her feet raw.

After a single encompassing look mat avoided meeting his gaze, she stepped past him and sank down in the shade of the rocks again.

Joe's back teeth ground together. He'd thought he had himself firmly in control once more, but all of a sudden he was right back to where he'd started, dangerously close to the precipice. She was shutting him out, damn it, and he found it intolerable.

Grimly he regulated his breathing, forcing his hands to relax, his jaw to unclench. She was still fragile from the rough handling she'd had the day before; now wasn't the time to force a confrontation, even if he had been sure of his control, which he wasn't. Later. He promised himself full satisfaction-later.

"We both need something to drink," he finally said. "Come on."

Unhesitatingly she got to her feet without any sign of her usual argumentativeness, which had to mean she was very thirsty.

They didn't have far to walk; Joe had already scouted the area and marked the most likely spot in a small arroyo, where the scrub grew profusely. He knelt on the sandy bottom and began scooping up the sand with his hands. It quickly grew damp. He slipped the knife from his boot and dug deeper, until muddy water began to gather in the hole.

His gag had been made from a handkerchief, and it came in handy now. He spread the square of cloth over the water to filter the liquid, then gestured for her. "Drink."

Caroline didn't take exception to his curt tone; he had produced water, and that was the important thing. She didn't cavil about unsanitary conditions or the indignity of having to get on her hands and knees and lap liquid like a dog. It was water. She would gladly stand on her head to get it if it was required. She could feel the membranes of her mouth and throat absorbing the tepid moisture, and it was wonderful.

Still, she forced herself to stop long before her thirst was quenched and moved away from the tiny water hole. She gestured to him. "Your turn." She didn't know how much water there was; there might be only enough for both of them to have a few swallows each.

He stretched out full length on the sand to drink, which she considered and decided was a far more comfortable position. She should have thought of it herself, but then, she had never lapped water from a puddle before. She would know next time. Absently she studied his prone figure. As big as he was, it stood to reason that he had more blood in his body than she did, so he would probably require more water. Biology had never been one of her interests, but she would bet he had at least one more deciliter of blood than she did, perhaps two. An interesting little tidbit she needed to investigate…

She blinked and became aware that he had risen to his feet and was waiting, having evidently asked her something. "Do you want more water or don't you?" he repeated impatiently.

"Oh. Yes, thank you." This time she stretched out as he had done, which gave her better access to the small puddle of water. She sucked enthusiastically until she began to feel as if she'd had enough. She paused to ask, "Have you finished, or do you want more?"

"I've had enough," he said.

She soaked the handkerchief as best she could, then gingerly washed her face and hands, wincing when the water stung the scrapes. When she had finished, she offered the handkerchief to Joe, and he scrubbed the damp material over his own face and hands, and around the back of his neck. The moisture had a cooling effect, something he needed right then.

"We'll wait in the rocks until sundown," he said, and she nodded. Without another word she headed back to the protective niche.

Damn it, she was treating him like some stranger she'd been stranded with. No, even worse than that. She would have talked more to a stranger. She hadn't once looked him in the eye. Her gaze would slide past his face without connecting, as if he were someone she passed on the street. His hands clenched into hard fists as he strode after her. It was time to have it out, damn it

She was sitting on the ground in the niche when he got there, her arms looped casually around her drawn-up knees. Joe deliberately walked so close that his boots nudged her feet, forcing her to either stand up and face him or tilt her head back as far as it would go. She continued to sit.

"Why the hell didn't you call me last night instead of tackling Gilchrist on your own?" he asked softly, so softly it would take a discerning ear to catch the quiet fury underlying the words.

Caroline heard it but didn't much care. She shrugged. "I didn't think of it I wouldn't have, anyway. Why would I?"

"So I could take care of it. So you wouldn't nearly have gotten yourself killed."

"And you, too," she pointed out. "How did you get involved?"

"I was following you."

"Ah." She gave him a brittle smile. "Thought you'd catch me in the act, didn't you? What a surprise to find out it was someone else who got caught."

"And you knew it when you went there. Damn it, Caroline, for such a smart person, that was a stupid thing to do. You should have called me when you first suspected him."

"Yeah, sure. Why waste my breath?" she asked scornfully. "I'd already seen how much you believed me. I'd rather have called Adrian Pendley than you, and he hates my guts."

His breath hissed softly between his teeth as he leaned down and grasped her arms, jerking her unceremoniously to her feet "If you ever need anything," he said, the words deliberately spaced as he forced them out, "you call me. My woman doesn't go to someone else."

She pulled sharply, trying to dislodge his grip on her arms, but he merely tightened his hands. "Interesting, I'm sure," she snapped. "When you find her, be sure to tell her that, but I'm not interested."

A red mist swam in front of his eyes. "Don't push me," he heard himself say hoarsely. "You're mine, damn it Admit it."

Again she tried to pull away, her blue-green eyes spitting fire at him. If he thought he could just pick up again where they had left off, now that it had been proven to his satisfaction that she was worthy, he was in for a nasty surprise. She wanted to scream at him, but instead she limited herself to a scathing retort. "We had a hot weekend in bed, but that doesn't give you a deed to me. Boy, were my eyes opened. I knew you weren't madly in love with me or anything, but you really can't have much of an opinion of someone at all if you think they're capable of betraying their country. It was certainly a learning experience-"

"Shut up." His voice was guttural now.

"Don't tell me to shut up," she fired back. "The next time I go to bed with a man I'll make certain he-"

"You'll never go to bed with any man but me." He began shaking her, the force of it whipping her head back and forth. The thought of her turning to another man was unbearable, shattering the last tenuous thread of his control and letting rage spew forth like lava, red-hot and molten. She was his, and he was never going to let her go.

Somehow his mouth was on hers, his hand locked in her hair at the back of her head, holding her still. He tasted blood, whether his or hers he didn't know, but the coppery taste called up a fiercely primitive instinct to brand her as his, sear his flesh into hers so she would never be free of him. His skin felt burning hot and too tight, as if it would burst from the force of his blood pounding beneath it. His manhood was iron hard with lust, straining against the front of his jeans.

He carried her to the ground, blind with the need to feel her soft body beneath him. He began jerking at her pants, tugging them down and off. Her underwear tore when it was subjected to the same treatment.

Caroline lay still, staring in mute fascination at his face. She had always sensed his control and resented it, but abruptly it had shattered, and the naked intensity of his expression was almost frightening. Almost, because in the deepest, most basic part of her, she trusted him not to hurt her. She saw the savagery of his eyes, felt the barely restrained strength of his hands as he stripped her clothing away, and his wildness called her own fierce spirit soaring up to meet him.

She heard herself give a wild cry; then her hands were buried in his thick black hair, pulling him down to her.

He tore at the fly of his jeans, grunting as he freed his rigid length. He entered her with a powerful, driving thrust that made her cry out again from the impact of it; then her legs came up to hold him in the cradle of her hips as her silky hot depths wrapped around him, yielding, caressing, demanding. The sensation made him feel as if his skull was going to explode.

He rode her hard, grinding her into the hard ground beneath them in his frenzy to irrevocably meld their flesh into one. He'd never felt so savage, so utterly dominant and primitive; he was out of control, reacting purely as a male animal who needed his mate more than anything else in the world.

Caroline lifted her hips to meet his heavy thrusts. She had been sucked up into the maw of a powerful storm, and she loved it, reveled in it, embraced it and wanted more. The pleasure exploded in her, hard and deep. She clutched his hair, her heels digging into the backs of his muscled thighs as her slim body arched in a powerful bow, lifting him with her. The rhythmic surge rolled through her like thunder, and she gave herself up to it with a cry.

Her completion called up his own, the exquisite milking sensation on his hard length sending him over the edge. He convulsed with a powerful jetting that emptied him but seemed to go on forever, longer and harder and deeper than he'd ever known before. He was barely conscious when it ended, barely able to move. He didn't have the strength to roll away from her, or even to support his weight on his arms. He sank down onto her with the dim wish that he would never have to move, that they could lie there entwined for the rest of their lives.

He needed her for the rest of his life. He'd always loved flying with a passion that had overshadowed what he'd felt for other women, but right from the start he'd found it impossible to put Caroline out of his mind as he'd always been able to do once he was in the cockpit. She would never make a comfortable wife, but hell, if comfort and placidity were what he wanted, he would never have become a fighter pilot. He'd never been in a fighter yet, not even Baby, that kept him on his toes the way Caroline did. She both delighted him and challenged him, and she met the strength of his sexual drive with matching strength. He was a warrior, and she was as fierce as he was, with more guts than brains, and that was saying a lot. In more ancient times she would have fought beside him, a sword in her own hand. His Valkyrie. He felt humbled by her spirit.

"I love you," he said. He hadn't known the words were there until they came out, but he wasn't surprised by them. Somehow he found enough strength to surge up onto his elbows, looking down at her with his savage, glittering eyes narrowed. "You're my woman. Don't ever forget it."

Caroline's eyes flared, the pupils expanding to huge black circles that almost completely swallowed the vivid color of her irises. "What did you say?" she demanded.

He thrust his hips against her, deepening the invasion of his still-firm male flesh. God, how could he still be aroused? He was almost dead from exhaustion, but the want, the need, was still there. "I said I love you. And you're mine, Caroline Evans. Forever and a day. Til death and beyond."

"In sickness and in health," she prompted; then suddenly tears welled and overflowed, trickling down her temples.

He cradled her head in his hands and caught the tears with his tongue, tenderly nuzzling against her. His own chest felt tight. He'd never imagined his valiant little warrior crying, and it was almost more than he could bear. "Why the tears?" he murmured, pressing light kisses across her face and neck. "Did I hurt you?"

"You nearly killed me," she replied. "When you didn't believe me." And she balled up her fist and punched him on the side of the head, because it was the only place she could reach. It was an awkward punch, because of their closeness and her position, and didn't pack as much power as she would have liked, but he gave a very satisfying grunt. "Don't let it happen again."

He jerked his head back and glared down at her. "Why in hell did you do that?"

"Because you deserved it," she said, and blinked back another tear.

Joe's mouth twitched, and the glare turned into something tender. "I'm sorry," he breathed, feathering a kiss on each corner of her mouth. "I'm sorry. I was a blind, bull-headed ass. Just the suggestion that you might have betrayed me sent me into a flat spin, and I couldn't pull out of it. I was on my way over to see you when you came marching toward me, right down the middle of the base like you owned it, when you were supposed to be under guard." A quick frown knitted his brow, and he pulled back a little to scowl at her. "How did you get out?"

"I dismantled the glass slats in the bedroom window and crawled out."

He looked astounded. "You can't fit through there. It's too little."

"Hah. I got some scrapes from it and hurt my shoulder when I fell, because I had to go out headfirst, but it can be done." Then she judiciously added, "Though I don't think you would fit through even if you were greased from head to foot."

"Or any other man on base," he said dryly.

"Well, times have changed," she pointed out. "The security police should realize that women are a permanent part of the Air Force, even flying fighters into combat now, so they should adjust their thinking."

Typical of Caroline to point out the security police's errors in letting her escape. He would be sure to pass them on to Hodge. If he beat Caroline to it, that is.

She gave a delicate little cat yawn, and her dark sea-colored eyes looked sleepy. Still, Joe was reluctant to disengage their bodies, though she was lying naked with nothing beneath her but the hard ground. He solved the problem by anchoring her hips with a hard arm and rolling so he was on bottom. She made a soft sound of contentment, very like a purr, and nestled her head into the hollow where his neck and shoulder met.

He leisurely stroked her slim back for a minute, then abruptly his hands tightened, and he lifted her off his chest to give her a hard look. "What about you?" he demanded sharply. "Do you love me, Caroline? Say it"

"Yes, sir, Colonel," she murmured in response to the commanding tone. She supposed it was something he couldn't help. "I love you, Colonel, sir. Stupid of me, wasn't it, to fall in love when you were so determined to hold back, to not give me anything more than sex?"

Tension pulled the skin tight across his cheekbones, starkly revealing the chiseled bone structure. He felt the nausea of panic coiling in his stomach, because suddenly he saw that Caroline would never tolerate that rigid control, doling out passion and love in measured amounts. She wanted all of him. A cliff yawned at his feet, and if he stepped over the edge his life would never be the same, but if he didn't take that one step, he would lose her. He knew it all the way down to his bones, and just the thought of it was a hammer blow to the chest that told him he would never be able to survive the reality. His instincts were too sharp, too primal, for him to think he would be able to shrug it off. She was his mate; there was no other for him.

Somehow he forced his lips to move, though they felt numb. "I… I need to be in control."

He felt her hand on his hair, gently stroking, her soft fingertips trailing down to his cheek and then to his lips. "I noticed," she said, softly wry.

It was hard to explain, impossible with her lying on top of him, so close that she couldn't miss even the most minute change in his expression. He lifted her off him, though his body felt abruptly incomplete without the linkage to hers. She looked disoriented by the sudden shift, automatically crossing her arms over her bare breasts in response to her inner uncertainty. The gesture was so innately feminine that he grabbed her to him, holding her close and savoring the feel of her silky skin, gathering his strength. He brushed the dirt from her back, took off his shirt and slipped it on her. Her own clothes, he saw, were a tangled mess.

He kissed her, hard and quick, before tension drove him to his feet. He stood with his back to her, staring out over the stark, lovely desert.

"Dad was put in prison when I was six years old," he said. His voice was hoarse and raw. "He was innocent. The guy who had committed the crime was finally caught for something else, and he admitted everything. But Dad spent two years in prison, and for those two years I was in foster homes."

There was total silence behind him, but he sensed the intensity of her attention. "Maybe there was just something about me that the man in the first home hated. Maybe it was because I'm a half-breed. They kept other foster kids, but he singled me out. I was just a kid. I broke things, I'd lose my temper playing with the other kids, the way kids do. I was bigger and stronger than most kids my age, but I didn't know how to control that strength. If any of them said anything about Dad being a duty half-breed jailbird, I went at them and did as much damage as I could. God, did I have a temper.

"And this man would beat me whenever I did something, even if it was stumble over an ashtray that he'd left on the floor. At first he used a belt, but it wasn't long before he was using his fists. I fought him, and he beat me that much worse. I missed more school than I attended, because he wouldn't let me go to school with my face bruised up."

It got harder to say, the memories blacker as he dredged them up, and the worst was yet to come. He made himself continue. "He kicked me down the steps once, broke a couple of my ribs. And still I kept fighting him. I guess you could say I didn't have stopping sense, but my temper flashed like black powder, and I couldn't control it. He started burning me with cigarettes if I sassed him, or twisting my fingers, just to see if he could make me cry.

"I was in a nightmare and I couldn't get out," he said softly. "Nobody seemed to care what happened to me. I was just a half-breed, worth less than a mongrel dog on the side of the road. Then one day he slapped me, and I really lost my temper. I went on a rampage. I kicked in the television set, threw all the little knick-nacks against the wall, got in the kitchen and started breaking the dishes, and he was right behind me, hitting me with his fists, trying to kick my ribs in. I lost, of course. I was only six, even if I was big for my age. He dragged me down to the basement, stripped me naked and beat the bloody hell out of me."

His heart was pounding now, just as it had been that day almost thirty years before. He'd never said it before, but it had to be said now. "Then he raped me."

He could hear the swift movement behind him, feel the rush of air as Caroline surged to her feet. He kept his back turned.

"Looking back, I think it shocked him that he'd done it He never touched me again, even in the slightest way. And I never lost control again," he said remotely. "He must have called the welfare people, or maybe his wife did. I was gone from that house within two weeks. I spent those two weeks in the basement, alone, silent. I stopped talking. The other foster homes were okay, I guess, but I didn't take any chances. I did exactly what I was told, never lost my temper, never lost control, never talked. Then one day, when I was eight, Dad showed up. He'd gotten out of prison and tracked me down. I don't know if he had authorization to get me or if no one was brave enough to tell him he couldn't, but he picked me up and held me so close it hurt, and it was the best hurt in the world. I was safe again."

"Did you tell him?" she asked, the first time she had spoken. He was a little startled at the harshness of her tone.

"No. I've never told anyone, until now. If you knew my dad, you'd know why. He would have gone after the guy and literally killed him with his bare hands, and I couldn't stand to lose Dad again." He steeled himself to turn and face her, braced for the pity he would see in her eyes, but what he saw was a long way from pity. She was standing with her fists clenched, her face savage with rage. If that long-ago man had been standing there right then, Caroline Evans would have killed him, too. She wasn't a half-breed Comanche warrior, but her spirit was just as swift and fierce, and her sea-colored eyes were blazing. Startled, he began to laugh.

"Don't laugh, don't you dare laugh!" she roared. "I'll kill him-"

"You don't have to, sweetheart," he soothed, jerking her into his arms when she evaded his more gentle attempts to embrace her. "He's dead. He died two years after the welfare people took me away. After I had graduated from the Academy I decided to check, just for the information. Hell, who am I kidding? There's no telling what I would have done if he'd still been alive."

He pushed her hair away from her face and kissed her. "Maybe I was tougher than most kids, but he didn't damage me permanently, except for always wanting to be in control. He didn't warp me sexually. Being around Dad was probably the best therapy I could have had, as far as sex is concerned. He was always totally open about it, treating it as just part of nature. And we had the horse ranch. A kid learns the basics damn fast on a ranch. I was okay within six months of getting back with Dad. There was a bedrock of love there that never let me down."

"Except you're still a control fanatic," she growled.

He had to laugh again. "You can't even lay all the blame for that on what happened. I'm a fighter pilot. My life depends on being in control. It's part of my training as well as my personality."

She nuzzled her face against his sweat-dampened chest. "Well, you have a reason for it, but that doesn't mean I like it."

"No, I don't guess you would," he said in amusement. "That's why you continually push me, trying to make me lose control. Well, lady, you succeeded. Are you pleased with yourself?" His voice turned deep and serious. "I could have hurt you, sweetheart."

She looked like the cat who had had an entire gallon of cream, not just a measly saucerful. "It was wonderful," she purred. "And I wasn't frightened. You can't hurt me by loving me. The only way you'll ever hurt me is if you stop loving me."

His arms tightened around her. "Then you're safe for a lifetime." He held her close for a long, long time, and he felt something relax within him, something that he hadn't even known was tightly wound. She was inside his defenses now, and he no longer had to keep his guard up. Defeat had never been sweeter, because he'd come away with the grand prize.

At the moment his grand prize was bruised and half-naked, but still valiant He released her with a little swat to her bare backside. "Get your clothes on, woman. It's sundown, and we have to get back to the base."