Touch The Heavens Eileen Nauman Flying was her first passionThen Chris Mallory met Major Dan McCord, her instructor in test-pilot school. The attraction–compelling, magical, overwhelming–was definitely mutual.The first woman in a male-dominated field, Chris had enough to handle without beginning a love affair. But the powerful feelings between them were irresistible, and with Dan she could soar to such ecstatic heights…. Flying was her first passion Then Chris Mallory met Major Dan McCord, her instructor in test-pilot school. The attraction—compelling, magical, overwhelming—was definitely mutual. The first woman in a male-dominated field, Chris had enough to handle without beginning a love affair. But the powerful feelings between them were irresistible, and with Dan she could soar to such ecstatic heights.... Touch the Heavens Lindsay McKenna www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) “How I want you, my raven-haired love.” Dan’s voice was roughened by desire as he wrapped Chris in his arms. “Tonight, tomorrow, forever....” An uncontrolled fire swept through her as he kissed her deeply, possessively. Then his fingers slipped under the straps of her nightgown, baring her shoulders. Chris gasped when his hands moved down to the fullness of her breasts. Arching upward, she met his hunger with her own, wanting, needing all of him. “Now,” she murmured entreatingly. “Please, Dan, love me now....” In Memory of Doug Benefield, Test Pilot When I first met you to interview you, I wondered if you were born part eagle. You lived to fly, flew to live. Your world never consisted of feet on the ground. No, you felt happiest with a stick in your hand and rudders beneath your booted feet, sailing through that vast blue ocean called the sky. And having been a test pilot for such a long time, you had survived longer than almost all of them. There was a natural intimacy between you and the bird you flew, an understanding. You were a natural stick-and-rudder man. Your ability to share your knowledge of test piloting, with even the uninitiated such as myself, forever imprinted you in my heart. On August 29, 1984, you died at the stick of your beloved B-1B bomber; you went out like you came in: flying. And I know from the way your voice grew gruff and your eyes softened when you looked at that bird that you loved what you were doing. And I was privileged to not only see, but feel that fierce pride and satisfaction within you toward your profession, as one of the greatest test pilots in the world. Doug, you were an eagle and truly, you did Touch the Heavens Contents Chapter 1 (#u7c2ddf5c-d8bd-5065-8751-2a4c98f20b5c) Chapter 2 (#ucd05dea7-adea-53f2-8e74-dcf18021f5f4) Chapter 3 (#u92eeddea-8065-5264-b27b-287660d2cf79) Chapter 4 (#ud0a064b2-7853-5a2b-ad05-eeff5df6b302) Chapter 5 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 6 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 7 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 8 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 9 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 10 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 11 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 12 (#litres_trial_promo) 1 DAN MCCORD’S EYES narrowed as he spotted the woman in a dark blue Air Force uniform standing near the flight line. So this was their woman test-pilot student, Captain Chris Mallory. So intent was she on inspecting the line of jet aircraft parked on the concrete ramp that she hadn’t heard him approach. A wry smile tugged at his mouth as he allowed himself to fully enjoy the sight of her. She was tall for a woman, but not for a test pilot; probably around five-foot-seven, he guessed. Her hair was a luxurious black with blue highlights, like those of a raven’s wing gleaming in the early-morning light. Although Dan had met several women Air Force pilots during his career, he was pleasantly surprised: Chris Mallory was decidedly feminine in every respect. Her thick black hair curled softly into a shoulder-length page boy that barely brushed her shoulders. Small, dainty pearl earrings adorned her earlobes. Nice, he decided. Very nice. There was an air of confidence around her that widened his smile. Even at a distance of twenty feet, she was a woman who would definitely command any male’s attention. As if finally sensing his presence, Chris Mallory turned her head slowly toward him, giving Dan the full impact of her violet gaze. He had never seen anyone with such wide, heather-colored eyes. Her face was square, softened by slightly full lips that curved upward. Overall, he decided, an arrestingly attractive woman—the kind who made him want to stare at her like an eighteen-year-old boy instead of a thirty-two-year-old man. He walked forward, extending his hand. “You must be Captain Chris Mallory. I’m Major Dan McCord, one of the instructors at the Test Pilot School.” Chris smiled warmly, automatically proffering her own hand. Her slender fingers met and were enclosed by his in a firm grip. She gave a slightly embarrassed laugh, as he continued to hold her hand. Reluctantly, he released it. ‘‘Yes, I am Captain Mallory. How did you know? Or is test-pilot student written all over me?” He grinned. “Just a lucky guess. Actually, some of the guys think I’m psychic.” Nice sense of humor, he thought. Dancing amethyst eyes with a real spark of life in them. Chris Mallory possessed a blend of femininity, confidence and allure, with emphasis on the allure. He felt excited by her presence in the test-pilot curriculum. If her looks were any indication of her skill as a pilot, she was going to do well as the first woman to challenge the male dominion of test piloting for the Air Force. Chris found herself warming to Dan McCord, missing little in her initial inspection of him. He was a good five inches taller than her, with lean features and eyes the color of the sky she loved to fly in. Deeply tanned by the California sun, he carried himself with easy grace. Yet within him, Chris sensed there was a tightly coiled power. She would have been more on guard if his mouth had been thin or cruel looking. But it was a firm, well-shaped mouth. His walnut-brown hair was neatly trimmed and tapered in typical military style. “I’d accept the psychic bit if I didn’t know that nearly every national newspaper had announced that I’d be arriving today at Edwards Air Force Base to begin processing for Test Pilot School.” “Looks like I’ve been caught in the act,” Dan admitted. “Now I’ll have to confess to reading all the publicity anticipating your arrival.” Chris groaned. “Not to mention the television coverage. You’d think I was the first woman astronaut or something.” He liked her ability to remain at ease with him; something that other women military pilots never did accomplish. “You are a first, Captain. But I was hoping that all this fanfare wouldn’t deter you from looking forward to school.” She found herself beginning to relax. Maybe this new Chapter in her life wasn’t going to be as tough as she thought. Dan stood before her, one hand resting lazily on his slim hips. His flight cap was edged in silver with the gold major’s oak leaf on one side, perched confidently on his head. His one-piece olive flight suit fit his lean, whipcord body to perfection, emphasizing his broad shoulders and well-muscled chest. “What almost stopped me from coming was my car,” she admitted ruefully. “It broke down outside of Lancaster, about thirty miles from here.” His brows dipped. “Oh?” She gave a shake of her head. “I got lucky and found a loose wire on the distributor; otherwise, I’d be hitchhiking onto the base. Somehow, I suspect the other test-pilot students wouldn’t think much of that.” Dan became serious, watching her through half closed eyes. “You’re a pilot, not a car mechanic. I don’t see why anyone would make fun of you if you hadn’t been able to fix it.” “I expect some of the students are going to try and find the least little flaw in me and blow it out of proportion.” She forced a smile, realizing the palms of her hands were damp. McCord was affecting her strangely, and suddenly Chris felt nervous around him. And at twenty-nine years old! Still she could see that she was affecting him similarly. Was this chemistry? Had that invisible web snared both of them within its unseen grip? In a characteristic gesture, Chris touched her hair, smoothing several strands back into place from her now rose-flushed cheeks. “Don’t worry about that. We’re prepared to deal with any student who might cause you a problem, Captain.” He looked at his watch. “You were supposed to arrive over at personnel at 0900 this morning.” “How did you know that?” “Because the commandant ordered me to meet you over there and help you with the processing procedures.” Then he gave her an appraising look. “But, like any good student, you’re here early.” “I just wanted to come down and take a look,” she whispered, keenly aware of his maleness. “Some of these jets I’ve flown. Most of them I haven’t. I just wanted to see....” “I understand. Once flying gets in your blood, it’s there to stay. Look, I have to do some proficiency flying in that F-4 Phantom sitting over there. Why don’t you go over to the cafeteria and get some coffee? I’ll meet you at personnel at 0900, and then we’ll get you settled into the Barracks Officers’ Quarters.” A new thrill coursed through her. Dan McCord appeared to be genuinely interested in her welfare. She had been prepared to steel herself against the chauvinism she would be facing because she was breaching the male dominion of test piloting. “You’ve got a deal, Major McCord.” “When we’re alone like this, call me Dan. I only stand on military formality when necessary, Chris.” She felt the caress in his voice as he used her name, and felt a shiver of expectancy ripple through her. “Well—” she began uneasily. “No argument. Hey, I’ve earned the honor of escorting you around, I want you to know that.” She tilted her head, confused. “What do you mean?” Dan grinned boyishly. “Every instructor at TPS wanted to do the honors. We drew cards and I got the queen of hearts.” Chris found herself unnerved by his probing look. “In more ways than one,” he added huskily. Then, gesturing toward the flight line, he said, “And if I have my way about it, I’ll be your instructor in three of those combat aircraft.” Before she could think of a glib retort to his flirtatiousness, McCord had gone, moving down the flight line toward the awaiting aircraft. Chris watched him, unraveled by his charm, friendliness and warmth. A silly smile touched her lips, and she shook her head. Normally, after having survived seven years in the military, she could trade teasing retorts with the best of them. But Dan McCord made her feel like a giddy seventeen-year-old girl on her first date. * * * LATER THAT MORNING, after two hours’ worth of paperwork, Chris was officially enrolled as a student for Test Pilot School. She was about to ask where the barracks was when Dan appeared at her side. “I’ll escort you over to the Barracks Officers’ Quarters and get you settled in your assigned rooms,” he offered, lifting his flight cap in playful imitation of a porter. “You don’t have to do that,” Chris spoke quickly. “I’ll find my way.” “But I want to,” he answered, settling the flight cap back on his head. “Come on, I have all the necessary forms filled out so we can whisk you through.” The BOQ was the home for all single officers who wanted to live on base. It was mandatory that all students stay at Edwards simply because of the amount of training and flying that took place. All the married students were assigned to small, stucco, one-story homes on Sharon Street. Dan pointed out that it gave moral support to the families to be with others going through the same grind. Chris entered the large rooms, looking around. Dan leaned casually against the door and watched as she inspected her new quarters. “I thought you might like some lunch before you start unpacking,” he offered when she had finished. “I—” “What’s this? The Air Force’s finest woman pilot at a loss for an answer?” She gave him a flat look, trying not to smile. “That’s happened a few times,” she acknowledged lightly. Dan gave her a boyish grin. “I imagine after being hounded by the media, there’s something to be said for silence. Come on, grab your hat and I’ll give you a quick tour of the base,” he urged. “I’ll bet you’re tired. You’ll probably want to crash after lunch.” A cold chill swept through her. “Please don’t use the word crash,” she said, a sobering quality in her voice. “Poor word choice on my part. Let’s think about lunch instead, okay?” She remained silent in his Corvette on the way over to the Officers’ Club. The building sat up on a hill, its white walls gleaming in the pale December sunlight. “What do you think of our base so far?’’ he asked, parking the Corvette in the crowded lot. “It’s big. Impressive.” “The base covers three hundred ten thousand acres of Mojave Desert.’’ He rested his hands on the steering wheel for a moment, looking over at her. “And speaking of impressive, I understand you have some pretty distinguished qualifications yourself.” Chris squirmed beneath his admiring gaze. Every time he looked at her it was as if he had reached out and touched her bodily. The sensual tension seemed to vibrate between them. It was a disturbing chemistry that made her feel suddenly shy. “I met the requirements for TPS,” she responded modestly, wanting to avoid bragging about her credentials. She climbed out of the sports car. Dan checked his stride, aware of her new coolness. Why had she become reserved with him? “How was your flight today?” Chris finally asked, trying to break the uncomfortable silence. Dan ushered her into the spacious lobby, adorned with paintings and photographs of Edwards’s colorful history. “It was beautiful. You’ll find that you’ll want to fly early in the morning before everyone else gets up there. The air’s calmer.” “I can hardly wait to climb back into the cockpit of a fighter,” Chris confided fervently. Dan smiled, directing her to the dining room and found an empty table. It was the first time since their meeting that she had shown some of her true feelings. “You love flying, eh?” he asked, sitting next to her. “When you were born did your parents think you were part eagle?” he asked teasingly. Chris compressed her lips, avoiding his warm, interested gaze. “I don’t have any parents.” “Both dead?” She was too young to have both mother and father gone. He saw her face grow tense, and Dan realized he had stepped into something larger than he could have possibly anticipated. “I’m an orphan.” Dan sat back, sensing—no, feeling her carefully shielded anguish. His thoughts acted like a circuit breaker on his emotions. She had no one? No one at all? No wonder she had all the earmarks of a loner. Toying with the fork, he pondered the consequences of her lack of family support. His mouth curved into the semblance of a smile for her benefit. “Just because all of us Air Force pilots are handsome devils, doesn’t mean we don’t blunder into things at times.” He reached forward instinctively, his hand briefly settling on hers. “I’m sorry, Chris.” The instant his hand touched hers, a thrilling pulse sent her heart beating faster. But before Chris could respond, Dan had removed his hand. He was an instructor at TPS. One of her instructors. And more than that, he was a major and she was below him in rank. Further, he was a relative stranger to her. There were a hundred reasons why Dan McCord shouldn’t have touched her. But her heart...oh, God, her heart surged with an instant’s joy at his touch. “I shouldn’t be so defensive,” she began. “I’m more tired than I thought from the trip.” Dan grinned easily. “Forget it. I understand.” The waitress came over and interrupted them. Chris ordered a Scotch on the rocks and Dan ordered a beer. “You’re hard to figure out,” she told Dan. “You should be anti-women pilots like everyone else.” His laugh was low, resonant. “I’m many things but not that. I’ll be truthful with you, Chris. I like your company.” “You’re coming on strong, Major.” “Why do you confuse honesty with a pass?” he parried. Chris blinked. “This isn’t the first time I’ve been around fighter jocks. You’re all alike. Real hotshots with a male ego a mile wide. You all think you have something to prove. Especially to a woman military pilot. I’m not interested in being your latest challenge, Major McCord.” “Ι’ll be the first to admit that I like the way you fill out that uniform.” His azure eyes grew dark. “And you’re right about me liking a challenge. I wouldn’t be in the test-pilot business if I didn’t. But you’re wrong about my being a fighter jock. I used to fly B-52 bombers. I flew the slower, heavier aircraft just like you did,” he said, his voice firm. “I flew the F-4 Phantom during the war. But otherwise, I was weaned on bombers and lived most of my military life in them. Now, does that make you feel a little guarded about me?” She liked his honesty. It became him. A slight smile edged her full lips. It was common knowledge that fighter jocks were far more aggressive than bomber pilots. “I would never have guessed it. But then, you are a paradox.” “Comes with the territory, Chris. I don’t know too many test pilots that aren’t like day and night, Jekyll and Hyde. You are, too, you know. So be careful of the pot calling the kettle black.” She relaxed within the aura of their parry-riposte conversation. Leaning her elbows on the table, she smiled. “Not me. If there is a set of words to describe me, it’s consistent, loyal and responsible.” Dan took a swallow of his beer, his eyes dancing with silent laughter. “I’d prefer to use more complimentary adjectives, such as beautiful, sensitive and shy.” Something happened inside Chris. Her heart raced strongly for a moment and she felt giddy—like a child. But she had never felt like a child in all her life. How had he brought out this hidden side of her—and on less than one day’s acquaintance! She couldn’t resist a smile. “You’re a fighter jock at heart, Major. I don’t care how long you flew bombers. You’re long on bs and short on sincerity.” Dan grinned wickedly. “Think so? We’ll see,” was all he said. * * * CHRIS WAS FINISHING off the last coat of polish on her fingernails when she heard a knock at the door. “Come in.” Who could it be? She knew no one on base yet except Dan McCord. A small, blonde woman in a dark blue uniform came in. Chris gasped, rising. “Karen! I don’t believe it.” “Finally, after a year we get to see each other again.” Her friend laughed, coming forward. Karen was only five-foot-three and reminded all who saw her of a blonde, blue-eyed pixie come to life. Careful not to smear the drying nail polish, Chris hugged her. Karen stepped back, taking off her cap and smoothing her short curly hair back into place. “Come on in the kitchen, Karen. Like some coffee?” The petite blonde made herself comfortable at the kitchen table. “Love some. I arrived at Edwards a little more than a month ago. I work over at Test Pilot School in Operations. As soon as I heard you were being assigned, I had to let you know you had a friend here.” Chris smiled happily, putting the coffee on. Karen and she had been roommates throughout their four years at the Air Force Academy. Afterward her friend had failed her flight test and gone into a different military career. But it hadn’t stopped them from remaining close over the years. “Right now, I could use a friend,” Chris confided. “Amen. You’re really biting off a big chunk by being the first woman in the Air Force to try for test-pilot status.” “Around these guys, I may just decide to clam up or watch my words. It’s safer that way, I think.” “I understand. In a sense, I’m glad I flunked out of pilot training, Chris. Watching you as you weather the chauvinism, the dirty looks and even worse verbal insults from the men would make me quit.” Karen gave her friend a keen look. “Every newspaper article I’ve read on you asked why you became the first woman test pilot. And your answer was always the same: you had earned the right to take a shot at the most prestigious job in the Air Force. Level with me. Why did you apply to TPS?” Chris sipped the coffee. “Maybe a better question would be, what makes Chris Mallory run the way she does?” “I thought it might be because you were orphaned and you don’t have anyone. Test piloting is risky. Maybe you had nothing to lose if you did die. Sounds dumb, I know.” And then she shrugged. “I never was good at psychology.” “You almost flunked out on it,” Chris agreed. “I love to fly, Karen. It’s that simple. I never told the press that because I would come off sounding like some pie-in-the-sky idealistic female.” She slowly turned the cup around in her hands. “Flying makes me happy, Karen. Up there, I’m free—free of the past. The sky has no memory. It forgives and forgets who and what you are or are not. I don’t have to remember that I’m an orphan. Or that I’m a woman in a very male-dominated business. Up there I’m a woman. And the sky doesn’t care. And neither does my aircraft.” She smiled sadly. “See, I told you it would sound philosophical and idealistic.” “No,” Karen murmured, “it sounds like you. There are a number of instructors over at TPS like you. They just live to fly. It’s their full-time mistress. They want nothing more out of life than to climb into the cockpit of a plane and take off for the blue sky.” “I think I just met one of those guys. Major Dan McCord.” Karen’s eyes widened. “Oh, him! He’s such a terrific guy, Chris. And he’s single, too.” Chris frowned. “No matchmaking,” she warned sternly. “By the way, how’s your love life?” “Much better. I’m dating an instructor by the name of Major Mark Hoffman. He’s wonderful.” “I can tell by the sound in your voice.” “You’ll like him. I know both Mark and Dan were excited about having you at TPS. They know a woman can be a fine test pilot, unlike a lot of other guys over there who think you’ll wash out before you set foot in the place.” Chris took a deep breath then exhaled slowly. “Well, when you consider I’ve never sat behind a stick of a fighter plane, they could be right. It means having to work twice as hard as any other student in order to make the grade.” “Isn’t that the truth? When will women ever get a fair shake? Why do we always have to start from behind and be twice as good as any man at something before we’re taken seriously?” “I don’t know. I thought I’d had enough of that pressure and stress when we went through four years of hell at the Academy. But here I am, doing it all over again, breaking new ground.” Chris shook her head. “And I’m so tired of wearing flight uniforms all the time with no makeup or jewelry.” She touched her shoulder-length hair, now shining with blue highlights after its recent brushing. “I’ve made up my mind. I might have to dress like a man, but I’m not going to look like one. After the mandatory morning flights, I’m putting my earrings back on and adding a bit of makeup.” She held out her hands. “And I’m going to wear nail polish.” Karen laughed. “Good for you! At least I get to wear a skirt and pumps all the time. But you know the flight rule about no jewelry. If you wore a ring on your hand and had to eject, the jewelry might get caught on something and you’d lose that finger.” “Or worse, my whole hand. No, I realize the rules are there for a reason, but I’m determined to keep my femininity intact, regardless.” “Oh, don’t worry, Chris. With your looks, you could wear a gunnysack and still turn heads.” Chris laughed with her. “We’ll see just how many heads I turn tomorrow morning. And I can guarantee you, not all of them will be admiring ones.” 2 CHRIS PROCEEDED UP the long sidewalk toward the Test Pilot School building. She touched her hair, now in a chignon at the nape of her neck, in a gesture of nervousness. Why do I feel as if I’m going in front of a firing squad, she wondered. I thought I’d sweated enough for my wings. Her stomach was tied in knots. She was dressed in her snug one-piece green flight suit that was adorned with all the appropriate patches on each shoulder. The small pearl earrings and pale-pink nail polish and light application of makeup subtly emphasized her femininity. Her blue flight cap rested on her black hair, the double silver bar on the cap shining brightly in the January sunlight. Chris stifled her anxiety as she climbed the last few steps to the cream-colored building. Whether she wanted to or not, she had thought about Dan McCord off and on throughout the past two days. The image he projected as a playboy pilot out to have a good time was simply a sham, she decided. McCord was made of much more reliable material than the ego-ridden jet jockeys she had worked with throughout her career. Dan possessed a thread of gentleness coupled with incredible sensitivity that threw her completely off guard. Chris had no defense against kindness. Taking a deep, uneven breath, she opened the door, uttering, “Welcome to the real world, Captain Mallory.” Chris knew there would be men in her class who would hate her presence. And there would be other pilots who would applaud her efforts based on her flying skills and ignore the fact that she was a woman. Inwardly she drew a small breath. At least one instructor, Dan McCord, was on her side and that made her feel a twinge of relief on an otherwise stressful occasion. Adrenaline made Chris’s heart pound faster as she walked down the highly polished hall to the first classroom. A small knot of pilots stood off to one side, giving Chris a challenging stare. Her mouth went dry, but she didn’t let her gaze waver. She was damned if she was going to feel belittled by a bunch of jet jockeys. Their gazes raked over her as she passed. Chris’s keen hearing picked up a few stage whispers and then a collective laugh from the group. It wasn’t going to be easy to integrate. From 0800 through noon they heard from many of the instructors explaining curriculum, flight schedules and the school’s aims and goals. Chris was attentive throughout the presentations, but never as much so as when Dan McCord stepped to the front of the room. He looked relaxed, breathtakingly handsome in his flight suit and keenly alert. She smiled to herself. Wasn’t that something they all shared in common: that “look of the eagles?” She hadn’t seen a man here today who didn’t possess that characteristic. “I’m Major McCord, and I’ll be your instructor for the first thirteen weeks of flight aerodynamics,” he announced. He scanned the room, found Chris and saw her color fiercely. “The curriculum is drawn up to teach you how to work in a team-oriented environment. In each team there will be a test pilot, a navigator and an engineer. You’ll work on gathering data, planning and carrying out what you’ve discovered and then evaluating it on actual test flights. After that, a written report on your assigned research projects will be handed in.” McCord stopped his slow pacing from one side of the room to the other, his eyes narrowing. “I can’t stress the importance of teamwork here, ladies and gentlemen. Part of being a test pilot is understanding that you don’t work alone.” His gaze settled briefly on Chris. “The pilot is only a part of the team. It’s true, you will be flying the aircraft. But at times you’ll need a navigator in that back seat—more importantly, a test engineer. Without him or her, your job wouldn’t exist. This isn’t an area where egos can get in the way,” he warned. “You set aside your prejudices and your opinions, and stick with the facts and only the facts,” he concluded, his voice growing harder. McCord had already picked out which pilots would be a problem to Chris. Earlier, Captain Richard Brodie had swaggered up to Chris while she was talking with two other pilots. Dan had just walked into the lounge area when he saw Brodie make a pass at Chris. He had to curb a smile as Chris easily evaded him. Brodie had not expected her to turn him down and departed fuming, his ego decidedly wounded. Brodie, as he liked to be called, was the typical macho fighter jock who lived, drank and partied hard. He flew like few other pilots dared. If Brodie didn’t square off with Chris within the first month, Dan would be surprised. And if Brodie did, it was up to the instructor to put a quick stop to it. He paused, glancing at his watch. He had ten minutes before lunch. “One more thing before we break for chow,” he continued. “Just remember this—you are the best. You’ve got the confidence, competitiveness and intelligence that can’t be matched anywhere else in the world. You are it! And you’re at the toughest school in the world. What we wring out of you in the next forty-six weeks will be unbelievable. But you were chosen because of your tenacity. You all have what it takes or you wouldn’t be here. Okay, let’s break,” he ordered. “Those of you who don’t want to hit the NASA cafeteria up on the road can hang around for the sandwich truck. It’s a blue-and-white affair that’s got a variety of junk food on board.” He allowed a momentary smile. “It’s affectionately known as the Roach Coach.” The students laughed with him and they rose, dispersing quickly. He caught up with Chris. “I’d like to see you in private for a few moments,” he said. Her eyes widened, and he chastised himself for sounding so damned official. “Don’t worry, it’s good news,” he added with a persuasive smile. “Okay.” Chris’s heart beat furiously. What was happening to her? Dan always seemed to make her feel shaky and breathless. He took her elbow, guiding her out of the room and down the hall. She put her flight cap on as they swung out the back door to the parking lot. “Where are we going?” she wanted to know. “O’Club for lunch,” he answered casually, escorting her to his Corvette. Chris slowed, a smile barely touching her mouth. “Is this official business, Major?” He laughed pleasantly, opening the door for her. He leaned closer, his azure eyes disturbingly intense. “Absolutely. After watching you shoot down Captain Brodie, I decided to use a different approach.” Chris climbed in without a retort. She enjoyed Dan’s company and looked forward to the lunch. Giving him a wry look she said, “The Captain Brodies of the world will never match your approach, Major.” A twinkle came to Dan’s eyes. “I’ve known Brodie off and on throughout my career. He has the tactics of a bull in a china shop, thinking every woman will swoon over him because he’s a fighter pilot.” “Well,” Chris said, laughing good-naturedly, “I thought he was going to faint from shock when I turned down his invitation for lunch today.” “Wise choice. Besides, you’re going out with a better man anyway.” They both laughed in unison. “The only reason I went with you is because you made it sound like an order,” she teased. He pursed his lips. “It was.” Chris knew differently, but she remained silent. McCord would no more use his rank and authority for personal gain than she would. But she let him think that she believed him. The car was warm, taking the edge off the cold, blustery day. It wasn’t unusual for snow to fall in the high desert near Edwards, located one hundred miles northeast of Los Angeles. The Telupachi and San Gabriel mountains that surrounded Antelope Valley were already cloaked in their white raiments of snow for the winter season. She glanced over at Dan as he got in. The Corvette purred to life and he shifted the gears. He probably flew a jet just as smoothly, she thought. “So far, so good?” he asked her conversationally. She nodded and smiled. “I’m thrilled, if you want the truth. And by the way, you’re a very effective teacher. You had all of us sitting on the edge of our seats.” Dan gave her a sidelong glance. “Coming from you, that’s a high compliment. Thanks.” “It’s well earned, I must say.” “Who knows, maybe one of these days you’ll be teaching there, too.” Chris gave an explosive laugh. “Oh, sure! Let’s take one step at a time, shall we? First, I have to learn how to fly combat planes. Next, I have to graduate.” His azure eyes grew warm with admiration. “There wasn’t a prettier person in that room this morning than you.” Her heart gave a leap and she pursed her lips. “There you go again.” She colored prettily beneath his look. “Am I going to have to put up with this for forty-six weeks?” Dan’s smile was devastating. “Roger that, my raven-haired beauty. You’re just going to have to learn to take compliments with grace and say thank you.” “Then, thank you,” she murmured, her voice growing husky. She thrilled to the words, raven haired beauty. “That’s better. Hungry?” “Starved!” “Good, we need to get some more meat on your bones. You’re too damn skinny for your height.” Chris ordered a steak sandwich, French fries and a garden salad. Over lunch, she relaxed in Dan’s soothing presence. The dining room was filled to capacity with Air Force officers and civilians alike. Dan pointed out Chuck Yeager, one of the most famous of all test pilots. Yeager had brought the U.S. into the jet age by riding the Bell X-1 through the sound barrier. Chris stared at the short, wiry man with respect. She looked back over at Dan. “I’d give my right arm to do something similar to what he’s done,” she whispered. “We’re all ‘golden arms,’ so don’t be giving your right arm away for anything,” he teased. It was the pilot’s skill at getting the plane into the air and landing safely that counted. The myth that it took a “golden arm” or the “right stuff” to do it was synonymous with test piloting. “And don’t worry, you’re going to go on to create a special Chapter in the history books for all women who go into testing,” Dan said, meaning it. “I still can’t figure out why you have so much confidence in me when I’m behind the eight ball to begin with.” Dan toyed with his fork, a smile lingering on his mouth. He enjoyed being close to her, and was secretly amazed at how much Chris had relaxed around him. She had lost much of her previous defensiveness. Perhaps it was the adjustment of settling in at a new base. “Why do you always see yourself playing catch-up?” he posed softly, meeting and holding her violet gaze. Chris squirmed, compressing her lips. “I’ve always felt like that.” “Could it have to do with your past?” Dan watched her stiffen, her eyes growing hooded, more distant. He reached out, gripping her hand for just a moment and then releasing it. “You’re talking to me, Chris. I’m a friend. Don’t retreat from me.” “I don’t want to discuss it.” “I do.” “My personal life is my own.” Dan’s eyes narrowed speculatively on her. “Correction. When I feel it interferes with your attitude, it becomes my business. I’m in the habit of extracting the very best of each student’s potential. Your attitude of playing catch-up could prevent you from making a quantum leap forward by learning to fly combat jets in a very short period of time.” His voice was velvet lined with steel, and it netted the desired result. Chris had been trained in the military, and responded to his tone. She watched him with new respect. She placed both elbows on the table, staring at him. “I don’t happen to agree with your assessment of me, Major. But if you think it’s going to interfere with my flying, then I’ll tell you.” “Good,” he encouraged, his voice becoming gentler, less authoritative. “Maybe it will be more painless if I ask you a few key questions.” He looked up at Chris and his chest constricted with guilt as he saw hints of pain in her mobile features. This wasn’t going to be easy. “Go ahead.” “Were you always an orphan?” Chris swallowed. “My mother gave me up when I was born.” “So you were placed in an orphanage. For how long?” “Not long initially. I went through a series of foster homes like everyone else until I was about eight, and then was sent back to the orphanage.” Dan grimaced, resting his chin on his folded hands. “That must have been hard on you emotionally.” “I don’t need your pity!” “You have my understanding, not my pity,” he countered coolly, watching her face lose its lines of tension. “So how did you fare in grade school?” Chris took a sip of her coffee. “If you want the truth, it was a salvation. I could spend hours hidden away in books of all kinds ranging from math to English.” She made a wry face. “Going back to the orphanage every afternoon was always a downer.” Dan wanted to reach out and comfort her to neutralize the hurt that still lingered in her voice. “That’s why you enjoy being alone?” Chris raised her chin, her violet eyes resting on his concerned face. “I don’t like it, but I’ve learned to cope successfully with it.” He gave her a reassuring smile. “Okay, the hard part’s over. Now tell me why you feel you’re behind everyone else here at TPS.” She shrugged, insecurity evident in her voice. “Not having any fighter experience is going to be my toughest transition. If that isn’t catch-up, nothing is. Otherwise, I feel confident in my other abilities.” McCord wanted to reach out and hold her hand, but he couldn’t. Not here and not now. “You’re a bright, articulate woman with an awesome intelligence, or you wouldn’t have been chosen from all the military pilots in the services combined.” “You can’t understand the feeling unless you’ve been there, Dan.” He pursed his lips, his eyes narrowing intently upon her. Right now, at that instant, she was vulnerable and trusting him. “Hasn’t the fact that you’ve accrued impressive career credentials impacted on you? Hasn’t it made up for your sense of being something less than what you think you are?” She shrugged. “Most of the time, yes. But there are those moments when I feel like a seventh-grader again, struggling to understand chemistry, or a ninth-grader, pounding physics into my head.” Her eyes grew worried. “And I feel that way about learning how to fly the combat jets now, Dan. I feel so...” She groped to convey her sense of frustration and anxiety. “So helpless!” Dan cocked his head, listening to her voice. “That bothers you, doesn’t it? That sense of helplessness?” She gave him a feeble smile. “Wouldn’t it anyone?” “As long as you can make decisions, you aren’t helpless.” Her nostrils flared with pent-up frustration. “I was a puppet for the first eighteen years of my life, Dan. I was subject to someone else’s ideas of what I should or should not be. And I feel like I’m back in that role by being here at TPS without proper fighter experience.” Dan studied her in the tense silence, assimilating the depth of her worry. His own childhood flashed to the front of his memory. Unwanted by his young, immature mother who preferred globe-trotting with his millionaire father, he had been foisted upon his aunt and uncle at the tender age of seven. From then on, Howard and Melvina McCord had been more like his mother and father than his real parents, Preston and Vanessa McCord. He could identify with Chris up to a point. He had come out of a sterile household, cared for by a nanny. It was a godsend when he was given to Howard and Melvina. At least he received love and attention, filling that aching gap in his youthful heart. He studied Chris. Although she had never known the security of love while growing up, it hadn’t stopped her from achieving a brilliant career. She had been denied emotional sustenance, but she had respected herself as a unique individual. And in order to protect that core, Chris had learned to put up defensive walls to ensure her survival as the individual she knew she was—despite the years in the orphanage. “Yes,” he answered gently, his voice holding a caressing quality to it, “I think I am beginning to understand.” He shook his head. “And lady, you are special,” he whispered. “Very special.” She blushed deeply, unable to meet his eyes. Her heart suffused with an incredible warmth. The awkward silence lengthened, and Chris nervously cleared her throat. “I think it’s time to get back.” Dan stood, picking up the bill. “If I had my way, we’d take the rest of the day off and just talk,” he murmured. Then, flashing her a reassuring smile, he asked, “How about this evening at 1800? How would you like to climb into Double Ugly and take me for a flight?” Chris gaped at him. “Are you serious?” He placed his hand beneath her elbow, guiding her out of the dining room. “Is it a date? Meet me on the ramp with your flight gear, and we’ll take you up in an F-4.” She gave him an incredulous look. “You are serious.” “Have I ever lied to you?” he asked, opening the front door. “One of your faultless attributes, Major McCord, is your honesty,” she murmured drily. He walked beside her, his body inches from her own, and Chris gloried in his closeness. He was incredibly masculine. She gazed up at his mouth, tantalized by its shape and sensuality. She nearly lost her scattered thoughts. “Not to mention being single, handsome, well-off and —” “Here we go again,” Chris griped, tossing him a broad smile. Dan opened the Corvette’s door for her. He loved to see her eyes sparkle with life. And he promised himself he would give her a measure of happiness that was long overdue. “Then we have a date?” he pressed, sliding into the driver’s seat. “I suppose....” He feigned wounding by her hesitation. “I ought to get a purple heart for being around you,” he taunted. Chris momentarily placed her hand on his forearm. She felt the steel-corded strength of his muscles beneath her fingertips. “Listen, if you can stand being around me, you deserve more than a purple heart.” Dan pulled out of the driveway. “Raven, you’re easy to be around. Believe me.” His blue eyes took on a look of merriment. “Besides, I’ve managed to dodge all the slings and arrows you’ve thrown at me so far and I’m not wounded in action. We’ve got nowhere to go but up from here.” Chris gloried in the caressing tone of the nickname he had given her. She leaned back, laughing fully. “You are impossible, Major McCord! I could never have dreamed you up if I tried.” “Just dream about me in your sleep,” he said, his voice a roughened whisper. Dan’s reply sent a shiver through Chris, and she had no returning quip. All she could do was stare at him. 3 CHRIS COULD BARELY contain the pulse-pounding excitement threading its way through her. But her anxiety was well hidden as she walked toward the light gray Phantom with its long, bulbous black nose. Dan McCord was already there waiting for her, talking amiably with the crew chief who serviced the plane. McCord flashed her a smile of welcome as she approached. “Well, ready to become a Phantom Phlyer?” he teased, motioning for her to climb the ladder hooked on the left side of the fuselage. Chris returned the smile, hoisting herself up the steps into the rear seat. Dan watched her progress as she slipped into the cockpit. She placed her helmet on the console in front of her. “I thought you called it Double Ugly?” “We call it that when it’s going outside its performance envelope,” he said in way of explanation climbing aboard. “We also called it DRUT.” She saw mirth lurking in his eyes when he said it. “Okay, I’ll bite. What does DRUT stand for?” An irrepressible grin tugged at the corner of his mouth. “Turn the word around and you’ll see,” was all he said. Dan situated himself in the pilot’s seat, and the crew chief came up the ladder to help both of them strap into their unwieldy harness system. Straps went over both shoulders and then buckled into a seat belt that went across their laps. Chris chuckled to herself, noticing the crew chief stealing glances at her. She had grown used to the crews staring. She was an oddity—a woman out of place. She gave the chief a smile as he handed her the green-and-brown camouflaged helmet with Mallory printed on the front of it. Thanking him, Chris settled it on her head. God, it felt good to be back in a cockpit again! In less than fifteen minutes she would be airborne, and all the trials and tribulations of her life would slip effortlessly off her shoulders as she rode the jet up into the dark blue skies. The flight suit she wore was specially constructed to take the gravity forces created by the combat jet’s massive engine power. When going at high speed turns or angles it was easy to black out from high G-forces. The G-suit prevented it from happening. It would automatically push the flow of blood out of her legs and back into her head and upper body. Plugging in her headphone set she monitored all conversations with Dan, the control tower and other necessary communications. Dan raised his hand, thumb up, giving the signal for the ground crew to step away. Her heart pounded as Dan inched the throttles forward to start the two huge turbojet engines. Then, the Phantom roared to life. Each engine was mounted halfway down the fuselage directly beside her seat, the semicircular scoop intakes sucking in huge amounts of air. Anticipation mixed with joy. She was sitting in one of the most feared combat fighters in the world. “You about ready to go?” Dan asked. Chris snapped the oxygen mask to her face. “Ready, ready now!” she returned, choosing the old B-52 axiom that the Strategic Air Command crews used. Dan laughed. “Raven, you’re a girl after my own heart. I want you to sit back and relax. I’ll take Double Ugly up and give you an idea of its capabilities as well as its drawbacks.” “You mean I get the full treatment?” “Better believe it. Once airborne, I’ll turn the stick over to you, and you’ll get the feel of this ugly bird. Canopies down,” he ordered. With a double set of flight controls, Chris hit her canopy lever, watching the Plexiglas lids slowly close. There was a soft whoosh as it locked tightly on each separate compartment. Although pilots never flew without their oxygen masks clamped securely to their faces in case of a leak, the cabins were pressurized. Within minutes the F-4 was trundling heavily along the concrete taxiway. Chris helped Dan by switching radio frequencies and handling other little chores that would make his job less complicated. She watched the flaps lower, the whirring sound shivering through the Phantom. Now, with the flaps down, the lift-off capability of the fifteen-ton fighter was increased. Her pulse beat raced as she heard the engines shrieking as they readied for takeoff. Dan pushed down on the brakes and rudder system beneath his booted feet. With his left hand, he inched the two throttles forward, watching the RPM gauges jump higher. The harnessed power throbbed throughout the aircraft. The day was dying with the inky stains of night tainting the dusk. The F-4, its array of red and white blinking lights situated on tail and wing tips, bellowed furiously on the cold desert, demanding to be released. Smiling to himself, Dan could almost feel Chris’s excitement in the rear cockpit. She hadn’t said much, but the tremor in her voice gave her away. “I’m going to request afterburners upon takeoff,” he informed her. Might as well let her experience the raw, awesome power of the F-4, he thought. He called the tower and received permission. “Let’s tempt the gods,” he said. “There’s an old Air Force myth about flying so high that we’ll anger the mythical gods of the sky. Are you game?” he challenged. She grinned, thumbing the intercom button. “Listen, I tempt fate regularly. The sky gods and goddesses are on good terms with me. Let’s go for it.” Chris felt him release the brakes. Instantly she was pushed back in the seat, her breath momentarily torn from her by the impact of the aircraft’s power. The F-4 thundered down the runway like a growling cat running full tilt after its quarry. Suddenly the afterburners were engaged by shoving the throttles all the way forward. She could do nothing but sit, crushed against the seat. The landscape was a blur, the F-4 shivering with unleashed might as it hurled itself down the longest runway in the world. Suddenly Dan pulled back on the stick and the fighter left the earth in a single bound like an unchained eagle being released to the freedom of its true domain: the sky. The Phantom’s flaps came up on the wings, landing gear tucking neatly beneath its belly, gaining speed, hitting Mach .9 in only a few seconds. The angle of climb was breathtaking. The F-4 quickly hit six hundred knots, and Chris watched the altimeter unwinding like a broken spring as they streaked to five, ten, fifteen, twenty and twenty-five thousand feet. Exhilaration surged through her as she became a part of this magnificent fighter that raced along the very edge of the stratosphere. Dan began to bring the nose back down at thirty-five thousand. At forty thousand the Phantom had struck Mach 2. He could feel the aircraft sloughing off the sticky drag of the low subsonic region. The higher they climbed, the less air there was to slow them down. At forty-five thousand, he leveled out the F-4. “Well?” he asked, grinning, “what do you think?” Chris gave a shaky laugh. “Things happened so fast that my thinking was way behind the plane! It’s wonderful! What a thrill!” Dan’s eyes crinkled with pleasure. Her voice mirrored her happiness. She loved flying as much as he did. That mass of metal, wire and circuitry was a living extension of himself, docile beneath his hand, ready to obey his every command. “Take the stick,” he ordered. Chris slid her gloved fingers around the column. She felt Dan release the stick and rudders to her command and now, she was flying the incredible F-4 Phantom. For two hours they flew in a restricted flight area over the Mojave. Chris’s initial excitement settled down as Dan began to teach her how to handle the Phantom. She was pleased with Dan’s technique as an instructor. His explanations and orders were easy to follow, and it made the flight that much more thrilling. “Just remember,” Dan was saying as she reluctantly made the final banking turn that would take them back to Edwards. “Never allow the Phantom to fly at too high an angle of attack.” “What happens if she goes out of her controlled flight envelope?” Chris wanted to know, restlessly scanning the gauges as she flew the fighter. “First the nose will abruptly yaw from side to side. And almost simultaneously, it will start to pitch up and down and will depart from controlled flight. And if you don’t catch it right then, it will go into spin. From there, if you’re anywhere around ten thousand feet or less, you eject.” Chris compressed her dry lips. Her mouth always felt cottony after being on one-hundred-percent oxygen for over an hour. She reached up, adjusting the soft rubber mask against her face. Her skin always itched beneath it! And if she had worn make up, it would have broken the airtight seal of the mask against her skin. If that occurred, she might die of hypoxia, or lack of oxygen. “Is it mandatory if the F-4 is in a spin at ten thousand you automatically bail out?” She heard Dan’s grim chuckle. “You try and pull this ugly bird out of a dive at less than ten thousand, and it’ll be a mad race between you and the dirt as to whether or not you can pull it out in time, Raven. Don’t chance it. Punch out and live to tell about it.” The past two hours spent with Dan hadn’t seemed like an instructor-student relationship. Instead, it had been a wonderful time spent between two adults who both became childlike when they flew in the arms of the sky. Dan’s voice was always warm, coaxing and praising her performance. The few times he had had to correct her were done without rebuke and only in a matter-of-fact tone. She never had to be told more than once, either. “But has anyone tried to kick this bird out of a dive below ten and live to tell about it without punching out?” she wanted to know. “Not many,” he returned grimly. She nodded. “Not very forgiving, is she?” “No. She can damn well be your coffin if you start messing around with her in flight. This isn’t a fighter to play with.” Back on the ground, Chris felt like a shackled eagle once again. Instead of taking the ramp vehicle back to the school, Dan talked her into walking the quarter mile. It was cold and the wind was cutting. Chris zipped up her green flight jacket. She was glad for Dan’s closeness beside her as the darkness engulfed them. Her black hair, once in a chignon and plastered down over her skull from wearing the helmet, blew in silky abandon, barely brushing her shoulders. She reached up, pulling several strands from her eyes. Her heart swelled with happiness and her step was buoyant. Dan glanced over at her, aware of the light and dark shadows playing across her face. How had Chris grown more beautiful? Those violet eyes were wide and lustrous. Her lips were curved softly upward at the corners, as if she was smiling about some happy secret known only to herself. Most of all, he liked her proud, easy carriage. She was all woman—a very confident, competent woman. “You know, Bill Craig was right,” he said, catching her gaze. “Major Craig? The officer who gave me my flight tests to enter TPS?” “Yes.” A mischievous glint came to her eyes. “And what did he have to say?” “That you had the best pair of hands he’d ever seen. I agree with him. You’re smooth. You fly by the seat of your pants.” Chris blushed fiercely, avoiding his admiring glance. “I’ll bet you say that to all your women pilots,” she teased, trying to make light of his compliment. Dan reached over, pulling her to a halt. “No, you don’t.” His hands settled on her shoulders. “I’m not letting you get away with that.” Chris looked up into his handsome features, her lips parted in response to Dan’s unexpected action. A pulse leaped crazily at the base of her slender throat as she felt his gaze linger upon each delicate feature of her face. She swallowed. “What are you talking about?” A wry smile curved his sensual mouth. “My Raven doesn’t know how to take a genuine compliment gracefully and say thank you.” He drank deeply of her widened violet eyes. “I meant what I said. I wasn’t idly throwing you a compliment.” He was so close...so dizzyingly masculine. Chris shut her eyes momentarily, trying to hang on to her sense of reality...of logic. This shouldn’t be happening, her mind screamed. It was only ten months ago! Ten months! I hurt too much... I can’t go through this again! But her heart spoke another, more pounding message throughout her tense body. “Please...” she begged, trying to pull out of his grip. Another part of her, the woman drawn to him, wanted his touch, his closeness. “Don’t fight me,” Dan whispered gently. He placed his hand beneath her chin, forcing her to meet his eyes. “You’ve got a special touch with an aircraft, Raven. You can be proud of your skills. Now,” he said, his voice becoming more authoritative, “will you believe me when I say you have good hands?” She nodded convulsively, drawn to his mouth—a firm, well-shaped mouth that smiled often, then drew into a grimace of wry amusement or thinned when he was upset. She felt Dan’s fingers follow the curve of her jaw, sending heated prickles of pleasure across her skin. His touch aroused her senses, stirred to life coals of yearning she had thought were dead. Her pulse was pounding wildly in her throat, her breathing became shallow as he cupped her face, drawing her inexorably closer...closer. “Chris...” Dan reverently whispered her name, his breath moist against her face. Automatically she closed her eyes, lifting her chin, anticipating...waiting. Then his mouth brushed her lips tentatively, with great tenderness. It shattered her fragile composure. His tongue traced the outline of her, tasting, probing, feeling.... Beneath his gentle advance, her lips parted, allowing him entrance. A small moan rose in her throat as his mouth pressed more urgently against her own, and she felt as if embers of desire were sparking brightness within her reawakened body. Instinctively she rested against him, enjoying his maleness, wanting to maintain the contact. Her feelings for him warred with the logic in her head. Part of her knew this was right and good. And yet, her mind screamed out in warning.... She felt Dan’s arms go around her, drawing her near, fitting her perfectly against his body. Gradually Dan drew away from her well-kissed lips. Lips that were glistening, parted and full with the invitation to be kissed once again. He groaned inwardly, forcing himself to stop before he lost total control. She trembled perceptibly within his arms, and he was wildly aware of her yielding female softness. He managed a partial smile, pulling several strands of hair away from her cheek, cradling her face within his palm. Chris inhaled shakily, forcing herself away from Dan. “You—can’t...shouldn’t,” she said weakly, her feeling of euphoria waning. Her eyes mirrored her confusion as she looked up at him. “Is this what you were after?” Chris demanded, taking another step away from him, her voice riddled with hurt. “How many of the jocks did you bet you’d kiss me after the first flight?” Dan looked at her through narrowed eyes. “What are you talking about, Chris? What bets?” She shakily touched her lips that throbbed from the virile stamp of his mouth. She was so much jelly, her knees feeling wobbly, her heart pounding. Chris tried to gather her sharded thoughts. Dan advanced upon her, capturing her arm before she could flee into the darkness. “Hold on just a minute, Chris. This isn’t finished.” He pulled her around. “Now what’s all this paranoia about me betting the guys?” She drew herself up, chin high, eyes flaring with hurt and anger. Her heart wanted to believe in the honesty of his actions. But her suspicious mind won out. “You know what I’m talking about! Men at the Academy and at the squadron I flew with tried to pull the same trick! They’d bet to see who could get to me first. I fell for it once. Just once!” Her eyes glittered with tears. “You’re no different. I thought you were, but I was wrong.” His lips thinned, and he took a better grip on her wrist. “Now listen to me,” he grated softly, his face inches from hers. “I didn’t plan to kiss you just then. Hell, it was the farthest thing from my mind.” That was a lie. “But when you stood there looking so damn vulnerable and happy, something happened inside me.” That was the truth. His voice became more coaxing. “Chris, you’re a beautiful woman with heart and incredible sensitivity. You do something to me.” She avoided his burning gaze, feeling suddenly humiliated at having thought the worst about Dan’s unpremeditated actions. “Then why did you take me on the F-4 tonight?” she hurled back. “Because the commandant gave me permission to start training you early so you wouldn’t find yourself behind. That’s why.” Slowly she looked up. Was he telling the truth? Chris searched his eyes to try and find trickery lodged in their depths. She found none. Grimacing, she muttered, “I overreacted. You can let me go now. I’m not going to run away like some lost child.” Dan eased his grip, sliding his hand up her arm, his fingers caressing her shoulder. “Raven, you aren’t lost anymore. You don’t have to go through this school alone. I’ll be there. I’ve gotten permission to take you up on evening flights during the week and on weekends.” His voice grew more urgent. “No one wants to see you pass this course more than I do. You deserve the chance. And I’m going to make sure you get a fair shot at it. I’m sorry I hadn’t told you this earlier.” A self-deprecating smile curved his mouth, tearing at her heart. “Maybe then you would have realized I kissed you because you were so damn enticing.” Her eyes glistened with tears as she heard—no, felt—his belief in her. He had volunteered his free time to help her learn to fly the combat aircraft. Dan didn’t have to do that. Her lips parted, trembling. “I’m sorry,” she offered, “you have every right to—” “Ssh,” he commanded, returning to a more military stance. “If anything, I ought to chew you out for being so damned paranoid. Come on, we’ll both freeze to death if we don’t get inside soon.” The building was empty with a few lights illuminating the quiet hallways. Dan guided her to his small office. He threw his flight cap on the desk, motioning toward a chair that was stacked with manuals. “Have a seat—if you can find one. I’m going next door to fix us a pot of coffee. We need something to warm up.” She took off her flight cap and jacket, placing the manuals on the tile floor. Looking around the cramped cubicle of an office, Chris saw many books on aerodynamics, calculus and higher math surrounding her on shelves that sagged beneath their weight. Impressive-looking certificates adorned one wall, attesting to Dan’s academic expertise. On another wall were various color photos of him in an F-4 or with his squadron mates in what could only be Vietnam. There was a huge mound of paperwork that demanded his attention in the middle of his desk. Although it was far too small, the office was neat and that said something for the way Dan McCord operated his life on a daily basis. Unconsciously Chris touched her lips where he had kissed her earlier. When had she ever melted into a man’s arms like that? Never, a small voice whispered in her head. One kiss. One gentle kiss had opened the depths of her still-healing heart. And what about the explosions that had rocked her body? Chris took an unsteady breath, trying to logically assess those intangibles. Was Dan sincere when he meant that he would see to it she would not get behind the other students? She chastised herself for doubting him. Dan had already proven that by requesting permission to take on extra instructing time to help her. Chris looked up when he returned. He handed her a cup. “You take cream and sugar, right?” Dan asked, settling himself behind the desk. “How did you know?” she asked, a smile coming to her lips. “The O’Club the other day. I remember you put in one cream and two sugars.” He gave her a devilish look. “Really, Raven, you’re sweet enough that you don’t need the extra sugar.” Chris laughed freely. “Honey would melt on your tongue, too! You and Dave Haney. I don’t know which of you is worse.” Haney was a navy pilot student who had said kind words to her on that first day of class. Dan grinned affably, sipping the steaming coffee. “Just as long as he doesn’t have you in his gun sights, he’s safe.” She sobered. “Dan, we have to talk.” “I told you—anytime, any place.” “No, I mean seriously.” “I’m always serious where you’re concerned, Raven.” “Then quit grinning like the cat that just ate the mouse!” Contrite, Dan suppressed a laugh. “Okay, what is it?” She fingered the mug, staring down at the contents. “This isn’t right, you know.” “What isn’t?” “Us. You and me.” “Why not? You’re a woman and I’m a man.’’ Chris met his smiling eyes, responding to him easily despite the serious subject she wanted to discuss. “Correction—you are a lecher of the first order.” “Or I’ll die trying.” “Dying isn’t funny.” He shrugged. “We’re all going to die someday, Raven. It’s just a question of when and how. Is that what you wanted to discuss so seriously?” Chris shivered at the mention of death and dying. It brought back sharp, anguished memories. Oh, God, would she ever be able to sleep a night without reliving the events of that horrible day? “Raven? Hey, where did you fly off to?” Dan kidded, watching her eyes suddenly grow misty and faraway. “What? Oh—” She paused to gather her thoughts. “No... I wanted to discuss us. I’m a student here and you’re an instructor. If any of the other students find out what has happened, there could be jealousy. I don’t want anyone to think I didn’t earn my way through this school or received preferential treatment.”‘ He started to interrupt, but she held up her hand. “No, it’s true, Dan,” she continued earnestly. “Some of the jocks will accuse me of that, regardless. But I don’t want the reputation of other women who might follow in my footsteps tarnished because of my...indiscretion.” He pursed his lips. “You have a relevant point,” he conceded. “But what we do on our off-hours is no one’s business but our own.” Her nostrils flared. “Come on! You know that in a tight little community such as ours, talk gets around. And eventually, it will land right here at TPS. I just can’t jeopardize my chances of becoming a test pilot. What would Colonel Martin think of this if he knew?” she challenged. Dan leaned back in the chair, enjoying the play of emotions across her features. “Tell me to be discreet. Which I will be.” “You haven’t heard a word I said!” “Calm down. I’m aware of your feelings and your concern for your reputation. And I don’t intend to embarrass you publicly here with the male students.” She gave him an accusing look. “You’ve got this all planned, haven’t you?” “I’m a test pilot by nature, Chris. I preplan as much as I can and then carry it through.” A grin edged his mouth. “Come on, are you going to sit there and tell me you didn’t enjoy that kiss?” She blushed beautifully, at a loss for words, for once. “You just keep your distance,” she warned throatily, her violet eyes golden with fire. His grin widened. “Is that threat for my benefit or yours?” “You’re impossible, McCord! I’ve never run into a jock like you in my whole life! Where did they find you?” He shrugged nonchalantly, taking another sip of the coffee, his eyes filled with laughter. “I’m one of a kind, Raven. Your kind. And don’t forget it. Because if you try to, I’ll be right there to remind you.” She stood, infuriated and frustrated with him. “Thanks for the coffee and the flight, Major. If you don’t mind, I’m going to go study. At least my books won’t talk back to me!” “Hey,” he called, sitting back up, reaching for a manual. “Before you storm out of here, take this and read it.” Chris turned, giving him a black glare. “What is it?” “The F-4 manual. You might as well eat, drink and sleep this baby until you can recite it forward and backward. I’m going to test you on it next week. So be ready.” She stared at the three-inch-thick manual and then at him. Jerking it from his hand, she muttered, “With you, I’m ready for anything!” 4 “I DON’T CARE if the Joint Chiefs of Staff blessed this affair,” Captain Richard Brodie growled, his feet propped up on a desk. “There’s no way a broad can be a test pilot.” He looked up at his two companions who loitered nearby at their respective desks. It was 1245 and most of their fellow students were filtering in for their afternoon classes, which would start promptly at 1300. “I dunno, Brodie, it’s been almost three weeks and that ‘broad’ as you call her, isn’t looking too bad,” Captain Greg Rondo said, a grin on his wide, handsome features. “Take a look at how good Mallory’s doing in the F-4. She ain’t no slouch at the stick, buddy.” Rondo was quick to recognize from the outset of his assignment to TPS that every student possessed a marked degree of overachieving drive and desire. He was no exception. He thrived on competition—if not with himself, then pitting his skills against another pilot or taming a shrewish jet aircraft. Yes, they were all winners bent on being the best, setting high personal standards and demands for themselves. Brodie snorted, turning the paper coffee cup around on his desk. “Screw her.” He lifted his head, glaring up at Rondo. “She’s an icy bitch if I ever saw one.” Rondo sat down next to him. “She’s got hands, though,” he pointed out, delighting in poking holes in Brodie’s opinionated stance. “Take a look at her test scores in Double Ugly. The gal ain’t flying extra hours for nothing. And from what I’ve seen, she handles the jet real well.” “You’re only saying that because you want to get close to her,” Brodie growled. Rondo smiled. “I think she’s kind’a interesting, myself. Good hands, good in the classroom. I’d like to fly with her.” A glint came to his light blue eyes. “I’ll bet that girl could do an inside loop with Ugly and come out smiling.” Brodie shook his head. “Nobody puts an F-4 into an inside loop and lives to tell about it, buddy. You know that as well as I do.” Rondo shrugged his thin, wiry shoulders. “Just give me a chance to go up with Mallory, and I’ll show her what an F-4 can really do.” “You’ll probably scare the hell out of her,” Brodie said, chuckling. “Man, she’s cold.” “Well, with jocks like you aiming to shoot her down, I don’t blame her for not being none too friendly,” Rondo challenged. Brodie returned to dutifully turning the cup around in long slender fingers. Mallory was an enigma. She was the epitome of a grade-A student: attentive, serious and worked her rear off on any project assigned to her. A thread of jealousy ate at him. For two weeks he had suffered the ribbing of the other pilots because Mallory had turned him down for a date. There had to be a way to get to her, he finally decided. But what was the key? He had watched in silence as Julio Mendez, the engineering officer from Brazil, had made peace with Mallory. She treated Mendez with deference and politeness, and the Brazilian officer flew as often as he could with Mallory. They were making an impressive team in the standings, gradewise. He scanned the half-filled classroom of men in green flight suits. Everyone had finished their morning flights by now and was ready to tackle the arduous afternoon of mathematics, theory and aerodynamics. What made Mallory tick? He pursed his thin lips, his brows dipping downward. What got to her? The only time she ever changed was when Captain Karen Barber came around. They were obviously friends, and that was when Mallory seemed most at ease. Somebody had to get to her and force her to screw up. A woman couldn’t stand the pressure. He made a mental note to contact a friend of his from Reese Air Force Base, where Mallory had been an instructor pilot. Maybe he could dig up some juicy gossip to spread around. Brodie was angry because eighty percent of the class accepted the woman as a bona-fide student. He fumed inwardly. How could a test pilot evaluate equipment for the military if she hadn’t flown in combat? Everyone was meandering around, holding their perennial cups of coffee, textbooks placed dutifully in front of their desks, talking about the morning’s flights. Brodie saw Karen Barber bounce through the classroom door. Her hair was in ruffled disarray, her eyes sparkling and a smile on her lips. Wasn’t there always a quick smile for everyone from Barber? Often she would drop in to visit with Chris before class started and then disappear down the hall to her office. Brodie roused himself, watching her like a cat ready to pounce on his next quarry. He checked to make sure Major Mark Hoffman, her boyfriend and also an instructor at TPS, was nowhere in sight. It wasn’t a secret that Karen and Mark were involved with each other, for they were often seen at the O’Club together after class. Brodie didn’t want to tangle with Hoffman because he might have to fly with him at some point. Getting Hoffman angry might also mean the naval officer would deliberately foul up a test flight that they had to pull together, making Brodie look bad. And he didn’t want any bad marks. “Hey, Barber,” he called. His voice carried across the room, so that everyone automatically looked up from their conversations. “I’m surprised the Air Force lets any women work here at TPS. Everybody knows this is a man’s world over here.” Karen looked up, stunned by his accusation. Brodie’s tone was both irritating and challenging. Her eyes widened. She swallowed, a myriad of answers forming in the back of her mind. Karen didn’t want trouble. But she couldn’t afford to allow the brash officer to get away with it, either. She was aware of all eyes upon her and felt heat racing upward from her neck into her face. She forced herself to remain calm. “I’m not even going to respond to such a question, Captain. It doesn’t deserve an answer.” Some of the men exchanged nervous glances then looked toward Brodie and Karen. Brodie grinned confidently. “How did you broads get assigned over here?” “Hey, ease off,” Rondo warned under his breath, glancing around at his fellow classmates. A number of other officers were frowning at Brodie, others seemed shocked and still others waited to see the outcome of the confrontation. Brodie forced a laugh, slapping Rondo on the back. “Hey! It’s okay! We’re just having a little fun here. Aren’t we, Barber? I mean, if you women want to be one of ‘us’ you have to learn to stand up and take some locker-room humor every once in a while.” “Captain Brodie, why don’t you pick on someone your own size then?” Chris Mallory challenged, her voice cutting like a whip across the room. There was an abrupt silence as Chris stepped into the room. She still had her helmet and oxygen mask tucked beneath her right arm, having just gotten off a flight. The dark green uniform made it obvious she was a woman even if she had no makeup on. Ebony-colored hair swirled around her shoulders, wispy bangs barely touching her knitted brows. Her violet eyes were narrowed with intensity as she glared over at Brodie. She walked in, her movements calculated to look at ease, as if she weren’t concerned with this meeting. She had heard the conversation as she walked in the door. Brodie swung his gaze sharply to Mallory. Dropping his feet from the desk, he smiled like a cat finding a bigger mouse to torment. “What’s the matter, Captain, don’t you care for my humor?” Chris halted, no more than three feet from where he lounged. Her nostrils were flared, her eyes flashing with leashed anger. “No, I don’t. I never did like bullies,” she returned in just as soft a tone. “I’m not about to let you say things like that about Captain Barber or myself.” Brodie’s mouth thinned. His heart began a faster beat as anger surged through him. Mallory was exactly the same height as himself, and he felt a moment’s intimidation by her challenge. It was immediately replaced with a growing hate. “Do you always butt in where you’re not wanted?” he ground out. “Brodie!” Rondo begged, getting up and coming over to stand between the two pilots. He smiled weakly at both of them. “Come on, ease off—both of you. It was just a little joke, Chris. Brodie, just tell Karen you’re sorry and we’ll call a truce. What do you say?” Chris stared at Brodie. “You start something and I’ll finish it. We don’t have to put up with this kind of harassment from you.” Rondo took a deliberate step between them, his voice hardening. “Both of you knock it off,” he growled quietly, giving them each a warning glare. “I never apologize for anything I say,” Brodie snarled over at Chris. “Just watch your six, Mallory.” Chris drew in a sharp breath. When one pilot warned another to watch his “six,” it was as close to throwing a punch as possible. Six was the rear position of any aircraft and was the most vulnerable area to be attacked and shot down from. “You bet I will.” The room took a collective, silent sigh of relief. Knots of officers broke up immediately, and everyone found their assigned seats. Karen fled. Chris saw tears in her eyes. Damn Brodie, she thought angrily. Turning to leave, Chris almost collided with Dan at the door. He gave her a strange look and watched as she walked toward the community locker room to stow her gear. Dan ambled down the aisle, noticing the absence of noise. He felt a tenseness in the room. What had happened? Everyone was strangely quiet. His gaze slid over to Brodie and his clique on the other side of the room. Brodie looked like he was ready to kill someone. Pursing his lips, Dan went to the lectern and paged through the text. This was not the place to find out what had happened. Chris had murder written in her violet eyes. Taking a deep breath before beginning his lecture, Dan knew without a doubt the first verbal salvo had been lobbed. Now it was his job to find out who was involved and dress them down in private and stop it before it got out of hand. “Chris,” Dan called as the pilots began to disperse for the day, “I want to see you in my office.” Chris nodded. “Okay. Give me five minutes. I need a cup of coffee.” “Five minutes,” he agreed. He saw Brodie’s head snap up when he had ordered Chris to his office. And Rondo looked almost as guilty, too. It bothered him that the whole class was still subdued by the end of the afternoon. Whatever had occurred was serious because it had adversely affected everyone. And in this school, confidence, positive outlook and an upbeat attitude was a must for each pilot. It was a grueling forty-six-week course that demanded the class work together as a unit in order to survive. Closing the notebook in one heavy motion, Dan picked it up, walking with slow deliberation to his office. “Okay, what’s up?” he wanted to know as Chris entered his office and sat down in the only available chair. Dan sensed Chris’s tightly throttled anger. These days, he could see right through her, sensing her true feelings. Had it only been three weeks since meeting her? He roused himself, gently shutting off those warming thoughts and centering on untangling the present difficulty. He looked up at Chris. “Well?” Chris sat there, relating the entire event. She glanced up at Dan. “I’m not going to take this from anyone, Dan. And Karen shouldn’t have to take it, either. She’s not even vying for test-pilot status, and he’s picking on her. The Brodies of the world are nothing but—” “Brodie is a macho jock. He was a hotshot lieutenant who made a reputation in F-4s during the closing days of the war.” “There’s no war now,” she answered coldly. “If he tries it again, I’ll shoot him down.” Dan’s mouth quirked upward. “I’d say you already singed his wing tips.” “The only thing his kind respects is meeting force with force.” Sitting up, Dan placed both elbows on his desk. “Look, I need you to understand where Brodie and his bunch are coming from. We won’t allow this kind of abuse to happen again, but there was bound to be some friction sooner or later. Brodie will never accept a woman as a test pilot. I don’t care how well you do. It won’t change his mind. He’s buried in the belief of outdated traditions that says women are second-class citizens and have no business behind the stick of a fighter or the yoke of a bomber.” “I’m not trying to change his mind,” Chris said. “I just don’t want Karen or me harassed by him.” “When I get done with him, he won’t,” he promised grimly. “But for the sake of the psychology, I’m asking you two women to understand his behavior and realize you don’t need to defend yourself against that kind of childishness. After a while if you don’t react, he’ll stop. But—” he held Chris’s gaze” —if you keep challenging him every time he pulls one of his cheap shots, he’ll know he’s getting to you. Ignore him and he’ll fade away.” Chris choked on an expletive. “That’ll be the day!” she retorted, and turning on her heel, walked out of the office. * * * DAN GLANCED AT his watch. It was almost 2100. Had three hours passed since talking with Chris? Pushing a group of papers away from him that still needed to be corrected, he leaned back, rubbing his face. Captain Brodie would be stopping by at any moment now. Frowning, he pushed a lock of hair off his brow and sat back up in the chair. More than anything, he wanted to be with Chris right now. Since that night he had impulsively kissed her on the ramp, he had controlled his desire to push her too fast, too soon. He contented himself by flying with Chris almost every evening and on the weekends. A smile flickered in his eyes. She was slowly responding to him, just like a stubborn fighter plane in a dive. Glancing at the paperwork she had done for this morning’s flight, Dan noticed how neat it looked. There wasn’t an ink smudge anywhere. All the relevant numbers and figures were carefully recorded, making the report look professional in every sense of the word. He didn’t want to work anymore and put the pen down. Flying twice a day was beginning to take its toll on him. If the commandant found out, he would cancel the extra sessions immediately. Grimacing, Dan shook his head as if in denial that it would happen. In just three short weeks Chris had proven beyond a doubt that she had the sensitivity to be a damn good test pilot. Would she be as sensitive to lovemaking? He knew the answer to that, feeling his desire for her heightened once again. God, how he wanted all of her. Ruefully Dan smiled to himself. You are special Captain Chris Mallory, he told her silently. No man in his right mind would want to just take you to bed and be done with it. There was something incredibly exciting about Chris. Patience, he told himself. Patience and give her a lot of care, and she’ll come around. Chris wearily rubbed her face, glancing at her watch. It was almost ten-thirty and she was exhausted from the intensity of her studying. Her textbooks and manuals lay in a semicircle around where she sat on the carpeted floor. Leaning back against the couch, she yawned. The day had been incredibly stressful. A soft knock at the door pulled her from the reverie. Frowning, she wondered if it was Karen. Usually she came over every night for a quick visit. Clad in only a pair of well-worn jeans and a loose weave purple sweater, Chris opened the door. Her eyes widened. It was Dan McCord. Her lips parted as she looked up at his lined features. He looked as tired as she felt. Dan offered her a semblance of a smile. “I know it’s late—” “That’s all right, come in,” Chris invited, trying to quell her hammering heart. Ever since he had kissed her that night on the ramp, Dan had stayed out of her life except in an official capacity. Chris was incredibly happy to see him again. Dan took off his blue flight cap and walked into the room. He was carrying a briefcase bulging with reports to be graded. Chris quietly shut the door, meeting his warming gaze. “Like some tea?” He folded the cap and stuffed it into the left thigh pocket of his flight suit. “Just getting to see you again is enough,” he answered. Chris managed to return a smile. “You haven’t changed at all, have you?” “No. Did you want me to?” She was glad to see him teasing her again. The past two weeks of flying had been all business with very little personal interchange. But she understood why. Dan was trying to get her qualified in the F-4 as fast as she could assimilate its flying characteristics. She motioned toward the couch. “A tiger never changes its stripes. Sit down before you fall down. I’m going to make us some orange-spice tea and lace it with a bit of brandy.” Dan ambled to the couch and gratefully sat. “Sounds great.” He watched as Chris moved across the room to the small kitchen. She looked like a contented married woman. He surprised himself with that analogy. Maybe he was too tired. Or maybe it was the clash he’d had with Brodie an hour earlier. Dan wasn’t sure. He leaned back, closing his eyes, musing. Being with Chris in her comfortable quarters gave him a sense of overwhelming peace. He had longed to see her socially, but the heavy demands placed upon them both had effectively squelched that. He rolled his head to the right, opening his eyes, studying her in the lulling silence. There was a lack of tension around Chris as she worked in the kitchen. In her bare feet she looked positively beautiful, with a girlish quality to her. Her black hair flowed freely, brushing her proud shoulders. Normally her beautiful violet eyes were shadowed with weariness. Now they were clear, flecked with gold, which seemed to indicate she was happy. Had coming to see her tonight been responsible for that change? Dan didn’t know. A smile quirked one corner of his mouth as he rose and ambled into the kitchen. He would like to think he was responsible for part of this change. “Smells good,” he commented, moving over to where Chris stood. He leaned over her, inhaling the freshly brewed tea. Chris felt his shoulder lightly brush against hers for a moment. She smiled, removing the tea bags from the pot. “Let’s go sit in the living room. I need a break, too,” she confided. Dan made himself comfortable on the couch. Chris sat on the floor near her textbooks, her arm resting against the sofa. She looked like a graceful cat curled up, her long legs drawn up beneath her body. “You think I’m going to attack you if you sit up here with me?” Dan teased. “Yes.” Chris smiled and took a sip of the tea. “You’re probably right,” he responded, grinning. Chris liked his honesty. “I was just kidding. I’m a floor person by nature.” She became more serious. “You look beat.” “It’s common the first month of school,” he explained, balancing the mug on his right knee. “You’re holding up well under the circumstances,” he noted with satisfaction. “I don’t know, Dan. After that run-in with Brodie today....” “You hit him right between the running lights,” he said, trying not to smile. Her violet eyes darkened. “He’s an eighteen-year-old kid instead of a mature man in his early thirties!” “Brodie never grew up in some ways, Chris.” She tilted her head, studying him in the softened light. “You sound as if you’ve known him for a while.” “He was in my F-4 squadron a number of years ago.” “And did he go around telling people to watch their six?” she asked, anger lowering her voice. Dan studied her for a moment. “He said that to you?” “Yes, in front of the whole class.” “He must have said it in jest.” To Dan, that particular phrase carried plenty of weight and feeling behind it. It was reserved for a confrontation that would set up a demarcation line never to be crossed by the other person. Chris grimaced. “If we were living in the Middle Ages, it would have been akin to Brodie throwing his gauntlet and challenging me to a duel.” After talking at length with Brodie, Dan had been convinced that the pilot was going to continue trying to get to Chris. This extra bit of information confirmed his original impression. Dan held the mug in both hands, looking down at her upturned face. Right now all he wanted to do was take Chris into his arms, to hold and kiss her. His body tightened with desire. How could she look so vulnerable and trusting now, and so professional and unreadable at the school? Would her background as an orphan have forced her to take on this chameleon-like quality? Dan pushed aside his personal feelings for a moment. “Look,” he began heavily, leaning forward, “I’ve dressed Brodie down for his actions, and he’s given his word it won’t happen again.” Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/eileen-nauman/touch-the-heavens/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.КУПИТЬ И СКАЧАТЬ ЗА: 356.27 руб.