"There's no way you're assigning me to some
Kee Smith had to look a long way up
to see herself reflected in the Major's mirrored shades.
Well, let him look down into his own damn reflection in her
shades and see how he liked it. All he'd see was himself
shimmering in the desert heat and the helicopter he'd just
rammed down through the dawn sky.
They stood in a
baking soccer arena, which was now turned into a baking
forward air base out in the middle of the baking desert in
bloody baking Pakistan. Already, the tier upon tier of
weathered concrete seating focused the blast of light on the
bare dirt field like a magnifying glass.
Maybe she couldn't read the Major's eyes
through those shades, but after six years in the U.S. Army,
she could read his silence.
"Sir." Damn. Screwin' up
already, Kee. She'd spent the last thirty-seven hours going
from one lumpy flight to another to get into the theater of
operations. Her reward, a dusty bivouac fifty miles from
Afghanistan's brutal Hindu Kush mountains. That part didn't
bother her. If President Matthews said the war was here,
fine. She came here. But that her new commander turned out
to be a stick-in-the-mud, protocol-bound dweeb... That she
didn't like so much.
She was dirty, stank worse than
after running a tenner with a field pack. Her butt was
chapped from one too many hard racks. Sweat dripped down
from her bandana in the desert heat. And there wasn't no way
she'd done all that to get assigned to some girlie-chopper.
She wanted to fly, damn it. Into the bloody fray, not away
Major Chunk-o-Muscle cracked a smile without
a single drop of friendly behind it. His flight suit showed
rough wear that she knew from experience didn't happen
overnight. The handle of his piece, a non-reg Sig Sauer
P226, sweet, looked worn too. The silvery aluminum showing
through the black anodizing. That took serious use. The hand
resting loose beside it had a gold ring; she'd seen him slip
it on after he climbed out of the chopper. Common practice.
If you were downed, you didn't want anything shiny on you to
Of course, the symbol on his
finger had never stopped men from hitting on her before;
built short and curvy, they all figured she was easy. They
all found out fast just how wrong a man could be. Besides
she wasn't into married ones, muscley or otherwise. The Army
might choose her partners in the air, even if she didn't
like its choices sometimes, but she sure as shooting chose
hers on the ground.
"Oh, what's wrong with a
girlie-chopper?" His deep voice practically laughing at
She shrugged her duffel off her shoulder and let
it smack, creating a knee-high local brownout of its own in
the dust-fine sand. She rested her aluminum rifle case on
top of it. Dragging her hands through her jaw-length mop of
hair didn't calm her one bit. She still looked dark and
tousled in the Major's shades. Shit, didn't matter anyway.
Go for it.
"Permission to speak candidly, sir?"
His half-amused nod really ticked her off.
fought too damn hard to get here to be slotted in with some
cute little public relations fantasy you have in your head,
sir. Sure I've heard of Major Beale, goddamn legend and all.
But if I end up on her squad, I'll catch no end of flak and
you'll be wasting both my time and the Army's. They didn't
ship my butt to this forward air base, thirty miles into the
middle of nowhere, to form a chick squad." That he'd even
suggested it told her what kind of a commander he was and
she wasn't looking forward to it.
"They shipped me
here because the nastiest battle on the planet is happening
just north in the Hindu Kush. I came to kick some serious
ass, pardon, sir, not to be slotted by gender. I want, I
deserve to be placed because I'm the best at what I do. I
belong in a bird like that." Kee pointed over her shoulder
without turning. She'd seen the distinctive T-shape of the
beautiful chopper, the twin of the Major's own bird,
reflected in his shades. The heavy rock â€˜n' roll beat of its
rotors pounded against her diaphragm before she could hear
The Major didn't bother to glance up. "You ready
to ride on that?"
Now he did
look up, a smile impossibly softening his stony face. Mr.
Chunk-o-Muscle was Major Handsome as well. Who'd have known
with that permanent scowl. She turned to follow his
Falling down like a hammer out of the crystal
blue sky came her baby. A Black Hawk helicopter. And not
just any Hawk. It was an MH-60L DAP. The Direct Action
Penetrator was the nastiest gunship God ever put on Earth
and only the best flew in her. Kee'd almost died of pleasure
the first time she saw one. Actually she'd been about to die
She'd spent five long years bucking
her way up from infantry to get aboard. It had taken her
three of those to get into SOAR and another two to get
through SOAR training. Now she was here, forward operations.
She'd done it and now was facing a DAP Hawk. No man had ever
made her feel this good.
And this sweet bird wasn't
fooling around. Two massive weapons' pylons stuck out from
either side of the midsection. On one side she had a rocket
pod carrying nineteen birds and a 30 mm cannon just in case
they wanted to go mastodon hunting. On the other pylon,
another rocket pod and a rack of Hellfire anti-tank
missiles, three of which were missing.
lay pretty close around here. The surrounding town of five
thousand people could be hiding anybody. The two crew chiefs
still had their hands on the M134 miniguns peeking out of
their shooting holes even while they were just a hundred
feet up. The chopper was still exposed to the "friendlies"
lurking in the town outside the stadium. The Hawk even had
the midair refueling probe, which meant she went in way
deep. Kee was down with that.
Only one group flew
such a bird, SOAR. The Special Operations Aviation Regiment
(airborne), the Army's 160th. The Night Stalkers. The
baddest asses on the face of the sky. And she was here. She
pinched her leg, on the side away from Major Muscle-head. It
stung. This wasn't no dream. Wide awake. She'd done it.
They both turned away and covered their faces as a
brownout of dust washed across the field, adding another
layer to her too-many hours of grime. Once the bird hunkered
down, and speech and vision were again possible, she faced
"That." She cocked a thumb over her shoulder.
"Me." She thumped her chest with a fist. "Sir!" For good
"Done!" Again that hidden laugh. "If you can
talk your way past the pilot." He turned on his heel and
disappeared into the heat shimmer.
So, all up to her,
hunh? Good. Didn't scare her none.
Kee yanked her
duffel over her shoulder, grabbed her rifle case, and
tromped over to the DAP as her rotors wound down and the
dust and sand settled.
Respect. She'd give that a
shot first. Respect with a little help. Because, like a good
soldier, she had more than one weapon in her arsenal. She
tossed down her duffel and the rifle case at the edge of the
rotor sweep and made sure her T-shirt lay smooth and tight
on her skin so that every muscle and curve showed. Pack â€˜n'
rack. Six-pack abs and a good solid rack for a chest. On
clear display. Her dusky skin, almond eyes, and single
blond-streak in dark hair had some kind of magic at knocking
men dead. Wasn't why she had it, but it worked.
didn't tease, it wasn't her mode. If she offered, she meant
it and delivered. But having men's brains switch off around
her had its advantages. She wasn't gonna be filing a letter
of complaint with the chief people designer who'd wired
men's brains to blow away like dust in rotor wash whenever
they were around her. It just amused her that it worked
every damn time.
The pilot climbed down, leaned in to
trade a joke with his crew chief, and then headed out from
under the slowing rotors. He almost passed her by, but Kee
snapped a sharp salute.
"At ease." No salute
Crap! Newbie mistake. She jerked her hand back
to her side and couldn't help checking behind her, but Major
Muscle was gone. She knew better, had been forward-deployed
plenty to know better. In the field you never salute a
superior officer. Sure way to tell a sniper who to
Kee dropped to parade rest, clenched her
hands behind her back. Muscled arms and shoulders back
focused men on a chest that wowed 'em all. Some civilian
women thought they were hot, but there was nothing like a
buffed-out soldier babe. And the civilians knew it, too.
Wasn't a single civilian chick ever gave her a smile when
she entered a bar.
"Sergeant Kee Smith. Best damn
gunner you ever met. I want on your ship, sir."
pilot peeled off his helmet, revealing blue-green eyes and
an unruly wave of soft brown hair that she'd bet never
stayed under control, no matter how long a woman played with
it. He opened the front of his flight suit to reveal a
sweaty tee on a slender frame.
Archibald Jeffrey Stevenson III at your service. And it's
not my ship. You'll be wanting to converse with the Major."
His voice so slow and smooth and refined, like a radio
announcer on those classical stations.
grinned at her, a saucy, funny grin. Started in his eyes and
wandered down to his lips, ending up kind of lopsided. Not
Handsome Mr. Major, but it made him look pretty damn cute.
She couldn't help but notice that his long and lean had some
nice muscle underneath, you'd expect no less from a
The Lieutenant, however, didn't even have the
decency to rake his eyes down her body. The Major hadn't
been able to help studying her frame, she could tell despite
the mirrored shades he wore like they'd been welded there.
But this Lieutenant somehow managed. Either gay or
self-control of steel-like strength. Came down to it, she'd
be betting on the latter. What happened when that much
self-control let go? Now that could be worth the price of
the ticket to find out.