Lindsay McKenna.

His Woman in Command






His Woman in Command

Lindsay McKenna


www.millsandboon.co.uk

Table of Contents

Cover

Title Page

About the Author

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Copyright

About the Author

As a writer, LINDSAY MCKENNA feels that telling a story is a way to share how she sees the world she lives in. Love is the greatest healer of all and the books she creates are parables that underline this belief. Working with flower essences, another gentle healer, she devotes part of her life to the world of nature to help ease peoples suffering. She knows that the right words can heal and that a story can be a catalyst in a persons life. And in some way she hopes that her books may educate and lift the reader in a positive manner. She can be reached at www.lindsaymckenna.com.

To ROMVETS, a group of women who have served or are currently serving in the military. This list comprises women who are aspiring writers and published authors. Its an honor to be among you.

Chapter 1

Twenty bucks says you cant get that good-lookin woman to come over to our table and have a beer with us, Staff Sargeant Neal Robles challenged.

Captain Gavin Jackson, leader of a ten-man Special Forces team, squinted in the semidarkness of the officers cluba tent on the most dangerous border in the world: between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It was the last day of their two weeks of rest between month-long assignments in the field. Tomorrow, theyd be back out in the badlands border area hunting Taliban. Gavin sat with his nine men. The pitcher of frothy cold beer in front of them went quickly.

The woman in question had just entered the spacious tent, catching the attention of every man in the room. She was about five foot eight, with short, curly black hair framing an oval face and high cheekbones. She was olive-skinned with light gold eyes. Then there was her killer mouth that Gavin wanted to capture and kiss. The frumpy green one-piece flight uniform that told him she was a pilot couldnt hide her assets. Curvy in all the right places. Gavin felt his body harden with desire.

He didnt know why. His relationship with another woman army pilot had crashed and burned a year ago. Gavin had sworn off women for now and women army pilots forever. Squirming in his seat, the wooden chair creaking, he shrugged as Neal Robles grinned like a wolf over the dare.

Why her? Gavin grunted, lifting the cold mug of beer to his lips.

Robless dark brown eyes gleamed as he whispered, Shes hot, Capn.

Shes the only female in here, Gavin drawled. Indeed, the huge dark green canvas tent was packed with menA teams coming in for a well-deserved rest, logistics, pilots or mechanics to support their missions. Women pilots were few, but they did exist. Automatically, Gavin rubbed his chest in memory of Laurie Braverman, the U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook driver that hed fallen in love with. Theyd broken up because of their mutual inability to compromise. A war of egos had eventually destroyed their relationship.

She might be the only one, Robles asserted, but you gotta admit, Capn, shes something. Robles looked at the other enlisted men around the table, all of whom bobbed in unison to agree with his observation.

Tugging on his recently trimmed beard, Gavin gave them an amused look. His team knew about his hard luck with Laurie, especially since hed been a growly old bear for a month after their spectacular parting. You know, he said, its damned hard enough to survive the border villages. Now, you want to collectively throw me at another driver? Driver was a common slang expression for any pilot whether they flew fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters.

Laughter rippled through his team. Gavin was fiercely protective of his men. Theyd been together over here nearly a year, and they were tighter than a set of fleas on a mangy Afghan dog. He wanted to bring all of them back off this tour alive so they could go home to their families. He had visited the base barber this morning, got a wonderful hot shower, a trim, clean clothes and joined his men at the canteen tent. Although they were in the U.S. Army, their clothes were decidedly Afghani. With their beards, wearing their wool pakols, or caps, they melted into the mountainous area less a target as a result of their wardrobe. They all wore the traditional turban. The loose, comfortable-fitting top with long sleeves had pajamalike trousers of the same color, and the traditional wool vests were worn over it.

Naw, she doesnt look like shes a man-eater like the last one you tangled with, Robles said. The table broke out in collective laughter once again. More beer was poured. A bartender came over and delivered another pitcher of cold beer, the froth foaming up and over of the top.

Gavin couldnt disagree and his gaze wandered to the woman leaning up against the makeshift bar and ordering a cup of coffee, not beer. She was probably on duty, Gavin assumed. He watched her hands. They were long, narrow and beautiful-looking. No wedding ring. But then, what did that mean? Nothing, because military combatants were forbidden to wear jewelry of any kind. So, she could be married. Frowning, Gavin felt his assistant CO, Dave Hansen, give his right shoulder a nudge.

Go on, Gavin, he said in his slow Texas drawl, she looks pretty docile. Invite her over. Wed all like the company of a good-lookin woman to remind us of whats waiting for us at home. Were harmless. Just tell her were voyeurs.

Gavin scowled at his team. Since when are you willing to throw me to the lions? Dont I treat you right out there?

Guffaws broke out and Gavin couldnt help grinning. They all desperately needed a little fun. The border country was violent and lethal. Theyd spent thirty days in the mountains hunting out pockets of Taliban in caves. Not that the local villages along the border ever cooperated. Most of them were terrorized by the Taliban. And the tribal people had been forgotten by the government in Kabul decades ago. Out there, Gavin knew, no fiercely independent Afghan could be trusted once your back was turned on them. Theyd just as soon put a bullet between your shoulder blades as look at you because of what the Taliban had done to them. Gavins team had had several firefights with the Taliban on their last mission. If not for the Apache helo drivers coming in with heavy fire support, they wouldnt be here enjoying this beer with one another.

Gavin sat up and sighed. He knew his men needed a reprieve from their deadly work. They all had PTSD symptoms. Why not waltz up to this gal and ask her to join them? Okay, he growled at them, Ill go throw myself on her mercy for the likes of all of you and see what she says.

The men clapped and cheered as Gavin stood up. He smoothed down his vest and adjusted the thick leather belt around his waist that carried a dagger and a pistol. Out in the field, hed have body armor on, but not now. He adjusted the dark brown wool pakol on his head. To anyone seeing these men riding up on their tough mountain-bred ponies, they looked like a group of Afghan men. Of course, here in the canteen tent, they were out of place, but everyone on base knew Special Forces A teams dressed like Afghans.

Giving his group a wink, Gavin said, Okay, men, keep it down while I work some magic. They all nodded solemnly, lifted their glasses of beer and beamed excitedly like little children waiting for Christmas to arrive. Gavin shook his head and walked across the creaking plywood floor toward the bar. He noticed that although men were hanging around the bar, all of them gave the woman pilot some room to breathe. Not that they werent looking at her. But none made a move on her. Why? They were support and logistics men and worked in the camp, so they might know something about this woman pilot he didnt.

Coming to the bar, Gavin stood about two feet away from her. The scalding look she gave him with those lion-gold eyes surprised him. He was clean, for once. He didnt smell of sweat and fear. His black hair and beard were neatly trimmed and combed. Maybe she didnt like A teams or Afghans, Gavin decided. The way her full mouth thinned, her hands tense around the white ceramic mug of coffee, told him everything. She really didnt want this intrusion into her space.

Im Captain Gavin Jackson, he said, pushing aside his fear of rejection. He looked at the upper arm of her green flight suit. Weve never seen a patch with a black cat on it. I was wondering what squadron youre with. That was a safe icebreaker, Gavin thought.

Nike Alexander, at twenty-six, did not want any male attention. Just a year ago, shed lost Antonio, an officer in the Peruvian Army who had died in a vicious firefight with cocaine dealers. She glared icily at the man, who was decidedly handsome despite his rugged appearance. Im with the Black Jaguar Squadron 60, she snapped.

Ive been out here on the front nearly a year. Ive never seen this patch. Is this a new squadron? Gavin opted for something simpler than trying to get this good-looking woman to come over to their table for a beer. He was frantically searching for ways to defuse her tension.

Shrugging, Nike lifted the coffee to her lips, took a sip and then said, Were basically Apache pilots in an all-woman flight program. We got here three weeks ago.

Oh. Gavin didnt know what to think about that. All women?

Nikes mouth twitched. Were black ops. His thick, straight brows raised with surprise. While it was true there were women pilots in combat, no women-only squadrons existed. Were top secret to the rest of the world. Here at camp, they know what we do, she added to ward off questions she saw in his large blue eyes.

Under other circumstances, Nike would be interested in this warrior. Clearly, he was an A-team leader. She knew these brave and hardy Special Forces teams were on the front lines, finding Taliban and stopping their incursion into Afghanistans space. His hands were large, square and roughened by work and the forces of the weather.

Ah, black ops, Gavin murmured. He saw the wariness in her gold eyes. Youre new?

I arrived a week ago.

Welcome aboard, he said, holding out his hand toward her. This time, he was sincere. Anyone who flew the border risked their lives every time they lifted off from this secret base.

Looking at his proffered hand and then up at him, Nike couldnt help herself and slid her hand into his. He grinned like a little boy given a Christmas gift. Despite the neatly trimmed beard that gave his square face a dangerous look, he seemed happy to meet her. Well, they were both in the army and that meant something. Her flesh tingled as his fingers wrapped gently around hers. She admired his deeply sunburned face, laugh lines at the corners of his eyes. A wild, unexpected surge of excitement coursed through Nike. What was that all about? Why was her heart pounding? She broke the contact and pulled her hand away.

Oh, he was eye candy, there was no doubt. The boyish, crooked grin made him even more devastatingly handsome, Nike decided.

Whats your name? Gavin asked. He forced his hands off the bar, unexpectedly touching her olive-tone skin. The brief contact sent crazy tingles up and down his arm. The close proximity to this woman intoxicated him in quite another way. Gavin fully realized he was more than a little tipsy from the beer he and his team had been guzzling. But he was still alert, still fixated on this new person of interest.

Im Captain Nike Alexander, she informed him in a clipped and wary tone. Shed just arrived with her squadron from the USA and wanted to focus only on the mission before them. As an all-woman squadron they had a lot to proveagain. Theyd done it in Peru, now it would be here. She didnt want to tangle with some sex-hungry A-team leader who hadnt seen a woman in God knew how long. Still, a secret part of her wondered what Gavin would look like without that beard. Not that he wasnt handsome with it; maybe she was just more interested than she cared to admit.

Nike, he murmured, rolling the name around on his tongue. Thats different. He squinted and gave her a measuring look. Are you American? Her husky voice had a trace of an accent. When she frowned, he knew hed asked the wrong question.

I was born in Athens, Greece, Captain. I was invited from my country to train and work for the U.S. Army. She turned and showed the American flag on the left shoulder of her uniform.

Greek. That made sense, although hed said it as if he were stunned by the information. Seeing the frustration in her large, clear gold eyes, Gavin asked, Wasnt Nike a goddess in Greek myths?

She still is, Nike said in a flat tone. I was named after her.

I see. Gavin stood there, his brows dipping. So, youre part of a black ops, youre a female pilot and youre from Greece. Brightening, he shared a look with her, his smile crooked. That makes you a pretty rare specimen out here in our back country.

Youre making me feel like a bug under a microscope, Captain. Why dont you mosey back to your team. Im not interested in anything but my mission here.

Her tone was low and dismissive.

Gavin kept his smile friendly and tried to appear neutral and not the leering, sexually hungry male he really was. It was now or never. Speaking of that, Captain Alexander, we were wondering if you might not come and join us? My boys and I are going back for thirty more days in the bush tomorrow morning. Wed enjoy your company.

Easing into a standing position, Nike glanced over at the table. Nine other bearded men in Afghan dress looked hopefully in her direction. English-speaking women who were not Moslem were a rarity in this country. Of course theyd want her company. Captain, Im not the USO.

And Im not for sale at any price. If you want female entertainment I suggest you find it somewhere else.

Ouch. Gavin scowled. Just a beer, Captain. Or, well buy you another cup of coffee. Thats all. Nothing else. He held up both his hands. Honest.

I appreciate the offer, Nike said. She pulled out a few coins from her pocket and put them on the bar next to the drained cup of coffee. But I must respectfully decline, Captain. She turned and marched out of the tent.

That went well, Gavin said, his grin wide and silly-looking as she exited. He walked over to his men, who looked defeated.

You crashed and burned, Robles groaned.

Jackson poured himself another glass of beer. Shes got other fish to fry. He said it as lightly as he could.

The men nodded and nursed their beers.

At twenty-eight, Gavin understood that a little fun and laughter was good medicine for his men. Silently, he thanked Nike Alexander for her decision. What would it have been like to have her come over and sit with them? It would have lifted their collective spirits. They were starving for some feminine attention. Oh, she probably realized this, but didnt get that his invitation was truly harmless. Gavin had seen a lot of sensitivity in her face and read it in her eyes. However, she was protective, if not a little defensive about sharing that side. He couldnt blame her.

Gavin told them what hed found out. His men were like slavering dogs getting a morsel tossed to them. In Afghanistan, Moslem women could not talk directly to any man. Consequently, it was a world of males with males and the women were hidden away in their homes. Gavin missed being stateside. Even though hed crashed and burned with Laurie Braverman on his first tour here, he still hungered for conversation with an intelligent woman.

As he glanced toward the flap of the tent where Nike Alexander had marched through, Gavin lamented her departure. Clearly, she thought he was hitting on her. Well, wasnt he? Digging into the pocket of his trousers, he produced a twenty-dollar bill and threw it across the table to his medic. Here, Robles. Satisfied?

Chuckling, Neal took the twenty and hoisted it upward. You tried. Hey, Capn, this will give us another round of beer!

The men clapped and hooted, and Gavin grinned crookedly. His team needed this kind of blowout before they got dropped in the badlands again. As he took one more look to where Nike had left, he wished hed had a little more time with her. Would they ever meet again? Hope sprang in his chest. Nike was a fascinating woman, pilot or not. Gavin shrugged off any romantic thoughts and took a deep swig of beer. Chances of ever seeing Nike Alexander again were next to nothing.

Nike, Major Dallas Klein-Murdoch said, sit down and relax. Welcome to BJS 60.

Nike settled in front of her commanding officers desk. Every incoming pilot to the squadron did a one-on-one with the CO. This morning, it was her turn. Dallas Kleins reputation with the original Black Jaguar Squadron, for which she had flown in Peru, was legendary. Nike was only too thrilled to be here under this womans command. Theyd had a stint together in Texas chasing Mexican drug-runners before this latest assignment. There, Dallas had fallen in love with ATF agent Mike Murdoch. The Pentagon had then sent Dallas and her new husband to Afghanistan to oversee the latest Black Jaguar Squadron. Murdoch was now a captain in the U.S. Army and worked as a strategy and operations officer for the all-women Apache combat pilots that comprised BJS 60. And while the pilots were all female, some males in the ranks took care of the Apache helicopters. Nike was glad that Dallas was assigned here with her new husband. Taking off her baseball cap, Nike sat down and grinned. Like old times, isnt it?

Dallas laughed. Better believe it. She reached for a file folder and handed it to Nike. Here are your orders. We have twenty women Apache pilots here and ten helicopters assigned to us. The last two helos are being flown in today to this base. My executive officer, XO, is going to be Captain Emma Trayhern-Cantrell.

Raising her brows, Nike said, From the Trayhern family?

The very same. Shortly after you left Peru, Emma was assigned to BJS in Peru and flew Apaches down there for six months before I was able to convince the Pentagon to have her assigned here. Shes a chip off the old Trayhern blocka real woman warrior.

Whose child is she? Nike wondered.

Clay and Alyssa Cantrell-Trayherns oldest child. Emma has three younger sisters, two of whom are in the U.S. Naval Academy right now. Theyre due to graduate next year. Theyre twins. Clay and Alyssa were Navy pilots and flew P3 antisubmarine aircraft for twenty years. Emma, whom youll meet sometime today, is a long, lean red-haired greyhound with blazing gray eyes. Im glad to have her on board. Shes a natural XO.

Chuckling, Nike opened the folder. Emma sounds perfect for this black ops.

Oh, she is. Her grandfather is the original black-ops figure behind the scenes, Dallas drawled, smiling. Lets get down to business. Im seeing my pilots individually to give them their orders.

Fire away, Nike murmured, studying the papers.

First of all, BJS 60 remains an all-woman U.S. Army force, Dallas began, leaning back in her chair. The women I chose for this new squadron have more than one flight skill. For example, you are licensed to fly fixed-wing, single-engine planes as you did on the U.S.-Mexico border with me. And youre also certified to fly the CH-47, which is the workhorse helicopter used here in Afghanistan. Dallas looked over at the lean, wiry pilot. Every woman in BJS 60 has multiskills in aviation. There may be times when I want you to fly the CH-47 and not the Apache.

Being multitalented has never been a problem for me, Nike said, grinning.

Dallas leaned back in her chair. We are under General Chapman and we work indirectly with the national Afghanistan Army. BJS 60 is going to be a sparrowhawk team that will be called upon in emergencies when the regular Apache pilots from the other two squadrons are not available. In other words, were going to pick up the slack to ensure that Special Forces A teams get immediate help and support out in the field. Our jobs will vary depending upon what General Chapmans operations officer decides for us. One day you could be flying a CH-47, another, youll be back in the seat of an Apache helicopter. Mike, my husband, is working as a liaison between Chapmans people and us. Were going to try and get as much air time as possible in the Apache, but we also know our pilots will be flying other helicopters, too.

Nike nodded. Instantly, she pictured Captain Gavin Jackson, who was a mans man, supremely confident. Someone she was drawn to, but Nike wasnt willing to admit that to herself now or ever. I ran into one of the A teams over at the canteen a little while ago.

Yes, theyre our front-line defense here on the border, Dallas told her. These men go out for thirty days at a time. They are hunting Taliban and stopping terrorist insurgence from getting into Afghanistan. This is one of the most dangerous places in the world for our troopsthe mountains and the border around the Khyber Pass, which connects Pakistan and Afghanistan.





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