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"Next one of you boys who makes a comment about any of my girl parts," Alexandra Mendez declared, "I'm gonna have to hurt you. Bad." Sheesh. Wear one lousy skirt to the officeand not even a sexy one at thatand the guys went crazy. Pervs.
One of the several dozen soldiers clustered in the ready room passed behind her and flipped her brunette ponytail. "Hell, Mendez. I didn't even know you had girl parts."
The old hurt speared into her, sharp and bright. He didn't know. None of them knew how much she hated being "one of the guys." Desperate choices made young to save her father
She scowled at no one in particular. "Anyone see Captain Kelley? I need to talk to him."
A predictable chorus of cat calls and rude remarks erupted. She was so not sleeping with Jim Kelley. But it didn't help the rumor mill that he hovered over her as though she was some kind of freaking moron every time anyone in the unit gave her a job to do. Which wasn't to say she wouldn't seriously consider sleeping with Jim if he offered. She'd had a massive crush on him for pretty much her whole life.
She rolled her eyes and announced to the room at large, "I swear, you'll never see it coming. A knife between the ribs, nice and quiet."
Laughter broke out. "You and what army?" someone called.
She shook her head and didn't rise to the bait. These Special Forces types thought they were such hot stuff. Nothing and nobody could touch them. Problem was, they were right about that most of the time. Just once, she'd like to give them a taste of their own medicine.
"Captain's in the colonel's office," someone finally relented and volunteered. "Secure fax came in a few minutes ago."
Ahh. A mission was coming down to the unit. No wonder everyone was hanging around trying to look busy. They were all here to wrangle a spot on whatever team was about to get sent out.
She clenched her jaw. She'd give her right arm and her firstborn child to be sent out in the field just once. Other tech-support types went out to back up the teams all the time. But not her. Never her. Maybe this time
The colonel's office door opened and the atmosphere in the room went from jovial to supercharged in about a nanosecond. Captain Jim Kelley stepped out. "Delta Company," he announced, "you're up."
Cheersfrom Delta's guysand groans from everyone else rose loudly. Over the din, Jim yelled, "Intel briefing in the conference room. Ten minutes."
Alex pushed through the mass of big, muscular bodies toward Jim. Ten minutes? Crud. She didn't have much time to make her case. "Captain Kelley!" she called. He made eye contact with her over the shoulders of the non-Delta company commanders as they groused at him and tried to get a piece of the action.
"Mendez, you got a report for me?" Jim barked.
"My office. Now."
He was clearly using her as an excuse to escape the sleeve-tuggers, but she was okay with that. He'd be her captive audience until the ready room cleared out.
He paused in his doorway and gestured for her to precede him inside. As always, her heart stuttered when she had any excuse to get this close to Jim Kelley and his rugged good looks. He was a man's man heck, he was a woman's kind of man, too. Those blue-on-blue eyes of his, the thick, dark hair cropped short, the strong features, direct stare
Without warning, her shoe heel caught on the doorjamb and her right ankle rolled out from under her. She pitched forward and slammed face first into her boss's rock-solid chest.
"Hey, Mendez," someone laughed behind her, "you don't have to be that obvious about throwing yourself at the guy!" More laughter ensued.
Her cheeks flamed. Whoever said fair-skinned women were the only ones cursed with blushing when they were embarrassed had never met her. Her golden complexion turned beet-red with the best of them, thank you very much. Of course, she never really blushed except when she did something humiliating around Jim Kelley. And that happened a great deal more often than she liked to think about.
"Walk much?" he murmured, setting her back on her feet. "Maybe you should stick to flats, kid."
Face on fire, she glared in the general direction of his chin and mumbled, "Yeah, whatever." She was such a dork.
She couldn't even walk past the guy without falling all over herself.
"You need help getting to a chair?" he asked dryly.
She hoped that was a rhetorical question because she had no intention of answering him. She sat down on the cursed chair, and then remembered she was wearing a skirt. She should turn a little to angle her skirt away from him enough that she wasn't inviting him to look up it.
She swiveled in the seat, but, of course, the danged skirt didn't swivel with her. The stupid thing wrapped around her thighs so tightly she feared a seam would pop any second. She half rose to twist it back into place. But in trying to be subtle about it, she was a little too subtle and lost her balance. She fell back onto the chair, barely catching enough seat to stay in it and the thing rocked ominously to one side. She managed to right both herself and the chair, but not before Jim smirked openly at her from behind his desk.
"I swear, Al, I've never met anyone as clumsy as you in my whole life."
She almost stuck her tongue out at him, but they weren't kids any more. And besides, she was only a klutz around him.
The grin faded from his face and his stare went all manly again. "What's up, Mendez?"
It might be common usage to call people by their last names in the army, but coming from him, it made her feel ugly. Nerves jangled like broken power lines in her stomach. She asked as lightly as she could muster, "Where's the team mission to this time?"
"Secretary of State's going to East Africa to discuss the piracy problem with various leaders over there. We're providing supplemental security."
That was a particularly dangerous corner of the world. Delta Company stood a more-than-fair chance of seeing combat on the job. She announced, "I want to go with them."
"So do I. But that doesn't mean either of us gets to do it."
"I'm serious. I've been attached to this unit for a full year and I haven't been out on a single field op."
"You've been on tons of ops," he retorted.
"Sitting in a van a hundred miles from the deployment and babysitting satellite feeds is not a real op. I want to be where the action is."
Jim's expression hardened. "Not happening. You're a rookie. You're a female. And your dad would kill me if I let anything happen to you."
She snapped, "Rookie techs go out in the field with the unit all the time. And you've sent a woman into a hot combat zone before"
"Yeah, and look how that turned out." His gaze strayed to the wall of photographs of fallen heroes under a banner declaring them never to be forgotten.
"and as for my dad, I'm an adult and this is my job. He can get over it."
"You're inexperienced. I can't risk my men's lives with you. When you've got more field experience, maybe we'll talk about it."
He'd set up a neat catch-22 and snagged her squarely in its logic. She demanded, "And how, exactly, am I supposed to get more field experience if you won't ever put me out there?"
Exasperation poured off the guy, but she, frankly, didn't care. She was pretty darned exasperated herself.
"Do you have a report from Chandler's office for me or not?" Jim asked implacably. He obviously thought the discussion about sending her to Africa was over.
"I'll go over your head," she threatened. "I can claim discrimination, you know."
He leaned forward, palms pressed flat on his desk, and glared at her. "As long as you're attached to this unit, you work for me. My decision. My call. I say you stay right where you are. It took my superiors a year to get someone into Senator Chandler's office. And I'm not about to pull you out."
Frustration and hurt warred for supremacy in her gut. She was really, really good at her job. Nobody was better with high-tech gadgetry than she was. She'd earned a chance to do her job for real in combat. He was just being pig-headed and chauvinistic. "If you don't think I'm good enough at my job to let me do it, then why don't you let me go back to my own battalion where my work will be appreciated?"
He momentarily looked stricken, but then he snarled, "If you do something intentional to make me fire you, you won't be getting any jobs in tech ops again any time soon. I'll see to it."
She jumped to her feet and miraculously managed to get vertical without mishap. "How dare you threaten me!"
His jaw muscles worked angrily. "You threatened me first, Mendez, and I don't take kindly to that." His gaze speared into her coldly. "You have your orders. I expect you to stay put in Chandler's office and keep watching for anything out of the ordinary. You're going nowhere until you get the dirt on the guy. Is that understood?"
She was so furious she didn't trust herself to speak aloud. She nodded stiffly before pivoting and marching to the door. At least she hoped it looked like marching. Disconcertingly, in the narrow skirt and heels, it felt more like mincing than marching. She gave his door a satisfyingly loud slam on the way out, though. Jerk.
He wanted the dirt on Chet Chandler, did he? Oh, she'd give him dirt. In fact, she knew just how to get it. She glanced at her watch. Almost five o'clock. Senator Chandler had a dinner meeting tonight with some caucus group. And whenever he left the office, the rest of the staff usually checked out pretty soon thereafter. She'd give it a couple of hours and then she'd move in for the kill.
Her idea was risky. Arguably stupid. If she got caught she'd be fired from Chandler's staff for sure, and then Jim would be really mad at her. Tough. She was going to hack into Chet Chandler's personal computer. And then in a few days, before next week's no-notice system sweep by the FBI, she'd unhack the senator's computer.
It had cost her hundreds of dollars' worth of beers and countless hours of deadly, dull baseball talk with her "buddy" from the FBI cyber-crime unit to find out when the next sweep of the Congressional offices was scheduled. But it would all be worth it if she could show Jim Kelley just how good she really was at her job.
If he wouldn't send her out on a real mission to get experience, she'd just create one for herself. Passive surveillance on one Senator Chet Chandler had just shifted into active pursuit mode.
Jim Kelley woke from a dead sleep to the sound of someone pounding on the front door of his stylish Georgetown town house. What time was it anyway? He lifted his head to look blearily at the alarm clock. Two in the morning? He swore under his breath as he rolled out of bed and pulled on sweat pants.
"I'm coming!" he yelled irritably at whoever was trying to bust down his door. He looked through the peephole and spied the distorted figure of a woman. A familiar one he emphatically didn't want to see right now.
He threw the door open. "C'mon, Mendez. Do we have to get into this again? I said I'm not sending you to Africa. Get over it."
"May I come in?" she ground out between clenched teeth. "Are you drunk?"
"Are you going to throw another tantrum at me?"
"God, that's a sexist remark. Let me in. I got something on Chandler."
Surprised, he stepped back. She brushed by him and he sucked in a sharp breath. She was wearing yoga pants and a muscle shirt that hugged her body quite informatively. It turned out that beneath the military uniforms and dull suits she normally wore, the girl had curves. And beneath the curves she was lean and fit. Who'd have guessed?
She glanced up at him sidelong and deja vu slammed into him. Arturo used to look at him just like that. Same eyes. Same wry humor. It had been ten years since her older brother, his best friend, had died. Sometimes Alex was so much like Arturo it was spooky. And sometimes it was as though the accident had happened yesterday, the pain and guilt and loss as new and raw as ever.
"Nice place," Alex blurted.
"Thanks." Those stretchy pants cupped her derriere just right, and her T-shirt left bare a sexy little strip of golden flesh across her belly. Make that a flat, firm belly. And make that an intensely weird sensation to be noticing it.
"Must be nice not to have to live on army pay in this town."
Couldn't resist taking a pot shot at him, could she? Must still be pissed about this afternoon. He glanced around the chic living room and shrugged. It wasn't his fault his mother was an heiress, or that he'd parlayed the trust fund he'd gotten when he turned eighteen into millions more by investing it wisely.
"It's two in the morning, Mendez," he said, hinting not so subtly for her to get to the point of this little visit.
She glared. "I'm well aware of that. I've been working all night while you caught up on your beauty sleep."
Vague surprise registered. What work would keep her up so late? She was a junior flunkylittle more than an errand girlin Chandler's office. Surely the guy didn't give her work to do that kept her up this late at night. "Congratulations. You win the workaholic award," he declared. "So what do you want?"
"Get dressed," she ordered tersely. "There's something I need to show you."
His eyebrows shot up. Since when was she the one giving orders? He was the unit operations officer. She was the lowly support tech. Not to mention, why was she so tense? She'd come to his unit with a reputation for being cool as a cucumber under pressure. That and the girl was a wizard with anything that had wires. She would give James Bond's tech support guy, Q, a run for his British money. Something must be up. Something big.