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Shelly London shifted her stare from the blinking error message on her monitor to the window and back again. She was tempted to hoist her computer through the glass and jump out after it.
Moving to Houston to train astronauts on an experimental spacecraft for NASA wasn't nearly as cool as it had originally seemed.
She'd felt as though she'd been caught up in a tornado from the minute she'd stepped off the plane from Washington, D.C. Between setting up her new home and overseeing the final design and production of the spacecraft, she'd barely had a moment to herself.
And there certainly hadn't been time to find a decent hairdresser, she thought, patting her gel-slicked topknot. Houston's humidity had gotten the best of her, and it had been one bad-hair day after another.
She knew her life would never resemble a rerun of Sex and the City. Expensive clothes and shoes, fabulous parties with beautiful people and an endless string of handsome men weren't her destiny.
But at least back in D.C., she'd been stylish and put together, making the most of her cute potential. She'd had a social life, with girlfriends and dates when she'd wanted them, and close family ties with her mother and sister. Shelly knew it would take some time to build a life here in Houston, but it was slower going than she'd expected.
Still living out of boxes, she was lucky to put together a shirt and pants that matched. This made it easy to fall into the collegelike culture of her fellow aerospace geeks. Rolling out of bed for shift work, she dressed in blue jeans and old T-shirts, and ate whatever fast food was available.
She was close with those on her engineering team most of whom she'd brought with her from D.C.and knew the affable group of guys couldn't care less how she looked. But just once since she'd moved to Houston, she'd like to have a good-hair day.
Yesterday, out of a desperate need for a touch-up, she'd pulled off the highway and walked into a hair salon. She'd figured that with the name Lady of Color, she had a fighting chance of getting a stylist who could straighten her frizzled mess. She'd been right about one thing. The salon did specialize in African-American hair. Unfortunately, it didn't specialize in doing it well.
Shelly's hair had been bone straight when she left the salon yesterday, but that had lasted only until she walked through the thick, souplike humidity to her car this morning. By the time she'd driven to her office with the windows down, because the air conditioner was brokenshe'd looked like a wet poodle.
After two months and two containers of hair gel, Shelly had been looking forward to sporting something other than a bun or an unruly ponytail. No such luck. Thanks to the emergency gel she'd retrieved from the trunk of her car and the wide rubber band from her desk drawer, she was back to her perpetual bad-hair-day look.
In fact, it was looking as if it was going to be a bad day all the way around. In the dark monitor of her computer, which she was rebooting for the third time, she saw the reflection of a thunderstorm headed her way. Actually, it was Lightning. Lightning Ripley.
But she refused to use Lincoln Ripley's self-indulgent nickname out loud. Shelly didn't care how many engineers on her team suffered from hero worship. Or how often she heard women in the ladies' room drooling over his chiseled features and rock-hard muscles. Shelly was convinced Ripley's reputation was all hype.
By her estimation, he was a cocky, overconfident hotshot, channeling Will Smith in Independence Day. Ripley thought he was a hero destined to become a legend, and Shelly didn't want any part of it.
Guardian Rescue Mission, or GRM, was her baby. Draco, the spacecraft, was her design. And she wasn't going to let some ego-driven astronaut ruin the very thing her entire career and reputation were riding on.
Spinning around in her chair to face him, Shelly braced herself. She knew exactly what was coming. And it wasn't going to be pretty.* * *Lincoln Ripley felt anger radiating from his body like invisible waves of heat. He stalked up to Shelly London, fully intending to spin her chair to face him, but she stole his thunder when she turned to him on her own.
She stopped him short with the look of challenge in her dark eyes. He knew right then that she was going to be trouble. He wished for some way to wipe that smug expression off her face.
"Who the hell do you think you are? You don't have the authority to get me pulled off this mission." At the sound of his voice echoing through the quiet room, three heads popped up in alarm. The rest of the team was watching the scene with rapt attention, but Linc didn't care.
Shelly stared up at him without blinking. Her cold gaze sent a shiver down his spine. "You haven't been pulled from the mission. So, what's the problem?"
Linc blinked. Was she kidding? That morning she'd issued a request to the mission director for his reassignment. "The problem is that you tried to get me kicked off."
"Relax, Ripley. This isn't Survivor. You can't be voted off, as you well know. I simply inquired as to whether you were the best choice for lead astronaut on this mission."
Her indifference ramped up his anger another notch. "You question whether or not I'm the best choice? Don't you know who I am?"
His stomach muscles were clenched. Linc was used to maintaining his composure, especially with women. He couldn't remember the last time he'd reacted this strongly to one.
More infuriating was that her cool smile never changed. "Sure. You're a lieutenant colonel in the United States Air Force."
Linc ground his teeth together. She was being deliberately obtuse. "And "
She gave an unladylike snort. "Oh, you want to know if I saw you on the covers of Time, Newsweek and People. Yes, I'm well aware of your reputation," she said irreverently. "But piloting a space shuttle has nothing to do with flying Draco. And I'm only interested in training astronauts who are focused on this mission rather than their own achievements."
Linc suppressed a curse. His achievements had won him an Airman's Medal. His body had now grown so hot, it was only a matter of time before steam poured from his ears.
"I can't believe your nerve"
"There seems to be plenty of nerve to go around, because you had the nerve to miss my briefing yesterday."
Linc pounded the desk with his fist. "Is that what this is about? Missing one lousy meeting?"
Her back straightened, and for the first time, Linc spotted a crack in her composure. "No, this isn't about one lousy meeting. I didn't see you in the Mojave Desert when Draco was unveiled four months ago, and you didn't show up for the first round of flight testing, either."
His gut clenched. He'd missed those dates because he'd been flying a covert rescue mission out of Iraq. But he couldn't discuss that with a civilian. He had no choice but to take the hit to his reputation. "It was my understanding that those exercises were optional."
"Now we're down to the wire, and training is about to begin. Yesterday's briefing was not optional, and you weren't there. Draco is my design. I don't want anyone on the team who doesn't take the spacecraft just as seriously as I do."
He'd had enough of her attitude. "Your design. Important to you. Lady, this mission isn't about you. GRM is a top-secret military operation. Missing one little meeting doesn't warrant you trying to get me bumped from the mission."
"The briefing wasn't one little meeting. It was the meeting. And because you weren't at the meeting, you don't know anything about this spacecraft. It's a new design that you've never seen before. This mission is on a rushed deadline. We don't have time to waste catching you up whenever you decide your Porsche needs detailing."
"It's a 1969 Cobra, and it needed a carburetor." He'd nearly killed himself in that car trying to get to the meeting on time, but his pride wouldn't let him tell her that.
She rolled her eyes. "Whatever. In any case, you're still on the project. It's no secret that I'm not thrilled about that fact, but we have to work together, nonetheless. So, if you're through disrupting the room, those of us who actually work here have to get back to it." She spun her chair back around to face her computer.
Linc just stood there for a moment, staring incredulously. There were a million things he could have said, and would have said, if he weren't so confused.
She'd just dismissed him. No woman had ever dismissed Lincoln Ripley.
Once Shelly heard Linc finally leave the room, she released the breath she'd been holding. That man infuriated her.
She was so mad, she was nearly shaking, but she hadn't wanted him to see that. Shelly couldn't focus on her computer screen. Sucking in a deep breath, she pulled her glasses off. She missed her contacts, but she still hadn't found the time to find an optometrist to update her prescription.
Lately, there wasn't time for anything the least bit personal. There certainly wasn't time for a social life of any kind. And to make matters worse, because her mission was top-secret, she couldn't talk to her family about what she was doing. That made for some strained conversations, because work had become her life.
But it would be worth it. All her life, Shelly had wanted to be an astronaut. Even now as an aerospace engineer, she'd applied to the astronaut program three times. And she'd been rejected. Three times.
After her last rejection, she'd begun to doubt herself. But her boss had given her another shot when he recommended her to work on Draco. He'd told her that this could be her ticket to the stars. And with that goal in mind, Shelly had worked hard on the project. Her ideas for the vehicle had been innovative enough that she'd eventually become the lead designer.
Unfortunately, when that phase had been completed, and she'd angled for a slot on the spacecraft as an expert on the design and maintenance, Shelly had been shot down again. It was at that point that they'd been informed that this new spacecraft was for a military operation that would be manned solely by military personnel.
This wasn't unusual. Many of NASA's astronauts were pulled directly from the military, particularly the Air Force, since jet flight experience was valued so highly. But, Shelly knew her background in aerospace engineering should have made her sufficiently qualified under normal circumstances.
Every move Shelly had made in her career was to prepare her to become an astronaut. NASA relied heavily on its private contractors, and Shelly had gone to work for Welloney Incorporated straight from graduate school because they held contracts for some of NASA's most high-profile projects.
When she learned GRM wasn't going to get her into space, Shelly had almost thrown in the towel then and there, but there had been a silver lining. For her hard work on the project, she'd been promoted and sent to Houston to train the astronauts on Draco. It was hardly the next best thing to riding a rocket into space, but the money was good, and Shelly needed a change.
She'd be damned if she'd sit back and watch some hotshot pilot take Draco for granted. If she couldn't man the craft herself, she at least wanted astronauts that saw the mission as more than another notch in their belts.
Shelly shook her head over the argument she'd just had. He'd been trying to intimidate her. Lincoln Ripley was clearly the kind of man who was used to having his way.
Why else would he have leaned over her like that? He'd probably expected that she would get a lungful of that designer cologne he wore and swoon. Or maybe he'd thought she'd be mesmerized by his chocolate-brown eyes and offer him whatever he asked for.
This was the first time Shelly had seen Linc up close, and she couldn't deny, he was every bit as handsome as the rumor mill suggested. The women in the administration office called him Mr. Right Stuff. But that little fact only annoyed her more.
She hated men like him. The kind that never had to work hard at anything. Panties dropped at their feet with a glance, they made touchdowns without breaking a sweat, and their egos Shelly was surprised Linc could keep a plane in the air with the weight of his ego on board.
No, this wasn't the kind of astronaut she wanted on her mission, but they were stuck with each other. Yet, if Lincoln Ripley thought he was going to bat his thick eyelashes and get what he wanted from her, he was sorely mistaken.
She was in charge, and she wasn't going to let him forget it.
Two days later, Linc was still trying to figure out what he was going to do about Shelly London. It seemed she'd set her mind on riding him hard.
He smiled at the double entendre. If she were any other woman, he might try making the other meaning of that statement a reality. But Linc couldn't get past her hard edge long enough to see her that way. Prim updo. Glasses. She was clearly wound too tight. And Linc liked his women soft and loose.
At first, he hadn't known why she was dead set against him, but he'd been certain it was an opinion she'd formed long before they'd ever met.
Sure, from the outside looking in, it might seem to her that flying her spacecraft wasn't a priority to him an assumption that couldn't be further from the truth. But his gut told him that was just a surface excuse for her to continue despising him.
Linc had to admit, having a woman hate him on sight was a new sensation, and it had thrown him off his game for a minute. But he'd never been one to run from a challenge.
So what if she didn't want him piloting Draco? Colonel Murphy, the mission director, had made it clear that losing him wasn't an option.
His next move had been to turn the tables on her. If she didn't want to work with him, why couldn't she go back to Washington and turn the work over to the remaining team members? After all, Draco was nearly built. What did they need her for now?
He needed to know exactly what kind of enemy he was up against in Shelly. That meant finding out whatever he could about her.