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If what they said about reincarnation was true, Sedona Stewart decided she was coming back as a man in her next life.
She snatched her sheet of paper from the copy machine and marched back toward her office, determined to ignore the sounds of merriment coming from the small conference room to her left. Another promotion was being celebrated, the third in as many months, all of them going to her male counterparts.
Despite the fact that she had as much education, experience and time on the payroll as any of them, she had been passed over yet again for the position of senior engineer, and for Bob Lewis of all people. It was like a slap in the face. The guy was a total dork. She'd be damned if she joined them in their good-old-boy ass-slapping and shoulder-punching congratulations.
She threw her paperwork down onto her desk, flung herself into her chair and acknowledged it was time to look for a new job. As an aerospace engineer for the Department of Defense, she'd worked damn hard to earn a promotion. She'd played the game, tried to be one of the boys, in an environment dominated by the opposite sex. She'd taken on additional duties, worked long hours, traveled when nobody else was willing to, sacrificed her personal life for her career, and where had it gotten her? In exactly the same position she'd held for five years now.
She gave a snort of self-disgust. So much for the edicts her father had imposed on her when she was younger. He'd disapproved of any activity, extracurricular or otherwise, that didn't further her chances of being accepted into the best technical college in the country. How many times had he expressed his opinion that women could only expect to get ahead in a man's world by emulating them? A woman who came to work dressed in a manner that distracted men shouldn't be surprised when she bumped her head on a low glass ceiling.
As a teenager, cheerleading hadn't been an option. School dances were prohibited as frivolous and rife with opportunities to go astray. Her father had been unrelenting in his belief that short skirts, makeup and jewelry would only result in an unwanted pregnancy and the end of all her dreams.
His dreams, really.
Her father hadn't had a clue about her dreams. But she hadn't dared oppose him, and in the end, had reluctantly boxed up and gotten rid of her feminine frills and fripperies. She'd even given up her dream of pursuing a career in fine arts, though she hadn't been able to give up her sketchbook. Some people kept a journal, others took photos; Sedona documented life through her drawings and sketches, not that she'd ever share them with anyone. Nope, drawing had become her secret thing, her escape when her overbearing father became too much to handle.
She'd obediently followed his advice and obtained an advanced degree in aerospace engineering. When she'd accepted her current position, the artist in her had secretly thrilled at the beauty and power of the fighter jets the company produced. It seemed impossible for so sleek and elegant a machine to contain so much strength and speed. She'd thrown herself into her job with a determination that surprised even her. It was only now, looking back on those years, that she realized she'd spent so much time trying to be one of the guys, she'd all but forgotten how to be a woman. These days, she didn't even know what it was like to feel feminine.
What would her dad's reaction have been learning that despite all of her hard work and sacrifices, she'd been passed over for promotion yet again? Her shoulders sagged. Her father had been gone now for three years, and while there were times she missed him terribly, she told herself she no longer had to please him. She could do what she wanted without fear of his criticism or censure.
She thought briefly of her two younger sisters, Allison and Ana. Allison was the good girl, who'd opted to stay at home and take care of their mother. She ran a small shop that sold bath and body products, but had never shown any ambition to do more with her life. She was sweet and unassuming, and their father hadn't pushed her to excel. He'd acknowledged the benefits of having one grown child remain at home to help out.
Ana, on the other hand, had violently opposed her father's strict edicts and gone completely in the opposite direction. As an exotic dancer in Las Vegas, she derived great satisfaction in telling Sedona how much money she made doing nothing more than shaking her stuff.
In some ways, Sedona envied Ana. Comfortable in her own skin, Ana had a natural sex appeal that attracted men wherever she went. For as long as Sedona could recall, Ana had been able to charm and manipulate the opposite sex, including their formidable father. He hadn't even argued when, at nineteen, Ana had declared her intent to move to Las Vegas. He'd just hugged her and gruffly said to call him if she needed him. To Sedona's knowledge, she never had.
While Sedona might never possess the kind of allure or kittenish appeal that Ana had, she told herself it didn't matter.
She was an aerospace engineer. She didn't need to exploit her body in order to make a living.
She scrubbed a hand over her eyes. Aerospace engineers were in high demand in private industry. As much as she hated the idea of embarking on a new job search and having to relocate, neither did she want to throw her career away working for an agency that obviously didn't appreciate her talents. Her boss, Joe Clemons, was a good guy and she actually liked working for him. He'd be disappointed if she left, but it didn't seem like a good enough reason to stay.
She wasn't getting any younger, either. She felt about twice her age, which, at twenty-eight, wasn't a good thing. To think, when she'd first taken the position right out of grad school, she'd actually harbored hopes of meeting a guy who would respect her for her intelligence and abilities. Ha. That was such a joke; the guys she worked with were a bunch of uptight misogynists who wouldn't recognize a good woman if they tripped over her. Although, it seemed they had no problem squashing them underfoot as they muscled their way up the career ladder.
She looked around the office where she'd worked for the past five years. Maybe the reason she'd never brought anything personal in, like framed photos or a potted plant, was because on some level she knew she wouldn't be sticking around.
Beside her desk hung a large poster of a jet engine embla-zoned with the words, Thrust You Can Trust. The poster had to have been designed by a guy. Only a man would come up with a motto like that. Even the shape of the engine was phallic, right down to the afterburner with its smooth, curved cap. The poster never usually failed to wring a wry smile out of her. Now it just made her grimace.
She wrenched open a side drawer in her desk and bent over to rummage through the hanging files, looking for a copy of her old résumé. It was way past time to get that baby updated and on the street. Maybe she could teach some engineering courses at one of the local colleges; all those fresh young minds would definitely be an improvement over what she was accustomed to working with.
"Excuse me, Miss Stewart?"
"Yes?" Sedona recognized the voice of the administrative assistant, Linda, but didn't look up.
"Um, there's a gentleman here to see you. An, um, officer gentleman."
Sedona shot upright in her chair so fast she nearly threw her back out. Linda stood in the doorway to Sedona's small office and, despite her round proportions, was completely dwarfed by the man behind her. Linda stared at Sedona in a meaningful way, mouthed the word wow and fled, leaving Sedona alone with her visitor.
She gaped at the man standing there. Her gaze slid over him, from his cropped black hair, past the impossibly wide shoulders and slim hips, to the long legs, all encased in a dark-green jumpsuit emblazoned with the American flag on one shoulder and a flight-squadron insignia on the other. For those who thought Antonio Banderas was hot, all Sedona could say was they hadn't seen Lieutenant Angel Torres.
She couldn't find her voice, couldn't think of a single coherent thing to say. There was only one thought that kept buzzing through her head.
He came back. "You're back," she said, her voice no more than a squeak. Then she wanted to die. Nothing like stating the obvious.
To his credit, he didn't roll his eyes or look at her as if she'd come from another planet. He stepped into her office and extended a hand across her desk. "Yes, ma'am. I wasn't sure you'd remember me. After all, it's been almost a year since I left."
Remember him? Was he kidding? A day hadn't gone by that Sedona hadn't thought of the navy fighter pilot whose job it was to test-fly the military jets as they rolled off the production line. When he'd been reassigned to an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf ten months earlier, she was certain she'd seen the last of him.
Rumor had it he'd been grounded after a combat sortie went bad, but she hoped it wasn't true. She didn't know any details about the incident except that he'd apparently disobeyed a direct order from a superior officer. Lieutenant Torres was a Top Gun graduate, and Sedona knew he possessed more than an average intelligence, so she had to assume he'd had no other choice in disobeying the order. He didn't strike her as the kind of guy who would throw his career in the toilet for pride's sake.
Now here he was, standing larger than life in her office. He looked even better than her memories-and her fantasies-gave him credit for. His Spanish heritage was evident in the blackness of his hair and eyes, the thrust of chiseled cheekbones and his proud nose. He also had a set of dimples you could drive a truck into, although they were barely evident until he smiled. His skin was darker than she remembered, burned to a coppery hue by the Arabian sun. He reminded Sedona of a Bedouin sheikh, desert-hot and just as fierce.
She'd forgotten how seductive his voice was, deep and warm, with just the barest hint of a Spanish accent. Once, during a meeting when he'd given an overview of test-flight parameters, Sedona had sat in the back of the darkened conference room with her eyes closed and let his voice flow over her like warm, dark chocolate. In more private circumstances, she'd bet he could bring her to orgasm using only his voice.
Blushing at her own wayward thoughts, she pushed herself to her feet and clasped his hand and tried to ignore how large and warm it was.
"Lieutenant Torres." Please, don't let my voice wobble. God. She was like a teenager, but there was no denying the effect he had on her. Every cell in her body responded to him on a primal level. She drew in a deep, steadying breath and released his hand. "I'm happy to see you made it back safely."
He smiled at her across the mess that was her desk and Sedona felt her pulse react. "Yes, ma'am. But it's lieutenant commander now."
"Oh. Congratulations." Sedona's eyes flew to the broad thrust of his shoulders, noting the gold oak leaves embroidered there. Whatever transgression he'd committed hadn't prevented the navy from promoting him. So why was he here, and not aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, keeping the bad guys at bay?
"Thanks." He shifted his weight. "Listen, I understand several changes have been incorporated into the Coyote engine design since I left, and I was hoping we could set up a time for you to brief me on what impact they have on flight performance."
Sedona pushed down the disappointment that surged through her. Of course he was here on business. What had she thought? That he had come all the way over to her office just to see her again? Guys like Lieutenant Commander Torres were too busy saving the world to think about plain-Jane engineers like herself.
Forget about coming back as a man in her next life. She was coming back as a gorgeous, long-legged, sultry blonde.
She forced a smile. "Of course. Just let me know what time is convenient, and we can go over the drawings."
"How about first thing in the morning?"
Forget about looking for a new job. It was suddenly the last thing she wanted to do. This time, she didn't have to force a smile. "That sounds great. I'll bring the coffee and doughnuts."
He grinned then, revealing the deep indents in either lean cheek. "Thanks, but I'm not much for pastries." He laid one hand over his flat stomach, drawing Sedona's gaze irresistibly to his midsection. "The cockpits on those jets are tight enough as it is."
"Um, okay. Just coffee, then." How was it that those two words, tight and cockpits, were enough to send her imagination nosediving into the gutter?
He smiled again and Sedona felt her own tummy turn over. God, she had missed seeing his face. The agency she worked for, the Defense Procurement Agency, maintained a government office at Aerospace International, one of the top five aircraft manufacturers in the world. Her agency oversaw the production of the military jets and provided final acceptance on behalf of the customer, in this case, the U.S. Navy. It had been her experience that when the Navy sent test pilots to their facility, they were on temporary assignments that rarely exceeded three years.
For the six months Angel had initially worked on their flight line, she had lived in hopeful anticipation of seeing him or talking to him. Their brief encounters had never been anything but professional, but Sedona had harbored an embarrassingly intense crush on Angel Torres from the moment she first saw him. His departure for the Persian Gulf had left a huge void in her otherwise unexciting, predictable world. She'd thought she'd never see him again. And now here he was.
"Great," he was saying, "it's a date. I'll see you in the morning." He turned away, and then paused in the doorway. He angled his head toward her and his dark gaze traveled slowly over her. "It's nice to see you again, Sedona. You look...good."
And then he was gone.