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Kate Hargrave was a good five miles into her morning jog when she spotted a plume of dust rising from the desert floor. Swiping at the sweat she'd worked up despite the nip September had brought to the high desert, she squinted through the shimmering New Mexico dawn at the vehicle churning up that long brown rooster tail.
A senior weather researcher with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency, Kate had logged hundreds of hours of flight time as one of NOAA's famed Hurricane Hunters. The pilots she flew with all possessed a steady hand on the controls, nerves of steel and an unshakable belief in their ability to look death in the eye and stare it down. So when she gauged the speed of the pickup hurtling straight toward her, she had no doubt who was at its wheel.
USAF Captain Dave Scott—a seasoned test pilot with hundreds of hours in both rotary and fixed-wing aircraft. Scott had been yanked off an assignment with Special Operations to become the newest addition to the supersecret test cadre tucked away in this remote corner of southeastern New Mexico.
He was supposed to have arrived last night but had phoned Captain Westfall from somewhere along the road and indicated he'd check in first thing this morning. No explanations for the delay, or none the navy captain in charge of the supersecret Pegasus project had relayed to his crew, anyway.
That alone was enough to put a dent in Kate's characteristically sunny good nature. She and the rest of the small, handpicked cadre had been here for weeks now. They'd been working almost around the clock to conduct final operational testing on the new all-weather, all-terrain attack-assault vehicle code-named Pegasus. The urgency of their mission had been burned into their brains from day one. That Captain Scott would delay his arrival—even by as little as eight hours of admittedly dead time—didn't particularly sit well with Kate.
Then there was the fact that the air force had pegged Scott to replace Lieutenant Colonel Bill Thompson, the original air force representative to the project. Everyone on the team had liked and respected the easygoing and highly experienced test pilot. Unfortunately, Bill had suffered a heart attack after being infected by the vicious virus that attacked him and a number of other members of the test cadre some days ago.
Now Bill was off the Pegasus project and probably off flying status for the rest of his life. His abrupt departure had ripped a gaping hole in the tight, close team of officers and civilians plucked from all branches of the military to work on the project. Dave Scott would have to scramble to catch up with the rest of the test cadre and prove himself worthy to fill Bill Thompson's boots.
"Sure hope you're up to it, fella."
With that fervent wish, Kate lengthened her stride. She'd just as soon not come face-to-face with her new associate out here in the desert. Her hair was a tangled mess and her turquoise spandex running suit sported damp patches of sweat. With luck and a little more oomph to her pace, she could veer off onto the dirt track that ringed the perimeter of the site before Scott hit the first checkpoint.
She should have known she couldn't outrun a sky jock. The speeding pickup skidded to a stop at the checkpoint while Kate was still some distance from the perimeter trail.
The dazzling light shooting through the peaks of the Guadalupe Mountains off to the east illuminated the vehicle. The truck was battered. Dust streaked. An indeterminate color between blue and gray. She couldn't see the driver, though. He was still too far away and the bright rays glinting off the windshield formed an impenetrable shield.
She'd get a glimpse of him soon enough, Kate guessed wryly. From the bits and pieces of background information she'd gathered about Captain Dave Scott, she knew he wasn't the type to cruise by a female in a tight jogging suit. Or one in support hose and black oxfords, for that matter. Rumor had it Scott was the love-'em-and-leave-'em type, with a string of satisfied lovers stretching from coast to coast.
Kate knew the breed.
All too well.
So she wasn't surprised when the pickup cleared the checkpoint, roared into gear and kicked up dust for another quarter mile or so. Scant yards from Kate, it fishtailed to a halt once more.