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A Gentleman And A Soldier
By Cindy Dees
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSonofa -
Mac Conlon slammed the wedding invitation down on his kitchen table in disgust. Another one of his bachelor buddies biting the dust. What in the hell had happened to Charlie Squad's long-standing death-before-marriage pact?
First Colonel Folly, and now Tex. What were they thinking? It wasn't like there was anything only a diamond ring could get from a woman. The proper amount of charm, properly applied, always yielded the same results. And without the life sentence to follow.
The invitation's fancy engraving leered up at him. "Captain Tex Monroe and Congresswoman Kimberly Stanton request the honor of your presence when they join in wedded matrimony ..."
He swore under his breath. And caught sight of the liquor cabinet in the corner. Aww, what the hell. It wasn't every day a guy had to miss his best friend's wedding on account of a woman. He fished out a dusty bottle of whiskey and flopped in his leather recliner in front of the TV. The hell of it was that he actually wanted to go to the damn wedding.
But Susan would be there. Memories of her auburn hair, porcelain skin and laughing hazel eyes swirled around him. He could see them as if it was only yesterday that she'd gazed up at him while he'd lainwith her in a room filled with candles. Her eyes were dark with passion that night. But after he'd dropped his bomb on her, he'd seen those eyes snap in outrage. Then fill with tears. Always those damned tears. His gut twisted.
No way would Tex's only sister miss her baby brother's wedding. And no way could he face the only woman he'd ever loved. Not after ...
Damn. He chugged a fiery slug of forgetfulness straight from the whiskey bottle. He aimed the remote at the TV and flipped through the channels until he found a John Wayne flick. The Duke and Jack Daniel's would have to do for companionship tonight, since he made it a policy never to get stinking drunk alone. And he was about to tie on a big one.
Susan Monroe looked through the bulletproof window in front of her at the brightly lit concrete bunker on the other side. Empty. She announced crisply into her headset. "Test range is clear."
The firing range supervisor droned through several more checklist items.
Her turn again. She glanced down the list of testing parameters on her computer screen. An unbroken column of green. "Monitoring systems nominal," she announced.
A few more items and the checklist was complete. Her team was ready for the first live fire test of the RITA rifle. She exhaled a long, slow breath, but it didn't relieve her jitters. Her job, and a lot of other people's jobs, rode on the next hour's worth of work.
Building the highly classified sniper rifle was Fasco Inc.'s first government contract, and there'd been problems from day one. The company had to learn how to wade through stacks of government reports and forms. Their bid had been tightly budgeted, and they'd had trouble sticking to it. Fasco's promised production schedule had been a killer, too, and everyone in the company had worked long, hard hours to bring the weapon on line in time.
And today the rifle known as RITA, after its Roving Instant Target Acquisition system, was going to face its most critical test. In a few minutes a professional sniper would step onto the firing range and put Fasco's prototype production model through its paces.
If the sniper gave the go-ahead, her company would spend the next couple of years turning out dozens of the sophisticated rifles at a tidy profit. But if the sniper decided the weapon didn't perform up to Uncle Sam's specifications, Fasco risked losing the contract. There'd be massive red ink and layoffs at best, and at worst Fasco would go out of business altogether. No pressure there.
The range supervisor's voice sounded in her ear. "Send them in, Dr. Monroe."
She picked up the telephone on her desk and pushed the button that connected her to the armory vestibule just outside the firing range. Fasco's CEO picked up on the other end.
"We're ready to begin," she told her boss much more calmly than she felt.
A red light went on above the door in the firing range's far wall. The thick steel portal swung open. Several men stepped into the room. She recognized them as senior Fasco executives. All sucking up hard to the sniper, no doubt. Not that she blamed them.
And then she caught sight of the shooter. He was tall. A bit heavy. Light-brown hair. Prominent cheekbones in an otherwise smooth, round face. Kinda creepy looking. So bland her gaze just seemed to slide off him. He looked too soft to be holding the sixty-pound RITA rifle and, in fact, he rested it on its butt quickly after he stepped into the room.
She announced over the loudspeaker into the bunker, "We're ready whenever you are, Mr. Ford."
The shooter glanced up at her window and nodded.
And the world stood still.
Ohmigod. Those eyes!
She would never forget them as long as she lived. Glittering gold on blue over the barrel of his rifle. Just before he shot her in the knee and blew it to smithereens. She'd fallen out of her seat from the tearing force of the impact, which was the only reason his second shot only grazed her neck and didn't kill her.
Except this face wasn't right. Not angular or narrow enough for the man who'd shot her. And the hair wasn't black. This man's skin was too pale, not the nut brown of Ramon Ruala, the assassin who'd nearly killed her.
But those eyes ...
How many men in the world could possibly have the same strange eye coloring, a ring of gold overlaid on icy, sky blue. The color was striking, fire and ice clashing in discord. And no two men could have exactly that same flat, deadly expression of penetrating malevolence that chilled her blood. It had to be the same guy.
But there was no way it was the same guy.
She watched in frozen horror as the man donned a clam-shell headset and plastic shooting goggles someone handed him. He waved the Fasco executives out of the bunker. And hefted the rifle. Another glance up at her. She pushed her safety glasses higher on her nose as if they'd protect her identity from the killer in the room below. Dear God, let him not yank that rifle around and point it at her. The bulletproof glass before her was no match for the lethal power of the sniper rifle in his hands. Her knees shook and her gut turned to water. The same visceral terror of that night ten years ago roared through her. Every nerve in her body screamed for her to get up and run out of there right this second.
But somehow she managed to stay planted in her chair. She'd lost her mind. This was insane. Anybody could look at this poor man and see he wasn't the one who shot her a decade ago. This was some post-traumatic stress reaction that the guy's weird eye color had triggered. A flashback. Get a grip, for goodness' sake.
She stared at her computer monitor until it came back into focus and then broadcast into the bunker, "Let's start out with a few simple prone shots at a still target so you can sight in the rifle and get a feel for it."
The shooter nodded and lay down on a padded rubber mat to her left. Methodically, he set up a tripod stand, attached the barrel to the stand and lay down at a slight angle away from the weapon. He shifted to align himself with the weapon at exactly the right angle for every muscle in his body to relax when he fired.
Excerpted from A Gentleman And A Soldier by Cindy Dees Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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