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"I don't fly," Delaney Carter stated as she stood in her group supervisor's utilitarian office. She glanced out the windows at the cloudless blue sky. The Phoenix sun glared back, baking the room and its two occupants as if they were a couple of Poppin' Fresh rolls. Sweat broke out across her brow and the muscles in her chest tensed at the thought of being airborne.
Roger McMillan cocked his corpulent head as if he hadn't heard her correctly. "I need hardly remind you about the geographic mobility agreement you signed."
She couldn't really blame him for being astonished. This was the first time she'd ever turned down an assignment, especially one of this magnitude, but it couldn't be helped. She'd managed to avoid air travel thus far and had no wish to end her no-fly streak. Delaney pulled at her starched shirt collar in an attempt to get more air into her lungs.
His penetrating brown eyes narrowed. Delaney fought the urge to shift under his steely regard. McMillan was a bull of a manthick, balding and heavily muscled. It was difficult to tell where his neck ended and his barrel-shaped chest began. Most people simply followed the mustard stains on his tie.
"I don't have a problem with traveling, sir. I just prefer to do it on the ground."
"Are you afraid?" The last word slipped from his lips like a curse.
Delaney flushed, crossing her arms over her less-than-ample chest. She hated that she felt the need to defend her stance. She knew she was an exemplary agent without a single blemish in her file, and she intended for it to stay that way. The Bureau shouldn't hold her fear of flying against her, but Delaney knew it would, if she didn't take this mission.
"Iasked you a question, Carter. Are you afraid to fly?"
"I didn't say that," she gritted out between clenched teeth. He knew damn well she was afraid to fly. He was just baiting her with the question.
"Well, then, what's the problem?" he bellowed, slapping an open folder down onto his oak desk.
"I'm not convinced things that heavy should be in the sky."
"What? Do you hear what you're saying?You do know what year it is, right?" He clutched his head in frustration. "Explain."
"I think the wings on the damn things are going to fall off midflight, and we'll plummet to the earth, bursting into a ball of flames."
"That's ridiculous! Besides, if it happened, you wouldn't feel a thing."
Delaney remained resolutely straight-faced. "Wow, that's comforting, and makes that whole burning-up part all better."
"You can check the attitude," he said, leveling his gaze.
"Do you have any idea how many planes are in the sky at any given hour?"
Delaney took a deep breath, attempting to steady her nerves. It didn't matter if there were a million aircraft circling above their building right at this moment, as long as she didn't have to be on one of them. "The number of planes doesn't change how I feel about flying. I've read the stats. I understand the risks."
"So what's the problem with catching a flight tomorrow morning?" Roger McMillan's Roman features solidified and his lips thinned, nearly disappearing into his mouth. He picked up a pen and began tapping an angry staccato beat against his desktop. "Do you want this assignment or not? Keep in mind, I'm not really asking. I went to a lot of trouble to get you here. Your father and I go way back, you know."
"I know, sir, and I appreciate that." Her father had phoned his old marine buddy McMillan to ensure she'd be assigned to his team. It was his way of keeping tabs on her without appearing to do so. At first, Delaney had resented the move, but later she'd discovered that McMillan was a fair man and didn't kowtow to anyoneand that included her father.
"Obviously you don't appreciate the opportunity enough to buck up and act like a GS-7 special agent. I don't have to remind you that someATF agents wait their entire careers for an opportunity like this. We're talking about busting a major arms deal on U.S. soil. I would think, since you're finishing your master's and getting ready to upgrade, you'd jump at this chance."
Delaney heard McMillan's not so subtle subtext. If you don't take this assignment, you can kiss your promotion goodbye. He knew what this upgrade meant to her. She'd sacrificed everything this past year to achieve it sleep, sex, even a wee bit of her sanity. She couldn't lose the promotion now. Not when she was so close.
"Who's behind the deal?" she asked.
"We don't know. That's one of the things you have to find out. You're going in as Delaney Carson. We figured we'd keep your new name as close to your old one as possible, so that it'd be easy to remember."
"Understood. What about carrying a weapon? I'm not going anywhere without my gun," she said, grasping at straws.
"We can arrange for you to get through security without being stopped, but you'll have to carry frangible rounds."
"Frangibles? They don't have stopping power worth a damn."
"Exactly. You need something with minimum penetration inside an airplane."
He held up his hand. "Take it or leave it."
"I'll take it."
McMillan grinned. "Thought you might."
She toed the beige carpet under her sensible shoes. Sweat trickled beneath her barely there breasts. Delaney tugged at the sleeves of her navy suit jacket, wishing the air conditioner worked better. She'd give her left little piggy to be naked in a tub of ice right about now. "I appreciate the opportunity, sir. Any other time, the assignment wouldn't be a problem," she said, hoping he'd respond to reason.
"And this is no exception. We don't get to pick and choose our undercover assignments, Special Agent Carter. I need you to do this.Your ass isn't the only one on the line. I have Special-Agent-in-Charge Anderson breathing down my neck, as we speak. If the weapons are allowed to leave the West Coast, we may end up with another Waco on our handsor worse."
"Yes, sir. I understand, but what you're asking me to do is humiliating. I'm a highly trained special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, and you want me to pretend to be a stewardess."
"I believe they prefer the term flight attendant these days," he corrected.
"Stewardess, flight attendant, hostess, sky goddess, whatever. I'm not exactly known for my people skills."
"You definitely won't be voted Ms. Congeniality anytime soon." He laughed, then sobered. "Doesn't really matter, you fit the profile. Besides, the airline's willing to train you."
"Train me? How much can I learn in a week? Heck, it'll take me that long to deal with my feaflying aversion."
"The airline assures me you'll be FAA-certified by the time you leave training. As for your aversion," he said, slamming the folder shut, "deal with it."
Delaney snorted. There was no way in hell she'd be ready in a week.
"That's an order, Special Agent Carter," he barked, leaving no room for argument. "We need Jack Gordon's expertise. Only a big fish could bait another in the nasty pond where we're going."
"But how do you know we're after a big fish?"
"Because only a major player could handle a shipment this size. We're talking enough to fill a couple of tractor trailers here. That's why we need Jack Gordon. He knows who brings weapons in. He's been in the business long enough that he can give us names and locations. We have to learn who's behind this new deal and stop them before they have a chance to sell the merchandise. If we had more time, we might do things differently, but we only have two weeks total to pull this all together before the window of opportunity closes. One of those you'll spend training. I hate to say it, but Gordon's our best hope."
"I thought the file said he was retired."
"Maybe, maybe not. The man is amazing at covering his tracks. We often had our suspicions about him, but could never prove a thing. Makes me wish he were one of my agents. Although if he were, Anderson would probably have a heart attack. He seems to have taken a special interest in the possibility of nailing Jack Gordon."
"Then why don't we pick him up? Sit on him for a while. Might be easier."
"We don't know for sure what he's been up to lately. The last thing we want him to do is get spooked and leave the country. He certainly has the assets to disappear if he wanted to. That's where you come in."
"Gordon has an eye for the ladies."
McMillan stared at her, waiting for her to connect the dots.
"You're a woman."
Heat filled Delaney's face until she was convinced her ears would blow off. "No disrespect, sir, but have you taken a good look at me lately? My body doesn't exactly scream 'come and get me.'" She'd had had her fair share of dates with fellow ATF agents, before she decided a year ago to focus on her studies. Everyone knew the score going into the relationship and there were no hard feelings when it ended. The job always came first, period. Delaney brushed a wisp of mousey hair out of her makeup-free face. "Besides," she continued, "I'd rather not get close to an arms dealer. The filth might rub off."
McMillan snorted. "You sound like Anderson. Guilty until proven innocent." Her boss took a deep breath. "We don't know that Jack Gordon is dirty."
She scoffed. "It comes with the job description." Something cold and unwelcome settled in Delaney's belly.
He straightened the documents in front of him, and then placed them in his outbox, before staring at her. "That remains to be seen. If you suspect Gordon is involved, I want you to pull out of the mission and call for backup. You have a week to get close to him. Make him trust you. Get him to cooperate. Is that going to be a problem given your family history?"
She stiffened. Delaney didn't need a reminder of what had occurred. Every time her sister Elaine phoned, she pictured the motorized wheelchair that was now her permanent home, the once athletic legs, shriveled from lack of use, and her parents' saddened expressions.
Delaney would never be the golden child of the family, no matter how many lives she saved, promotions she received, or bad guys she arrested. That was Elaine's position, or had been until some two-bit bandit shot her during her stint in the Peace Corps, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.
Delaney had been trying to pick up the slack ever since. She knew all she wanted to know about gunrunners. "Is there a chance that Jack supplied guns to the rebels that shot my sister?"
McMillan looked decidedly uncomfortable. "Not that we can determine."
She felt her insides harden. "That's not a no."
He met her eyes. "I'll do some digging and see what I can find out. Until then, I expect you to do your job."
"Are you ordering me to protect him?"
McMillan shook his head. "His safety is not your concern. Your job is to collect the information. Anderson can send someone in to protect him if it comes to that. Just don't expect the cavalry to arrive quickly, since he considers Gordon expendable."
"Fat chance he's not involved." Delaney's stomach clenched. In her mind, she agreed with Special-Agent-in-Charge Anderson. Jack Gordon was expendable. Why worry about him, when he didn't concern himself over the many people his actions affected? "By nature, arms dealers are not trusting people. That's what keeps them alive. How am I supposed to get close to Gordon while I'm pretending to be a trolley-dolly?"
He arched a brow. "Use your imagination. Like I said, he fancies himself to be a ladies' man." McMillan slid a photo of her intended target across his desk. "He flies back and forth several times a week from Phoenix to Los Angeles. We've arranged for you to be on his flights."
"Great." Delaney glanced down. Her eyes locked on the picture and her breath caught in her lungs. Rich dark hair, dimples deep enough to swan-dive into and demanding blue eyes stared back at her, illuminating her current social drought as effectively as a spotlight. Why did the bad guys always have to look so damn good? She cleared her suddenly dry throat and met her group supervisor's gaze.
It took her a second to speak. "He's not what I expected. Doesn't exactly look like gun runner material, more like GQ." Why did she suddenly sound breathless?
"That's what makes him so dangerous. He's disarmingly average." McMillan placed the photo on top of the file.
Delaney studied at the picture. Average wouldn't be the word she would have chosen to describe Jack Gordon. Seductive, alluring, sex incarnate, maybe. Anything but average. Pity, seemed like such a waste of supreme male flesh to get him killed. "Explain to me again why we can't just arrest him. It would save us a lot of time and trouble." And keep her from having to get close to him.
"Because technically" McMillan paused, frustration etching his features "he hasn't done anything wrong."
Twenty-four hours later
"HEADS DOWN! Stay down! Heads down! Stay down! Heads down! Stay down!" The command slipped repeatedly from Delaney's numb lips without thought, just like the trainers said it would, the sadistic bastards. She swallowed her fear and the bile rising in her throat, and continued to shout.
The fuselage of the plane tilted and shook, attempting to catapult her and the flight attendant next to her out of their jumpseat. They hung on with the help of their four-prong seat belts and sheer determination. There was a reason why people shouldn't fly and this was it.
We're going to die. We're going to die.
We're going to die.
The mantra played in Delaney's head, all the while the evacuation commands spewed out of her mouth like a fountain.
The cabin filled with gray smoke, lowering the visibility to a few feet. Her lungs burned as she braced for impact. Metal screeched. The overhead storage bins flew open, dropping luggage and clothing into the aisle. Time seemed to still. The light flickered off, plunging the cabin into darkness a second before the emergency exits illuminated.
People's screams ripped through Delaney, then slowly faded like a nightmare facing dawn. The passengers had their heads down, yet their frantic gazes continually sought hers for reassurance.
As if she could help them now. We're all going to die. Delaney tried to smile, but it was difficult with her chin resting against her chest and her hands tucked firmly beneath her quaking thighs. She probably looked like the creature in Alien when its lips peeled back from its teeth as it prepared to strike. Goodness knows her breath made the same hissing sound with each exhalation.
"Heads down! Stay down! Heads down! Stay down! Heads down! Stay down!" Delaney choked, her throat burning from the fumes. She supposed now was not the time to remember that she hated to fly, hated most people and despised travel.
The Dallas flight attendant sitting next to her, who might as well have been named Barbie, considering the amount of silicone padding in her body, called out the exact same commands with less force and more twang. Her perfectly applied makeup and her sky-high blond hair seemed impervious to what was happening around them, unlike Delaney's limp brown hair, which had wilted an hour ago under the pressure. The disparity in hair color was only one more subtle sign that told Delaney she didn't fit in and shouldn't be here.
She stared at the attendant with a mixture of envy and horror. The woman was like a car bumper and flotation device all in one. Delaney debated for about a half second whether to use her as a buffer to break their fall.
This could not be happening.
Cold sweat broke out over Delaney's body and her stomach rolled, matching the rhythm of the plane. As if reading her earlier thoughts, the flight attendant beside her turned and smiled sweetly, almost blissful.
"We're going to be all right, sugar. Captain Martin has this big, bad tube under control."
Under control? She'd lost her friggin'mind. Delaney tried not to gape. Was it wrong of her to hate the bitch?
The plane jerked hard and bucked before skidding to a shuddering halt. Delaney pulled her hands out from under her legs and shook them to get the feeling back. A second later, Captain Martin gave the command to evacuate. Barbie was up and out of the jumpseat in seconds.
"Unfasten your seat belts! Unfasten your seat belts! Unfasten your seat belts!" Delaney shouted as she moved to the front entry door to assess the conditions outside the tiny scratched window. Heat filled the cabin. There was fire nearby, but it looked clear enough to open the door.
She slid her trembling fingers over the cool metal rotation handle. This was it. Freedom lay on the other side of the door. Delaney gave a glance over her shoulder. Barbie already had her door open and directed passengers to safety. The woman may look slow and talk slow, but she obviously moved with the speed of a cheetah.