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Emma was in deep trouble. She'd just signed up for a second tour at Camp Bravo on the front lines of the Afghanistan war. And now this. Her commanding officer, Major Dallas Klein, had just requested her presence. Right now. That couldn't be good. She swallowed hard, and her heart began a slow pound of dread.
"Go on in, Captain Cantrell," the assistant said, gesturing to the C.O.'s office.
Emma nodded, took a deep breath and opened the door. She stepped inside and quietly closed it behind her. "Reporting as ordered, ma'am," Emma said, coming to attention.
Dallas Klein looked up from behind her desk. "At ease. Have a seat, Captain," Dallas said, pointing to the chair near her desk.
"Yes, ma'am," Emma murmured. Sitting at attention, she clasped her hands and waited. Her boss frowned as she lifted about ten files and put them into her lap. The woman sifted through them, and Emma instinctively knew they had something to do with her. She almost blurted out, What kind of trouble am I in now? but didn't. Compressing her lips, Emma held on to her last shred of patience.
"Here it is," Dallas said, opening one file and pushing the others aside. "Captain, you're the only woman in our squadron that speaks Pashto. You took a one-year saturation course before you came over here. Correct?"
"Yes, ma'am." Emma nodded.
"Good. And you continue to use the language?"
"Of course. I get a lot of practice with the Afghans who are allowed to work here on our base."
Dipping her head, Dallas looked down at the thick sheaves of paper in the file. "Very well, Captain. I've just had a highly unusual request dropped on me. And ordinarily, I would tell high command to go stuff it, but this time, I couldn't." Dallas scowled over at Emma. "You really gave your career a black eye last August by rescuing that Special Forces sergeant off a hill under attack. I know Nike Alexander had the idea, but you were the XO at the time, and you implemented her request."
Emma wanted to roll her eyes. God, didn't Klein forget anything? She remained silent; the major wanted her to respond, but what could she say? Yes, she'd screwed up, but she'd also saved a life. Emma knew when to keep her mouth shut, and she held the major's flat stare. Emma had never confessed to what the major just said. If she had, she would probably have been court-martialed. The better choice was to remain alert but mute.
"Well," Dallas growled, jerking open another paper from the file, "I have a way for you to save your career, Captain Cantrell."
Brows raised, Emma was interested. "Oh?"
"Actually," Dallas said, "the Pentagon chose you because you speak Pashto, the common language here in Afghanistan. And frankly, I'd like to see you distinguish yourself in some way so you can eventually go up for major and make the promotion." Dallas thumped the file with her index fingers. "I believe this is a very good way for you to salvage your army career, Captain Cantrell. I hope you think so, too."
Perking up, Emma leaned forward. "I'm interested."
"I thought you might be." Dallas opened up the file to another section. "This is a very special mission. What I don't like is that you'll be out of my squadron for six months. You'll be part of a team working on a unique Afghan project known as Operation Book Worm."
Emma almost laughed and struggled to keep a straight face. "Operation Book Worm? Ma'am?" Dallas appeared completely serious, not a hint of a smile or joking demeanor. And God knew, members of the Black Jaguar Squadron played tricks on each other all the time. Black humor was alive and well in this combat squadron. It kept them all sane. Laughter instead of tears.
"This is not a joke, Captain Cantrell, so wipe that smirk off your face."
"Yes, ma'am." What the hell was Operation Book Worm?
"Okay, here's the guts of the mission. You're being assigned to Captain Khalid Shaheen. He's the only Afghan currently allowed to fly the Apache combat helicopter. He's been flying with another Apache squadron in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan until this operation went active."
Emma's brow bunched. "An Afghan flying one of our Apaches?" She'd never heard of such a thing. And she was being assigned to this dude?
Dallas held up her hand. "Just sit and listen. I don't want you interrupting me, Captain."
"Captain Shaheen is a thirty-year-old Afghan. He's responsible for creating Operation Book Worm."
Emma nodded and said nothing. How was this mission going to help her career?
"Captain Shaheen comes from one of the richest families in Afghanistan. He is a Princeton graduate and has a master's degree in electrical engineering. He graduated with honors. The army persuaded him to spend six years with them and he proved ideal flying Apache helicopters. The Pentagon is relying on Captain Shaheen to persuade other Afghan military men to come to the United States to be trained at Fort Rucker, Alabama. Once they've earned their wings in Apaches, they will come back to Afghanistan to start fighting and defending their own country."
"Afghanistan does not have an air force."
"No, but Shaheen is the bedrock for starting one."
Emma considered the pilot with new respect. "That's a tall order."
"New ideas start with one person," Dallas said.
"And what is my activity with him?"
"There's more. His sister, Kinah Shaheen, was also educated at Princeton. She's twenty-eight years old and holds a Ph.D. in education. She has made it her mission in this country to provide education to young girls. As you know, under Taliban rule, girls weren't allowed any type of education. Kinah is armed not only with a hell of an education, but her family's money and a fierce determination to get girls back into school."
"Wow," Emma said, "that's an even taller order. I've been here long enough to see how women are suppressed when it comes to education. In the past, the Taliban killed teachers and tribal elders or chieftains of villages who allowed girls to be schooled."
"I know," Dallas said, grimness in her tone. "Kinah and her brother, Khalid, came up with the idea for Operation Book Worm. Khalid is considered a used-car salesman of sorts." She grinned a little.
"You've met him?" Emma was now completely taken by the Afghan brother and sister and their plans.
"Once," Dallas said dryly. "And I can see why Khalid has been able to talk corporations in the United States into donating millions of dollars for this idea. Kinah is no small-time operator, either. Their father is a Persian rug salesman, so talking people out of money is in their DNA."
"But their idea sounds more than saleable," Emma said, excited.
"It has been." Dallas leaned back in her chair. "Between them, they've got ten million dollars to throw at this operation."
"Yeah, double wow," Dallas agreed. "You'll come into this by virtue of the fact that Khalid is going to use, with the U.S. Army's permission, a CH-47 transport from Camp Bravo. He's qualified in four types of helicopters, by the way. And that's no small feat, either."
Eyes widening, Emma considered that skill. "He must be."
"He's a genius," Dallas said. "Brilliant, mad and passionate, not to mention a damned fine combat helicopter pilot."
Emma took a deep breath. "He sounds like a Renaissance man. Many skills and talents."
"Oh, Khalid is all of that," Dallas said.
"Why does he need me?"
"He wants to land in each targeted village not only to deliver books, supplies and food, but to show you as an example of what a woman can do. Khalid wants the girls of the village to see a woman who flies that helicopter. He feels that show-and-tell is a quick way to get the girls to dream big and often."
"That's a great strategy," Emma said, understanding the Afghan's brilliant concept. "So, I'm his copilot?"
"You're both aircraft commandersACs. You're the same rank. You have three years less time in the Apache than he does, but he wants you in the driver's seat off and on."
"In other words, he has a live-and-let-live policy about swapping out AC status?"
"Yep. You'll find Khalid one of the most fascinating men you've ever met. He'll keep you on your toes. He wanted a woman Apache pilot who spoke Pashto because he wants that woman to be able to speak to the little girls. He wants you to become a saleswoman to encourage their education. And don't be surprised if he has you do impromptu speeches on why little girls should want an education. Khalid wants to fire their imaginations. He wants to shock them from the realm of dreams to that of possibilities."
"I'll be happy to take on this mission, ma'am," Emma said.
"For the next six months, from spring through fall, you'll work with him. He plans on having fifty schools set up along the border villages by the time snow flies."
"But," Emma said, holding up her hand, "haven't you left out one thing? You know all the border villages are wide open to attack from the Taliban? Those villagers live in fear of them. And how does Khalid protect all these villages? Once the Taliban hears of schools for girls, you know they'll attack and kill the teachers."
Dallas nodded grimly. "He's very well aware of the situation, and the U.S. Army is coordinating with him to protect these villages. They'll be moving more Special Forces A-teams into the villages. And air force drones will be utilized as flyovers on a nightly basis by our CIA guys stationed here when the Taliban is active. This could be a queen-maker for you, Captain Cantrell."
Emma considered the assignment carefully. If she could successfully work with Captain Shaheen and his sister, her personnel jacket would contain glowing commendations from them. Enough to bury the censure over her decision last year. And then her family, who had a nearly unbroken ribbon of service to America, would no longer have this blight on its reputation. As she sat there contemplating all of this, Emma then wondered: could she get along with this Afghan? He was filthy rich. Princeton-educated. Would he look down on her? Not appreciate what she brought to the table with her own intelligence and creativity? Suddenly, Emma felt unsure.
Dallas signed the orders and handed them across the desk to her. "Here you go, Captain Cantrell. Do us proud." She hesitated for a moment and added, "Be warned: He's a marked man. The Taliban has a huge reward out for his death. This is going to be no picnic for you. Captain Shaheen is landing in" and she looked at her watch "fifteen minutes. Be on the tarmac to meet him. Dismissed."
The sun was bright and Emma put on her dark aviator glasses. The breeze was inconstant across the concrete revetment area. The odor of flight fuel was strong. She watched as several ordinance teams drove out in specialized trucks, pulling their loads of weaponry on trailers. An excitement hummed through the area. Emma inhaled it and absorbed the vibrating tension. She loved that feeling, which was probably why she was an Apache combat helicopter pilot.
Some anxiety lingered about the new assignment. If Shaheen was a marked man, on the enemy's top-ten-wanted list, it was more than likely the Taliban would make good on their threat to murder him.
Then there was her own distrust of rich men who thought they could act reprehensibly without recourse. Like Brody Parker. Brody had been a rich American in Lima, Peru, and she'd met him when flying in for the original Black Jaguar Squadron. A year after falling helplessly in love with him, Emma found out he was married, with children. Stung to her soul by the lies that men could tell, she'd made a point of avoiding the opposite sex since coming to Camp Bravo. It was a clean start. She didn't need another rich, lying bastard to deal with.
Shaheen landed the Apache on a three-point landing about a hundred feet away from where Emma stood. It was a perfect landinggentle and not bouncy. Her eyes narrowed as she saw the ground crewman place the ladder against the bird and climb up after the rotors stopped turning. He hefted the canopy upward on the front cockpit after it was unlocked by the pilot. Emma was confused; she saw no pilot in the back seat. No one flew the Apache with just one pilot unless it was an emergency.
When Khalid Shaheen climbed out of the cockpit, he handed the crewman his helmet, and Emma smiled to herself. As the Afghan emerged, she was taken by his lean, taut form. He had to be six feet tall, which was about the top height for an Apache pilot. Most were between five foot seven inches and five foot ten inches tall. The cockpit was cramped, and anyone over six feet couldn't comfortably get into it. She tried to ignore his animallike grace as he climbed out of the cockpit and stood on the dark green and tan metal skirt. The crewman stepped off the ladder and waited nearby.
Emma took in Shaheen's olive skin, military-short black hair and straight, dark brows above narrowed blue eyes. When he smiled and joked with the crewman on the tarmac, her heart suddenly thumped hard in her chest. Shaheen was eye candy, no doubt. And dangerous. His face was narrow, his nose aquiline, cheekbones high and he had a strong chin. When he smiled at a crewman's joke, his teeth were white and even. Emma felt herself melting inwardly. Of all the reactions to have! Shaheen was like a fierce lion moving with a feral grace that took her breath away. There were no lions in Afghanistan, Emma reminded herself.
And yet, she couldn't take her gaze off the charismatic officer. He removed his Kevlar vest and placed it on the skirt of the Apache. There was a .45 pistol strapped to his waist. Emma decided that if she didn't know he was Afghan, she would never have guessed it. From this distance, he looked like a typical U.S. Army combat pilot.
The crewmen and Khalid joked back and forth, and the three of them stood laughing. Warmth pooled in her chest and Emma unconsciously touched her jacket where her heart lay. There was such gracefulness to this tall, lanky warrior. Emma suddenly felt as if she were standing on quicksand. Her reaction wasn't logical. The pilot walking languidly, like a lordly lion toward her, was married. He had to be. He had to have a wife and children. Afghans married very early. So why was she feeling shaky and unsure of herself? Emma had never had such a powerful emotional reaction to a man. Not ever, and it scared her.