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By Catherine Mann
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Negative G forces coming. Hold on to your lunch."
Captain Josie Lockworth, USAF, upped the throttle and pushed forward on the stick of her T-38 supersonic jet. Out of courtesy only, she offered the warning to reporter Shannon Conner strapped into the back seat.
Not that she had anything against reporters. Hell, she'd flown with top-notch embedded journalists in the Middle East. Her best friend was even a television correspondent.
This reporter, however, could only be called a hack. Her news network soaked up scandal like a thirsty rag. Josie couldn't afford bad press derailing her multimillion-dollar military test project. Forget the money, actually small change as far as the government was concerned.
Her mother's honor had been held hostage long enough.
The T-38 pierced a low-lying cloud. Blood rushed up to her head with negative G forces, the reverse of positive Gs that pushed blood down. The body tolerated fewer negative Gs before passing out. One negative G. Two. Three. Spots danced in front of her eyes on the mountainous horizon of the California desert.
Adrenaline sang through her veins. Sweat popped along her back through her T-shirt. Her flight suit clung like a second skin. But then the uniform was already as much a part of her as anyepidermal layer.
She pulled back on the stick, glancing up at the mirror to check her passenger. Shannon was awake but slumped in her seat in the tight cockpit, one strand of blond hair sneaking out of her helmet to stick to her pale face.
No hurling yet. A twinge of respect trickled through Josie's steady focus, even a bit of sympathy.
But she did need to keep the reporter busy and disoriented. How better than nonstop acrobatics in a supersonic and nimble airplane? Shannon had insisted on the full-out flying experience. And Josie always delivered one hundred percent.
Tucking sideways, she slipped through a mountain pass. Through her clear top canopy, she watched the sandy landscape scroll past.
Josie forced oxygen in and out. Her huffed exhales echoed through the headset Darth Vader style. Near silence swallowed the cockpit, the only sound the rasp and drag of breathing through the oxygen mask since they'd left noise behind with speed.
As always, she flattened her frustration with the familiar routine of flying. The trainer jet zipped along over a range near Edwards Air Force Base, approximately one hundred miles northeast of Los Angeles. Not much time left in this flight until she landed where she worked in a military detachment at the nearby Palmdale testing facility, also known as Air Force Plant 42. For a test pilot, steely nerves were mandatory, leaving no room for cranky emotions jangling her at a critical second. And during test missions, any second could be critical.
Okay, so this wasn't a test and she was pissed.
That someone like Shannon had been allowed access to Josie's current test project just proved higher-ups were only paying lip service to endorsing her work. Someone wanted this resurrected project that had once been her mother's to fail. Damaging press could facilitate their cause.
And yeah, yeah, she mentally rolled her eyes at her annoying voice of reason. Part of her still resented Shannon from their prep-school days at the Athena Academy for the Advancement of Women.
Advancement? Shannon had tried to advance Josie right out the front gates on a trumped-up charge of stealing.
Good God, as if.
Her stomach, which held strong against negative Gs, grew downright queasy over the notion of taking so much as a post office pen. But back then, Shannon had convinced everyone Josie was off her rocker, like her washed-up military mama. Who could expect reasonable behavior from a Lockworth lady?
Anger fired hotter than an afterburner, jangling the singing adrenaline off-key. Her combat boots braced on the rudders. She kept her right hand loose on the stick, her left on the two throttles, flicking up to adjust dials then landing back on the stick. Not a HOTAS - hands on throttle and stick, with all the buttons attached. In the T-38 she had to take her hands off the stick and throttle to work the controls. But for Shannon, she'd give a new spin to the HOTAS - Hands On Tummy and Sickbag.
She ran the stick fore and aft, gliding the T-38 through the sky in a porpoise-style swim along the rolling mountain range. Push for a hint of a negative G at the top of the sine wave. Pull for the kiss of a positive G at the bottom of sine wave. Push, pull. Push, pull.
"Uh, Josie?" Shannon's thready voice echoed over the headset. "Where's the eject button again?"
Crap. She'd gone too far, something she never did anymore. She steadied the stick. "Just a little PIO - pilot induced oscillation. My fault, and nothing to worry about. I've got it back under control."
Time to get herself under control, as well. She needed to tamp down the old impulsive Josie in favor of her more structured self she'd cultivated after her mother's breakdown. "We're on the straight and narrow now. As long as you keep your eyes forward, all will be normal."
Unlike looking to the side, where everything blurred with speed.
She hugged the terrain with skill and calm. No one would ever have reason to accuse her of weakness or emotional instability. She knew how hard she would have to fight even a whisper of that label, since her mother had been locked away after "the incident." But with this test project, Josie hoped to clear her mother's name and shake free of that dark legacy.
"Doing okay back there?" Josie's gaze flicked up to the mirror again.
"Just fine," the ever-prideful Shannon replied, brown eyes wide, makeup still impeccable.
Pride, Josie could understand. She had her fair share of that. Sad thing was, Shannon really packed a genius brain under all that uptight pettiness. Given the right direction, she could have been an incredible asset to the Athena Academy alumni list - if she'd made it to the twelfth grade instead of being punted out on an honor violation.
Excerpted from Pursued by Catherine Mann Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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