Read an Excerpt
Sue Ellen Carson was on a roll.
She loved her job as chief of the Department of Labor's Employment and Training Administration office in Pensacola, Florida. Her lawyer had finally convinced a judge to kill the alimony she'd had to pay the jerk she'd married on the rebound. Just last year she'd talked her very best friend into moving to the Florida Panhandle, then got to watch Andi and her former husband strike red-hot sparks off each other before tumbling back into love.
And, as frosting on the cake, Sue Ellen had a studly young Adonis in her bed on a semiregular basis.
Life was good. Very good.
Until her intercom buzzed that fateful Friday afternoon. Informed that her Atlanta-based boss was on the line, Sue Ellen punched the speaker button and kicked back in her executive desk chair.
"Hey, Evan," she said in her soft, peaches-and-cream drawl. She'd left her native Georgia decades ago, but the South never left the girl. "What's up?"
"My blood pressure, for one thing. I just got off the phone with Washington."
"Uh-oh. Congress isn't trying to cut the Job Corps budget again, are they?"
"They're always trying to cut the Job Corps budget." Evan Greenberg was a good man and a good boss, who believed passionately in the Employment and Training Administration's charter of stimulating the U.S. labor market by providing high-quality job training, employment and information to employers and potential employees alike. Since ETA accomplished its mission primarily through state and local agencies, he arm-wrestled regularly with everyone from governors to owners of mom-and-pop, street-corner shops.
He was also a man of few words. As gruff as ever, Evan cut right to the purpose ofhis call. "Pack your bug spray, Sue Ellen. You're going to camp."
"Three weeks of survival training. You start on Monday." Her first thought was that he'd taken his concern for the health and physical fitness of ETA employees to new and ridiculous lengths. Her second, that he was getting back at her for the singing undertaker and bouquet of black balloons she'd sent for his fiftieth birthday. "This is a joke, right?"
"Wrong. I told you, I just got off the phone with Washington. The order came right from the top."
"You. Camp. To evaluate Phase One of the disadvantaged-youth training program proposed by that Air Force guy in your region. What's his name?"
Understanding burst inside Sue Ellen's head like a Roman candle. Her jaws locked, then cracked just enough for her to grind out the name of the culprit.
"Chief Master Sergeant Joe Goodwin."
"Yeah, that's him. Evidently Goodwin has friends in high places. The director said she got the word directly from the White House. Since you're the one who nixed federal funding for his program, the powers-that-be think you should take another look at it, do an in-depth, hands-on review this time. That translates to three weeks at boot camp."
Digging in the spike heels she wore to add height to her petite, five-two frame, Sue Ellen pushed out of her chair. Her slim black skirt restricted her furious stride, but she couldn't take this sitting down.
Damn Goodwin! Where did he get off, going behind her back like this? Or pulling such powerful strings?
"I've got a slew of meetings scheduled over the next few weeks," she protested. "And a two-day apprenticeship conference to attend."
Not to mention the cocktail party her friend Andi was throwing for seventy-five local bigwigs. Recently elected mayor of the small town of Gulf Springs, Andi was making a splash in regional politics. Sue Ellen had already decided Andi's next stop was the Florida State House, then the governor's office.
"I can't just drop everything to roast rattlesnake over a campfire," she protested.
Even as she voiced them, she knew her objections were futile. As a career civil servant, she worked for the director of the Employment and Training Administration, who worked for the secretary of labor, who worked for the president.
She was going to camp.
Her boss understood the chain of command as well as she did. Refusing to argue or debate the matter, Evan merely instructed her to clear her schedule.
"Don't forget the bug spray," he added on a parting note. "You're going to need it."
Sue Ellen bit back the retort that sprang to her lips. She was too professional to let rip.
The professionalism hadn't come easy. She'd worked damned hard to get where she was. Joining the civil service as a lowly GS-2, she'd had to take whatever job she could get every time her first husband was transferred. After their divorce, she'd focused on her own career, landed a job with the Department of Labor and soon shot up through the ranks.
Over the years, success and increasing responsibilities had added a patina of sophistication to the down-home, country girl from Valdosta, Georgia. Moving in ever higher circles had also introduced her to the handsome, smooth-talking con artist who'd charmed her into a second marriage. Luckily, she'd dumped the bastard before his shady deals could damage her reputation or her career.
Now an executive with a multimillion-dollar operating budget and more than fifty employees under her direct supervision, Sue Ellen rarely, if ever, resorted to expletives. She had to swallow several particularly ripe ones, however, before stabbing the intercom button again and instructing her assistant to get Chief Master Sergeant Joe Goodwin on the line.
Alicia came back a few moments later with word that the chief was unavailable. "They said he's wearing a halo. I didn't quite understand the reference."
Sue Ellen's first husband had been Air Force. She interpreted for her assistant. "I suspect they meant he's doing a HALO. That's a high-altitude, low-opening parachute jump."
"Oh. Well, they also said Goodwin left a message in case you tried to reach him. He can swing by your office around five, if you'll still be here."
"Call them back." There was nothing soft or peachy in her clipped instruction. "Have them tell the chief I'll be waiting at five sharp, armed and ready."
"He'll get the drift. In the meantime, we need to cancel all my appointments and clear my calendar for the next three weeks."
Alicia let out a small screech. "Are you serious?"
"You really want to cancel the meeting with the Okaloosa and Escambia county mayors? It took me weeks to find a time when everyone could get together."
"Sorry, but you'll have to reschedule. And please bring me the application for federal funding on the program Chief Goodwin proposed."
Her shell-shocked assistant carried in the thick file a few moments later. Sue Ellen set her jaw and opened the file.
Yep, there it was. Right on top. Her letter denying federal funds to supplement state and local contributions for a four-phase summer program Goodwin had labeled STEP.
What was it with the military? Did everything have to have its own acronym? Fuming, she flipped to the next page.
From previous reading, Sue Ellen knew this particular acronym stood for Survival, Team-building, Employment and a community-based Project. The summer-long program targeted at-risk kids between the ages of sixteen and eighteen. Old enough to work, but still young enough to be classified as juveniles by the legal system most of them had tripped over.
She didn't object to the team-building phase. Game-based, it was designed to teach the kind of leader-and-follower skills required to succeed in a work environment. Nor did she have a problem with the employment phase. Goodwin had lined up a number of local employers willing to give the participants in his program a summer job, which dovetailed nicely with some of ETA's own first-step initiatives.
And his final phase had actually won her admiration. It required the participants to collaborate on a public-works type project, thus encouraging them to give back to the community and fostering a sense of belonging among kids who'd been rejected too many times.
It was Phase One that had forced Sue Ellen to disapprove federal funding for the program. She agreed learning to survive in the wilderness was probably a good thing. For some people. But rubbing two sticks together to start a campfire didn't translate into usable workplace skills for anyone except maybe forest rangers and potential arsonists.
Then there was the fact that Goodwin proposed using off-duty, volunteer instructors from nearby Hurlburt Field, home of the air force's Special Operations Command, to conduct Phase One. Sue Ellen didn't go so far as to suspect these instructors would try to recruit the teens in their charge. On the other hand, with the war in Iraq becoming increasingly unpopular, she'd heard the army was offering twenty-thousand-dollar enlistment bonuses to recruits with certain skills. What better way to home-grow those skills than at a summer "survival" camp?
Lips pursed, she flipped through her letters suggesting the chief delete Phase One, along with his replies flatly refusing to do so. The file also contained memos for record of the meeting they'd had to try and find a middle ground. That meeting had taken place more than six months ago. When Sue Ellen hadn't heard back from him, she figured he'd shelved the concept.
Obviously, she'd figured wrong. Although why he'd waited so long to execute this end run was a mysteryone she intended to solve come five o'clock.
SHE WAS GIRDED FOR BATTLE when Goodwin arrived later that afternoon.
She'd met the man on several previous occasions, once at her friend Andi's bookstore and once to try to resolve the issue of Phase One. At Andi's store he'd been in jeans and a T-shirt that stretched tight across rippling pecs and laser-incised lats. On the second occasion, he'd dressed for their meetings in the standard Florida business attire of slacks and an open-necked short-sleeved shirt.
When Goodwin strode into her office at precisely 5:01, he was still in his military uniform. His maroon beret sat low on his forehead. His sand-hued desert BDUs bristled with subdued insignias and patches that Sue Ellen guessed meant he could infiltrate any remote patch on the globe by air, sea or camel. The rack of stripes on each sleeve spoke for themselves. She knew no one achieved the rank of chief master sergeant in the elite Special Ops community unless they were tougher than kryptonite and meaner than barbed wire.
He wasn't the only one in the room with a steel backbone, however. Despite her scant inches, pansy-purple eyes and preference for ankle bracelets and strappy sandals over lace-up combat boots, Sue Ellen hadn't reached her position by rolling over and playing dead when confronted with very large, very intimidating males. Lifting her chin, she issued a cool greeting.
He dragged off his beret and stuffed it in the leg pocket of his BDUs. Removing that symbol of lethal power didn't do much to soften his image. Skin tanned to leather and salt-and-pepper hair shaved so close to the scalp as to make him appear almost bald still sent distinct, don't-mess-with-me signals.
"Have a seat."
She waved him to one of the chairs in front of her desk, in no mood to offer more casual seating at the round conference table in the corner of her office. Nor did she intend to give him the edge by admitting she'd been railroaded into attending his damned camp. Let him drag it out of her.
"I understand we need to talk about STEP," she said, still cool, still polite.
"We do. Before we get started, you might want to take a look at these."
He delved into the pocket on his other pant leg and produced a folded manila envelope. From that he extracted several documents.
"This gives the name and background information on the teen you'll be paired with during survival training. I've also brought a brochure detailing what to bring with you."
So much for digging it out of her! He must have received a call notifying him about her participation around the same time Sue Ellen's boss had contacted her.