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By Catherine Mann
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLieutenant Colonel Zach Dawson liked to think he'd learned a few lessons after sixteen years in the Air Force, ninety-seven combat missions, two weeks as an Iraqi POW and one very speedy divorce. More important, he'd learned that being him was a hell of a lot easier than being married to him.
And today, being Zach Dawson was tougher than snow removal in Thule, Greenland.
Zach scooped his LMR - land mobile radio - from the front seat of his truck and loped across the steamy South Carolina hospital parking lot at a slow jog. Nineteen minutes left until visiting hours ended.
Nineteen more minutes, then his longest Friday on record would be over.
Duty dictated he pay a courtesy call to new mother Julia Sinclair, the widow of one of his pilots. Conscience insisted her loss couldn't be repaid with any simple hospital visit. But for today, that's all he could do, give her nineteen inadequate minutes of his time as if it might somehow erase her past eight months alone.
If only the radio gripped in his hand would stay silent. Zach clutched the LMR tighter, sprinting past a decorative pond toward the glass doors.
As commander of a Charleston Air Force Base C-17 squadron, he kept that radio plastered to his side - his walkie-talkie"pipeline to the flight line." Since the radio was tailor-made, with frequencies acceptable even in a hospital, Zach never slipped out of range. He even slept with the thing. Not much of a life to offer someone else.
Nope, he didn't blame his ex in the least for walking. He did, however, resent like hell that she'd abandoned their children when she'd strolled off with her cooking instructor boyfriend.
Ruined Zach's lifelong penchant for brownies - and robbed his two daughters of their mother.
He swallowed a curse as the hospital doors swooshed open to release a blast of cool, antiseptic air. Normally, he didn't let Pam's leaving get to him. His father had shown him well how anger had a way of leveling everything it touched faster than a SCUD missile. Zach had too many people counting on him to indulge in a momentary vent that wouldn't accomplish anything constructive.
But as he entered the hospital to visit Julia Sinclair and her fatherless son, thoughts of children missing a parent just hit Zach damned wrong.
He flipped his wrist to check his watch. Seventeen minutes left and -
The radio crackled. "Wolf One, this is Command Post. Over."
Wolf One, radio code for the Squadron Commander, which meant trouble. He'd checked in with the control tower before leaving. While he couldn't be off-line, he'd requested non-emergency questions be directed to Wolf Two, his second in command.
Zach shifted his focus to work-mode and answered without breaking stride. No need to change course until he assessed the situation. "Wolf One here, go ahead, Command Post."
"Sir, this is Lieutenant Walker. I have a phone patch from Moose two-zero. Please initiate."
"Roger, Command Post. Break, break," he answered, chanting the lingo to change who he was speaking to as he rounded the reception desk. He mentally scanned the day's flight schedule. The mission flying under the call sign Moose two-zero would be - Captain Tanner "Bronco" Bennett's crew. A crew not scheduled to land until 0100 hours. The early call could only mean an in-flight problem.
"Moose two-zero, this is Wolf One. Go ahead."
"Roger, Wolf One." The connection buzzed with interference from the plane's roaring engines. "This is Bronco. Moose two-zero is aborting the mission due to equipment malfunction. Nose gear's stuck in the Up position. We've tried everything, sir. We're currently holding ten miles east of the field while waiting for word on what to do next."
Damn. The day from hell had just plunged to a level lower than even old Dante could have penned. Zach twined around a couple carrying flowers, past the gift shop, toward the elevators. "Roger, Bronco. Put a call through to the aircraft's manufacturer for further input on options."
"Yes, sir. I'd like to do just that, but Command Post refused our request to speak with the technicians on-call at the manufacturer."
Disbelief slowed Zach's steps. "Say again."
"Command Post refuses to place the call."
Disbelief gave way to a slow burn. Zach stopped in front of the elevator, stabbing the Up button. "Break, break," he called to switch speakers. "Command Post, I assume you have a good reason for denying my man's perfectly reasonable request."
Bronco might be a new aircraft commander, but he had solid air sense, a gifted set of flying hands and top-notch knowledge of the aircraft. And all that could only haul him through so far if he didn't have the proper ground support, support Zach would make sure became available.
No way in hell was he losing another crew on his watch. Never again would he tell a woman her husband wasn't coming home. Julia Sinclair's eyes full of restrained tears still haunted his waking as well as sleeping hours. "Well, Lieutenant?"
"Sir, Training Flight is already reading through the tech manuals to find a solution."
That burn simmered hotter, firing Zach's determination. Not that he would let it overheat. Once the shouting started, the battle was lost. "Let me get this straight. While my flyers are up there tooling around the skies with busted nose gear, you're telling them not to worry because you've got folks holding a study session with the instruction manual? Lieutenant, if my man Bronco says he's tried everything, then that's exactly what he's done. Time to look for answers outside our base."
"The Wing Commander says we're over budget. No unnecessary consultation calls. We can handle this one in-house."
Zach stepped into the elevator, ignoring the curious stares from an elderly couple wearing Proud Grandparent pins. "Now maybe I'm just slow on the uptake today, Lieutenant, but I have a question," he drawled, taking his sweet Texas time to let the quiet heat of his words steam through the radio waves. "Do you really think the Wing Commander meant that to save five thousand dollars on a consultation call we're gonna land a plane nose gear up and do half a million dollars worth of damage? Do you think that's what the Wing Commander meant about saving money?"
Silence crackled for three elevator dings. "Sir, I'm just repeating what Wolf Two said. He gave the order."
Frustration bubbled closer to the surface. He should have known his second in command was behind this, a narrow-minded, micro-managing ass who couldn't see the big picture if it swallowed him whole. All the more reason Zach couldn't relinquish control of his squadron for even a second.
"And this is Wolf One overriding that command," Zach enunciated softly, slowly. He would take the hit from the Wing Commander later without hesitation. "I assume full responsibility, Lieutenant. Place the call."
"Dialing now, sir."
Zach exhaled with the swoosh of the opening elevator doors. "Roger, Lieutenant. Expect me on the runway in -" He glanced at his watch as he plowed into the hall. "Forty minutes."
That would give him ten minutes with Julia Sinclair and still have him back at base well before they put that plane down. No need to leave now. There was nothing he could do on the runway until Bronco landed. Time management was everything in his job. He couldn't fritter away valuable minutes waiting around, because he would undoubtedly need them for some other emergency in the morning.
Seeing Julia wouldn't be any easier tomorrow anyway.
He checked the arrows directing him toward her room number and turned left. So much for finishing up early enough to enjoy a video and popcorn with his kids.
The crisis made for a fitting end to a hell of a day. A day that had started with a memorandum stating the Inspector General's intent to reopen the investigation into the fatal crash of one of Zach's crews eight months ago.
And now it was time to face Lance Sinclair's widow, a woman as much Zach's responsibility as any of his aviators. A woman who needed the one thing he could never give her back.
A father for her child.
Excerpted from Under Siege by Catherine Mann Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.