Prince Jefri of Bahania has just been bested...by a woman! And not just any woman, but Billie Van Horn, his gorgeous, take-no-prisoners flight instructor who is more than a match for him in every way.
But when it comes to romance, Billie is determined to keep both feet on the ground. So why does the sexy prince make her feel as if she were soaring high above the clouds? She knows that when royal honor calls, her high-born lover will fly from her side forever...unless Jefri defies his destiny and chooses love...
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Prince Jefri of Bahania refused to believe he could be beaten by a woman. It was simply not possible. Yet here he sat in the cockpit of his F15, going over five hundred miles an hour and staring into the sun where he'd last seen the other plane soar out of sight.
"You'd better get moving, big guy."
The amused female voice came through his headset and caused him to grind his teeth.
Where was she? He turned his head, searching for a glimmer of sunlight on metal. Something. Anything that would give him a clue as to her whereabouts. He saw nothing.
Jefri had been flying since he was a teenager and in all that time, he'd never once been anything but confident. For the first time in his life, he felt a cold sweat trickle down his back. Seconds later a high- pitched warning tone sounded in the cockpit. She'd locked on to him. Had this been a real combat situa- tion, he would be dead.
"Bang, bang," the woman said and then chuckled.
"You lasted all of two minutes. Not bad for a rookie. Okay. Follow me down."
Suddenly her jet swooped in from his left. The ma- chine turned gracefully, then moved in front of his. Even at this speed, she was close enough for him to read the call sign painted on the fuselage.
Jefri groaned. This could not be happening. He was a prince, a sheik, heir to untold wealth and land. He was the youngest son of the king of Bahania. He did not get shot out of the sky by a woman!
"I know what you're thinking," she said. "You're upset and humiliated. You men always are. Console yourself with the fact that no one's beaten me in a dogfight for six or seven years. This is war, not per- sonal. My job is to make you better. Your job is to learn. Nothing more."
"I am aware of my responsibilities," he said curtly.
"You're going to hold a grudge, aren't you? I can already tell." She sighed. "Some guys are like that. Oh, well. It's your ulcer."
With that, her jet rotated as gracefully as a balle- rina, then streaked across the sky. Jefri stared at the space where it had been just a heartbeat ago. How the hell had she done that?
He shook his head and keyed in the code for the recently installed military air traffic control tower. Af- ter giving his number and approximate position in the desert, he requested permission to return to the base. When it was granted, he turned his plane to the correct coordinates and headed south.
Twenty minutes later, he landed and taxied his jet toward the large, newly constructed hangars. When he'd stopped the plane and opened the hatch, he heard someone call his name.
"Two minutes," Doyle Van Horn yelled from the tarmac. "That's the record so far. Good for you."
Good? Jefri gritted his teeth and climbed down the ladder. "It was a disaster."
When he reached the ground, Doyle slapped him on the shoulder. "You can't take it personally. No- body beats Billie."
"That's what she said." Jefri stared at the blond man. "How long has she been with your firm?"
Doyle grinned. "Technically, all her life. She's my sister. Dad had her driving tanks by the time she was twelve. She soloed in a jet on her sixteenth birthday. You said you wanted to be trained by the best, and that's what we provided, Your Highness."
"Call me Jefri. I've told you, no formalities. It will be easier that way."
Doyle nodded. "Just checking. I thought you might be touchy after being shot down and all. Some guys are."
Jefri didn't doubt it. He watched as a second aircraft came in for landing. The jet moved light- ly, barely raising any dust when the wheels touched down.
"I wish to meet her," he said firmly.
"I figured you would. They always do." Jefri raised his eyebrows. "Do they?"
"Yup. No one can believe it. Things only get worse when they get a look at her."
"In what way?"
Doyle laughed and held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. "You go find out for yourself. Just one warning. You might be a prince and the guy who hired us, but Billie is off-limits. To everyone. Even you."
Jefri was not used to being given orders, but he didn't argue with Doyle. He wasn't interested in Billie Van Horn as anything but a resource. If she was the best, he wanted to learn from her. Then he would take her on again, and this time he would win.
Billie climbed out of the cockpit and tugged on the zipper of her flight suit. No matter how many times she sent the manufacturer her measurements, they al- ways got the fit wrong. Whoever designed the stupid things seemed to forget women had parts men didn't.
She jumped the last couple of feet to the ground and removed her helmet. As she did, she saw a tall man striding toward her. She recognized the deter- mined pace, the stubborn set of the shoulders. Oh, yeah, this would be Prince Jefri. No doubt Bahanian royalty weren't used to losing. Well, he'd better get used to it. She didn't plan to treat him any differently than any other client, which meant he was going to keep on hearing that tone-lock for the rest of her time here.
Men always hated being beaten by her. They couldn't seem to accept that a woman could be good in a dogfight. In her experience the men she trained fell into two camps. The first got angry and aggres- sive, often attempting to take out their frustrations in the air by bullying and intimidating her on the ground. The second kind ignored her. Outside of the class- room or an airplane, she simply didn't exist.
A few mena very fewsaw her as an actual per- son and were pleasant.
But no one she'd ever trained had bothered to see her as a woman. She supposed it was asking too much to find a man who could accept that she could whip his butt in the air and still want to go dancing on Saturday night.
Prince Jefri continued to stalk closer and she won- dered which camp he would fall in. Was it too much to ask that he be one of the nice guys? Did royal sheiks get trained in manners these days? Were there
The man in question pulled off his helmet and whipped off his sunglasses as he approached. At that exact second, Billie's brain shut down.
He was gorgeous.
No, that didn't describe it. She needed a better word to explain how beautiful he wasbut in a totally mas- culine way. Was it his eyesdeep brown, thickly lashed and sensual? Was it the firm set of his mouth, the perfect cheekbones, the dark hair? Was it the com- bination of features, the determination in his expression?
Did it matter?
He only got better as he got closer. She'd seen his pictures in magazines, but those glossy images were nothing when compared with the real thing. She did her best to catch her breath and act normal but her heart beat at a speed approaching Mach 3 and showed no signs of slowing.
"Congratulations," the über-hunk said as he held out his hand. "You maneuver your jet like a pro."
He sounded gracious and not the least bit put out. Was that possible?
"I am a pro."
She took the offered hand automatically and nearly swooned at the sparks that arced between them. She could feel them, and yet the man gently squeezing her fingers didn't seem the least bit affected. So typical, she thought with wry amusement. Something about being in the cockpit of a jet seemed to render her genderless. Ah, well. In her next life she would be a sex kitten. In this one she was destined to be perma- nently single.
"How did you disappear into the sun so quickly?" he asked. "I was watching. You were there and then you were gone."
"Every jet has blind spots. The trick is to know where they are and use them to your advantage."
"But I could have turned such that the blind spot moved."
She shook her head as she pulled her hand free. "You were stiff up there. I knew you'd stay on course long enough for me to get lost in the sun. Now, if you'll excuse me..."
Billie turned and headed for the temporary barracks set up at the edge of the airport. If she'd thought she would lose the man of the hour by walking quickly, she was wrong. His long stride easily kept pace with hers, and he continued to pepper her with questions. She answered his queries automatically, all the while doing her best not to notice that he fit the "tall, dark and handsome" cliche perfectly. Pretty and a prince, and about a hundred times more interested in flying than in her.
"This is my stop," she said brightly, cutting him off in mid-pound-thrust ratio question, as they reached the flap of her semipermanent home. "We'll have plenty of time to discuss all of this during the lecture time, and in simulation."
"When will I fly against you again?" he asked. She tugged the zipper of her flight suit down to her hips and pulled her arms free of the heavy fabric. It might be October in the desert, but it was still warm. She plucked at the T-shirt she wore underneath.
"We'll have plenty of air time," she told him.
"Don't worry, I'll be killing you over and over again."
"I think not. About that last maneuver..." The man didn't even notice she had breasts, Billie thought with a combination of humor and regret. She'd often thought she could step out of her flight suit and walk around stark naked and not one of the pilots would notice. Of course her brothers would see and probably kill her.
"I'm off duty until the morning," she said politely, wishing she could give him a gentle push back to his palace or wherever it was he lived. "I know you're anxious, what with getting your new air force up and running, but I don't work 24/7. Call me crazy."
With that she disappeared into the tent.
Jefri frowned. Had the female instructor turned her back on him and walked away? He followed her in- side. "You don't understand. I need this informa- tion," he said, barely noticing the Spartan setting.
Billie glanced at him, then smiled. "You don't give up, do you?"
She opened the drawer of a dresser and pulled out several garments, then disappeared behind a screen.
"Okay, fly boy. I'll give you fifteen minutes, but then you have to let me get some rest. I flew all night to get here and my regular tent isn't set up yet. I'm stuck in regulation housing until then. No offense, but it's hot here and I want my air-conditioning. Oh, have a seat."
He glanced around for a chair and saw one in the corner. There was a small ball in the seat. As he reached for it, the ball moved, uncoiled, growled and snapped at him.
From behind the screen, he heard laughter. "I see you found Muffin." He eyed the ball of fur with distaste. "Muffin?" "My baby. Be nice to the tall man, sweetie," Billie said. "He's paying the bills. Just go ahead and scratch under her chin. Oh, and tell her she's pretty. Muffin likes that."
Jefri eyed the tiny dog. All he saw was multicolored strands of hair and two mistrustful eyes. Hardly any- thing attractive.
"Get down," he said and pointed to the floor of the tent.
Muffin made a sound very much like a huff, turned her back on him and curled up in a ball. On the chair. He reached for her, but before he could pick her up, she growled.
"I would kill for a bath," Billie said with a sigh, and Jefri allowed himself to be distracted. "But we don't actually travel with a tub. Doyle says it's too inconvenient. Oh, sure, we can move millions of pounds of jets and computer equipment with no prob- lem, but one lousy tub is difficult. What is it with guys? Why don't you get the whole point of a nice long soak?"
As she spoke she stepped out from behind the screen. Jefri began to answer, when his senses went on alert. For the first time since she'd climbed down from the jet he actually looked at her.
Girly girl didn't begin to describe things.