Sweat dripped down her throat and pooled in the valley between her breasts, beading against the flat metal of her dog tags. Officially, she wasn’t here in the depths of Mexico, teaching the Federales to fight and fly. Officially, this mission didn’t exist and the US was not getting mixed up in the Mexican drug war. Officially, she was in limbo, no longer under term and not yet signed again on the dotted line. A civilian, for all intents and purposes, except the ones that mattered. Unofficially, she was one of the US Army’s best pilots and she damn well had worked for it. Nine years she’d given to the army. Her calf carried the initials and birthdates of friends who had given every last breath, all circled round with a rosary to keep them safe. The last was still tender, a little pink around the edges. If she never had to go back to Fallujah, it would be too soon. At least here it was only hot, not dusty as well. She’d eaten enough dirt.

“Gentlemen!” she barked out, seeing shifting among the ten men she had holding rifles outstretched. She was sweating but at least she was in the shade. They stood out under the full noon sun, squinting against the light. “I said hold position.” Her Spanish was crisp and perfect but it still carried the flavor of Los Angeles. There was no mistaking her for a native. She liked it that way.

Out of habit, she rubbed at the ring on her finger with her thumb while she checked her watch. She knew that for the men, this seemed like an eternity. It had been a little less than ten minutes. They had a long way to go. As these men were in her tender care for being troublemakers, it suited Gabriela to let them and their machismo wait it out.

In the three days since she’d arrived, she’d already seen the men training here start to adjust to having a female in charge. They still didn’t like it, but they were beginning to respect it. She figured it would be a few more days before they finally gave in and accepted her. A few days wasn’t much to beat the cultural machismo out of a bunch of cops, but she only had two weeks to get them through her course before she was transferred out of here again. Gabriela wasn’t worried, though. It was something she had experience with; being a female Blackhawk pilot meant being a lot more on the front lines than a lot of the troops had been used to. They too had learned to accept and respect her. She was coming up on her ten-year anniversary this year. A full decade in the service, and a full decade of taking on a new squad and forcing them to see her as a soldier, not a woman.

The familiar sound of a jeep rumbling up the dirt road to their base had her flicking her gaze over. She’d heard there were Agency guys on this op too, sneaky spooks who would teach their own brand of warfare. So far, she hadn’t seen hide nor hair of them but there was rumor around camp that they’d be returning today. By the looks of the passengers, they’d arrived. Either that or someone invited the country club down for a visit.

The men were just as curious as she was about the new faces, and she didn’t appreciate losing their attention. “Eyes front! Are you bored? Do you want something more exciting to do?” They’d already learned those were trick questions but she took the faintest waver from the man on the end as a response. “Down on the ground; I want fifty push-ups. Go, go, go!”

As a unit they dropped and followed her command, giving her the chance to look back at the jeep again. The spooks were gathered near the back, talking quietly and not paying her any noticeable attention, not that she could tell behind the dark sunglasses they all wore. She let her eyes linger on the tallest, a blond man with broad shoulders and a lean back. His ass wasn’t bad either, even if he was wearing the ugliest khakis she’d ever seen. She could still appreciate what was underneath. He was the only one of the spooks wearing boots that looked like they might be worth a damn. Then he turned, and she couldn’t help the gasp.

Holy shit. That bastard told me he was an analyst. Of course, that had been three, maybe four years ago, and he hadn’t done a whole lot of talking about his job since but... Asshole. You didn’t get this kind of mission riding a desk.

He’d jolted too and then was crossing the ground in long, ground-eating strides, so familiar that if she’d seen him move before she’d have already figured it out. Squaring her shoulders and trying not to feel self-conscious in her sweat-soaked fatigues, Gabriela put on a cool expression. “Glad you CIA boys could make it.”

Austin tipped down his sunglasses, showing her the amusement in his rain-gray eyes. The check in his stride told her he’d been planning on giving her the usual grab-and-yank greeting. “Just concerned civilians, Ms. Esperanza. We’re grateful the army could spare you.” Then, lower, he added. “It’s really good to see you, Gabby.”

Gabriela flushed and glanced at her trainees. They were looking far too interested. Switching back to Spanish, she barked out another series of orders. “All right, up! Two laps on the field, then stow your gear and hit the showers. Next class in twenty. Go!” Macho troublemakers thus dismissed, she gave Austin her attention again. “You and me, we’re going to talk about this analyst business, Agent Ward. And it’s G, these days.”

“G? Like homie?” He grinned and she felt it hit her right between the thighs. Goddamn it. It was unreal how just being near him could make her feel like a horny teenager.

Turned on and abruptly aware of how long it had been since they’d seen each other--and therefore since she’d last been laid--Gabriela glared hard at him with a whole lot of fire but not much heat. “I will kick your college-boy ass, Agent. Don’t test me.”

“I’ll buy you dinner to make up for it. Do you have any free time tonight?”

Gabriela started to shake her head, then shrugged instead. “Late. I have reports to file, but I can get them done by nine. You get the food and the room. Somewhere we can talk.”

“I’ll pick you up at nine.” He gave her another grin, apparently unconcerned by her dire threats and strolled off again.

* * * *

Gabriela couldn’t have said what happened during the rest of that day. After turning her trainees back to the rest of the class, she went through the motions of her day and before she knew it found herself back in the small room they’d supplied her. After a quick shower, she folded herself into her desk chair and got to work. Reports had to be filed, assessments had to be made. Through it all, she steadily ignored the thick file at her right hand that was her contract. She was up for promotion to CW3, had it all but in hand, just as long as she signed on the dotted line. Only problem was, she didn’t know if she wanted it. Equally troublesome was the packet beneath the file, thinner but with no less emotional weight.

Two hours of steady work got her a handy stack of completed reports and a monster knot between her shoulders. Standing up, she stretched out as best she could, wincing when rolling her neck produced a series of loud pops and cracks. A dull headache throbbed at her temples, seemingly ever-present these days. Coffee, she thought longingly. Coffee and aspirin and a hot bath. It was the holy trinity of feeling human, she was convinced.

Unfortunately, she only had the second of those. She shook a couple pills into her palm and washed them down with a bottle of warm water that had been living on her bedside table all day. She caught sight of her watch and realized the time right before the knock came on her door. Austin. How had it gotten so late?

Gabriela dragged her hands through her sweat-damp hair, trying to make it look loose and lovely, not lifeless and suffering from days on end in a ponytail. Giving it up as hopeless, she went to the door to let Austin in.

He looked as fresh as if he’d spent the whole day in the air-conditioned cubicle she’d always imagined for him. He’d changed from his khaki-and-polo-shirt golf ensemble and looked extra-handsome in jeans and a black shirt. Gabriela frowned. The CIA obviously didn’t require as much work as she’d thought. “Hi. Come on in. I was just finishing up.”

She’d started to step back to let him in, when he reached for her and pulled her into his arms. His mouth covered hers, and in a moment, all her tension had drained away, replaced by the hot thrill of finally touching him again. With a moan, she threw herself into the kiss, her body plastered against his. His tongue plundered her mouth, invaded and demanded, reclaimed what had always been his. She buried her hands in his hair while he cupped her ass and ground her closer still. Her knees went weak, and her head spun, like that of a woman getting oxygen after almost drowning.

She dragged him backward until they tumbled onto her narrow bed and the weight of his body settled over her. Without pause, she hauled at his shirt, wanting skin, wanting him. She almost succeeding in getting the shirt off when he broke the kiss, looking down at her seriously. “Uh, door?”

Gabriela glanced over to where the door did indeed still stand open and almost whimpered in disappointment. “Shut it. Shut it and come back to me.” She pushed him off her and yanked her gray shirt over her head to give him more incentive.

The slam of the door was as good as a starting bell. Round one. Thank God.