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by Dorothy Franklin
with generous coaching and editing from Kay Linne
Vibrations from the 737's engines shook the Navy letterhead as Lieutenant Jordan O'Neil read her orders once more. She grinned with anticipation. Only two weeks since she'd completed the SEAL/CRT selection program, and she had already been assigned to a team. She wasn't scheduled to report to her new commanding officer for another six days, but she had rushed through her prep so that she could arrive in Florida early. She wanted to talk with a certain master chief down there, and was giving herself time in case he proved elusive.
The plane landed smoothly. With no baggage to claim, Jordan passed quickly through the terminal and picked up her rental car. She was on personal leave and didn't want to be obligated to the Navy until it was time to report the following Wednesday. She felt more relaxed than she had in weeks. She'd forgotten how pleasant it could be to wear civvies.
She checked her watch. Oh nine thirty. She couldn't check in to the motel until late afternoon. She had some errands to do, but first she wanted to see if she could make a lunch date. Two weeks had passed since she'd last seen the chief. Working with him had been difficult, but at the end they'd made a good connection. Now she wanted to find out whether that connection had stamina. She found the slip of paper where she'd written his office phone number, and punched the digits into her cell phone.
The ringing seemed interminable. "Urgayle," came the familiar voice.
"Hello, Master Chief. It's Lieutenant O'Neil. I'm back down from Washington and wanted to check in with you."
"O'Neil?" Clearly she'd caught Urgayle by surprise. He grunted. "Come back to cause more trouble?"
She chuckled. He was as friendly as ever. "I missed you, too," she replied. She knew he would not appreciate small talk so she went right to the point. "I'd like to talk with you. I have some questions and I think you're the best person to ask." She paused. "Are you available for lunch today? I apologize for the late notice; wasn't sure when I could get down here."
There was a long silence on the other end of the line. "No, ma'am. I'm tied up." Jordan's quick disappointment was cut short as Urgayle continued, "But dinner is open." He hesitated briefly. "Think you're tough enough to survive my cooking?"
Surprised, she laughed. "Sure, Master Chief, when and where?"
Jack Urgayle looked at the kitchen clock as he slid the roasting pan into the oven. Eighteen fifteen. "Forty-five minutes before she gets here," he muttered to himself. "What the hell was I thinking?" He checked his T-shirt and khaki pants for evidence of spills or spatters, did a minimal kitchen cleanup, and limped into the living room. He cast a critical eye over the half-finished projects near the windows, but wasn't willing to put them away just to protect them from his visitor. If she looked, she looked.
Turning on the stereo, he collapsed on the couch as the opening chords of a Tschaikovsky piano concerto thundered from the speakers. He'd traded his lunch hour for an extended physical therapy session, and his leg was complaining bitterly. Elevating the offending limb on a well-used stack of pillows, he willed himself to relax.
In his mind he saw the lieutenant as he had first met her, in her fatigues, with that ridiculous long hair. He had pegged her immediately as a first-day washout. "I should have been so lucky," he groaned, remembering her foot making contact with his crotch. She was tough, he had to give her that. Not bad looking, either, even with her head shaved. An image of her in the shower came unbidden, and he pushed it away automatically.
His mind replaced the picture of her wet torso with images from the SERE training camp: his hand striking O'Neil, her body slamming into a tree, her struggle to stay on her feet, her final defiant stance with blood streaming from her face. "Damn." Though he was not prone to second-guessing himself, that was a day he would not mind erasing. He closed his eyes, lacing his fingers behind his head, and leaned back. He accepted that his job sometimes included physically assaulting the trainees, but this was different. He'd never hit a woman before. His dad had drilled it home early that you didn't hit women. The fact that she had given him almost as good as she got didn't make it feel right. He never wanted to be put in that position again.
He could have been royally pissed off at O'Neil for causing so much aggravation, but he knew she wasn't really the problem. She had earned her SEAL/CRT insignia. She'd worked as hard as any of the men--harder than most. She had courage. And brains. He liked that. Stubborn as hell, and a bit of a smartass, but all business when it mattered. He'd learned to respect her, and that mess in Libya had shown he could count on her in a difficult situation.
All in all, she was the toughest woman he'd ever met. A warrior. Most women he'd known wouldn't take that as a compliment but he had the feeling the lieutenant would thank him for saying it. He grinned. She was more interesting than any other woman he could remember, though there was something about her that made him uncomfortable. Perhaps that was a good thing. Keep him on his toes. He was curious to know what she wanted to talk about. With a small smile, he closed his eyes and let the music carry him away. Maybe, just maybe, this evening wouldn't be too bad after all.
At the appointed hour, Jordan stood on Urgayle's doorstep with a bottle of wine in hand. She paused before knocking and smoothed her slacks. She half expected that the door, once opened, would be slammed back in her face, and unconsciously straightened to attention.
Jack rose from his couch, stowed the pillows, and turned the music down a bit before answering the summons. "Come in, Lieutenant." His lips twitched as he saw what she'd done with her hair as it was growing out. It was a bit spiky, though not unattractive.
"Thank you for agreeing to talk with me, Master Chief." As Jordan's eyes left his, she surveyed the room. On the right, several bookcases struggled to contain the volumes crowding their shelves. Not surprising given what she knew of Urgayle. But her jaw dropped when she saw the easel set up near the living room windows, with several paintings leaning on the wall next to it. The canvases were large and sprawling, unfinished, full of color and life. No pastels here, but not the blood and war subjects she might have expected either.
Jack saw her staring at the paintings. "I know it's a mess. I'm in the middle of a couple of projects."
"I didn't know you painted."
"I'm a dilettante. Took a class once. But I paint just for myself. Helps me relax." He changed the subject. "Is that wine chilled, Lieutenant, or is it just for show?"
He made an effort to conceal his limp as he headed for the kitchen. Jordan noticed but chose not to comment. She handed him the cold bottle and set her handbag on one end of the counter. "You can call me Jordan, Master Chief."
Furrowing his brow, he weighed the consequences of using her given name. Finally he nodded. "Okay, Jordan." Picking up the corkscrew, he turned to her thoughtfully. "My friends call me Jack."
Suddenly feeling shy, Jordan averted her eyes. "Something sure smells good."
"Chicken's in the oven. It needs to cook another 40 minutes." Jack opened the bottle of wine and poured two glasses, handing one to Jordan. "I could use some fresh air. Join me outside."
She followed him into the small back yard. A neatly trimmed lawn contrasted with bushes growing wild along the fence. Two Adirondack chairs sat on either side of a small wooden table. One was paired with a second table topped with a faded cushion. Jordan sat in the other chair while Jack carefully set down his wine glass, eased himself into place and propped up his leg. He relaxed and let her make the next move.
She broke the silence. "Looks like you're getting around well. I heard you'll be back to full duty in a few months?"
"Hope so," Jack replied. "No combat duty for at least six months, but I should be able to start training again sooner. The other instructors can cover any heavy physical stuff." He turned to her. "But that's not why you wanted to talk to me." His gaze directed her to get to the point.
"You're right," she acknowledged. She took a long breath and spoke with determination. "I didn't go looking to join the CRT, but I always wanted the chance to serve in combat. So when this opportunity was offered to me I took it." Her eyes shone as she turned to him. "The course opened up a whole new world for me. The training and the mission made everything else I've done pale in comparison. I want to continue. So I've threatened and bullied my way into an assignment and I'm going to give it everything I've got." She paused. "But I know I'm walking into unknown territory without a map. I can work it out as I go, but I think my chance of success is better if I have some sort of guide."
She caught his eye again. "That's why I wanted to talk with you, Jack." She used his given name deliberately. "I'm looking for a mentor, a friend, someone who can give me a reality check."
Jack grunted. "I'm no fucking mentor." Jordan heard the gruffness in his voice and chose to read it as an opening.
"Your advice could be a great help to me." She paused. "I've talked with Wickwire and McCool, and they've told me what they know. But they don't know much more than I do. It was Wick who suggested I talk with you."
"Wick sent you to me?" he snorted. "I need to talk to that boy." But he didn't deny her request. They sat in silence a few moments.
"So what's this about an assignment?" he finally asked.
"I report to Captain Kurt Sehloff in six days. I guess he wants to talk with me before I head for jump school and advanced training. Not sure what his agenda is. I understand you worked with him?"
"Kurt and I were in the same BUD/S class almost thirteen years ago. We worked together several years. He's a good man. The best. Tough as nails, but fair. His platoons see a lot of action."
"I know it's going to be difficult at first. I don't know him or anyone on his team, and I can guess they're not eager to have a woman joining them." Jordan wrinkled her nose.
"Advanced training is going to be just as hard as the selection course you just completed. You'll have to prove yourself to your new team. Everyone has to. You'll just meet more resistance than most." Jack could guess what she'd be up against. "Shouldn't have to fight the way you did in training, but it won't be easy." That brought the images of Jordan's bleeding face back to his mind, and he shook his head to clear them. He did not share his thoughts with trainees, but he found himself wanting to explain his actions. He folded his arms across his chest and glanced skyward, as though searching for guidance. She was no longer in his class. Maybe talking about this would help clear some of that crap out of his head. He sighed and turned back toward her.
"They're going to give you a hard time, Lieutenant, but I believe you can handle it. They'll think they can scare you off, just as I thought I could chase you out of my class." He snorted. "Hell, I expected you to drop out the first day. And every day after that I was sure would be your last." He looked at her with a hint of a smile. "I kept figuring you were just too damned stubborn to realize you weren't going to make it. I guess I was wrong. You did all right for yourself." He paused and reflected. His voice became more serious. "I pulled out all the stops in the SERE exercise. It was my last chance to prove that you didn't belong."
Jordan raised her eyebrows. She had not expected the master chief to be so candid.
"You took everything I could dish out and came back at me like a fury," he continued. "It's been quite a while since I was last taken down by a trainee." He unconsciously rubbed the bridge of his nose as he remembered how she'd briefly turned the tables on him. "You did me a favor, you know," he said, shaking his head. "I'd put myself up against a wall with the rape threat. I wasn't sure it would get to you but I was certain it would throw the guys over the edge. When it didn't work I realized I didn't have a backup plan." He almost smiled. "I guess you created one for me."
Jordan nodded, grateful for this chance to clear the air. "I guessed as much. I didn't think you would go through with it but I didn't see any easy way for you to back down either. I knew I had to rescue myself. I just kept ragging on you and watched for a moment when you had your attention on the men."
A thought came to her. "But I didn't just get lucky there, did I? You left me an opening." She looked at him with curiosity. "Was that calculated? Or did you underestimate me?"
"I'm no fool," Jack replied, rolling his eyes. "Either way I answer that question, you're going to give me shit for not taking you seriously enough." Jordan nodded agreement. "Well, truth is I did underestimate you. No way I would have left you that opening if I'd thought you were in any condition to see it and use it." Another perspective occurred to him. "That could be an advantage for you in combat, you know. You want your teammates to respect you. And your attacker to underestimate you."
"And in Libya?" Jordan knew she was treading on tender ground. "Could it have given me a similar edge there?"
Jack had expected this subject to come up at some point. "Is that why you wanted to talk with me today?"
"One reason, yes. The biggest reason?" She thought a moment. "Possibly yes to that too."
He turned away, shaking his head thoughtfully. If it were one of the men asking he'd tell him to get over it and move on. But he decided to give the lieutenant some slack on this one. "I know you think I was more protective because you're female. I don't know. Maybe it's true. But I've gone over that mission a hundred times, and the odds were not in your favor. He heard you whispering. He was suspicious and had his gun drawn. Yes, you might have taken him down silently. Or he might have fired his gun before going down. Or he might have made an escape. Or he might have killed or injured you. Only one of those possibilities was an improvement over the sure solution."
"And if it had been Wickwire or McCool or Slovnik instead of me?"
Jack replied steadily, "Wick and McCool both have several years of combat experience. They also outweigh you almost 2 to 1. I would have bet on them. Slovnik is more green but he's an insane fighter. If he'd sounded calm I might have taken the chance. But with any guy who hadn't had combat experience, I would have made the same call I made with you. The stakes were too high."
He looked at her directly. "Jordan, you need to let go of this one. You're tough, you're fast, you're smart as a whip. You're never going to be able to carry a 220-pound guy on your shoulder. But your topo skills and intel experience will be a plus for any team. There will be other jobs you can do better than anyone else. You're going to have to give them the opportunity to figure out how to use you best." He thought a moment and added. "Just don't expect them to fall in line on the first day. Some of your new teammates may be even more stubborn than I was."
"Thanks, Master Chief." Jordan unconsciously slipped back to a more formal address. "I'm sorry to dwell on this. But I've fought so hard to get this far. I'm not afraid of getting hurt. But the thought of becoming the team cook just because the guys can't trust a woman ... that would kill me."
"Not feeling sorry for yourself, are you, Lieutenant?" Jack spoke half seriously, half teasing.
She looked at him and grinned. "No, Master Chief." After a moment's hesitation, she dropped her eyes, adding sheepishly, "well, yes, a bit. Thanks for calling me on it." She turned back to him. "So what else can you tell me about CaptainSehloff? Did you actually go on any missions together?"
This was a subject Jack felt more comfortable with, and he launched into a long, convoluted tale of a difficult personnel recovery during the Gulf War. Jordan kept him going with her questions. He was well into his second story when the oven timer sounded.
"Chicken's done, Jordan," Jack said. "Hungry?"
She grinned. "After hearing you talk about living on nothing but scorpions for a week, I'm starving! You're not sending me away with an empty stomach, not when it smells so good." They picked up their wine glasses and headed for the kitchen.
"Help me make some salad while this cools," Jack said as he pulled the chicken from the oven.
"Sure. Wow, that's beautiful! Where'd you learn to cook like that?" Jordan admired the roasted chicken squatting on its nest of red potatoes. She looked up at Jack in time to see a brief look of embarrassment cross his face.
"Hell, it's easy. I cook it all the time. My sister taught me. Said the girls would love it." A mischievous smile made a brief appearance. "You just stick the chicken on this rack, throw some red potatoes around it, bake the whole thing about an hour and a half. She said if you really want to impress someone, you sprinkle on some rosemary before you put it in the oven."
"Well what?" He looked puzzled.
"So did you sprinkle on the rosemary tonight?" Jordan asked, grinning widely. Her nose had already told her the answer.
Jack snorted. "Well if you must know, I did." He looked defensive. "Force of habit. I always add the rosemary."
"Oh, of course," she replied with a smile. As though speaking to herself she added, "a man who cooks. With herbs. A surprise around every corner."
Now it was Jack's turn to grin. "Don't worry, Jordan. For every surprise you might learn to like, I'm sure I could come up with a dozen more you'd hate." He started pulling vegetables out of the refrigerator and tossing them at her.
"No doubt." She caught a flying head of lettuce and set it on the counter. "You know, Jack, I don't think I've ever seen you smile before tonight. Looks good on you. You should do it more often."
His response was a volley of carrots, cucumber, tomato and avocado, timed so that she had to shut her mouth and concentrate on catching the airborne veggies. Conversation turned to the serious business of food preparation, and they soon sat down to a good meal.
Jordan figured she'd try to keep the dinner talk off herself for a while. "That brace looks lighter than the one you were wearing last time I saw you. And no cane. Looks like you're doing well with the PT?"
"Hmmph. Yeah, it's okay. Glad to get rid of the cane." Frowning, he redirected the conversation. "So what's going on back in D.C. with this 'women in combat' business? Do I need to prepare myself and the boys for a busload of crazy women like you?"
"Hell, no, Master Chief," she grinned. "I'm one of a kind."
He rolled his eyes, lips twitching. "I knew that."
"Seriously," she continued. "I was a test case who was supposed to fail. It was all political bullshit. They never intended to open up combat positions to women -- and especially not special forces."
"So you messed up their master plan?" Jack preferred to ignore the machinations of the upper echelons and Congress whenever possible.
"Not really. I'm like a tick on an elephant, more of an irritant than a threat. Truth is they don't know what the hell to do with me. They'd be happy if I disappeared back into some office somewhere and they never heard my name again. But I fought too hard to get this far. So I traded them my silence for an assignment. Sink or swim. If I got lost at sea they'd breathe a sigh of relief." She paused and grinned crookedly. "Makes me wonder what Sehloff did to deserve me."
"Hmm. Good point. I'll have to ask him." He furrowed his brow. "But why does your silence matter? I'm surprised you weren't just stuck back in a box somewhere whether you liked it or not."
Jordan's grin took on a mischievous twist. "Do you know how many media folks have contacted me for my story? Some producer even wanted to do a movie about my experience, wanted to call it 'G.I. Jane' if you can believe that. He couldn't even get straight the difference between the Army and the Navy." She snorted. "No, Senator DeHaven and the Navy brass would like me to be a nice quiet girl until all this blows over. It was the only card I had left, so I played it."
She sighed, her face becoming sober again. "They're giving me one chance. If I can complete advanced training and keep a low profile, I can work with the CRT indefinitely. But one screwup, even a small one, and I'll be busted back to an office in a heartbeat."
"Hmmmph. The more I learn about politics the more grateful I am to be posted well away from Washington." It was the closest he had come to a sympathetic comment, and Jordan appreciated the effort.
"Yeah. Me too." She dug into her chicken. "This is a great meal, Jack. Thanks for having me over."
For a while conversation took a back seat to dinner. When they'd eaten their fill, Jack headed into the kitchen with the plates and silverware. Jordan followed him with the serving dishes. She started loading the dishwasher while he put away the food. They worked efficiently and the kitchen was soon ready for inspection.
Jordan glanced at the wall clock. "Whoa! Almost 2130 hours. Didn't realize we were talking so long. I need to head back to the motel. I have a phone call to make before it gets too late."
She caught a look of disappointment flash across Jack's face. "How much longer are you in town?" he asked.
"Five more days." She hesitated. "Would you have time to get together again?"
"Hmmm...." He stalled for time, wondering whether her interest extended beyond discussing Navy business. "I'm free tomorrow evening. I was thinking about going to see this movie some of the guys at the base were talking about." He watched for her response.
"What's the movie?"
"It's called 'Hidalgo.' About a cowboy who races his horse in Arabia. Sounds far-fetched, I know, but I'm a sucker for an old-fashioned adventure story. Like to join me?" He tried to act as though her answer didn't matter.
"I haven't seen a movie in months." She paused briefly. "Sure, sounds like fun. I'm going to be running around tomorrow, be hard to catch. How about if I look up the show times and call you in the morning to confirm?" She avoided using the word "date." Didn't want to scare the master chief.
"Okay." Jack realized he was still trying to pretend that he didn't care whether she went or not. Maybe he needed to act a little more pleased? It was hard to figure out which persona he was supposed to wear around this woman. "I'll look forward to it."
Jordan picked up her handbag, pulling out a small package wrapped in brown paper. She followed Jack to the door, where she handed him the package. "Here. I wanted you to have this."
Surprised, Jack took the package and opened it carefully. The Collected Works of William Blake. He looked at her, at a loss for words.
Jordan wasn't sure how to interpret the look. "Is it okay? Do you already have it?"
"Yes, it's great. And no, I don't already have it." Jack smiled. "I have excerpts from his 'Songs of Innocence' in one of my anthologies but would like to read more." He gazed at Jordan, lost in thought for a moment. "You guess well." He remembered his manners. "Thank you."
Jordan smiled, "You're welcome. I've enjoyed your D.H. Lawrence book a lot. But Blake is my all-time favorite." She could see he felt awkward. She reached out and touched his arm. At the same time she lifted her chin just enough to bring her into direct eye contact.
It had been some time since Jack last dated, but he still recognized the invitation. His injured leg felt a little wobbly under him, so he leaned against the door jamb to steady himself. He reached out and cupped Jordan's chin in his hand as he bent his face toward hers. Unexpectedly, she flinched at his approach. He stopped, surprised, and backed off. He had many years of experience reading people's faces. He could have sworn he saw a sudden wariness in her eyes. He frowned, puzzled.
Jordan's own reaction caught her off balance as well. She didn't even notice that he had not kissed her. She immediately headed out the door. After a few steps she caught herself, paused briefly and turned back. "Thanks again for dinner, Jack. I'll call you in the morning." She continued to her car, outwardly calm but fighting an inexplicable desire to bolt. She stuffed down the feelings firmly and headed back to the motel.
Jack stood in the doorway staring after her long after the car's taillights disappeared. He shook his head as he turned and walked back into the house. Life had just become a little more complicated. What surprised him was that he didn't really mind. Maybe being stuck behind a desk all day had made him crave a bit of unpredictability.
He stopped in the living room, drawn to his paintings. For the first time since being injured, he felt the urge to pick up a brush. Time to exorcise some ghosts. He got out his paints and brushes, found a fresh canvas, and went to work, humming softly.
Jordan yawned and stretched idly. Ever since SEAL/CRT training, an 0600 wakeup seemed like sheer luxury. She slipped out for a long run near the waterfront, picking up a newspaper from the motel office on the way back. "Hmmm. Looks as though this showing at 1845 hours should be just perfect. We could grab a quick dinner first." She called Jack at home and they agreed he would pick her up at the motel after work.
With that out of the way, she did her calisthenics on the motel room floor and enjoyed a leisurely shower followed by breakfast at a nearby cafe. At 0900 she called Lt. Kathy Blondell to confirm their lunch date. Kathy, physician for the training program, was the only one who knew that Jordan was in town early to see the master chief.
Pulling out her laptop, Jordan used the next few hours to catch up with email and letters to friends. Shortly before 1130, she headed toward a little hole-in-the-wall Thai restaurant well off base. Given the fraternization charges that had been leveled at them, she and Lt. Blondell were hoping that their lunch rendezvous would go unobserved by the Navy. She found a good table and kept her eyes open for the doctor's arrival. "Kathy! Over here!"
Kathy grinned. "Jordan! Good to see you!" They shared a quick hug before she sat down. Giving their orders to the waitress, they began a long-awaited catch-up on each other's activities.
"So how was your trip back home, Jordan?"
Jordan rolled her eyes. "The last couple of weeks in Washington were almost as tough as the training. My family and friends think I'm crazy; my boyfriend and I split up. And all I could think of was getting back here. After the CRT course and our little adventure in Libya, my old world seems so quiet and boring." She grinned. "I've become an adrenalin addict."
"You split up with Royce?" Kathy was surprised. "He sounded like a sweet guy."
"Oh, he is sweet." Jordan shook her head. "I'm going to miss him. We've both seen this coming for a while, but it was still hard to let go. He wants -- and deserves -- someone who can be there for him, not off in the middle of nowhere doing god knows what." She paused. "Frankly, Kathy, I'm relieved that he felt that way, because it made it easier to tell him that I was no longer in love with him. He was loving and supportive, yes, but only as long as I was willing to plan my life around his. I finally realized we need to go our separate ways."
"Hmmm. Royce is out of the picture. So did you get anywhere with Master Chief Urgayle last night?" Kathy asked with a grin.
Jordan sputtered on her iced tea. "What's that supposed to mean?" She glared at her friend. "I told you I was asking him for advice, not a date."
"Hey, back off, girl. I was teasing." Kathy bit her tongue to keep from laughing. "But you sure got your knickers in a twist over such an innocent comment."
Jordan relented. "You're right, of course. I should keep that man at a safe distance, but there's something about him that's hard to resist." She had to come clean with her friend. "Since you asked... we're going to a movie tonight." She grinned sheepishly.
"Ahah! I knew it," Kathy chortled. "You're an alpha female and you're looking for the alpha male." She snorted. "And no one is more fucking alpha than the master chief." She grinned as Jordan made a face in her direction. "You know I'm right."
"Alpha he is," Jordan acknowledged. "And we had a good talk last night. He was surprisingly helpful. But I'm still being cautious, Kathy. Only five weeks ago he was beating the shit out of me. You remember what I looked like after that session. I know that was in the line of duty. Any idea whether he makes a habit of that in his off hours?"
Kathy responded to the seriousness of the question. "I've only been here two years, but I've never heard any complaints about him, inside or outside of class. Clean record, no complaints of inappropriate or abusive behavior. General rap is that he's tough but fair." She paused. "Some of the trainers have a mean streak. I don't get that impression about Urgayle. If anything, he's too conscientious, too tough on himself. He's all about duty."
She thought a moment and looked at Jordan. "But keep your eyes open, girl. Some instructors are better than others at separating their jobs from their private lives. Don't forget what he's capable of."
Jordan nodded. "Pretty much what I've been thinking. Is he seeing anyone?"
"Not that I know of. Certainly no one on base. He keeps to himself. They say it's because he wants his trainer chief persona to be considered omnipotent, unapproachable. Me, I think he's kinda lonely."
"Hard to tell. He seems pretty self-sufficient." Jordan gave her friend a warm smile. "Thanks, Kathy. I'll keep you posted."
"You'd better, Jordan!" Kathy grinned. "I'm going to expect regular updates."
Lunch arrived and the conversation turned to the latest news and rumors from the base. When Kathy's lunch hour was over, they parted reluctantly.
The knock came on Jordan's motel room door just as she was checking her hair and applying a bit of lipstick. A quick scan confirmed that her French-cut T-shirt and jeans were in order. She grabbed a light jacket and met Jack at the door.
He nodded his head toward the black 4Runner parked next to her rental car. "Ready for round two?"
She grinned. "Hooyah, Master Chief. I'm starved."
They headed for Jack's favorite pizza joint. "It's crowded and noisy, but they have the best pizza," he assured her. Crowded was okay with Jordan. She still felt awkward around Jack, and the noise level would keep the conversation light.
Sure enough, the place was full of people laughing and talking, and Jordan felt right at home. It reminded her of the old Shakey's in her home town, where her parents could take the whole family out for dinner and still stay within their budget. After they placed their order, she shared that bit of family history with Jack, telling him what it was like to grow up with three older brothers.
"I followed them everywhere. They taught me to climb trees, ride horses, fight with wooden swords, catch snakes. I was welcome as long as I didn't slow them down." She laughed. "I guess you have my brothers to blame for me ending up in your class." Jordan turned to her enigmatic date. "How about you, Jack? Brothers or sisters?"
"One younger sister. She lives in Oregon, so I don't see her as often as I'd like."
Just then the pizza arrived. They collected family backgrounds as they munched their way through the pepperoni, mushrooms and olives, and the easy conversation continued as they drove to the movie.
Hidalgo proved to be as good as they'd hoped. Jack forgot himself enough to laugh with the crowd. When Frank's family jewels were threatened, Jordan placed her hand on Jack's and grinned impishly up at him. He turned his hand over to clasp hers, palm to palm. "Good thing those Arabs didn't have you workin' for 'em," he whispered. Their hands remained together, fingers chatting idly, for the rest of the film.
After the movie, they walked slowly back to Jack's vehicle, enthusiastically recounting their favorite scenes. "Motel or my place?" Jack asked. "No chicken tonight but I can probably find some pretzels if you're hungry."
With only a few more days in town, Jordan decided to seize the moment. "All I have at the motel is some chewing gum I found stuck to the bedpost," she grinned. "Pretzels beat that hands down."
They were both grateful to have the movie to talk about. It kept the conversation flowing comfortably through the drive back to Jack's house. After he parked the car he sat for a moment, gathering resolve, and turned to her as though he had something to ask. Then he changed his mind and dropped it. He ushered Jordan into the house, leaving her wondering what was on his mind.
"Something to drink?" he asked as he headed slowly into the kitchen. "There's beer, wine, sodas, scotch."
Jordan noticed his limp getting worse as the day grew later. "A beer sounds good," she replied. She stole a look at his CD collection. "Mind if I put on some music?"
Jack poked his head around the corner into the living room. "Go ahead, pick out something quiet."
She browsed the titles. "Auntie Christ. What's this?" she asked. And what was it doing in with classical and opera, she wondered.
"I said 'quiet.'" He appeared behind her shoulder. "That's a punk rock band. Good stuff but I think I'd prefer something a little less exciting right now." He handed her a bottle of beer, setting a glass of scotch and a bag of pretzels on the coffee table.
She slipped Miles Davis' "Tutu" into the player before following him to their seat. He was already settling on the left end of the couch, propping his injured leg on some pillows that were piled on the end of the coffee table. He patted the couch to his right, smiling up at her. Rare as they were, she thought, Jack's smiles were worth waiting for. They should be classified as weapons. Feeling weak in the knees, she wondered if she should leave while she still could. But instead she sat on the couch next to him, leaving four careful inches of separation.
The soft strains of Miles' muted trumpet sidled through the room. "'Tutu', eh?" he asked. "Good choice."
"You have quite a collection of music," she replied. "A lot of artists I've never heard of. I could spend all day exploring." She was thinking of other things about him she would like to explore, but didn't know quite how to make the opening.
Jack was thinking the same thing about Jordan. He prided himself on reading people well, but his accuracy about her had been appalling. He had assumed even before he met her that she was a woman with a political mission, more interested in the limelight than the real work of the CRT. Tonight's movie had reminded him how wrong he'd been.
"You know that guy Frank in the movie? He reminded me of you," Jack said, turning to face her.
Jordan was surprised. She'd actually been thinking he looked a bit like Jack. "In what way?"
"Well, he was the odd man out in the group. All the other competitors had their egos all wrapped up in their Arab heritage and their pure-blooded horses and couldn't conceive that a cowboy on a mongrel mustang could compete on an even footing. Hell, they were offended that he was in their presence." He smiled. "Sound familiar?"
"Cortez," she answered with a grin. "Slovnik." And Urgayle, she added silently.
Jack nodded. "He hadn't come to make a statement about mustangs or Americans or anything. He wasn't looking to be treated special. He just wanted a chance to race." He paused. "After all this time I think I'm finally starting to understand where you've been coming from." He grinned sheepishly. "Just don't tell anyone it took a movie to get the point through my thick skull."
"Not a word, Jack." Smiling, she reached out her hand to him. "I hadn't thought about the movie that way, but I see what you mean. I liked that Frank character. He was as tough as he needed to be, but not mean. I'll take that as a compliment."
Jack took her hand in his left. He started to stretch his right hand toward her shoulder, then paused. Her reaction to his advances the night before still bothered him. He looked at her, puzzled. "Last night, when I ... you pulled away when I moved toward you."
Jordan wished she could deny it, but she knew he would see right through her. After a long hesitation, she replied slowly. "Yes. But it wasn't because I didn't want you to touch me. It was the way you cupped my chin in your hand." She held out her hand, mimicking his gesture, then turned and met his eyes. "The last time you made a move like that, you were steadying me for a blow that slammed me into a tree." She paused, unsure what his reaction would be. "When the memory came up, I lost my balance for a few moments."
Shaking his head, Jack let out a sigh. "Damn." He withdrew his right hand, keeping his left in soft contact. "Do you want me to back off?"
Jordan studied him quietly. Despite their rough history, she felt no threat from him tonight. "No," she replied. "I'd like you to hold me." Wrapping his arm around her shoulders, he drew her toward him. She snugged in tight, hip to hip, took a deep breath, and laid her head on his shoulder, her right hand on his chest. She enjoyed the feel of his solid body next to hers.
They sat quietly together for a few minutes. When Jack spoke again his voice was low and gruff. "I did what I had to do, Jordan. I didn't enjoy it. It wasn't easy to hit you, watch you stagger and bleed."
She appreciated how hard it was for him to say this. Reaching up, she touched his cheek. Gently wrapping his hand around hers, he brought their hands to his chest.
After a few more moments of silence, she responded. "Don't forget, it was my doing too. I pushed you, I mouthed off, I taunted you." Raising her head, she turned to look at him. "Don't you see? I had to make sure you dealt every card you had in your hand. It had become the only way I could have any credibility with you or my team. We were in that POW camp because my guys wouldn't follow my orders. How could I be an effective leader if they thought I was soft?"
Jack absorbed her statement. Until now he had assumed he was in full control of that interrogation.
She took a long breath. "You asked me that day whether I thought you should go easy on women. I said no. I needed you to do your worst. If you had refused to interrogate me, if you had behaved kindly toward me, it would have been a sign of disrespect." She met his eyes again. "You gave me a chance to find out how much I could take, to prove how strong I could be." She paused. "I won't thank you for the beating but I recognize the opportunity that came along with it."
Returning her head to his shoulder, she allowed a few moments for her words to sink in. Then her mouth twisted mischievously. "As I recall, I hurt you too, Jack. And at the time I did take some satisfaction from it. I hope you don't take that personally." Raised her head, she caught his eye again. "Have you considered wearing a steel codpiece when I'm around?"
For a moment Jack was stunned into silence. Then he exploded, laughing until tears came to his eyes. He couldn't remember the last time he'd been so surprised by anyone. He shook his head in wonder. "Perhaps I should, Lieutenant. Perhaps I should. I'll review my options." He continued to chuckle at the thought.
Jordan was grinning too. She wasn't ignoring that brief flashback. She'd already made a mental note to talk with the base psychologist about post-traumatic stress disorder when she had her routine psych check on Monday. She just wasn't ready to dive into it with Jack. She didn't think he would deliberately betray her. But if he helpfully dropped a hint about PTSD to Sehloff, she could find herself fighting that much harder for respect from her new captain. She was glad to move the conversation along. Besides, there was something else she wanted from the master chief.
"So Jack," she said, "we've strayed from our path here. As I recall, you were thinking about kissing me. Then you made the mistake of bringing up our sordid history." She touched her tongue to her parted lips. "Can we get back to business?"
Jack didn't say a word. He gazed at Jordan with the barest hint of a smile. With his left hand he traced a feathery line from her temple down to her chin, while his right hand cradled the back of her head. He bent his head and slowly laid a trail of tender kisses along her jaw and down her neck. When his mouth finally returned to meet her lips, she responded eagerly. All of the desire they shared was channeled into a hungry meeting of lips and tongue, gradually slowing to a series of soft, wet kisses.
Jordan was the first to break. She purred contentedly. "Mmm. That's more like it."
Jack planted one last kiss on her nose. "I do have one more question," he said, smiling. "I want to know whether fraternizing was part of your original mentor plan."
She laughed, making a face at him. "In the plan? No. But I'd be lying if I said that the idea hadn't occurred to me. You are an attractive man, John James Urgayle. Just impossible to read or predict. Intriguing. Mesmerizing." She smiled and kissed him again. "What about you? Is this why you invited me here for dinner last night instead of meeting someplace safer?" She grinned mischievously.
"To be honest," Jack admitted, "I'd already bought the chicken and was too stubborn to change my plans. I didn't know what you were after, and didn't want to make any assumptions." He paused, adding soberly, "I still don't. Kissing is one thing, but a relationship is another. SEALs don't always make the best partners."
Jordan heard old wounds in his voice. "So what are the odds, Jack?"
He looked at her. "I don't know exactly, but from what I've observed I'm sure it's less than the 40% that make it through CRT training."
She thought a moment, and replied with a mischievous twist. "I suppose no one's tracked stats on intimate relationships between operators." She stressed the word "intimate" by lightly caressing his jaw.
Jack choked. "Not much data there." Trying to glare at her, he found it increasingly difficult to tap into his usual curmudgeonly self. Still, there was a serious side to this discussion. "I don't make a habit of worrying about what people do in their own bedrooms, but any relationship within a team could be deadly."
Jordan nodded. "Agreed. So if we take this any further we lose our ability to work on the same team." Impishly she added, "What's worse, I won't be able to take any more of your training courses."
She paused, the smile gone. "Same team or no, Jack, the Navy is going to want a say in this. Fraternization policy gives the C.O. some latitude for a situation like ours. For you he would likely look the other way. But they would love to find a way to get rid of me." She looked at him with a wry grin. "Do you think they'd notice the inconsistency in charging me with same-sex fraternization one month and becoming involved with you the next?"
He smiled but answered in a serious vein. "Yeah, that would put Salem in an interesting position. He and I get along pretty well, and on his own he might cut me some slack. But if he could score some points with the brass... hard to tell where he'd land."
Jack's voice softened. He rested his hand against her cheek. "Regulations aside, Jordan, and regardless of whether we take this any further, our getting to know each other has altered our working future. I would already find it difficult to work closely with you in a dangerous situation. It's not a lack of respect. In fact, the better I know you, the more confidence I have in your ability to take care of yourself." He stroked her short hair. "But at the same time I know how painful it would be for me to see you getting hurt." He shook his head. "My feelings for you could be a fatal weakness."
She drew his head toward hers and lightly kissed him again. "We've already crossed at least one line, haven't we?" She stopped and considered their situation. "I know my presence complicated your job. And now it seems we're trying to make the rest of our lives more complicated too." She looked at him. "Do you wish you'd never met me?"
Jack shook his head. "If you'd asked me that five or six weeks ago I probably would have said yes. But you've been good for me, Jordan. My world's a lot bigger because I met you." He grinned. "Yes, more complicated too. But I'm glad you're here."
"I'm glad too." She ran a soft finger along his jaw, realizing how much she'd like to sink into his mouth again and not come up for a long time. If either she or Jack let their hands travel much below shoulder level, it would be hard to stop. "We have a lot to think about. I should get back to the motel before I get too comfortable here."
Jack nodded reluctantly. As with her, his desire was warring with his discipline, and the discipline was feeling ragged. "If that's what you want," he replied, his voice husky. "But you're welcome to stay."
Jordan summoned her resolve. "I'd like to, Jack. But I can't risk my career. We need to think this through."
With a sigh, he agreed. "Yeah, I'm afraid my brain isn't getting enough blood right now to be at its most effective." He smiled at her, a devilish gleam in his eyes. "Let's spend some time talking it through together. I have Saturday and Sunday free. Come away with me for the weekend." He paused to check the details in his mind. "I'll need to make a few calls in the morning, but I have an idea how we can get past the Navy's radar and relax for a couple of days."
She smiled. "I trust your organizational skills, Master Chief. The weekend is yours."
Somehow they found the discipline needed to tear themselves off the couch and return Jordan to her motel room. With another goodnight kiss at her doorstep and a promise to call her in the morning, Jack headed back to his noticeably emptier home.
Jordan woke early but lay in bed a few minutes longer than usual, taking advantage of her leisurely schedule to reflect on the past two days. She smiled as she remembered the previous evening. When she'd called the master chief on Thursday, she'd hoped that her attraction for him might be reciprocated, but she had never imagined that anything would develop so quickly. She had been looking forward to reporting for duty on Wednesday; now her eagerness was tempered by the thought that she might be leaving someone special behind. She stretched and pushed herself out of bed. Yes, life had become more complicated, but she wasn't complaining. She was looking forward to seeing what came next.
A long run to the marina and back, followed by a short swim in the motel pool, got her blood flowing and mind in focus. When she returned she had a message from Jack. "Pick you up at 0900. Pack light, bring swimsuit." She grinned as she looked at her watch. It was 0730 hours. She had a couple of phone calls to make, leaving her an hour to shower and find some breakfast.
At 0830 sharp she called her friend Lynn, an attorney for the Office of the Naval Inspector General in D.C. "Please be home," Jordan pleaded silently as the phone rang.
"Conner residence," came the familiar voice.
"Hi Lynn, it's Jordan."
"Jordan! Great to hear from you!"
"It's good to hear your voice again too. Have I caught you at a bad time?" Jordan asked.
"I'm getting ready to meet a friend for breakfast, but I can spare a few minutes. Have you started your new assignment yet?"
"Not until Wednesday," Jordan replied. "I came down to Florida a few days early to do a little advance research, and things have taken an unexpected turn." Taking a deep breath, she plunged into her story. "Remember the command master chief I mentioned, the SEAL/CRT trainer?"
"The one who beat you up?" Lynn replied. "How could I forget? I saw your face."
Jordan winced. "It wasn't personal. He does that to all the trainees."
"That makes it okay?" Lynn snorted. When Jordan didn't respond immediately, she added, "Sorry, Jordan, go ahead. What's on your mind?"
Jordan tried again. "I met with him Thursday night to ask his advice on my new assignment. He was surprisingly helpful, and..." she paused, "and well, we kind of hit it off. He invited me to go see a movie last night, and we ended up talking for a while and making out on his couch, if you can believe it."
"Goodness, woman, you are full of surprises," Lynn chuckled, shaking her head. "So I take it you are thinking about doing some further fraternizing with this man? And how can you be sure he's not going to beat you to a pulp again?"
"I've done some discreet checking. I don't think he's a danger to me, though I'll continue to keep my eyes open." Jordan paused. "I need to ask you for some legal advice, off the record, of course."
"Let me guess. You want to know how the Navy is going to look at you, an officer, fraternizing with an enlisted man, even one as high-ranking as a master chief, especially as he was your instructor until recently." Lynn paused. "Am I on the right track?"
Jordan smiled. "Spot on, as always. The class has been over for two weeks now, if that makes any difference."
"Who is your new commanding officer?"
"I report to Captain Kurt Sehloff, effective Monday, but I'm still on leave until Wednesday," Jordan replied.
"To whom does this master chief of yours report? And does the chief have a name, by the way?"
"His name is Urgayle, Jack Urgayle. He reports to Captain Salem, C.O. of the Catalano Naval Base here in Florida."
"Two different commands. That's in your favor, then. You're not going to be stationed at Catalano, are you?" Lynn continued to tick off her questions.
"No, ma'am, I'll be based at CRT headquarters in Virginia."
"Okay." Lynn paused. "Insert standard disclaimer here. This is not legal advice, merely the comments of a friend. Having said that, I feel pretty confident that what I'm about to say is accurate." She glanced quickly at the notes she'd taken before continuing.
"The regulations are designed to specify some clearly damaging behavior but also to leave room for interpretation to cover cases they didn't foresee. The commanding officer has some flexibility with cases that do not clearly fall on one side or the other.
"Since you and Urgayle are no longer in an instructor-student relationship and are not serving in the same unit or chain of command, I don't think that a relationship between you would be considered to meet the criterion of 'not respecting differences in rank and grade.'
"But the language is so open-ended that a person with an agenda could level a fraternization charge against you, as the officer involved. Sehloff is the key; he would have decision-making authority in your case. Likewise Salem would have authority with respect to Master Chief Urgayle." She reflected. "You could take your chances and ask forgiveness if caught, but I strongly recommend talking to your respective C.O.s first, especially since you haven't worked with Sehloff before. Does that help?"
"Lynn, you are awesome. Thank you." Jordan sent a warm smile through the telephone.
"Always glad to help, girlfriend. I wish I could talk more but I have about five minutes to get dressed and get out of here. Let me know how it goes, okay?" Lynn signed off briskly.
Jordan looked at the clock. Jack would be arriving in twenty minutes, leaving her time for one more call. Finding Lieutenant Blondell's home phone number in her address book, Jordan dialed, hoping to catch her at home.
"Blondell here," came the friendly but businesslike voice.
"Hi Kathy, it's Jordan. Thought I should check in with you before I take off for the weekend."
Kathy took the bait. "Where are you off to, Jordan?" She paused. "And should I ask, with whom?"
"The 'whom' is the master chief," Jordan answered, grinning. "As for the where, he hasn't told me yet. Somewhere we can 'get past the Navy's radar' is all he said." She braced for an explosion on the other end of the phone line.
"Heavens, Jordan." Kathy stopped in mid-sentence, hesitating to throw cold water on her friend's plans. "I want all the details, but first I have to ask, are you sure this is a good idea?"
"That's part of the reason I'm calling. I don't expect any problems, but I figured I would let someone know who I'm with, in case I don't return when expected." She paused. "Jack and I had a nice time yesterday. We went to his house after the movie and talked a while. We decided we'd like to get to know each other better, and I only have a few days before reporting to duty. Hence the weekend getaway." She grinned. "It all seemed like a good idea last night, anyway."
Kathy shook her head. "So he's 'Jack' now, eh?"
"What, you think I should keep calling him 'Master Chief'?" she chuckled. "It's okay, Kathy, really it is. I'll find a way to mention to him that someone knows he and I are spending the weekend together, but I won't mention your name. We'll be back Sunday night. If I don't show up or contact you by 9 a.m. Monday, feel free to notify the authorities. Tell them I've been staying in the Wayside Motel on Marine Drive. But please don't tell anyone otherwise. We're not sure how this would play against fraternization regulations, so we're silent running for now."
"Jordan, promise you'll call me Sunday evening as soon as you get in. I don't care how late it is. I'm going to want the whole story."
"I promise. Thanks, Kathy." She hesitated. "Wish me luck?"
"Girl, I know you. You make your own luck. But I'll be sending good thoughts your way. Have a great weekend."
"You, too. Talk to you soon." Jordan hung up the phone with a smile. She didn't expect any problems but she didn't want to be foolish.
It was already getting warm out, so she changed into shorts, a tank top, and tennis shoes, and gathered her kit together. She used the extra time to tidy up the motel room, though it was hardly disorderly.
Promptly at 0900 a now-familiar 4Runner pulled up in front of her door, and Jack debarked, his hair combed neatly back, wearing a tan tropical-style shirt and khaki shorts. She came out to greet him. He nodded to her, smiling with reserve. "Still game, Lieutenant?"
She grinned. "You make it sound like a test, Master Chief." Her eyes were drawn down to the brace on his leg. For the first time she could see his scars, a grim reminder of their misadventures in Libya. She lost her smile and raised her eyes back to his. "Nasty business, Jack," she said sympathetically, as she reached out and touched his arm.
He frowned. "It's doing fine," he said testily, pulling his arm back. "I don't need pity."
Jordan retracted her hand and frowned, chewing on a reply. Then she relaxed visibly. "Guess I just stepped on a land mine." She looked up at him, eyes alight with mischief. "Can we restart the simulation? I'll go back into the motel room and close the door. You knock, and I'll answer." Before he could summon a response, she turned and went back into the room, shutting the door behind her.
Chagrined, Jack had to smile in spite of himself. He limped over and knocked. She opened the door with a welcoming smile. "Good morning, Jack."
"Ready to go, Jordan?" he asked carefully.
"Hooyah," she replied, smothering a grin. "Where are we off to?"
"A little island in the Keys. Get away from the base for a couple of days, kick back. Work for you?"
"Sounds great." She picked up her bag. "Lead the way." She followed him to the waiting vehicle, where he opened the doors for her. Stowing her bag in the back seat, she climbed in next to him.
Within fifteen minutes they were at the marina. They parked the SUV and boarded a trim 32' cruiser with a small forward cabin and an uncluttered deck. A dive shelf and row of tanks hinted that SCUBA diving might be in the plans for the weekend. "Walk on the Moon?" Jordan asked. "That's an odd name for a boat."
"She belongs to a friend of mine," he explained, donning sunglasses and a baseball cap for the voyage. "We're just borrowing her for the weekend. I don't know why he named her that. You ever pilot one of these babies?"
"Not one like this," she acknowledged. "But I've driven smaller craft and had some basic instruction in PT-boats. Show me what to do."
"I'll give you the quick course. Then I can lie back and snooze while you do the work." Jack grinned at her. Now that he was in his element, he was starting to relax.
Learning to pilot the boat came easily for Jordan, with the master chief standing behind her giving directions. He kept his left hand on her shoulder as she stood at the helm. She felt him lean on her slightly as the boat moved, compensating for his injured leg. After she had the basic operation down and they were well under way, he moved closer as he continued giving her pointers. Soon his right hand was caressing her ear and softly trailing down her neck toward her waist. She smiled, pretending not to notice. But when she felt him nibbling on her earlobe, she caught her breath. Maintaining concentration had become a challenge. "Are you trying to distract me?" she asked, her voice husky.
Jack paused. "Do you want me to stop, Jordan?"
She shook her head and turned toward him with a grin, lifting her face for a kiss on the mouth. He obliged. She returned her attention to her job, giving him his operating instructions. "Just keep your eyes open and let me know if we need to change course."
He smiled and switched targets, massaging her shoulders for a few minutes. "I'm going to get off this leg for a while. Keep us pointed in this direction, steady as she goes, for another 45-50 minutes. Give me a shout when you see some islands in the distance off the port bow. Call me if you see any other indications of land, or if anything seems wrong." He made his way slowly and carefully across the moving boat to a bench, where he lay down with a sigh, elevating his leg on a flotation cushion. He watched Jordan for a while, enjoying the view, then pulled a small book from his pocket. He wrote in the book sporadically for the rest of the trip.
Several small islands showed up on the horizon just as predicted. She alerted Jack, who joined her at the tiller and guided her in, hands on her shoulders. They reached the dock of the tiny cay shortly after 1100 hours. As he moored the boat, he directed her to a gear bin, from which she selected a mask, snorkel and fins. He tossed her equipment into a duffel bag along with his own. Once the boat was secured, they gathered the duffel and their personal bags and headed up the dock to the beach.
"It's beautiful," Jordan exclaimed as she surveyed the small beach. A small convenience store and cantina 50 yards from the dock kept company with a dozen tiny cottages, a neatly tended vegetable garden, two goats, a small flock of chickens, and one old Jeep. Other than that the beach was clean and unspoiled.
"The whole island is less than five miles long," Jack said, heading toward one of the cottages. "It's where I come when I need to escape for a while. I just hope no one ever 'discovers' it."
She had been curious to see what sleeping accommodations he was going to offer. She felt reassured and yet oddly disappointed when he pointed out that their cottage had two beds, a queen in the small bedroom and a hide-a-bed couch in the living room. They stowed their gear and headed to the cantina for lunch.
Their pace was slow. To Jordan, it seemed that he was limping noticeably worse than he had on Friday. A dozen ways to ask him about it came to mind, but she bit her tongue, remembering how testy he'd been earlier. When they finally arrived at the little cafe, he eased himself carefully into the chair and settled with a long exhalation. "Leg would pick this weekend to act up," he muttered. Realizing he had created an opening he'd rather she didn't pursue, he turned to her and changed the subject. "Everything's fresh. Simple but good. Never had a bad meal here."
A grizzled waiter, wearing a clean and serviceable apron over his T-shirt and shorts, approached their table. Jack greeted him by name, "Ciao, Mario."
"Ciao, Jack, good to see you again," Mario replied. "It's been a while. And you brought a pretty girl this time!" He raised his eyebrows and winked broadly at Jack. "Way to go, you old sea dog, it's about time." Jack glared at him, but Mario didn't seem to notice. He took their beverage order and left them menus.
"So, Jack, you don't bring all your girlfriends here?" she teased.
"No, just Pyro a couple of times."
She raised her eyebrows and smiled at him. "Well, I know he's pretty special."
He growled warningly. "Jordan."
She wisely directed her attention to the menu. It was indeed simple: catch of the day or chicken, in five variations including tacos, burritos and pasta. She selected a fish and pasta combination with a green salad; he chose fish tacos with extra salsa. While they waited for Mario to return, she shared the information Lynn had provided in the morning's phone call, making a point of mentioning that her friend knew they were spending the weekend together.
Jack grunted. "So it's pretty much as we thought. Salem's not going to care what I do, which means that Kurt gets the final say." He shook his head, flashing Jordan a crooked smile. "I know it's part of being in the Navy, but I never thought I'd have to ask Kurt Sehloff for permission to pursue a relationship." He reflected a moment. "I think we should do as we please and seek amnesty if necessary. I've known him a long time. He's tough but not unreasonable. I can't see how he could consider us to be a problem."
She shook her head. "You know the captain better than I do, but we don't know what his agenda is. What if he's been asked to look for a way to drum me out of the CRT? We'd be handing him just the ammunition he needs."
He shrugged his shoulders. "I guess it's possible. Then again, if that's his agenda, you might be better off getting out earlier rather than later."
"That's a good point. And asking permission rankles me, too," she continued. "But, Jack, first we need to decide whether a relationship is something we want to pursue. We have two days to get to know each other. Hell, we may hate each other by the end of the weekend." She grinned to soften her words.
He nodded, reaching his hand to clasp hers. "You're the one who's affected, Jordan. It's your decision." He smiled mischievously. "I could make it easy for you, make this weekend a living hell."
She snorted. "Been there, done that. You have nothing left to prove." With an impish grin, she added, "Don't forget, you haven't seen my worst."
He rolled his eyes. "I have a pretty good idea of what you can do," he said, crossing his legs protectively.
They were interrupted by Mario, bearing glasses of iced tea and asking whether they were ready. Jack gave him their orders. When the waiter left, Jordan asked, "So what's on the agenda for this afternoon?"
"I was planning to head down the beach about a quarter mile. There's an inlet with a little reef just offshore, makes for good snorkeling." He paused. "There's SCUBA equipment on the boat but it's really overkill for such a shallow reef. If you want to dive, we can cruise around to the other side of the island tomorrow."
"Snorkeling is fine. It'll be great to get in the water," she replied. She hesitated before adding, "Is your leg up to all this?"
"It'll be okay," he replied curtly. Seeing the frown on her face, he realized he was being testy again. "The swimming will do me good. It's the only real exercise I'm allowed these days. And I brought a cane in case I need it."
Jordan nodded. She knew she needed to stay clear of this subject, but it worried her to see how badly his leg was hurting him. "Swimming and snorkeling will be good for me, too. The last few months have been pretty stressful. Nothing personal, Jack," she added with a wry grin. "Snorkeling is my favorite way to relax. Simple equipment, no sounds but your own breathing, just you and the water and the fish. I could spend hours out there." She looked up at him and laid her hand on his. "Thank you. Time like this is a rare gift."
He relaxed, allowing a small smile to appear, and clasped her hand in return. "Thanks for giving me the excuse to go. How did you get hooked on snorkeling, anyway? I thought you grew up in northern California?"
She filled him in on her family's vacations in Baja, where they stretched the budget by camping on the beach. They continued to share snorkeling and diving stories until lunch arrived. Mario proudly pointed out to Jordan that all the fish was caught locally, and the salad came from his own garden. It was as fresh and tasty as promised, and took most of their attention for the next ten minutes.
Jack finished first, and sat back in his chair, content for the moment. Soon after, Jordan pushed away her plate as well. "I'm stuffed!" she said happily. "That was delicious." The observant Mario promptly appeared, laying the check on the table between them. They both dived for it. Jordan was closer and her hand quicker. She clutched it firmly as she pulled a small wallet from her pocket.
Jack protested. "This weekend is my treat, Jordan."
"You paid for dinner and the movie last night, Jack, and the boat, the cottage. It's my turn. I don't want to be beholden to you."
Frowning, he questioned her, "You don't think I'd use that to pressure you...?"
"No," she replied, shaking her head. "It's not about you, Jack. This is about me. I need to know that I'm on an equal footing." She looked at him directly. "You know how I am."
He had to smile at that. "I recall some white steps." She nodded, letting herself smile. While she counted out the lunch money, he started the process of getting up from his chair, and they finished almost simultaneously.
They strolled back to the cottage and changed into swimsuits. Jordan came out of the bathroom in a simple one-piece black suit with a low-cut back and high-cut legs just as Jack emerged from the bedroom with boxer-style trunks that were no more revealing than his favorite khaki shorts. He had retained his shirt and traded his full brace for a water-tolerant exercise version. "Aww, Jack, I was hoping to see you in some teeny little Speedos," she teased.
He gave her his best glare, but couldn't hold it for long. He demonstrated approval of her suit with raised eyebrows and a low whistle. She caught his eye and grinned. "Glad you like it," she said, picking up her sunscreen and squeezing some into her palm. "Sunscreen?" she asked, offering him the bottle.
"I'll pass," Jack said, looking at the bottle dubiously. Nodding, she turned to place it on the table. Seeing her bare skin, he offered, "Put some on your back?"
"Thanks, I'd appreciate it," she said, handing him the bottle. As she applied the sunscreen to her neck and arms, he obligingly massaged it into her back, from shoulders to waist. No square inch was overlooked, and Jordan was in no hurry for him to stop.
When he finished she turned around. "Thanks, that felt good. I have a bit extra on my hands. Would you like some on your face?" He nodded without thinking. She reached her hands to his cheeks and pulled his head down for a long, serious kiss. "Now," she grinned, "how about some on your back? I'm assuming that shirt is coming off when you go in the water. Promise I won't hurt you."
Hooked by the thought of her hands on his back, Jack removed his shirt. Jordan let out her own low whistle, enjoying her first view of his tanned, muscular upper body. She caught him grinning as he turned around. He stood at ease as she worked the lotion into his back and shoulders. On his left side, a few inches above his waist, she ran into a small round scar. "What happened here, Jack?" she asked.
"Just an old war wound. Part of my collection." He declined to offer further explanation. "You about done there?"
"Yup." She squeezed some more lotion into her hand and offered him the bottle once again. "For your arms and legs?"
He shook his head, "No, thanks." Setting down the bottle, she quickly finished her own legs and they headed for the beach. Jack carried the duffel with beach towels and snorkel gear, and Jordan hauled a gallon water jug, as they slowly walked down to the small inlet he had mentioned earlier. They spread their towels in the shade of a large rock outcrop and headed into the water.
Jack immediately relaxed into a back float, elevating his aching leg, while Jordan circumnavigated the inlet with an efficient crawl stroke as an excuse to stretch her limbs. When she returned she came up on him silently from behind and swam underneath him, coming up just enough to bump his lower back on her way back up to the surface. He exploded from the water as she sat back and laughed. He quickly figured out where the "shark" had appeared from, and took off after her.
With his injured leg, she had the edge, but she decided it would be more fun if she him catch her. As she had suspected, the penalty was another embrace. He folded himself into a chair in the shallow water and sat her in his lap for an exchange of soft kisses. She was giggling and enjoying herself when she began to feel his interest rising. She raised her eyebrows and pushed herself back off his lap. "I'm going to get the snorkeling gear," she told him as she headed toward the beach.
Jack swore softly under his breath. If he was going to get through two more days of this, he was going to have to keep a bit more distance between himself and Jordan, which was the last thing he wanted to do. For lack of a better idea, he swam to the far side of the inlet and back at the best speed his leg would allow, redirecting his energy and enjoying the feel of the water.
When he returned, she was waiting at the shoreline with the water jug and their snorkel gear. "Sorry, Jack," she said, just as he came out with "sorry, Jordan." They both grinned awkwardly.
"Let's not apologize, Jack. Hell, if I had a dick it would be doing the same thing."
He snorted, adding seriously. "If you don't want me to explode before the weekend is over, we need to back off. Keep it above the waist?"
She nodded. "Okay by me, Master Chief. Thirsty?" She held out the water jug.
"Thanks." He took a long drink of water and returned the jug to her. She handed him his snorkel gear and took the jug back up to their shady spot. By the time she returned to the beach, he was ready to go. She put on her own gear and joined him in the water. "Ready to swim with the fishies?" he teased.
Laughing at his choice of words, she followed him as he set out for the edge of the inlet. They spent over an hour wandering around the coral reef, spotting all the common reef dwellers, puffers, pipefish, and even an imposing Moray eel. By the time they returned to their beach towels, they were tired and thirsty, and the tension between them had dissolved for the moment.
Jack pulled a bag of tortilla chips out of the capacious duffel, opened it, and sampled the contents. "Only slightly crushed," he testified, offering her the bag.
In return, she passed him the water jug. "Something's bothering me, Jack," she said, munching chips. "Do we have time to talk before we head back?"
Jack looked at his watch, feeling vaguely apprehensive. "It's not quite 1600. What's your problem?"
She gestured to the beach towels and sat down cross-legged on one of them. When he didn't immediately follow suit, she looked at him, head cocked, and patted the other towel imperatively. Jack slowly eased himself to the ground and sat facing her, left leg outstretched and right leg bent. He clasped both hands around his right knee, bracing himself.
"When we talked at lunch about Sehloff and the whole fraternization issue, you didn't seem convinced that we needed to wait. You said it was my decision." She hesitated. "I understand why you feel that way, but I'm realizing it troubles me." She caught his eye. "I'd like it to be our decision, Jack."
Shaking his head, he replied without hesitation, an edge of frustration coloring his voice. "Truth? I don't understand what we're waiting for, Jordan. The definition of fraternization includes dating. Hell, just going for pizza last night made us a target. Even our dinner Thursday could have been considered suspect. It seems to me that you're drawing an arbitrary line at sex." He paused and looked at her. "Don't get me wrong, I respect your decision and I'll abide by it. But it isn't my decision." He looked out over the ocean, his voice becoming low and husky as he continued, "If it were up to me, you would have stayed over last night."
Jordan felt desire hit her like a blow to the stomach. "I wanted to stay. Believe me." Her tone left no doubt in his mind, even as her rational mind took charge again. "But you know it's not an arbitrary line. Technically you're right about the fraternization policy. But I'm sure Sehloff can appreciate the difference between spending time with someone and sleeping with him, even if you can't. Waiting says to him that I care about being on the team, that I care about doing the right thing, that I can exercise self-control where men are concerned. It also tells him that I did my best not to put him into an impossible situation."
She paused briefly, continuing before he had a chance to respond. "Jack, this isn't just about Sehloff." She struggled to find the right words. "I consider you a valued friend. We've seen some tough times. Hell, we risked our lives together. And I've really enjoyed the time we've spent together the past few days." She reached out her hand and placed it on his knee. "I'm already halfway in love with you. If we slept together I couldn't easily go back to being just friends again." She shook her head. "I'm not willing to risk much of anything for a few days of passion. If sex is all you're looking for, we should head home now."
They sat quietly while he drew circles in the sand, processing her speech. "I guess I'll buy your argument about Kurt," he conceded. Puzzled by her last statement, he added hesitantly, "So is friendship all you want, Jordan? Or do you want more?"
Jordan spoke from her heart. "I want it all, Jack. I'd like to believe we could make this work. But you said yourself last night that special operators don't always make the best partners. A relationship would be tough, with me going off on assignment and you here training. We'd both have to work at it if we wanted it to survive for more than a few days." She cocked her head. "What about you? What do you want?"
Jack ran his fingers through his hair, shaking his head. "I don't know what I want, Jordan. You're right. It wouldn't be easy to maintain a connection." He looked at her soberly. "I like spending time with you. And I'm willing to bet we'd enjoy each other's company in bed. Truthfully, though, I'm not real optimistic about a relationship." Seeing her frown, he reached out his hand, clasping hers. "Hey, the weekend's not over. We make a hell of a team. Don't give up on us yet. Can we leave it as 'friends' for now?"
"I can do friends." She smiled and squeezed his hand. "Interested in going back in the water?"
"Actually," he replied, grinning sheepishly, "I was thinking about taking a nap. It was hard to get to sleep last night after you left."
She nodded. "Something else we have in common. A nap sounds good."
They built up small sand pillows under the tops of the beach towels and settled themselves comfortably, back to back, lightly touching. Once Jack's head hit his pillow he was out within minutes. Jordan lay thinking a while longer before she succumbed to sleep.
She awoke slowly from a dream in which a tiger was following her, staring at her. Its gaze felt intense but not ominous. She opened her eyes to see Jack sitting next to her, watching her. He smiled slowly. "Good afternoon, Jordan."
She smiled back dreamily. "Hello, tiger."
He chuckled. "Tiger?"
"How long was I asleep?" she asked, still a bit muzzy.
"Over an hour. I just woke up about five minutes ago myself," he answered. He reached out and touched her face softly. "You're beautiful when you're asleep."
She smiled. "I guess I should sleep more often, then?"
"I didn't mean it that way." Initially defensive, he looked at her face and realized she was amused. "And you knew it."
"Yup." She slowly sat up and stretched. "Do me a favor?" she asked.
"What is it?"
"I want you to kiss me. But first I want you to cup my chin like you did when you hit me." She saw the doubtful look on his face. "I'm not crazy, Jack. I just don't want any leftover charge clinging to that gesture. I thought maybe you could help me defuse it."
"Right. Desensitization therapy." A smile touched his lips. "Anything I can do to help." He reached his left hand slowly toward her face, cupping her chin, watching her eyes for signs of anxiety. Pulling her face toward his, he met her lips in a soft kiss, then backed off and dropped his hand. "How was that?"
"Okay," she replied. "I could feel myself tensing, but I was able to follow my breath and let it go. Try again?"
He obligingly repeated the operation a few more times, each time moving a little faster and savoring the kiss longer. "Again?"
She nodded. "This time try to look menacing." She braced herself.
He hesitated. "I don't want to wear that mask with you, Jordan."
She thought a moment. "Imagine that I just bugged you about your leg again." He frowned. "Yes," she said, "that's perfect."
He repeated the exercise, struggling to maintain a frown. She raised one hand to the back of his head and ran her fingers through his hair, prolonging the kiss. When they finally tore themselves apart, Jack asked, "Is it working?"
She smiled and touched his jaw. "Working great, my friend. How about for you?"
Rolling his eyes, he replied, "I'm never going to be able to use that move on the trainees again."
She grinned. "Sorry. I didn't mean to put a kink in your training program. But seriously, I think it did the trick. Thanks."
"All in the interest of science, Lieutenant." He smiled. "Know what I'd like to do now?"
"Yeah, Jack, I know what you'd like to do," she replied smugly, arching her eyebrows.
He snorted. "Besides that. We need to go find some dinner. It's after 1730."
She laughed. "Now that you mention it, I'm getting hungry myself."
He enjoyed seeing her laugh. "That little cafe has the only eats on the island, and sometimes if nobody shows up for dinner Mario closes early. We don't want to go to bed without dinner tonight."
"Hooyah, Master Chief. Don't want to go hungry." They packed up their gear and headed slowly back to the cottage, hand in hand. The swimming seemed to have helped Jack's leg; she judged that his limp wasn't quite as bad as had been on the way down to the beach.
Jack left his sandy exercise brace at the door and took the first shower, changing into a clean pair of shorts and a T-shirt. While she showered, he put on his full brace and hosed off the lighter one. She donned a simple sundress for dinner, earning an admiring glance.
Jack was right about dinner time. By the time they made their way to the little cafe, Mario was surveying the empty tables sadly, looking at his watch. He brightened to see them arrive. "Jack! Miss! Please. Have our best table."
The dinner menu was unchanged from lunch, but each easily found something that sounded good. This time they splurged and ordered a bottle of wine to accompany the meal.
Margaritas and lazy conversation occupied their time while they waited for the food to arrive. It had been over seven hours since lunch, so they dove into the meal with gusto. Despite the unresolved issues between them, they were able to relax and be comfortable with each other.
After dinner they lingered for over an hour, drinking wine and talking about their favorite places to travel, until finally Mario stood over them, tapping his foot, encouraging them to move on so that he could close. Jack let her pay the bill without comment, and they ambled companionably back to the cottage arm in arm.
Jordan was first through the cottage door. Never a heavy drinker, she was noticing the effects of the alcohol. "I'm feeling a bit rocky," she said, heading for the kitchen.
"What's this?" he teased. "An operator who can't hold her liquor?"
She turned and made a face at him. "I should know better than to try matching drinks with someone who outweighs me by seventy pounds. I don't usually have more than one or two glasses of wine."
"You going to be okay?" he asked.
"I'm just a bit unsteady," she replied. "I'm going to lie down for a few minutes." She drank a glass of water, then made her way into the bedroom and closed the door. She lay down, trying to relax and bring the world back into focus. Her feelings about Jack were confusing enough, she thought. She really didn't need the alcohol making things worse. After twenty minutes she felt better, so she returned to the living room, to find Jack sitting on the couch writing in his little book. She sat next to him and tried to peer over his arm. "What's this?"
He smiled, closing the book and putting down the pen. "Nothing, Jordan." As he started to put his arm around her, she snatched the book from his fingers and danced away with a teasing grin. He lunged for the book but caught only the hem of her short dress as it slipped through his fingers. "Damn," he swore softly, but the grin on his face told her he was willing to play.
She sidled back to the couch with her prize. "Read it to me, Jack?" she asked. This time he ignored the book dangling above him, tackling instead her more accessible waist. They fell to the couch in a tangle of legs and arms, the coveted book landing on the floor unnoticed. Laughing, they wrestled, Jack's size giving him a decided edge.
When they finally reached a stable position and paused for breath, Jordan was pressed against the back of the couch, his body lying atop hers. Her right hand was gently held captive by his left, their fingers laced together. He grinned wickedly and stroked her jaw. She ran her fingers through his hair, pulling his head to her, directing his mouth toward hers. She met him hungrily, laughter turning to moans of pleasure. Her hand left his head, finding its way under his T-shirt. She ran her fingernails lightly down his back.
Distracted by his mouth and her own activities, she didn't notice when his hand first left her face and started traveling down her side, down her leg to mid-thigh. There it found the bottom of her dress, and started its journey back up between her legs. She involuntarily lifted her hips to meet his hand, just as her internal alarms went off. She wrenched her head free. "No, Jack. Stop."
He froze, frustration and desire fighting with his self-control. Seeing his expression, Jordan shivered. "Please, Jack," she said, trying to bring him back to her. She reached down and captured his roaming hand, bringing it up and gently holding it against his chest. He shook his head and groaned, pulling his hands away and pushing himself up. He sat on the edge of the couch facing away from her, head bowed, resting in his hands. She lay silently, regret on her face. After a moment she sat up and laid her hand on his shoulder. "I'm so sorry."
He rose to his feet, shrugging off her hand. He stood for a moment, facing the doorway. His left leg almost gave way beneath him as he turned his head toward her slightly. "I'm going to sleep on the boat." He started for the door, his leg stiff and awkward.
She was afraid he would be gone before she found the words to say what she felt. She got one more chance as he stopped and collected his cane from its place near the door. "Jack. Please. Don't go," she pleaded. "Talk to me." She rose from the couch and started toward him.
He looked at her, his face weary, his voice ragged. "No, Jordan. I can't stay here tonight. I'll see you in the morning." He walked out the door and closed it firmly behind him.
"Damn." She cursed herself. She wanted to blame the alcohol but she knew that all the decisions were hers, from joining him on the island to drinking so much wine to playing a teasing game with him when she knew he was already on edge.
Glancing down, she noticed Jack's book lying on the floor where it had fallen in the melee. She glared at the book as she retrieved it, as though it had been the cause of this debacle. Briefly she considered reading it, searching for whatever he had been trying to protect, but she frowned at the thought and placed it on the table.
She looked at her watch. Barely 2100 hours. Worried about Jack, she considered a trek to the boat, but knew he wouldn't welcome her intrusion. He had spoken clearly; she needed to respect that and give him the time he needed. She spent a few minutes tidying up the empty cottage and for lack of a better idea, made her way to bed, where she slept fitfully.
Fortunately Jack knew the trail to the boat well, as he had left the cottage without a flashlight and the moon was not as bright as he had expected. Even with his cane, he stumbled several times and almost went down once. He swore at everything: Jordan, his leg, the mess in Libya, the Navy, the margaritas and wine, and most of all himself.
Climbing aboard, he eased himself onto the same bench he'd rested on earlier. In his mind he could still see Jordan at the helm. "What the hell was I thinking, getting involved with this crazy woman who thinks she wants to be in spec ops?" he asked, as though the wind and water might give him an answer. "Why couldn't I find someone normal?" He snorted at the thought. "Normal like me?" Most people he met kept their distance when they found out what he did for a living. Jordan was the first woman he could remember who embraced all that he was and met him head on at every turn.
She liked to do the things he enjoyed, and to his continuing delight she liked doing them with him. She made him laugh, even when he was determined to be grouchy. There had been a time when he wasn't such an ill-tempered son of a bitch. He knew precisely when that had changed. When Carol left, his laughter had gone with her. All that had remained was the satisfaction he got from his job. Until recently it had been enough. Now he felt he'd found a gaping hole in the middle of his life. He didn't know whether to cover it up quickly or make an investment in this woman who seemed to fit there so well.
"She'd fit there for a few days," he reminded himself. Then she was heading off for advanced training, and he might not see her for months. He shook his head. He knew better than anyone all the ways she could be hurt, captured or killed if she were to go operational. The thought of her in trouble with him back home, helpless to do anything, turned his stomach. He thought about asking her to turn down the assignment, but he could imagine her response. He paused, a memory from his past nagging at him. It didn't take long to trace its source. It was Carol, asking him to stay home with her. His response to her had been the same as he would expect from Jordan. "The universe does have a sense of humor after all," he said grimly.
He lay down on the bench, propping up his leg as before, and stayed there, mind spinning, until finally the cool night air forced him into the cabin. He washed up and spent the rest of the night tossing and turning in one of the bunks.
Jordan watched the digits on the clock next to the bed turn to 0500. It had not been a restful night. She lay in bed a few minutes with her eyes open and mind rushing at full speed. Realizing that sleep was no longer an option, she rose, slipped into her running clothes and took off to tour the island in the dawn light.
By the time she returned at 0630, she was pretty sure she had seen every square foot of the tiny cay, and her mind was calm if not fresh. She decided to go look for Jack at 0700 if he hadn't shown up before then. Showering and dressing quickly, she had just started a search for coffee in the tiny kitchen when she heard a soft rapping sound. She turned as Jack opened the cottage door. He hesitated in the entryway, brown paper bag in one hand, cane in the other. Her face lit up. "Jack! I'm so glad to see you." Noticing how haggard he looked, she smiled wryly. "Looks like you didn't get any more sleep than I did."
He relaxed visibly at her welcome, letting a smile touch his lips. Entering the cottage, he started for the kitchen with his groceries when his eye caught the book that had triggered the previous night's scuffle. He stopped and looked at Jordan. "Did you read it?" he asked.
"No," she replied, joining him in the living room. "Not that I wasn't tempted."
He acknowledged her forbearance with a nod as he set the groceries down on the coffee table and picked up the book. He found the page he wanted and handed her the open book. She sat on one end of the couch and bent her eyes to the page. While she read, he limped to the other end of the couch and sat heavily, his eyes on the floor.
touch of fingers
ignites hungry skin
mind struggles for control
logic to cinders
She caught her breath. "It's beautiful." She looked at him. "Did you write it last night?"
Turned to her, he nodded. With a wry smile, he added, "I know it's not great poetry, but maybe it helps explain my state of mind." He sighed and shook his head. "I did a lot of thinking last night. Please understand, Jordan, my feelings for you aren't just about sex. I enjoy being with you. I love your sense of humor, your energy, the way you set your jaw and charge ahead." He stopped, gathering his resolve, and took a deep breath before continuing. "But I haven't spent this kind of time with a woman since... since my wife left me five years ago." He looked at her and said simply, "I want you too much."
Jordan's face reflected her remorse and deepened understanding. "I'm so sorry, Jack. I should have paid attention to what was happening, been more sensitive." She paused. "My ex and I used to play little teasing games all the time. But we'd been together for several years. I just wasn't thinking."
He nodded. "Likewise. I knew my hand had no business down there."
She smiled. "No business yet. Maybe it was just early." She reflected for a moment. "I want you too. Perhaps more than you realize. And you're probably right about Sehloff not having a problem with our having a relationship. But I just can't take the chance." She looked at him, eyes pleading for understanding. "You know better than anyone how hard I've fought to get this assignment, Jack. I can't... I won't risk losing it. For my own peace of mind, I need to be able to go in clean when I meet with him." She reached her hand to him across the length of the couch. "I didn't realize it would be so difficult for us to keep our hands off each other."
"I know," he agreed, meeting her outstretched hand with his own. "It's just... well, 24 hours of foreplay was a bit too much for this old soldier. We only have one more day. Maybe we need to limit ourselves to handholding." He looked at her, one eyebrow raised. "And no cheating this time?"
She nodded with the slightest of smiles. "Agreed. I'll be a good girl, I promise." She paused. "Would an occasional kiss be okay too?"
He looked at her sternly, only the barest hint of a smile betraying him. "Okay. But no tongue."
She grinned. "And an occasional hug?"
Again the stern look. "Okay. But no wiggling your hips." He caught her look of innocence. "Jordan, you know you do it."
She smiled sheepishly. "Guilty as charged, Master Chief. Okay, no tongue, no wiggling. Friendly and affectionate. Period." She added seriously, "Jack, I'll do my best but I can't read your mind. You need to tell me if I start making it hard for you. So to speak. Promise?"
He raised his eyebrows and snorted. "Promise."
She directed her gaze to the neglected grocery bag sitting on the coffee table. "I don't suppose there's any coffee in that bag?"
He nodded. "Coffee, milk, juice, fresh eggs and bread. Let's make breakfast."
While Jordan brewed coffee, toasted several slices of bread and set the table, Jack scrambled half a dozen eggs. Within ten minutes they were sitting down to a hearty breakfast. She had more of an appetite than she'd anticipated, and it seemed that he was always hungry. She waited until he had finished eating before bringing up what was sure to be a sensitive subject. "How long were you married?"
He stared at his plate for a while, remembering his thoughts from the night before. Finally he looked at Jordan and replied, "We got married when we were both in our early twenties. I took a bullet, and Carol was a nurse at the hospital where I landed for a while." He unconsciously touched the old scar on his side. "We were together about ten years. She didn't much like it when I joined the SEALs, kept trying to get me to transfer closer to home."
"Is that why she left?" Jordan asked.
"Not exactly." He stalled out again. This story, buried deep, was not something he shared with anyone, yet he found himself wanting Jordan to understand what had happened. She reached her hand to his. Clasping it, he continued. "She found out she was pregnant. Next time I was on leave she asked me again to stay home, but I decided to take on one more assignment before requesting a transfer. She was already three months along by then, but I was only going to be gone six weeks."
He shook his head. "The mission blew up in our faces. I lost two buddies, and three of us were captured behind enemy lines. Nobody knew where we were or exactly what had happened. They told Carol I was MIA. We finally escaped about eight months later." He paused again, his eyes focused on a distant point. "By the time I got home, our baby was three months old. But Carol was finished. She'd already been seeing somebody else, said her son needed a father." He shrugged his shoulders and looked at Jordan. "How could I blame her? She didn't know whether I was dead or alive."
"Do you know where they are now?" Jordan asked.
"They live in Ohio," Jack replied. "She married the other fellow. George Sorensen. He's a good man, a good father. He adopted Jimmy. I send money, and visit him a couple of times a year, but George is his real dad." He took a long breath and released it slowly. "I'm hoping I can spend more time with him as he gets older, but Jimmy's only five, and Carol figures he's still too young to leave home and stay with someone he hardly knows." He shook his head. "I'm sure it's true. And lord knows, I don't know what I'd do with him anyway."
Jordan smiled gently. "You could bring him here, teach him to snorkel. He's going to feel special knowing he has two dads who both care about him."
"Hmmph. Never thought about it that way." He looked at her softly, echoes of old hurt in his eyes. Bringing his other hand to the table, he inspected her fingers one by one. "I guess now you know why I'm pessimistic about relationships with special operators."
"It must have been devastating, Jack. Did you think about her a lot while you were a prisoner?"
"All the time." He nodded his head slowly. "Sometimes thinking about Carol and our baby was all that kept me going. I wouldn't give up trying to find a way out of there." He smiled grimly. "She probably saved all three of our lives."
"Sounds as though it wasn't her but your feelings for her that saved your life," Jordan mused. "So had you been a SEAL trainer before this mission?"
"No," Jack answered, wrapping his hands around her smaller one. "They asked me to help teach a SERE course because of my POW experience. It gave me something to keep my mind off Carol, and I seemed to be suited for it, so I kept taking on more responsibility." He reflected. "Teaching SERE is always intense for me. I want the trainees to be prepared, to know what kind of shit they might face. And believe me, reality is always worse than the class."
Jordan hesitated to share her next thought, but she knew it had to come up. "It must feel strange, thinking about me going off to war, leaving you behind just as you left Carol."
"Yeah." He nodded heavily. "Last night, on the boat, I spent a lot of time thinking about that." With a wry smile he added, "There's some strange kind of justice at work here." He paused and shook his head. "After all these years I'm finally beginning to understand what Carol was going through every time I went on a mission."
"Maybe you should write her a letter," Jordan suggested. "She'd probably appreciate hearing it."
Jack looked surprised at the suggestion, but he nodded. "She might at that." He cocked his head at her. "You know, you remind me of her in a few ways."
Jordan was touched by this remark. His voice told her how much he had cared about Carol. "How so?"
"She listened to me, really listened, the way you do. And she made me laugh, even when I was determined to be grouchy." He reached out his hand and gently touched Jordan's cheek, leaning forward to kiss her. She met his lips with hers. "Glad we added the kissing clause to our agreement, baby."
"Me, too," she said, smiling at his choice of endearment. "And thank you for telling me about Carol. It helps me understand where you're coming from." She traced his face with her fingers as though committing it to memory. "Don't you waste any time worrying about me, tiger. You know I'm tougher than I look. I promise I'll come back. No matter what it takes."
"I'll count on that," he said, letting a smile crack through. "Know what Pyro told me after SERE?"
"He said you were an irresistible force and I was an immovable object, and the meeting was bound to be explosive." He shook his head. "You are an irresistible force, Jordan. Whomever you're up against had better watch out."
She grinned. "Methinks the immovable object has budged a bit. And this irresistible force has adjusted her heading for a new intercept." Straightening in her chair, she changed the subject. "So, Master Chief, do you want to sit around and talk about the past all day? Or shall we go check out the diving on the other side of the island?"
"Let's go diving, Lieutenant." Getting to his feet, he began collecting the breakfast dishes scattered around the table.
"Hooyah." She stood up and started assessing the damage in the kitchen. "Any time constraints? When is check-out?"
"It's 0745 now. We could motor over there, make two good dives with an hour between, and still be back by 1300 hours," he replied. "The cottage is ours all day. We'll have plenty of time to shower, get some lunch, and relax a bit before heading back to the mainland."
Motivated, they made quick work of the breakfast mess and got ready to go. Jordan put on her swimsuit, with shorts and a tank top over it. Jack wore his trunks and T-shirt, and took the exercise brace with him. Even moving at his careful pace, they were at the launch in twenty minutes.
This time he piloted, while she ran a routine safety check on the tanks and regulators. When she finished, he gave her a new job. "There are several wetsuits hanging in a closet in the cabin. One of them has my name on it. Go through the others and find one that fits you, then bring them both out here."
"Aye, aye, Skipper," she acknowledged as she sought out the gear. She picked out a suit that fit her, and brought it out along with Jack's. "Smells pretty good for a communal wetsuit," she grinned, laying the suits on a bench.
He smiled and held out his arm, inviting her over for an embrace. She obliged him, tucking herself in next to his side, arm hugging his waist. Wrapping his arm around her shoulder, he bent down for a kiss. "What is it about you? How do you make it so difficult for me to feel bad when you're with me?"
"Maybe it's because I like you, and I'm not afraid to show it," she offered.
"But why me, Jordan?" He was genuinely puzzled. "How did you pick such an ill-tempered old hard-ass like me to hang around with?"
She laughed at his description of himself. "Well, for one, because you're not afraid of me. Very few men are brave enough to mess around with a lady operator." She tilted her head toward him. "You did remember to wear your codpiece this weekend, didn't you, Jack?" He snorted in response.
She continued, "And you're passionately committed to your job. The first priority of Royce, my ex, was career advancement. Every move he made was aimed at making himself look good. You're all about doing what's right. It's refreshing." She paused a moment. "As for the 'old' part, you're only 38. I looked it up. And finally, you look really sexy in those shorts." She grinned broadly.
"I don't want to know what else you looked up about me, Miss Naval Intelligence." He shook his head but he was smiling. He squeezed her shoulder affectionately. "We're almost to the section of the reef I want to check out. Head up to the bow and keep an eye out for shallow water or rocks."
She reported to her new post. Working together they guided the boat to a safe spot, dropped anchor, and raised the "diver down" flag. Finally, they lowered the dive shelf and ladder into the water for their exit. Jack joined Jordan on the bench where she had stowed the wetsuits, and removed his brace. She wondered how he was going to manage to get his suit on over his bad leg.
The answer surprised her. "Jordan, I could use your help." He held the wetsuit out to her. "I need to try to keep my leg straight." She nodded soberly as she sat next to him and took the suit, appreciating how hard it was for him to ask for assistance. She set to work in a business-like manner, first turning the suit inside out except for the cuffs. Starting at the feet, she rolled it up his legs until it reached a point where he was able to stand and pull the suit up the rest of the way. The operation brought her face close to the scars on his leg. She bit back the sympathetic comments that came to mind.
Jack let out the straps on the exercise brace and put it back on over his wetsuit. Jordan shed her shorts and tank top, and her wetsuit went on quickly over her swimsuit. They helped each other with their tanks and checked their systems one last time before rolling backwards over the side of the boat into the ocean.
The water was crystal clear, giving them a good view of the varied flora and fauna of the sloping reef. It began around the 30-foot depth, gently dropping off to about 100 feet. They slowly worked their way down to around 50 feet and maintained that depth, occasionally dropping lower when something interesting caught their eyes.
Within the first fifteen minutes they'd already seen barrel sponges, purple sea fans and huge coral heads. Angelfish and wrasses were in abundance, along with a myriad of other individuals and schools. It was clear this was an area not normally frequented by fishermen or tourists, as the fish ignored their presence, neither alarmed nor looking at them as a source of handouts.
They stopped whenever they found new and interesting creatures, pointing them out to each other. Jordan caught a small octopus, which, when given a choice, showed a decided preference for Jack's hands over hers. A six-foot long green Moray eel poked its head out of its hole curiously, and they discovered a giant grouper hiding behind a boulder. Time passed quickly. After 45 minutes they reluctantly returned slowly to the surface and headed back to the launch. Sitting on the dive shelf, they removed their masks and regulators. "Wow!" was the first word out of Jordan's mouth. "That was beautiful."
Jack nodded, grinning. "That grouper must have weighed over 200 pounds." He paused. "Sure was a treat to wander around like a tourist. I'd forgotten what it was like to be underwater without a mission."
Fins and tank removed, Jordan climbed up the ladder onto the boat. Jack handed their gear to her before carefully making his way up the ladder. He dug out some energy bars and offered her two. "Better recharge, Jordan. Another dive in an hour?"
"Hooyah, wouldn't miss it." She drained a water bottle and started eating. "In the meantime, I have a job to do. You going to take off your wetsuit?"
He nodded, puzzled. "Too hot to leave it on."
"So glad we agree," she said, smiling. She made her way over to the bench and stripped off her wetsuit. He followed her and removed his own, Jordan helping him with the last few inches of the cuff. She quickly hosed the salt water off both suits, Jack, and herself, then stood facing him squarely.
"I need a temporary amendment to our agreement," she said solemnly.
Sitting down, he looked up at her warily as he toweled off his leg and restored the brace. Seeing her in that wet swimsuit was enough of a distraction; he didn't need more. "What mischief are you up to now?"
"When I put sunscreen on you yesterday, I observed some tension in your back and shoulders. I feel partly responsible for that tension, and I'd like permission to try to work some of it out." She finally cracked a smile. "Seriously, Jack, I'm pretty good at backrubs. Let me give you one?"
He hesitated only briefly. "That does sound good. Where do you want me?"
Jordan almost answered him truthfully. Then she thought better of it and pointed to the bench he'd been lying on earlier. "Can we pull the cushion off that long bench and lay it over in the shaded area of the deck? That way I can work from both sides."
They rearranged the cushion to suit their needs and threw an old beach towel over it. Jack stretched out on the flat surface and rested his head on his crossed arms. "Don't mess around, woman," he growled warningly. "My self-control only goes so far."
"Hush," she said quietly, starting to work. With the help of a little salad oil she'd brought from the cottage, she stroked broadly, palms open, from his waist up the middle of his back and around his shoulders, then back down the outside of his back, keeping a gentle, even pressure. After a few circuits, he took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. This was her cue to start working deeper, concentrating on one muscle group at a time, kneading, squeezing, stroking. When she found a knotted area, she slowly and steadily leaned her thumbs or the heels of her hands deep into the tissue, pressing out the tension. Methodically she worked her way from his neck and shoulders down his back, leaving each area relaxed and opened. By the time she reached his waist, his breathing was slow and even. She repeated her long, smooth opening strokes, gradually easing back on the pressure until only her fingertips were trailing along his back. He didn't move. A satisfied smile lit her face as she slipped off to find a comfortable spot for her own nap.
Both Jack and Jordan were exhausted from their sleepless night. The boat rocked gently in the calm water as they slept. For almost an hour, the only sounds to be heard were the seabirds crying and the water lapping at the hull.
Jordan was the first to stir. She looked at her watch. Over an hour and a half since they ate their energy bars. They could hit the water any time. Still, she hated to wake Jack. Deciding to give him another 20 minutes, she closed her eyes.
As she drifted off again, Jack slowly awakened. He debated whether to wake Jordan, and decided against it, setting his watch timer for another 15 minutes. Like her he wasn't all that eager to get up. His back and shoulders were still happily relaxed from the massage, and it seemed a shame to break the spell prematurely. He returned to his slumber.
The beeping watch forced him back to consciousness before he was ready. He slowly stretched, stood up, and stretched some more, rolling his shoulders and enjoying the feel of his loosened back. A quick scan of the boat revealed Jordan sleeping, curled up in one of the two lounge chairs. He walked over and quietly sat in the other chair, facing her, watching her breathe.
For the first time he realized just how precious she had become to him, and with that knowledge came fear. He settled back in the lounge and closed his eyes, letting himself get acquainted with this fear, touching its roots in old loss, old wounds. The choice had never seemed more clear. Familiar words came to his mind, "Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."
"Teddy Roosevelt. That's a great quote, Jack."
Startled, he turned to see Jordan stretching in her chair. "Sorry, baby. Hadn't realized I was thinking out loud. Didn't mean to wake you. Sleep well?"
She nodded as she sat up. "You?"
"Never better." He reached his hand out to her. "Thanks for the massage."
Taking his hand, she pulled him closer. He sat up, sliding his legs off the chair, leaning toward her. Wrapping his hands on either side of her face, thumbs gently sliding along her cheekbones, he brushed his lips against hers once, twice, three times before joining her in a series of sweet, legal kisses.
"Wow," she said, smiling softly. "Who needs a tongue?"
He grinned, landing one last kiss on her nose before releasing her face. "Ready for another dive?"
"Still time?" she asked. "I was afraid I'd slept too long."
He looked at his watch. "It's just after noon. We could go down for an hour and still be back to the marina by 1400 hours. If the cantina is closed, we can pick up some food from the store."
"What are we waiting for?" she asked, grinning.
They efficiently repeated their dive preparation, switching to fresh tanks. Within 15 minutes they were tumbling into the water once again, both feeling rejuvenated by their long nap. They headed in the opposite direction from their first dive to see what the southern part of the reef had to offer, once again staying around the 50-foot depth.
She was admiring an irate puffer fish, swollen to over a foot in diameter, when Jack tapped her arm to get her attention. Pointing to a large, oddly-shaped cluster of coral lying about 50 feet ahead of them and 20 feet further down the slope of the reef, he headed in its direction, Jordan following closely behind. Her eyes lit up as she saw tall posts sticking up from the reef floor. It was a 40-foot fishing boat, hull mostly intact but lightly crusted with coral. On the stern they were able to make out the name Ruby Cairo.
She followed him as they explored the wreck. The large hatch doors, used for loading fish into the hold, were wide open. A school of snapper streamed out as they shone their lights inside. A large nurse shark, easily 8 feet long, slept in a corner, protected on one side by a row of collapsed barrels.
For a fishing boat, there was certainly a lot of cargo below decks. Most of the containers were unlabeled or unreadable. They made their way through the hold and back out, heading next for the captain's cabin on the main deck. The door was closed but not locked. One at a time, they entered the small chamber, careful not to catch their hoses. Jack started looking through the debris and cabinets, indicating to Jordan that she should do the same. Prying open a small drawer, she was surprised to find two handguns inside. She tapped his shoulder and pointed. He nodded, motioning to her to take one. She closed the drawer and headed out of the cabin, carrying the weapon carefully despite its obvious age. He followed with what was left of a soggy log book.
She tapped her watch. It was time to start their return to the surface. He nodded, and they began their slow ascent, angling toward the waiting boat. As soon as they were out of the water onto the dive shelf, she pulled off her mask and regulator. "Are you thinking what I am?" she exploded.
He nodded, grinning as he removed his equipment. "Smugglers? Drugs? Guns? This was no fishing boat." He pulled off his tank, continuing, "The only question is which authorities to contact. Someone is going to be very interested in taking a look at this."
They returned to the deck of the boat as they had before and stripped off their wet gear. The next 15 minutes were spent drinking water and debriefing their dive. Unfortunately the log book entries were completely illegible. The gun was a Magnum, but they couldn't tell what model or vintage. They placed both items in plastic bags, tucking them into the bottom of Jack's duffel. Jack volunteered to make a phone call Monday to some friends of his who did salvage and ask their advice on how to proceed.
"You know," he said, "I've been coming to this island for almost five years. I've always wanted to dive this area, but never had a buddy with me." He looked at her. "Glad you came along. Otherwise I never would have found this."
She cocked her head. "I thought you said Pyro came with you a couple of times."
"Yeah." He shook his head. "All he wanted to do was drink, go fishing, and make eyes at Mario's 19-year-old daughter. I gave up on him after the second trip."
She laughed. "We're just lucky we didn't sleep all day and miss the chance entirely." Looking at him, she continued, "Speaking of which, shouldn't we head back to the marina?"
"Yes, ma'am," he replied, getting to his feet. Together they raised the dive shelf and ladder. He turned to her. "Mind if I leave you with the rest of the cleanup?"
She shook her head and reached up for a quick kiss, surmising that his leg must be bothering him. They both knew she could do the work more quickly than he. As he took the tiller, she raised the anchor and lowered the "diver down" flag. Now all that remained was the cleaning of the wetsuits and other diving gear. She worked efficiently, finishing in time to relax for a few minutes before they arrived at the dock.
They were in luck -- the cantina was still open. Despite the nap on the boat, they were both tired from their sleepless night and the dives. They quietly recapped the finding and exploration of the wreck while they waited for their food, sitting close to each other with hands clasped together. They barely tasted the meal; what energy they had was directed at each other. Once again Jordan picked up the tab, and they headed to the cottage for the last time, looking for a short nap before returning to the mainland.
They drew straws for first shower, and Jack won. By the time Jordan finished her shower, he was settled on the couch, eyes closed. She tiptoed past him into the kitchen to get one last drink of water before climbing into bed herself, thinking him already asleep. But as she returned to the bedroom, she heard him softly call her name.
"Mmm?" she answered quietly.
He opened his eyes and beckoned her toward him. She knelt on the floor next to the couch, eyes at his level. Reaching out his hand, he cradled her jaw. "Thank you, baby," he said. "Thank you for coming with me." Drawing her head toward his, he shared with her a long, soft kiss.
"There's nowhere I'd rather be right now, Jack, and no one I'd rather be with," she whispered, ruffling his wet hair. "Talk with you soon." She rose to her feet and went into the bedroom, pausing at the doorway to look at him one last time. She was asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.
An hour later she was awakened by a soft rap on the door. Jack poked his head in. "Rock and roll, baby. It's 1630 hours. I'd like to head for the mainland before too long. Join me for a cup of coffee?"
The offer of coffee brought her the rest of the way to consciousness. She rose quickly, donned jeans and a T-shirt, and packed up her personal gear. Following the aroma to the kitchen, she found a steaming mug of coffee on the table in front of a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Jack was reaching into the refrigerator. She looked at him quizzically. "Did the cookie fairy come while we were sleeping?"
"Pretty much," he grinned. "Mario's wife Luciana dropped these off for us. She worries that I don't get enough to eat."
"Well, bless her heart," she said, seating herself and reaching for the plate. "I guess I'm not the only woman with a soft spot for an ill-tempered old hard-ass." She grinned at him. "Aren't you going to sit down? Before I eat all your cookies?"
He closed the refrigerator and joined her with a glass of milk, a mock scowl on his face. "Be very careful. Never get between me and the last chocolate chip cookie."
Jordan grinned crookedly, keeping her mouth clamped shut as she chewed.
Jack settled back in his chair, picking up a cookie and taking a moment to contemplate the woman sitting next to him. "Okay, Jordan, my turn to ask some questions. You mentioned an 'ex' a couple of times. How did he end up in the 'ex' bin?" Taking a large bite, he waited for her answer.
She swallowed and took a sip of coffee before responding. "Royce and I met in the Academy and dated for a while. We went our separate ways after graduation, then got together again a few years ago when we were both posted to the Naval Intelligence Center." She squirmed awkwardly. "Unfortunately, shortly after we started seeing each other, he was transferred into my department. He wasn't in my chain, but we were working in the same bullpen. It was pretty uncomfortable at times, especially as he outranked me and periodically took the opportunity to dress me down for imaginary infractions."
"What sort of infractions?" he asked.
She grinned sheepishly. "Mostly my attitude. I was pretty good at what I did, and I got cocky sometimes. He thought I should keep a lower profile so that I didn't get in trouble."
Jack grunted. "I'm surprised you put up with that. Doesn't sound like you."
"He knew he'd get shit for it when we got home," she replied. "But no one at work knew we were dating, so I had to keep my mouth shut there. Now that was a violation of the fraternization policy."
He raised his eyebrows. "So you have some relevant experience."
"Yes and no. It was never my idea to live a secret life. When we found out he was being transferred into my department, I wanted to tell my superior and ask for one of us to be reassigned, but Royce insisted that we could make it work. It made for a lonely life. I couldn't share anything with my co-workers; they thought I was single and were always trying to set me up with someone. I wouldn't want to do it again."
"Is that why you split up?" he asked.
"No." She took a deep breath. "It was the CRT assignment. Royce put up with the training because he figured I'd wash out. But when I completed the training he couldn't handle me taking off for long periods of time. He told me I had to choose between him and the team. I don't think it was because he would worry about me so much as that I wouldn't be there to take care of him." She grimaced. "I finally realized it was impossible for me to be all that I could be around Royce."
He absorbed this quietly. "So what are you looking for now?"
She looked at him seriously. "Someone with rock-solid integrity, who's not afraid of me, who can be a diving buddy and a wrestling partner and a passionate lover and a trusted ally, who can meet me head to head and love everything I am." She paused momentarily. "I want you, Jack, if you'll have me."
He reached his hands to her across the corner of the table. "It won't be easy, Jordan. I can be a real son of a bitch."
"I know," she grinned, taking his hands in hers. "It's one of the things I love about you. No pretense." She thought a moment and added, "Except when you pretend you're meaner than you really are."
"Don't you dare share that with anyone," he warned. "I'd lose my job."
"Don't worry, tiger, I know it's your trade secret. I do have one question, though." She grinned mischievously. "Does Pyro know what a big pussycat you really are?"
He chuckled. "If he does, he's smart enough to keep it to himself."
"Unlike me, you mean." Her smile faded. "It's going to be so hard to leave here Wednesday." Her hands unconsciously tightened on his. "Ironic, isn't it? The two things I want most in life are you and the chance to serve on the CRT. And at least for a while, the two are mutually exclusive."
"Virginia's not that far away, Jordan, though it's going to feel like it sometimes. You may find yourself with a few days or even a week of leave with the chance to get back here. You come any time. I'll give you a key to the house."
"What if I arrive in the middle of Hell Week?"
He grinned, "I'll make you an instructor and you can see what it feels like to be on the other side. Seriously, Jordan, who do you think is doing the training right now while I'm on the injured list? All I really need to do is show up and scare the trainees periodically. It's a role I can play in my sleep." Jordan raised her eyebrows, winning a chuckle from Jack. "There would be a few days where I'd find it hard to get away, but most often I'll be able to make time for you.
"In the meantime," he continued, "write to me. Tell me everything. Tell me what the food tastes like, how the air smells. Tell me how the guys adapt to you -- or how they don't. Tell me what you can about your whereabouts or your activities. And I'll write to you and send you bad poetry and tell you the latest abuse I'm heaping on the trainees." He paused. "I think we can do this, Jordan. I'm willing to give it my best. How about you?"
Nodding seriously, she lifted a hand to his cheek. "I'm with you all the way, Jack." They leaned toward each other, sealing their commitment with lips parted and tongues reluctantly restrained. As they sat back, she smiled, stroking his hand. "Tomorrow those rules go out the window." Jack nodded his agreement. "Speaking of tomorrow," she continued, "any ideas about how best to approach Salem and Sehloff?"
"Salem's easy," Jack said. "He and I meet every Monday morning at 0830 to go over the week's schedule, so I'll talk with him then. Unless you want me to wait until after you have a chance to talk with Sehloff?"
She grinned. "Well, actually I left a message with Sehloff's office Saturday morning, requesting a meeting with him tomorrow morning. I'm tentatively scheduled for 0900. Have to call at 0800 to confirm."
He raised his eyebrows. "Taking us for granted?"
"No, I have plenty of other things to talk with him about. I figured it might be good to be on his agenda, just in case."
He nodded appreciatively. "I can see I have to stay on my toes with you. What's your battle plan?"
"My biggest question is what his orders are regarding me. If he's been directed to find a way to drum me out, then it may not matter what I say. But if he's to treat me like any other new grad, then I have a chance. Battle plan?" She thought for a moment. "I was planning to go in and tell him the truth. I can't come up with anything that sounds better, can you?"
He shook his head. "No, I think you're right. Chances are he'll call me in and ask me the same questions he's asked you. Best way to keep our stories straight is to tell the truth. Kurt is going to try to act tough, but he's a reasonable guy as long as you don't back him up against a wall. Just stay businesslike, professional. He'll respond well to that."
Jordan grinned. "You mean I can't just tell him to 'suck my dick'?"
Jack shook his head, lips twitching. "I thought that line was just for me, baby. Don't tell me you use it with all the guys."
She laughed, but her answer was serious. "No other guys for me, tiger. Your only rival is the Navy." She paused. "I guess that brings us to the final question: What we do if Salem and Sehloff say no?" She shook her head at the prospect. Jack listened quietly, giving her a chance to answer her own question.
"I see four options," she continued, taking a deep breath and counting the possibilities on her fingers. "First, we could just be friends. But we've said that we want more. Second, we could file a petition with the JAG, but that could be tied up for months. Third, we could carry on anyway, illicitly." She shook her head. "Besides being difficult and dangerous, that compromises our integrity. Definitely not a good choice. Fourth, one of us leaves the Navy or gets stationed somewhere else."
She turned to him. "Am I missing anything?"
"Nothing I can see," he said, shaking his head. "You've thought it through pretty thoroughly. So what are your conclusions?"
"I don't see the first three as viable. As for the fourth..." She hesitated, resuming with a heavy voice. "It would be tough, Jack. I looked into the possibilities when my CRT status was up in the air. I might be able to transfer to an Underwater Salvage or Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. They accept women." She looked at him unhappily. "I know I'm repeating myself, but I've worked so hard for this. I may hate this job, but to give up without giving myself a chance... I just don't know how I could do it."
He held up his hands, stopping her before she could make herself more miserable. "I don't think you're the one who should change careers right now." He took a deep breath. "I've been in the Navy 20 years. I already gave up one good woman for the service. I even gave away the chance to raise my son. The more I think about it, the more I realize I can't let myself make the same mistake twice." He looked at her seriously. "You're the best thing that's happened to me in a long time. I'm not going to throw you away just because the Navy tells me to."
Stunned, she tried to interrupt him, but he continued. "No, hear me out. I'm not looking to leave the service. I get along well with Salem, I have a good team. I like my job. If they'll let us do our thing, I'll probably stay. But it's not my only option. Some old buddies of mine, ex-SEALs, started an underwater salvage operation a few years ago and they've been bugging me to join them. They make good money, and combined with my Navy pension, I'd be doing well." He paused, a grin spreading across his face. "Hell, you could join us too. You're a good diver, and your topographic expertise would be a real bonus. And as far as I know they have no fraternization policy."
She shook her head. "But what about the challenges? What about combat? Wouldn't you miss it?"
"Underwater salvage isn't easy work. There would be new challenges, new things to learn all the time. As for combat," his voice trailed off. He paused a moment before continuing, his voice gruff. "I probably should have told you earlier but I still haven't accepted it myself. Doc says I may never be able to go back into active combat, especially with the SEALs. Too much damage. It's always going to give me trouble." He massaged his thigh absent-mindedly.
She resisted the urge to fuss over him. "Damn. I'm sorry to hear that. No wonder you're so testy about that leg." She chewed her lip. "Do you blame me for that mess in Libya, Jack?"
He shook his head, surprised. "Why would I blame you?"
She clarified her question. "Do you ever think that if you'd taken someone else with you, someone you trusted to take out that guy, you wouldn't have been injured?"
"Have you forgotten? 'There are no bad crews. Only bad leaders.' I chose you because I expected a routine survey, and you had by far the best topo skills in the group. If I'd been expecting hostile action, I would have taken someone with more combat experience, or taken more troops, or come up with a completely different plan." He paused. "And I made the call to fire instead of giving you the chance to take him down silently. We'll never know whether that was the right decision." He shrugged his shoulders and looked at her directly. "We were faced with something I didn't expect, and we did the best we could with it. If anyone was at fault, it was me."
Remembering his wild gallop down the wash, gunfire at his heels, he studied her thoughtfully. "It's a good thing for me you were on that crew. I sure was glad to find you all waiting for me." He cocked his head. "How did you know where I'd be coming from?"
"I looked at the map and figured out what I would have done." She grinned. "Good thing you were able to read my mind."
He shook his head, amused at the thought. "I'll never be able to read your mind, baby. You surprise me all the time." Stroking her cheek, he leaned forward and kissed her. "We'd better head back to the mainland. I'd like to get in before dark."
He doled out one more chocolate chip cookie to her and ate another himself, then bagged up the remainder and tossed them into his duffel for the trip home. "I'll take good care of these," he grinned. She smiled sweetly at him, munching her cookie and carefully noting the new location of the rest.
Gathering their bags, they headed for the door. Jordan stopped in the doorway, taking one last look around. She turned to Jack with a touch of regret, placing her hand on his arm. "Next time we stay here, nobody's sleeping on the couch." They closed the cottage door behind them and headed slowly toward the marina.
After they performed a quick safety check, Jack gave Jordan navigational instructions and she took over the helm once again. He stood behind her, hands on her shoulders, for companionship rather than for any need to supervise, as they backed slowly away from the dock and headed for the mainland. After standing half an hour, the ache in his leg became more urgent than his desire to stay physically connected to her, and he reluctantly returned to his bench. He watched her as long as he could keep his eyes open.
The return trip was uneventful. After docking the boat, they refueled it, refilled the SCUBA tanks, and made sure everything was as they had found it. By the time they returned to Jack's vehicle with their bags, it was close to 1930 hours. "Dinner?" Jack asked.
"Sure," Jordan replied. "Any good places between here and the motel?"
"There's a good steakhouse about a mile from here. And a decent Chinese restaurant in the same area." Jack's voice made it clear which he preferred.
"Steak sounds good," Jordan agreed. Within a few minutes they were in the steakhouse parking lot. As they entered the restaurant, Jordan looked in her purse. "Jack, I need to get something from my bag. Borrow your car keys? You can go on in and get us a table, I'll be right back." Handing her his keys, he continued into the restaurant. She rummaged through the bags in the back seat, returning to the steakhouse with a sly grin.
They enjoyed a hearty meal and good wine, Jordan limiting herself to a single glass. By tacit agreement, they kept the conversation away from their past, present and possible future relationships. This left them plenty of space to share their diverse opinions on politics and current events, favorite authors and poets. Knowing this was their last chance to be together for the weekend, they were in no hurry to leave the restaurant, but time eventually got the better of them.
They stood on the doorstep of Jordan's motel room for half an hour, embracing, talking, kissing, not daring to go inside but unable to let go of each other. When Jack finally pulled himself away and drove slowly home, it was after 2130. Once again the canvases called to him, and he painted for over an hour before finding his way to bed. He fell asleep quickly and slept well.
Jordan didn't have paint, but she did have a friend. She dialed Kathy Blondell, who picked up the phone on the first ring. "Not waiting by the phone, were you, Kathy?" Jordan teased.
"I've kept the cordless sitting next to me," Kathy grinned. "Well? I guess you're still alive, anyway."
Laughing, Jordan gave her a condensed story of the weekend, leaving out Jack's personal history, the Saturday night explosion, and the finding of the wreck. Kathy had lots of questions, and Jordan enjoyed having someone with whom she could share her adventures. Forty-five minutes later, they reluctantly hung up the phone. She was in bed by 2230 and asleep within minutes.
Jordan's internal clock woke her at 0600, a sure sign that she'd gotten a good night's sleep. Stretching sleepily, she thought back on her weekend with Jack and their agenda for the day. She wasn't sure which was more exciting, her new love or her pending assignment with the CRT. Either way, she had a busy day ahead. Wasting no time, she donned her running clothes and headed out the door. As she ran by the marina, she flung a salute in the general direction of Walk on the Moon, thanking the boat for her part in their weekend adventure.
Returning shortly before 0700, she slipped into the shower. She calculated that her short haircut saved her an average of ten minutes a day, a worthwhile trade-off in her mind. Towel wrapped around her torso, she came out of the bathroom and rummaged through her bag looking for clean clothes. The weekend hadn't included time for laundry, and the large duffel she'd shipped down from D.C. wasn't due until Tuesday. The pickings were slim.
A loud rap on the door caused her to jump. She wasn't expecting anyone. A quick check through the peephole identified her visitor as Jack, wearing battered navy blue sweats and a drillmaster scowl. An impish grin spread across her face. The opportunity for payback was too good to waste. Putting on a carefully neutral expression, she unchained the door and opened it ten inches.
Jack's eyes widened. Seeing Jordan clad only in a towel brought back vivid memories of watching her shower. Squelching the images and the feelings they aroused, he brought his attention back to his mission. "All right, Jordan," he growled. "Where are my cookies?"
"Stand at attention," she snapped disdainfully. Taken aback, Jack automatically straightened as Jordan continued, "Master Chief, when I want you to have a cookie, I'll give it to you." She slammed the door in his face.
Laughing, she quickly pulled on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, reopening the door to see Jack struggling to keep a straight face. "Would you like to come in?" she asked. "Or are you just here for food?"
He pretended to give her question serious thought. "Both," he answered. "But I can't stay long." He grinned. "I was a real son of a bitch, wasn't I?"
"Yes, you were," she snorted. "And you enjoyed it entirely too much." Backing away from the doorway, she beckoned him in and closed the door behind him. "I'm glad to see you, tiger," she said, resting her hands on the points of his hips. "I've been thinking about you."
Placing his hands on her shoulders, Jack bent his head to kiss her. She raised her mouth to meet his in a brief connection. "I couldn't stop thinking about you, either," he said softly, his voice husky. He kissed her again. "I wanted to see you one more time before going to work, make sure I hadn't dreamed the whole weekend. The missing cookies gave me an excuse to stop by." He paused. "You do have them, don't you?"
Jordan laughed. "Maybe." Her look became more serious as she reached up and touched his cheek. "If it was a dream, it was a good dream." She drew his head down for another kiss, releasing him reluctantly. "We have a big day ahead." Stepping back and cocking her head, she surveyed Jack's outfit. "Pretty casual attire for a meeting with the C.O."
"Afraid I'm getting cold feet?" he teased. "I'm heading for the gym first. Uniform's hanging in the SUV."
She frowned. "Hmm, that reminds me. I wasn't planning to be back in uniform until Wednesday. I'd better head to base early so I can touch up my shirt and trousers. Might start a load of laundry, too, as long as I'm there."
"Do your laundry at my house. Ironing, too." Fishing in his pocket, Jack brought out a key and handed it to her. "My spare house key. It's yours."
She looked at him with pleased surprise. "Thank you, Jack," she said as she accepted the key, appreciating the trust behind this gesture. "You sure you want to give this to the woman who stole your cookies?"
He studied her face, slowly running his thumb along her jaw. "Yes. I'm sure." Leaning down, he brushed his lips against hers. "I need to get going, baby. Meet me for lunch somewhere."
"How about your place? I can pick up some sandwiches from that deli on the corner."
He kissed the top of her head. "Sounds good," he replied, his nose buried in her soft hair. "Roast beef on rye, no cheese, mustard no mayo. I can be home by 1210. Work for you?" His voice was muffled against her skin.
Jordan giggled. Puzzled, Jack lifted his head and asked, "What's so funny, baby?"
"Your mustache is tickling me!" Struggling to concentrate, she repeated the lunch order back and looked up at him for confirmation.
Chuckling, he nodded. "You've got it. Thanks." Cocking his head, he asked, "Does my mustache tickle you when we kiss, too?"
"Sometimes," she acknowledged. "But I like it. Don't you dare stop," she ordered, raising her head imperatively.
"Yes, ma'am!" He obliged her with one more long, sweet kiss. Tearing himself away, he glanced at his watch. "I've gotta go, baby," he said regretfully.
"Don't forget your cookies," she reminded him.
"What cookies?" he asked innocently, ducking as she swatted at him. "Save 'em for lunch." Grinning, he cut off her attempted retort with one last kiss and headed out the door.
Laughing, Jordan followed him to the doorway, watching bemusedly until his 4Runner disappeared from view. As she returned to the motel room, she glanced at the clock. Oh-seven-fifteen. She briefly considered checking out of the motel, but decided it might be premature. Loading all of her belongings into the rental car, she headed for Jack's house, picking up a drive-through breakfast on the way.
Arriving at his home, she walked in and set her bags on the floor. She felt awkward being there without him, halfway expecting someone to chase her away. Though she shook her head at this foolishness, she knew why she felt this way. She'd known Master Chief Urgayle for months, thought she understood him reasonably well, though she always sensed there was more to him than she could see. Now she realized the trainer chief was only one aspect of the man, a persona he'd created so that he could do his job and keep the world at bay. Over the past four days she'd gotten to know more of Jack as a friend and lover, but he was still more hidden than visible. She looked forward to learning more about John James Urgayle, realizing it was a project that could keep her occupied for years.
Bringing herself back to the present, she sought out the laundry room, resisting the urge to explore more thoroughly. Once it was located, she moved her gear there, started a load in the washer, hung up her uniforms, and turned on the iron. While it heated up, she returned to the kitchen to eat her breakfast. On impulse, she put "Tutu" on the CD player and listened to it while she ate, thinking ahead to her meeting with Captain Sehloff.
At 0800 on the dot she called the captain's office, confirming her 0900 appointment. She thought about wearing her whites, but decided to choose the more serviceable khaki shirt and slacks. She wanted to look as practical and capable as possible. After ironing and donning her uniform, she explored Jack's collection of books, waiting for the washer to finish. Biographies, history, true adventure stories, fine art books, classics, poetry, contemporary fiction, cheap mystery novels. If there was a common thread, she was unable to find it.
The buzzing of the washing machine interrupted her reverie. She quickly transferred her laundry to the dryer, pulling out the lacy bits to hang. She grinned as she imagined Jack coming home to find them dangling from the shower rod. They would help him remember she was as much a woman as she was an operator--not that he seemed to need reminding. She glanced at her watch. Oh-eight-forty. With a final check in the mirror, she headed out the door. She didn't want to be late for her first appointment with her new commanding officer.
Jack limped into the base gym, stopping momentarily to allow his eyes to adjust to the dim light of the interior. The pungent odor of stale sweat and socks worn too long filled his nostrils. He listened to the grunting and good-natured banter of the men working out as he scanned the room for his workout partner.
"Over here, Jack!" Clad in black sweat pants, shirtless and barefoot, Senior Chief Max Pyro padded over, dumbbell in one hand. He slung a towel around his neck to catch the sweat that dripped from his hair and ran in rivulets down his face. Looking pointedly at the large clock on the wall, he queried his buddy. "Some extra beauty rest this morning?" Grinning, he waited expectantly for a growl.
"Max," Jack nodded in greeting, ignoring the jibe. He put down his gym bag and shed his sweatshirt, exposing the black T-shirt underneath.
Seeing that no more interesting response was forthcoming, Max sat down on the nearest bench and resumed his curls. "Where were you this weekend, anyway? I called a couple of times. Hooked up with this great chick, and she had a twin sister..."
"Count me out of your plans, Max." Jack replied blandly, cutting him off in mid-sentence. "I'm out of circulation for a while." He started his stretching routine.
Max snorted. "What, you got the clap?" Enjoying his own wit, he waited expectantly for a rise from Jack, but the chief just smiled back.
The lack of response was not in character. Puzzled, Max asked, "What the hell?" Suddenly a light dawned in his eyes. "Oh-ho, Jacko, found yourself a honey for the weekend?" He grinned lasciviously. "So who is she, man? Where'd you meet her?"
"She's from out of town," Jack replied, stretching his shoulders. "An old friend. No one you'd be interested in." Suppressing a smile, he nodded at the row of weights along the wall. "Are we going to sit here and gossip or can I get on with my workout?"
Through the rest of the workout, Max continued his attempts to pry more information out of his friend, giving Jack a great deal of amusement and satisfaction. When the master chief headed for the shower, Max was none the wiser.
Jack arrived at Captain Salem's office at 0830 sharp, having exchanged his sweats for summer whites. He stood at attention in the doorway and saluted.
"Come in, come in," Salem said, returning the salute and pointing to a chair. "As you were. Sit, get off that leg."
Jack sat across the desk from the C.O. "Permission to speak freely, sir?"
"Of course, Chief." Salem was surprised. They rarely talked about anything other than routine Navy business at their weekly meetings.
"Request this conversation be off the record, sir." Jack continued.
Salem frowned. "Request granted. Don't scare me, Jack."
"Thank you, sir." Jack cleared his throat. All his carefully prepared speeches were flying out the window. "There's this woman." He stopped.
Salem raised his eyebrows. About time that boy found someone, he thought. But why off the record, and why was he being so hesitant? Feeling apprehensive, he asked, "She Navy?"
"Yes, sir." Seeing the look on Salem's face, Jack added, "but not under my command. She's not stationed here."
"That's great, Jack. What's the problem? Rank difference?" Getting information from the chief was like pulling teeth.
"Actually she outranks me. She's a lieutenant." Jack paused. "She's on the CRT, sir."
Salem almost choked on his cigar. "A woman ... on the CRT? Shit, Jack, don't tell me..." He raised himself from his chair and glared at Jack from across the desk.
Jack allowed a small smile to touch the corner of his mouth. "Yes, sir. Lieutenant O'Neil." He hastened to add, "Nothing, I repeat, nothing happened during training. But she flew down Thursday. Wanted my advice regarding her assignment. We had dinner and talked, then went out Friday evening and spent most of the weekend together. Purely platonic, sir." He cleared his throat. "But we do intend to pursue a relationship."
Salem glowered. "Anybody see you together?"
"We were discreet. I don't think anyone from the base noticed us. We weren't in uniform."
Salem sat back down, exhaling. "Hell, Jack, what were you thinking?"
"I was thinking I hadn't met such an interesting woman in years." Without realizing it, he smiled briefly as he thought about her.
Salem saw the smile. For the first time he really looked at Jack. The C.O. could not remember seeing his command master chief looking so relaxed and energized. Salem shook his head. "You're not going to get all mushy on me, are you?"
Jack grinned. "Not planning to, sir."
Salem frowned. "God help us all. I don't recall ever seeing you grin like that before. Don't you go losing your edge on me, now. I need you sharp. You're my best weapon with those trainees." He leaned back in his chair, chewing his cigar. Finally he relented. "Glad to see you looking happy, Chief."
"Thank you, sir. The lieutenant is meeting with Captain Sehloff at 0900." Jack grimaced. "I'm sure the captain will call me in as well. I understand he's picking up McCool as well as O'Neil. Has he talked with you about his new grads?"
"He's reviewing their files this morning. We're scheduled to meet at 1300 hours. Seems we'll have plenty to talk about." Straightening up in his chair, Salem allowed himself a dry smile.
"No doubt, sir."
"I'll tell Sehloff I have no problem with it, on one condition."
Jack eyed his commanding officer warily. "The condition being?"
"You don't let that woman soften you up. I need your assurance you can still be an asshole when necessary."
"I know the role well," Jack nodded soberly. "Thank you, sir." Handing Salem a printed status report, he slipped into their usual Monday morning routine. "My status. Anything I need to focus on this week?"
Salem scanned the report. They continued their meeting for another twenty minutes, as though this were an ordinary Monday morning.
Seated behind the desk in his temporary office, Captain Kurt Sehloff read the orders once more. "What the hell did I do to deserve this?" he muttered for the tenth time that morning. The paper in front of him looked deceptively like any other assignment order. Even the name "Jordan" could indicate a man.
Or, as in this case, a woman. "How the hell did she manage to make it through SEAL/CRT training? Has Jack lost his mind?" He shook his head. His verbal orders were clear. He was to use no obvious harassment, do nothing illegal, nothing he wouldn't do with any other new team member. But he was to give her no slack. If she so much as sneezed at the wrong moment, he had his superiors' blessing to boot her back to Washington. Clenching his fist, he growled, "politics," making the word an expletive. Shoving the papers aside, he looked at the clock. Oh-nine-hundred hours. She should be here.
At precisely that moment, Lieutenant Jordan O'Neil appeared in Sehloff's open doorway and snapped a salute, feeling almost as calm and resolute as she appeared. The captain's square face and broad shoulders brought the image of a bull to her mind. Not a happy Ferdinand, this bull looked as though he was scouting for a matador to disembowel. She recalled Jack's advice to keep the discussion businesslike.
"Lieutenant." Sehloff acknowledged her salute and tipped his head back slightly, directing her to enter. He did not indicate the chair sitting across from his desk. She walked into the room, closing the door behind her, and continued standing at attention.
He studied her, curious to see this woman who had evidently managed to complete the tough course. She was shorter and more solidly built than he had pictured. Her hair was about an inch long, in a simple low-maintenance style. Her khaki uniform was equally neat and serviceable, from the cap tucked under her arm to her polished brown shoes. As far as he could tell, she wore no makeup or jewelry, and he caught no whiff of perfume. For all that, she was clearly female, and one his men would no doubt find attractive. He shook his head at the thought and sat silently a few more moments, looking for signs of approaching nervousness. He saw none.
"Stand easy, O'Neil," he finally granted. "You wanted to see me?"
"Yes, sir." Her voice was strong and steady. "Permission to speak freely, sir." She paused long enough for him to nod his head. "Thank you, sir. And I request that this conversation be off the record."
The captain raised his eyebrows and grunted. "Why?"
"I intend to share private information about myself and another member of the Navy, sir." She caught his eyes. "If this information leads you to decide that Navy operations have been jeopardized in any way, you may use it as you see fit."
"Hmmph." Sehloff nodded slowly. "Very well, Lieutenant. But I reserve the right to repeat your statements if I deem it necessary for any reason. Proceed."
She nodded crisply. "I contacted Master Chief Urgayle last Thursday when I arrived in Florida, to request his advice. We met that evening over dinner to discuss my new assignment, the CRT course, and other related business." She hesitated only briefly. "At the end of the evening, he invited me to join him for pizza and a movie the following night. I accepted."
Sehloff raised his eyebrows. "Go on."
Jordan took a deep breath as she approached the more sensitive part of her story. "We went to Urgayle's house after the movie, and talked at length." She chose not to mention the physical contact they'd enjoyed. "We acknowledged our interest in getting to know each other better, but we had concerns about whether such activities might be contrary to the Navy's fraternization policies. Saturday morning I contacted a friend in the IG's office. She indicated that our relative ranks and recent instructor/trainee connection put us into a gray area of the regulations, giving discretionary authority to the commanding officer. We spent time together over the weekend but agreed to keep our relationship platonic until we could talk with you and Salem."
Sehloff sat back, drumming his fingers on the arm of his chair. Was this how she'd managed to weasel her way through training? Slowly shaking his head, he eyed the lieutenant skeptically. "So you're asking permission to continue pursuing this relationship with Urgayle."
"Effectively, yes, sir," she replied.
"Sit," he directed, gesturing toward the chair. She sat. "It's been almost three weeks since the end of training?" He asked the question rhetorically, ignoring her nod. "What was your relationship with the chief during the course?"
Jordan answered carefully. "Completely professional. The chief did his best to convince me to drop out of the program, but he treated me fairly."
"No special treatment?" Sehloff had heard this was the case, though he found it hard to believe.
"No, sir. The trainers treated me as though I were one of the men. Equal requirements, equal workload, equal rations of shit. Equal consequences if I screwed up. I lived in the barracks with the rest of the trainees." She looked at him directly, leaning forward slightly. "That's the way I wanted it, sir."
"I heard some wild stories about the SERE POW simulation. I understand you two had quite a battle. He beat you up pretty badly?"
"I gave him as good as I got, sir." Jordan smiled briefly. "Just ask him."
"I intend to." Sehloff shook his head. "So when did you start this transition from battling to dating?"
"We reached a truce after SERE. I think the master chief finally realized he couldn't get rid of me. But as I said before, it was on a purely professional basis." She reflected. "I contacted him last week because I didn't know anyone else who could provide the advice I was seeking. To tell you the truth, I halfway expected him to refuse to talk to me."
Rubbing his chin, Sehloff silently digested the lieutenant's presentation. Finally he sat up and leaned forward, resting his arms heavily on the table. "I'll be frank, O'Neil. Personally I couldn't care less whether you have an affair with Jack Urgayle. What I do care about is my team's ability to get their jobs done and get home safely."
Setting his jaw, he shook his head slowly. "I'm sure you can guess that I didn't ask for you to be assigned to me. I don't know what the hell kind of strings you pulled to get any assignment at all." He looked her in the eye. "No one wants a woman on the CRT, Lieutenant, and frankly, it baffles me that you want to be here. My superiors made it clear that no one will shed a tear if you leave, no matter what the reason, trumped up or not." He grunted. "If I busted your ass for going to a movie with Urgayle, hell, I might get a promotion."
Looking for a reaction, he caught only a slight lift to her chin and tightening of her jaw. She was not going to be easily intimidated. Leaning back in his chair, he thought a few moments, eyes on a corner of the room. Finally he turned back to Jordan. "I try to be open-minded, but I won't jeopardize my team or their missions just so someone can fly an equal rights banner. So you tell me. Why should I give you a chance?"
Taking a deep breath, Jordan assembled her case. She looked Sehloff in the eye as she spoke. "I earned my insignia just like the men did, sir. I passed all the coursework and performed well in a combat situation. I believe I will be an asset to your team. I'm strong, I'm smart, I'm fast, I'm tough. I can wiggle into spaces where most men can't fit. I can get by on no sleep and less food. My topo skills are second to none. Give me a map, and I'll tell you where people are and where they need to go. I don't panic under pressure." She straightened her back. "I may not have a dick, sir, but I do have guts."
Sehloff grunted. "I've reviewed your course records. Your written work was exemplary, and you passed all the skills tests. But guts aren't enough in hand-to-hand combat. I'd hate to see you up against a trained 200-pound man."
Sending a silent apology to Jack, she replied, "I took down the master chief in the SERE camp, sir, with my hands tied behind my back. He underestimated me, left me an opening. I took it." Looking pointedly at the captain, she added, "It wasn't the only time someone has underestimated me."
He formed a steeple with his fingers, choosing to ignore her last point. "Tell me more about SERE. How did you get captured? How did this battle begin?"
Wincing slightly, she acknowledged her initial failure of leadership. "I was team leader. Two of the guys refused to take orders from a woman. They took off in the wrong direction and tripped a booby trap." Before he could comment, she continued. "When I didn't crack under the chief's initial interrogation, he set out to prove that the men wouldn't be able to handle seeing me being hurt." She paused. "He gave me every opportunity to back down, but I told him I didn't want him to go easy on me because I was a woman. I taunted him, pushed him to do his worst. It had become the only way I could gain any credibility with him or my team."
"I see," Sehloff mused. "So how did you take him down?"
Jordan decided not to mention the threatened rape. "He had me bent over a table, trying to get the guys to give him some intel. I kicked him in the kneecap and smashed the back of my head into his nose. He went down on his knees, so I kicked him four or five times to flatten him and keep him there temporarily." She paused. "Unfortunately, with my hands tied and guards all around, there was nowhere for me to go, and he managed to get back on his feet."
Sehloff shook his head once again, trying to imagine this woman taking down Jack Urgayle. He didn't want to ask why the chief had her bent over a table. If she was telling the truth, Jack had some explaining to do. "Then what happened?"
"He knocked me down twice more, pretty hard. The second time I almost stayed down. Then I heard him telling the guys that my presence made them vulnerable. So I managed to get up and defy him one last time."
"Was this the now-famous 'suck my dick' line?" he asked. She nodded, slightly abashed. "Sounds like quite a show, Lieutenant."
"The men thought so, sir." She smiled briefly, remembering the "hooyahs" that greeted her final remark. "Master Chief Urgayle and I were pretty battered, but for me, at least, it was worth it. The guys really rallied behind me." She paused. "I think that's when he finally started to respect me."
The captain nodded his head slowly. In spite of his efforts to remain unswayed, he, too, was starting to respect the lieutenant. He could see why Jack had become attracted to her, though it was certainly a bizarre way to start a relationship. But that didn't mean she belonged on a reconnaissance team. It was time to check her story. "I need to talk with Urgayle and Salem," he said, "and I'm also going to put in a call to the JAG for an opinion on the fraternization question." He glanced at the clock. "Check back with me at 1400 hours and I'll let you know my decision. Dismissed." He nodded his head and turned away to pick up the telephone.
O'Neil saluted and left, closing the door behind her. She paused in the hallway to regroup, feeling much less certain of her future than she had going in to the meeting. She'd thought her battle for an assignment was over; now it seemed she'd only won a few skirmishes. Stiffening her spine, she vowed under her breath, "If it's a fight they want, they'll get it."
Through the thin wall, she heard Sehloff on the phone. "Urgayle, get your ass over here." Smiling in spite of her anxiety, she checked her watch. She still had time to drop in at Lt. Blondell's office on her way to her psych appointment. Heading toward the door, she saw Jack coming down the hallway in his crisp whites. She couldn't keep from smiling, though she maintained a careful distance as she nodded, "Master Chief." Her steps felt lighter as she continued down the hall.
"Lieutenant," he responded with an equally professional nod and brief smile. His eyes followed her as she walked away. With a small sigh, he approached Sehloff's door and knocked.
"Come in!" Sehloff bellowed. Jack entered, closing the door behind him. The captain wasted no time getting to the point. "What the hell's been going on between you and Lieutenant O'Neil? And what possessed you to let a woman pass the SEAL/CRT course? Are you out of your mind?"
Jack's jaw tensed as he bit back a curt response. Then, remembering how easily Jordan had disarmed him when she returned from D.C., he decided to give her tactics a try. He stood at attention, offering the captain a quick salute and tight smile. "Good to see you again, Captain. Congratulations on your promotion." He waited for Sehloff to stop blustering and acknowledge him.
The captain sputtered to a halt. "All right, Jack," he said gruffly, waving his hand at the chief. "Have a seat. And stop calling me 'captain.' You know we worked together too long for that." He paused while Jack arranged himself in a chair. "Tell me you didn't pass this woman just because you had the hots for her."
The chief glared at the captain. "I didn't pass O'Neil just because I had the hots for her, Kurt. No one graduates from my classes unless I'm convinced they're ready. And you know it." Relaxing slightly, he added, "And for the record, I didn't have the hots for her during the course, though I have to admit she got my attention." He shrugged his shoulders. "We gave her the same work, the same tests, the same shit we gave the rest of the trainees. In some areas we were harder on her than on the guys. I was so sure she'd ring out or test out that I didn't take her seriously through most of the training session. She was a fluke, a curiosity, an irritant."
"An irritant?" Kurt asked. "In what way?"
Jack threw open his hands. "She was a woman in my CRT training course. She didn't belong there. How could she not be an irritant?" He shook his head. "Initially we were told to give her special treatment. She was billeted in separate barracks, held to lower standards. She had tied up her long hair but it kept falling down and getting in her eyes." He snorted. "She was a joke. But that lasted only a couple of days. Then she insisted on being treated like the guys, shaved her head, quietly moved herself into the men's barracks in the middle of the night. Caused a row in the morning."
"And that irritated you?"
"I was pissed as hell. She was turning my class into a circus. Guys couldn't concentrate. Tampon jokes." He paused, realizing he might be giving Kurt the wrong impression. "At the time, we blamed her for the commotion. Thing is, she wasn't trying to cause trouble. She wanted to succeed at the training and become operational, just like the guys did. It was the men who were out of line, not her."
"But still," Kurt replied, "she was a distraction. Made it more difficult to keep order?"
"Distraction, yes. Difficulty keeping order?" Jack thought a minute. "Maybe just the opposite. Once the guys got over having her in their barracks, they actually tended to behave themselves a bit better with her around. She was serious about the training, didn't mess around, didn't tease them. Held herself to a high standard. Her presence challenged the guys to do their best -- they didn't want the girl to beat them."
"How do you predict she'd affect my team?" Kurt asked. "I have a good group, but they're not angels." He shook his head. "I'm not looking forward to throwing a woman into the pen with them."
"Have you told them you have a woman coming on board?"
"Not yet. I'm still not sure I do. The west coast CRT commanding officer has flatly refused to take her. The brass seem to be under some pressure to place her, so they're leaning on me. It was made clear that there will be some 'appreciation' if I can handle the O'Neil problem. But I can't and won't put her on my team if she's going to jeopardize them in any way." He raised a calculating eyebrow at Jack. "It would help if I could make it known that she's dating the Catalano CMC. Your reputation might keep the guys from behaving like idiots around her."
"What, I act like an idiot around her so they don't have to?" Jack grinned at his old buddy. "Okay with me if you tell them, but better check with Jordan too."
Kurt laughed. "You have loosened up a bit, haven't you, Jack?" Shaking his head, he brought the chief back to the subject. "You haven't answered my question yet, Jack. Bottom line. Is her presence going to make it harder for my men to do their jobs and get home safely?"
Dropping his gaze, Jack stared at a corner of the floor for a few moments. Returning his eyes to Kurt's, he shook his head slowly. "I can't answer that, Kurt. Every new grad is a wild card. You never know for sure which ones are going to settle in and do the job, which ones will fall apart when the pressure is too great. I think O'Neil will do well in the field. It's my experience that the small scrappy guys do as well as or better than the big strong fellows, and she's as scrappy as they come."
He grimaced as he continued. "With the team, at least at first, she'll present some special challenges. Especially on a sub, where she'll be the only woman. Even if her platoon is okay with her, the rest of the crew may not be. She's almost certain to be verbally harassed, could even be physically attacked. She's got a mouth on her, and she'll stand up to any of the men if they give her flak. Stand up to you, too, for that matter. Physically, I think she's tough enough to take care of herself one on one, but you might remind her not to let herself get cornered by a group. The trainees learned to accept her, and I'm sure your men will too, over time. But there's bound to be some friction while they work it out."
Kurt digested this information without comment, nodding deliberately. "Back to the training. O'Neil told me her side of the SERE story. What's your side?"
Jack shook his head slowly, reluctantly meeting the captain's eyes. "It was one of the ugliest jobs I've ever taken on. First time I ever hit a woman, and hope to god it's the last. But I knew it was my final chance to prove that she didn't belong in the CRT, so I turned off my conscience and went to work." He looked at Kurt meaningfully. "You know what I'm capable of. I tried everything in my arsenal to convince her to drop out. She took more abuse than most men would tolerate, and came right back at me."
He exhaled slowly. "I needed to prove that a female's presence would make the team vulnerable, that the men would jeopardize the mission to save a woman. So I knocked her around in front of the guys on her team, figuring they would spill their guts to make me stop." He grunted. "They were ready to crack, but she ordered them to keep their mouths shut and they obeyed her. Didn't expect that. Forced me to escalate beyond my original plans."
Kurt nodded. This was starting to make sense. "She said you had her bent over a table. I can only guess what that was about."
Jack laughed mirthlessly. "Fat lot of good it did. That threat would have gotten me all the intel I wanted from some of the men in the pen. Didn't faze her in the least. I even cut her belt with my knife, started to pull her pants down." He looked at the captain. "She tell you how she turned the tables?"
"Said she caught you off guard, smashed your nose and took you down. Kicked you, too?"
Jack nodded. "She connected several times, including where it hurts the most. And she wasn't pulling her punches."
Kurt frowned. "Where were the other instructors while you were on the ground? Why didn't they stop her?"
"Pyro tried to interfere earlier, thought I was being too rough on her. I told him to stay out of it. So they all stood there picking their noses while she kicked me around." Jack shrugged. "I guess they figured I was getting what I deserved."
"Sounds as though Max was right. Bending regs, weren't you, Jack? I'm surprised there wasn't an inquiry."
"If O'Neil had filed charges, I could have been in trouble. But that wasn't her agenda." Jack shook his head wonderingly. "I know it sounds strange, but she wanted me to do my worst. With every bit of mayhem I threw at her, she came back daring me to push harder. She told me later that she knew it was the only way she was going to win the respect of the team. And me."
"Told you later?" Kurt asked.
"Last week. We hadn't spoken since graduation. She approached me to ask my advice about her assignment with your team. We talked about the training, particularly about SERE, and the Libya mission. Cleared the air a bit."
"Speaking of Libya, Jack." The captain pulled a report out of the stack of papers on his desk. "Some interesting reading here. Just received it this morning, so I haven't had a chance to read past the summary pages. Maybe you can fill me in on the details." He scanned the page looking for the statements that had caught his eye. "According to this report, you left the team at the landing site while you and O'Neil went to scout the extraction corridor. Why did you pick her to go with you?"
"Topo is her area of expertise. She's good at reading maps, reading terrain. I figured she was the best person for the job."
Kurt nodded his head. "Says here you spotted some Bedouins and then several border patrol vehicles on a road that runs right through the extraction route. After that the summary is a bit unclear. I guess one of the vehicles detoured up to your lookout point?" Looking up, Kurt shot Jack a questioning look. When Jack nodded, Kurt went back to the report. "One Libyan soldier stopped, walked around looking for something, came close to O'Neil's hiding place, and you shot him, thereby alerting the rest of the patrol to your presence."
Kurt placed the document back on the table. "Something doesn't smell right here. You were supposed to go in and out without calling any attention to yourselves. What happened? Why'd you shoot this guy?"
Jack was silent for a few moments, recreating the scene in his mind. "The road ran through a broad desert valley. I had a good vantage point from a rock outcropping on a ridge. O'Neil was about a hundred yards to my left, downslope, in a semi-abandoned camp. A few ragged tents, rusted barrels, boxes. One vehicle broke away from the group and drove up to the camp. O'Neil ducked behind a wall. The guy got out of his vehicle, put down his rifle, walked toward her hiding place. As he got close, he heard her whisper to me on the radio and got suspicious, pulled out a handgun. He was looking for her. She had her knife ready, said she'd take him out, but I didn't want to take a chance. So I fired."
"You didn't trust her to do the job?" Kurt's question was delivered almost as a statement. He cocked his head, watching Jack's expression closely. "Were you afraid for her?"
Jack frowned, knowing he was being herded into a trap. "It was a tough call. She was game to try, but it was her first combat situation. He was a big guy, he had his weapon drawn, and he was wary. Wasn't some half-asleep sentry." He shook his head, eyes traveling uneasily to the brace on his leg. "Shooting him was not a great solution. Stirred up the hornets' nest, and I've got a bum leg to show for it. But if he'd taken out O'Neil, injured her, or taken her hostage, it could have been a lot worse." Jack paused, anticipating the next question.
"And if instead of O'Neil, it had been one of the guys?"
"If it were you or Pyro, I wouldn't have batted an eye. A trainee like Wickwire or McCool, who had some good combat experience, I'd have kept a finger on the trigger but I would have let him make the call." He hesitated, lowering his head and roughly running his fingers through his hair. "I told O'Neil that if it had been another guy without combat experience, I would have made the same call that I made with her."
Sensing Jack's uncertainty, Kurt pushed his attack. "You think she lacks the stomach for a job like that? The strength?" Kurt leaned forward. "Or were you being overly protective? Did your feelings for her color your judgment?"
"I think she could have done it, Kurt. But I don't know for sure," he replied, twisting his mouth, ignoring the last questions.
"You don't know if she was capable of taking the guy out, because you didn't give her the chance to find out. So either she's not ready or you screwed up. Which is it, Jack?"
"Shit, Kurt, it was her first mission! She hadn't even graduated yet." Jack straightened in his chair, leaning forward as he made his point. "You know as well as I do you don't want to put a trainee in a position like that. Yeah, I screwed up. If I'd realized what we'd be facing I would have taken one of the other guys, or taken a different route. But don't go reading more into it than was there." Folding his arms across his chest and setting his jaw, he sat back, daring Kurt to pursue this further.
Kurt leaned back, stroking his chin. "The rest of the summary doesn't speak badly of her. Sounds as though her leadership saved your hide. How'd she figure out where to find you? You two work out a plan?"
Jack shook his head, his jaw still tense. "She studied the map, the terrain, figured out what I'd do given the circumstances. Wick told me that setting up the explosives was her idea too." Realizing that Kurt had backed off, he relaxed slightly. "Yeah, she's a good leader. Original thinker, probably stronger than either Wick or McCool as a strategist." He paused. "But it wasn't just her leadership saved my hide. She ran into enemy fire and dragged me to safety. Might have made more sense to send one of the guys in for me, but she was closest so she did it herself." He looked directly at Kurt. "Fault me if you want to on that mission, but don't hold it against her."
Kurt let out an exasperated sigh. "It's not about fault, damn it. I'm trying to figure out whether to give this woman a chance, and you haven't made it easier. First I find out you two have a thing going, calling into question everything you say. Then you keep feeding me conflicting messages. She took you down, her hands tied, but you couldn't trust her to take out the Libyan. Her presence was a distraction but helped with discipline. She's good but... she's ready but... she can do the job but... bottom line, she's still a woman." He snorted. "Hell, I'm more uncertain now than I was when I started this morning."
"I don't envy you the decision," Jack agreed. "But don't underestimate her. She's as qualified as any of the guys, Kurt. Stronger in some areas, weaker in others. Just like everybody else."
"What would you do in my place? Would you agree to have a female in your platoon? Even if she were as good as O'Neil seems to be?"
Frowning, Jack rubbed his chin as he tried to find a good answer to Kurt's question. "Before I met Jordan and saw what she could do, I never would have accepted a woman on my team. Now if I were asked to take on a woman of equal caliber, I would consider it. Bottom line?" He hesitated, his sense of duty warring with his desire to help his partner. Duty won. Reluctantly, he admitted, "It would be hard for me to treat a woman as just another teammate. I'd be inclined to watch out for her. Wouldn't trust her to take care of herself." He shook his head. "Once I got to know her we'd probably work it out, but it would take some doing." He met the captain's eyes reluctantly. "The women aren't the problem, Kurt. We are. It's not just Jordan's competence that's in question. The men's attitudes will have to accommodate her, and that's not going to be easy."
Kurt nodded. "I think you've hit the nail on the head, Jack. No matter how well O'Neil does, she's still limited by the attitude of the men she works with. I have to ask whether my guys are evolved enough to adapt."
"I hope the answer is yes," Jack replied grimly. "Jordan will kill me if she thinks my hesitation lost her the assignment."
"You really want your girlfriend going away on assignment with a bunch of wild-ass operators?"
"Of course not. I'd like her to be here with me. I know as well as you do what could happen to her. Scares the shit out of me if I let myself think about it. But it's not just about what I want, it's about what she wants, and about the job she's trained for and signed up to do. Same thing you tell your wife about your job."
Narrowing his eyes, Kurt studied his old buddy. "The lieutenant must be pretty fond of you to have talked with me this morning. I'm not sure you realize how tempting it is to use your fraternizing as an easy way to take care of the O'Neil problem."
"We knew we were treading on thin ice. I figured as long as we were dating we might as well go all the way, but Jordan insisted on holding the line." He smiled crookedly, remembering her lecture. "Said she was sure you could appreciate the difference between spending time with someone and sleeping with him, even if I couldn't."
"She's right and you know it, you old dog." Kurt shook his head. "Your logic might have worked on a 20-year-old but not on O'Neil." He looked at Jack. "Must have been tempting."
"We came pretty close a couple of times." Jack grinned sheepishly. "The second time I ended up sleeping on the boat."
Kurt shot him a stern glance. "Drawing the line was a good move on her part, but it would have made my job easier if the two of you had never gone down this path at all. You know damned well there's a reason the Navy doesn't allow fraternizing between instructors and students. I realize the course was over a few weeks ago, but that teacher-student relationship is still relevant. By compromising your objectivity, you've made it more difficult for me to gauge O'Neil's suitability for the job."
Jack ducked his head, acknowledging Kurt's point. "Our first meeting was about business. A coaching session. But the more we talked, the more we enjoyed being with each other. We didn't set out to make your job more difficult."
Kurt shrugged his shoulders philosophically. "I'll make the decision one way or another. I'm not sure how soon I'll get an official opinion out of the JAG office regarding the fraternization, but if Jordan joins my team, I'm sure we can work something out eventually that will clear the decks for the two of you. In the meantime I'll adopt a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy and you do as you please." He threw Jack a mock glare. "Just don't forget, you owe me one."
"Thanks, Kurt." Jack responded, acknowledging the debt. "I'm going to enjoy sharing that piece of intel with Jordan." He returned to a more professional tone of voice. "Anything else you wanted to cover with me today?"
"Pyro around? I want to talk with him, get his perspective."
Frowning, Jack opened his mouth to protest, but thought better of it. "They're building some new barriers for the O-course. He's supervising. What time?"
"Sooner the better. I'd like to get this wrapped up."
Rising from his chair, Jack nodded. "I'll send someone to fetch him." Taking his leave, he returned to his office and sent Chief Carlson in a Jeep to the obstacle course to relieve Pyro. A check of his own schedule listed physical therapy at 1100, lunch with Jordan, and a personnel report due to Salem before the end of the day.
For a few moments, he let himself look forward to seeing Jordan at lunch. Kurt's interrogation had rankled, but it was a price Jack was willing to pay if it helped her. Shaking his head, he brought himself back to the job at hand. This relationship stuff was eating into his time. He needed to focus if he was going to finish that report. Turning to his computer, he got to work.
The summons came just as Instructor Pyro was about to call for a 15-minute break. Giving brief instructions to Carlson, he left her in charge of the crew while he hopped in the Jeep and drove back to headquarters. Stopping in the washroom, he brushed off his navy blue utilities and mopped up the dust and sweat from his hands and face.
He arrived at Kurt Sehloff's office shortly before 1030, wondering why the captain wanted to talk with him. Usually Jack handled any contact with the outside world. The master chief liked to present a unified front, keeping internal conflicts about training practices in house. The office door was open, revealing Kurt deep in thought over a report on his desk. Max saluted, clearing his throat to get the captain's attention.
Looking up, Kurt grinned at his old teammate. "Max! Come in!" Standing, he waved away the salute and extended his hand across the desk. "Good to see you. Been a while."
"Yes, sir, over three years." Max smiled, grasping Kurt's hand in a firm shake. "Congratulations on your promotion."
"Thank you," Kurt replied, pointing toward a chair and sitting back down. "Got lucky I guess. Close the door behind you and have a seat. Sounds as though you're Jack's right arm these days."
Max shut the door and settled himself across from Kurt with a grunt. "More like his left leg. He gives me all the jobs that require running around. I've lost ten pounds since he came back from Libya." He shook his head. "Not that I'm complaining. At least I'm not the one with the brace."
Kurt nodded. "That Libya mission was a mess. Glad they all got out alive." He leaned forward, propping his elbows on his desk. "Jack tell you what I wanted to talk about?"
"No, sir, just got a message to report to you on the double." Max raised his eyebrows, cocking his head slightly. "Must admit, I'm curious."
"Remember Lieutenant Jordan O'Neil?" Kurt queried. "She's been assigned to my team and I'm trying to decide what to do with her. You were involved with her training?" It was more of a statement than a question.
Max raised his eyebrows. "Yes, sir, I worked with the lieutenant." A wide grin split his face as he remembered how she took down the master chief. "She'd be hard to forget!" He shook his head slowly as he absorbed the rest of Kurt's message. "They're putting her on a team? I'll be damned." Catching himself, he added, "Begging your pardon, sir."
Kurt nodded slowly. "Help me out, Max. I'm struggling to understand how a 120-lb. woman who's been working in an office the last few years managed to pass the SEAL/CRT training course, when over half the men failed. Was she held to the same standards as the other trainees, or were you gender-norming?"
"Sure as hell didn't expect her to last. She started out with separate standards, separate quarters. But she fought it from day one. Wanted to be treated like the men."
"So Jack decided to give her what she wanted?"
"Not exactly." Max grinned as he recalled being told to "educate the lieutenant" about the gender-norming regulations. "She tried to complain to him but he refused to listen to her. So she went to the C.O. and he made the decision. Told Jack."
Kurt raised his eyebrows. "She went over Jack's head? Was this when she moved into the men's barracks in the middle of the night? Can't imagine he liked that."
Max chuckled. "He was pissed. You know trainees aren't supposed to have a say in what happens during the course."
"Once the decision was made, did he sign on? Or did he still treat her specially?"
"She got what she asked for," Max replied. "No one cut her any slack, especially not Jack."
"So you're convinced that she met the same standards the men did. No exceptions for size or strength?"
"Yes, sir, same standards. No exceptions," Max declared emphatically.
"Tell me, Max. Would you serve on a team with the lieutenant? Was she up to the job?"
Max grunted. "Rather not." Cocking his head, he added, "but I would if ordered. She'd probably do okay."
"Why do you say you'd rather not?" Kurt probed.
Max twisted his mouth. "Just feels wrong. I'd be worrying about her." He reflected. "Probably get used to it after a while, but I think it would throw me off stride at first."
"Is this because of something specific about O'Neil, or would you feel that way about any woman?"
"Oh, nothing wrong with O'Neil, sir." Max grinned appreciatively. "She's a pistol. Kept us on our toes. It's just ... you think of women as being people you need to protect. Not teammates."
"Speaking of protecting women," Kurt noted, "Jack mentioned that you disagreed with the way he treated O'Neil in the SERE POW simulation. Said you tried to call him on it. True?"
Max hesitated, reluctant to discuss an internal issue. But since Jack had brought it up himself, he guessed it was okay. "Yeah. He was pretty heavy-handed."
"More so than with the guys?"
"More than with most guys." Max leaned back slightly, folding his arms across his chest. "He doesn't always get involved. I guess he decided I was being too easy on her so he took over. Slammed her around pretty hard." He swallowed. "She was such a little thing compared to him. It was tough to watch."
Kurt shook his head. The pairing of O'Neil with Urgayle seemed stranger than ever. "Did he tell you why?"
"Didn't tell us shit. Just told me to get the hell out if I didn't like it." Max allowed a small smile. "Gotta say, none of us were too sympathetic when she managed to take him down and kick him around. She's tougher than she looks."
"Did it seem personal, Max? Did he dislike her? Was he angry with her? Or was this purely professional?"
Max thought a few moments, finally shrugging his shoulders. "You never know for sure with Jack. But I didn't get the impression it was personal. Even after she kicked him in the balls, he didn't seem pissed off. Just told her she shouldn't start something she couldn't finish. Delivered the line like it was a classroom lecture. Then he kicked her in the head. Weird business." He shook his head. "It was all about convincing her that a woman didn't belong in the CRT." He snorted. "Didn't work, though. She just rode him out like he was some kind of tropical storm."
He looked at Kurt, puzzled. "Funny thing. After it was all over he told me she wasn't the problem. It was us. The men. Still ain't certain what he meant by that, but I don't think he held a grudge against her."
"Did the chief behave differently toward her after SERE?"
"I didn't notice anything different, but I wasn't around as much. She was called back to DC for a couple of days, and after she returned it wasn't long before the class took off on their training mission. I stayed here to get things ready for the next group."
"Do you think he had the hots for her?"
Surprised, Max stared at Kurt for a moment, then threw his head back and roared. "That what this is about?" He shook his head, still chuckling. "No way, man, just the opposite. She drove him nuts. He wanted to get rid of her."
"You sure? You don't think he was attracted to her? Even after SERE?"
"No way. Not his type."
"Hmm." Kurt grunted. "So what is his type, Max?"
"When we go out drinking, mostly he ignores chicks, tells 'em to go find someone their own age. Every once in a while he'll take somebody home. Never the same one twice. He likes 'em quiet, not too flashy, not too young." Max reflected. "Had a dry spell for a while but I guess he's got a new squeeze now."
"Yeah, he disappeared over the weekend, showed up late at the gym this morning." Max grinned wolfishly. "Said he's outa circulation for now but wouldn't tell me who she is. Just said it's some babe from outa town."
Humoring Max, Kurt raised his eyebrows appreciatively and grinned in return. Glancing at the clock, he realized he needed to conclude the interview. "Anything else you can tell me about Lieutenant O'Neil?"
Cocking his head, Max thought a minute. "I'm not saying a woman belongs in the CRT. But if I had to have a female on my team, I'd pick her. She's okay." He looked at Kurt. "When does she report?"
"She got into town last week, but she's on leave until Wednesday. She was on base today, met with me this morning." Kurt sat up. "Thanks for your time, Max. Get together with you and Jack for a drink before I have to ship out again?"
"You bet," Max replied, rising to his feet. "Good luck with your decision." As Kurt nodded a dismissal, Max headed out the door, musing. A wild possibility occurred to him. He paused in the hallway, deep in thought. "Jack and O'Neil?" He shook his head "Nah! No way!" Chuckling at the thought, he headed back to the O-course.
Leaving the base at 1100 hours, after her routine psych appointment, Jordan ran a few quick errands before picking up lunches for Jack and herself. She arrived at his house a few minutes after noon, using her key to let herself in. Pulling some plates out of the cupboard, she set the sandwiches on the table and popped open a diet cola for herself. She kicked back on the couch, willing herself to relax.
Jack arrived promptly. Rising from the couch, Jordan met him at the door, her eyes shining. They stood face to face for a few seconds, studying each other. Wrapping his hands gently around her face, Jack hovered his mouth over hers, first brushing her lips, then diving hungrily into her eager mouth. Jordan's hands settled on Jack's sides, just above his belt. Sunday's rules went by the wayside.
Minutes later, when they tore themselves loose, Jordan hugged him, resting her head on his chest. "Much better, Jack. I never liked that 'no-tongue' rule."
He wrapped his arms around her, chuckling. "On that we agree, baby." He kissed the top of her head. "How was your morning?"
"Long!" She exclaimed, raising her head. "Too much wondering and waiting. I wanted to be doing something. I don't like having my fate in someone else's hands." She looked at Jack. "How'd it go with Salem?"
"Piece of cake." Jack grinned, remembering Salem's response when he realized who this female was. "He was especially delighted to hear you were the lucky lady."
"Oh, I'll bet he was," she chortled. "The C.O. and I have a very special relationship. Did he eat his cigar?"
"Almost," Jack confirmed, planting a warm kiss on her lips. "So how about you? What was your impression of Kurt? And can we eat lunch while we talk?"
She shook her head in mock disgust. "And I thought you were eyeing me hungrily. I should have remembered you're only here for the food."
"Just wait, baby, you'll see. When you're in the field, you learn to eat whatever and whenever you can." His tongue found its way into her open mouth again, as his hand caressed her back and hip. Her hands slid down, following the curve of his backside, pulling him closer. As they paused for air, he added softly, "Gotta admit, you taste pretty good."
"Yeah, you too," she agreed, her voice husky with desire. Her body was proposing alternative activities for their lunch hour. Taking a deep breath, she pulled herself back to the business at hand. "Food's on the table, Chief. Get yourself something to drink."
"Hooyah, Lieutenant," he replied, releasing her reluctantly. After fetching a soda out of the refrigerator, he joined her at the table. "So. Tell me about Kurt." Biting into his sandwich, he waited expectantly for her reply.
She closed her eyes momentarily, recreating the captain's picture in her mind. Letting her gaze rest on her plate, she summarized their meeting. "He grilled me. Didn't give an inch," she said soberly. "Said if he busted me for going to a movie with you, he'd probably get a promotion." She raised her eyes to Jack's, shaking her head slightly. "I went in assuming that I was going to be on his team and we were just working out details. But he made it clear that the assignment was up in the air." She looked hopefully across the table. "I think I answered him well, but he gave me nothing. You get anything?"
Shifting uneasily, Jack popped the top of his soda can and took a long swallow before answering. He knew she wasn't going to like his report. "He has serious reservations about having a woman on his team, Jordan. He questioned me for over half an hour about your abilities, the training, Libya. Wanted to know how I thought a woman's presence would affect his group."
Picking up on his discomfort, Jordan frowned. "How did you answer him?" she asked, eyes narrowed.
"Told him the truth. You passed the course because you performed as well as the guys. Did your job on the mission, showed leadership." He paused. "As for his men, I told him the trainees managed to adapt to you, and they would, too." He looked at her pointedly. "But you know as well as I do, Jordan, it would probably be rocky for a while. He's concerned about that. Grilled me pretty hard, too."
She nodded her head grimly. "I know he has reservations. Sorry you had to put up with the interrogation."
"No need to apologize, baby," Jack assured her. "It was worth it if it means I get to keep seeing you. And there is some good news," he added, brightening a little. "Kurt said he wasn't sure how soon he'd get an official opinion out of the JAG office regarding the fraternization. It could take days or weeks for an answer. In the meantime, he's adopting a 'don't ask, don't tell' policy." He ducked his head briefly, meeting Jordan's eyes with a crooked grin. "We can do as we please."
A wicked smile slowly worked its way across Jordan's face. She checked her watch and put down her sandwich. Arching her eyebrows, she leaned across the table and spoke to Jack in a low, sultry voice. "We have almost half an hour before you need to head back to base, tiger." Rising from her chair, she walked around the corner of the table and stood on his right, bending her knees to bring her eyes to his level. Laying her hand softly on his knee, she slowly slid it toward him as she whispered, "I haven't taken the time to check out the rest of your house yet. Anything interesting you'd like to show me in the bedroom?"
Groaning, he wrapped his hands around Jordan's shoulders and seated her on his leg, leaning forward to meet her lips with his. He shifted in his chair to ease the growing pressure in his trousers. As they kissed, he slowly worked his right hand down her arm and along the outside of her thigh. Jordan ran her hands down his neck to his chest, where she started to work on his buttons.
His hand had just started its way back up between her thighs when suddenly he stopped, shaking his head. "Oh, baby, half an hour's not enough, especially not for our first time together." Jordan moaned unhappily. He brought his hand back up to her face, softly stroking her cheek. "I don't want to be rushed. I want it to be right for both of us." He tenderly kissed her. "We can wait a few hours longer."
She put her hand on his shoulder. "I know. I just thought..."
He placed his mouth over hers, cutting off her words. His lips were soft, accepting, willing to wait, but with his tongue he told her how much he wanted her. She met him with equal intensity. As their kisses slowed, he ran his fingers through her soft hair, keeping his face close to hers. "Over the weekend, you told me that if all I wanted was sex, I should look elsewhere. Forced me to realize that wasn't all I wanted." His lips vibrated against hers. "I'm lookin' at what I want, baby. I'm in this for the long term. A few hours aren't going to make a difference."
Jordan felt a lump in her throat. Playing with his earlobe, she nodded. "I feel the same way. I just wish we had more time together before I take off. Every minute feels precious."
"I promise you, as soon as I can get away from base this afternoon, I'm heading home. We'll lock the doors and unplug the phone. I won't let anything get in our way." He smiled. "Not even dinner."
"I'll believe that when I see it," she teased. "I'd better make sure there's food in the house." In a more sober tone, she promised, "I'll be here."
"I'm counting on it." He flashed her a wicked grin. "We'll finish what we started Friday night."
Jordan nodded. "Feels like a lot longer than three days." She grinned. "And that chicken dinner seems like it happened months ago." Leaning forward, she kissed him again. "You're right, tiger. Better not to rush things." She sighed. "I just don't remember ever being so hungry for someone. Usually I'm the one drawing the line."
Jack snorted. "You did all right over the weekend."
"It wasn't easy. I had a strong reason to wait, but still I almost caved." Stroking the side of his face, she met his lips with hers once more. "Better finish your sandwich. Long afternoon ahead." With one last caress, she returned to her chair. She looked at the food on her plate without interest.
Jack's hunger wasn't dulled, but he did need to divert his attention somehow. "What else did you do this morning?" he asked conversationally, taking another bite of his sandwich.
"Laundry first," she reported. Nodding her head to Jack, she added, "Thanks for letting me use your washer and dryer. And after meeting with the captain I dropped by to say hello to Lieutenant Blondell." She looked impishly at Jack. "She knows about us but has promised to keep her mouth shut. Then I met with Doc Bucon. All routine. I told him about the little flashback and our de-sensitization treatment."
"He think it was a good idea?"
"Yup, said it was just what the doctor would have ordered. And it seems to have worked. He told me not to worry about the flashback unless it starts recurring or I experience more intense symptoms." She tilted her head at Jack. "He likes you, y'know."
Jack raised an eyebrow. "I thought psychiatrists weren't supposed to talk about personnel. Confidentiality."
"He didn't tell me anything specific. It was just the way he nodded encouragingly when I told him I was seeing you. I could tell he approved."
"He say anything about what you might run into with the guys on the CRT?" Jack asked, curious.
"Nothing we haven't already discussed." She looked confidently at Jack. "I'm not worried about it, tiger. I know some of them will behave like morons for a while but I think they'll get over it." She sighed. "Must admit, though, I'm glad McCool is going to be there. It'll be nice to have one fellow who's okay with me from the start. Fighting is tiresome."
Their conversation slowed to a trickle as they both became more serious about their sandwiches. Jordan pulled out the cookies and they made quick work of half the batch. Jack helped clean up the kitchen before heading back to base. Jordan folded the clothes that had been in the dryer, using the remaining time to haul out her laptop and check her email. At 1345 she headed back to the base for her meeting with Captain Sehloff.
Meanwhile, Kurt Sehloff joined Captain Salem in his office at 1300 hours. "Come in, Kurt, have a seat." Salem pulled a fresh smoke from his humidor, offering one to his guest. "Cigar?"
Kurt shook his head. "No, thank you, sir." Recently promoted to captain, he still addressed Salem as a superior officer. He settled himself with a heavy sigh. "This O'Neil thing is a pain in the ass."
Salem snorted. "Has been ever since she first showed up here. Glad she's your problem now." Grinning, he added, "and Jack's. Looks as though Jack has finally met his match."
"She's not intimidated by him," Kurt acknowledged. "Headstrong pair. Wish them luck. Jack doesn't seem worried, though."
"So you're not going to stand in their way?"
"No, sir," Kurt answered emphatically. "If O'Neil ends up on my team, their relationship would make my job easier. I haven't been looking forward to having an attractive single woman thrown into close quarters with a group of operators far from home. If she has a beau waiting for her, especially someone as daunting as the master chief, the guys will be much less likely to mess with her ... or to try to mess around with her." Turning toward Salem, he confided, "Besides, Jack's been a good friend to me for years. If being with her makes him happy, I'm all for it."
Salem nodded. "Jack's worked for me for almost five years. Been single all that time. Between you and me, I'm glad to see he's found somebody. Just hope he doesn't lose his edge, though she's hardly one to soften him up too much."
Kurt snorted. "Yes, she has a hard edge herself." He shook his head. "I still have grave reservations about having her on my team. Jack seems to think she's tough enough but he didn't trust her to take out that Libyan soldier. I wonder if she's capable of taking a life, or if she'd hesitate at the critical instant.
"I'm also concerned about her working with the guys," he continued. "I understand she was able to stand up to the trainees, but I have some well-seasoned operators who are pretty set in their ways. I don't know if harassment can be prevented. And if they decide they like her, they may end up compromising their missions to protect her, just like Jack did. Jack tells me it's the men's problem, not hers, but hell, to me a problem's a problem."
He brightened a bit. "But I think I may have a solution that will work for everyone. I looked into some alternatives for O'Neil this morning. The C.O. of the Underwater Salvage training facility in Panama City is an old buddy of mine. Says he'd be glad to have her, and she could spend more time with Jack. Get her out of my hair, make them both happy. Left a message for the CMC at Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal up at Eglin as well."
Salem shook his head skeptically. "She give you any indication she was looking for an alternative solution?"
Kurt shook his head. "No, but she seems intelligent. Any reasonable person could see this is better all around. Jack is important to her. He was the first thing she brought up when she came in to meet with me this morning." He shrugged. "We'll see. If she's willing to fight for the position, I'll give her a chance. But once she gives it some thought I think she'll accept my proposal."
Salem grimaced. "Don't underestimate O'Neil or her determination. Trust me, she's a force of nature."
Kurt frowned, realizing this wasn't the first time he'd been warned against underestimating the lieutenant. "I've been married ten years, sir. Lots of experience dealing with an unhappy woman. O'Neil may get upset, but she'll come around."
Nodding his head agreeably as he enjoyed his cigar, Salem allowed himself a small smile. Privately, he was betting on O'Neil. The two men turned their attention to Lieutenant McCool's course records, leaving the O'Neil problem behind.
At 1400 sharp, Jordan rapped on Captain Sehloff's closed door. "Come in!" he bellowed. She entered, closing the door behind her, and stood at attention.
"Stand easy," Kurt said, waving his hand. "This will have to be quick. I'm expecting a phone call." He sat up straight, looking at her directly. "I know this thing with Jack Urgayle is important to you. I spoke with my contact at the JAG office, and she's left it in my hands, so you two are free to do as you please." He briefly dropped his eyes to his desk, then returned to her gaze. "Make it work, O'Neil. He's a good man and I think you're good for him. He needs a woman like you in his life."
A broad smile threatening to destroy her composure, Jordan nodded. "Thank you, sir. We'll do our best."
"Now, as for your assignment," Kurt paused, dreading her reaction. In his experience, disappointed women always ended up crying. He hated seeing women cry. "I've decided that I can't afford to have a woman on my team at this time. I'll pass the information back to my superiors, and they'll be in touch with you regarding an alternate posting."
Jordan's jaw dropped. "Sir, you can't! I've worked too hard for this!" She caught herself and stood at attention, teeth clenched. She bit out her words. "May I ask, sir, on what grounds did you make this decision?"
"Based on my discussions with Urgayle and one of the instructors, I have reservations about your ability to handle all aspects of the job." Kurt eyed her warily. Maybe she wasn't going to cry after all. "I'm also concerned about how the men will behave with a woman in their midst. I'm sure you understand, I cannot take on an individual who might jeopardize the safety or performance of my men."
Jordan started to interrupt, but Kurt stopped her. "Be realistic, Lieutenant. The CRT isn't the best place for you. I've identified some good alternatives. I contacted the C.O. of the Underwater Salvage training facility down here and he'd like to talk with you. They're very open to qualified female candidates. There's an EOD school in the area as well. I can give you a written recommendation. Either organization would make good use of your diving skills, and you could probably work something out that would allow you to spend more time with the chief. I know he'd like that."
"Exactly what did Urgayle say to you, Captain?" She was rigid with controlled fury.
Kurt's telephone interrupted their discussion. "I need to take this. Your papers will be ready later this afternoon." Reaching for the phone, he glanced at Jordan. "Consider your options, Lieutenant. Dismissed." With his back to her, he answered the call.
Turning on her heel, Jordan marched out of Kurt's office. Feeling dangerously close to a meltdown, she ducked into the women's restroom to regroup. She paced back and forth, the captain's comments whirling around in her head. Based on discussions with Urgayle? Reservations about my ability? Problems with the men? Stay here and spend more time with the chief? Halting in her tracks, she addressed herself in the mirror, "No wonder Jack was so willing to wait at lunchtime! He figures I'm not really leaving!" She felt as though a support had been pulled out from under her. "Damn him! I really believed he was on my side." She sighed, "E tú, Jack? I thought I'd left that shit in D.C."
Shaking her head, Jordan pulled herself back together. "I'm not finished yet." She gritted her teeth. "The chief would like to have me closer, would he? How about right in his face?" With that, she exploded out of the restroom, almost knocking down a young ensign who was on her way in. She strode down the hall to Jack's office and walked in without knocking. Slamming the door behind her, she startled Jack, who was working on his report. Looking up, the smile that almost made it to his lips disintegrated before the storm in her eyes.
Coiled and focused, like a cobra ready to strike, she angrily hissed out her words. "What did you say to him, Jack?"
"Say to whom?" Jack felt as though he'd been dropped into the middle of a movie and hadn't been given the script.
"Captain Sehloff. What did you say to him, Jack?" Glaring at him, she kept her voice low, aware that the offices had adjacent neighbors. "Did you tell him you'd like it if I were to stay here? Be stationed closer to you?"
Jack wanted to give an accurate response. "Well, yes, but I...."
She interrupted, "And did you tell him that my presence would cause problems for his team?
"Yes, but ..."
Once again cutting him off in mid-sentence, she spat back. "You selfish bastard! It's all about you and what you need, what you want from me! You'd throw away everything I fought for just so you can have the little woman there for you when you want her. I should have known better than to trust you!"
"Jordan, what's going on? What the hell are you talking about?" Jack rose from his chair and came around the desk, parking himself at arm's length from his angry partner, hands on his hips.
"Your friend the captain has found the perfect solution for us. He's decided to volunteer me for EOD or salvage so that I can spend more time with you." She was shaking with fury. "You betrayed me, Jack! I trusted you! You're just like Royce."
Jack stared at Jordan, realizing he'd never seen her really angry before. In SERE she attacked in self-defense, like a cornered animal. Here she was on the offensive. He raised his hands defensively. "Damn it, Jordan, I never asked Kurt to post you here!" Feeling irritated by what he saw as an unwarranted attack, he tried one last time to reason with her. "When Kurt asked whether I wanted you to be off with the CRT, I told him the truth. I'd rather have you here. But I told him it wasn't my call."
"Damned right it's not your call, Master Chief!" Snarling, she poked her finger at Jack's chest. "My career is important to me and you are not going to decide what I'm doing or where I'm being posted!"
Her remarks touched a nerve, and the delivery made things worse. Setting his jaw, Jack retorted, "Just where do I fit into the equation, Lieutenant? Or is your career the only thing that matters?"
"Right now my career is number one. I fought too hard for that assignment to walk away from it," she snapped, pointing at him again. "And you know that!" She threw her hands up. "I don't know where you fit in any more! How can I trust you? How long before you try to sabotage me again?"
"I didn't fucking sabotage you," Jack growled. "I told Kurt what I thought was the truth. If he took it the wrong way, that's not my problem." He sat on a corner of his desk, crossing his arms.
"Stand up when I'm talking to you, Master Chief!" she shot at him.
The cords in Jack's neck bulged as he struggled to keep his temper in check. Keeping his seat firmly planted on his desk, he fired back, "Don't you pull rank on me, Lieutenant! Not unless you have Navy business to discuss."
"You don't even care, do you? You're glad he decided not to put me on his team!" Shaking her head, she exploded. "Damn you for worming your way into my heart! I should never have saved your sorry ass, Urgayle, shoulda let you lie there and bleed to death."
That brought Jack to his feet. Standing over her, his voice shook with barely controlled rage. "Some fucking operator you're going to be, O'Neil! We don't leave our people behind." He pointed her to the door. "You've already told me I don't matter to you. If all you care about is getting on Kurt's team, then why the hell are you talking to me? It's Kurt you need to convince--go talk to him! Stop wasting my time. Just get the hell out!"
Shoving her jaw toward his face, Jordan retorted, "I was just leaving!" She whirled around and stormed out of the room, setting a heading for Kurt's office. Halfway there she realized she was in no state to take on the captain. A course correction took her outside the building and across the grinder, where she found herself face to face with the brass ship's bell. Leaning on a post, she deflated herself with a huge sigh. She was so tired of fighting. Maybe Sehloff was right. EOD would be a challenging post. The EOD units worked closely with the SEALs, and she loved the diving. If she proved herself there, she might have a better chance of being placed on a team. And, angry as she was, she was still crazy about Jack. It was going to be hard to leave him so soon.
She felt a knot in her chest. Realizing she was on the verge of tears, she set her jaw and shook away the momentary weakness. Looking at the bell, a flood of memories rushed back, from her arrival on base through all her work and struggle. Nothing had been easy, but slowly, painfully, she had earned her insignia. "I'll be damned if I'm going to give up now!" she said to the bell, straightening herself to attention. She felt a twinge of regret about Jack, but shoved it aside as she steeled herself to talk with the captain. First things first.
Jordan strode grimly back to Captain Sehloff's office. The door was open, allowing her to see Kurt inside, talking on the phone. Taking a deep breath, she came to attention in the doorway. Outwardly she was still as a statue; inwardly her mind was going 100 miles an hour. She took advantage of the wait to calm and prepare herself.
Kurt tried to wave her away but she ignored him, her eyes fixed forward. Finally he concluded his call. He opened his mouth but she spoke first.
"Permission to speak, sir."
Rubbing his chin, Kurt considered ignoring her request. He was not eager to open the issue for debate, but he found himself curious to see just how hard she was willing to push. "Lieutenant O'Neil. I believe I've offered you the best possible solution. You can have a challenging position, work with a mixed team, and spend more time with Jack. I don't think you realize what it would be like for you to spend months on end sharing quarters with a group of ...." He paused, looking for the right words.
"Cock-swinging commandos," she supplied, diving into the opening he'd left.
"What?" Kurt's jaw dropped.
"I believe you're suggesting I would be living and working in close quarters with a group of tough, aggressive males who are not interested in sharing their space with a woman. Sir."
"Well, yes, that sums it up."
"Sir, I just spent three months living in the men's barracks with the rest of the trainees. Trust me, most of them did not want me either, but we learned to get along. Ask Lieutenants Wickwire or McCool, they'll tell you." She snorted. "Ask Jack, he'll tell you the same if he's not too busy trying to get me stationed closer to home."
"I thought your relationship with Jack was important to you," the captain replied, still trying to figure out how he'd let himself get into this discussion.
"With all due respect, Captain, I can see you've been operating under a misunderstanding. Jack is important to me. I'll straighten him out later. But my career is equally important. I earned the right to serve on a CRT, sir. I worked too hard to throw it all away." She paused only long enough to draw a deep breath. "I was assigned to your team, and I intend to serve on your team. And if you have any concerns about my ability to do the job, I'd like to hear them now so that I can clear up any other misconceptions you might have. Sir."
Kurt realized she was still standing at attention in his doorway. People going by in the hallway were finding their exchange all too interesting. "Get in here and shut the door," he rumbled. She did as instructed. "Stand easy, Lieutenant. But don't get too comfortable."
"What reservations do you have, sir?"
"There's the Libyan, for one," he replied. "Jack didn't trust you to take him out. Could you have taken him? Could you kill a man in cold blood?" He shook his head doubtfully. "It's part of the job, you know."
"Jack's lack of trust was his problem, sir, not mine." She paused. "We'll never know whether I could have taken the man down silently, because Jack didn't give me the chance to find out. But how do you know whether the men can do it, unless you give them a chance? I've gone through the same fight training they have, passed the same tests."
She stood even straighter as she continued. "Granted, sir, I've never killed a human being, and I hope I never have to. But I'm prepared to do the job if that's what's required. I grew up in the country, sir. My dad was a teacher, but we had chickens, goats, sometimes a pig. From the time I was small I helped take care of them, and by the time I was 7 or 8 years old I helped slaughter them as well. I baited my own hooks and cleaned my own fish. And when I was old enough I learned to shoot and went deer hunting with my dad and older brothers. I've finished a deer with a knife. We never killed frivolously, but I know what it means to take a life."
"If this is the case, why do you think Jack didn't trust you to do the job?" Kurt mused.
"You'll have to ask him, sir. But the fact is he didn't know that about me, any more than he knew the childhood histories of the male candidates. He assumed that because I was a woman I was less capable." She snorted. "The men have to be able to do their jobs. I also have to deal with their delicate sensibilities where women are concerned."
Kurt found himself smiling at the idea of Jack having delicate sensibilities. "You present a compelling case, Lieutenant."
She looked him in the eye. "Just give me a chance, sir. One chance, that's all I ask for."
Kurt measured her with his eyes. She'd stood up to the master chief, the male trainees, and now to him. She might be short of stature, but she was long on courage. "All right, O'Neil. You're on. Just hope you don't regret it when you find yourself out at sea with a bunch of horny old dogs. May find yourself missing the master chief more than you realize." A thought occurred to him, and he glared at her warningly. "And if you mess around with any of the men on the team, I will personally throw you overboard, understood?"
"Thank you, sir. You won't regret your decision." She hesitated, but she had to know. "May I ask, sir, what did Jack say to you? Did he try to get me stationed closer to home? Did he actually tell you that I couldn't do the job?"
Belatedly, it occurred to Kurt that he might have set his buddy up for a tongue-lashing. "No, Lieutenant, he said he'd like to have you closer but that it was your career and your decision. Said you'd earned your chance and he thought you'd do fine." Kurt paused. "He just couldn't give me a good answer as to why he didn't trust you to do the job in Libya. Said it was your first mission; you were still a trainee. We'll never know, but personally I believe it was at least in part because you are a female. He was too protective. Which was the other concern I had. He said the over-protectiveness of the men was their problem, not yours, but you know as well as I that a problem's a problem."
"Thank you for being frank, sir," she replied soberly. "I guess we'll just have to figure out how to train your men." Seeing his raised eyebrows, she let a smile leak through her shield. "However you think is best, of course." She straightened back to attention. "Anything further, sir?"
Kurt growled warningly, "Don't get insubordinate with me, Lieutenant, or you'll regret it. That'll be all. See you Wednesday morning."
"Aye, aye, sir," she beamed, snapping him a salute. Turning on her heel, she opened the door and made a beeline for Jack's office, only to find it locked. A quick scan of the parking lot showed his vehicle missing from its usual place. "Damn," she said, heading for the C.O.'s office. With luck Salem could give her a clue about Jack's whereabouts.
Watching her leave, Kurt shook his head and muttered, "What the hell am I getting myself in for?" A smile slowly made its way across his face. "Jack sure knows how to pick 'em." With a sigh, he turned back to his desk, wondering how he was going to tell his platoon leaders about their new team member.
After hurricane Jordan stormed out of his office, papers flying in her wake, Jack sank back into his chair with a sigh. He tried to focus on the reports in front of him, but all he could see was Jordan's back as she marched away. It occurred to him that he should have taken her up on that lunchtime offer. There would be no loving for him tonight. Damn Kurt, anyway. And damn Jordan for jumping to conclusions.
"Feeling sorry for yourself, Jack?" he asked himself, kicking his brain back into gear. Picking up a piece of paper, he stared at the words, trying to make sense of them. Instead, he found himself reviewing how he'd answered Kurt's questions, wondering whether he should have said things differently.
Deep in his own stew, he didn't notice Captain Salem enter. "It's clear you're not going to get much done today, Jack."
Startled, the chief pushed himself to his feet. Salem waved him back. "Sit." He settled himself into Jack's guest chair. "About that personnel report..."
Jack nodded wearily. "Yes, sir, I'll make sure it's finished before I leave today," he said, asking himself how he was going to concentrate long enough to finish anything.
"Actually," said Salem, trying to hide a knowing smile, "I'm not going to have a chance to read it until Thursday. And we both know you're not going to be worth a damn to me today. Go home. Take the rest of the day off. Tomorrow, too. Spend some time with that woman before she takes off."
Jack shook his head. "The captain told her he doesn't want her on his team. She took it pretty hard." He didn't feel like telling Salem about their fight.
The C.O. grunted. "I wouldn't count her out until the captain embarks Wednesday morning. Either way I figure you two need some time together." He paused, returning to a less fatherly tone. "But when you come back, I want you sharp, Master Chief."
Jack considered the captain's offer. He felt as though he'd been through the wringer. Some time to regroup would be welcome. He accepted the proposal with a nod. "Thank you, sir. I'll leave Instructor Pyro in charge."
"Right. Carry on." Rising from his chair, Salem departed.
Jack wrote out orders for the senior chief and instructed a seaman to deliver them to the O-course. After closing and locking his office, he drove slowly home.
The last time he remembered a house seeming so empty was when Carol moved out. Pausing in the living room, he turned on the stereo and punched the play button on the CD player. He walked into the kitchen just as the strains of "Tutu" filled the air.
"Damn." He could have sworn he'd been listening to Prokofiev. He couldn't escape Jordan, even in his own home. Pouring himself two fingers of scotch, he downed it in one gulp and headed to the bedroom to change out of his uniform. The music followed him down the hall.
He felt out of control. He couldn't stop thinking about their angry exchange, and he didn't know what to do about it. It had been too long since he was last in a relationship. He'd forgotten how they worked. For now, he just wanted to get her out of his mind, even if only for a few minutes.
When he was a boy, he'd learned to cool his temper with a plunge in the cold waters of the lake that fronted his family home. All that presented itself here was a cold shower. Stripping off his brace and clothes, he headed into the bathroom, only to be confronted with Jordan's lingerie.
"Shit!" Flinging the lacy garments out the bathroom door, he turned on the tap and stepped into the shower. In contrast to the Florida heat, the cold water was shocking. He stood with his head in the icy stream, trying to imagine himself gliding through the lake. Instead, his mind tormented him with images of Jordan swimming, snorkeling, laughing. After a few long minutes, he gave up trying. Turning off the water, he stepped out onto the mat.
"Salem told me you'd left," Jordan said quietly, leaning nonchalantly against the door jamb, holding her lingerie in one hand. She let her eyes travel down his cold, wet body and back up to meet his incredulous gaze.
A confusing mix of anger and desire flooded Jack's feelings. With an almost imperceptible squint and a brief compression of his lips, he shoved them aside. "Here to pick up your laundry, Lieutenant?" he asked icily, whipping a towel off the bar and wrapping it around his waist.
She spoke with a hint of apology. "I talked with Sehloff again. He clarified what you'd said to him. Said you hadn't actually told him you recommended against me." She hastened to add, "though you did express reservations about having a woman on the team."
"What did you expect? I told him the truth as I saw it. I had to. It's my job." His voice was chilling. As he spoke, he stepped toward her, placing his hands on his hips. "Permission to get dressed, Lieutenant?" he asked scornfully.
"Are you sure you want to get dressed?" Reaching out her hand, she ran her finger from his collarbone through the hairs of his chest to the top edge of the towel.
Backing away and shaking his head, Jack growled at her. "An hour ago you were wishing you'd let me bleed to death. What's changed, woman? It isn't me. I'm the same son of a bitch I was when I got up this morning." She was blocking his exit from the bathroom. "Out of my way," he ordered. "Who the fuck do you think you are, anyway, walking into my house -- into my bedroom -- without knocking?"
She stepped aside as he brushed past her. Turning, she followed him into the bedroom, taking a seat at the foot of his bed. "You gave me a key."
"My mistake," he retorted. "Take your bras and get out." He walked carefully across the room, conscious of his absent brace. Studiously ignoring his visitor, he pulled open his dresser drawer, looking for clean underwear.
"I'm not leaving," she said quietly. "We need to talk, Jack."
He yanked what he needed from the drawer and slammed it shut. Turning to her, he raised his eyebrows dubiously. "You're damned good at talking, Jordan. It's listening you need to practice."
The irony of his statement didn't escape either of them. Bristling defensively, she came back at him. "Hey, I was angry! I thought you'd betrayed me."
Jack glared at her. "Yeah, I know you were angry! But you didn't have to take it out on me. I spent half the morning putting myself on the line for you, and as soon as things went sour you turned on me." Turning away, he threw his clothing on the bed. "I don't need this shit. I don't betray people. If you can't trust me when I'm in front of your face, what's going to happen when we're half a world apart?"
"It's going to take time, Jack. We're still getting to know each other." Standing up, she took a few steps toward him. "Once I thought about it, I realized you had to give Kurt your honest opinion, no matter how you felt about me." She shook her head. "I'm used to dealing with Washington politics and the obsession with advancement. I know you don't operate that way, but when Kurt implied that he was turning me down because you wanted me closer, I just blew up. I'm sorry."
Expelling his breath, Jack sat heavily on the side of the bed. At length he turned to her. "If we're going to clear the air, there's one more thing you need to understand, Jordan." He briefly raised his eyes before continuing. "I know how much you wanted this posting. I told you the truth at lunchtime. I made it clear to Kurt that you passed the course on your merit. I recommended you."
Dropping his head, he rubbed his eyes. "What I didn't tell you is that he also asked whether I would have a female on my team. I couldn't lie to him. I had to say I didn't know whether I could." He shook his head, staving off a reply. "Don't take it the wrong way. It's not about your abilities. It's not about you at all. It's about me. I just don't know whether I could be objective with a woman." He braced himself for her response.
"Yeah. I know," Jordan replied evenly. "It's okay, Jack."
"How did you know?" Jack asked, puzzled and relieved that she wasn't upset.
She snorted. "In training, you tried hard to make things fair, but you were always watching me. In SERE you singled me out, trying to convince me that I would compromise the men. And in Libya you jeopardized the mission to protect me. The harder you tried to treat me like the other trainees, the more obvious it was that your tendency was to treat me specially."
She looked at him with a crooked grin. "I like being special to you, Jack. I know we couldn't serve together, but that's not what I want from you. You treat me fairly; you treat me with respect. That's important." Taking a long breath, she sat next to him on the bed. "And if you still like me, that's even better. Because I'm pretty crazy about you."
He looked at her warily. "Don't fuck with me, Jordan. Don't get close to me unless you're sure you want to make this work."
Placing her hand on his, she answered him softly. "I do want to make it work. We're a strange pair, you and I, but there's no one I'd rather be with. I went off half-cocked this afternoon. I was so sure I had this assignment, it caught me by surprise when Sehloff turned me down. I wasn't seeing things clearly."
He snorted. "What you lacked in clarity, you made up in vigor." Taking a deep breath, he nodded his head slowly and turned his hand over to clasp hers. "Truce?"
Nodding, she squeezed his hand. "Truce." Unable to resist, she added, "until our next fight." She melted his objection with a wide grin.
He accepted her terms, a smile breaking through in spite of his best efforts to suppress it. Thinking back to the beginning of their row, he realized he'd never heard the outcome of her second meeting with the captain. "How'd it go with Kurt?"
"I told him I was going to be on his team whether he wanted me or not, and he might as well get used to the idea." She grinned. "It worked with you, didn't it? I figured I had a winning formula."
Jack shook his head. "You're a wonder." Touching her cheek, he kissed her gently on the mouth. "Congratulations, tiger."
"Thanks, baby." She gathered her courage before continuing. "Jack, I don't think you realize how hard it will be for me to leave you in a couple of days. I know I've made it sound as though the decision was easy, that you don't matter to me as much as this assignment." Her voice catching, she pushed to complete her thought. "Truth is, if you made me decide between you and the CRT, I don't know which way I'd go. I'm just glad you're not making me choose."
Jack shook his head. "Don't think I didn't consider it. But I'd lose either way, baby. Either you'd pick the team, or else you'd stay here and be a real bitch to live with. You've gotta do what you've gotta do. We'll make it work." He added emphasis to his statement with another kiss.
"Whatever it takes, tiger." Smiling wickedly, she trailed her fingers across his bare chest, letting them fall to the top of his towel. "But enough of this long-term thinking. Right now," she said softly, "either you need to put some clothes on, or I need to take some off."
Jack looked at her hungrily, his preference evident in his eyes. He leaned toward her, his lips hovering over hers, brushing them softly, feeling her reach up to meet him. Her hands began to explore the smooth skin of his lower back, preparing for an assault on the towel. Slowly and deliberately, one by one, he unbuttoned each button on her shirt as he sank into her open mouth.
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