posted at Viggo Fan Base Forum
Lt. Commander Jordan O'Neil surveyed the crystal lit room with a mixture of disdain and boredom. How many of these parties had she attended over the past two years? She'd lost count. As the first female graduate of the Navy S.E.A.L.'s C.R.T Program, she was in demand. A trophy party guest trotted out to impress visiting dignitaries and senator's wives. An object of curiosity observed from across the room and whispered about between closed bathroom stalls.
Her gaze flitted about the room, never resting on any one subject for long, having seen it all before on far too many occasions. The ostentatious chandeliers. The expensive window treatments, opulent, heavy and dark. The even more expensive paintings. The hand cut crystal glasses. The uniformed officers laughing at the same tired jokes while standing next to their even more tired looking, overdressed wives. Then there was the smell of the cigars. She hated that smell. When had that happened? Probably started during her training in Florida. The C.O. had smoked cigars. She felt for something in her pocket in a moment of despair as the evening loomed before her in all of its affectations and hypocrisy. She breathed a bit easier as her fingers closed around the object she sought. Yes, it was still there, reminding her that these people weren't the ones that were important to her.
Uniformed waiters glided silently by with trays of champagne and exquisite h'ors d'oeuvres. She stopped one and took a glass just to have something to do. God, she hated these functions. Two years ago these people couldn't do enough to get rid of her. They'd documented her every move during training, made up lies about her personal life, and tried every way possible to sabotage her attempts to make a successful career for herself in the Navy. Stuck with her, once she'd actually made it through the C.R.T. program, they'd all been just as quick to embrace her as a politically correct statement in their politically run lives, fawning over her as if she had been their pet protégé from the beginning and her success was somehow due to their dedicated mentoring. Really, it was enough to make you ill and lately it had been getting harder and harder to put on, what Royce used to call, her "party face."
Ah, yes, Royce. Commander Royce Carpenter. There he was. Standing next to Senator Richards, observing Jordan while appearing to be deep in conversation with Senator Richards' wife. For the first year after Jordan had returned from C.R.T. training, things had gone along expectedly, if not smoothly. She had managed to get herself stationed at Norfolk, which was what Royce had wanted, so that she could be close to him. They saw each other when they could, in other words, when Jordan wasn't away on an ops mission.
Jordan exulted in her job and excelled on her missions, quickly winning the promotion that had been her reason for entering the C.R.T. program to begin with. But it didn't take long for Royce to begin complaining about the amount of time she was away. He wanted her to promise him that when her tour was up in another two years, she'd ask to be reassigned. Jordan refused. She didn't know what she'd want to do in two years, but she was damned if she was going to let Royce decide for her.
She'd avoided using her status as the only female C.R.T. graduate to ingratiate herself to her naval superiors. Royce complained she wasn't taking advantage of her position after the hell she'd gone through to get there. Jordan felt differently. Something in her changed during that first year after training. She'd once told Royce that the more people wanted her to quit, the more determined she was to gut it out. But somewhere along the line, stubbornness and ambition had turned into devotion and pride. She loved her job in a way that she'd never dreamed possible. She felt as if she was doing something important for the Navy and for her country. Something she could reach out and touch. Something she could put a name to. It was hard for her to do that behind a desk and Royce could never understand her feelings. He looked on his operational experience during Desert Storm as a low point in his Naval career, despite the fact that he had won a promotion for that service.
After a while, Jordan made a habit of socializing with her C.R.T. teammates instead of playing tennis with Commander Neville and his wife or making sure she got invited to parties like this one. Royce started to complain about the company she kept. The company that wasn't going to do a thing for her career. Finally, after a year of this, Jordan had come to terms with the fact that she had changed, but Royce hadn't. He was still climbing the promotional ladder by ingratiating himself to the very people who had tried to destroy her. She could forgive him for that. She had forgiven him for that. He had risked his career, after all, to tell her how Senator Lillian DeHaven had traded away Jordan's C.R.T. trainee status to keep five bases open in Texas. Fortunately, Senator DeHaven had never paid any attention to the officer with Jordan the day Jordan confronted her or been particularly interested in finding out how Jordan had guessed what the Senator was up to. Just as well for Royce. But Jordan didn't want to play political ball anymore.
She had sat Royce down after one of these parties and explained to him that while she had truly loved him at one time, she felt they had grown apart. Their lives were going in two different directions. She wasn't what Royce needed and she'd never be able to make him happy. What she had meant was that Royce would never be able to make her happy. She wished that he had taken it better. He'd gotten angry. He'd pleaded. Then he'd cried. But Jordan knew she was doing the right thing. Royce wanted her to be the same ambitious officer she was before she'd gone to Florida and she just couldn't accommodate him. Her priorities had changed. So, she'd spent the last year reveling in her freedom and yet wishing she could find someone who would understand who this new Jordan O'Neil was. Royce continued to call late at night, begging her to take him back. His eyes followed her everywhere at these parties with an intensity that made her rather sad instead of nervous. None of this had stopped him, however, from starting a relationship with the granddaughter of a Supreme Court Justice. Good old Royce. Why waste your time with the daughter of a transitory senator when you could go for a lifer?
Jordan checked her watch. It would be at least another hour or two before she could tactfully slip away. She replaced her champagne glass on the tray of a passing waiter and scanned the room looking for someone who would at least make the evening tolerable. That's when she saw him. It couldn't possibly be him! But it was. Standing just inside the doorway, looking even more uncomfortable than she, if that was possible, was Command Master Chief John James Urgayle. What in God's name was he doing here?
Jack Urgayle was still trying to figure out how he'd gotten here. He felt out of place. He was out of place. That had been made clear to him the moment he'd presented his invitation to the stunned junior officer welcoming guests in the front hall of this rather overwhelming mansion. Guess non-commissioned officers were a rare breed in these parts unless they were pouring drinks. Jack's cool gaze had frozen the man as he'd asked, "Is there a problem, sir?"
"N-n-o. No problem at all, Master Chief. Please, come right in. May I take your hat?"
"Thank you, ensign."
Jack turned over his hat, retrieved the invitation that was still clutched in the ensign's incredulous hand, and walked briskly through the large entrance into a huge room with a high ceiling and even higher snob appeal. Jack was no stranger to wealthy homes. In his almost twenty years with the Navy, he'd traveled all over the world. Seen a lot of places fancier than this one. He was just used to paying to get in, that's all.
He stopped just inside the door, moving to one side to be out of the way of the other arriving guests and the ensign's flabbergasted stare. "Now what?" he thought frustratedly. It was one thing to get in the door, but quite another to look like you belonged here. He was sure that hanging around by the entrance wasn't the way to do it, though. He'd have to move. But where to go? "Back the way you came," was the first thought to cross his mind. He hadn't wanted to come here tonight to begin with. Where the hell was Captain Salem, anyway? This was his brilliant idea. Jack would have to find him somehow. Maybe he could ask one of the waiters he saw scurrying by. They might know where Salem was or at least point him in a likely direction.
"Remember--there are no bad party guests. Only bad hosts."
Jack slowly turned his head to find the voice that had just spoken and looked down into the deepest brown eyes he'd ever seen in his life. He remembered those eyes. He remembered that voice. He remembered a few other items that could get him into a whole lot of trouble if she'd ever told anyone that he'd noticed. But, of course, she hadn't. By the time she'd graduated, he knew her well enough to know she never would.
The soft voice emanating from an even softer grin continued. "How are you Master Chief?"
"I'm good, Lieutenant. How are you doing?"
"It's Lieutenant Commander now."
"Excuse me. How are you doing Lieutenant Commander?" It was unusual for him to make that sort of mistake, but he'd been so busy looking at those brown eyes, he hadn't noticed the uniform. Snap out of it, Jack!
Jordan paused a moment before answering. How could she possibly have forgotten how mesmerizing his eyes were, she wondered? They were like the sea he loved so much. Sometimes blue. Sometimes green. Sometimes grey. Tonight, they were like blue ice, searing when one looked into them too deeply.
"I'm fine, Master Chief. Little out of your neighbourhood, aren't you?"
Jack cleared his throat. "Well, ahhh, yes, a little. I don't suppose you've seen Captain Salem by any chance?"
He really did look uncomfortable. "No, can't say as I have. But, I can certainly help you find him."
Jack looked at her for a moment, unsure of what to do. If he accepted her help, she would be witness to the idiot he was in all probability going to make of himself at this party. If he didn't accept her help, he was going to spend half the night wandering around, looking like an idiot. Tough call.
"Lieutenant, I don't want to take you away from your party."
"It's not my party and it's Lieutenant Commander," Jordan reminded him.
"Sorry, I forgot."
"It might make things a lot easier if you'd just call me Jordan."
Jack got one of his "looks". "No, I don't think so. Against regulations," he added as an afterthought.
"Oh come on, Jack."
He flinched at the use of his given name.
"It's not like you've never broken a regulation in your career. Besides, who here is going to care?"
Jordan laughed. Why hadn't he ever noticed how beautiful she was when she laughed? Probably because he'd never given her much reason to, he thought regretfully. Well, that wasn't his job. His job had been to train her and he'd done that. Done it well, too. She'd proven that in Libya.
"Come on, Jack. Live dangerously."
Obviously, she hadn't changed one damn bit. Still as stubborn as ever.
"O'kay! O'kay!! Jordan!" Shit. She was as big of a pain in the ass as ever, too.
Jordan grinned. Suddenly this party was a lot more fun than she'd thought it was going to be. "Okay, Jack. Let's go."
As they moved further into the ballroom, Jordan tried to think of ways to politely ask the question that had her baffled. "Jack," she began tentatively, "please don't take this the wrong way, but what are you doing here?"
"You mean what's a working man doing at the country club?"
Jordan had to laugh. She turned to see a wry smile on Jack's face. "Yeah, something like that."
Jack looked around the room with an attitude of disgust and gave an exasperated sigh. "I don't really know why I'm here, myself. Seems there's a budget crunch. There's always a budget crunch, isn't there?" he asked rhetorically, returning his gaze to her. "Salem's commanding officers saw fit to divert some funds we'd asked for. Funds we need."
Jordan stopped to study Jack. His face had become animated with frustration. "Things are getting old. Equipment needs to be replaced. You've been through training. You know what it's like. We try to make the courses as close to battle conditions as possible. When stuff starts to break down and wear out I...we can't control what's happening. It's dangerous!"
Jordan almost laughed at the irony of Jack's remarks. Jack, the man who fired live ammunition over the heads of trainees on a training course worrying about someone getting hurt on his watch. But the look on Jack's face was enough to stop her sarcastic laugh before it cleared her throat. He really did care about the safety of the men in his command. She should have remembered that. He went about showing his concern in some pretty bizarre ways, she thought, as her unthinking hand moved up toward her jaw, but she couldn't say that he didn't care. He'd shot a Libyan soldier so that she wouldn't be discovered hiding nearby and, in doing so, had put his own life in danger. He'd led an entire Libyan border patrol away from her training team in order to save their mission and their lives, nearly getting himself killed in the process. She knew that he cared deeply.
She also knew that Jack kept tight control over everything in his world. He'd let a trainee get hurt out of stupidity or to teach him a lesson, but he wouldn't die from his injuries. He seemed to know just how much a man could take and would push him to that point to see if he would crack or pass the test. She had been the exception. She'd realized that part of Jack's grudging respect for her had come from the fact that he never knew what her limits were. She surprised him at every turn. Admittedly, she'd taken rather a smug pride in that fact. It must be hell for him to admit that he was losing control of his courses.
She experimentally embraced the feeling she'd been trying to ignore ever since she'd first seen Jack standing at the door. She'd missed him! She'd missed his sureness of purpose. His dedication. His need to protect and defend. His honesty. Above all, she'd missed his honesty. You knew exactly where you stood with Jack. He didn't lie because he didn't need to. He was sure of who he was and what he believed. That kind of honesty was hard to find in Washington. It was a breath of fresh air and somehow reassuring. Once again her hand felt for something in her pocket.
"I'm still not sure I understand exactly why you're here."
"Several of Salem's C.O.s and some Senator are supposed to be here tonight. He thought if I was here to explain how their decisions affect the men on the line, it might help him to change their minds."
Jordan had been around Washington long enough to know better. She was pretty sure Salem did, too. God, he must be desperate. But telling that to Jack wasn't going to help the situation. She realized how hard it must have been for him to even walk in the door of this place. She just hoped they didn't chew him up and spit him out when they were done. He didn't deserve that. Suddenly she was feeling very protective of Jack.
After a bit more searching, they finally found Salem in a small billiard room embroiled in a pool game with three other officers. Captain Salem didn't look happy. He was obviously losing.
"Be with you in a moment, Jack," he said resignedly. "It's not going to take them long to finish me off."
Jordan had stayed well behind Jack to avoid attracting Salem's attention. "We'll wait for you on the patio, sir?" she quickly suggested.
"Fine. Fine," he replied as he took another exasperated look at the table.
She doubted Salem even realized who had spoken to him. Just as well. She wasn't in the mood to spend time reacquainting herself with her former C.O. "This way," she whispered to Jack. She led him through a set of wide French doors onto a well-lit stone patio. He could see a probably manicured, but dimly lit terraced garden fading into the evening beyond the edge of the patio's lights. Jordan stopped for a moment, looked around, and then seemingly making a decision, set off down a set of stone steps to a more secluded level of the patio.
"Lieut...uh, Jordan...isn't the C.O. going to have a hard time finding us down there?"
"I have something I want to give you," Jordan said over her shoulder.
Jack stopped dead in his tracks. The last time a woman had said that to him it had cost him fifty dollars. Not surprisingly, his curiosity got the better of him and he followed Jordan down the steps to a spot behind an ornamental tree that allowed them a view of the patio without being seen by the people above.
Jordan turned around to face him. "Well, actually, it's more of a loan," she smiled as she moved closer and reached out her hand to gently touch the spot on his uniform where his medal should have been. "Looks empty, Jack," she whispered as her tone became more serious and her eyes took on a faraway look as if some memory was fighting for space.
Suddenly, her attention returned to Jack as she looked up into his eyes. You could lose yourself in those eyes, she realized with a jolt. The thought frightened and intrigued her at the same time. What was the matter with her? She had to stop acting like a child with a schoolgirl crush, she scolded herself, and get to the reason she had brought him down here to begin with. She fumbled in her pocket and drew something out. She opened her hand and picked up Jack's Navy Cross with the other, holding it up for him to see.
Jack's eyes widened, his lips opened, and he visibly shifted as a flood of memories threatened to silence him. He still didn't fully understand why he'd given it to her. An admission of his mistakes? No, he still thought he was right. Women didn't belong in the C.R.T. program. He believed that with all of his heart. They were a liability his men couldn't afford. Oh, not because the women were weak. Jordan had proven she could keep up with the men in his command. She'd nearly killed herself doing it, but he had to admire the dedication with which she had pursued her physical readiness for training. No, it wasn't a woman's physical abilities that he questioned as much as he'd done before Jordan had shown up to turn his well ordered world upside down. His men couldn't afford the emotional complications a female soldier would bring to a battle. Would they make mistakes while trying to protect her? Would they put their mission or fellow teammates in jeopardy trying to save an injured woman who couldn't be saved? Would men who would have died under interrogation before cracking give up their secrets to prevent a comrade from being raped by her captors? Jack believed the answer to all these questions was "yes." And he was sure that he would be guilty of the same behavior. Would he have put their mission in Libya in jeopardy by dropping that Libyan soldier from across the landscape if Jordan had been a man? He still didn't know the answer to that one even though he'd questioned himself a hundred times or more. At the time, he'd thought he was saving the life of one of his trainees...a life he was responsible for. But is that what he told himself because he couldn't stand the thought of Jordan being killed or captured? He had trained her. They were on an operational readiness mission when they had been diverted to Libya. She should have been ready. Why hadn't he given her the chance to prove it?
Was it gratitude for saving his life? Is that why he'd given it to her? Was it a sign of the grudging respect that she'd earned? He still didn't know. He just knew that on the graduation day that he'd handed Lt. Jordan O'Neil her C.R.T. pin, he'd gone back to his quarters, picked up his favourite book of poetry by D. H. Lawrence, taken off his beloved Navy Cross, slipped it inside the book to mark the poem he'd quoted to her on her first day of training and gone to find Jordan's locker. He'd hoped to leave the book and medal and escape without being noticed, but wouldn't you know, she'd walked in just as he was leaving. She never said a word to him. Never thanked him. But he'd seen the tears in her eyes. He was too embarrassed at being caught to speak to her. How could he say anything when he wasn't sure himself of why he'd given her one of his most cherished possessions? So he'd left and that was the last time he'd seen her or his Navy Cross...until now.
"I think it would do more good on your chest than in my pocket tonight, don't you, Jack?"
Why did his heart give a little jump every time she said his name? He liked the way it sounded when she said it. "I gave it to you," he said quietly.
"I know you did. I want it back. It's just a loan. Just for tonight. For luck." Considering the look on his face, it was probably not a good idea to tell him she slept with it next to her alarm clock so it would be the first thing she saw every morning when she woke up. Probably not a good idea to tell him that she carried it with her whenever she had to attend these parties to remind her of what was real. No. Probably not a good idea at all. If she couldn't explain it to herself, she certainly couldn't explain it to him.
"May I?" she asked softly.
Jack swallowed and nodded. Jordan slipped her left hand sideways under his jacket to help her pin the medal on with her right, never taking her eyes off Jack's chest the entire time. This whole procedure was making Jack extremely nervous. He wasn't used to being nervous. First the damn party and now this. He had always tried to treat O'Neil like every other trainee, even though she obviously wasn't. He thought he'd managed pretty well. Sure, he'd tried to get rid of her, but he'd tried to get rid of a lot of the male trainees, too. Despite his determination to make her drop out of the program, he'd made sure that the men had treated her as an equal, at least as far as he could. But this wasn't training and she was standing tantalizingly close to him with her hand under his jacket. Jack was starting to sweat and it wasn't particularly warm outside. He tried to look anywhere but at Jordan, except that her hand felt so incredibly good against his chest that he couldn't seem to help himself from looking down at the top of her head while she struggled to pin the medal to his heavy uniform jacket. Her hair smelled like jasmine, he noticed as he felt himself leaning toward her. What was he doing??? He jerked himself upright.
"Ow!!! Hold still, Jack!" Jordan admonished as she brought her thumb up to her lips to suck at the blood oozing from the spot where she'd just stabbed herself with the medal's pin. "I'm almost finished."
"Thank God," Jack thought as she returned to fiddling with the medal and he tried to stare at the stars emerging above their heads. Jordan noticed his nervousness and wondered what she could do to put him at ease. "You know what this means, don't you Jack?" she asked as she finished the job, withdrew her left hand and patted his jacket with her right.
"No Jordan, what does this mean?" he asked in that same frustrated tone he'd once used to tell her to stand at attention outside his office door.
"I think it means we're going steady." Jordan grinned as she looked up at him. "You know...you pin me...I pin you..." Her grin froze and then slowly faded as she saw the look in Jack's eyes. What was it she saw? The same affection and gentleness she'd glimpsed the day she'd graduated from the C.R.T. program? Fear? Confusion? All of the above?
They both jumped as they heard Captain Salem, obviously looking for Jack, on the patio above.
"Remember...I want it back," Jordan whispered. "Good luck."
She turned quickly and fled down a nearby garden path, leaving Jack to wonder what the hell had just happened between them. He stood for a moment staring after her until he heard the C.O. calling to him once more, but from farther away this time, and turned to hurry up the steps before Salem disappeared again.
Jack sat on his perfectly made bed, staring at the hotel room phone. She'd said she wanted it back, hadn't she? So, he should get it back to her, shouldn't he? He stared at the phone number scribbled on the piece of paper in his hands. He'd felt bad about deceiving Max, but he needed the number and the only way he knew how to get it quickly was to call Max and tell him he was thinking of visiting the C.R.T. team in Norfolk and would Max please look up the number for him? Instructor Max Pyro rarely questioned his commanding officer. The last time he had, well...Jack didn't want to think about that right know. He was confused enough as it was. When Jack said he needed a number, Max found it. No questions asked.
This was stupid he decided. What in God's name was he so afraid of? He'd run into a former trainee last night. She'd lent him something that he needed to return. He'd give it back to her in the most efficient way possible and get on with his leave. End of story. Right? He grimaced and dialed the phone before he could change his mind again.
"C.R.T. Headquarters. MacGuire."
"Yes, I'm looking for Lieutenant Commander Jordan O'Neil?"
Jack heard the phone hit the desk. This was a bad idea. He'd assumed he'd have to leave a message for her. Then he'd have time before she called back to figure out what he was going to say. Or be out. Being out would be even better. Then he would have had even more time to think about...
Jack couldn't think of a thing to say.
Say something, Jack!
"Jordan, how on earth am I supposed to give this thing back to you if you disappear the minute I turn around?" "Smooth, Jack. Real smooth," he thought as he ran his hand through his hair and his eyes closed in self-exasperation."
Well, she sounded happy to hear from him. Wait a minute! Why should he care? He was becoming irritated with himself.
"Sorry about that. I meant to stick around and see how things turned out, but I had to leave unexpectedly. How'd it go?"
"How did what go? The party? It was a pain in the ass."
Jordan laughed. "Jack, those parties are always a pain in the ass. I meant how did it go with Salem and his C.O.s?"
Jordan was immediately sorry she'd asked. His tone told her everything she needed to know. "You tried, Jack. What happens now?"
"I go back home and let the captain deal with it, I guess. I did what he asked. I wish there was something else I could do, but you know how it is. Politics."
Yes, Jack. I know how it is. Better than anyone, I know how it is.
"So," he cleared his throat. "How am I going to get this Cross back to you?"
"When are you leaving?"
"I don't know exactly. I have a bit of leave. Haven't been up this way in awhile. Thought I'd look around while I was here. You know, take in the sights."
"Great! What are your plans for today?"
"Uh, nothing special. Thought I might go out to Arlington for awhile. I know a few people out there."
"Dead or alive, Jack?"
Jordan closed her eyes. Yes, over the years, in all likelihood, Jack had lost comrades in arms. Probably former trainees, too. It was the nature of their business, but she was pretty sure Jack took every one of those losses to heart. "I'm sorry, Jack."
"Yeah, me too."
Jordan tried again. "What are your plans for dinner?"
"Don't have any."
"Well, you do now. You can get any kind of food imaginable in this part of the country. What would you like?"
Jack hesitated. If he met her for dinner, he'd have to think of something to say to her for an hour or two. He wasn't sure he could do that. He wasn't sure of why he couldn't do that, either. What was wrong with him? He had a knot in his stomach the size of West Virginia.
But if he didn't meet her for dinner, if he just dropped the medal in the mail, for example, he would probably never see her again. Or at least not for a very long time. Suddenly the knot was the size of Texas.
"I don't care. Something exotic? Something I can't get at home? No burgers. No steak. Definitely no cheese fries."
Jordan laughed out loud. "Okay, definitely, no cheese fries. Do you like Thai food?"
"I love Thai food."
"Thai food it is. Got a car?"
"Got a car. Drove myself up."
Jordan quickly gave Jack directions to a favourite restaurant in Richmond and arranged to meet him at 8 o'clock. She said she had to get back to work and they could talk later. Jack hoped she was planning on doing most of the talking. Knowing her, that wouldn't be a problem.
Jordan had decided a year ago that the thing she liked best about Richmond was that Royce didn't live there. When they started dating, and Jordan hadn't had to drive all the way from Norfolk after work, she and Royce had frequented many restaurants in the D.C. area. Jordan still had her favourites and she visited them when she was in town, but it was amazing how often Royce would show up just in time to spoil her meal. If he was alone, he invited himself to join her. If he had brought a companion, he spent the meal staring at her from across the restaurant while his friend, co-worker, or date chattered away, oblivious to Royce's inattention. She felt as if he was stalking her. When was he going to get it through his head that they were over? Over for good, as far as Jordan was concerned. She thought back to last night when Royce had found her in the garden.
"Jordan? Are you okay?"
"I'm perfectly fine, Royce. What are you doing out here?" she asked, already knowing the answer but wanting to hear him admit it so she could let loose once and for all.
"I saw you go out to the patio with someone I didn't recognize and I got worried about you."
"So you followed me. Did you eavesdrop as well?"
"Why would you be worried about me, Royce? I came outside with a uniformed officer who has a formal invitation to the same party you and I have invitations to. He's not a rapist. He's not a covert spy. He's not a kidnapper. Have you done background checks on the waiters or should I avoid them, too, until you give me the 'all clear?'" she snapped sarcastically. Jordan's face had become flushed as the anger she'd managed to hold in check for the past year got the better of her. She'd tried being kind to Royce. He obviously wasn't getting the message.
"Jordan, you're not being fair!"
"Fair? Is it fair of you to constantly follow me around? Fair of you to wake me up in the middle of the night to rehash the same things over and over? Fair of you to question who I spend my time with?"
He looked hurt by her accusations. "I'm just concerned about you, Jordan!"
She took a deep breath to calm herself and get her voice under control. "Royce, I'm a grown woman. I'm a Navy officer. I've been through training that would kill most people. I risk my life on every ops mission I undertake. I am perfectly capable of looking after myself in any situation that should arise. I do not need your help. I do not want your help. Your attentions are unwelcome. Am I making myself clear?"
"Perfectly," Royce whispered.
"Good. Then we won't need to have this conversation again. If you'll excuse me?"
She hadn't waited for an answer, but had made a beeline for the front hall, retrieved her hat and headed out the door before Royce had time to think of an excuse to follow her. She had been so angry that it was only on the way home that she'd thought of Jack. She wondered how his evening had gone and if he'd tried to find her after she'd left. She hit the steering wheel in frustration. How would she ever find him? She had to find him, she told herself. The thought of not seeing him again was unacceptable. She wasn't sure why. Should she examine that? No. Jordan had been a successful Navy Intel officer and S.E.A.L. because she had analyzed every situation and made a decision based on that analysis. For once, Jordan decided, she was going to go with her gut and her gut told her to find Jack Urgayle. If she stopped to analyze her feelings, she'd come up with a million reasons why seeing Jack again would be a mistake. She didn't care. This wasn't about getting his Navy Cross back, although she missed it already. Remembering the way she'd felt standing close to Jack, pinning on his medal made her heady. She wanted to feel that way again. She wasn't sure what that feeling meant, but after finally putting an end to any hope Royce had for reconciliation, she decided it was time to find out.
Jordan spent the rest of the drive home and the drive to work the next day determining the best way to track Jack down. That she would find him, she had no doubt. She'd made up her mind that she was going to see Jack again and that was it, as far as Jordan was concerned. When he'd called, she'd been ecstatic. She'd had to think fast to pin him down, but she'd gotten him to agree to dinner and dinner was all she needed for now. What she wanted, she decided, was a few hours alone with Jack. A few hours to understand why she felt so drawn to this man. A few hours to answer some tough questions, top one on the list being how she could possibly be attracted to a man who had beaten the shit out of her during training? Freud would have a field day with her, she thought wryly, especially if she mentioned how she'd just happened to break Jack's nose and kick him in the balls several times during their aforementioned altercation. Was she now trying to prove she could best him in a different way? Did she have some sick need to be dominated by him? "No," Jordan thought. Neither of those explanations would do. There was something special about this man. Something that she'd seen even through the rigours of training.
He loved the Navy. That was obvious. But he felt an even deeper responsibility toward his men. Oddly enough, Jordan had only begun to understand that the day they'd fought. As furious as she'd been, when she'd played the scene over and over in her mind what stood out was Jack's taunting of his men...his need to prove to them that having her on a mission was a danger to them. He believed that not only could she lose her life, but they could lose their lives because of her. She wasn't excusing what Jack had done. Beating her had been wrong. Dead wrong. She thought his whole reasoning was wrong. Women could handle combat situations. She'd proven that. But then, she'd never been seriously hurt or captured either. She tried to put herself in Jack's position and understand his point of view, even if she couldn't agree with it. If she was being totally honest with herself, she had to admit that Jack had been just as tough, if not tougher in some cases, on her fellow trainees. Perhaps it was the whole idea of S.E.R.E. training that she was questioning. But having been in combat situations since then, she could now understand what Jack had been trying to teach them in the all drills he'd set up...the need to eat whatever was available, the need to use each other for body warmth, being able to function without sleep, dealing with equipment failures, dealing with injuries, surviving booby traps and, yes, even what to expect from capture and interrogation.
Jordan sighed. Her self-examination had turned into an endless philosophical circle. This was getting her nowhere. In the meantime, Jack was patiently waiting for her in front of the restaurant she'd chosen. She briefly checked her short hair and minimal makeup in her rearview mirror. Not much she could do with her hair. She'd kept it short for convenience and appearance sake. She didn't want to give the men on her team the opportunity to make cracks about her grooming. It was certainly an improvement over the shaved head she'd sported during training, but not the most attractive hairstyle she'd ever had. Well, the earrings helped, she thought. She looked down at her close fitting linen dress and hoped she hadn't made a mistake. She'd decided it was important that Jack saw her as a woman tonight and not just a fellow Navy officer. She wanted to gauge his reaction to Jordan, the woman. She wanted to explore her attraction to Jack, the man. If it wasn't due to some kind of psychological need to master him or be mastered by him, was it hero worship? Or was it nothing more than that he was an incredibly gorgeous man? And he was gorgeous, she thought as she watched him surreptitiously from across the street. No doubt about it. Tall. Handsome. Well built. Oh well, she couldn't do anything about her appearance now. Into the fire, Jordan
The Purple Orchid was set among a series of small eclectic shops long closed for the day. At lunchtime, it would have been bustling with impatient office workers and harried shoppers looking for a quick alternative to the fast food outlets that seemed to have taken over the midday rush hour. By evening, the earlier hysteria had settled into a gentle flow of long time patrons and young couples looking for a culinary change of pace. Jack had arrived a few minutes before eight and peered inside on the off chance that Jordan had beaten him here. He couldn't help being relieved when he'd seen her choice...small, quiet, well kept. Probably a family run business. Just the kind of place he would have chosen if he'd been alone.
He spotted her as she got out of her car. It was a good thing he had those few seconds while she was crossing the street to pull himself together. Last night he'd thought her beautiful when she laughed, but now he realized she was just beautiful, period. He'd always known she was a woman. That had been the crux of their problems during training. But even as he guiltily remembered how she'd looked when he'd purposely walked in on her during her shower, he knew that he'd never had to deal with her as anything other than a trainee under his command. Tonight, she obviously intended to change that dynamic and Jack wasn't sure he was ready. Scratch that. He was positive he wasn't ready.
Jack was a loner. While he had friends among his subordinates and peers, he wasn't truly close to any of them. They thought of his obsession with philosophy and poetry as, well, a bit odd. He got along with his friends because he'd learned how to get along. He didn't discuss what he read, even though he longed to, because he knew it made them uncomfortable and they didn't understand his interest, anyway. Instead, he went out for drinks after work with a friend or two, ate dinner at the homes of married friends, and half-heartedly picked up women with Max, substituting sex for intimacy and companionship for closeness.
He knew how to talk to the kind of women that frequented the bars around military bases. After years in the Navy he could testify that the towns were all alike, the bars were all alike, and, sadly, the women were all alike too. He'd given up hoping for more years ago. He had no idea what to say to a woman like Jordan O'Neil. Here was a woman ambitious for something other than finding a Navy man to get her out of town. Here was a woman who expected intelligent conversation and suddenly Jack was as tongue tied as a sixteen-year old boy on his first date. This was a recipe for disaster, he thought. Why had he told her he'd come?
"Hi, Jack. Been waiting long?"
"Uh, no. I just got here. Took a look inside, though. Looks nice."
"It is. I love this place. I try to come here at least a couple of times a month. The food's good, the prices won't destroy a sailor's budget, and the family who owns the place is really sweet."
Jack was trying to remember the last time he'd spent an evening with someone who would describe another human being as anything remotely resembling "really sweet." He really did need to broaden his circle of friends, he decided.
God, she was beautiful.
He was just staring at her. Ooookay. This should be interesting. How was she going to get through the evening if he wasn't going to help her out?
"I asked if you were ready to eat?"
Jordan was looking at him oddly. "Are you okay, Jack?"
"Yeah, fine. Just a little tired, that's all." I spent an hour looking for you last night and when I couldn't find you, I went back to my hotel and lay awake for two hours trying to forget the way your hand felt under my jacket. "Let's eat."
Jordan continued to study him for a moment, raised one eyebrow, and then turned toward the restaurant door. Jack quickly moved around her and held open the door, immediately wondering if he should have done so.
"Thanks," and a smile. Faux pas number one averted. How many more to go? Jack felt helpless. He didn't know what to say. He didn't know how to act. He didn't know why he was here. Really, he'd rather be in combat. Really. Less pressure.
The small, dimly lit restaurant was barely half full. Two young Asian women were hurrying through the dining room with steaming platters of the most wonderful smelling food. A young Asian man standing at a table in the back looked up when he heard the door open.
"We've been expecting you for a week!" he grinned. "Pick any spot you like. I'll be with you in a moment." With that he turned back to his customers, scooped up their check and some cash and went to the register to make change. He noticed that Jordan had led her companion to a small corner table in the back. Interesting.
His family had gotten to know Jordan as she'd regularly frequented their restaurant over the past year. They knew when she didn't appear for awhile that she was probably on assignment. When she was gone for too long, his mother started to worry.
"Pracha. Call the base. Ask them if Jordan is okay."
"Maae ja, ignoring the fact that we have no idea who to call, the base won't tell us anything about Jordan. We're not her family."
"Bullshit. Her family isn't here. We are her family in Virginia. Call the base."
Pracha's father would roll his eyes and leave the room before his wife started harassing him as well. Pracha would try to curb his mother's enthusiastic use of the English slang she'd picked up over the years and convince her that Jordan would be returning any day now. And she always did return. Alone. But tonight, she'd come in with a man. In-teresting.
"She likes him."
Pracha turned to find his mother had come out of the kitchen and was standing at his elbow.
"How can you tell? You haven't even spoken to them."
"Mothers can tell. I will make them something special. Go and find out what sort of man he is."
Great. Now I'm Cupid, James Bond and Yenta all rolled into one.
Pracha closed the register and returned the change to his customers, then went to find out what was up with Jordan and her "date".
"You've been scarce. Ma was just about to send the Rangers out after you," he grinned.
Jordan snorted and her companion cracked a small smile. "Like they could find anything. Pracha, this is my friend, Jack. Jack, Pracha."
The two men shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. Pracha noticed Jack's hand was a bit damp and he looked nervous. "First date?" Pracha wondered. His mother's words came back to him. "Maybe he likes her back," he thought. Pracha took a look at Jordan and wondered what it was about her that could possibly shake a man up like this? He supposed she could be considered cute if you liked the type, which he didn't. Granted, she was amusing and fairly intelligent, but enough to make a grown man sweat with nervousness? No way!
"There's no sense in bringing you a menu. Ma's decided to cook for you."
"Ah. Well, knowing your mom, I'm sure it will be fabulous. Maybe you could just bring us something to drink while she's 'creating'?"
"Sure thing." He looked at Jack. "How about some Thai beer?"
"Perfect," Jack almost shouted with relief.
Jordan tried not to smile. "Same for me, Pracha."
Pracha was still staring at Jack. What was this guy's problem? "Okay. Two beers coming up." He returned to the counter behind the register where the small bar was located and reached into the cooler for two beers.
"He likes her."
Pracha nearly dropped the beers. "Maae ja, will you please stop doing that! I thought you were cooking something special for them?"
"Your father's watching it. Besides, I want to say "hello" to Jordan."
I'll just bet you do. "Maae ja, I don't think that's such a good idea. Her friend looks a little nervous. Maybe you should just leave them alone to talk?"
"Nonsense! How can I tell if he's a good man if I don't talk to him? Besides, I made satay."
Pracha looked down to see his mother carrying a platter of skewered beef and chicken strips, a few slices of fried tofu and some spring rolls. Before he could grab it out of her hands and tell her he'd serve it, she was headed across the restaurant to Jordan's table. "Watch out, Jack," he sighed as he grabbed two cold glasses and followed her across the room with the beer.
"Jordan, it's so good to see you!"
"It's good to see you, too, Pim."
Pracha noticed that his mother never took her eyes off Jack as she bowed briefly to Jordan. Jack had gotten up as she approached the table and when Jordan introduced them, he knew enough to clasp his hands and offer wai, the small bowing gesture exchanged when Thai people greet each other. "Nice touch," Pracha thought.
Pim pulled up a chair as Jack returned to his seat.
"So, Mr. Urgayle, do you live nearby?"
"Maae ja, aren't you supposed to be cooking something?"
Pim flapped her hand in the air as if to swat a gnat. "Your father is handling that."
Pracha rolled his eyes, deposited the beers on the table and returned to the bar where his two sisters were giggling as they watched their mother in action.
"He's cute," Intira offered.
This was too painful to watch. Ma will have them married off before they finish the appetizers. "Don't you two have customers to wait on?" he snapped. His sisters wrinkled their noses in disgust and flung open the door to the kitchen, chattering to each other in Thai as they left the room.
Oddly enough, Jack looked slightly relieved by Pim's presence. "Uh, no ma'am. I live in Florida."
"Oh, Florida!. Disneyworld! Have you been to Disneyworld, Mr. Urgayle?"
"No, ma'am. I don't have any children and it seems a bit silly for an adult to go alone."
"Oh! No children?" Pim was smiling like a well fed cat. "You should go to Disneyworld anyway. Very nice place. Have you been to Disneyworld, Jordan?"
Jordan, who appeared to be wiping her mouth with her napkin in a rather violent manner, shook her head, no. Pim thought she must have used too much spice on the satay. Jordan's eyes were watering.
"You haven't? You should take Jordan to Disneyworld, Mr. Urgayle. She doesn't take enough vacations. She's always very tired. She needs a vacation. You should take her. Then you wouldn't have to go alone."
He couldn't hear what his mother was saying, but Jack was definitely starting to look unrelieved, Pracha decided. He wasn't quite sure what Jordan was doing. From across the room it appeared as if she was having some sort of controlled seizure. Obviously, it was time to break this up. Fortunately, at that moment, Pracha's father stuck his head out of the kitchen door and indicated the food was ready. Pracha sighed with relief and went to retrieve his mother.
"Maae ja, your help is needed in the kitchen. Now."
Pim glared at her son. "I shall just be a moment," she said to her guests as she rose from her chair and sailed across the room with Pracha trailing close behind her.
Jordan finally put down her napkin and let go of the laughter she'd been trying to control for the last five minutes. The sound was so infectious that Jack had to join her.
"Oh, so you can smile!" she accused gleefully.
Jack looked at her sideways. "Don't tell anyone. You'll ruin my well-kept reputation."
"Oh, gee, Jack. I wouldn't want to do anything to smudge your reputation," she grinned. "She means well," Jordan said with a bit more seriousness. "They've sort of adopted me. I never bring anyone here. I always come alone. So when I brought you tonight, I guess they assumed..." Jordan couldn't quite finish the sentence. Jack was staring at her again trying to decide if he liked what they were assuming or not.
"Do you have anyone to bring here?" he asked nonchalantly (he hoped). Could you be any more obvious, Jack? What difference does it make? It doesn't matter to you if she's seeing someone or not, does it? Well, does it?
Jordan was having a hard time tearing herself away from Jack's ever-changing eyes. "They look grey tonight," she thought. Grey and mysterious...as if you were getting lost in a fog. "No, there's no one. Not really." Suddenly she felt uncomfortable. She had wanted Jack's attention, but now that it appeared she was getting it, the thought of where this could lead frightened her. Luckily they were both distracted by the sight of Pracha racing out of the kitchen door with a large tray of hot food. As the door swung back and forth behind him, they caught intermittent glimpses of what appeared to be a rather heated argument taking place in Thai between Pracha's parents. Pracha quickly placed the tray on a nearby table and firmly removed his mother's chair from their vicinity.
"She won't be back," he assured Jordan.
"Thank you, Pracha," Jordan smiled. "But I know she meant well."
"So did Karl Marx," Pracha mumbled, breaking the ice and allowing the three of them to dissolve into laughter. He quickly arranged the food he'd brought on the table and graciously disappeared.
"This looks great!" Jack said, grateful for the diversion. He was embarrassed by his last question and really hadn't known what to say once he'd gotten an answer. It irked him that he'd actually felt relieved when she'd admitted there was no one special in her life. "What do we have here?"
"Looks like some Tom Yum Talay, a bit of yellow shrimp curry, Duck Choo Chee, and some gingered chicken. I hope you like spicy food. It looks like she chose this spread with me in mind."
"I'm fine with everything."
Jack was silent for a moment as he fussed with his napkin, trying to resolve an inner conflict before he looked at her. He was feeling the same way he'd felt on that day two years ago when she'd stepped off a helicopter and back into his life after a two-day absence. He hadn't wanted to admit it at the time, but she'd taken one look at him and she'd known. He'd missed her and dawning understanding told him that he'd continued to miss her for the past two years. Ever since she'd left the base, nothing had been the same. The days had dragged on in dull repetition, one class after another. The nights had been worse...wishing he'd spoken to her after graduation...making conversation in bars with people who didn't know and didn't care who he really was...having sex with women he had no real interest in. The thought of coming here tonight had frightened and confused him. It still did. "But, this might be the last chance I ever have to talk to her," he thought and resolved to make the most of it.
"I wouldn't have come if I wasn't."
She'd goaded him because she'd assumed that since he seemed so uncomfortable with her, he'd avoid the question. She should have known he wouldn't beat around the bush. It wasn't his way.
"I'm glad you came, Jack." It escaped before she could stop it.
"I am too." He reached for one of the platters and threw her a rescue line. "Think we'd better eat before this gets cold?"
"Yes! Pim will be hurt if we don't enjoy it after all her hard work."
"I think it was more her husband's hard work, wasn't it?" he grinned.
"Probably," she laughed.
They spent awhile sampling Pim's choices and exclaiming at the varied flavours. Jordan was frantically searching for a topic to keep the conversation going. Jack seemed suddenly content just to eat and to look at her, an occupation that, along with the spicy food, was making Jordan feel warmer by the minute.
"I don't know much about your background other than your Navy record, Jack..."
"You looked up my record?"
"Well," Jordan seemed a bit embarrassed, "I wanted to know what I was getting myself into, so I looked up the C.R.T. training commander before I left Washington. It's one of the perks of working at Navy Intel."
"And did you know what you were getting yourself into?" Jack asked with a completely innocent look on his face.
"Uh, no. I don't think so."
Jack smiled. "Good."
"You love being an enigma, don't you Jack?" Jordan laughed, shaking her head.
"It's how I stay in business."
Jordan tried to regain control of the conversation without giggling like an idiot. "As I was saying, Jack, I know next to nothing about you outside of your Navy career. Where's your family?"
Jack studied her for a moment as if trying to decide how much to tell her. Jordan guessed he didn't give up personal information easily, so she felt rewarded when he replied, "I have a sister and a nephew in Chicago."
"Is that where you grew up?"
He wasn't making this easy. "What about your parents?"
Jack's eyes went back to his plate. He began pushing the food around with his chopsticks. "My mother died about ten years ago."
"I'm sorry. What about your dad?"
"He wasn't around much. He left when I was ten."
"Do you know what happened to him?"
"Nope. Don't care." Jack turned his gaze back to her as if daring her to go on. "He wasn't the kind of father you'd brag about, Jordan." This line of questioning was obviously over as far as Jack was concerned. "What about you? Where's your family?"
Jordan couldn't help smiling. Thinking about her family always made her feel good. "Iowa. I grew up on a farm. My dad died a few years ago, but my mom still lives near Ames. My brothers all live nearby."
"Uh, huh. Three of them. All older. I'm the baby."
"That explains a lot."
"Excuse me?" Jordan bristled slightly.
"The older brothers...explains how you were able to put up with so much shit."
Jordan started laughing and looked away as a couple of pertinent memories rose to the surface. One of them involved her oldest brother, Frank, throwing her out of a rowboat into the middle of the lake and telling her to swim back to shore. Jordan didn't know how to swim. She didn't think he'd let her drown, but he wasn't going to let her back in the boat, either. They were always doing things like that to her. Some would have called it torture and she had certainly been tormented by them. But they'd also shown her how to fast pitch a baseball and throw a mean right hook. They challenged her and dared her to do more than she ever thought she was capable of. They would have killed anyone who'd laid a finger on her. She'd spent half of her childhood wailing her fury at them and the other half worshipping them. Unlike Jack, she surmised, she had known she was loved.
"You said you had a sister?"
"Julia. She lives in Chicago with her son, Charlie. He's twelve."
Jordan sensed from the softness Jack had allowed to creep into his eyes that this child was important to him. "What's he like, Jack?"
"Charlie? He's a good kid. He's trying to be a good kid. Smart. Good at most things he tries. But it's hard for him."
"What's hard? You said he was good at everything he tries."
Jack looked again as if he was considering how much to reveal. "It's hard to be a good kid in some places, Jordan. Maybe it's easier on a farm."
Jordan waited, thinking if she said nothing he might find the silence uncomfortable enough to elaborate. Jack took another bite of his food and chewed it slowly. She was just about to give up when he appeared to make a decision.
"His father was a jerk. My sister never chose men too wisely. Maybe it was the example my dad set. Maybe it would have been different if I had been around more instead of away wherever the Navy sent me. I don't know. When he wasn't busy smacking her around, he was busy spending every cent they had and then some. I don't know why she stayed with him. I think maybe after our mom died she felt she had nowhere to go. He finally took off with another woman when Charlie was five. Just disappeared into thin air. She's spent years struggling to pay off the bills he left behind and to raise Charlie as best as she could..."
"With some help from Uncle Jack, I'm guessing."
"They're my family, Jordan."
"I wouldn't have expected any less of you, Jack."
Jack hadn't expected any less of himself, but the conversation was beginning to make him so uncomfortable that he began searching for a way out of it. He was already too painfully aware of the fact that he'd been complaining about the man who'd thought nothing of pushing his sister around to the woman who he'd beaten bloody himself. No matter what he'd thought he needed to do at the time, no matter how he'd justified it by telling himself he'd treated the men just as badly, his behavior that day had shamed him. You're some hypocrite, Jack.
"You're not responsible for her choices, either, Jack. You know that, don't you?"
"You said you thought if you'd been around, she might have chosen differently. Maybe so. But you obviously needed to make choices as well and you chose the Navy. That was the right choice for you, wasn't it? But I'll bet you had other options, some of them not so good, just like your sister did. She just didn't choose well for herself, that's all, Jack. You did. Lots of people make decisions every day. Some of them are the right ones and some aren't. You can't second guess what someone else would do if you had been around. That's not fair...to them or to you. You can help, but you can't choose for someone else. Besides, your mom was around, wasn't she? But your sister chose poorly, anyway. Maybe you wouldn't have made any difference at all by being there and the Navy would have missed out on a fine officer. Not to mention the fact that the poor 240 lb. man in that burning tank would have been really upset by your decision not to be there that day to pull him out of it."
Jordan popped the last piece of spring roll into her mouth as Jack seized the opportunity to change the subject.
"Oh, speaking of which..." He reached into his pocket, pulled out his Navy Cross and handed it across the table to Jordan. He was touched by her immediate smile and the look of appreciation she gave it as she held it in her hand.
"Thank you, Jack. I really missed it. But..." She raised her eyes to look at him with a troubled expression on her face. She appeared to think for a moment, come to a decision and forced herself to speak. "Look Jack, I know this medal means a lot to you. Actually, it means a lot to me, but if you would like to keep it, I won't hold you to returning it." She'd finished her speech, but her body gave no indication that it had noticed as she sat stiffly waiting for Jack's reply, silently praying he'd turn her offer down. That medal said "Jack" to her and if he took it away...
"Jordan, I gave it to you. I don't want it back. It's yours."
She visibly relaxed as she looked at the small piece of metal again, closed her hand around it and moved to put it in her purse.
"She looks almost relieved." Jack thought. He was so intrigued by her behavior that he decided to ask the question that had been bothering him since the night before. "How did you know I was going to be there?"
"How did you know I was going to be at the party last night?"
Jordan wasn't following this line of questioning and her confusion showed. "I didn't."
"Then how... Jordan, why were you carrying that medal around if you didn't have any intention of lending it to me?" Maybe that was none of his business, but Jack was just as confused as Jordan had appeared to be only a moment ago. She didn't look confused now, though. She had a bit of that "deer caught in the headlights" look about her.
"I...uh... You know, we should finish this duck before it's completely cold. I don't care what anyone says, duck tastes really awful when it's cold. Shall I ask Pracha to warm it up for us?" Jordan glanced quickly around as if expecting Pracha to ride over the hill to her rescue at any moment. She picked up the plate of duck only to stop in mid-air as she felt a gentle but forceful hand close around her wrist as another hand removed the platter and placed it back on the table.
"Jordan, it's a pretty simple question. Why are you prattling?"
"I do not prattle!" she replied huffily.
"Stop trying to change the subject. Why were you carrying my medal..."
"You said it was my medal!"
Jack looked as if he was having a very hard time being patient. "You are without a doubt the most exasperating woman I have ever met!"
"Thank you. Did you get enough chicken?" she asked brightly, offering him another platter.
Jack appeared to be counting to ten. He had asked her how she'd known he would be at the party out of simple curiosity. But there was something about her avoidance of this whole subject that made him determined to get a straight answer from her. "Jordan. The medal. Why did you have it with you at the party?"
Okay, Jordan, there's no escape. She looked down at the table, swallowed and forced herself to look Jack in the eye. "I always carry it with me when I have to go places like that."
That answer was worth a few moments of silence as Jack digested it.
Jordan sighed. This was really going to make her sound pathetic. "To remind me of what is real in my life. Of what's important to me. Of what the Navy is really about. I hate those parties, Jack. I hate going to them. I hate the people who attend them. I hate the hypocrisy and the lies they tell. I hate the stale jokes and the political maneuvering that makes people laugh at them. By the end of the evening, I hate myself for being there. Your medal...that medal...reminds me of all the people that really do something. It reminds me of the shit I had to go through to get out of training. Training most of those people would never understand or want to. It reminds me of the sailor I became because of it. It reminds me of the guys I serve with who risk their lives on every one of their missions while I'm watching some god damned admiral pick watercress out of his crab canapé with a shrimp fork."
Jordan's face filled with emotion as she spoke. The stress of the past two years...Royce, Washington military society, her loneliness...propelled her toward an admission she hadn't really understood until now, much less planned to make. "It reminds me of you, Jack. Of the way you taught me and defended me and challenged me in ways I doubt you meant to. It reminds me of you." She realized she was still clutching the medal, so she opened her hand and held it out to Jack. "Do you still trust me with it?"
Jack wasn't often speechless, but since the day he'd met Jordan he continually found himself at a loss for words. To say anything would mean uncovering feelings that he was only beginning to acknowledge. For so long he'd thought that no woman like Jordan could exist in his world. Yet here she was, expressing thoughts and feelings so in tune with his own that it was almost impossible to believe. Jack knew how to make small talk with women he was trying to seduce, but to tell a woman like Jordan how she made him feel would make him too vulnerable. Jack didn't like being vulnerable. But, as confused, as uncomfortable, as nervous as he was, it felt so good to be spending time with Jordan that the thought of having to end the evening and go back home to the same routine, the same emptiness, depressed him more than he cared to admit.
Her reached out and softly curled her fingers back around the medal. "I can't think of anyone that I'd trust more to keep it safe," he said in a voice she thought she might be able to listen to forever.
Jordan couldn't think of a thing to say in reply. She was aware only of a sudden ache in her heart and the feeling of Jack's fingers curled around her own. She had an overwhelming desire to lean across the table and kiss this man, wondering what it would be like to sink into his arms and never let go. This is insane! You can't fall in love with someone over dinner!
"Ready for another couple of beers?"
Pracha decided he should have never come to work today. These people confused him. All he'd done was ask them if they'd like two more beers and both of them had jumped nearly two feet out of their chairs. His sisters were sitting over by the register eyeing Jack with undisguised female appreciation. His mother was pouting in the kitchen while his father slammed pots around and railed at her in Thai. His feet hurt. His head hurt. He was tired and he wanted to go home. "Go home!" he projected at Jordan.
"Yes, bring two more, please," Jack answered.
Spiffy. Pracha left to get the beers.
"Tell me about your brothers, Jordan." Tell me about anything you like, only don't leave. Don't finish your dinner. Don't say the evening is over. Don't say it's time to go home. Don't say good-bye.
So they talked as Pracha intermittently brought drinks and dessert and tea and cleared the table. They talked about Jordan's brothers and her father. About Iowa and Chicago. About Jack's latest batch of trainees and how Cortez was likely to leave someone behind on the battlefield some day. They talked until Jordan looked up and realized they were the only customers left in the restaurant. The Purple Orchid had long since closed, but in this, Pim had had her way. The family had made themselves busy cleaning and preparing for the next day as Jordan and Jack talked on and on until Pracha thought that he might as well pull two chairs together and just sleep there.
Pracha! I'm so sorry. I didn't realize what time it was. Why didn't you say something?
Jack, Pracha mused, was visibly unsorry. As a matter of fact, he looked almost heartbroken that a halt had been called to his conversation with Jordan. "Jordan, don't worry about it. Ma says she hopes you both had a good time and the evening is on her."
"No, that's too generous after we've kept you so long!"
"Jordan, do you really want to argue with Ma?" Pracha asked raising an eyebrow.
"On second thought, thank you for a wonderful evening," Jordan laughed, getting to her feet. Jack shook hands with Pracha and asked him to thank his family for dinner. "I hope you're about to get laid, buddy, because you are a mess," Pracha thought as he watched Jack follow Jordan across the dining room and out the door.
They stood together on the sidewalk outside The Purple Orchid. "My car is across the street," Jordan said quietly. Jack raised his eyes to look across the street, but he made no move towards her car, desperately trying to think of ways to prolong their time together. Jordan couldn't think of anything else to say, so she started across the street, indicating from her silence and her slow pace that she expected Jack to come with her. He let her take a few steps across the sidewalk and off the curb before moving to join her, taking the opportunity to watch her body move as she walked. There was no way to rationalize the way he was feeling except with the truth. He wanted her. He wanted her desperately. He wanted to smell the jasmine in her hair, find out if her skin was as soft as it looked and discover the way her lips would taste when he kissed them. He didn't know when he'd crossed the line from wanting to see her again to wanting to hold her in his arms and make love to her, but he assumed it had happened sometime in the past few hours. When he thought of saying good-bye to her in just a few moments, he felt a sense of loss even greater than when she'd graduated from training. Perhaps that was why he'd really given her the medal to begin with. Not because she'd saved his life. Not because she'd fought her way, tooth and nail, through training, earning the respect of her instructors and her teammates. But because he wanted to give her a piece of himself to take with her when she left. She was taking a part of him now. She just didn't know it.
Jordan reached her car and unlocked the door, but she didn't get in. She turned and leaned against it, instead. "What now, Jack?"
He kept looking at the ground and remained silent. He wasn't sure he'd heard her correctly or clearly understood her meaning.
"I mean, what are your plans? You said you had some time off. Are you still going to stick around and do some sightseeing?"
"Oh! Uh, I don't know. I was going to stick around for awhile, but I have to get out of my hotel in the morning. Seems there's a convention in town and they're booked solid. I'll have to find somewhere else to stay, but it sounds like a lot of the other D.C. hotels are booked as well. I may just head home."
"Why don't you stay with me?" What on earth had possessed her? Jordan was momentarily stunned by her own forwardness. Jack's eyebrows had just gone into his hairline. She had to think quickly to recover. "Look, my place is small, but it's halfway between D.C. and Norfolk. You could reach a lot of places with a lot less effort. I work so far away, I'm hardly home. If we have a rough week, sometimes I even stay on base overnight, so I wouldn't be in your face all the time. It's on a lake, so it's relaxing. You don't even have to leave for the day if you just feel like hanging out. All I can offer you is the sofa, but I know darnn well you've slept in worse places and besides, it's free." She was grinning by the time she finished, hoping she'd managed to convince him that she had no ulterior motives other than an offer of kindness to an old acquaintance. "Come on, Jack. Say 'yes.'" Please, Jack. If you leave, I don't know what I'll do!
All of the reasons he should say "no" chased each other around Jack's head, screaming for attention. He couldn't do this. He shouldn't do this. He could hardly keep his hands off her now. How would he ever manage being in the same house with her? Jack grabbed his common sense, rolled it into a tight ball, stuffed it down as far into his conscience as he could get it and told them both to shut...up. He was willing to do anything to see her again. Anything not to have to say 'good-bye' just yet.
Jordan broke into a huge smile. So huge that Jack couldn't help smiling back.
"Okay! Great! Well, um, I guess you can check out of your hotel in the morning and meet me later in the day. Do you feel like taking a tour of the Intel facility?"
Jack shrugged. "Sure. That's one place I haven't been."
"Alright, I'll try and set it up with some friends who still work there. Call me tomorrow afternoon before two and I'll let you know where to meet me. We can tour the place and then you can follow me home."
He still made no move to leave. Jordan hadn't wanted the evening to end either, but she was relieved now that she knew Jack wouldn't be walking out of her life just yet. At least not for a few more days.
"Thanks for having dinner with me, Jack. I enjoyed it. It was fun!"
"Yeah. It was...nice. I mean the restaurant was nice. I mean it was nice to see you again." Oh, hell.
"I'll see you tomorrow, Jack," she laughed as she opened her door and got into her car.
"Drive safely," he said because it was all he could think of to say.
"Aye, aye, Master Chief," she grinned and Jack had to laugh because he knew he sounded like her mother.
"I'll see you tomorrow, Jordan."
He stepped back as she started the car and backed it out of the parking space. He watched as she turned out of the parking lot, pulled onto the street and drove away. I'll see you tomorrow, Jordan. And for tonight, that would have to be enough.
Jack had had several bad ideas in his life. When he was younger, he'd acted on a few of them. He liked to think that, as he'd grown older, he'd become a somewhat wiser and exhibited a bit more restraint. But there was always that one brilliantly bad idea that you just couldn't resist. Jack thought that of all the bad ideas he'd ever had in his life, staying in the same house with Jordan O'Neil had to be the worst. He didn't care. He was probably breaking a good handful of Navy regulations by doing it, but he didn't care. He knew he was in trouble. Deep trouble. But he didn't seem to be able to help himself. He didn't want to. He just wanted a few more days with her. Maybe a few more days would convince him that she wasn't as desirable as he thought she was and he go home with a clear head. He doubted it.
He checked out of his hotel in the morning and then spent part of the day at the Library of Congress. He always liked to go there first when he was in D.C. Most visitors to the nation's capitol immediately headed for the White House or the Capitol building or even the Vietnam Memorial, but Jack liked the Library. He felt strangely at home there among the tourists and the polished marble. He'd wandered around the Jefferson collection and spent a good while looking down at the library users in the Reading Room, wondering what each of them was researching. He'd walked across the street to the Supreme Court and then wandered down to the Mall until it was time to leave and meet Jordan in front of Navy Intelligence Headquarters.
Jordan had little trouble convincing one of her old commanders to let her take Jack on a tour of Intel. Jordan and Jack both had security clearances high enough to get them in the building and Jordan had been well-respected by her superiors if not well-liked by some of her less astute coworkers. Once inside, she could handle the tour herself. She took Jack quickly through most of the facility, but she knew he would be most interested in the ops room where military communications around the world were monitored.
"Good evening, Lt. Cmdr. O'Neil."
Great. "Hello, Commander. I didn't expect to see you here on second shift." In fact, I purposely arranged to come this late so that you wouldn't be here. "Master Chief, this is Commander Royce Carpenter. Commander, Command Master Chief John James Urgayle."
Royce and Jack shook hands, but Jordan could tell from the way Royce's eyes had narrowed that he recognized Jack's name from her tales of training. Odd, Royce. Most of the time I got the distinct impression you weren't listening to a word I was saying.
"What can we do for you, Master Chief?"
"Lt. Cmdr. O'Neil is taking me on a tour of the facility. I'm in town for a few days and thought I'd take the opportunity to look around while I was here."
Royce didn't say a word for a few long moments. If he was trying to make Jack nervous, Jordan thought, Royce had picked the wrong guy. Jack had been a S.E.A.L. way too long to get nervous. Jack was looking him right in the eye and had already taken his measure.
"Well, if you have any questions, be sure to ask. Although, I'm sure Lt. Cmdr. O'Neil can tell you just about anything you need to know."
"Thank you, sir."
Royce looked at Jack for a few more seconds and then turned back to monitor a junior lieutenant's work at a nearby station. Jordan and Jack quickly moved out of earshot.
"What's his problem?"
"Me. Or to be more specific to your question, any man that looks at me."
"Good. I like looking at you."
Jordan ineffectively stifled a laugh. "Come on, Jack," she said as she led him to the other side of the room, taking a moment to wonder if he was serious. She showed him the communication monitoring stations and the topographic maps the operators could pull up on their screens. She showed him the boards indicating the locations of ops teams around the world and the location of all communication satellites orbiting the planet. Jack had known these people were here when he was out in the field. The knowledge that someone was listening was always somehow comforting, even when you knew you had to rely on your own resourcefulness to get the job done. But this was the first time he'd actually seen the room where they worked and watched them monitor teams like the one's he'd been a member of. It made the "eavesdroppers" more real somehow.
Royce was obviously watching them closely in an "unobvious" way during their entire tour of the room. Jack had the overwhelming urge to grab Jordan and give her a tonsillectomy with his tongue, just to see what Royce would do. Of course, the pleasure that he'd get out of such an act had absolutely nothing to do with his desire to royally piss Royce off. Yeah, right, Jack. He settled for blatantly watching Jordan's derriere as she moved in front of him. He wasn't sure, but he thought Royce's collar was getting a little tighter as his face got redder and his mouth pinched itself into a straight line.
"Seen everything you want to see?" Jordan asked as they worked their way back to the room's entrance. Royce came over to stand next to them, radiating barely restrained hostility through every pore.
"Yeah, I think so. It's been a long day for you. We should think about finding some dinner. Thanks for the hospitality, Commander," Jack said, again looking Royce squarely in the eye.
"Anytime, Master Chief."
"Goodnight, Commander," Jordan said, refusing to meet his gaze as she and Jack headed out the door and down the hallway toward the building's main entrance.
"He's gone, Jack. You can quit looking at my ass now."
"Why?" Jack asked with feigned innocence.
Jordan started laughing again and found, this time, she couldn't stop. She laughed all the way to the parking lot, reflecting that it had been a good long while since she had laughed as often as she'd laughed in the past two days.
They stopped for burgers at a small neighbourhood bar near Jordan's home. While they ate, Jordan went over a mental checklist of everything she still needed to do to make Jack welcome. Fortunately, in an agitated mood, she'd given her tiny house one of its infrequent cleanings a week before. She'd done a thorough job, sweeping every remaining remnant of Royce's presence out of her life. She'd called him and told him she was leaving everything in a box on the porch. He could stop by sometime the following week and pick it up, preferably when she wasn't there. Of course, he hadn't. She was sure he was waiting to catch her at home. Now, she wondered if she should just toss the box in the trash. What a sad testament to a relationship she'd once hoped would last a lifetime. Then again, perhaps it showed how much she'd grown, she mused.
After a beer and a hasty meal, Jack followed Jordan as she turned off the pavement onto a dirt road leading toward the river. He was curious to see Jordan's house. You could tell a lot about a person by the way they chose to live, he thought. Once they had a choice, he qualified. Jack lived in a small house on the beach. He'd bought it years ago before mosquito control programs and cheap airfare had made Florida more accessible to the tourists and developers. It was surrounded by base property. Salem told him that one of these days, the Navy would use the right of eminent domain to kick him out. But maybe because the house was owned by a career Navy officer, the Navy had left him alone thus far. More likely, Jack thought, military record keeping being what it was, they didn't even know he was there.
Jack approved of Jordan's home the moment he laid eyes on it. Even in the dark, he could see why she'd bought it. It sat on the edge of a lake, which actually connected to the Rappahannock River further north. It was small, surrounded by other equally small, but equally quaint clapboard houses. It was the kind of home that allowed you to leave the world behind when you turned down your drive. It reminded him of all the reasons he'd bought his own home. Yes, he most heartily approved of Jordan's choice.
Jordan led the way into the house a turned on the lights. It seemed even smaller inside. The door opened into a tiny kitchen which led into a small living room containing two chairs and the sofa Jack assumed was to be his bed. Off the living room was Jordan's bedroom, again small, and off the bedroom was the house's only bathroom.
"I realize it's a bit inconvenient, Jack. But, as I said before, I leave for work early in the morning and I'm not around much. Will this work for you?" she asked worriedly.
Jack smiled at her. "It's fine, Jordan," he said. "As you pointed out, I've slept under much worse conditions. It's a veritable Ritz, comparatively speaking," he grinned.
There! He'd made her laugh again. Good. She needed to calm down. Jordan had been trying all day to overcome the mental image of Jack in her unexpected dream last night. That dream had added to her nervousness about having Jack stay at the house. She'd awoken from that dream, nipples hard and underwear so wet, she was convinced she must have had an orgasm while she was sleeping. She was back in the shower room during training. Jack surprised her just as he had that day he'd tried to embarrass her into quitting. But this time, Jack didn't say a word. He watched her as she stood naked in the shower and then slowly began to undress. He took a long time to disrobe, Jordan's dream-self watching his every move. By the time he was finished she wanted him so badly she felt faint. He'd walked slowly towards her until he stood in the water with her and put his hands on either side of her face. "Love me, Jack," she'd whispered and he had, lifting her and pressing her against the wall of the shower room as he thrust into her until she'd screamed with pleasure.
There was no way this was going to work. What had she been thinking? Be honest. Obviously, you were thinking you'd be in such close quarters that after a few days of accidentally brushing up against him as you passed by, he'd take you to bed and fuck your brains out.
"I asked if you wanted me to use the bathroom now so you could have the room to yourself before bed?"
"Oh, sure! Good idea. There are towels in the bathroom. Help yourself. I'll get some linens for the bed."
Jack marked her nervousness and wondered at it. She had seemed alright at Intel, but a bit distracted at dinner. Now, she seemed downright jumpy. Seeing her this way made him want to put her at ease instead of thinking about how nervous he was himself. He wasn't used to being nervous around women. He didn't like it and yet, if he looked beyond his nervousness, he felt a strange sense of elation and belonging just being here with her.
He walked into the living room and selected a spot to store his gear. He rummaged around in his bag until he found some boxers, sweat pants and a t-shirt. At home, he normally slept naked or in his underwear, but he didn't think Jordan would appreciate that attire. Well, maybe she would, he hoped, but he wasn't feeling brave enough or rude enough to try.
"Here are some sheets, Jack. I won't insult you by making a bed for you. I think you've been in the Navy long enough to figure it out. Help yourself to the shower. I'm just going to clean up the kitchen a bit. Can I make you coffee or anything? Lemonade? Another beer?"
"No, I'm fine, thanks. I'll just be a few minutes." He grabbed his things and headed into the bathroom, closing the door behind him.
Jordan looked at the closed door for a moment and then looked at the sofa. Then she looked at her bed in the next room. How will I ever be able to sleep with you just on the other side of that wall? Especially if she had another dream like the one last night, she thought. What on earth would he think if she started moaning in her sleep, she mused with a half smile and turned back to the kitchen.
Jack heard the rattle of dishes being put away as he came out of the bathroom. Knowing Jordan was occupied, he used the opportunity to take a quick look around her bedroom. There was a photograph on the dresser that looked like it was taken at some sort of a family gathering. Jack picked it up to take a closer look. Those must be her brothers and her parents, he thought. The Jordan in the picture still had the long hair she'd been wearing when she entered training. It suited her, but she was just as beautiful the way she looked now, he decided. He placed the picture carefully back on the dresser as his eyes were drawn to a wedding photograph of her parents. He could see the resemblance to the older couple in the other picture. They looked so happy in both. Jack wondered what it would be like to have memories like that...parents who were happy.
The noise in the kitchen had stopped. He'd better not linger in here, he thought. He'd be embarrassed to have Jordan catch him looking through her personal things. As he made a move toward the door, his last glance at the room fell across the bed to the nightstand standing next to it. There, in the very position he had kept it next to his own bed, sat his Navy Cross. He was touched to see it meant so much to her that she kept it near at hand. It made him feel closer to her, somehow. She'd said it reminded her of him. He wondered if that also meant it reminded her of him when she lay down to sleep. He wished he could share that bed with her instead of just her house, but he wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. She'd asked him to stay with her and he'd accepted, against his better judgement. Just to be close to her was better than nothing. Leaving was going to be hell. He could see that already.
"Yep. All yours."
Okay, thanks. Um, I've left an extra key for you on the table. Help yourself to anything you need while you're here. I've already locked up for the night, so I'll just..." she fluttered her hand in the direction of her bedroom.
"Good night, Jordan."
"Night, Jack." The smile on her face seemed a little sad as she passed him and went into her room. He hated the sound of the door closing behind her. Well, what did you expect, Jack? A good night kiss? An invitation to join her? He knew that wasn't why she'd asked him to stay here. She was just trying to help him out. But he could always hope, couldn't he?
He reached into his duffle and pulled out the remaining two items he carried with him whenever he traveled. The first was a silver pocketwatch belonging to his grandfather, the only man who'd ever played a decent part in Jack's life. He'd died almost fifteen years ago and Jack still missed him. An old Navy man himself, he was the reason Jack had joined the Navy to begin with. The second was a black and white photograph of Julia and Charlie, when Charlie was about two, sitting on the front porch of his mother's house. He placed them on the table next to the sofa and looked at them fondly. The only thing missing was his Navy Cross, but he knew that was being well cared for. He was using the linens Jordan had left to make up a bed when he heard Jordan come out of the bathroom and the creak of the bed as she got in. He wondered what she was wearing. A t-shirt and shorts? Something more feminine? Nothing at all? Stop it, Jack. That's not going to help.
He sighed, turned out the remaining lights and lay down on the sofa, wondering how he would sleep knowing that she was so close. His military training had taught him to grab sleep whenever and wherever he could, so he concentrated on using those resources to fight off the insomnia he was convinced was going to plague him all night. Whether it was due to the sofa or the training, sheer exhaustion or the simple fact that he was where he wanted to be, he drifted off to sleep sooner than he thought possible.
He heard Jordan's door opening sometime later in the night. It sounded as if she was moving across the wooden floor in bare feet. He opened his eyes to see her shadow standing over him. Before he could ask her what was wrong, she raised her arms from her side to take hold of the camisole she was wearing and pull it over her head. As she sat down next to him, the moonlight shining through the kitchen window illuminated her bare chest.
She put her fingers to his lips, silencing him as she slid her other hand under his head, raising it and bending down to bring her breasts within reach of his lips. He reached out with his tongue and eagerly sucked one nipple into his mouth as he put his arms around her, thinking how good it felt just to hold her. His joy only lasted a moment, however, until he felt her pulling away to stand up once again.
Still she didn't say a word, but instead slowly slid her pajama bottoms and underwear off her hips and onto the floor. Jack wasn't about to ask any questions. He threw off the covers and removed his shirt and boxers in record time. He lay back on the sofa pulling Jordan forward to straddle him. She took hold of him and positioned herself to slide down onto his erection as...her alarm went off.
Jack's eyes flew open at the noise coming from the next room. SHIT!!! Noooooo! He heard Jordan slam the alarm into submission and stumble out of bed toward the bathroom. The only thing left of his dream was the tremendous hard on he was going to have to get rid of before she came into the living room. I can't do this. I can't even stop wanting her when I'm asleep!
Jordan hadn't slept nearly as well. She couldn't keep this up, she decided as the water from the shower beat her awake. She couldn't keep up this pretense of camaraderie between old acquaintances. She didn't know how long Jack was staying. She was afraid to ask him. Asking him would mean he'd answer her and when he answered her, she'd know how long it would be before she had to say goodbye. She felt a pain in the middle of her chest that made her want to cry.
She turned off the shower, quickly toweled herself dry, and tried to dress without making any noise. She didn't want to awaken Jack. Aside from the fact that he was on leave and deserved a bit of extra sleep, she was hoping to catch a glimpse of him while he slept. Stupid, she knew, but it was in all likelihood the most intimate view she was ever going to have of him. She softly opened the bedroom door and looked out to find...an empty sofa.
"Butter or cream cheese?"
Jordan's head snapped back toward the kitchen to find Jack, fully dressed, pulling two bagels out of her toaster.
"Cream cheese. Jack, what are you doing?"
"Making breakfast. Well, I'm trying to. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, did you know that? I doubt it since there appears to be a severe shortage of anything resembling breakfast food in this house. Coffee or juice?"
"Ah. Coffee. I'll bet you take it black, too."
Jordan threw herself into one of the two chairs hugging the tiny kitchen table. Jack poured them both a cup of coffee from a pot he'd obviously made for himself. He set the two cups down on the table and went back to the counter to retrieve the bagels. Jordan took a sip of her coffee and spewed it back into the cup.
"Jesus, that has to be the worst...how much did you put in here?" she asked as she shoveled three heaping teaspoons of sugar into her cup.
"Hey! You're ruining it!"
"Yeah, before it ruins me."
Jack set the bagels down on the table, pulled out the other chair and sat down. "Were you this crabby during training? No wonder they wanted you out of the barracks."
She made a face at him as she took another sip of her coffee and picked up her bagel, studying it before she took a bite. "Jack, why are you awake?"
"You let me stay at your house for nothing. I thought making breakfast was the least I could do," he said as he bit into his bagel.
"Thank you, Jack. That was kind of you, but it certainly wasn't necessary. You don't owe me a thing. I asked you to stay because...well, I'm glad of the company. " Jordan looked down at her plate. She should have quit speaking about two sentences ago, she thought. She had been about to say that she had asked him to stay because she liked having him around. Saying that out loud didn't seem like such a good idea right now. She had no idea how he'd react and she didn't want to risk frightening him into leaving. Suddenly, the idea of Jack being frightened of anything struck her as extremely funny and she started laughing.
"What's so funny?"
Jordan looked up and the irony of their situation struck her. "Us. Sitting here in my house having breakfast together. Who would have thought?" she shook her head and grinned.
Jack looked at her for a moment and then smiled back as the idea struck him with all of its absurdity, too. "We'd certainly turn a few heads, that's for sure."
She was suddenly serious. "I don't care what anyone else thinks." Oh, subtle, Jordan.
"Me either." That was certainly the truth. Navy, Max and Jordan's fellow officers be damned.
The ensuing silence was a bit awkward as both of them tried to decide if they should say more. Should they risk tipping this delicate balance on the chance that the other would be receptive instead of appalled? Jordan wondered if she should just be honest? Look, Jack. I've realized over the past few days that I've missed you terribly and I really like being around you. I find you incredibly attractive and I love spending time with you. So, if you'd like to umm, deepen this friendship...if you'd like to make our relationship more physical... Geez, Jordan, you're such a romantic. Was she out of practice, she wondered, or was it that all rational thought seemed to leave her whenever she looked into those incredible pools of light otherwise known as Jack's eyes?
Jack was having the same problem. He'd had so many women in his life and he'd always known exactly what he wanted from them. But, he'd never felt quite this way before. He'd never been this confused. I can't spend day after day in this house with her, not telling her how I feel. I can't just go home and always wonder if she would have rejected me or not if I'd only said something!
"Got any plans for today, Jack?" Coward.
"Uh, no. Nothing specific. I thought I might drive back into the city. Any ideas? Anything new in town?"
"Been to the Holocaust Museum yet?"
"No. Is it worth seeing?"
"Definitely, as far as I'm concerned, but it's very disturbing. Even for a soldier, I think. The magnitude of the evil we're capable of as human beings is truly frightening. Maybe you'd prefer something a bit lighter on vacation."
"Sounds thought provoking."
Jordan studied him with a smile. "And that would suit you perfectly, wouldn't it? I'd forgotten how much you read. Well, if you decide to go, you need to get a time ticket for the self-guided tour. You pick it up at the museum and then you can either look around or do something outside until it's time to go in."
"What do you recommend?"
"Personally, I like to walk across the street and stroll around the Tidal Basin. I think they've finished the renovations on the Jefferson Memorial and then, if you keep walking around the Basin, you'll come across the new F.D.R. memorial with the controversial wheelchair statue. Seen that?"
"Well, don't miss the memorial to Mrs. Roosevelt while you're there," she grinned. "You know behind every great man is a great woman doing all the work."
"You never give it a rest, do you, Jordan?"
She batted her eyes innocently. "Jack, you wouldn't have me any other way."
Maybe. Right now I'd have you any way I could get you.
Jordan got up and placed her dishes in the sink.
"Will you be home tonight?" he asked.
"As far as I know." She'd told him that she sometimes slept on base, which was true, to convince him to take her up on her offer of a place to stay. But she had no intention of wasting what little time she had with Jack by staying at work unless it was absolutely necessary.
"I guess I'll see you later then."
She turned and smiled. "Have fun. Gotta go. And thanks again for breakfast."
"It was your food, Jordan."
"Yes, but you didn't have to get up and you didn't have to make it." She considered her next statement carefully and decided to take a chance and speak anyway. "I'm not used to having a man treat me that way. I appreciate it."
Jack couldn't let an opening like that pass. He looked in her eyes and said, "Maybe you're hanging out with the wrong men."
Jordan was quiet for a moment, staring at Jack as intently as he was staring at her, weighing the implications of that remark. "Maybe I am," she said quietly. She seemed frightened. Or maybe just nervous. She shook herself and grabbed her keys off the hook on the wall. Let him ponder the implications of that answer, she thought. She was certainly going to have to. "I have to go, Jack or I'll be late. I'll see you later."
"Later," he said as he watched her walk out the door into the steadily lightening morning.
Jordan was beat. Scratch that. She was exhausted, used up, wrung out, and dead tired. MacGuire had worked their asses off today. He hadn't liked the way his team had performed on one of their practice courses, so he'd made them run it all day until he was sure they couldn't squeeze another millisecond out of their drill. All she wanted to do was hit the shower and then her bed. If it hadn't been for Jack, she wouldn't have even bothered driving home. How pathetic was she? She'd drive over an hour just to say "good night" to him?
After this morning, she knew she had to come to some decision about Jack. Say something, Jordan, or get over it! It was becoming more and more difficult to hide her attraction to him. She was beginning to suspect he might have feelings for her, too. But, she knew she was arguably breaking regulations by just having him in her house. She would break even more by taking him into her bed, if he even wanted to be there.
The Navy made it virtually impossible for an unmarried female officer to have any kind of relationship without breaking at least one rule. If you slept with a junior officer or seaman, you were in the wrong. If you slept with a senior officer, you were in the wrong. If you had a female friend, you were accused of being a lesbian. Jordan had accepted years ago that she could be celibate or she could be discreet and hope for the best. She'd chosen discretion. She hoped Jack would, too.
Maybe he's not even interested. But instinct told her he was. Or was that her heart shouting over her common sense? Well, whether he was interested in her or not, they couldn't keep dancing around each other the way they had been for the past three days. It was too tiring and it was a waste of the precious little time they probably had together. She would be devastated if she offered herself to him and turned her down, but at least the pretense of platonic camaraderie could be dropped.
As she bumped along the drive to her house, she noticed that Jack's car was there. Her spirits lifted at just the thought of seeing him and spending the evening in his company. Maybe she could get a better idea of why he'd accepted her invitation to stay at the house and what he expected from this time with her before she spoke and possibly made a complete fool of herself. She parked the car and climbed the two steps to the kitchen door. The most wonderful aroma was drifting through her screen to surround her tired body with the promise of something delicious within.
She opened the door to find Jack stirring a large pot on the stove.
"Hey! How was work?"
"Awful. Jack. You made dinner?"
"Of course! What were you planning on doing, otherwise? Chowing down on some of that frozen macaroni and cheese I found in that thing you try to pass off as a refrigerator? I don't think so. By the way, Jordan, a refrigerator is supposed to contain food. They should have explained that to you at Sears when you bought it. And you can't go out, " he said as he studied her for the first time since she'd walked in the door. "You look like shit."
"Oh, gee, thanks, Jack."
His demeanor changed from lighthearted teasing to a more serious tone based on his appraisal of her condition. He could see she was worn out. "Go take a shower," he said kindly. "This will keep until you finish."
"Thanks," she smiled and practically stumbled into the bedroom, closing the door behind her and trying to peel off her weariness along with her clothes. Seeing Jack at the end of a long day made her want to sink into the promising comfort of the evening. She could get used to this, she thought, and that was dangerous. His leave wouldn't last forever. No matter how their relationship developed, he was going to have to report back for duty at some point. Was it a mistake to want or hope for more than what they'd forged over the past few days, a growing friendship with no sign of the animosity that had once plagued them? If they became lovers, would it be too much to bear when he left?
Jordan turned on the water as hot as she could stand it and allowed the pulsing streams to massage the tired muscles in her neck and back. She pondered her last thought. Face it, Jordan, at this point, it's going to be too much to bear when he leaves whether you're lovers or not. She thought of Jack puttering around her kitchen and smiled. She'd been worried that he would feel uncomfortable with her. In fact, she'd been stunned when he'd accepted her offer of a place to stay. But, he'd made himself at home, quickly exceeding even her own tentative expectations and certainly appeared to be surpassing her own level of comfort with the situation they'd put themselves in. Maybe that was because he was comfortable with the arrangement just the way it was. Perhaps, he didn't need or want anything more from her and she was just projecting her own desires onto him.
She sighed as she turned off the water and grabbed a towel. What to do? She still felt the need to do something. Even if Jack was content with the relationship the way it was, she wasn't. That much she'd decided. At some point, she'd come to want more. Perhaps at first, when she'd run into him at the party in D.C., she'd thought she merely needed to put to rest the bad memories and uncomfortable feelings between them. But, she'd come to understand over the past few days that Jack had already done that when he'd given her his medal. It had taken her two years of perspective, getting rid of Royce, and the hypocrisy of Washington to realize that.
It had also taken relating to Jack outside of training to understand that she was beyond attracted to him. Physically, she couldn't want for more in a man. Just thinking of him made an uncontrollable thrill run through her body and settled between her legs. But, whatever Jack's skill as a sexual partner, and she guessed given his need to achieve that it was formidable, she simply yearned to be near him. She liked the way he looked at the world, studying it with interest, holding to a code of beliefs while still being open to change. She wondered how much it had cost him to accept her as part of his graduating team? Yet, in the end, he'd done it and shown his acceptance by turning over what she assumed were two of his most valued possessions to her keeping.
Maybe she'd see how the evening went before she said anything and risked ruining the tentative friendship they'd established. She was probably too tired to make a clear decision on what to do about Jack tonight, anyway. Maybe she'd just enjoy his company and see how things progressed. She pulled on her underthings, shorts and a t-shirt and headed for the kitchen to see what Jack had cooked up. He was taking bread out of the oven when she walked into the room.
"Hey! Feeling better?"
"I've heard they can be a problem," he deadpanned.
"It amazes me that you can say that with a straight face, Master Chief." She raised an eyebrow at him.
"I can say anything with a straight face, Lt. Commander O'Neil, as you are well aware," he replied in mock affront.
"Yeah, but you still looked, Jack."
He had the grace to look slightly embarrassed. She thought he might even be blushing a bit. It was the one and only time either of them had openly referred to the day Jack had purposely walked in on her in the shower.
"Touché," he said as he cleared his throat and turned his head to stare at a non-existent spot on the wall. He didn't want to talk about training with her. Every time he thought of it, it reminded him of the way he'd treated her and he felt sick. It didn't matter that he'd done as much and worse to some of the men. Jack didn't treat women the way he'd treated Jordan during training. He knew he wasn't supposed to see her as any different than the men, but he couldn't help it. She was different, damn it, and he was ashamed of what he felt he'd had to do at the time to keep her and the rest of her crew safe.
Jordan decided to let him off the hook. She wasn't sure she was prepared for where this turn in the conversation might lead. "So, what's for dinner, Jack?"
Relief! "Nothing fancy. Pasta, salad and bread."
"Well, whatever is on the stove smells glorious!"
"Mom's secret sauce recipe."
"You made sauce. From scratch." It was a statement, not a question. She sighed. "Jack, you are making me feel incredibly guilty. You're supposed to be on vacation, not hanging around here waiting on me hand and foot!"
"Jordan, I toasted a bagel and made coffee I was going to drink anyway. I saw everything I wanted to see today and I came home to relax. I cooked dinner because I didn't want to go out again and I like to cook. Please. You've given me a place to stay. Let me do this for you. It's no trouble and I'm not denying myself anything by doing it, I promise."
He seemed sincere enough and she couldn't deny that having a man like Jack waiting for you after work with a hot meal was one of a million women's fantasies. "Okay, Jack. As long as you know it's not necessary and you don't give up whatever you want to do so you can babysit me, agreed?"
"And know that I truly do appreciate you taking care of me like this. You're spoiling me."
"No harm in that," he smiled. "Enjoy it."
"Yeah, well, there will be when you leave and I have to go back to eating the macaroni and cheese...alone." she laughed.
"Well, you're not alone now and I didn't make macaroni and cheese, so let's eat before the salad gets warm and the bread gets cold. You set the table. I'll open the wine."
Jordan wasn't sure drinking wine in her condition was such a great idea. It would probably make her pass out or, at the very least, loosen her tongue to the point where she would embarrass herself. She quickly gathered the needed dishes and cutlery while Jack poured wine for them both. She carried it to the table and portioned out the salad and bread while he served the pasta. When they'd settled themselves at the table, Jack picked up his glass of wine and asked, "What are we drinking to?"
Jordan was caught off guard. "I don't know, Jack. You pick."
"How about to friendship?" And more.
"To friendship," she smiled as they touched glasses. Please tell me that you want more! She was so tired she didn't feel much like eating, but Jack had obviously done some work to put this meal together and she didn't want to hurt his feelings. Taking a small bite of her spaghetti, she was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. "This is wonderful, Jack!"
"Thank Mom. It's her recipe."
"I'd say you've done her proud." Jack didn't appear to be ready to pick up the conversation. She had hoped for a moment that he might want to talk more about his family, but he wasn't taking the opportunity that she'd just offered him. Already feeling unsure of her footing this evening, she decided on the safe course, instead. "Where'd you go today?"
"I took your advice and went to the Holocaust Museum."
"What did you think?"
Jack watched his hand drag his fork through his pasta, circling his plate as if stalling for time. "When you said it was 'disturbing' that was an understatement," he finally said in a quieter voice.
"I told you it might be a bit intense for a light hearted vacation."
"Oh don't get me wrong," he said, looking at her again. "I'm glad I went. I'm not sure whether I should thank the Brits and their cameras, though."
"Yeah, they documented everything."
"I wonder why we didn't?"
"Who knows? It seems as if a lot of soldiers that came across the camps couldn't believe they were real. I still can't believe it. Maybe it was respect for the inmates? Maybe they were just so overwhelmed by what they discovered that they weren't thinking straight. Maybe they thought we couldn't handle it. Besides, some of the most damning evidence came from the Nazis themselves."
"Did you watch the films of the showers?"
"No. I tried to force myself over there, but my body just wouldn't move. The faces of the people looking over those barriers into the screens was enough to deter me."
"I'm glad you didn't look."
"Was it as bad as I imagined it to be?"
Jordan just nodded. She was glad that Jack had been as moved as she had been by the museum, but this was certainly not the sort of conversation that was going to a make for a light hearted evening. "At the risk of sounding flip, where else did you go?"
"Well, I said 'hello' to Mrs. Roosevelt for you."
"Did you now?" she laughed.
"And having had to walk around with that damn brace on my leg for a good long while, I rather appreciated the wheelchair statue," he continued in mock seriousness.
"So we'll put you down as a 'yes' vote on the 'should we show F.D.R. as he really was' controversy?"
"Does it still bother you?"
"That F.D.R. was a cripple? Or that he tried to hide it?"
Jack's sense of humour was dry, but it was definitely there. Wouldn't his trainees be surprised? They all thought his humour was solely sadistic. "No, I meant your knee. Does it still bother you?" she laughed.
"Sometimes. Not so badly that I can't stand it. It's a bit stiffer than it used to be and I feel it if I push it too hard." He'd gone silent again. Okay, poor choice of subject. What now?
But this appeared to be one subject Jack wasn't willing to let drop. He stared at his food for a few moments and then looked at her squarely, again. "Jordan, I never... I don't think I made it clear... I should have..." He looked completely lost. "I wouldn't be walking on it at all if it wasn't for you."
He'd never thanked her for pulling him off the battlefield and saving his life. Not because he wasn't grateful or because he couldn't accept the fact that a woman had been the one to do it. He simply couldn't find the right words to say. After everything he'd put her through, she'd been the one to save his life. It was a humbling experience and a man like Jack didn't humble or say "thank you" easily.
"Forget it, Jack. It's over and done with." She was feeling self-conscious and wanted to change the subject.
"Don't belittle what you did, Jordan. You saved my life. I get up every morning because of you. I train new classes because of you. By saving my life, you may have saved a few more. Thank you. I didn't say it when I should have, but thank you." Why had that seemed so hard to say only two years ago? Thank you was all that needed to be said and he couldn't do it. But, he'd done it now and he actually felt much better for it.
"I'm glad I was there for you, Jack. But any of your men would have done the same."
"I'm not sure that's true, Jordan. Wickwire told me you were the one who suggested looking for me in that wash. You convinced him to take a crew over there and wait for me. You are responsible for the fact that I'm alive."
Jordan tried to conceal her embarrassment by turning to humour. "You're not going to invoke one of those old tribal things now are you? You know...I saved your life so now I'm responsible for it?"
"Well, if you are, I have a few complaints I'd like you to address." She should have known what was coming next by the sudden smirk. "Good thing it was you, though. I don't think any of the men would have taken care of me quite as tenderly as you did."
You would go there, Jack, wouldn't you? She'd done it almost without thinking. Running her hand across his brow. Smoothing the hair from his forehead as he lay on the floor of the chopper in excruciating pain. She'd caught herself doing it, but it was already too late. So unprofessional. What had she been thinking? You weren't thinking. You were feeling. She had just been so intensely relieved that he was alive. Had her heart known even then that this man had a place in her life beyond those few months of training? Or had it just been pure and simple relief that they'd all made it out alive?
She wound some spaghetti around her fork, pausing as she brought it to her lips. "I'm sure none of them would have comforted me under fire quite the way you did, either." She popped the forkful of pasta into her mouth and waited. The man had been shot. He couldn't walk. She had dragged him to safety. There were explosions going off all around them. Bullets whizzing over their heads and he was holding her hand, patting it, trying to comfort her. Honestly, did he think she was a child?
"Touché again," he smiled. He hadn't thought she'd noticed. Stupid way to treat a fellow soldier, really. But what he wouldn't give to be holding her hand again right now...minus the gunfire, of course. He watched her pull apart her bread and butter it. You've met your match, Jack. You might as well give in. No one else is going to make you feel like this. She was smart. She was dedicated. She was...a Lieutenant Commander. "Did I ask you?" Jack admonished his common sense.
"Finished already?" he asked as she seemed to survey what was left of the food on her plate with little interest.
"Yeah, I think so. I'm sorry. I'm tired and I think it's affecting my appetite. It was good, though. I really enjoyed it. Thank you again for making dinner."
"You're welcome. The leftovers will keep. Why don't you go in the other room and relax while I clean up? I'll bring in dessert when I'm done."
"No, absolutely not. You cooked, I'll clean up."
"Compromise and do it together?"
Jordan laughed, "Are we always going to argue about everything, Jack?"
"Probably. But I find I rather like arguing with you," he said softly.
Jordan wished she could get her heart to stop doing that little fluttery thing every time Jack looked in her eyes or said something that gave her hope. "So far, we've established that I'm a tender lifesaver, that you like looking at me...especially my ass...and you like arguing with me. Better be careful, Jack. You're going to miss me when you leave," she grinned.
"So true, Jordan," he said calmly.
Was he serious? She tried to look in his eyes to tell, but as usual, she found herself falling into them instead.
"I'll wash, you dry. You know where everything goes."
She snapped back to attention and started to clear the table while Jack filled the sink with water. Between the two of them, they made quick work of the dishes. She took what was left of their wine into the living room while Jack dished up the sorbet he'd picked up at the store. Curling up on the sofa, she hoped he'd join her, but he chose to sit on the floor facing her instead. They spent some time over desert, talking about her day until Jack got up to take the dishes back to the kitchen. He walked to the sink and slowly washed the bowls and silverware in order to give himself a few minutes to think about what he wanted to say to her. He'd decided over dinner that somehow he had to let her know he wanted more than just friendship. He couldn't stand being in the house with her while not being able to touch her, to hold her. It was too frustrating. If she didn't want anything to do with him, he thought he'd rather know the truth and go home instead of sitting here pining for her every night. At first he'd thought it would be enough simply to be close to her. But the closer they got, the more he wanted her and the more he wanted her, the harder it became to merely be close to her and nothing more.
Of course, there was always the option of saying nothing at all. He could just walk into the living room and kiss her. That ought to start something one way or the other, he thought wryly. He took a last swallow of his wine before blowing out a breath, washing the glass, and steeling himself to go back into the living room. No sense putting it off any longer, he thought. He dried his hands, turned around before he lost his nerve and headed toward the sofa to sit next to her while they talked. He was about to open his mouth to say something most likely inept when he looked down at Jordan and noticed that her eyes were closed. It just figures. His brain gave an ironic chuckle. He never had known what to expect from her next. Why should tonight be any different? His heart, however, was a bit more distracted by the sight of her vulnerability.
He allowed himself a few long minutes to be selfish. He watched her sleep, thinking once again how beautiful she was with her dark lashes lying against her cheeks. He watched the steady rise and fall of her chest. She was exhausted. He'd seen that when she'd walked in the door tonight. He debated whether he should wake her or try carrying her to bed. In the end, he decided the kindest thing to do was to leave her where she was. He retrieved the blanket she'd given him the day before from the pile of linens he'd carefully folded that morning and softly draped it over her. His hand reached out of its own accord to smooth the hair back from her forehead until he stopped it in mid-flight, afraid she might feel even this feather light touch and awaken. Sudden insight made him wonder if that's what it had been like for her on the helicopter in Libya. Had her hand reached out to touch him before she could stop it, just because it seemed the natural thing, the right thing to do? "Did you feel like this, Jordan? You couldn't have. Not after the way I treated you," he thought sadly.
Out of sheer habit, he circled the house, turning out lights and making sure the doors and windows were locked. Unable to procrastinate any longer, he wandered into her bedroom. This isn't exactly how I was hoping to get into your bed, Jordan. But unless he slept on the floor, what choice did he have? He undressed slowly, unsure of her reaction to finding him here in the morning. Checking her alarm to make sure it was set in time to wake her for work, he left his clothes on a nearby chair so he could dress in a hurry when it sounded or she awoke. Folding back the covers, he climbed into her bed and lay down. Soft...but empty. As he turned several times, trying to find a comfortable spot in this unfamiliar but desirable cradle, he couldn't help pressing his nose to the pillow. "It smells like you," he thought as he slowly closed his eyes and tried to imagine that he wasn't alone.
It took a moment for Jordan to understand where she was. She had come awake suddenly, as if some unseen and unheard herald had frantically called to her from beyond the borders of sleep. The house was dark and familiar, but somehow out of place. Ahhh...she was in the living room. She looked at the blanket covering her and realized that Jack must have left her there to sleep. But where was Jack? From the darkness, she assumed he must be sleeping. From his absence in the room, she surmised he must be sleeping in her bed.
What was the proper etiquette in a situation like this? Dear Miss Manners, when a male house guest in the home of a female host winds up alone in the hostess' bed, uninvited, but certainly not unwelcome, is it considered poor form on the part of the hostess to climb into bed with said house guest and make overt sexual advances toward him? Somehow, she doubted this situation had ever come up in Miss Manners' experience. It had certainly never come up in her experience, but then a man like Jack had never come up in her experience either, so perhaps the situation called for it's own set of rules.
She threw off her blanket, sat up, and tried to focus on the clock above the kitchen stove. Too far away. She stood up and padded softly into the kitchen where the moonlight slipping through the window gave just enough illumination to the room to allow her to read 2:40 on the face of the softly ticking clock. Too early to get ready for work, she thought. Too late to wake Jack and ask him to swap beds...not that she wanted him to. She didn't want to stay out here on the sofa alone, but she found that her courage was deteriorating as she steadily became more alert. She needed to get some sleep, she told herself. She had to get up in a couple of hours and yesterday had been a rough day. Today was likely to be little better. Once MacGuire got something stuck in his craw, he worried at it until he nearly drove the whole team crazy. She couldn't afford to wander around the house half the night trying to work up the nerve to do something she wasn't even sure Jack would welcome.
Maybe she'd just go and check on him, she decided. Make sure he really was asleep. She turned back towards the living room and noticed he'd left the bedroom door wide open. Was that a "Welcome!" sign or had he just been hoping she'd wake up and move before he fell asleep? She crept softly back through the living room toward the bedroom door, praying her aging wooden floors wouldn't give her away. As her eyes adjusted to the deeper darkness of the bedroom, she peered into the room and took in the sight of Jack sleeping, apparently deeply, in her bed.
This is what she'd hoped to catch sight of yesterday morning...Jack relaxed and completely vulnerable, unaware even of her presence. She loved the way he looked when his hair was tousled, as it was now, instead of forced into submission by whatever his barber chose to put on it. He was lying on his stomach with his right arm curled above his head. She stood in the doorway watching him breath deeply, almost wishing he'd open his eyes and catch her watching him. Would he hold out his arms to welcome her? Or would his reaction be one of complete embarrassment? It never occurred to her that he might draw her into bed to merely take what he could get from her and not think twice about it in the morning. While she wasn't sure of his feelings toward her, that much she was sure of. Jack wouldn't treat her that way. How she knew that, she wasn't sure. But she knew.
Well, she couldn't stand here indecisively for the rest of the night. Jack did look like he was deeply asleep. What would be the harm in simply lying down next to him for the rest of the night? Quietly. Without disturbing him. Her heart drug her feet further into the room as her brain screamed at her to stop behaving so stupidly. Shutup! But what if he wakes up? If he wakes up I'll...I'll tell him I woke up and didn't know where I was. I was confused, so I headed for my bed. Her brain gave a mental snort. Well, it was the best she could do on the spur of the moment. Her heart had already won and she wasn't going to stop herself now.
She placed her hands on the edge of her bed and eased herself downward until she was low enough to climb onto the bed and recline her body as she rested her head on the pillow next to Jack's. He hadn't stirred. Safe. She watched him from this closer perspective. She wanted to reach out and trace the lines that marked his face from too many years on patrol, too many years in the Florida sun, and too many worries to weigh him down. She wanted to lean into that face and feels his lips under hers to finally know what it felt like to kiss Jack Urgayle. But this time her head won out. She knew she had to be satisfied with just this closeness and no more unless she wanted to risk hearing what she couldn't face tonight...that he didn't want her. To stay here was foolish, her head argued. But her body betrayed her and before she realized what was happening, she had drifted back into the sleep that would have eluded her had she gone back in the other room to sleep alone.
Now, the gentlemanly thing to do would have been to tell her he'd been awake since he'd heard the sofa creak and she'd gotten up to head into the kitchen. Jack liked to think he was a gentleman when the situation called for it. He also didn't like to think of himself as a coward. Both views would have required him to get up once he realized she wasn't there to initiate a seduction, apologize to Jordan for his presence in her bed and head back to where he belonged. The sofa. Or maybe Florida. Fortunately for Jack, he was flexible. He resolved to be a gentleman tomorrow and told himself he wasn't being cowardly, just considerate. She was already asleep, after all. No need to wake her again by moving. No need at all.
The alarm sounded barely two hours later, dragging Jordan up, up, up toward the sound that became louder and more irritating as her level of consciousness increased. Damn it! She couldn't find the source of the noise to make it stop! She felt a sudden chill and lightness in her body, as a weight lifted from her and the noise came to an abrupt end as if stopped by the uttered curse that preceded its termination. Somehow, in her semiconscious state, her brain registered the fact that the lifted weight had been an arm and the chill was caused by the removal of the body that had been spooned around her. She noted a moment of sadness as her body protested the loss of warmth and comfort that had allowed it to sleep so deeply and so well. The threshold of consciousness was finally reached as she suddenly realized where she was and what had happened. Oh, shit!
He hadn't meant to stay here all night. He'd just wanted to lie next to her for awhile. Just a while and then he was going to leave her alone and retreat to the next room before she woke. He hadn't counted on the hypnotic effect of her steady breathing or the rightness of sleeping next to her. His body hadn't given him a choice in the matter as he'd obviously drifted back to sleep soon after she'd joined him. To make matters worse, when the alarm went off, he'd found himself snuggled up to her back with an arm thrown possessively over her as if he had some right to be there. There was nothing he could say to excuse his behavior or even try to explain it. It would be a useless exercise, so he didn't even try.
"Wake up sailor. Time to rise and shine," he whispered.
Jordan slowly opened one eye and stared up at him. If he'd thought her desirable before, he decided it was only because he'd never seen her as she was now...just waking from a deep sleep so that even the languorous movement of her eyelids held the promise of pleasure he could only imagine.
"I'm sorry, Jordan. You fell asleep and you seemed so tired I didn't want to wake you, so I came in here to lie down."
How could any woman look at him and not want him, she wondered? First thing in the morning and he still looked gorgeous. Eyes like deep pools of blue water, arms of steel, unruly hair that only added to his charm instead of detracting from it. And he was in her bed. Yet he wasn't trying to take advantage of the situation, he was trying to apologize. She didn't know whether to be grateful or insulted.
"It's alright, Jack. I was so tired last night that I didn't know where I was at first when I woke up. I just wanted my bed and I didn't think about anything else." Well, that was probably about ninety percent correct until you got up to the part where she wasn't thinking about anything else. She'd been thinking about Jack a lot, obviously. He was watching her now with a decidedly strange look on his face. Something between hope and fear, she decided.
"Enough!" he thought. "Jordan, is either of us telling the whole truth?"
"Well, I don't know about you, Jack," she began by trying to sound flip, "but I'm...certainly not," she finished lamely after looking into the eyes that were fixed upon hers. Those eyes changed colour again becoming an even deeper shade of blue. She thought for a moment he was going to kiss her, but instead he simply said, "We need to talk and you need to go to work. Go to work. We'll talk when you get home." Then he threw the covers back, got up without looking at her again and headed into the kitchen, closing the door behind him.
Jordan didn't know what she'd expected, but that certainly wasn't it! She rose from the bed and went through the motions of showering and dressing automatically, unsure of what to make of Jack's behavior and too startled by the sudden turn of events to even try. It occurred to her by the time she was finished, that there was little to no noise coming from the rest of the house. Taking a deep breath, she opened the bedroom door to find...nothing. She double checked both rooms and even went out the side door to look for him on the large, screened-in porch. Again, nothing.
He was avoiding her. That much was obvious. Her trepidation began to turn to anger. How dare he? How dare he put her heart in her throat with his words and his actions and then just disappear, leaving her here to...to what? An icy fear began to replace the anger as her insecurity about Jack's feelings surfaced yet again. Perhaps he intended to set her straight. He wanted to make it clear to her that there was nothing between them except friendship with no hope for anything more. She felt sick. Where was he? She wanted to get this over with so she could stop avoiding the inevitable. He could say what he needed to say to her now and then she could flee to work, knowing he would be gone by the time she returned and she wouldn't have to face him again. Alright, Jack, do your worst. I'm ready.
The small piece of paper floating softly towards the floor caught her eye as the draught from the side door closing blew it off the kitchen table. She studied it for a moment before screwing up the courage to pick it up and read it.
Went for a run. See you tonight.
A run. He'd just turned her world on end and he was going for a run. She was flabbergasted. Typical man! Typical Jack! Her anger was returning. She grabbed the remainder of her work gear and stormed out the kitchen door. She stood on the small stoop, trying to catch a glimpse of him anywhere in the immediate vicinity. He'd vanished as completely as a round of tequila on a three-day liberty. Damn him! She stomped over to her car, yanked open the door, threw in her gear and herself in after it. Slamming the door, she forcefully started the car, threw the transmission into reverse and floored the accelerator, taking a good portion of the dirt drive with her as she backed down to the road. See you tonight, Jack!
Commander Mark MacGuire decided it was a good thing today was Friday. There was entirely too much estrogen floating about his unit today and he needed a break. Normally, having Jordan O'Neil, the Navy's answer to Sally Ride, under his command didn't make a darnn bit of difference to him. If anything, she was the type of subordinate every commander hoped for...dedicated, reliable, willing to go the extra mile for the sake of the unit and for self-improvement. But today...today something, or someone, had set her off and she was a force of nature to be reckoned with. He'd planned to run the unit through their paces again today, to let them know that yesterday's drills weren't to be quickly forgotten. He'd expected the usual moans and groans from the ranks, but Jordan had attacked the first course with a vengeance and her pace hadn't let up since. She'd worn her teammates out. Hell, she'd worn him out. He was ready to go home. But when he'd suggested that they'd done enough for the day, O'Neil had informed him that she thought they could knock more time off their last run through. He hoped she wasn't planning on walking through any dark alleys on the way home. The looks directed at her back had been enough to tell him that he needed to put a stop to whatever was eating her before he had a mutiny on his hands.
"We're done, O'Neil."
Jordan opened her mouth to protest, but one look at MacGuire's face told her she'd better curb her propensity for arguing with her commanding officers and go home. Home. Jack was at home. She'd been trying to avoid thinking about him all day and all she'd done was think about him all day. She'd thought about the way he looked last night when he was sleeping. She'd thought about the way he looked when he leaned over her in bed this morning. She'd thought about the way he'd looked at her when he'd said they needed to talk. She wished that all that thinking had resulted in some answers, but it hadn't. She'd run the emotional gamut of highs and lows in the past nine hours, alternating between being furious at Jack for walking out on her this morning and being terrified that he was planning on leaving for good as soon as she got back.
She lingered after the rest of her crew had left so she could shower and change, thereby killing a bit more time and assuring herself that Jack wouldn't think she was a total wreck when he saw her. Unable to avoid going home any longer, she got in her car, turned up the radio, and tried to put a positive spin on Jack's desire for a talk. Maybe he wanted to tell her that he had feelings for her, too. After all, that was possible, wasn't it? By the time she turned off the main road, she had convinced her mind not to panic, even though her stomach refused to listen. But, after all her attempts to shore up her self-confidence, she was devastated to discover an empty drive in front of the house with no sign of Jack's S.U.V. anywhere. She sat in the car debating what to do for a few minutes before turning off the ignition and going inside. There she discovered another note along with a huge bouquet of wildflowers arranged in a vase on the kitchen table.
"Had to run an errand. Back in a few minutes.
Go take a bath and relax!
She clutched the note as she walked quickly into the living room and scanned it for Jack's duffel. There it was. Right where it had been since the night he'd arrived. He wasn't going anywhere! Slow down, Jordan. Correction. He hadn't gone anywhere yet. But the flowers... She returned to the kitchen table and softly ran her fingers over the petals. Why would he pick flowers unless... Reconnaissance. That's what she needed! She began to poke around the kitchen further and found that Jack had been cooking again. How had she missed the smell of potatoes in the oven? There was a salad and two steaks in the refrigerator. Well, he was either trying to soften her up to let her down easy or he had other plans for the two of them. She told herself not to get too excited. It would be such a let down if she was wrong.
Still clutching the note, she walked back to her bedroom to take Jack's advice and sink into a soothing bath. The sight of one of her favourite sundresses laid out on the bottom of the bed that Jack had obviously made stopped her in her tracks. A smile crept slowly across her face. "Definitely not a kiss-off dress, " she thought. Ordinarily, she would be annoyed by Jack's presumption...digging through her closet and picking out clothes for her to wear...but, she decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. The situation was awkward for both of them and she was fairly sure that Jack was simply trying to send her a message. It was an assumption she labeled "confirmed" when she walked into the bathroom and found her scented bath salts and a clean towel laid out for her next to the tub. A hot bath, perfume, a pretty dress and a handsome man who cooks. What more could a woman in lust want at the end of a long day?
Jack heard the water running when he came into the house carrying a loaf of bread and a bottle of very dry chianti. He felt every muscle in his body tighten at the thought of Jordan sinking slowly into a warm bath and wished that he'd taken the opportunity to tell her how he felt this morning just so that he could join her now. He had to stop his mind from wandering into all the things he wanted to do with her in that bath, otherwise, he was going to have a lot of explaining to do once she came out here. He was going to have to do enough explaining as it was, leaving her the way he had this morning. Knowing Jordan, she would have been mad as hell when she came out to the kitchen and found him gone. But when he'd been lying next to her this morning and he'd looked into her eyes, he'd finally realized that she wanted him as much as he wanted her and he knew that was a dangerous situation. How he'd wanted to kiss her! But he knew if he did that, he wouldn't stop with a kiss. So he'd left. The Navy didn't accept "unavoidable love-making" as an excuse for dereliction of duty. And that was what he wanted. He wanted to make love to her. He'd fucked a lot of women in his life and sometimes fucking was the greatest thing in the world, but he wanted to make love to Jordan and that took time. Time they didn't have this morning.
He cleared the table and quickly set it. Moving the flowers into the living room, he came across a small candle, which he added to the tiny table for effect. He stowed the bread in the oven and retrieved the steaks from the refrigerator, carrying them outside to the small gas grill he'd found while exploring the contents of Jordan's porch earlier in the day. Returning to the kitchen, he rummaged in the drawer for the corkscrew and began opening the bottle of wine he'd left sitting on the counter.
The voice was so soft he never would have heard it if there'd been the slightest noise in the house. He turned and his heart caught in his throat at the sight of her. Swallowing, he managed to whisper, "Hi yourself."
Separated by the width of the room, they spent the next few moments studying each other. Jack thinking how beautiful she looked in that dress and wondering how on earth he would be able to put all the things he was feeling into words. Jordan thinking that she didn't care what his rank was or how much trouble they were asking for, he was the most desirable man she'd ever known and she wanted him.
"Jack, I..." she began softly.
"I made dinner," he said, gesturing at the table.
"I saw. Jack..."
"I need to check on the steaks," he interrupted. "They should be done in a couple of minutes. Why don't you get everything out of the oven?"
"Later, Jordan," he stated softly but firmly and pleaded her with his eyes to let it go for now.
"Okay, Jack," she agreed resignedly, "but we are going to talk about this later. No more avoiding what's going on here, agreed?"
"No more avoidance. I promise." He turned to go outside and then appeared to think better of leaving for a moment as he turned to look over his shoulder at her. "Jordan?"
"I do know what's been going on around here the past 48 hours."
She stared at him blankly for a moment and then burst out laughing as memory kicked in. Jack was at least as good at putting someone at ease as he was at scaring the living daylights out of a trainee, she reflected. There was so much she hadn't yet uncovered about this man in more ways than one. That thought gave her a huge amount of pleasure and a better feeling of security in her own judgement. You're not nuts or neurotic, Jordan. He is special.
By the time Jack returned with the steaks from the grill, Jordan had put out the salad, poured the wine, sliced the bread, and gathered everything else they would need for the meal on the table. "Jack, I'm honestly not sure that I have the desire to eat all this food right now."
On one of his outings with Max, Jack's reply would have been, "Eat it. You'll need your strength," accompanied by a sly grin." It would have had the desired effect and he would have spent the rest of the evening in the company of some woman he barely knew and couldn't care less if he ever saw again. Even the women he'd spent longer periods of time with had drifted in and out of his life based on his whim or theirs with little depth to the relationship beyond arguing over who was the better pool player. He wondered for a moment if that had been his fault. Certainly, many of the women he'd known were as shallow as they appeared, but had he missed some spark in one or more of them by simply falling back on his male prejudices? Had he missed someone like Jordan? But despite his sudden surge of guilt, his mind answered unequivocally, "No." There was no one like Jordan. Not for him.
"I know you've had a rough couple of days this week. Try. It will do you good." He served the steaks and potatoes, placed the plates on the table as Jordan sat down and disappeared into the living room to put something on the cd player. The voice of Diana Krall came wafting back from the other room as he sat down across from her and picked up his wine glass. "What shall we drink to tonight?"
Jordan picked up her glass and steeled herself to look once again into his eyes. Blue and always so beautiful. I remember them at graduation. Why didn't I see? "Do you want to drink to friendship again?"
For once, Jack didn't try to avoid her meaning. "I don't think so, do you? Haven't we gone past that?"
"Not yet, but I think we're about to."
"I think it's what we both want, isn't it? So let's drink to an evening beyond friendship."
"An evening beyond friendship," she said as they softly touched glasses and Jack's fingers stretched out from the glass to touch hers, their eyes never leaving each other's faces. She thought she might drop the glass as the electricity of his touch ran up her arm and down her body to settle in her thighs. Just an evening, Jack? She'd worry about that remark later, she thought as she took a large swallow of wine to settle her nerves.
"Your food's getting cold, Jordan."
"Oh...right." She looked down at her plate as if trying to focus on it and recall why it was there, picking up her knife and fork and attempting to look interested in its offerings. After a few bites she had to admit that Jack had been right. It had been a hard week at work and she had more of an appetite than she'd believed. But she noticed Jack wasn't doing much damage to his dinner. Diana Krall continued to serenade them from the other room.
"This music always reminds me of Paris. I went to a little jazz club while I was there. The trio was playing quite a few of these songs. Have you been to Paris?"
"Many times," Jack replied. "You?"
"Only once, when I was at Intel."
"What did you think?"
"I thought that Paris was the kind of place that if you arrived there alone and left alone and were alone in between, you hadn't known Paris."
"Were you alone?"
"Yes, I was."
"That's too bad." Diana was relentless.
I've got you under my skin
I've got you deep in the heart of me
Jack rose from his chair and held out his hand. "Dance with me?"
So deep in my heart that you're really a part of me
I've got you under my skin
He hadn't expected her to be so flustered. "Jack, I am a horrible dancer."
"I'm not. I'll help you. Or do you always have to lead, Jordan?"
I'd tried so not to give in
I said to myself this affair never will go so well
But why should I try to resist when darling I know so well
I've got you under my skin
She looked up into those inescapable eyes and read the challenge. "No, I don't always have to lead," she said as she took his hand and let him raise her from the chair. His arm slipped around her waist as he pulled her close and led her in a languid pattern around the kitchen. Being in Jack's arms felt even better than she'd imagined it would. She lay her head on his shoulder and relaxed into him as she accepted that what she had wanted, had dreamed about, had hoped for was about to happen.
I'd sacrifice anything come what might
For the sake of having you near
In spite of a warning voice that comes in the night
And repeats and repeats in my ear
Don't you know you fool
You never can win
Use your mentality, wake up to reality
But each time that I do just the thought of you
Makes me stop before I begin
'Cause I've got you under my skin
Dinner forgotten, Jack continued the slow swaying as he freed his hand from hers and tilted her chin up to kiss her. It felt as if time had stopped as she watched his face draw closer and she anticipated the feel of his mouth on hers. This was heaven, her mind breathed, as she slowly closed her eyes and waited for the feeling of ecstasy to wash over her.
"I'm obviously interrupting."
I've Got You Under My Skin - words and music by Cole Porter, 1936
For a short clip of Diana Krall singing "I've Got You Under My Skin" follow this link and click on the song title under "Track List". This is her later live version of the song, but the 1998 studio version clip is mostly instrumental, so I'm linking to this one instead.
Jordan didn't bother to remove herself from Jack's embrace. She could be just as angry in Jack's arms as she could be alone. She was going to kill him!
"Royce, what the hell do you think you're doing?"
He was standing on the stoop outside the screen door, which he opened to walk into her kitchen, terminally uninvited. "I might ask you the same thing." The look on his face went beyond surface anger, leaning toward something more disconcerting. There was something almost cruel in his eyes, Jordan decided, and sensing this, she stepped away from Jack to distance him from Royce's attention.
"This is my house Royce. You're the one who's intruding. So I'm going to ask you again...what the hell are you doing here?"
Royce hesitated for a moment, weighing his options. "I came to get my things."
"Really? I asked you to come and get them last week. Did you just happen to be in the neighbourhood and decide to stop by?" she spat as she nearly flew out of the kitchen and out the side door onto the porch.
Jack was none too happy with Royce, himself. Jordan's attitude and the way Royce was looking at him told him that this situation was going to turn ugly in a hurry, regardless of Jack's ire at being interrupted just as he was finally holding Jordan in his arms. Jack almost regretted baiting him at Intel the other day. It was obvious Royce had shown up tonight just to check up on Jordan.
"I'm sure I don't have to remind you of how much trouble Jordan would be in if what I interrupted was to be continued, do I Master Chief?"
You self-righteous prick! Jack had too many years of experience under-fire to even blink at such a question. He moved to the counter, turned, crossed his arms and leaned back on it, studying Royce as if he was something Jack needed to scrape off his shoe. Jack knew how to make an enemy nervous. Royce began to squirm under his gaze. "I don't think you really want to go there, do you...Commander?"
Royce's face said, "Bullseye!" So she had been involved with him. Royce was down for the count now that Jack knew what ammunition to use. He could hardly make trouble for them without incriminating himself as well. Jordan chose that moment to storm back into the kitchen, nearly knocking Royce off his feet as she hurled the box containing his belongings at his chest.
"Here's your stuff now get out!"
Royce tried a conciliatory change of tactics. "Jordan, could we talk? Please. Just for a minute?"
Her exasperated sigh told Jack this wasn't the first time Royce had wanted to "talk." "Outside!" she snapped as she threw the screen door open and marched down the steps without waiting for him. Royce took one last insecure look at Jack and followed her out the door. She was standing next to his car, radiating anger as he went to the back of the vehicle, opened the hatch and stowed his box inside. Closing it, he spread his arms in frustration and tried to look as if he pitied her. "What are you doing?"
"That's none of your damn business, Royce. And I don't need to ask what you're doing. That's perfectly obvious. I thought I made it clear to you that your interference in my life was no longer welcome?"
"I understand that, but I'm worried about you! What are you thinking? Jordan, for God's sake, the guy beat you to a pulp!"
"A favour which I returned and a situation that wasn't and isn't any of your business, Royce. I think you'd better leave. Now."
"Jordan, please. Just take a moment to think about what you're doing! Being involved with him is career suicide! Come with me for awhile. We'll go somewhere and talk this out. I know things went wrong between us, but..."
She'd turned about six shades of red. "Royce, the only one of us getting in that car is you. If a man who's given twenty years of his life to the Navy isn't good enough for you or the Navy, that's too damn bad! You've got a choice. You can either get in that car and leave or I can start screaming my head off and let the neighbours call the police. Then you can commit career suicide."
He wasn't sure if she was serious because he'd never seen her this angry before. He finally came to the conclusion that now wasn't a good time to try and call her bluff, so he opened the car door and climbed inside. Starting the car he lowered the window to make one last attempt to convince her to go with him, but she cut him off as he opened his mouth.
"Royce...don't come back." She didn't wait to see if he was going to leave. Instead she walked briskly back to the house, climbed the steps and closed the door behind her in a gesture of finality. Jack wasn't in the kitchen, so she went looking for him. She found him on the porch, hands on the rail, staring out into the darkness that covered the lake. There was something about his posture that frightened her. She came up behind him, slipped her arms around his waist and pressed her cheek against his back. "I'm so sorry. He just won't..."
"Why are you sorry? You didn't do anything to be sorry for, did you?"
She didn't like the sound of his voice. It was...off. "Jack. Please hold me. You wanted to hold me before."
Jack lowered his head and nodded. Staring at her hands on his abdomen, he covered them with his own. "I've wanted to hold you for days."
"Then hold me." She moved her hands and turned him to face her. He looked so...so wounded. "Hold me," she repeated, pleading with her voice.
Still he wouldn't look at her. "I heard what he said, Jordan, and he's right."
Her heart sank. No! She wouldn't lose him now. Not when they were so close to consumating what they'd both been fighting for days...or was it years? Not over Royce's bitterness. "I don't give a damn what the Navy thinks. I know what I need to be happy and it isn't a spot at someone's fancy dress-up dinner table! If being a good officer isn't enough of me for the Navy, then I don't want to give up what's left of me to spend my life being hollow inside!"
Jack had begun shaking his head the moment she'd started talking. He took her face in his hands to stop her now. "That's not what I meant. I know I'm not the kind of material the Navy would choose for a rising young officer. I don't care. I..." He made the mistake of meeting her eyes and lost his purpose. She was so close and he wanted her so badly. Wanted all of her. Her body, her mind, that often infuriating personality. How could he tell her that what was holding him back was his own sense of guilt?
If she lived for a thousand years, Jordan decided, she would never tire of looking into those eyes and trying to decipher their language. Where earlier she'd read desire, now it was mixed with pain...uncertainty...hesitation. She might not understand the pain. She wasn't sure what was causing the uncertainty. But she could act on the hesitation. She gently took hold of Jack's hands and placed them behind her back. Letting go of his hands, she slid her arms around his neck and brought her face close to his ear. "I'm going to kiss you, Jack," she whispered. "If it's that unpleasant, you can leave afterwards." Not waiting for a response, she lightly passed her lips over his cheek until she reached his mouth and captured it with her own. She toyed with his lips for only a moment before she felt his mouth respond.
Kissing Jack was everything she'd thought it would be. While she had initiated the contact, the control was now his as he slid one hand up to the back of her head, pulling her more deeply into his kiss, while his other hand caressed her back and then pulled her hips against him. She felt as if she was sinking when his hand drifted down her neck, across her collarbone and found her breast, lightly teasing her nipple to attention before spreading his hand and squeezing her breast lightly. His other hand was still holding her hips in place and she could feel proof that he was just as aroused as she was. "Jack, please," she breathed into his mouth, "touch me."
It was just the encouragement he needed. For the past few minutes, he'd felt as if his body was fighting with his conscience for control of the situation. But once Jordan made her desire that clear, who was he to argue, he asked himself as he felt his need for her barreling like a freight train toward it's final destination. He moved his lips to her neck and heard her softly moan as he placed both hands on her legs and gently moved them up her thighs, lifting her dress as he went. Reaching the top of her panties, he slid his fingers under the waistband, pushing them off her hips as his hands caressed and kneaded her behind.
You think we should go easy on women Lieutenant? Do you?
I'm so glad we agree.
Jordan felt his body stiffen as his hands froze.
Ever think about what happens when you get captured, Lieutenant?
Oh, yeah. Just like the men do.
You should practice these things so you know what to expect.
He pushed her away as if he'd been burned, backing up to the porch rail once more, turning away from her as he ran both hands through his hair.
Jordan was confused, scared, and more than anything else, she was frustrated. After a week of avoiding any conversation about their feelings for each other, they had finally gotten to the point where they'd conceded their mutual attraction. Now, for some reason, Jack was pulling away when it was obvious he wanted her as much as she wanted him. "Jack, what's wrong?" she demanded. "You promised me earlier tonight that you wouldn't avoid talking about the way we feel any more. One minute you're making my body melt and the next minute you're running away from me. What the hell is going on?"
Jack had dropped his hands to the railing and Jordan could see his knuckles turning white as he gripped it tightly. "I heard what he said, Jordan, and he's right!"
"Jack, we've already been through this! I don't care what..."
"NO!" he exploded as her turned to face her. Stop doing that! Don't make excuses for me when I can't make them for myself!"
"Jack, what are you talking about???"
"I heard him, Jordan. He said I'd beaten you to a pulp and he's right! I can't change what happened! I can't pretend it didn't happen! How can you stand to have me touch you?"
Jordan's face went white as comprehension washed over her and she watched a tear roll down Jack's cheek. He swiped at it angrily and turned toward the outside door. Nearly breaking the latch in his haste to get away from her, he managed to unlock the door and fling it open, walking quickly away from the house toward the shore of the lake. Reaching the shore, she watched as he paced back and forth, hands on his hips, kicking at the ground as if he could somehow translate his self-castigation into physical action.
Decide, Jordan. The day came back to her in all its horror. Jack and his instructors knew how to intimidate and frighten a group of trainees and they'd done their job well. She, in particular, had feared what they had planned for her, knowing that her sex was a magnet for their determination to eliminate the weak, the untrustworthy, and the liabilities. She hadn't known for awhile which was worse, anticipating what might happen or the feeling of stark terror when the waiting was over and they'd finally come for her.
Max Pyro began the interview, but something had gone wrong. Jack hadn't been satisfied with the way things were progressing or maybe he'd just wanted to let Max off the hook. He'd taken over the interrogation himself and the anger in the room when he'd started questioning her was palpable. In his mind, she was a threat to his men and he was convinced he could frighten her into quitting. She could smell the liquor on him. When he'd begun to hit her, Pyro had objected and Jack had dismissed him. But no one came to her aid. Not even when Jack hauled her outside in front of the other instructors and trainees. No one. It was as if they were all frozen at the sight of Jack's brutality and its consequences playing out in front of their eyes.
And then she'd hit him back. She remembered the pain she'd felt. She remembered the cheers of her teammates and their jeers at Jack's behavior. She remembered his explanation to his men and his frustration at her refusal to give in. She remembered how she hated him at that moment. Decide, Jordan. She remembered the look he gave her when it was all over. The two of them knowing in that moment that she'd won. Jack yielding to her tenacity and giving her his respect because that look said she'd earned it.
She moved to the screen and stared into the night at the figure by the lake. Decide, Jordan. Decide what you want. Decide what the truth is. She reached down and put her clothing back in order. Slowly, she walked to the door and even more slowly she went through it and walked down to the lake.
Jack saw her coming and knew her pace meant that she'd come to tell him goodbye. He thought his heart just might break from the lost opportunity that fate had laughingly put in his path the day he'd met Jordan O'Neil. He knew he was paying for his past actions, but that didn't help his heart.
Stopping about ten feet away, she stared at him expressionlessly until the scrutiny made him so uncomfortable that he shifted his body and looked away. "I never pegged you for a coward, Jack." That got his attention. She could feel his spine straighten as much as see it. Good. "You think you're still in command here? Well, you're not. You don't get to run away from me because you can't face what happened two years ago. I won't let you. You owe me and you're going to pay up." Her voice was like steel, so different from the voice that had been pleading to be held. She was right. It was time he paid.
She moved closer to him, studying his face as if searching for something in particular. "There was a day two years ago when I hated you, Jack. Somehow, I doubt I'm unique among your trainees in that feeling." Her words stung, but he resolved to take her criticism silently. She deserved that much. "I looked for that hatred tonight and I couldn't find it. I tried, but all I could find was respect for the man who taught me everything he knew, everything that's kept me alive for the last two years."
"I don't deserve that respect, Jordan."
"Why? Jack, do you make a habit of beating women up?"
"Off course not!" was his clearly offended reply. "I watched my father hit my mom too many times to ever want to be like him,"
File that for future reference, Jordan thought. "Do you enjoy beating up the men, Jack?"
He glared at her. "Is that what you think?"
"No. But I think it's why you drink so much. To make yourself numb. Because if you're not numb, you think about what you're doing and then you can't be as hard on people as you think you need to be. You numbed yourself quite a bit before you started in on me, didn't you?" She could tell she was hitting a nerve from the way his jaw set. "Did you treat me any differently from the men?"
Jack made himself think for a moment. He was trying to be honest. He felt he owed her that, too. Finally he answered her quietly, "Yeah, I treated you differently. I was harder on you. I never tried to humiliate the men the way I tried to humiliate you."
Jordan was flabbergasted. "Jack, are you listening to yourself? You never tried to humiliate them? You reduced some of those men to tears or worse! They pleaded with you to stop! You destroyed their self-respect! Maybe permanently."
Jack bristled. " I have to know they can take the pressure! If they can't, they're a liability to the team and a danger to the lives of the other men!" By this time, he was raising his voice in anger. "Are you saying I should have held their hands and asked them nicely if they thought they could handle a few hours with the enemy?"
"No, Jack, I'm saying that you treated me no worse than you treated them. I'm saying that you expected of me what you expected of all the other trainees. You saw me as a liability and you went after me. You're just feeling guilty about the tactics you chose because I'm a woman."
The look of pain returned to his face. "Jordan, you know I wouldn't have..."
"Wouldn't have what, Jack? Wouldn't have raped me? Honestly, at that moment, I didn't know what you were going to do. And that's exactly the way you needed me to feel, wasn't it? You needed me to be in fear for my life to see if I could handle being captured." He looked so sorrowful, she had to help him out. "But, yes Jack, afterwards, I did know you wouldn't have raped me. I know who you are."
The look on his face as he closed his eyes in relief was painful to watch. "Look, I still don't know whether the way you run S.E.R.E. training is right or wrong. I could go round and round with that argument for a year and still not have an answer I was satisfied with. But I do know that you gave me the tools to survive in this job and that whatever you did to me was no more right or wrong than what you did to anyone else. So if it's forgiveness you need, Jack, I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago. Maybe even the day we fought. Now it's time for you to forgive yourself. You owe that to me. You owe that to us."
She closed the final few feet between them, placing her hands on both sides of his face as she forced him to look at her. "Let it go, Jack," she whispered. "I have. I don't care if anyone else understands us. I'm not sure that I understand 'us' myself. But I know we're good for each other and I'm not going to let anyone or anything, including your unjustified need to torture yourself, stand in the way of whatever it is we could be to each other."
Jack's face crumpled as more tears escaped and she drew him into her arms. What he needed right now, she understood, was just to be held and allowed to let all this guilt he'd been carrying around dissipate. She stroked his hair as one might do to a tired child as he buried his face in her neck and tried to let go of whatever demons were still chasing him.
"When you're ready, Jack," she whispered after awhile, "we'll go back to the house together and make love. I'll stay out here all night if that's what you want and hold you for as long as you need me to. But we've already waited so long to be together. I don't want to wait any longer."
The muffled voice from her shoulder was almost carried away on the breeze blowing from the lake, but she heard him. "I don't either."
When Jack slowly raised his head from her shoulder some minutes later and tentatively looked into her eyes, she could see that he'd made the decision to try again. She tried to communicate encouragement back to him. His eyes traveled to her lips and once again she knew he was going to kiss her. The feeling of relief when his mouth finally found hers was quickly replaced by an overwhelming surge of desire as he showed no mercy in his ministrations. By the time he finally drew back for a moment so they could both catch their breath, she felt that she'd never been kissed so thoroughly in her life. Leaning in to capture her lips again, he then let his mouth travel up to her ear as he used both hands to pull her against him. As she had earlier, she felt the hardness of his arousal and now the wetness of his tongue circling her ear.
"I want you, Jordan," he whispered. "I want you so badly, I can't think straight. I don't know when I started wanting you like this. Maybe during the past few days, maybe a long time ago. It doesn't matter anymore. All I want right now is to be inside of you and show you how you make me feel."
He had continued to caress her body as he spoke and his words were doing nothing to alleviate the pressure that she felt building between her legs. She wimpered as his lips found her neck again and his hands slid up her body to find her breasts. She couldn't breathe. "Jack," she managed to gasp, "please...the house..."
He caught her meaning and before she could take his hand to walk back with him, he picked her up and strode purposefully back up the bank, stopping only to allow her to grasp the door handle and maneuver the door out of their way. He crossed quickly to her room and, laying her gently on the bed, eased the straps of her dress off her shoulders, trailing kisses along her neck and collar bone until he came back to the fabric. It felt as if eternity passed while Jack slowly unbuttoned the front of her dress and began to peel it away from the breasts he so desperately longed to kiss. As he paid homage with his mouth and hands to first one and then the other, Jordan felt her control quickly slipping away. She saw him moving as in a dream, not quite sure that what was happening was real until she cried out at the feeling of Jack's teeth softly replacing his tongue on her nipple.
"Did I hurt you?"
"No," she breathed, looking into the face suddenly covered with concern. He was still afraid to touch her freely, she realized. Reaching up to stroke his face, she spoke to him softly. "Jack, I won't break. I promise, I'll tell you if I want you to stop. But right now, I want you to do everything but stop!"
He stared at her for a moment, then quickly seized her mouth again, easing her up off the bed and pushing her dress off her body until it pooled on the floor at her feet. Pulling her close, he rubbed his body against her as he slid his hands inside her underwear and made quick work of removing those, too. He was still fully clothed. "Have to do something about that," Jordan mused until all rational thought was driven from her head by the feeling of Jack's fingers sliding between her legs, deftly locating about a million nerve endings as he circled and dipped and rubbed and stroked until he was sure that continuing would deprive them both of the pleasure of climaxing together. Feeling as if his body was about to explode, he jerked back the covers on the bed and managed to hoarsely command, "Lie down."
Jordan hesitated. Her first inclination was to scream in frustration at Jack's removal of his hand from between her legs, denying her the orgasm that was so close that she was having trouble standing. She also had a huge objection to Jack's state of dress. She wanted nothing more at this moment than to remove every piece of his clothing as quickly as possible and draw him inside her to relieve the frustration his hand had left behind. But suddenly, Jack's earlier words came back to her. "Do you always have to lead?" No, she decided once again, she didn't. She sensed that tonight Jack needed to lead and she needed to let him. So she lay back on the bed and trailed her fingers up and down Jack's spine as he sat down on the bed to remove his shoes. Standing up, he held her eyes as he slowly and methodically began to remove the rest of his clothing beginning with his t-shirt. The fact that his actions so closely paralleled those of her dream only served to make her more aroused, if that was possible. So mesmerized was she by the deepening hue of his eyes that she heard, rather than saw, his belt unbuckle and the zipper of his jeans slide down. It was only after he removed his jeans completely that her attention was drawn back to the rest of his body.
For a man in his late thirties, he was in magnificent physical shape. His job required it, but Jordan had a feeling that even if Jack hadn't been in the Navy, he was the sort of man who would take good care of himself. The broad shoulders, the muscular arms and thighs, the tight pecs and washboard abs...she couldn't wait to run her hands over all of him. By the time he finally removed the last barrier to her complete enjoyment of his body, she was squirming on the bed in anticipation. The state of Jack's erection, no less magnificent than the rest of him, indicated that she wouldn't have long to wait to be satisfied.
Jack looked down at Jordan's reclining figure. There was no way in hell he could hold himself back long enough to please her in all the ways he'd planned, he realized. Just the sight of her was enough to drive the sanest man to distraction. Fortunately, Jordan looked as if she was just as ready for him as he was for her. Climbing on the bed, he wasted no time, laying his body on top of hers so she could feel every hair, every muscle, every enticement his body had to offer. The feeling of skin against skin at long last pushed them both to the point of no return. "Anxious, baby?" he whispered as she rubbed against him at every point of contact she could manage.
Jordan never begged. It was unacceptable behavior as far as she was concerned. But somehow, with Jack, she felt safe enough to do all those things that seemed so difficult with every other man. "Please, Jack. I can't wait. Not tonight. Later, but not now. Please don't make me wait any more," she begged. She was finding speech difficult as her heart was pounding in her ears and her breath was coming in short, shallow gasps. Her words seemed to have the desired effect on Jack. He looked deeply into her eyes as he used his knee to push her legs apart and entered her in one swift movement, sheathing himself as far as possible within her as she opened her legs wider to allow him greater depth.
Jordan cried out from the sheer pleasure of finally having him inside her. She was gripping his shoulders so tightly that Jack thought there was a serious possibility that she might draw blood. He didn't care. He'd never wanted a woman this badly before. It was all he could do not to pour himself into her just from the feeling of being clasped inside her body. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and tried to steady himself to last long enough to bring her to her climax along with him. When he opened his eyes, Jordan was staring up at him.
"I've never felt this good in my life, Jack," she whispered hoarsely.
"I'm going to make you feel even better, I promise," he managed to reply. Keeping eye contact, he started to move. Slowly, at first, but he found he couldn't do that for long. His body had a mind of it's own and Jordan's words of encouragement, urging him to go "faster" because she was "so close" didn't help. His mind swam as instinct took over and he only hoped he wasn't going to leave her behind.
He needn't have worried. Between Jack's preparations, the hardness of his erection and the simple fact that they'd delayed touching each other for days, Jordan was past ready. She had been chasing her orgasm since Jack had entered her. The subtle changes in the way his body stiffened and moved inside her was the stimulus she needed to finally push her over the edge, screaming Jack's name so loudly that she thought later the neighbours must surely have heard her. The resulting, delicious spasms that were so satisfying to her were more than Jack could take and he swiftly covered her mouth with his own as he groaned his pleasure and spent everything he'd been holding back deeply inside her.
As his breathing slowed, his kisses softened and Jordan marveled at how a man who had been so relentless only a moment before, could be suddenly so tender. Now was the time to tell him how she felt, she reasoned., if only she understood exactly what it was she was feeling. Love? Lust? She felt a twinge of sadness as Jack slid from her body, quickly replaced by a sense of belonging as he shifted his weight to lie beside her and drew her into his arms. Resting her head on his shoulder, taking in his silence as the minutes passed, she felt the need to say something, but nothing she could think of felt quite right. She settled, instead, for running her hand over Jack's chest, lightly arousing his nipples before moving her hand with more pressure across his abdomen and lower with a touch that surprised her by the feeling of possessiveness it generated.
Jack, who had been trying to sort out his own feelings, was amazed that the woman he was holding could get his body's attention again so quickly. As he felt himself growing harder under her gentle, but increasingly demanding, touch, he left all thought of serious discussion for a later time. Luxuriating in the attention of her fingers, he delayed his response as long as he could, deciding that now was the time to make up for the hasty culmination of their previous love-making. Rolling over onto her once again, he entwined his fingers with hers, raised her hands over her head and pressed himself against her thigh to make sure she understood what she was doing to him.
"Is it too soon to want you again?"
Jack, the way you make me feel, you could ask me that a hundred times and the answer would always be "no". "We don't have a lot of time together, do we Jack?" she finally replied, still too confused to admit what her heart wanted her to say, but bravely giving voice to the fact that neither of them really wanted to face.
He didn't want to think about that now. Thinking about leaving gave him a twitch in his chest he didn't like. She really did smell like jasmine, he thought. Her skin was so soft and her eyes had this liquid, lazy, "come here, Jack" look that he had no defense against. No, leaving was something he definitely didn't want to think about.
The last thing she heard him whisper before he covered her lips with his own was "Then I suggest we make the most of it."
Jordan stretched her arms over her head and arched her back in a supple feline gesture of wakefulness and contentment. She had good reason to stretch her muscles after last night's round of lovemaking with Jack. Once he'd relieved her body of the tension that had been building between them for days, he'd pleasantly surprised her by asking her to make love again almost immediately. Happily accepting his overture, she hadn't foreseen Jack's desire to show her that the haste that had marked their first joining wasn't to be repeated anytime soon. He had brought her to the edge again and again only to pull her back until she had finally screamed at him to please, please let her come, drawing from him what she considered to be a truly self-satisfied smirk and a whispered, "Whatever you want, baby. Whatever you want."
Of course, he hadn't seemed so much in control a few moments later when she'd looked up into his eyes and seen the evidence of her own power over him. She'd spared a heartbeat to be frightened by what that look might mean before she fell over the cliff into bliss and Jack quickly followed her. Now, in the late morning quiet of the house, she couldn't hide from her feelings or her fears any longer. Her heart was moving way too quickly for the rest of her to keep up, but it seemed to have a mind of it's own and no matter how much sense she tried to talk into it, her heart refused to listen. She acknowledged to herself that falling in love with this man would be a huge mistake. Aside from the obvious complications of their relative positions in the Navy, he couldn't stay with her. He had to go home. They'd never see each other. Surely she'd mistaken that look in his eyes last night. He probably didn't want that kind of a relationship, anyway. Too late. Too late. Too late. She shifted her gaze to observe the sleeping body beside her and stealthily turned to wiggle deeper into the covers and inch herself closer to him. A lazy eye opened to indicate that she hadn't been quite stealthy enough.
"Yes, it is," she smiled.
He smiled back and raised his head from the pillow to kiss her softly. "I..." He seemed suddenly lost as a look of confusion slid over his face, causing a sinking feeling in the pit of Jordan's stomach.
"What is it, Jack? What's wrong?"
"Wrong?" He looked surprised. "Nothing's wrong." How can anything be wrong? Everything feels more right than it ever has before...holding you...touching you...waking up with you... "I just wanted to tell you...I mean I wanted you to know..." He looked embarassed and appeared to be getting more so by the second. "I didn't know if I should say...if you'd want me to say..." Christ, WHY is this so hard? He could see by the look on her face that she was beginning to worry. "I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed...how much I liked...being with you last night. That's all," he finished lamely, observing the huge look of relief that washed over her face. I wanted to tell you...hell, I don't know what I wanted to tell you!
"I liked being with you, too, Jack," she smiled back. She refused to release his eyes as he returned his head to the pillow and reached for her hand under the covers. "I wasn't feeding you a line last night. No one's ever made me feel that good before. I hope it won't be the last time," she added softly.
"No way," he grinned back.
She started to laugh. Jack joined her and that was the perfect excuse for another kiss, which led to another kiss, which led to...well, Jordan could see it was going to be awhile before they got up. At some point, part of Jordan's brain registered that while Jack had made love to her three times in the last few hours, each time had been a sensual experience unto itself. First he had been as purposeful as she, pushing her toward the end that they both wanted as single-mindedly as possible. Next he had been the lover of her fantasies, relentless in his desire to please her. Urging her to release control of her satisfaction to his oh, so capable expertise. Now he was almost shy and more tender than she'd believed possible. Even in his lovemaking, the man was a mass of contradictions. Jack was the kind of man that sent less courageous women running for cover. But to a woman like Jordan, he was irresistibly unique.
Was that cause for alarm, she wondered? Was there something in her that could only be attracted to a man who resisted being conquered by other women? Would power and who held it always be an issue for them? Time enough to worry about that later when Jack was gone, she decided. At the moment, the amazing things that Jack was doing to her body made those kind of thoughts completely unnecessary. The thought that she really was such a slave to lust made her giggle.
"Is that a comment on my abilities or are you just ticklish?"
"Neither," she laughed. "As far as your abilities are concerned, I find that I haven't done quite enough research to feel comfortable giving a full evaluation of your technique. But, by all means, please do continue Master Chief."
Much later, relaxing in the warm water that filled the large claw foot tub, Jack looked back over the past few days and wondered how they'd gotten to this point so quickly. The woman lying back in his arms felt as if she belonged there and always had. Oddly, he thought, that realization didn't frighten him as much as he'd expected it to. There was so much to say, so little time to say it and no idea what he wanted to say even if he could find the words to do it. He'd never felt like this before, so exhilarated, so content, so confused all at the same time. He had no experience to draw on and couldn't think of a person he could ask to help him sort out his feelings. Except maybe Jordan. Which led him back to square one.
He thought back to the day he'd seen her in the shower during training. He'd gone back to his office and had a good stiff drink. He knew what he'd done was wrong. He'd known that before he'd even walked into the room, but he was determined to get rid of her and Command Master Chief John James Urgayle always got rid of the problem trainees his way. But when he'd seen her standing there with the water rolling down her back, the exhaustion and determination both equally visible in her posture, he'd completely lost his train of thought for those few moments when he'd wanted to do nothing but look at her. He should have known then that this woman had already gotten past his defenses and touched him in a way that no other woman had before, but that day, his mind was on other things. Instead of questioning why she was able to stop him dead in his tracks without even knowing he was there, he'd shaken himself out of his reverie, thinking this was exactly why she shouldn't be there, tempting and weakening his unit, and proceeded to do his best to make her as uncomfortable as possible. He wasn't sure whether he'd had the drink to salve his conscience, drown his frustration at what he'd already deduced...that no way in hell was Jordan O'Neil ever going to give up anything by choice...or to try to obliterate the memory of his desire to reach out with his fingers and gently catch the drop of water that was about to fall from her breast.
Now he was trailing those same fingers through the water and up her arms. He could touch that same breast if he wanted to. She would let him now. That was something to be marvelled at all on its own. She would let him hold her and kiss her and make love to her until he'd worn them both out. Which was why he had no idea what to say to her. He was so overwhelmed by the way he felt and everything that had happened that if he tried to put even a small portion of his feelings into words, he was afraid it would all come tumbling out in a nonsensical, garbled mass and then she really would think he was...what? What did she think of him? Did she feel anything at all akin to the confusion he was feeling or was he just a pleasant distraction to be forgotten when it was time for him to go home? He leaned down to plant a kiss on her damp shoulder, closing his eyes and contenting himself with the closeness of her body as she outlined the huge scar on his knee with her fingertip.
"I could have lost you that day." The voice was so quiet it had nowhere to go but straight to his heart which stopped immediately.
"I could have lost you, too."
"Can you accept that?"
"That you could have died? It didn't happen, so it doesn't matter." I don't want to talk about this, Jordan.
"It didn't happen then. It could still happen tomorrow. Can you accept that?"
"What are you getting at, Jordan?"
"I could die tomorrow, Jack. Or the next day. I could die every time I go out. I'm getting at who I am. Can you accept that? Can you accept who I am? You didn't want to then. Can you accept it now?"
Why did women have to be so damn complicated, he wondered? Couldn't she just be happy lying in his arms? Couldn't they just pretend he wasn't ever going to leave or that she was never going to have to go on another mission? Couldn't they ignore the chance that every time she walked out the door she might not come back? Couldn't they just stay in bed for the next few days, exploring each other's bodies until they fell asleep only to wake and begin again? Wasn't that enough?
She turned her body slightly so she could look at him.
No. He'd known before he made love to her the first time that even that wouldn't be enough. She'd gotten his attention the night she'd argued against being measured differently from the men. She'd impressed him by helping her teammates even though it was obvious from the beginning they wanted her gone. She'd resisted his efforts to get rid of her. She taken the worst he was capable of doing to a trainee and thrown it back in his face. She'd fought off the Navy brass. She'd saved his life. Then she'd disappeared only to drift back into his life on the scent of jasmine, carrying herself with the dignity he'd come to expect from her. He'd had no defense at that point. No excuses why he shouldn't, couldn't wouldn't...love her. So she'd walked into his heart, sat down and there she was going to stay no matter how hard he tried to fight her off. He realized he didn't want to anyway.
"You are who you are, Jordan, and I don't want you to be anyone else. I may not like your decisions. I may not want to face them. But, I don't have any choice because...I love you."
Max Pyro was worried. Max didn't worry about much. If you asked him on any given day what his overriding philosophical approach to life was he would have replied, "Fuck it." As long as Max could find his uniform in the morning, terrorize a handful of trainees before lunch, catch a few rays during afternoon maneuvers, down at least half a bottle of good whiskey before bed and fuck all night on his days off, life was good. Or at least as good as it was going to get. So when Max got worried, he didn't deal with it well.
Right now Max was worried about his boss. Jack Urgayle had called him five days ago and asked him to overnight the records of the newest batch of trainees to some address in Virginia. Never being a stickler for the regulations, given his line of work, Max had nonetheless felt it necessary to point out to Jack that shipping military records through Fed Ex to some civilian's house wasn't the wisest of moves and, in fact, probably bordered on the criminal.
"Do you realize how much trouble you're going to be in...we're going to be in...if we get caught?"
"Max, if you don't want to do it, I'll just deal with them when I get back."
"Which would be when, exactly?"
"When I get there, Max."
And that's all Max had been able to get out of him. Until today.
"Anything from the Master Chief?" Instructor William Johns slammed the office door behind him as he threw his cap across the room onto one of the desks he'd be sick of looking at two weeks from now.
"Says he's coming back Tuesday. Early." Max didn't need to turn around to see the look on Johns' face. He could feel the eyebrows rising through his back.
"Cutting it a little close isn't he?"
No, he's cutting it way too fucking close and I'm not sure I can head off Salem's questions much longer. Max had spent hours copying records so he didn't have to send the originals to Jack, just in case someone started poking around the office asking to see them or Lt. Blondell decided she just had to discuss somebody's medical history or the Fed Ex plane blew up or, or, or... "He says we can handle it." Max turned to see the look he expected on Johns' face.
"What's going on, Max?"
"I've got no fucking idea."
Now Johns was beginning to worry. He and Jack were friends. Well, as close friends as you could be with your boss. Jack ate dinner at his house, played with his kids and tolerated his wife's attempts to set him up with her girlfriends. But Jack and Max were a different story. They were bar buddies. Being single, they tended to hang out together more often. They drank together, played ball together, picked up women together...and Max had known him longer. So Johns had always assumed that Jack had kept Max apprised of what was going on outside of work. But then again, Jack was nothing else if not a loner. He didn't even let his friends get that close. Obviously, whatever was going on, Jack wasn't talking. "He ever done this before?"
Max snorted. "Jack? He lives for new trainees. He stays up nights thinking of new ways to get rid of them. He can't wait for a new batch so he can try out all his ideas."
"So what's happened? We've got a new class starting a week from Monday and we've done shit! He usually spends weeks studying their records, trying to figure out who they are and find their weaknesses. He arranges and rearranges the boat crew assignments until I'm sick of trying to keep up with him. He checks every piece of equipment personally under a friggin' microscope! So what the hell's going on?"
"I'm quoting. 'Max, how long have you worked for me? You're not an idiot. If I can't trust you and Bill to deal with the equipment after all these years then you're not fucking paying attention!'"
"But what about the crew assignments? When is he going to go through the trainee records?"
"I assume he's doing that now."
"You lost me."
Max swallowed. He didn't like where this conversation was going, but he couldn't see any way out of it. "Jack had me Fed Ex the records to him five days ago." Johns stared at him until Max began to squirm. "Don't worry. I made copies. The originals are in Jack's desk."
"Where the hell is he?"
"Virginia...I think. At least that's where he had me send the records."
Now that was the million dollar question and he had no more of an answer for Bill than he'd had before he'd asked Jack the same question. "Something's come up, Max." "Care to enlighten me, Jack?" "No." "You okay?" "Better than." So it was a woman. It had to be a woman. But Jack didn't blow off his job for women. Jack didn't blow off his job for anybody or anything. So Max was worried.
Jordan looked up from her book to see Jack still bent over the military records strewn all over her bed and spilling onto the floor. After a few failed attempts at trying to work on the plant stand that passed for a table in her kitchen, Jack had moved himself and his paperwork into the bedroom, conscientiously stacking it and putting it away each night before they went to bed. When she'd seen what he was working on earlier in the week, she'd merely raised an eyebrow and looked at him. "Don't ask," he'd said. "It was either this or go home and deal with it." She wasn't willing to let him go and he wasn't jumping at the chance to leave, so they'd said no more about it. He'd asked her to let him finish up tonight so they could have the whole weekend, their last weekend, together before he left for Florida on Monday morning.
Jordan suddenly felt sick. She tried not to think about Jack leaving, but the fact of his impending departure kept creeping up on her during her quietest moments. She'd embarrassed herself and Jack the other night by bursting into sobs as she was lying in his arms in the afterglow of lovemaking. Jack, being Jack, was having a hard time understanding how a woman as satiated as she should have been after what they'd just done had enough energy left to act this way. He'd never seen her cry before. Not once during training. She'd never allowed herself to crack and he'd just assumed that she wasn't the type to break down easily. He was speechless in the knowledge that he was the cause of her tears. "I can't stand the thought of you leaving," she'd finally choked out. "How will I sleep when you're not here?" That was a very good question, he decided. The thought of waking up in his bed without her took the joy of memory from the little house on the beach he'd loved for so long. Not knowing how to answer her, he'd buried his face in her hair and held her until she calmed down.
They hadn't talked about him leaving after that. It was as if they'd come to an unspoken agreement that they would make the most of the time they had together and stave off the sadness until the last possible moment. During the past week, before and after Jordan's loss of control, they'd tried to act as if they were like any other lovers with all the time in the world to spend together. They'd taken Jordan's small boat out and spent the day fishing and drifting on the lake. When Jordan left for work on Monday, Jack had gone back into D.C. to do some more sightseeing. On Tuesday, Max's package arrived and Jack settled in to do his job in order to justify the time he was spending with Jordan when he should have been back at the base preparing for his new class. He'd worked on the records for the past four days, analyzing and memorizing, arranging and evaluating with an intensity and efficiency that came from years of practice. He stopped each day in time to prepare dinner for them both and tucked Jordan into bed early enough for them to make love and still allow her to get enough sleep before her early wakeup call and long drive into work each morning. Tomorrow, they were going to the Eastern Shore. Jordan knew a little place that rented cabins near the water. They planned to relax, eat more oysters than they could hold and make love until the proprietors threw them out on Sunday.
And then they'd come home. At least Jordan would be coming home. Jack would be staying with her, but he would be going "home" on Monday when she left for work. Jack had decided early in the week that he didn't want to leave her depressed and alone in the house all day, so he would wait until Monday morning and drive straight through to Florida. No use stopping. He knew he wouldn't be able to sleep without her anyway.
She looked at him across the room now and her heart filled with such an overwhelming ache that she wondered how it was possible for such a small organ to hold all the love she was feeling for this man. She'd told him she loved him. She'd had to. When he'd said it out loud, she no longer had a choice. All her confusion was nothing compared to the overwhelming certainty that, no matter how this affair ended, her heart wanted what it wanted and her common sense was just going to have to go along for the ride. She'd tried to tell him all the reasons why she loved him...his honesty, his mind, his commitment...but in his direct way, Jack had silenced her with a kiss and she'd known that, as far as he was concerned, hearing her say "I love you" was enough to believe.
He looked up now to catch her watching him and smiled. "Ready for bed?"
"Always, " she grinned as she placed her book on the table, turned off the lamp and crossed the room to help him put away his papers for the last time.
"Don't cry. Please don't cry. It won't be that long, you'll see. The time will pass quickly and we'll talk to each other almost every day. Hey, it could be worse. A lot of guys go out to sea for six months at a time. Or I could be out on a sub and we'd only get ten words on paper once in awhile!" Jordan, please stop crying because if you don't, I'm going to start and I'll never be able to leave.
They'd avoided everything until this morning. Jack had still refused to speak until he'd made love to her one last time, breathing "I love you" into her ear over and over until he was sure she believed him. Then they'd showered and Jack had collected his few belongings while Jordan finished readying herself for work. Now they stood in what passed for Jordan's driveway, Jack's duffel already loaded in his S.U.V., holding onto each other for dear life.
She had fumbled with her words until he'd finally understood she was trying to tell him that she wouldn't be with anyone else while they were apart. She didn't expect him to feel the same way or make the same promises, she'd said. He was certainly free to do whatever he liked, as was she. But she wanted him to know that she wouldn't...she couldn't possibly...
And that's when she'd started crying. Jack had assured her that he didn't want today to be the end of their relationship. As if, Jordan. As if I could walk away from here and never think of you again or hold anyone else in my arms and feel the way you make me feel. They'd think of something, he'd said. They'd find ways to be together. Maybe not as often as they'd like, but he wasn't going anywhere as far as his heart was concerned. He'd never felt like this before. He'd told her he loved her and he meant it. She'd said she loved him, too, hadn't she? And he believed her. So what was the problem? She didn't need to sit here in Virginia worrying about what he was doing when she wasn't around. There wasn't anyone else. There wasn't going to be anyone else. He didn't want anyone else. He didn't need anyone else. Please don't cry!
Jordan wiped her sleeve across her eyes and shakily forced herself to take a deep breath.
"I'm glad you went to that stupid party, Jack. I'm so glad we found each other again and I'm glad the past is behind us. Now, you'd better get in your car or there's a very strong possibility that I will physically try and prevent you from leaving." She tried to put on a brave smile, but Jack could see she was hanging on by a thread.
He was too, he thought. In all the years that he'd been in the Navy, he'd never resented going to work or tried to get out of it. In fact, he loved the Navy and he'd embraced Navy life with a fervor that was part of the reason he'd risen through the ranks so quickly. But now, he suddenly saw the Navy as the villain in a bad dream he couldn't wake up from. Why did they have to be stationed so far apart? Why did Jordan's job require her to leave at a moment's notice? Why did the C.R.T. program keep him pinned to a schedule for three months that would make it impossible for him to even communicate with her for days at a time? And how would he ever explain to Julia that he couldn't spend his leave between classes with her and Charlie because he'd met this woman? I've met someone, Julia. I've met someone and I love her so much I can't stand to be away from her. Can you understand? Can I make Charlie understand? Another problem to face. Another compromise to be made.
Jordan disengaged herself from his embrace and stepped back. "Go on, Jack. It's time."
"I'll call you as soon as I get home. I promise."
"And you'll call me every night at nine? Even if I can't talk? You can leave me a message and I'll listen to it over and over again."
"I love you."
"I know. I love you, too. Thirteen weeks, Jack. Don't kill anybody," she grinned and then stopped. "Go," she whispered.
He wanted to take her in his arms again and kiss her until she begged him to stop. But he knew she wouldn't and he knew he couldn't, so instead he got into his car, pausing to look down at the wheel for a moment before he turned the key and looked out at her through the windshield. She held his eyes for a moment, then spun on her heel and got into her car facing away from him. He knew she was crying again. He could tell by the way her hands gripped the wheel and by the tremor he could see in her shoulders. There was nothing he could do. Nothing either of them could do. They'd had a choice. They could have shaken hands after finding Salem at that party and gone their separate ways. But they hadn't. They could have said goodbye outside the Purple Orchid, but they hadn't. They could have pretended that each of them felt nothing for the other and spent a week discussing trainees and monuments and Jordan's inability to cook a balanced meal. But they hadn't. He was glad. It hurt so badly, but he was glad. He wouldn't have missed the last week for anything in the world.
He forced his hand to put the car in reverse and ordered his foot to leave the brake and press down on the accelerator. His foot felt like lead, but he did it. He saw Jordan's hands grip the wheel tighter and her back stiffen as he backed up the drive and reversed onto the dirt road. He allowed himself a moment to look down at her car, willing her to run down the drive and back into his arms. But he knew she wouldn't move until he left. So he gathered the reserves he'd taught himself to develop as a S.E.A.L., put the car in gear and drove away.
"Welcome aboard, sir."
"Thank you, Master Chief."
"Welcome aboard, Sergeant."
"Thank you, Master Chief."
"Thank you, Master Chief."
That was the last one. Salute Salem. Return to formation. Now he could leave. The new members of the C.R.T. program hated his guts by the time training was over. Oh, they'd be polite enough, but they had no desire to have him hanging around at their celebration, which made his life a lot easier on this particular day. If luck was really on his side, he'd be able to slip away before Max caught up to him.
Too late. He turned to see Pyro crossing the parade grounds at a brisk walk to make sure Jack didn't take off again before he reached him. Jack had seemed to be his old self when he'd gotten back from leave, a bit quieter maybe, drinking a bit less maybe, but Jack all the same. That had lasted until the night that they'd gone out after S.E.R.E. training.
S.E.R.E. training was a milestone in the training program. By the time it was over, the trainees were either out or they were likely to make it all the way to the end. It was a time for the trainees and the instructors to both take a break. The instructors had started the evening in a group, but several hours later the married men had all gone home and only Jack and Max were left. They were sitting by the jukebox in Grady's when one of the regulars wandered by. Well, she didn't exactly wander by. She'd stopped Max on his way back from the bathroom.
"Hey, Max. Long time no see."
"I've been workin', babe!" Max could lean up against a woman from across the room when he chose to turn on the charm. Looking over the potential company for the rest of the evening, he turned it on. "But I'm not workin' now." Max's chesire grin shone like a hundred watt bulb.
"Think your friend is up for some company?"
Shot down before takeoff. Ah well, Max wasn't picky. One woman was just as good as another. "Jack? Honey, Jack is always up for company, you know that. Why don't you bring one of your friends over and sit down."
She looked back to the table where Jack was spinning his beer bottle by the neck. "I dunno, Max. He doesn't seem real interested tonight. Matter of fact, last few times you two were in here, he was downright antisocial."
"He's just focused on the job. Why don't you find one of your friends and bring her over for a drink? You can help him relax." His gravely voice made the evening sound promising, but she still wasn't sure. Brandy had been after Jack Urgayle for a year, but women in the bar were always fighting over Jack. He was HOT and as Command Master Chief, he was a good catch. This was her chance. If only he looked just a bit more receptive.
"Come on, honey. Let's have our own private party." Max turned up the wattage.
Brandy decided if she didn't take advantage of this opportunity, she might not get another. "Okay, let me go find my friend. You like blondes, Max?"
"Honey, I like blondes, brunettes, redheads...love 'em all. Go find your friend."
He returned to the table where Jack was still staring at the table and spinning his bottle and sat down. "You up for some fun, Jack?" he grinned.
Jack was just about to ask what Max had in mind when Brandy and her friend, Carly, came over to say, "Hi!" Oh, that kind of fun. No, Max, I am not up for that kind of fun, except with one particular woman and she's a thousand miles away. The thought made him even more melancholy than he'd been minutes before when he'd been contemplating actually spending the weekend in his own house for a change...without Jordan.
"What are you girls drinking?" Max asked with undisguised glee.
Jack checked his watch for the hundredth time. It was starting to get on Max's nerves. "Got an appointment, Jack?" he asked with an edge to his voice.
Before Jack could answer him, his cell phone rang. Checking the number, he quickly rose from the table. "Sorry to rush out ladies, but it's time for me to call it a night."
"Jack????" Mac couldn't believe his ears.
"Night Max. Have fun." He had the cell phone to his ear before he was out the door.
When Max had tried to corner Jack about his behavior later, Jack had blown him off by pulling his Master Chief "we've got work to do" routine. So Max wasn't about to let him get away with it this time. He'd been looking forward to their regularly scheduled end-of-training binge for weeks. "You ready to head out?"
This wasn't going to be pretty. "I'm heading home, Max."
"Then we can meet up later."
"I can't." Max just stared at him. "I have something else I need to do."
"Like what? Jack, what the hell is going on?" Max was losing his temper now. "You've been acting crazy ever since Salem sent you on that damn trip. You blow off your job to sit in Virginia doing god knows what and when you come back, you act like a damn monk! Who is she?"
"Who is she? You can pull that commanding officer shit on me when we're working, but you and I have been friends too long for me not to get worried when I see you acting like a loon. So who is she and how long is it going to take to knock some sense into you?"
Jack appeared to be weighing his options as looks of regret and amusement alternately chased each other across his face. Coming to a decision, he looked at the ground and then back at Pyro. "Max, you're right about one thing. We've been friends a long time. Good friends. Too long and too good for me to put you in a position you don't want to be in."
"Jack, what the hell are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about regulations, Max. I'm talking about who's breaking them and who knows about it and who would have to tell what they know or lie if they were asked."
Max looked stunned and then defeated. "Jack..."
"I'm going home, Max. You don't need to worry about me. I've actually had quite a bit of sense knocked into me in the past few months," he smiled. "I'm sorry to let you down, but I have no doubt you won't be alone by the end of the evening. I've seen you work." The smile had become a grin and Max suddenly felt he had no choice but to let Jack head to his car and go wherever he was going alone.
As he headed across the walkway to the parking lot, the raucous sounds coming from the trainees' barracks told Jack that party was well underway. Have fun gentlemen. I wish you calm seas and a bright star to steer by. He took one last look around the grounds before getting in his car and starting the engine, thinking that the end of training had always been a letdown for him. As he pulled out of the lot, turned to the left and headed in the direction of the beach, he remembered how he'd always felt a sense of displacement when one of his classes graduated. His life had been defined by his job. Doing his job made him feel useful and fulfilled. The end of training left him at loose ends, having nothing to think about but the beginning of the next class and how he could pass the time in-between.
Turning right past the storage sheds, he made for the other side of the base where the bay ended and the buildings gradually gave way to dunes. This time, however, was different. He welcomed the end of training as much as the new C.R.T. members did. He had something else on his mind. He began to pick up speed on the road that curved toward the water, the roof of his house coming into view, then the siding with it's sea wind beaten paint, finally the porch as he curved once again to come at the house from the direction of the water. He thought how much he loved this house as he turned down the vehicle worn track that led to its side. He'd been lucky. No storm had taken it from him, though a few had tried. He guided the car to a stop behind the champagne coloured S.U.V. already parked next to the house. He hadn't expected her this early, but as the door to the porch burst open and the house spilled forth the woman he loved onto the steps to race toward his car, he reflected that there were a lot of things in life you didn't expect. And sometimes...if you were very, very lucky...you got them anyway.
THE END (for now)