Chapter 1. Thursday
Vibrations from the 737’s engines shook the Navy letterhead as Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil read her orders once more. She grinned with anticipation. Only two weeks since she’d completed the SEAL/CRT selection program, and she had already been assigned to a team. She wasn’t scheduled to report to her new commanding officer for another six days, but she had rushed through her prep so that she could arrive in Florida early. She wanted to talk with a certain master chief down there, and was giving herself time in case he proved elusive.
The plane landed smoothly. With no baggage to claim, Jordan passed quickly through the terminal and picked up her rental car. She was on personal leave and didn’t want to be obligated to the Navy until it was time to report the following Wednesday. She felt more relaxed than she had in weeks. She’d forgotten how pleasant it could be to wear civvies.
She checked her watch. Oh nine thirty. She couldn’t check in to the motel until late afternoon. She had some errands to do, but first she wanted to see if she could make a lunch date. Two weeks had passed since she’d last seen the chief. Working with him had been difficult, but at the end they’d made a good connection. Now she wanted to find out whether that connection had stamina. She found the slip of paper where she’d written his office phone number, and punched the digits into her cell phone.
The ringing seemed interminable. “Urgayle,” came the familiar voice.
“Hello, Master Chief. It’s Lieutenant O’Neil. I’m back down from Washington and wanted to check in with you.”
“O’Neil?” Clearly she’d caught Urgayle by surprise. He grunted. “Come back to cause more trouble?”
She chuckled. He was as friendly as ever. “I missed you, too,” she replied. She knew he would not appreciate small talk so she went right to the point. “I’d like to talk with you. I have some questions and I think you’re the best person to ask.” She paused. “Are you available for lunch today? I apologize for the late notice; wasn’t sure when I could get down here.”
There was a long silence on the other end of the line. “No, ma’am. I’m tied up.” Jordan’s quick disappointment was cut short as Urgayle continued, “But dinner is open.” He hesitated briefly. “Think you’re tough enough to survive my cooking?”
Surprised, she laughed. “Sure, Master Chief, when and where?”
Jack Urgayle looked at the kitchen clock as he slid the roasting pan into the oven. Eighteen fifteen. “Forty-five minutes before she gets here,” he muttered to himself. “What the hell was I thinking?” He checked his T-shirt and khaki pants for evidence of spills or spatters, did a minimal kitchen cleanup, and limped into the living room. He cast a critical eye over the half-finished projects near the windows, but wasn’t willing to put them away just to protect them from his visitor. If she looked, she looked.
Turning on the stereo, he collapsed on the couch as the opening chords of a Tschaikovsky piano concerto thundered from the speakers. He’d traded his lunch hour for an extended physical therapy session, and his leg was complaining bitterly. Elevating the offending limb on a well-used stack of pillows, he willed himself to relax.
In his mind he saw the lieutenant as he had first met her, in her fatigues, with that ridiculous long hair. He had pegged her immediately as a first-day washout. “I should have been so lucky,” he groaned, remembering her foot making contact with his crotch. She was tough, he had to give her that. Not bad looking, either, even with her head shaved. An image of her in the shower came unbidden, and he pushed it away automatically.
His mind replaced the picture of her wet torso with images from the SERE training camp: his hand striking O’Neil, her body slamming into a tree, her struggle to stay on her feet, her final defiant stance with blood streaming from her face. “Damn.” Though he was not prone to second-guessing himself, that was a day he would not mind erasing. He closed his eyes, lacing his fingers behind his head, and leaned back. He accepted that his job sometimes included physically assaulting the trainees, but this was different. He’d never hit a woman before. His dad had drilled it home early that you didn’t hit women. The fact that she had given him almost as good as she got didn’t make it feel right. He never wanted to be put in that position again.
He could have been royally pissed off at O’Neil for causing so much aggravation, but he knew she wasn’t really the problem. She had earned her SEAL/CRT insignia. She’d worked as hard as any of the men–harder than most. She had courage. And brains. He liked that. Stubborn as hell, and a bit of a smartass, but all business when it mattered. He’d learned to respect her, and that mess in Libya had shown he could count on her in a difficult situation.
All in all, she was the toughest woman he’d ever met. A warrior. Most women he’d known wouldn’t take that as a compliment but he had the feeling the lieutenant would thank him for saying it. He grinned. She was more interesting than any other woman he could remember, though there was something about her that made him uncomfortable. Perhaps that was a good thing. Keep him on his toes. He was curious to know what she wanted to talk about. With a small smile, he closed his eyes and let the music carry him away. Maybe, just maybe, this evening wouldn’t be too bad after all.
At the appointed hour, Jordan stood on Urgayle’s doorstep with a bottle of wine in hand. She paused before knocking and smoothed her slacks. She half expected that the door, once opened, would be slammed back in her face, and unconsciously straightened to attention.
Jack rose from his couch, stowed the pillows, and turned the music down a bit before answering the summons. “Come in, Lieutenant.” His lips twitched as he saw what she’d done with her hair as it was growing out. It was a bit spiky, though not unattractive.
“Thank you for agreeing to talk with me, Master Chief.” As Jordan’s eyes left his, she surveyed the room. On the right, several bookcases struggled to contain the volumes crowding their shelves. Not surprising given what she knew of Urgayle. But her jaw dropped when she saw the easel set up near the living room windows, with several paintings leaning on the wall next to it. The canvases were large and sprawling, unfinished, full of color and life. No pastels here, but not the blood and war subjects she might have expected either.
Jack saw her staring at the paintings. “I know it’s a mess. I’m in the middle of a couple of projects.”
“I didn’t know you painted.”
“I’m a dilettante. Took a class once. But I paint just for myself. Helps me relax.” He changed the subject. “Is that wine chilled, Lieutenant, or is it just for show?”
He made an effort to conceal his limp as he headed for the kitchen. Jordan noticed but chose not to comment. She handed him the cold bottle and set her handbag on one end of the counter. “You can call me Jordan, Master Chief.”
Furrowing his brow, he weighed the consequences of using her given name. Finally he nodded. “Okay, Jordan.” Picking up the corkscrew, he turned to her thoughtfully. “My friends call me Jack.”
Suddenly feeling shy, Jordan averted her eyes. “Something sure smells good.”
“Chicken’s in the oven. It needs to cook another 40 minutes.” Jack opened the bottle of wine and poured two glasses, handing one to Jordan. “I could use some fresh air. Join me outside.”
She followed him into the small back yard. A neatly trimmed lawn contrasted with bushes growing wild along the fence. Two Adirondack chairs sat on either side of a small wooden table. One was paired with a second table topped with a faded cushion. Jordan sat in the other chair while Jack carefully set down his wine glass, eased himself into place and propped up his leg. He relaxed and let her make the next move.
She broke the silence. “Looks like you’re getting around well. I heard you’ll be back to full duty in a few months?”
“Hope so,” Jack replied. “No combat duty for at least six months, but I should be able to start training again sooner. The other instructors can cover any heavy physical stuff.” He turned to her. “But that’s not why you wanted to talk to me.” His gaze directed her to get to the point.
“You’re right,” she acknowledged. She took a long breath and spoke with determination. “I didn’t go looking to join the CRT, but I always wanted the chance to serve in combat. So when this opportunity was offered to me I took it.” Her eyes shone as she turned to him. “The course opened up a whole new world for me. The training and the mission made everything else I’ve done pale in comparison. I want to continue. So I’ve threatened and bullied my way into an assignment and I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.” She paused. “But I know I’m walking into unknown territory without a map. I can work it out as I go, but I think my chance of success is better if I have some sort of guide.”
She caught his eye again. “That’s why I wanted to talk with you, Jack.” She used his given name deliberately. “I’m looking for a mentor, a friend, someone who can give me a reality check.”
Jack grunted. “I’m no fucking mentor.” Jordan heard the gruffness in his voice and chose to read it as an opening.
“Your advice could be a great help to me.” She paused. “I’ve talked with Wickwire and McCool, and they’ve told me what they know. But they don’t know much more than I do. It was Wick who suggested I talk with you.”
“Wick sent you to me?” he snorted. “I need to talk to that boy.” But he didn’t deny her request. They sat in silence a few moments.
“So what’s this about an assignment?” he finally asked.
“I report to Captain Kurt Sehloff in six days. I guess he wants to talk with me before I head for jump school and advanced training. Not sure what his agenda is. I understand you worked with him?”
“Kurt and I were in the same BUD/S class almost thirteen years ago. We worked together several years. He’s a good man. The best. Tough as nails, but fair. His platoons see a lot of action.”
“I know it’s going to be difficult at first. I don’t know him or anyone on his team, and I can guess they’re not eager to have a woman joining them.” Jordan wrinkled her nose.
“Advanced training is going to be just as hard as the selection course you just completed. You’ll have to prove yourself to your new team. Everyone has to. You’ll just meet more resistance than most.” Jack could guess what she’d be up against. “Shouldn’t have to fight the way you did in training, but it won’t be easy.” That brought the images of Jordan’s bleeding face back to his mind, and he shook his head to clear them. He did not share his thoughts with trainees, but he found himself wanting to explain his actions. He folded his arms across his chest and glanced skyward, as though searching for guidance. She was no longer in his class. Maybe talking about this would help clear some of that crap out of his head. He sighed and turned back toward her.
“They’re going to give you a hard time, Lieutenant, but I believe you can handle it. They’ll think they can scare you off, just as I thought I could chase you out of my class.” He snorted. “Hell, I expected you to drop out the first day. And every day after that I was sure would be your last.” He looked at her with a hint of a smile. “I kept figuring you were just too damned stubborn to realize you weren’t going to make it. I guess I was wrong. You did all right for yourself.” He paused and reflected. His voice became more serious. “I pulled out all the stops in the SERE exercise. It was my last chance to prove that you didn’t belong.”
Jordan raised her eyebrows. She had not expected the master chief to be so candid.
“You took everything I could dish out and came back at me like a fury,” he continued. “It’s been quite a while since I was last taken down by a trainee.” He unconsciously rubbed the bridge of his nose as he remembered how she’d briefly turned the tables on him. “You did me a favor, you know,” he said, shaking his head. “I’d put myself up against a wall with the rape threat. I wasn’t sure it would get to you but I was certain it would throw the guys over the edge. When it didn’t work I realized I didn’t have a backup plan.” He almost smiled. “I guess you created one for me.”
Jordan nodded, grateful for this chance to clear the air. “I guessed as much. I didn’t think you would go through with it but I didn’t see any easy way for you to back down either. I knew I had to rescue myself. I just kept ragging on you and watched for a moment when you had your attention on the men.”
A thought came to her. “But I didn’t just get lucky there, did I? You left me an opening.” She looked at him with curiosity. “Was that calculated? Or did you underestimate me?”
“I’m no fool,” Jack replied, rolling his eyes. “Either way I answer that question, you’re going to give me shit for not taking you seriously enough.” Jordan nodded agreement. “Well, truth is I did underestimate you. No way I would have left you that opening if I’d thought you were in any condition to see it and use it.” Another perspective occurred to him. “That could be an advantage for you in combat, you know. You want your teammates to respect you. And your attacker to underestimate you.”
“And in Libya?” Jordan knew she was treading on tender ground. “Could it have given me a similar edge there?”
Jack had expected this subject to come up at some point. “Is that why you wanted to talk with me today?”
“One reason, yes. The biggest reason?” She thought a moment. “Possibly yes to that too.”
He turned away, shaking his head thoughtfully. If it were one of the men asking he’d tell him to get over it and move on. But he decided to give the lieutenant some slack on this one. “I know you think I was more protective because you’re female. I don’t know. Maybe it’s true. But I’ve gone over that mission a hundred times, and the odds were not in your favor. He heard you whispering. He was suspicious and had his gun drawn. Yes, you might have taken him down silently. Or he might have fired his gun before going down. Or he might have made an escape. Or he might have killed or injured you. Only one of those possibilities was an improvement over the sure solution.”
“And if it had been Wickwire or McCool or Slovnik instead of me?”
Jack replied steadily, “Wick and McCool both have several years of combat experience. They also outweigh you almost 2 to 1. I would have bet on them. Slovnik is more green but he’s an insane fighter. If he’d sounded calm I might have taken the chance. But with any guy who hadn’t had combat experience, I would have made the same call I made with you. The stakes were too high.”
He looked at her directly. “Jordan, you need to let go of this one. You’re tough, you’re fast, you’re smart as a whip. You’re never going to be able to carry a 220-pound guy on your shoulder. But your topo skills and intel experience will be a plus for any team. There will be other jobs you can do better than anyone else. You’re going to have to give them the opportunity to figure out how to use you best.” He thought a moment and added. “Just don’t expect them to fall in line on the first day. Some of your new teammates may be even more stubborn than I was.”
“Thanks, Master Chief.” Jordan unconsciously slipped back to a more formal address. “I’m sorry to dwell on this. But I’ve fought so hard to get this far. I’m not afraid of getting hurt. But the thought of becoming the team cook just because the guys can’t trust a woman … that would kill me.”
“Not feeling sorry for yourself, are you, Lieutenant?” Jack spoke half seriously, half teasing.
She looked at him and grinned. “No, Master Chief.” After a moment’s hesitation, she dropped her eyes, adding sheepishly, “well, yes, a bit. Thanks for calling me on it.” She turned back to him. “So what else can you tell me about CaptainSehloff? Did you actually go on any missions together?”
This was a subject Jack felt more comfortable with, and he launched into a long, convoluted tale of a difficult personnel recovery during the Gulf War. Jordan kept him going with her questions. He was well into his second story when the oven timer sounded.
“Chicken’s done, Jordan,” Jack said. “Hungry?”
She grinned. “After hearing you talk about living on nothing but scorpions for a week, I’m starving! You’re not sending me away with an empty stomach, not when it smells so good.” They picked up their wine glasses and headed for the kitchen.
“Help me make some salad while this cools,” Jack said as he pulled the chicken from the oven.
“Sure. Wow, that’s beautiful! Where’d you learn to cook like that?” Jordan admired the roasted chicken squatting on its nest of red potatoes. She looked up at Jack in time to see a brief look of embarrassment cross his face.
“Hell, it’s easy. I cook it all the time. My sister taught me. Said the girls would love it.” A mischievous smile made a brief appearance. “You just stick the chicken on this rack, throw some red potatoes around it, bake the whole thing about an hour and a half. She said if you really want to impress someone, you sprinkle on some rosemary before you put it in the oven.”
“Well what?” He looked puzzled.
“So did you sprinkle on the rosemary tonight?” Jordan asked, grinning widely. Her nose had already told her the answer.
Jack snorted. “Well if you must know, I did.” He looked defensive. “Force of habit. I always add the rosemary.”
“Oh, of course,” she replied with a smile. As though speaking to herself she added, “a man who cooks. With herbs. A surprise around every corner.”
Now it was Jack’s turn to grin. “Don’t worry, Jordan. For every surprise you might learn to like, I’m sure I could come up with a dozen more you’d hate.” He started pulling vegetables out of the refrigerator and tossing them at her.
“No doubt.” She caught a flying head of lettuce and set it on the counter. “You know, Jack, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you smile before tonight. Looks good on you. You should do it more often.”
His response was a volley of carrots, cucumber, tomato and avocado, timed so that she had to shut her mouth and concentrate on catching the airborne veggies. Conversation turned to the serious business of food preparation, and they soon sat down to a good meal.
Jordan figured she’d try to keep the dinner talk off herself for a while. “That brace looks lighter than the one you were wearing last time I saw you. And no cane. Looks like you’re doing well with the PT?”
“Hmmph. Yeah, it’s okay. Glad to get rid of the cane.” Frowning, he redirected the conversation. “So what’s going on back in D.C. with this ‘women in combat’ business? Do I need to prepare myself and the boys for a busload of crazy women like you?”
“Hell, no, Master Chief,” she grinned. “I’m one of a kind.”
He rolled his eyes, lips twitching. “I knew that.”
“Seriously,” she continued. “I was a test case who was supposed to fail. It was all political bullshit. They never intended to open up combat positions to women — and especially not special forces.”
“So you messed up their master plan?” Jack preferred to ignore the machinations of the upper echelons and Congress whenever possible.
“Not really. I’m like a tick on an elephant, more of an irritant than a threat. Truth is they don’t know what the hell to do with me. They’d be happy if I disappeared back into some office somewhere and they never heard my name again. But I fought too hard to get this far. So I traded them my silence for an assignment. Sink or swim. If I got lost at sea they’d breathe a sigh of relief.” She paused and grinned crookedly. “Makes me wonder what Sehloff did to deserve me.”
“Hmm. Good point. I’ll have to ask him.” He furrowed his brow. “But why does your silence matter? I’m surprised you weren’t just stuck back in a box somewhere whether you liked it or not.”
Jordan’s grin took on a mischievous twist. “Do you know how many media folks have contacted me for my story? Some producer even wanted to do a movie about my experience, wanted to call it ‘G.I. Jane’ if you can believe that. He couldn’t even get straight the difference between the Army and the Navy.” She snorted. “No, Senator DeHaven and the Navy brass would like me to be a nice quiet girl until all this blows over. It was the only card I had left, so I played it.”
She sighed, her face becoming sober again. “They’re giving me one chance. If I can complete advanced training and keep a low profile, I can work with the CRT indefinitely. But one screwup, even a small one, and I’ll be busted back to an office in a heartbeat.”
“Hmmmph. The more I learn about politics the more grateful I am to be posted well away from Washington.” It was the closest he had come to a sympathetic comment, and Jordan appreciated the effort.
“Yeah. Me too.” She dug into her chicken. “This is a great meal, Jack. Thanks for having me over.”
For a while conversation took a back seat to dinner. When they’d eaten their fill, Jack headed into the kitchen with the plates and silverware. Jordan followed him with the serving dishes. She started loading the dishwasher while he put away the food. They worked efficiently and the kitchen was soon ready for inspection.
Jordan glanced at the wall clock. “Whoa! Almost 2130 hours. Didn’t realize we were talking so long. I need to head back to the motel. I have a phone call to make before it gets too late.”
She caught a look of disappointment flash across Jack’s face. “How much longer are you in town?” he asked.
“Five more days.” She hesitated. “Would you have time to get together again?”
“Hmmm….” He stalled for time, wondering whether her interest extended beyond discussing Navy business. “I’m free tomorrow evening. I was thinking about going to see this movie some of the guys at the base were talking about.” He watched for her response.
“What’s the movie?”
“It’s called ‘Hidalgo.’ About a cowboy who races his horse in Arabia. Sounds far-fetched, I know, but I’m a sucker for an old-fashioned adventure story. Like to join me?” He tried to act as though her answer didn’t matter.
“I haven’t seen a movie in months.” She paused briefly. “Sure, sounds like fun. I’m going to be running around tomorrow, be hard to catch. How about if I look up the show times and call you in the morning to confirm?” She avoided using the word “date.” Didn’t want to scare the master chief.
“Okay.” Jack realized he was still trying to pretend that he didn’t care whether she went or not. Maybe he needed to act a little more pleased? It was hard to figure out which persona he was supposed to wear around this woman. “I’ll look forward to it.”
Jordan picked up her handbag, pulling out a small package wrapped in brown paper. She followed Jack to the door, where she handed him the package. “Here. I wanted you to have this.”
Surprised, Jack took the package and opened it carefully. The Collected Works of William Blake. He looked at her, at a loss for words.
Jordan wasn’t sure how to interpret the look. “Is it okay? Do you already have it?”
“Yes, it’s great. And no, I don’t already have it.” Jack smiled. “I have excerpts from his ‘Songs of Innocence’ in one of my anthologies but would like to read more.” He gazed at Jordan, lost in thought for a moment. “You guess well.” He remembered his manners. “Thank you.”
Jordan smiled, “You’re welcome. I’ve enjoyed your D.H. Lawrence book a lot. But Blake is my all-time favorite.” She could see he felt awkward. She reached out and touched his arm. At the same time she lifted her chin just enough to bring her into direct eye contact.
It had been some time since Jack last dated, but he still recognized the invitation. His injured leg felt a little wobbly under him, so he leaned against the door jamb to steady himself. He reached out and cupped Jordan’s chin in his hand as he bent his face toward hers. Unexpectedly, she flinched at his approach. He stopped, surprised, and backed off. He had many years of experience reading people’s faces. He could have sworn he saw a sudden wariness in her eyes. He frowned, puzzled.
Jordan’s own reaction caught her off balance as well. She didn’t even notice that he had not kissed her. She immediately headed out the door. After a few steps she caught herself, paused briefly and turned back. “Thanks again for dinner, Jack. I’ll call you in the morning.” She continued to her car, outwardly calm but fighting an inexplicable desire to bolt. She stuffed down the feelings firmly and headed back to the motel.
Jack stood in the doorway staring after her long after the car’s taillights disappeared. He shook his head as he turned and walked back into the house. Life had just become a little more complicated. What surprised him was that he didn’t really mind. Maybe being stuck behind a desk all day had made him crave a bit of unpredictability.
He stopped in the living room, drawn to his paintings. For the first time since being injured, he felt the urge to pick up a brush. Time to exorcise some ghosts. He got out his paints and brushes, found a fresh canvas, and went to work, humming softly.