Chapter 4. Sunday
Jordan watched the digits on the clock next to the bed turn to 0500. It had not been a restful night. She lay in bed a few minutes with her eyes open and mind rushing at full speed. Realizing that sleep was no longer an option, she rose, slipped into her running clothes and took off to tour the island in the dawn light.
By the time she returned at 0630, she was pretty sure she had seen every square foot of the tiny cay, and her mind was calm if not fresh. She decided to go look for Jack at 0700 if he hadn’t shown up before then. Showering and dressing quickly, she had just started a search for coffee in the tiny kitchen when she heard a soft rapping sound. She turned as Jack opened the cottage door. He hesitated in the entryway, brown paper bag in one hand, cane in the other. Her face lit up. “Jack! I’m so glad to see you.” Noticing how haggard he looked, she smiled wryly. “Looks like you didn’t get any more sleep than I did.”
He relaxed visibly at her welcome, letting a smile touch his lips. Entering the cottage, he started for the kitchen with his groceries when his eye caught the book that had triggered the previous night’s scuffle. He stopped and looked at Jordan. “Did you read it?” he asked.
“No,” she replied, joining him in the living room. “Not that I wasn’t tempted.”
He acknowledged her forbearance with a nod as he set the groceries down on the coffee table and picked up the book. He found the page he wanted and handed her the open book. She sat on one end of the couch and bent her eyes to the page. While she read, he limped to the other end of the couch and sat heavily, his eyes on the floor.
touch of fingers
ignites hungry skin
mind struggles for control
logic to cinders
She caught her breath. “It’s beautiful.” She looked at him. “Did you write it last night?”
Turned to her, he nodded. With a wry smile, he added, “I know it’s not great poetry, but maybe it helps explain my state of mind.” He sighed and shook his head. “I did a lot of thinking last night. Please understand, Jordan, my feelings for you aren’t just about sex. I enjoy being with you. I love your sense of humor, your energy, the way you set your jaw and charge ahead.” He stopped, gathering his resolve, and took a deep breath before continuing. “But I haven’t spent this kind of time with a woman since… since my wife left me five years ago.” He looked at her and said simply, “I want you too much.”
Jordan’s face reflected her remorse and deepened understanding. “I’m so sorry, Jack. I should have paid attention to what was happening, been more sensitive.” She paused. “My ex and I used to play little teasing games all the time. But we’d been together for several years. I just wasn’t thinking.”
He nodded. “Likewise. I knew my hand had no business down there.”
She smiled. “No business yet. Maybe it was just early.” She reflected for a moment. “I want you too. Perhaps more than you realize. And you’re probably right about Sehloff not having a problem with our having a relationship. But I just can’t take the chance.” She looked at him, eyes pleading for understanding. “You know better than anyone how hard I’ve fought to get this assignment, Jack. I can’t… I won’t risk losing it. For my own peace of mind, I need to be able to go in clean when I meet with him.” She reached her hand to him across the length of the couch. “I didn’t realize it would be so difficult for us to keep our hands off each other.”
“I know,” he agreed, meeting her outstretched hand with his own. “It’s just… well, 24 hours of foreplay was a bit too much for this old soldier. We only have one more day. Maybe we need to limit ourselves to handholding.” He looked at her, one eyebrow raised. “And no cheating this time?”
She nodded with the slightest of smiles. “Agreed. I’ll be a good girl, I promise.” She paused. “Would an occasional kiss be okay too?”
He looked at her sternly, only the barest hint of a smile betraying him. “Okay. But no tongue.”
She grinned. “And an occasional hug?”
Again the stern look. “Okay. But no wiggling your hips.” He caught her look of innocence. “Jordan, you know you do it.”
She smiled sheepishly. “Guilty as charged, Master Chief. Okay, no tongue, no wiggling. Friendly and affectionate. Period.” She added seriously, “Jack, I’ll do my best but I can’t read your mind. You need to tell me if I start making it hard for you. So to speak. Promise?”
He raised his eyebrows and snorted. “Promise.”
She directed her gaze to the neglected grocery bag sitting on the coffee table. “I don’t suppose there’s any coffee in that bag?”
He nodded. “Coffee, milk, juice, fresh eggs and bread. Let’s make breakfast.”
While Jordan brewed coffee, toasted several slices of bread and set the table, Jack scrambled half a dozen eggs. Within ten minutes they were sitting down to a hearty breakfast. She had more of an appetite than she’d anticipated, and it seemed that he was always hungry. She waited until he had finished eating before bringing up what was sure to be a sensitive subject. “How long were you married?”
He stared at his plate for a while, remembering his thoughts from the night before. Finally he looked at Jordan and replied, “We got married when we were both in our early twenties. I took a bullet, and Carol was a nurse at the hospital where I landed for a while.” He unconsciously touched the old scar on his side. “We were together about ten years. She didn’t much like it when I joined the SEALs, kept trying to get me to transfer closer to home.”
“Is that why she left?” Jordan asked.
“Not exactly.” He stalled out again. This story, buried deep, was not something he shared with anyone, yet he found himself wanting Jordan to understand what had happened. She reached her hand to his. Clasping it, he continued. “She found out she was pregnant. Next time I was on leave she asked me again to stay home, but I decided to take on one more assignment before requesting a transfer. She was already three months along by then, but I was only going to be gone six weeks.”
He shook his head. “The mission blew up in our faces. I lost two buddies, and three of us were captured behind enemy lines. Nobody knew where we were or exactly what had happened. They told Carol I was MIA. We finally escaped about eight months later.” He paused again, his eyes focused on a distant point. “By the time I got home, our baby was three months old. But Carol was finished. She’d already been seeing somebody else, said her son needed a father.” He shrugged his shoulders and looked at Jordan. “How could I blame her? She didn’t know whether I was dead or alive.”
“Do you know where they are now?” Jordan asked.
“They live in Ohio,” Jack replied. “She married the other fellow. George Sorensen. He’s a good man, a good father. He adopted Jimmy. I send money, and visit him a couple of times a year, but George is his real dad.” He took a long breath and released it slowly. “I’m hoping I can spend more time with him as he gets older, but Jimmy’s only five, and Carol figures he’s still too young to leave home and stay with someone he hardly knows.” He shook his head. “I’m sure it’s true. And lord knows, I don’t know what I’d do with him anyway.”
Jordan smiled gently. “You could bring him here, teach him to snorkel. He’s going to feel special knowing he has two dads who both care about him.”
“Hmmph. Never thought about it that way.” He looked at her softly, echoes of old hurt in his eyes. Bringing his other hand to the table, he inspected her fingers one by one. “I guess now you know why I’m pessimistic about relationships with special operators.”
“It must have been devastating, Jack. Did you think about her a lot while you were a prisoner?”
“All the time.” He nodded his head slowly. “Sometimes thinking about Carol and our baby was all that kept me going. I wouldn’t give up trying to find a way out of there.” He smiled grimly. “She probably saved all three of our lives.”
“Sounds as though it wasn’t her but your feelings for her that saved your life,” Jordan mused. “So had you been a SEAL trainer before this mission?”
“No,” Jack answered, wrapping his hands around her smaller one. “They asked me to help teach a SERE course because of my POW experience. It gave me something to keep my mind off Carol, and I seemed to be suited for it, so I kept taking on more responsibility.” He reflected. “Teaching SERE is always intense for me. I want the trainees to be prepared, to know what kind of shit they might face. And believe me, reality is always worse than the class.”
Jordan hesitated to share her next thought, but she knew it had to come up. “It must feel strange, thinking about me going off to war, leaving you behind just as you left Carol.”
“Yeah.” He nodded heavily. “Last night, on the boat, I spent a lot of time thinking about that.” With a wry smile he added, “There’s some strange kind of justice at work here.” He paused and shook his head. “After all these years I’m finally beginning to understand what Carol was going through every time I went on a mission.”
“Maybe you should write her a letter,” Jordan suggested. “She’d probably appreciate hearing it.”
Jack looked surprised at the suggestion, but he nodded. “She might at that.” He cocked his head at her. “You know, you remind me of her in a few ways.”
Jordan was touched by this remark. His voice told her how much he had cared about Carol. “How so?”
“She listened to me, really listened, the way you do. And she made me laugh, even when I was determined to be grouchy.” He reached out his hand and gently touched Jordan’s cheek, leaning forward to kiss her. She met his lips with hers. “Glad we added the kissing clause to our agreement, baby.”
“Me, too,” she said, smiling at his choice of endearment. “And thank you for telling me about Carol. It helps me understand where you’re coming from.” She traced his face with her fingers as though committing it to memory. “Don’t you waste any time worrying about me, tiger. You know I’m tougher than I look. I promise I’ll come back. No matter what it takes.”
“I’ll count on that,” he said, letting a smile crack through. “Know what Pyro told me after SERE?”
“He said you were an irresistible force and I was an immovable object, and the meeting was bound to be explosive.” He shook his head. “You are an irresistible force, Jordan. Whomever you’re up against had better watch out.”
She grinned. “Methinks the immovable object has budged a bit. And this irresistible force has adjusted her heading for a new intercept.” Straightening in her chair, she changed the subject. “So, Master Chief, do you want to sit around and talk about the past all day? Or shall we go check out the diving on the other side of the island?”
“Let’s go diving, Lieutenant.” Getting to his feet, he began collecting the breakfast dishes scattered around the table.
“Hooyah.” She stood up and started assessing the damage in the kitchen. “Any time constraints? When is check-out?”
“It’s 0745 now. We could motor over there, make two good dives with an hour between, and still be back by 1300 hours,” he replied. “The cottage is ours all day. We’ll have plenty of time to shower, get some lunch, and relax a bit before heading back to the mainland.”
Motivated, they made quick work of the breakfast mess and got ready to go. Jordan put on her swimsuit, with shorts and a tank top over it. Jack wore his trunks and T-shirt, and took the exercise brace with him. Even moving at his careful pace, they were at the launch in twenty minutes.
This time he piloted, while she ran a routine safety check on the tanks and regulators. When she finished, he gave her a new job. “There are several wetsuits hanging in a closet in the cabin. One of them has my name on it. Go through the others and find one that fits you, then bring them both out here.”
“Aye, aye, Skipper,” she acknowledged as she sought out the gear. She picked out a suit that fit her, and brought it out along with Jack’s. “Smells pretty good for a communal wetsuit,” she grinned, laying the suits on a bench.
He smiled and held out his arm, inviting her over for an embrace. She obliged him, tucking herself in next to his side, arm hugging his waist. Wrapping his arm around her shoulder, he bent down for a kiss. “What is it about you? How do you make it so difficult for me to feel bad when you’re with me?”
“Maybe it’s because I like you, and I’m not afraid to show it,” she offered.
“But why me, Jordan?” He was genuinely puzzled. “How did you pick such an ill-tempered old hard-ass like me to hang around with?”
She laughed at his description of himself. “Well, for one, because you’re not afraid of me. Very few men are brave enough to mess around with a lady operator.” She tilted her head toward him. “You did remember to wear your codpiece this weekend, didn’t you, Jack?” He snorted in response.
She continued, “And you’re passionately committed to your job. The first priority of Royce, my ex, was career advancement. Every move he made was aimed at making himself look good. You’re all about doing what’s right. It’s refreshing.” She paused a moment. “As for the ‘old’ part, you’re only 38. I looked it up. And finally, you look really sexy in those shorts.” She grinned broadly.
“I don’t want to know what else you looked up about me, Miss Naval Intelligence.” He shook his head but he was smiling. He squeezed her shoulder affectionately. “We’re almost to the section of the reef I want to check out. Head up to the bow and keep an eye out for shallow water or rocks.”
She reported to her new post. Working together they guided the boat to a safe spot, dropped anchor, and raised the “diver down” flag. Finally, they lowered the dive shelf and ladder into the water for their exit. Jack joined Jordan on the bench where she had stowed the wetsuits, and removed his brace. She wondered how he was going to manage to get his suit on over his bad leg.
The answer surprised her. “Jordan, I could use your help.” He held the wetsuit out to her. “I need to try to keep my leg straight.” She nodded soberly as she sat next to him and took the suit, appreciating how hard it was for him to ask for assistance. She set to work in a business-like manner, first turning the suit inside out except for the cuffs. Starting at the feet, she rolled it up his legs until it reached a point where he was able to stand and pull the suit up the rest of the way. The operation brought her face close to the scars on his leg. She bit back the sympathetic comments that came to mind.
Jack let out the straps on the exercise brace and put it back on over his wetsuit. Jordan shed her shorts and tank top, and her wetsuit went on quickly over her swimsuit. They helped each other with their tanks and checked their systems one last time before rolling backwards over the side of the boat into the ocean.
The water was crystal clear, giving them a good view of the varied flora and fauna of the sloping reef. It began around the 30-foot depth, gently dropping off to about 100 feet. They slowly worked their way down to around 50 feet and maintained that depth, occasionally dropping lower when something interesting caught their eyes.
Within the first fifteen minutes they’d already seen barrel sponges, purple sea fans and huge coral heads. Angelfish and wrasses were in abundance, along with a myriad of other individuals and schools. It was clear this was an area not normally frequented by fishermen or tourists, as the fish ignored their presence, neither alarmed nor looking at them as a source of handouts.
They stopped whenever they found new and interesting creatures, pointing them out to each other. Jordan caught a small octopus, which, when given a choice, showed a decided preference for Jack’s hands over hers. A six-foot long green Moray eel poked its head out of its hole curiously, and they discovered a giant grouper hiding behind a boulder. Time passed quickly. After 45 minutes they reluctantly returned slowly to the surface and headed back to the launch. Sitting on the dive shelf, they removed their masks and regulators. “Wow!” was the first word out of Jordan’s mouth. “That was beautiful.”
Jack nodded, grinning. “That grouper must have weighed over 200 pounds.” He paused. “Sure was a treat to wander around like a tourist. I’d forgotten what it was like to be underwater without a mission.”
Fins and tank removed, Jordan climbed up the ladder onto the boat. Jack handed their gear to her before carefully making his way up the ladder. He dug out some energy bars and offered her two. “Better recharge, Jordan. Another dive in an hour?”
“Hooyah, wouldn’t miss it.” She drained a water bottle and started eating. “In the meantime, I have a job to do. You going to take off your wetsuit?”
He nodded, puzzled. “Too hot to leave it on.”
“So glad we agree,” she said, smiling. She made her way over to the bench and stripped off her wetsuit. He followed her and removed his own, Jordan helping him with the last few inches of the cuff. She quickly hosed the salt water off both suits, Jack, and herself, then stood facing him squarely.
“I need a temporary amendment to our agreement,” she said solemnly.
Sitting down, he looked up at her warily as he toweled off his leg and restored the brace. Seeing her in that wet swimsuit was enough of a distraction; he didn’t need more. “What mischief are you up to now?”
“When I put sunscreen on you yesterday, I observed some tension in your back and shoulders. I feel partly responsible for that tension, and I’d like permission to try to work some of it out.” She finally cracked a smile. “Seriously, Jack, I’m pretty good at backrubs. Let me give you one?”
He hesitated only briefly. “That does sound good. Where do you want me?”
Jordan almost answered him truthfully. Then she thought better of it and pointed to the bench he’d been lying on earlier. “Can we pull the cushion off that long bench and lay it over in the shaded area of the deck? That way I can work from both sides.”
They rearranged the cushion to suit their needs and threw an old beach towel over it. Jack stretched out on the flat surface and rested his head on his crossed arms. “Don’t mess around, woman,” he growled warningly. “My self-control only goes so far.”
“Hush,” she said quietly, starting to work. With the help of a little salad oil she’d brought from the cottage, she stroked broadly, palms open, from his waist up the middle of his back and around his shoulders, then back down the outside of his back, keeping a gentle, even pressure. After a few circuits, he took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. This was her cue to start working deeper, concentrating on one muscle group at a time, kneading, squeezing, stroking. When she found a knotted area, she slowly and steadily leaned her thumbs or the heels of her hands deep into the tissue, pressing out the tension. Methodically she worked her way from his neck and shoulders down his back, leaving each area relaxed and opened. By the time she reached his waist, his breathing was slow and even. She repeated her long, smooth opening strokes, gradually easing back on the pressure until only her fingertips were trailing along his back. He didn’t move. A satisfied smile lit her face as she slipped off to find a comfortable spot for her own nap.
Both Jack and Jordan were exhausted from their sleepless night. The boat rocked gently in the calm water as they slept. For almost an hour, the only sounds to be heard were the seabirds crying and the water lapping at the hull.
Jordan was the first to stir. She looked at her watch. Over an hour and a half since they ate their energy bars. They could hit the water any time. Still, she hated to wake Jack. Deciding to give him another 20 minutes, she closed her eyes.
As she drifted off again, Jack slowly awakened. He debated whether to wake Jordan, and decided against it, setting his watch timer for another 15 minutes. Like her he wasn’t all that eager to get up. His back and shoulders were still happily relaxed from the massage, and it seemed a shame to break the spell prematurely. He returned to his slumber.
The beeping watch forced him back to consciousness before he was ready. He slowly stretched, stood up, and stretched some more, rolling his shoulders and enjoying the feel of his loosened back. A quick scan of the boat revealed Jordan sleeping, curled up in one of the two lounge chairs. He walked over and quietly sat in the other chair, facing her, watching her breathe.
For the first time he realized just how precious she had become to him, and with that knowledge came fear. He settled back in the lounge and closed his eyes, letting himself get acquainted with this fear, touching its roots in old loss, old wounds. The choice had never seemed more clear. Familiar words came to his mind, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”
“Teddy Roosevelt. That’s a great quote, Jack.”
Startled, he turned to see Jordan stretching in her chair. “Sorry, baby. Hadn’t realized I was thinking out loud. Didn’t mean to wake you. Sleep well?”
She nodded as she sat up. “You?”
“Never better.” He reached his hand out to her. “Thanks for the massage.”
Taking his hand, she pulled him closer. He sat up, sliding his legs off the chair, leaning toward her. Wrapping his hands on either side of her face, thumbs gently sliding along her cheekbones, he brushed his lips against hers once, twice, three times before joining her in a series of sweet, legal kisses.
“Wow,” she said, smiling softly. “Who needs a tongue?”
He grinned, landing one last kiss on her nose before releasing her face. “Ready for another dive?”
“Still time?” she asked. “I was afraid I’d slept too long.”
He looked at his watch. “It’s just after noon. We could go down for an hour and still be back to the marina by 1400 hours. If the cantina is closed, we can pick up some food from the store.”
“What are we waiting for?” she asked, grinning.
They efficiently repeated their dive preparation, switching to fresh tanks. Within 15 minutes they were tumbling into the water once again, both feeling rejuvenated by their long nap. They headed in the opposite direction from their first dive to see what the southern part of the reef had to offer, once again staying around the 50-foot depth.
She was admiring an irate puffer fish, swollen to over a foot in diameter, when Jack tapped her arm to get her attention. Pointing to a large, oddly-shaped cluster of coral lying about 50 feet ahead of them and 20 feet further down the slope of the reef, he headed in its direction, Jordan following closely behind. Her eyes lit up as she saw tall posts sticking up from the reef floor. It was a 40-foot fishing boat, hull mostly intact but lightly crusted with coral. On the stern they were able to make out the name Ruby Cairo.
She followed him as they explored the wreck. The large hatch doors, used for loading fish into the hold, were wide open. A school of snapper streamed out as they shone their lights inside. A large nurse shark, easily 8 feet long, slept in a corner, protected on one side by a row of collapsed barrels.
For a fishing boat, there was certainly a lot of cargo below decks. Most of the containers were unlabeled or unreadable. They made their way through the hold and back out, heading next for the captain’s cabin on the main deck. The door was closed but not locked. One at a time, they entered the small chamber, careful not to catch their hoses. Jack started looking through the debris and cabinets, indicating to Jordan that she should do the same. Prying open a small drawer, she was surprised to find two handguns inside. She tapped his shoulder and pointed. He nodded, motioning to her to take one. She closed the drawer and headed out of the cabin, carrying the weapon carefully despite its obvious age. He followed with what was left of a soggy log book.
She tapped her watch. It was time to start their return to the surface. He nodded, and they began their slow ascent, angling toward the waiting boat. As soon as they were out of the water onto the dive shelf, she pulled off her mask and regulator. “Are you thinking what I am?” she exploded.
He nodded, grinning as he removed his equipment. “Smugglers? Drugs? Guns? This was no fishing boat.” He pulled off his tank, continuing, “The only question is which authorities to contact. Someone is going to be very interested in taking a look at this.”
They returned to the deck of the boat as they had before and stripped off their wet gear. The next 15 minutes were spent drinking water and debriefing their dive. Unfortunately the log book entries were completely illegible. The gun was a Magnum, but they couldn’t tell what model or vintage. They placed both items in plastic bags, tucking them into the bottom of Jack’s duffel. Jack volunteered to make a phone call Monday to some friends of his who did salvage and ask their advice on how to proceed.
“You know,” he said, “I’ve been coming to this island for almost five years. I’ve always wanted to dive this area, but never had a buddy with me.” He looked at her. “Glad you came along. Otherwise I never would have found this.”
She cocked her head. “I thought you said Pyro came with you a couple of times.”
“Yeah.” He shook his head. “All he wanted to do was drink, go fishing, and make eyes at Mario’s 19-year-old daughter. I gave up on him after the second trip.”
She laughed. “We’re just lucky we didn’t sleep all day and miss the chance entirely.” Looking at him, she continued, “Speaking of which, shouldn’t we head back to the marina?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, getting to his feet. Together they raised the dive shelf and ladder. He turned to her. “Mind if I leave you with the rest of the cleanup?”
She shook her head and reached up for a quick kiss, surmising that his leg must be bothering him. They both knew she could do the work more quickly than he. As he took the tiller, she raised the anchor and lowered the “diver down” flag. Now all that remained was the cleaning of the wetsuits and other diving gear. She worked efficiently, finishing in time to relax for a few minutes before they arrived at the dock.
They were in luck — the cantina was still open. Despite the nap on the boat, they were both tired from their sleepless night and the dives. They quietly recapped the finding and exploration of the wreck while they waited for their food, sitting close to each other with hands clasped together. They barely tasted the meal; what energy they had was directed at each other. Once again Jordan picked up the tab, and they headed to the cottage for the last time, looking for a short nap before returning to the mainland.
They drew straws for first shower, and Jack won. By the time Jordan finished her shower, he was settled on the couch, eyes closed. She tiptoed past him into the kitchen to get one last drink of water before climbing into bed herself, thinking him already asleep. But as she returned to the bedroom, she heard him softly call her name.
“Mmm?” she answered quietly.
He opened his eyes and beckoned her toward him. She knelt on the floor next to the couch, eyes at his level. Reaching out his hand, he cradled her jaw. “Thank you, baby,” he said. “Thank you for coming with me.” Drawing her head toward his, he shared with her a long, soft kiss.
“There’s nowhere I’d rather be right now, Jack, and no one I’d rather be with,” she whispered, ruffling his wet hair. “Talk with you soon.” She rose to her feet and went into the bedroom, pausing at the doorway to look at him one last time. She was asleep almost as soon as her head hit the pillow.
An hour later she was awakened by a soft rap on the door. Jack poked his head in. “Rock and roll, baby. It’s 1630 hours. I’d like to head for the mainland before too long. Join me for a cup of coffee?”
The offer of coffee brought her the rest of the way to consciousness. She rose quickly, donned jeans and a T-shirt, and packed up her personal gear. Following the aroma to the kitchen, she found a steaming mug of coffee on the table in front of a plate of chocolate chip cookies. Jack was reaching into the refrigerator. She looked at him quizzically. “Did the cookie fairy come while we were sleeping?”
“Pretty much,” he grinned. “Mario’s wife Luciana dropped these off for us. She worries that I don’t get enough to eat.”
“Well, bless her heart,” she said, seating herself and reaching for the plate. “I guess I’m not the only woman with a soft spot for an ill-tempered old hard-ass.” She grinned at him. “Aren’t you going to sit down? Before I eat all your cookies?”
He closed the refrigerator and joined her with a glass of milk, a mock scowl on his face. “Be very careful. Never get between me and the last chocolate chip cookie.”
Jordan grinned crookedly, keeping her mouth clamped shut as she chewed.
Jack settled back in his chair, picking up a cookie and taking a moment to contemplate the woman sitting next to him. “Okay, Jordan, my turn to ask some questions. You mentioned an ‘ex’ a couple of times. How did he end up in the ‘ex’ bin?” Taking a large bite, he waited for her answer.
She swallowed and took a sip of coffee before responding. “Royce and I met in the Academy and dated for a while. We went our separate ways after graduation, then got together again a few years ago when we were both posted to the Naval Intelligence Center.” She squirmed awkwardly. “Unfortunately, shortly after we started seeing each other, he was transferred into my department. He wasn’t in my chain, but we were working in the same bullpen. It was pretty uncomfortable at times, especially as he outranked me and periodically took the opportunity to dress me down for imaginary infractions.”
“What sort of infractions?” he asked.
She grinned sheepishly. “Mostly my attitude. I was pretty good at what I did, and I got cocky sometimes. He thought I should keep a lower profile so that I didn’t get in trouble.”
Jack grunted. “I’m surprised you put up with that. Doesn’t sound like you.”
“He knew he’d get shit for it when we got home,” she replied. “But no one at work knew we were dating, so I had to keep my mouth shut there. Now that was a violation of the fraternization policy.”
He raised his eyebrows. “So you have some relevant experience.”
“Yes and no. It was never my idea to live a secret life. When we found out he was being transferred into my department, I wanted to tell my superior and ask for one of us to be reassigned, but Royce insisted that we could make it work. It made for a lonely life. I couldn’t share anything with my co-workers; they thought I was single and were always trying to set me up with someone. I wouldn’t want to do it again.”
“Is that why you split up?” he asked.
“No.” She took a deep breath. “It was the CRT assignment. Royce put up with the training because he figured I’d wash out. But when I completed the training he couldn’t handle me taking off for long periods of time. He told me I had to choose between him and the team. I don’t think it was because he would worry about me so much as that I wouldn’t be there to take care of him.” She grimaced. “I finally realized it was impossible for me to be all that I could be around Royce.”
He absorbed this quietly. “So what are you looking for now?”
She looked at him seriously. “Someone with rock-solid integrity, who’s not afraid of me, who can be a diving buddy and a wrestling partner and a passionate lover and a trusted ally, who can meet me head to head and love everything I am.” She paused momentarily. “I want you, Jack, if you’ll have me.”
He reached his hands to her across the corner of the table. “It won’t be easy, Jordan. I can be a real son of a bitch.”
“I know,” she grinned, taking his hands in hers. “It’s one of the things I love about you. No pretense.” She thought a moment and added, “Except when you pretend you’re meaner than you really are.”
“Don’t you dare share that with anyone,” he warned. “I’d lose my job.”
“Don’t worry, tiger, I know it’s your trade secret. I do have one question, though.” She grinned mischievously. “Does Pyro know what a big pussycat you really are?”
He chuckled. “If he does, he’s smart enough to keep it to himself.”
“Unlike me, you mean.” Her smile faded. “It’s going to be so hard to leave here Wednesday.” Her hands unconsciously tightened on his. “Ironic, isn’t it? The two things I want most in life are you and the chance to serve on the CRT. And at least for a while, the two are mutually exclusive.”
“Virginia’s not that far away, Jordan, though it’s going to feel like it sometimes. You may find yourself with a few days or even a week of leave with the chance to get back here. You come any time. I’ll give you a key to the house.”
“What if I arrive in the middle of Hell Week?”
He grinned, “I’ll make you an instructor and you can see what it feels like to be on the other side. Seriously, Jordan, who do you think is doing the training right now while I’m on the injured list? All I really need to do is show up and scare the trainees periodically. It’s a role I can play in my sleep.” Jordan raised her eyebrows, winning a chuckle from Jack. “There would be a few days where I’d find it hard to get away, but most often I’ll be able to make time for you.
“In the meantime,” he continued, “write to me. Tell me everything. Tell me what the food tastes like, how the air smells. Tell me how the guys adapt to you — or how they don’t. Tell me what you can about your whereabouts or your activities. And I’ll write to you and send you bad poetry and tell you the latest abuse I’m heaping on the trainees.” He paused. “I think we can do this, Jordan. I’m willing to give it my best. How about you?”
Nodding seriously, she lifted a hand to his cheek. “I’m with you all the way, Jack.” They leaned toward each other, sealing their commitment with lips parted and tongues reluctantly restrained. As they sat back, she smiled, stroking his hand. “Tomorrow those rules go out the window.” Jack nodded his agreement. “Speaking of tomorrow,” she continued, “any ideas about how best to approach Salem and Sehloff?”
“Salem’s easy,” Jack said. “He and I meet every Monday morning at 0830 to go over the week’s schedule, so I’ll talk with him then. Unless you want me to wait until after you have a chance to talk with Sehloff?”
She grinned. “Well, actually I left a message with Sehloff’s office Saturday morning, requesting a meeting with him tomorrow morning. I’m tentatively scheduled for 0900. Have to call at 0800 to confirm.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Taking us for granted?”
“No, I have plenty of other things to talk with him about. I figured it might be good to be on his agenda, just in case.”
He nodded appreciatively. “I can see I have to stay on my toes with you. What’s your battle plan?”
“My biggest question is what his orders are regarding me. If he’s been directed to find a way to drum me out, then it may not matter what I say. But if he’s to treat me like any other new grad, then I have a chance. Battle plan?” She thought for a moment. “I was planning to go in and tell him the truth. I can’t come up with anything that sounds better, can you?”
He shook his head. “No, I think you’re right. Chances are he’ll call me in and ask me the same questions he’s asked you. Best way to keep our stories straight is to tell the truth. Kurt is going to try to act tough, but he’s a reasonable guy as long as you don’t back him up against a wall. Just stay businesslike, professional. He’ll respond well to that.”
Jordan grinned. “You mean I can’t just tell him to ‘suck my dick’?”
Jack shook his head, lips twitching. “I thought that line was just for me, baby. Don’t tell me you use it with all the guys.”
She laughed, but her answer was serious. “No other guys for me, tiger. Your only rival is the Navy.” She paused. “I guess that brings us to the final question: What we do if Salem and Sehloff say no?” She shook her head at the prospect. Jack listened quietly, giving her a chance to answer her own question.
“I see four options,” she continued, taking a deep breath and counting the possibilities on her fingers. “First, we could just be friends. But we’ve said that we want more. Second, we could file a petition with the JAG, but that could be tied up for months. Third, we could carry on anyway, illicitly.” She shook her head. “Besides being difficult and dangerous, that compromises our integrity. Definitely not a good choice. Fourth, one of us leaves the Navy or gets stationed somewhere else.”
She turned to him. “Am I missing anything?”
“Nothing I can see,” he said, shaking his head. “You’ve thought it through pretty thoroughly. So what are your conclusions?”
“I don’t see the first three as viable. As for the fourth…” She hesitated, resuming with a heavy voice. “It would be tough, Jack. I looked into the possibilities when my CRT status was up in the air. I might be able to transfer to an Underwater Salvage or Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. They accept women.” She looked at him unhappily. “I know I’m repeating myself, but I’ve worked so hard for this. I may hate this job, but to give up without giving myself a chance… I just don’t know how I could do it.”
He held up his hands, stopping her before she could make herself more miserable. “I don’t think you’re the one who should change careers right now.” He took a deep breath. “I’ve been in the Navy 20 years. I already gave up one good woman for the service. I even gave away the chance to raise my son. The more I think about it, the more I realize I can’t let myself make the same mistake twice.” He looked at her seriously. “You’re the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time. I’m not going to throw you away just because the Navy tells me to.”
Stunned, she tried to interrupt him, but he continued. “No, hear me out. I’m not looking to leave the service. I get along well with Salem, I have a good team. I like my job. If they’ll let us do our thing, I’ll probably stay. But it’s not my only option. Some old buddies of mine, ex-SEALs, started an underwater salvage operation a few years ago and they’ve been bugging me to join them. They make good money, and combined with my Navy pension, I’d be doing well.” He paused, a grin spreading across his face. “Hell, you could join us too. You’re a good diver, and your topographic expertise would be a real bonus. And as far as I know they have no fraternization policy.”
She shook her head. “But what about the challenges? What about combat? Wouldn’t you miss it?”
“Underwater salvage isn’t easy work. There would be new challenges, new things to learn all the time. As for combat,” his voice trailed off. He paused a moment before continuing, his voice gruff. “I probably should have told you earlier but I still haven’t accepted it myself. Doc says I may never be able to go back into active combat, especially with the SEALs. Too much damage. It’s always going to give me trouble.” He massaged his thigh absent-mindedly.
She resisted the urge to fuss over him. “Damn. I’m sorry to hear that. No wonder you’re so testy about that leg.” She chewed her lip. “Do you blame me for that mess in Libya, Jack?”
He shook his head, surprised. “Why would I blame you?”
She clarified her question. “Do you ever think that if you’d taken someone else with you, someone you trusted to take out that guy, you wouldn’t have been injured?”
“Have you forgotten? ‘There are no bad crews. Only bad leaders.’ I chose you because I expected a routine survey, and you had by far the best topo skills in the group. If I’d been expecting hostile action, I would have taken someone with more combat experience, or taken more troops, or come up with a completely different plan.” He paused. “And I made the call to fire instead of giving you the chance to take him down silently. We’ll never know whether that was the right decision.” He shrugged his shoulders and looked at her directly. “We were faced with something I didn’t expect, and we did the best we could with it. If anyone was at fault, it was me.”
Remembering his wild gallop down the wash, gunfire at his heels, he studied her thoughtfully. “It’s a good thing for me you were on that crew. I sure was glad to find you all waiting for me.” He cocked his head. “How did you know where I’d be coming from?”
“I looked at the map and figured out what I would have done.” She grinned. “Good thing you were able to read my mind.”
He shook his head, amused at the thought. “I’ll never be able to read your mind, baby. You surprise me all the time.” Stroking her cheek, he leaned forward and kissed her. “We’d better head back to the mainland. I’d like to get in before dark.”
He doled out one more chocolate chip cookie to her and ate another himself, then bagged up the remainder and tossed them into his duffel for the trip home. “I’ll take good care of these,” he grinned. She smiled sweetly at him, munching her cookie and carefully noting the new location of the rest.
Gathering their bags, they headed for the door. Jordan stopped in the doorway, taking one last look around. She turned to Jack with a touch of regret, placing her hand on his arm. “Next time we stay here, nobody’s sleeping on the couch.” They closed the cottage door behind them and headed slowly toward the marina.
After they performed a quick safety check, Jack gave Jordan navigational instructions and she took over the helm once again. He stood behind her, hands on her shoulders, for companionship rather than for any need to supervise, as they backed slowly away from the dock and headed for the mainland. After standing half an hour, the ache in his leg became more urgent than his desire to stay physically connected to her, and he reluctantly returned to his bench. He watched her as long as he could keep his eyes open.
The return trip was uneventful. After docking the boat, they refueled it, refilled the SCUBA tanks, and made sure everything was as they had found it. By the time they returned to Jack’s vehicle with their bags, it was close to 1930 hours. “Dinner?” Jack asked.
“Sure,” Jordan replied. “Any good places between here and the motel?”
“There’s a good steakhouse about a mile from here. And a decent Chinese restaurant in the same area.” Jack’s voice made it clear which he preferred.
“Steak sounds good,” Jordan agreed. Within a few minutes they were in the steakhouse parking lot. As they entered the restaurant, Jordan looked in her purse. “Jack, I need to get something from my bag. Borrow your car keys? You can go on in and get us a table, I’ll be right back.” Handing her his keys, he continued into the restaurant. She rummaged through the bags in the back seat, returning to the steakhouse with a sly grin.
They enjoyed a hearty meal and good wine, Jordan limiting herself to a single glass. By tacit agreement, they kept the conversation away from their past, present and possible future relationships. This left them plenty of space to share their diverse opinions on politics and current events, favorite authors and poets. Knowing this was their last chance to be together for the weekend, they were in no hurry to leave the restaurant, but time eventually got the better of them.
They stood on the doorstep of Jordan’s motel room for half an hour, embracing, talking, kissing, not daring to go inside but unable to let go of each other. When Jack finally pulled himself away and drove slowly home, it was after 2130. Once again the canvases called to him, and he painted for over an hour before finding his way to bed. He fell asleep quickly and slept well.
Jordan didn’t have paint, but she did have a friend. She dialed Kathy Blondell, who picked up the phone on the first ring. “Not waiting by the phone, were you, Kathy?” Jordan teased.
“I’ve kept the cordless sitting next to me,” Kathy grinned. “Well? I guess you’re still alive, anyway.”
Laughing, Jordan gave her a condensed story of the weekend, leaving out Jack’s personal history, the Saturday night explosion, and the finding of the wreck. Kathy had lots of questions, and Jordan enjoyed having someone with whom she could share her adventures. Forty-five minutes later, they reluctantly hung up the phone. She was in bed by 2230 and asleep within minutes.