Chapter 6. Monday Afternoon

Leaving the base at 1100 hours, after her routine psych appointment, Jordan ran a few quick errands before picking up lunches for Jack and herself. She arrived at his house a few minutes after noon, using her key to let herself in. Pulling some plates out of the cupboard, she set the sandwiches on the table and popped open a diet cola for herself. She kicked back on the couch, willing herself to relax.

Jack arrived promptly. Rising from the couch, Jordan met him at the door, her eyes shining. They stood face to face for a few seconds, studying each other. Wrapping his hands gently around her face, Jack hovered his mouth over hers, first brushing her lips, then diving hungrily into her eager mouth. Jordan’s hands settled on Jack’s sides, just above his belt. Sunday’s rules went by the wayside.

Minutes later, when they tore themselves loose, Jordan hugged him, resting her head on his chest. “Much better, Jack. I never liked that ‘no-tongue’ rule.”

He wrapped his arms around her, chuckling. “On that we agree, baby.” He kissed the top of her head. “How was your morning?”

“Long!” She exclaimed, raising her head. “Too much wondering and waiting. I wanted to be doing something. I don’t like having my fate in someone else’s hands.” She looked at Jack. “How’d it go with Salem?”

“Piece of cake.” Jack grinned, remembering Salem’s response when he realized who this female was. “He was especially delighted to hear you were the lucky lady.”

“Oh, I’ll bet he was,” she chortled. “The C.O. and I have a very special relationship. Did he eat his cigar?”

“Almost,” Jack confirmed, planting a warm kiss on her lips. “So how about you? What was your impression of Kurt? And can we eat lunch while we talk?”

She shook her head in mock disgust. “And I thought you were eyeing me hungrily. I should have remembered you’re only here for the food.”

“Just wait, baby, you’ll see. When you’re in the field, you learn to eat whatever and whenever you can.” His tongue found its way into her open mouth again, as his hand caressed her back and hip. Her hands slid down, following the curve of his backside, pulling him closer. As they paused for air, he added softly, “Gotta admit, you taste pretty good.”

“Yeah, you too,” she agreed, her voice husky with desire. Her body was proposing alternative activities for their lunch hour. Taking a deep breath, she pulled herself back to the business at hand. “Food’s on the table, Chief. Get yourself something to drink.”

“Hooyah, Lieutenant,” he replied, releasing her reluctantly. After fetching a soda out of the refrigerator, he joined her at the table. “So. Tell me about Kurt.” Biting into his sandwich, he waited expectantly for her reply.

She closed her eyes momentarily, recreating the captain’s picture in her mind. Letting her gaze rest on her plate, she summarized their meeting. “He grilled me. Didn’t give an inch,” she said soberly. “Said if he busted me for going to a movie with you, he’d probably get a promotion.” She raised her eyes to Jack’s, shaking her head slightly. “I went in assuming that I was going to be on his team and we were just working out details. But he made it clear that the assignment was up in the air.” She looked hopefully across the table. “I think I answered him well, but he gave me nothing. You get anything?”

Shifting uneasily, Jack popped the top of his soda can and took a long swallow before answering. He knew she wasn’t going to like his report. “He has serious reservations about having a woman on his team, Jordan. He questioned me for over half an hour about your abilities, the training, Libya. Wanted to know how I thought a woman’s presence would affect his group.”

Picking up on his discomfort, Jordan frowned. “How did you answer him?” she asked, eyes narrowed.

“Told him the truth. You passed the course because you performed as well as the guys. Did your job on the mission, showed leadership.” He paused. “As for his men, I told him the trainees managed to adapt to you, and they would, too.” He looked at her pointedly. “But you know as well as I do, Jordan, it would probably be rocky for a while. He’s concerned about that. Grilled me pretty hard, too.”

She nodded her head grimly. “I know he has reservations. Sorry you had to put up with the interrogation.”

“No need to apologize, baby,” Jack assured her. “It was worth it if it means I get to keep seeing you. And there is some good news,” he added, brightening a little. “Kurt said he wasn’t sure how soon he’d get an official opinion out of the JAG office regarding the fraternization. It could take days or weeks for an answer. In the meantime, he’s adopting a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.” He ducked his head briefly, meeting Jordan’s eyes with a crooked grin. “We can do as we please.”

A wicked smile slowly worked its way across Jordan’s face. She checked her watch and put down her sandwich. Arching her eyebrows, she leaned across the table and spoke to Jack in a low, sultry voice. “We have almost half an hour before you need to head back to base, tiger.” Rising from her chair, she walked around the corner of the table and stood on his right, bending her knees to bring her eyes to his level. Laying her hand softly on his knee, she slowly slid it toward him as she whispered, “I haven’t taken the time to check out the rest of your house yet. Anything interesting you’d like to show me in the bedroom?”

Groaning, he wrapped his hands around Jordan’s shoulders and seated her on his leg, leaning forward to meet her lips with his. He shifted in his chair to ease the growing pressure in his trousers. As they kissed, he slowly worked his right hand down her arm and along the outside of her thigh. Jordan ran her hands down his neck to his chest, where she started to work on his buttons.

His hand had just started its way back up between her thighs when suddenly he stopped, shaking his head. “Oh, baby, half an hour’s not enough, especially not for our first time together.” Jordan moaned unhappily. He brought his hand back up to her face, softly stroking her cheek. “I don’t want to be rushed. I want it to be right for both of us.” He tenderly kissed her. “We can wait a few hours longer.”

She put her hand on his shoulder. “I know. I just thought…”

He placed his mouth over hers, cutting off her words. His lips were soft, accepting, willing to wait, but with his tongue he told her how much he wanted her. She met him with equal intensity. As their kisses slowed, he ran his fingers through her soft hair, keeping his face close to hers. “Over the weekend, you told me that if all I wanted was sex, I should look elsewhere. Forced me to realize that wasn’t all I wanted.” His lips vibrated against hers. “I’m lookin’ at what I want, baby. I’m in this for the long term. A few hours aren’t going to make a difference.”

Jordan felt a lump in her throat. Playing with his earlobe, she nodded. “I feel the same way. I just wish we had more time together before I take off. Every minute feels precious.”

“I promise you, as soon as I can get away from base this afternoon, I’m heading home. We’ll lock the doors and unplug the phone. I won’t let anything get in our way.” He smiled. “Not even dinner.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” she teased. “I’d better make sure there’s food in the house.” In a more sober tone, she promised, “I’ll be here.”

“I’m counting on it.” He flashed her a wicked grin. “We’ll finish what we started Friday night.”

Jordan nodded. “Feels like a lot longer than three days.” She grinned. “And that chicken dinner seems like it happened months ago.” Leaning forward, she kissed him again. “You’re right, tiger. Better not to rush things.” She sighed. “I just don’t remember ever being so hungry for someone. Usually I’m the one drawing the line.”

Jack snorted. “You did all right over the weekend.”

“It wasn’t easy. I had a strong reason to wait, but still I almost caved.” Stroking the side of his face, she met his lips with hers once more. “Better finish your sandwich. Long afternoon ahead.” With one last caress, she returned to her chair. She looked at the food on her plate without interest.

Jack’s hunger wasn’t dulled, but he did need to divert his attention somehow. “What else did you do this morning?” he asked conversationally, taking another bite of his sandwich.

“Laundry first,” she reported. Nodding her head to Jack, she added, “Thanks for letting me use your washer and dryer. And after meeting with the captain I dropped by to say hello to Lieutenant Blondell.” She looked impishly at Jack. “She knows about us but has promised to keep her mouth shut. Then I met with Doc Bucon. All routine. I told him about the little flashback and our de-sensitization treatment.”

“He think it was a good idea?”

“Yup, said it was just what the doctor would have ordered. And it seems to have worked. He told me not to worry about the flashback unless it starts recurring or I experience more intense symptoms.” She tilted her head at Jack. “He likes you, y’know.”

Jack raised an eyebrow. “I thought psychiatrists weren’t supposed to talk about personnel. Confidentiality.”

“He didn’t tell me anything specific. It was just the way he nodded encouragingly when I told him I was seeing you. I could tell he approved.”

“He say anything about what you might run into with the guys on the CRT?” Jack asked, curious.

“Nothing we haven’t already discussed.” She looked confidently at Jack. “I’m not worried about it, tiger. I know some of them will behave like morons for a while but I think they’ll get over it.” She sighed. “Must admit, though, I’m glad McCool is going to be there. It’ll be nice to have one fellow who’s okay with me from the start. Fighting is tiresome.”

Their conversation slowed to a trickle as they both became more serious about their sandwiches. Jordan pulled out the cookies and they made quick work of half the batch. Jack helped clean up the kitchen before heading back to base. Jordan folded the clothes that had been in the dryer, using the remaining time to haul out her laptop and check her email. At 1345 she headed back to the base for her meeting with Captain Sehloff.

Meanwhile, Kurt Sehloff joined Captain Salem in his office at 1300 hours. “Come in, Kurt, have a seat.” Salem pulled a fresh smoke from his humidor, offering one to his guest. “Cigar?”

Kurt shook his head. “No, thank you, sir.” Recently promoted to captain, he still addressed Salem as a superior officer. He settled himself with a heavy sigh. “This O’Neil thing is a pain in the ass.”

Salem snorted. “Has been ever since she first showed up here. Glad she’s your problem now.” Grinning, he added, “and Jack’s. Looks as though Jack has finally met his match.”

“She’s not intimidated by him,” Kurt acknowledged. “Headstrong pair. Wish them luck. Jack doesn’t seem worried, though.”

“So you’re not going to stand in their way?”

“No, sir,” Kurt answered emphatically. “If O’Neil ends up on my team, their relationship would make my job easier. I haven’t been looking forward to having an attractive single woman thrown into close quarters with a group of operators far from home. If she has a beau waiting for her, especially someone as daunting as the master chief, the guys will be much less likely to mess with her … or to try to mess around with her.” Turning toward Salem, he confided, “Besides, Jack’s been a good friend to me for years. If being with her makes him happy, I’m all for it.”

Salem nodded. “Jack’s worked for me for almost five years. Been single all that time. Between you and me, I’m glad to see he’s found somebody. Just hope he doesn’t lose his edge, though she’s hardly one to soften him up too much.”

Kurt snorted. “Yes, she has a hard edge herself.” He shook his head. “I still have grave reservations about having her on my team. Jack seems to think she’s tough enough but he didn’t trust her to take out that Libyan soldier. I wonder if she’s capable of taking a life, or if she’d hesitate at the critical instant.

“I’m also concerned about her working with the guys,” he continued. “I understand she was able to stand up to the trainees, but I have some well-seasoned operators who are pretty set in their ways. I don’t know if harassment can be prevented. And if they decide they like her, they may end up compromising their missions to protect her, just like Jack did. Jack tells me it’s the men’s problem, not hers, but hell, to me a problem’s a problem.”

He brightened a bit. “But I think I may have a solution that will work for everyone. I looked into some alternatives for O’Neil this morning. The C.O. of the Underwater Salvage training facility in Panama City is an old buddy of mine. Says he’d be glad to have her, and she could spend more time with Jack. Get her out of my hair, make them both happy. Left a message for the CMC at Naval School Explosive Ordnance Disposal up at Eglin as well.”

Salem shook his head skeptically. “She give you any indication she was looking for an alternative solution?”

Kurt shook his head. “No, but she seems intelligent. Any reasonable person could see this is better all around. Jack is important to her. He was the first thing she brought up when she came in to meet with me this morning.” He shrugged. “We’ll see. If she’s willing to fight for the position, I’ll give her a chance. But once she gives it some thought I think she’ll accept my proposal.”

Salem grimaced. “Don’t underestimate O’Neil or her determination. Trust me, she’s a force of nature.”

Kurt frowned, realizing this wasn’t the first time he’d been warned against underestimating the lieutenant. “I’ve been married ten years, sir. Lots of experience dealing with an unhappy woman. O’Neil may get upset, but she’ll come around.”

Nodding his head agreeably as he enjoyed his cigar, Salem allowed himself a small smile. Privately, he was betting on O’Neil. The two men turned their attention to Lieutenant McCool’s course records, leaving the O’Neil problem behind.

At 1400 sharp, Jordan rapped on Captain Sehloff’s closed door. “Come in!” he bellowed. She entered, closing the door behind her, and stood at attention.

“Stand easy,” Kurt said, waving his hand. “This will have to be quick. I’m expecting a phone call.” He sat up straight, looking at her directly. “I know this thing with Jack Urgayle is important to you. I spoke with my contact at the JAG office, and she’s left it in my hands, so you two are free to do as you please.” He briefly dropped his eyes to his desk, then returned to her gaze. “Make it work, O’Neil. He’s a good man and I think you’re good for him. He needs a woman like you in his life.”

A broad smile threatening to destroy her composure, Jordan nodded. “Thank you, sir. We’ll do our best.”

“Now, as for your assignment,” Kurt paused, dreading her reaction. In his experience, disappointed women always ended up crying. He hated seeing women cry. “I’ve decided that I can’t afford to have a woman on my team at this time. I’ll pass the information back to my superiors, and they’ll be in touch with you regarding an alternate posting.”

Jordan’s jaw dropped. “Sir, you can’t! I’ve worked too hard for this!” She caught herself and stood at attention, teeth clenched. She bit out her words. “May I ask, sir, on what grounds did you make this decision?”

“Based on my discussions with Urgayle and one of the instructors, I have reservations about your ability to handle all aspects of the job.” Kurt eyed her warily. Maybe she wasn’t going to cry after all. “I’m also concerned about how the men will behave with a woman in their midst. I’m sure you understand, I cannot take on an individual who might jeopardize the safety or performance of my men.”

Jordan started to interrupt, but Kurt stopped her. “Be realistic, Lieutenant. The CRT isn’t the best place for you. I’ve identified some good alternatives. I contacted the C.O. of the Underwater Salvage training facility down here and he’d like to talk with you. They’re very open to qualified female candidates. There’s an EOD school in the area as well. I can give you a written recommendation. Either organization would make good use of your diving skills, and you could probably work something out that would allow you to spend more time with the chief. I know he’d like that.”

“Exactly what did Urgayle say to you, Captain?” She was rigid with controlled fury.

Kurt’s telephone interrupted their discussion. “I need to take this. Your papers will be ready later this afternoon.” Reaching for the phone, he glanced at Jordan. “Consider your options, Lieutenant. Dismissed.” With his back to her, he answered the call.

Turning on her heel, Jordan marched out of Kurt’s office. Feeling dangerously close to a meltdown, she ducked into the women’s restroom to regroup. She paced back and forth, the captain’s comments whirling around in her head. Based on discussions with Urgayle? Reservations about my ability? Problems with the men? Stay here and spend more time with the chief? Halting in her tracks, she addressed herself in the mirror, “No wonder Jack was so willing to wait at lunchtime! He figures I’m not really leaving!” She felt as though a support had been pulled out from under her. “Damn him! I really believed he was on my side.” She sighed, “E tĂș, Jack? I thought I’d left that shit in D.C.”

Shaking her head, Jordan pulled herself back together. “I’m not finished yet.” She gritted her teeth. “The chief would like to have me closer, would he? How about right in his face?” With that, she exploded out of the restroom, almost knocking down a young ensign who was on her way in. She strode down the hall to Jack’s office and walked in without knocking. Slamming the door behind her, she startled Jack, who was working on his report. Looking up, the smile that almost made it to his lips disintegrated before the storm in her eyes.

Coiled and focused, like a cobra ready to strike, she angrily hissed out her words. “What did you say to him, Jack?”

“Say to whom?” Jack felt as though he’d been dropped into the middle of a movie and hadn’t been given the script.

“Captain Sehloff. What did you say to him, Jack?” Glaring at him, she kept her voice low, aware that the offices had adjacent neighbors. “Did you tell him you’d like it if I were to stay here? Be stationed closer to you?”

Jack wanted to give an accurate response. “Well, yes, but I….”

She interrupted, “And did you tell him that my presence would cause problems for his team?

“Yes, but …”

Once again cutting him off in mid-sentence, she spat back. “You selfish bastard! It’s all about you and what you need, what you want from me! You’d throw away everything I fought for just so you can have the little woman there for you when you want her. I should have known better than to trust you!”

“Jordan, what’s going on? What the hell are you talking about?” Jack rose from his chair and came around the desk, parking himself at arm’s length from his angry partner, hands on his hips.

“Your friend the captain has found the perfect solution for us. He’s decided to volunteer me for EOD or salvage so that I can spend more time with you.” She was shaking with fury. “You betrayed me, Jack! I trusted you! You’re just like Royce.”

Jack stared at Jordan, realizing he’d never seen her really angry before. In SERE she attacked in self-defense, like a cornered animal. Here she was on the offensive. He raised his hands defensively. “Damn it, Jordan, I never asked Kurt to post you here!” Feeling irritated by what he saw as an unwarranted attack, he tried one last time to reason with her. “When Kurt asked whether I wanted you to be off with the CRT, I told him the truth. I’d rather have you here. But I told him it wasn’t my call.”

“Damned right it’s not your call, Master Chief!” Snarling, she poked her finger at Jack’s chest. “My career is important to me and you are not going to decide what I’m doing or where I’m being posted!”

Her remarks touched a nerve, and the delivery made things worse. Setting his jaw, Jack retorted, “Just where do I fit into the equation, Lieutenant? Or is your career the only thing that matters?”

“Right now my career is number one. I fought too hard for that assignment to walk away from it,” she snapped, pointing at him again. “And you know that!” She threw her hands up. “I don’t know where you fit in any more! How can I trust you? How long before you try to sabotage me again?”

“I didn’t fucking sabotage you,” Jack growled. “I told Kurt what I thought was the truth. If he took it the wrong way, that’s not my problem.” He sat on a corner of his desk, crossing his arms.

“Stand up when I’m talking to you, Master Chief!” she shot at him.

The cords in Jack’s neck bulged as he struggled to keep his temper in check. Keeping his seat firmly planted on his desk, he fired back, “Don’t you pull rank on me, Lieutenant! Not unless you have Navy business to discuss.”

“You don’t even care, do you? You’re glad he decided not to put me on his team!” Shaking her head, she exploded. “Damn you for worming your way into my heart! I should never have saved your sorry ass, Urgayle, shoulda let you lie there and bleed to death.”

That brought Jack to his feet. Standing over her, his voice shook with barely controlled rage. “Some fucking operator you’re going to be, O’Neil! We don’t leave our people behind.” He pointed her to the door. “You’ve already told me I don’t matter to you. If all you care about is getting on Kurt’s team, then why the hell are you talking to me? It’s Kurt you need to convince–go talk to him! Stop wasting my time. Just get the hell out!”

Shoving her jaw toward his face, Jordan retorted, “I was just leaving!” She whirled around and stormed out of the room, setting a heading for Kurt’s office. Halfway there she realized she was in no state to take on the captain. A course correction took her outside the building and across the grinder, where she found herself face to face with the brass ship’s bell. Leaning on a post, she deflated herself with a huge sigh. She was so tired of fighting. Maybe Sehloff was right. EOD would be a challenging post. The EOD units worked closely with the SEALs, and she loved the diving. If she proved herself there, she might have a better chance of being placed on a team. And, angry as she was, she was still crazy about Jack. It was going to be hard to leave him so soon.

She felt a knot in her chest. Realizing she was on the verge of tears, she set her jaw and shook away the momentary weakness. Looking at the bell, a flood of memories rushed back, from her arrival on base through all her work and struggle. Nothing had been easy, but slowly, painfully, she had earned her insignia. “I’ll be damned if I’m going to give up now!” she said to the bell, straightening herself to attention. She felt a twinge of regret about Jack, but shoved it aside as she steeled herself to talk with the captain. First things first.

Jordan strode grimly back to Captain Sehloff’s office. The door was open, allowing her to see Kurt inside, talking on the phone. Taking a deep breath, she came to attention in the doorway. Outwardly she was still as a statue; inwardly her mind was going 100 miles an hour. She took advantage of the wait to calm and prepare herself.

Kurt tried to wave her away but she ignored him, her eyes fixed forward. Finally he concluded his call. He opened his mouth but she spoke first.

“Permission to speak, sir.”

Rubbing his chin, Kurt considered ignoring her request. He was not eager to open the issue for debate, but he found himself curious to see just how hard she was willing to push. “Lieutenant O’Neil. I believe I’ve offered you the best possible solution. You can have a challenging position, work with a mixed team, and spend more time with Jack. I don’t think you realize what it would be like for you to spend months on end sharing quarters with a group of ….” He paused, looking for the right words.

“Cock-swinging commandos,” she supplied, diving into the opening he’d left.

“What?” Kurt’s jaw dropped.

“I believe you’re suggesting I would be living and working in close quarters with a group of tough, aggressive males who are not interested in sharing their space with a woman. Sir.”

“Well, yes, that sums it up.”

“Sir, I just spent three months living in the men’s barracks with the rest of the trainees. Trust me, most of them did not want me either, but we learned to get along. Ask Lieutenants Wickwire or McCool, they’ll tell you.” She snorted. “Ask Jack, he’ll tell you the same if he’s not too busy trying to get me stationed closer to home.”

“I thought your relationship with Jack was important to you,” the captain replied, still trying to figure out how he’d let himself get into this discussion.

“With all due respect, Captain, I can see you’ve been operating under a misunderstanding. Jack is important to me. I’ll straighten him out later. But my career is equally important. I earned the right to serve on a CRT, sir. I worked too hard to throw it all away.” She paused only long enough to draw a deep breath. “I was assigned to your team, and I intend to serve on your team. And if you have any concerns about my ability to do the job, I’d like to hear them now so that I can clear up any other misconceptions you might have. Sir.”

Kurt realized she was still standing at attention in his doorway. People going by in the hallway were finding their exchange all too interesting. “Get in here and shut the door,” he rumbled. She did as instructed. “Stand easy, Lieutenant. But don’t get too comfortable.”

“What reservations do you have, sir?”

“There’s the Libyan, for one,” he replied. “Jack didn’t trust you to take him out. Could you have taken him? Could you kill a man in cold blood?” He shook his head doubtfully. “It’s part of the job, you know.”

“Jack’s lack of trust was his problem, sir, not mine.” She paused. “We’ll never know whether I could have taken the man down silently, because Jack didn’t give me the chance to find out. But how do you know whether the men can do it, unless you give them a chance? I’ve gone through the same fight training they have, passed the same tests.”

She stood even straighter as she continued. “Granted, sir, I’ve never killed a human being, and I hope I never have to. But I’m prepared to do the job if that’s what’s required. I grew up in the country, sir. My dad was a teacher, but we had chickens, goats, sometimes a pig. From the time I was small I helped take care of them, and by the time I was 7 or 8 years old I helped slaughter them as well. I baited my own hooks and cleaned my own fish. And when I was old enough I learned to shoot and went deer hunting with my dad and older brothers. I’ve finished a deer with a knife. We never killed frivolously, but I know what it means to take a life.”

“If this is the case, why do you think Jack didn’t trust you to do the job?” Kurt mused.

“You’ll have to ask him, sir. But the fact is he didn’t know that about me, any more than he knew the childhood histories of the male candidates. He assumed that because I was a woman I was less capable.” She snorted. “The men have to be able to do their jobs. I also have to deal with their delicate sensibilities where women are concerned.”

Kurt found himself smiling at the idea of Jack having delicate sensibilities. “You present a compelling case, Lieutenant.”

She looked him in the eye. “Just give me a chance, sir. One chance, that’s all I ask for.”

Kurt measured her with his eyes. She’d stood up to the master chief, the male trainees, and now to him. She might be short of stature, but she was long on courage. “All right, O’Neil. You’re on. Just hope you don’t regret it when you find yourself out at sea with a bunch of horny old dogs. May find yourself missing the master chief more than you realize.” A thought occurred to him, and he glared at her warningly. “And if you mess around with any of the men on the team, I will personally throw you overboard, understood?”

“Thank you, sir. You won’t regret your decision.” She hesitated, but she had to know. “May I ask, sir, what did Jack say to you? Did he try to get me stationed closer to home? Did he actually tell you that I couldn’t do the job?”

Belatedly, it occurred to Kurt that he might have set his buddy up for a tongue-lashing. “No, Lieutenant, he said he’d like to have you closer but that it was your career and your decision. Said you’d earned your chance and he thought you’d do fine.” Kurt paused. “He just couldn’t give me a good answer as to why he didn’t trust you to do the job in Libya. Said it was your first mission; you were still a trainee. We’ll never know, but personally I believe it was at least in part because you are a female. He was too protective. Which was the other concern I had. He said the over-protectiveness of the men was their problem, not yours, but you know as well as I that a problem’s a problem.”

“Thank you for being frank, sir,” she replied soberly. “I guess we’ll just have to figure out how to train your men.” Seeing his raised eyebrows, she let a smile leak through her shield. “However you think is best, of course.” She straightened back to attention. “Anything further, sir?”

Kurt growled warningly, “Don’t get insubordinate with me, Lieutenant, or you’ll regret it. That’ll be all. See you Wednesday morning.”

“Aye, aye, sir,” she beamed, snapping him a salute. Turning on her heel, she opened the door and made a beeline for Jack’s office, only to find it locked. A quick scan of the parking lot showed his vehicle missing from its usual place. “Damn,” she said, heading for the C.O.’s office. With luck Salem could give her a clue about Jack’s whereabouts.

Watching her leave, Kurt shook his head and muttered, “What the hell am I getting myself in for?” A smile slowly made its way across his face. “Jack sure knows how to pick ’em.” With a sigh, he turned back to his desk, wondering how he was going to tell his platoon leaders about their new team member.

After hurricane Jordan stormed out of his office, papers flying in her wake, Jack sank back into his chair with a sigh. He tried to focus on the reports in front of him, but all he could see was Jordan’s back as she marched away. It occurred to him that he should have taken her up on that lunchtime offer. There would be no loving for him tonight. Damn Kurt, anyway. And damn Jordan for jumping to conclusions.

“Feeling sorry for yourself, Jack?” he asked himself, kicking his brain back into gear. Picking up a piece of paper, he stared at the words, trying to make sense of them. Instead, he found himself reviewing how he’d answered Kurt’s questions, wondering whether he should have said things differently.

Deep in his own stew, he didn’t notice Captain Salem enter. “It’s clear you’re not going to get much done today, Jack.”

Startled, the chief pushed himself to his feet. Salem waved him back. “Sit.” He settled himself into Jack’s guest chair. “About that personnel report…”

Jack nodded wearily. “Yes, sir, I’ll make sure it’s finished before I leave today,” he said, asking himself how he was going to concentrate long enough to finish anything.

“Actually,” said Salem, trying to hide a knowing smile, “I’m not going to have a chance to read it until Thursday. And we both know you’re not going to be worth a damn to me today. Go home. Take the rest of the day off. Tomorrow, too. Spend some time with that woman before she takes off.”

Jack shook his head. “The captain told her he doesn’t want her on his team. She took it pretty hard.” He didn’t feel like telling Salem about their fight.

The C.O. grunted. “I wouldn’t count her out until the captain embarks Wednesday morning. Either way I figure you two need some time together.” He paused, returning to a less fatherly tone. “But when you come back, I want you sharp, Master Chief.”

Jack considered the captain’s offer. He felt as though he’d been through the wringer. Some time to regroup would be welcome. He accepted the proposal with a nod. “Thank you, sir. I’ll leave Instructor Pyro in charge.”

“Right. Carry on.” Rising from his chair, Salem departed.

Jack wrote out orders for the senior chief and instructed a seaman to deliver them to the O-course. After closing and locking his office, he drove slowly home.

The last time he remembered a house seeming so empty was when Carol moved out. Pausing in the living room, he turned on the stereo and punched the play button on the CD player. He walked into the kitchen just as the strains of “Tutu” filled the air.

“Damn.” He could have sworn he’d been listening to Prokofiev. He couldn’t escape Jordan, even in his own home. Pouring himself two fingers of scotch, he downed it in one gulp and headed to the bedroom to change out of his uniform. The music followed him down the hall.

He felt out of control. He couldn’t stop thinking about their angry exchange, and he didn’t know what to do about it. It had been too long since he was last in a relationship. He’d forgotten how they worked. For now, he just wanted to get her out of his mind, even if only for a few minutes.

When he was a boy, he’d learned to cool his temper with a plunge in the cold waters of the lake that fronted his family home. All that presented itself here was a cold shower. Stripping off his brace and clothes, he headed into the bathroom, only to be confronted with Jordan’s lingerie.

“Shit!” Flinging the lacy garments out the bathroom door, he turned on the tap and stepped into the shower. In contrast to the Florida heat, the cold water was shocking. He stood with his head in the icy stream, trying to imagine himself gliding through the lake. Instead, his mind tormented him with images of Jordan swimming, snorkeling, laughing. After a few long minutes, he gave up trying. Turning off the water, he stepped out onto the mat.

“Salem told me you’d left,” Jordan said quietly, leaning nonchalantly against the door jamb, holding her lingerie in one hand. She let her eyes travel down his cold, wet body and back up to meet his incredulous gaze.

A confusing mix of anger and desire flooded Jack’s feelings. With an almost imperceptible squint and a brief compression of his lips, he shoved them aside. “Here to pick up your laundry, Lieutenant?” he asked icily, whipping a towel off the bar and wrapping it around his waist.

She spoke with a hint of apology. “I talked with Sehloff again. He clarified what you’d said to him. Said you hadn’t actually told him you recommended against me.” She hastened to add, “though you did express reservations about having a woman on the team.”

“What did you expect? I told him the truth as I saw it. I had to. It’s my job.” His voice was chilling. As he spoke, he stepped toward her, placing his hands on his hips. “Permission to get dressed, Lieutenant?” he asked scornfully.

“Are you sure you want to get dressed?” Reaching out her hand, she ran her finger from his collarbone through the hairs of his chest to the top edge of the towel.

Backing away and shaking his head, Jack growled at her. “An hour ago you were wishing you’d let me bleed to death. What’s changed, woman? It isn’t me. I’m the same son of a bitch I was when I got up this morning.” She was blocking his exit from the bathroom. “Out of my way,” he ordered. “Who the fuck do you think you are, anyway, walking into my house — into my bedroom — without knocking?”

She stepped aside as he brushed past her. Turning, she followed him into the bedroom, taking a seat at the foot of his bed. “You gave me a key.”

“My mistake,” he retorted. “Take your bras and get out.” He walked carefully across the room, conscious of his absent brace. Studiously ignoring his visitor, he pulled open his dresser drawer, looking for clean underwear.

“I’m not leaving,” she said quietly. “We need to talk, Jack.”

He yanked what he needed from the drawer and slammed it shut. Turning to her, he raised his eyebrows dubiously. “You’re damned good at talking, Jordan. It’s listening you need to practice.”

The irony of his statement didn’t escape either of them. Bristling defensively, she came back at him. “Hey, I was angry! I thought you’d betrayed me.”

Jack glared at her. “Yeah, I know you were angry! But you didn’t have to take it out on me. I spent half the morning putting myself on the line for you, and as soon as things went sour you turned on me.” Turning away, he threw his clothing on the bed. “I don’t need this shit. I don’t betray people. If you can’t trust me when I’m in front of your face, what’s going to happen when we’re half a world apart?”

“It’s going to take time, Jack. We’re still getting to know each other.” Standing up, she took a few steps toward him. “Once I thought about it, I realized you had to give Kurt your honest opinion, no matter how you felt about me.” She shook her head. “I’m used to dealing with Washington politics and the obsession with advancement. I know you don’t operate that way, but when Kurt implied that he was turning me down because you wanted me closer, I just blew up. I’m sorry.”

Expelling his breath, Jack sat heavily on the side of the bed. At length he turned to her. “If we’re going to clear the air, there’s one more thing you need to understand, Jordan.” He briefly raised his eyes before continuing. “I know how much you wanted this posting. I told you the truth at lunchtime. I made it clear to Kurt that you passed the course on your merit. I recommended you.”

Dropping his head, he rubbed his eyes. “What I didn’t tell you is that he also asked whether I would have a female on my team. I couldn’t lie to him. I had to say I didn’t know whether I could.” He shook his head, staving off a reply. “Don’t take it the wrong way. It’s not about your abilities. It’s not about you at all. It’s about me. I just don’t know whether I could be objective with a woman.” He braced himself for her response.

“Yeah. I know,” Jordan replied evenly. “It’s okay, Jack.”

“How did you know?” Jack asked, puzzled and relieved that she wasn’t upset.

She snorted. “In training, you tried hard to make things fair, but you were always watching me. In SERE you singled me out, trying to convince me that I would compromise the men. And in Libya you jeopardized the mission to protect me. The harder you tried to treat me like the other trainees, the more obvious it was that your tendency was to treat me specially.”

She looked at him with a crooked grin. “I like being special to you, Jack. I know we couldn’t serve together, but that’s not what I want from you. You treat me fairly; you treat me with respect. That’s important.” Taking a long breath, she sat next to him on the bed. “And if you still like me, that’s even better. Because I’m pretty crazy about you.”

He looked at her warily. “Don’t fuck with me, Jordan. Don’t get close to me unless you’re sure you want to make this work.”

Placing her hand on his, she answered him softly. “I do want to make it work. We’re a strange pair, you and I, but there’s no one I’d rather be with. I went off half-cocked this afternoon. I was so sure I had this assignment, it caught me by surprise when Sehloff turned me down. I wasn’t seeing things clearly.”

He snorted. “What you lacked in clarity, you made up in vigor.” Taking a deep breath, he nodded his head slowly and turned his hand over to clasp hers. “Truce?”

Nodding, she squeezed his hand. “Truce.” Unable to resist, she added, “until our next fight.” She melted his objection with a wide grin.

He accepted her terms, a smile breaking through in spite of his best efforts to suppress it. Thinking back to the beginning of their row, he realized he’d never heard the outcome of her second meeting with the captain. “How’d it go with Kurt?”

“I told him I was going to be on his team whether he wanted me or not, and he might as well get used to the idea.” She grinned. “It worked with you, didn’t it? I figured I had a winning formula.”

Jack shook his head. “You’re a wonder.” Touching her cheek, he kissed her gently on the mouth. “Congratulations, tiger.”

“Thanks, baby.” She gathered her courage before continuing. “Jack, I don’t think you realize how hard it will be for me to leave you in a couple of days. I know I’ve made it sound as though the decision was easy, that you don’t matter to me as much as this assignment.” Her voice catching, she pushed to complete her thought. “Truth is, if you made me decide between you and the CRT, I don’t know which way I’d go. I’m just glad you’re not making me choose.”

Jack shook his head. “Don’t think I didn’t consider it. But I’d lose either way, baby. Either you’d pick the team, or else you’d stay here and be a real bitch to live with. You’ve gotta do what you’ve gotta do. We’ll make it work.” He added emphasis to his statement with another kiss.

“Whatever it takes, tiger.” Smiling wickedly, she trailed her fingers across his bare chest, letting them fall to the top of his towel. “But enough of this long-term thinking. Right now,” she said softly, “either you need to put some clothes on, or I need to take some off.”

Jack looked at her hungrily, his preference evident in his eyes. He leaned toward her, his lips hovering over hers, brushing them softly, feeling her reach up to meet him. Her hands began to explore the smooth skin of his lower back, preparing for an assault on the towel. Slowly and deliberately, one by one, he unbuttoned each button on her shirt as he sank into her open mouth.

The End