This story takes place immediately after Doppelganger and before Good Run of Bad Luck. Thanks to Rita who threatens to kick my tail on a daily basis, to Kim who really needed something shirtless, to Fidelma to whom I owed a shirtless scene. For all the Lee’s Ladies—I tried to do your man justice—and to Harry’s Harem—I didn’t want to leave them out and to Sue, from whom I’ve learned so much.
Company of Shadows
The last time Nelson came up to his cabin, it had been after his allergic reaction to an emergency-breathing device that turned his personality upside down1. His attitude toward Chip during the onset of those symptoms had alienated the exec for weeks afterwards. Even after a long heart to heart talk with Chip, the younger man had been cautious around the admiral, guarding his words and actions. There was an underlying current of something between Chip and Lee as well, so Nelson had convinced the two to join him for a long weekend at his cabin. Everyone needed time to recover from that disastrous cruise.
How long ago had that been? Nelson had lost track of the months. A year or more? His own life had been turned upside down as of late with the emergence of a daughter he hadn't known existed. It seemed like bits of his past were finally coming home to roost.
It was healing of a different sort that brought Nelson back to his retreat away from civilization. The mentally unstable Randolph Mason had managed to escape from the Springhurst Psychiatric Center and had kidnapped Lee Crane. Drugged, bound, gagged and blindfolded, Lee had been helpless to stop Mason as he tried to carry out his plan to eventually kill Nelson. Part of that plan had been to kidnap his daughter. Disguised as Lee, Mason had attacked Serena and she was now trying to come to grips with that encounter.
She wasn't doing very well. In the days following her and Lee's rescue she'd grown increasingly skittish around Crane, unable to tolerate his presence in the same room. Her attack seemed to have opened up a past trauma and it was Nelson's hope that, away from everything familiar, Serena would open up and eventually move past it. So he had convinced her to come up here with him, in the hopes that she could start her own healing process.
Lee wasn’t handling it very well either. Nelson knew that somehow Lee was trying to blame himself for the whole thing. Not that there was a damn thing Lee could have done to stop it but it was how Lee was wired, to take control and be responsible. Another person who needed time to heal.
As Harriman walked along the worn path he wondered if he was doing the right thing in bringing Serena and Lee out here. Serena was as stubborn as he ever was and she refused to talk about whatever was bothering her. Well, in a few days, Lee would be arriving and she would have to face him and whatever episode from her past was haunting her.
Nelson wandered along the trail a little farther, following the sound of rushing water. He knew a fast running creek ran through this section of forest. At its widest, the creek was fully six feet across and as deep in places. Right now the usually crystal clear waters were dark with mud and debris from the uplands. A cold front was moving in and the uplands were the first to see rain. In another day the rain would impact this valley and they'd be stuck in the cabin until the weather broke.
As Harriman watched the frothy dark waters rushing below him off the trail, he reached into the pocket of his shirt, pulling out a soft pack of cigarettes. From the pocket of his faded jeans he pulled out a silver Zippo lighter. It had been a gift from Lee last Christmas. More of a collector's item, Nelson nevertheless liked to carry it around. Engraved on the front was the logo of the institute he had founded and beneath it was the forward facing silhouette of the Seaview.
He lit the cigarette and snapped the lighter closed then moved to drop it back in his pocket. Instead the object dropped from his fingers and bounced along the ground, landing in a loose pile of branches along the bank's edge.
“Well. That's lovely,” Nelson snorted and promptly hopped off the trail to go after the small silver lighter. He didn't want to lose Lee's gift.
He crept along the edge of the bank, the ground soft under his feet. This close to the flooded creek, the bank was likely to be unstable. Nelson grabbed at a small sapling for balance and bent down on one knee to reach out for the lighter. His fingers brushed the corner but he was a fraction too far away. With a grumble he edged closer but he had to release his grip on the sapling to do it. This time his thumb and finger closed around it. With a triumphant smile, Nelson rose to his feet and stuffed the object into his pocket.
That's when the bank crumbled and Nelson was deposited like so much debris into the onrushing water. He gasped in shock at the coldness of the creek but he managed to get his head above water. The banks were too high and unstable to offer any purchase so Nelson let the current carry him until he was able to haul himself out of the water onto drier land.
For a second he lay flat on his back, gasping for air. He didn’t know how long he’d been in the water but he was a good hundred feet from where he’d started. With cold fingers he dug into his jeans pocket, feeling for the lighter. It was still there. Well, at least the dunking wasn’t a total loss.
Harriman pushed himself to his feet and a shiver ran up his spine. If he was lucky he could get back to the cabin before his worrywart daughter did. If he moved really quickly he could get dried off and hide the evidence of his encounter with Mother Nature. If Serena found out that her master diver, four-star admiral, father fell into a creek, he'd never hear the end of it.
With his shoulders squared and his shoes squishing water and mud, Harriman Nelson started back for the cabin, determined not to let this interrupt his time off.
Can you shoot me before I cut his throat, that’s the question, ain’t it?
Fingers knotted in his hair pulling his head back and exposing his neck. The edge of the cold blade pressed against his skin, the fine edge of heat under his Adam’s apple as the blade dug in, seeking blood, the blast of a gunshot that was too close for comfort…
With a strangled gasp Lee bolted out of his bunk and sat on the edge of the mattress, heaving great gulps of air as the lingering images of the nightmare slowly faded like fog. For a long time he just sat there, his fingers gripping the edge of the mattress as he fought to banish the shadows from his mind. He didn’t want to admit how badly the incident had shaken him. He was ONI trained, a seasoned operative. He was a commander in the United States Navy. He was a grown man, an adult. He should be able to deal with this. He’d had worse happen to him.
A quick glance at his watch proved it was nearly 0600. Running a hand through his sleep tousled hair, Lee groaned and heaved himself up out of his bunk. With none of his usual bounce he made his slow way to the cabin’s head and turned on the tap. Splashing his face with cool water helped but it didn’t do much for his appearance. Staring back at Lee was a tired and haggard figure that hadn’t had a full night’s sleep.
Chip’s bound to say something, Lee thought as he worked to try and clean himself up. A hot shower to unknot stress-tight muscles, a shave, and clean clothes were a good start. Feeling less like someone who had been wrestling nightmares most of the night, Lee left his cabin and headed for the Control Room.
He expected the Control Room to be empty but instead he found Chip Morton already in the nose, a cup of coffee in his hand. One look at Lee and a blond eyebrow went up.
“Do I look that bad?” Lee asked.
“Well, I don’t think Wen would be impressed with you. Course, my sister always did have weird tastes in men,” Chip teased.
“Wise guy. Anymore where that came from?” Lee indicated the coffee cup in Chip’s hands.
“I made a pot when I came aboard. It’s not the toxic sludge Cookie plies us with but it’s passable.”
Lee snorted and moved toward the coffee pot. He poured a waiting cup full and wrapped both hands around it, taking a deep swallow. “You’re right, not as gluey as Cookie’s brew but it works. What brings you down here so early?”
“I thought I would come down here and wait for you to rise and shine. I figured I’d better be the one to break the news.”
Lee spun around to face Chip. “News? What news?”
“We’re being kicked off base.”
“What? How? By whom…no. He wouldn’t.”
Chip nodded. “Oh yes, he would. More to the point, he did. Jamie was waiting for me tossed me out when I tried to slip into my office this morning.” Chip actually looked sheepish as he took a deep swallow from his cup. “I’m supposed to find you and escort you and myself off the property. He said the only way to get rid of me is to get rid of you.”
Lee growled, downing half the coffee. “Interfering, meddlesome, old busy-body. There isn’t anything wrong with me. I don’t need him telling me…” Lee’s words trailed off as Chip stared at him, those blue orbs filled with disapproval and a touch of disbelief. “What are you looking at?”
“Lee, I’ve seen men dead a week that look better than you do now. You’re kidding yourself if you think you can fool everybody into thinking what happened is just going to go away. I know you, Lee, and so does Jamie. “
Lee slammed the half empty cup down on the tabletop, the contents spilling out of the cup and sloshing brown onto the table’s surface. “What’s that supposed to mean? You both think I can’t do my job now?” he snapped angrily.
Chip took a deep breath. He’d known Lee was going to react badly but he didn’t think it was going to be quite like this. “Lee, you’re my brother. I’ll do anything for you. But I’m not going to lie to you. Right now, no. I wouldn’t trust command of Seaview to you.”
Lee folded his arms over his chest, head down, his eyes hooded as he glared out the window and into the channel waters. His shoulders slumped in silent defeat. Gently, Chip reached out and touched Lee's arm.
“Lee? Don't close yourself off, not from me.”
His fingers digging into his upper arms hard enough to bruise, Lee took a deep breath, trying to find the answers and finding nothing; just the voices in his head, taunting him and mocking him, seeing the fear in Serena's green eyes.
“What if—what if the admiral doesn't think I'm fit to command her anymore? Have I become a liability? To hurt the admiral, his enemies reach out for the ones who are the closest to him. Somewhere along the line he's become more than just my superior officer. What if I've put him in danger, simply because we've blurred the lines between employer and friend?”
“Lee, I think that's something that you’re going to have to talk over with the admiral. I've known him as long as you have. You served under him on the Nautilus but I've worked with him since he established the institute. You ground him, you make him see reason. Somehow, you make him more human. He needs you here. I need you here. I'm not going to let you walk away. He's not going to let you just walk away.”
“What if it's for the best? If it hadn't been for me you'd have never been shot. If it hadn't been for me Serena would never have to go through what she did. Because of me she's terrified I'm going to hurt her. You didn't see the look in her eyes.”
“All the more reason for you to get the hell out of here. Jamie wants us gone—then let's go. We'll drive up to the admiral's cabin and you three can hash this out while I sleep.”
Lee turned slightly to glance at Chip out of the corner of one eye. “You'd drive up there with me?”
“I'm not going to let you go up there by yourself. Lee, you look half dead, for crying out loud. You’d probably get pulled over for impersonating a zombie,” Chip replied.
“I have to pack.” That little boy quality was back, the tone not at all happy about being thrown off base.
“So go home and pack. I'll tell Jamie what we're planning. I’m sure the admiral won’t mind if you turn up a few days early.”
“Why do I detect a plot? You're horribly eager to get me off the grounds.” Lee narrowed his eyes and glared at his friend.
Chip blinked wide, innocent blue eyes. “You're accusing me of plotting? Why Lee, I'm hurt. Deeply hurt. What possible reason could I have for offering to drive your sour six into the mountains for a vacation I know you want no part of?”
This time Lee grinned broadly. “I can think of one reason.”
Harriman glanced at his watch again, certain that time had stopped. The concern in his gut was blossoming into full-fledged worry. Outside, the clouds had gathered and a steady downpour had already drenched the ground. Small puddles had formed on the open-air deck outside the kitchen.
Nelson alternated between pacing in the den to pacing the confines of the kitchen. He was used to worrying about Lee. It wasn't something he enjoyed doing but with time and practice he'd managed to turn the worrying into an art form. Worrying about Serena was something he hadn't mastered yet.
He glanced down at his watch one more time. She should have been back hours ago. Could she have run into trouble? Taken a fall and broken something? Attacked by a bear? With bizarre thoughts of what might have happened to his daughter, Nelson was about ready to grab a jacket and head out into the elements to search for her. That's when her figure, head down and arms wrapped around her, came trudging up the stairs onto the deck. Nelson threw open the sliding glass door, not sure if he wanted to wrap her in his arms or turn her over his knee.
Instead he tried for something middle-of-the-road. “A little damp, are we?”
Serena Harrison looked up him, her long, red hair scraggly and wet, mud up to her knees and a very sheepish grin on her face. She was completely and utterly soaked to the skin and shivering as she climbed the steps to the wrap-around deck. The fates chose that moment to strike and Serena let loose a double sneeze. She sniffed and sneezed again.
“Sorry I'm late. My watch died and I lost track of time. Then it sort of started to rain and I had to walk back in it.”
“Hrumph. And just how long have you been tramping through the rain and mud?”
Serena’s chagrined look and downcast eyes were enough to make Nelson shake his head and stand aside for her to enter the cabin. “Get in here. You can dry off and warm up. Don't want you catching a cold on your vacation.”
The young woman smiled shyly and ducked past her father into the cabin, tracking mud as she went. She didn't say anything else as she dripped her way up the stairs. He heard the feint thud as she closed the door. Distantly he thought he heard two more sneezes coming from behind the door.
Nelson stood in the kitchen, feeling a smile come over him. Not for the first time, he wondered how she would have turned out if he had had a hand in her raising, if he'd been allowed to be a part of her life as a child. Likewise, how would he have turned out if he had been given the chance to be a father?
Dismissing what he couldn't change, the retired admiral set to work cleaning up the trail his wayward daughter had created. He ignored the tickle in the back of his throat as he fetched a mop and started cleaning.
Will Jamieson was standing in front of his office windows, arms crossed over his chest, leaning against the corner. He had a wonderful view of the bay, not to mention a rather nice view of the quay Seaview called home when circumstances allowed her to berth on the surface rather than in the underground facility. The two figures making their slow way up the walk from the dock were clearly recognizable; the one broad-shouldered and blond, the second, lean and dark-haired. They walked side by side, matching each other's stride. Neither man was in uniform. Both men appeared to be wearing jeans. One wore a dark T-shirt and the other appeared to be wearing a polo shirt. Jamieson was pretty sure at that point they were aware of the havoc they would unleash if they turned up in uniform. It would be like them to try a stunt like that just to see what he would do.
Stick them both back in Med Bay so fast their hair would curl, Jamieson answered his own question with a wry grin. Chip was healing nicely and it was hard to keep him down. There really wasn't anything wrong with Lee—physically at any rate—that time wouldn't heal. Having kicked the blond out of the building at first light, he knew Chip would hunt Lee down. What Jamieson hadn't counted on was Lee getting caught aboard Seaview.
Jamison was well aware that those two were closer than brothers. They berated, harassed and mercilessly teased each other to no end. But in that same vein, if something should happen to one, the second would move heaven and earth for his injured brother; a fact that Jamieson shamelessly used whenever the situation called for it—like now.
Despite Lee's intense ONI training, his years in the field as an agent, and the experience of commanding Seaview, this episode with Mason was troubling the skipper more than he was admitting. That Serena had gotten caught up in the mess and now was apparently terrified of the man she had never shown fear towards before was also taking its toll on Lee. He prided himself on knowing each member of the crew, and he knew most of the staff by first name. That Serena now shied away from him bothered Lee and Jamie knew it.
The plan he and Nelson had laid out was simple; Nelson and Serena would go on up to Nelson’s cabin and Lee would follow a few days later. However, after watching Lee trying to outrun the memory of his kidnapping and the helpless hours he had spent listening to Mason's gloating, Will was convinced that Lee needed to get off base as soon as possible. So Jamieson had exercised his greatest power and declared Lee—and Chip—unfit for duty. By ordering both off base he was hoping that Morton’s instinct toward brotherhood would rise up and Chip would go with Lee to the admiral's cabin. Serena's own mental state was in a precarious position at the moment and the sooner she worked out her issues with Lee, the better off she would be.
How was she going to react when Lee and Chip turned up and she had nowhere to go? Jamieson could only speculate. He had treated her but he was far from knowing her as well as he did Lee or Chip. She might withdraw, or she might get angry. If Serena chose to withdraw, how would Lee react? Knowing Lee, there was only one possible ending if she couldn't cope. Will could only hope that with Nelson and Chip to mediate the two, they would work through this, else Serena would never be able to work with Lee Crane. And Lee would hate himself for what he couldn't help.
Wendy Morton glanced up at the quiet knock on the door, surprised to see the lean figure propped against the doorframe. Her eyes narrowed a fraction as she saw him up close for the first time in days. Not that he was actually avoiding her but she'd been busy and Jamie hadn't released him back to duty yet, so he hadn't been in his office as usual. To Wendy, Lee looked tired. He looked like a man who'd been wrestling demons in the dark and coming out second best. Always lean, he had an almost hollow look to him now, with a hint of frailty, as if bent too hard he might break. With a million rumors flying about what had happened to Lee, Wendy could fully see that whatever he'd faced, it had left a scar on his soul. She pulled her attention away from the computer screen to smile at her visitor. “Hi handsome,” she began.
Lee promptly took that as invitation to plant on hip on the edge of the meticulously neat and organized desk. “Busy?” he asked.
“Just going over the Bimini project. With Serena gone to her mother's—a move I still don't understand—I promised I'd stay on top of the project.”
Lee picked up a glass paperweight with a tiny model of Seaview inside. The glass was cool in his hand and he turned it over, examining the replica of the first lady in his life, encased in the glass bubble. “About that...Serena didn't go to her mother's, exactly.” That story was a cover concocted by the admiral. There was still that mysterious Rinaldi person and until they found out who he was and what he wanted, Nelson wasn't taking any chances that word of their little 'vacation' would get out.
Wendy's blue eyes cooled to freezing. “You lied to me,” she said with frost in her voice. “I thought that story about her trotting off to her mother's sounded fishy. You forget; I've met the old bag. How on earth Serena could be expected to have any measure of peace in that house is beyond me. So where is she?”
Lee squirmed. He hated lying to her but if there was the remotest chance of a leak in the institute, the fewer people who knew exactly where they had gone, the better.
“She's with the admiral.”
Lee was pretty sure that the windows began to frost over. Lee would be the first to admit that he thought of Chip as his brother and he'd move heaven and earth if Chip needed him. He tended to forget how close Wendy and Serena had gotten since meeting. She looked after Serena in much the same way Chip tended to look after Lee.
“And where might that be?” Her words were as sharp as broken glass.
“Wen, trust me, she's safe. There is a reason we're not advertising where they went.”
“I don't rank high enough on the ladder to know where my best friend has been spirited off to? Lee, part of my job is to protect her. I failed her once and you aren’t making this any easier!” she said angrily. She pushed up the sleeves of her dark blue blouse, almost as if gearing up for battle.
Lee tilted his head back to look at the ceiling. He didn't want to argue with her over this. Unconsciously he rubbed at his temple, the faint throbbing of a headache just beginning to announce itself. “Wendy, I told you once—sometimes there are things I can't include you in on. You're gonna have to trust me on this.”
Wendy stood up and faced Lee. Her mouth was set in a grim line as she stared at him with glacier blue eyes. “And just when do I get included in this great secret circle? Is there a secret handshake I have to learn? Do I have to know the code word or something? I can accept that you are involved in some classified stuff but how the hell is this classified? Mason is DEAD. The admiral shot and killed him. What further danger can he pose to anyone that you have to make a big secret out of all this?”
Lee moved to his feet and griped her shoulders, his fingers digging into the fabric of her blouse, desperation making his grip tighter than he expected and he tried to relax before he bruised her. “This has nothing to do with trusting you or not trusting you. This has to do with the safety of the admiral and that's not something I'm willing to leave up to the whim of chance. If I didn't think there was a risk I'd tell you everything I know, but I can't do that right now. Please, just trust me.”
Wendy took a step away from Lee, turning her back to him and walking to the window. Her arms were still crossed over her chest and she bowed her head, leaning against the window. Lee wasn't sure what to do next. He and Wendy seldom argued about anything, her code of ethics and morals were so close to his own that his actions had never been called into issue.
Finally the blonde woman broke the uncomfortable silence. “Mason was working with someone, wasn't he? It's how he got out of Springhurst; it's how he had the resources to get past security to grab you. That’s how he knew Serena was related to the admiral and how he knew to target her.” Wendy spun around to face Lee. “Isn't it? And because Mason's dead, you don't know who he is and if he might come after the admiral.”
Lee let out the breath he'd been holding. He kept his voice low and closed the distance between them, reaching for her once more. This time his arms closed around her and he held her close. He should have known she would figure it out. “You can't tell anyone about this. Jamie knows, as well as Angie, and the ones who rescued us. But Mason had two men working for him. While they had me, one of them gloated about what they were going to do to Serena. She was part of the payment for my kidnapping. They were going to turn her over to somebody name Rinaldi. But we don't know why, or if it's connected to the admiral. We can't take the chance that somebody might use her to hurt him, and until we find guy, we're doing everything we can to protect both the admiral and Serena, before somebody does to them what Mason tried to do to me.”
Wendy leaned her head against Lee's chest, closing her eyes and just let herself be surrounded by his powerful presence. “She's more than my friend, Lee. Until she came here, I was nearly the only family she had. After her accident, she closed her mother out of her life and I was the only one she'd connect with. It's killing me that I can't help her. Promise me you won't let anything else happen to her.”
Lee gently kissed her forehead. “I'll do anything to protect the admiral, and by extension, Serena. Now you know why we haven't said anything. We don't want this to leak out.”
Wendy pulled away and looked up into Lee's eyes. “This Rinaldi person, you've looked for him at Springhurst, haven't you?”
Lee nodded. “There was no record of anybody by that name there, either as staff or patient. We don't have any leads. With Mason dead we don't even have a first name. We haven't talked to Serena about this. Right now she can't stand the sight of me.”
“Then let me dig into this. You've got nothing to lose. Please? I was hired to watch after her and the minute I'm out of reach somebody tries a stunt like this. Let me make it up to you and see what I can dig up.”
Lee paused. Normally he would have Chip dig into this mess but he was still on sick leave and Jamie would have nine fits if he caught Chip doing anything but resting and recovering. The exec was already dropping hints about a road trip to Springhurst, but Lee had vetoed the idea, at least for the moment. But if Wendy was willing to do some digging it might save some time on their part, and keep him and Chip off Jamie's radar.
“You'll be quiet about it? Report anything you find to Angie. Work with her on this and no one else. Understand me?”
Wendy batted innocent eyes up at him and smiled. “Of course, Commander. And just what are you going to be up to?”
Lee planted a quick kiss on her lips, and then let her go. “Chip and I have been kicked off base.”
Wendy frowned, speculating. “I see. I heard about Serena. Lee, this thing with you and her, it's not personal, I could swear to that. She just needs time to work through that it wasn't you who attacked her.” She walked back to her desk, leaning against the heavy solid piece of furniture as she studied the man before her. He sighed and his hazel eyes seemed to a shadow of sadness as he spoke.
“I know. We hope that we can work that out. She didn't deserve what happened to her.”
“When are you leaving?”
“We'll probably take off first thing in the morning. It will drive Jamie crazy till we leave.” Lee grinned.
“Why do you harass that poor man so much? I swear you and Chip are going to drive him to drink one day. I want you to be careful. Lee,” Wendy reached for Lee's arm, feeling the tension in his muscles. “This isn't your fault. I know how you are; I've gotten to know you better in the last few months. You have a tendency to blame yourself for everything you can't control. This was a freak thing, not something you could have anticipated. Mason was too informed, he was too prepared.”
Lee tried to relax but she had hit the nail on the head. It was the core of his being, that sense of responsibility. “I'm trained to anticipate, to plan ahead. I should have considered that someone might break into my condo, I should have taken into account that I might be used against the admiral,” he said. Only Wendy wasn't listening, or rather she wasn't agreeing.
“You're human. You and Chip both have this insane idea you can single-handily stop all the evil in this world. You can't be everywhere at once; you're only going to kill yourself trying to save everyone. Take off, get away and for once, take care of yourself. Please?”
“Is that an order?” Lee ducked his head and glanced up at her through dark lashes. Wendy let out a soft laugh and rolled her eyes.
“Mom was right about you; you're impossible. Go on. You probably have to pack and if you're leaving with Chip, he's probably waiting at your condo, staring at the clock. I have work to do and I can't do it while you're hanging around, looking so pathetically cute.”
“Cute? That's all I get?” Lee mocked.
What Lee got was another kiss not nearly as chaste as the one he’d gifted her with earlier. When he came up for air, Wendy's eyes danced as she sat back down behind her desk.
“Hold that thought till I get back?” he asked
“I'll make a note of it in my calendar.”
With a crooked salute Lee took his leave. Wendy watched the empty doorway for a long time, still thinking of him. He certainly wasn't like anybody else she had ever known. She could only hope that whatever he'd been forced to endure, with Chip and Nelson to help him move past it, the dark cloud that seemed to follow him would lift. Still thinking of his golden eyes, Wendy turned back to the computer but her mind wasn't entirely on her work. What she needed was to talk to Angie. She stared at the phone for a long time then reached for the receiver and dialed the extension to Angie Watson's office.
“Angie? Hi. I was wondering, I know you're busy now but I need to talk to you. Think you could spare me some time over lunch?”
The day was drawing to a close. The overcast sky darkened early with the approach of a new storm. Since yesterday it had been nothing but rain, with short periodic breaks in between downpours. Unable to enjoy a quiet evening outside on the deck, the two occupants of the secluded cabin by the lake had retreated to the den. Serena never did figure out that Nelson had gone for an unauthorized swim, and he made no further mention of her extended hike through the rain.
Harriman Nelson took a deep long breath, actually beginning to relax and enjoy himself. He was pretty sure all hell would break loose in a few days but for now he would enjoy the peace and quiet and savor the company of his daughter. Off in the distance thunder growled, announcing the building storm. Standing by the large windows of the den, Nelson could see lighting playing in the dark clouds. Weather like this wasn’t uncommon in this area and Nelson didn’t particularly worry. It gave them an excuse to stay inside and he could get to learn more about the woman he’d been estranged from since her birth.
The approaching storm didn't seem to bother Serena. Right now his daughter was curled up in a cozy chair, her legs tucked under her. She was reading a book by an author Nelson had never heard of. Something he had learned early on was that Serena had eclectic tastes in her reading. On the table nearby sat a half empty glass of milk. Without looking Serena reached out for the glass and took a deep drink.
“Is that any good?” Nelson asked her. Serena looked up from her book, her green eyes seeming to glow in the fading light of day.
“Which one, the book or the milk?” she asked with a light smile. She closed the book and set it on the table and picked up the glass once more, finishing off the milk. Only then she relaxed into the chair, watching him as he settled into the corner of the large couch.
“I think it’s time we talked about a few things,” she said slowly, her hand reaching for the dolphin pendent she no longer wore. Mason had taken it from her when he had kidnapped her and it had never resurfaced. The necklace—a family heirloom passed down from three generations—had been a gift to Serena from her mother upon her entry into college. One of the first habits Nelson had noticed about her was the need to pull the pendent back and forth along the chain. He would have to see about an appropriate substitute.
“Well, that’s part of the reason we’re up here—just me and you with no distractions. Was there something specific you wanted to talk about?” Nelson asked. He was wondering if she was ever going to open up. Like him, Serena wasn’t one to talk openly about emotions.
“How many are there?”
Serena exhaled sharply. “How many more like Mason are out there? One of the first things we talked about was the fact you had enemies. These people over the years have tried using Lee and even Aunt Edith to get something they wanted from you. I never paid attention. It’s not that I didn’t believe you, exactly but I went from mediocre marine archaeologist to Admiral Nelson’s daughter virtually overnight.”
“You are not mediocre. I do not hire mediocre people.”
Serena ignored the comment and tilted her head slightly to the right as she stared at him. That was a habit from her mother. “Well?” she prompted.
“I can’t give you an alphabetical list. Randolph Mason wasn’t even who I was thinking about when I suggested someone might target you to use against me.”
“Who then? If I’m going to spent the rest of my life watching my back then it would be nice to know who and why these people have decided to make my life interesting. It’s not fair to give me half the information.”
Nelson picked at a seam in the upholstery of the couch, trying to gather his thoughts and attempt an informed explanation.
“I’m not sure where to even start,” he said.
“Then start with Mason. Who was he? What did he want from you that started this whole thing?”
“That was a nightmare, let me tell you.”
“Then tell me. I deserve to know.”
Nelson found his throat dry. He got to his feet and disappeared into the kitchen, coming back with an opened beer bottle. He settled back into the couch, took a deep swig and carefully picked his words.
“It started when Mason was supposedly shot and killed on national television. His murderer was me.”
Serena’s eyes grew wide and she leaned back against the chair, her folded hand tucked between her knees. “But it wasn’t,” she stated.
“No, it wasn’t. The murderer was actually Mason himself. He had disguised an assistant as himself then shot and killed the poor bugger. All the while disguised as me.”
“Admiral, that makes no sense. Why?”
Nelson paused. Serena had never used his first name, save once or twice maybe after it was proven he was her father. Instead she usually referred to him as ‘admiral’, like Lee and Chip did. She was his daughter. She didn’t have to call him by his rank. Maybe he’d mention that when he had the chance. Right now she was beginning to show some interest in the story.
“It was all part of Mason’s plan to discredit me so he could follow through with his plans. He had this crazy scheme to harness the power of the tides. In theory it sounded like a good idea, only the application of his idea had far reaching consequences that I seriously don’t think Mason considered. I opposed his idea so he needed me out of the way--hence his plan to credit me with his murder.”
Serena shifted into a more comfortable position. ”Okay. That part I get. What I don’t get is how he turns up at my house looking like Lee.”
“Because Mason was also a master of disguise and, quite possibly, hypnosis.”
Serena raised an eyebrow in disbelief. “When I snap my fingers, you’ll think you’re a chicken kind of hypnosis?” she queried.
“Not exactly but you get the picture. You see, to prove to the press that I had an alibi at the time of the shooting Lee was going to announce he was with me in my office, watching the press conference on T.V. Only Mason had Lee kidnapped.”
“Then disguised himself as Lee while the real Lee was out of the way. Clever.”
“Very. So, Lee escapes, comes back to the boat, and gets a very chilly reception as the entire crew saw what they thought was Lee saying he was alone at the time of the shooting, completely blowing my alibi to pieces.”
“I’ve seen your crew in action. Nobody touches Lee without them turning into a lynch mob. I’ll bet they just loved seeing their skipper turn traitor.”
“Well, that was sorted out eventually. We had to stop Mason’s plan so Seaview set sail in hope of finding this device he was using and destroy it. What we hadn’t counted on was picking up an extra passenger.”
“This Mason creep. Nice. And you said he could look like anybody he wanted.”
Nelson nodded, taking another pull off the bottle. “That’s right. First he impersonated Morton, taking Lee’s orders for the course to set and pretty much tossing them overboard.”
Nelson watched his daughter react to that little bit of news. Her eyes narrowed and rubbed at the back of her neck nervously. She recovered by taking a deep breath and swallowing hard. “So he could look like anyone?”
“First it was Chip then later we found out he lured Sparks out of the Control Room and took his place. Like I said, the whole thing was a nightmare from start to finish. When it was all said and done, Mason was caught and he was found to be mentally unstable. He never even stood trial.”
Serena raised an eyebrow. “Unstable. That's one way of putting it. He looked just like Lee. And when he said Chip had been shot, he just looked at me and asked if I wanted to join him. I knew something wasn't right. I had no idea, I mean....” She wrapped her arms around herself, as if she were feeling a sudden chill.
Nelson wanted to say something but he couldn't find the words to reassure her. He couldn't promise this wouldn't happen again. There were too many people out there who had no qualms about using Lee to get to him. His daughter would eventually be another tool to try and bring him down. Even now he was reminded that he couldn’t be everywhere at once. There were still marks on Serena’s wrists. Rope burns, a mark of her kidnapping by Mason. Nelson choked down the rage at not being able to stop it, at not being able to protect those closest to him. Lee. Chip. Now Serena.
“Now you understand why I want you on institute property.”
“That didn't stop Lee from being taken. And another thing: What happened to keeping our relationship quiet? You said your staff could be trusted not to blab this to the world. How the hell did this Mason guy know I was your daughter unless somebody told him?”
“Well, it didn't come from the crew and I can swear it didn't come from the staff. A leak maybe...” Nelson trailed off as he thought. It was the same questioned he'd been asking himself ever since Serena and Lee went missing. Angie was quietly looking into the matter and hoped to have some answers by the time they got back.
“I know this couldn't be kept a complete secret. I know it was going to leak out and I was ready for that in case somebody started asking questions. But Mason was supposed to be locked up in a mental facility. How'd he find out?”
“Security is on that. Right now I don't have an answer. So far the only thing we know is that he was connected to somebody named Rinaldi. Does that name mean anything?”
Serena blinked, deep in thought. Nelson clearly saw the shudder she tried hard to repress. She shook her head but refused to look him in the eyes.
“No. Never heard of him.”
Another thing Nelson was quickly learning about his daughter: she was not a very good liar. He didn't press the issue. It was clear that the name did mean something to her. He filed the information away as something to pursue at a better time.
“Okay then answer me one last question.”
The woman gave him a suspicious look. “Alright.”
“You never had issues with Lee before. You know it wasn't Lee who attacked you. Why is it so hard to deal with him now? I saw how you reacted to him.”
Serena closed her eyes. “It's something I'll work through in time. It's not going to affect my job. If you don't mind, I’m going to turn in.” She rose to her feet, gathered her book and glass up before heading toward her bedroom. She was avoiding the issue. Another trait he had learned about her: if there was something she didn’t want to deal with she’d simply pack up and leave the room.
“Serena,” Nelson called out one more time. She froze and turned her head slightly.
“I accept that I'm your father. I might not accept Liz’s motives then or now but I accept you. I understand it's not easy. You don’t have to address me by rank, if it makes things easier.”
“You want me to address you as 'dad'?”
“Or whatever is comfortable for you. You can call me Harry. You don't have to address me as 'admiral'. Lee doesn't have to but I suspect I'll never break him off that habit.”
“Lee respects you too much to drop to a first name basis. Let me think about that. I'll see you in the morning.”
“One more thing,” Nelson knew he was about to stir up a hornet’s nest but in a few days Lee would be here and he didn’t want him showing up early and scaring the daylights out of her. “We’re going to have company in a few days.”
Serena’s confused frown morphed into a scowl as she put two and two together. “You invited Lee. What the hell for?” she swore. Nelson raised an eyebrow. Vocabulary must be something else she'd inherited from him.
Nelson kept his calm. “Need I remind you that this is my cabin? Lee needs a break and I invited him up for a few days.”
“Wonderful. Why don’t you just invite Chip too? If you’re going to bring those two up here, you might as well have them drag Jamie along,” she snarled. Nelson tried not to wince. Instead he bit back.
“If you like, I can invite Chip up as well. I’m sure he could use a break. I’m fairly certain that Jamie isn’t going to clear either of them for duty anytime soon, so it’s entirely possible that both of them could be on their way.”
Nelson was surprised at the brief flash of fear that glinted in the back of her eyes. Fear of what: Lee or Chip?
“Fine. You do whatever the hell you want, I'm sure you will anyway. I'm turning in.” Serena spun around and stomped up the stairs, the slamming of a door punctuating his daughter’s temper. Nelson sighed. He hadn't counted on her reacting this badly. But it was the best thing to get the two to interact with each other. Serena absolutely had to get over whatever issues she had with Lee Crane.
The rumble of thunder drew Nelson from a restless sleep. He couldn’t seem to get comfortable. One minute he was too hot, the next minute he was freezing. He’d kicked off the covers about half an hour ago and now another violent shiver raced up his spine.
With the approach of yet another thunderstorm, Nelson sat up, planting his bare feet on the hardwood floor. He stood up, surprised at the aches and pains as his muscles protested the movement.
That’s what you get for falling into a creek, old man, he thought, moving to the heavy drapes pulled across the full length window. He took a quick glance outside, just as a flash of lighting illuminated the night. For a second everything was gilded in the silver, daylight-bright flash, and then dropped back into the ink blackness of night. Rain was already pounding on the porch that ran around the entire cabin. Nelson didn’t dislike the rain but it wasn’t showing any sign of slowing down. There might be flooding issues. He hoped Lee was careful on his way down.
In the semi-gloom of the room, Nelson headed for the bathroom for a drink of water. His throat was a dry as a desert. By touch he felt for the medicine cabinet over the sink and fished around for a bottle of aspirin. He popped the top and shook three pills into his hand. He washed them down and replaced the bottle.
This was the third time he'd been into the bottle. He'd fished two out at lunchtime, careful that Serena hadn't seen him. It was twenty-four hours after his unscheduled dunking. He'd been hoping that he hadn't aspirated any water but he could definitely feel the tightness in his chest and the uncontrollable urge to cough. It would pass. He hadn't been in the water all that long, he couldn't have taken in that much. If he took it easy the next few days, he was pretty sure it would go away. With the rain there really wasn't much he could do but sit around. Jamie should be happy to hear that.
With a groan Nelson made his slow way back to bed. Sitting back down on the edge of the mattress, he was overwhelmed with a deep racking cough. It took a few minutes to get himself under control. Finally Nelson settled back into bed, pulling the covers up around him as another chill settled in. All he needed was a few days rest and he'd be just fine.
The Jeep was quiet so far. Chip was driving while Lee sat in the passenger's seat. His gaze drifted over the countryside as they headed out of the city. The signs of habitation grew fewer and fewer as they drove towards their destination. The morning had started bright and sunny but now dark clouds were building, taking on the same gunmetal gray color as Seaview. The overcast sky lessened the need for sunglasses but it was somewhat depressing.
Chip glanced over to his friend on occasion; surprised at one point to see Lee's head tilted slightly forward, his eyes closed. Chip didn't want to bother him. He hadn't had near enough sleep in the past few days and even a light nap would do wonders for him. Instead Chip let his mind drift to the problem at hand and whether or not his tagging along would actually help things.
Maybe Serena wouldn't feel so afraid of Lee if there were a buffer between her and him. Between himself and the admiral, Chip figured they could see to it that the two interacted but yet had enough space to retreat if things got too close.
What Chip was most trying to puzzle out was her behavior around him. She interacted with him just fine, as long as the conversation was in the context of work. Step outside that line and she changed. She was distant and short with him, and would do anything to get out of the room. It was almost as if she couldn't stand the sight of him.
Chip sighed, keeping his eyes on the road. What did he see in her? He knew the answer to that. She triggered flashes of lost memories, disjointed glimpses that didn’t fit into the memories he had. The flashes came from his time missing in Peru. He was drawn to her, hoping that somehow she was a key to unlocking what had happened to him. That and she was just different from other women he had known. She didn't grovel; she didn't pretend to be anything more than she was. She was a far cry from Vanessa.
For not the first time, Chip lamented his short-lived marriage to Vanessa Anne Case. He’d thought he was in love. She’d seemed to love him. But she couldn't seem to get it through her head that he was a man of the sea. He’d thought he had made that clear but Vanessa could never understand why he didn't get a desk job and work regular hours.
That sort of life wasn't for him. He'd known that since he was a teenager. The sea had always called to him, for reasons he could never explain. Vanessa at first thought that his job as Seaview's XO was glamorous and would work in her favor as a career booster. An actress, she was having trouble finding a steady job and was doing commercials and voice-over work when they met.
When Chip refused to request a land position, their relationship fell apart. His short-lived marriage was on the rocks and then he found out about the affair. He couldn't hire a lawyer fast enough. Vanessa moved back to L.A. Chip heard she’d eventually landed a part in one of those prime-time crime dramas. Since he didn't watch TV on a regular basis, he couldn't think of the name of the show. She had finally gotten the fame she wanted. Chip had gotten his freedom to love the oceans he was so drawn to.
How would the admiral react when he showed up with Lee? The question must have been hanging in a comic strip balloon over his head.
“He won't mind. Trust me,” Lee said sleepily. He shifted in the passenger's seat, rising up from his slouched down position.
“Mind reading now? I thought you were asleep.”
Lee shrugged. “I sleep with one eye open, you know that. And I know you. You're wondering how the admiral will like it when you show up. He won't mind. Truth be told, you need a break as bad as everybody's harping I need one. Serena will be happy to see you.”
“Lee, she shies away from me as bad as or worse than she does you. We're fine if it's business but the second the conversation strays into something personal, she has an article to edit, or a project to outline or some other convenient excuse. I don't think she likes me.”
Lee frowned. He had information to the contrary. Serena might be denying her attraction to Chip Morton but there was one person who knew Serena as well as Lee knew Chip, and Lee was currently dating her. Wendy was certain that Serena had it bad for the exec but for some reason unknown even to Wendy, Serena wasn’t admitting it.
But Lee also knew that Chip was too much of a gentleman to step into an arena where he wasn't totally wanted. Lee changed tactics.
“There must be another reason. I've seen her react around people she doesn't like. Trust me, you’d know if Serena didn’t like you. She just doesn't know you yet. She needs to get past the ‘Iceman’ exterior,” Lee teased.
Chip snorted. “This trip is about getting the two of you to work out your issues. I'm just along for the ride. Go back to sleep, Skipper.”
Lee couldn't resist. “Maybe I should stay wake and make sure you don't get us lost.”
“Just you wait, Junior,” Chip threatened with a grin. It was good to hear the humor back in his friend's voice. Over the last few weeks it had been sorely missed. Maybe this trip would turn out okay.
Overhead, the gray clouds finally gave up their hold on their cargo and the windshield was soon dotted with fat raindrops. The drops grew in frequency and what started as a sprinkle was soon a downpour. Chip flipped on the windshield wipers and focused his attention on the rain slick roads, dropping his speed back, erring on the side of caution. However, Lee wasn't quite done.
“I wonder if it's raining at the cabin,” he said.
Chip shrugged. “Who knows?”
“Might get interesting, stuck in the cabin if it's pouring rain. I know the it’s big but there are four of us. Three bedrooms. You might have to bunk up with somebody.”
An empty paper coffee cup sailed through the air to bounce off the window. Lee continued to grin but settled back into his seat, thinking. This might not be a bad trip after all.
Serena was not a morning person. Trying not to yawn, she shuffled her way to the kitchen as she tightened the belt on the green bathrobe she wore, trying to rub the sleep out of her eyes and not run into a wall. She was sill troubled by her reaction to the admiral's announcement that Lee would be joining them soon. Between that and the thunderstorms she'd gotten little sleep, finally drifting off around 5am. That gave her about two hours of sleep before habit forced her out of bed. She hated confrontations and last night was still fresh in her mind. She had acted like a spoiled teenager. Nelson had every right to bring whoever he wanted up to his cabin. She wasn't sure why she was so resentful. She liked Lee, really she did. Did she want Chip up here? Not really. What the hell was she thinking that he might see anything in her? She’d already lost one fiancée because she refused to change. Chip needed something stable in his life, not someone who jaunted from ocean to ocean, digging stuff out of the mud and muck. Maybe she'd get lucky and he'd stay home.
The magnetic draw of the scent of coffee brewing was curiously absent as she made the corner. The kitchen was empty, the coffee maker quiet. Puzzled, she moved toward the counter and began to make a fresh pot. Outside the rain continued to pour down in a steady patter-patter against the roof and windows.
As the coffee maker gurgled and bubbled, Serena wondered where her father was. Was he avoiding her? She couldn't blame him. Maybe he was already up and in the sunroom, watching the rain. A quick glance into the enclosed nook off the kitchen proved that wasn't the case.
Concerned, Serena headed back up the stairs to her father's room. She found the door closed. She tapped on the frame, calling out “Admiral,” and listened for his reply. She couldn't hear anything from the other side of the door. She gave the doorknob a quick turn and eased the door open.
She found Nelson apparently just getting out of bed, pulling on his own blue bathrobe. The curtains were still drawn, shadowing the room in a cozy blue gloom. Serena thought Nelson looked tired as he glanced at her in the doorway.
“I overslept. Blasted storm must have kept me up half the night. I was just heading for a shower,” he said, noting the worry in her eyes. She favored him with a half-smile before answering.
“I'll start breakfast then. How's French toast sound?”
“Sounds like I need to hurry up, if I want it hot,” Nelson replied. Serena ducked out of the room, pulling the door shut behind her.
She spent the next few minutes in the kitchen, happily cooking. It had been a while since she'd had the time to enjoy something so simple. She truly loved her position with the institute but she was busy more often than not and seldom actually took the time to cook a real meal anymore. Maybe when they got back she might offer to fix dinner once in a while, and have the admiral over. She might even invite Lee. Of course, she’d have to invite Chip…she quickly pushed that thought out of her head and focused on breakfast. She fixed enough French toast to hopefully put a dent in the admiral's appetite. There were plenty of ingredients to fix more if necessary.
Nelson still hadn't put in an appearance. Not too concerned, Serena took her plate into the sunroom, just off the kitchen, returning to the den for a book she'd spotted in the bookcase. It turned out to be a book by Nelson himself, one she hadn't read, on the admiral's study of growing pollution of the world’s oceans. She took the book to the table and sat, reading between bites of syrupy French toast, lulled into relaxing by the rhythm of the falling rain.
By the time Serena came back to reality she was halfway through the book. The rain was still falling in a gentle drizzle and the admiral was nowhere to be seen. Frowning, Serena left the book on the table, picked up her empty plate, and went back into the kitchen. That’s when she saw the time.
It was fully two hours since she had sat down to breakfast. Two hours since she had seen the admiral. She dropped the plate into the sink and trotted up the stairs. His bedroom door was closed, just like she had left it. She tapped at the door and like before, she got no answer. She pushed the door open, not sure what she was expecting to find. The bed was still unmade and the curtains were still drawn. The gloom that had been cozy and comforting before had now taken on an ominous feel in the wake of the missing admiral.
“Admiral?” she called out again and this time there was a long, low moan, coming from the bathroom. Serena frowned, and she moved in the direction of the sound. The bathroom door was half open and what she saw turned her stomach sour.
Nelson was on the floor of the bathroom, very still. The robe she’d seen him wearing earlier lay in a heap on the floor and the pajama top was draped over the edge of the sink. Serena dropped to her knees by his side and touched his shoulder, rolling him over. While Nelson wasn't a tall man, he was solid and stout. His mass wasn't something that Serena could simply move around.
The first thing Serena noticed was that despite his smoking and drinking habit Nelson was in fantastic shape for a man in his mid-fifties. His deep chest was marked with scars that proclaimed him a survivor of his past. She could clearly make out what could only be bullet scars on his left shoulder. From the same incident or separate encounters, she wondered. She rested a hand the juncture of his shoulder and neck, feeling the powerful muscles flex under her fingers. His was the body of a swimmer, the body of a man who was no stranger to hard work. With his smooth baritone voice and rugged looks coupled with his excellent physique it was easy to see where he got his reputation as a charmer. Serena had to remind herself that this man was her father and staring at his broad muscled chest wasn’t helping him any.
“Admiral, what's wrong?” she asked, feeling for a pulse and realizing Nelson was burning up with a fever. His next words confirmed something wasn’t right.
“Too hot in here…” he mumbled. Shaking her head at the stubbornness of retired admirals, Serena got an arm under his shoulders. She had to get him back into bed but short of dragging him, there was no way she could manhandle him off the floor.
“Admiral…Dad, you need to be in bed. Come on, work with me here,” she urged. Nelson wavered dizzily, leaning against Serena for support. Slowly he staggered to his feet and with Serena to guide him, made his unsteady way back to the bed. He sat down heavily and glared up at her with sullen blue eyes.
“Young lady, I do not need a nurse,” he grumbled but Serena continued her fussing.
“No,” she replied tartly, “What you need is a keeper. Is there some kind of contest between you, Lee, and Chip that I'm not aware of? Or did you just get jealous that they had a few days in Med Bay and you had to spend time in your office?” Nelson was being stubborn and refused to lie back down. “Dad, you’re burning up. Lie back down and just rest, please,” she urged.
Nelson sighed deeply and finally relented. “If it makes you happy,” he grumbled and settled in as Serena pulled the covers up over him. She draped the back of her hand over his forehead, concerned about his temperature.
“It makes me deliriously happy. How long have you been running a fever?”
“Taking lessons from my medical staff now?” Nelson grumbled but Serena wasn’t sidetracked and stated as much.
“Stop trying to change the subject. Have you taken anything?”
“Serena, stop fussing. I’ll be fine in a few hours. I just need to sleep it off,” he groused, closing his eyes.
Serena rolled her eyes. Were all men this stubborn or was it something inherent with the number of stars one had to their name? “You have a fever, you’re not hung-over. There is a difference.”
Nelson chuckled. “Let your old man sleep. I’ll be fine in a few hours…I’ll help with dinner…” Nelson’s voice trailed off as he drifted into sleep. Serena perched on the edge of the mattress, a little unsure of how to proceed. In all honesty he was probably right. If he was coming down with something, the best thing she could do would be to let him rest and make sure he got plenty of fluids. Carefully, so that she didn’t disturb him, Serena eased off the bed and made a quick detour to her room for a change of clothes.
Ready to tackle the rest of the day in a paint-splattered t-shirt and worn jeans with the left knee blown out, Serena set about to cleaning up the kitchen. With regret she tossed out the now congealed mess of her father’s forgotten breakfast and the cold coffee left in the carafe. Once the dishes were cleaned and put away she inventoried the huge pantry, wondering who had lain in the supplies. They hadn’t brought all that much with them. The cabin must have a caretaker or something for when Nelson wasn’t using it. The pantry contained much more than just food. She found several large, fat white candles in a box in the corner, batteries of every cell size and a number of flashlights stowed away neatly. She’d have to remember those if she needed them in the future.
She found several cans of soup in the pantry. Setting two of them aside on the counter, she decided that she’d fix those for lunch and see how much she could get her father to eat. With the kitchen cleaned up she poured herself a glass of juice, thinking hopefully that would kill the tickle in the back of her throat. She retrieved her book from the sunroom and moved into the den. Serena looked around, thinking surely there was a radio somewhere. The man had an encyclopedia of inventions and books to his name; surely he had something as common as an average radio somewhere.
After fifteen minutes of poking and nosing around, she finally found a small portable unit on the bottom shelf of the bookcase. Finding a handy wall socket, she plugged the little radio in and spent the next few minutes slowly cycling through various stations. Serena discovered rather quickly why the radio sat quietly and untouched on the bottom shelf. This far out, there was virtually no reception. The cabin was tucked snugly into a valley and any radio signals probably sailed merry over their heads. With a sigh Serena finally gave up and replaced the unit where she had found it.
Nothing wrong with the quiet, she thought. She picked a nice cozy corner of the couch and settled in to finish off the book. The juice went a long way to tame the itchy tickle in her throat. As she read, the rain outside continued to patter against the roof. Serena paid little attention as the rain slowly picked up in intensity. She also chose to ignore the sense of tiredness that was slowly creeping up on her. Without realizing it she closed her eyes and drifted off into sleep as the rain continued to pound outside.
“Flash flood watches and warnings continue into the evening hours with no end in sight for the next twenty four hours at least. This is the day to stay home and certainly not a day to be at the beach…” The voice coming out of the radio was cut off as Lee reached over and switched the radio off.
“I don’t like all this rain. That cabin sits in a valley on the side of the lake. We could get flooded out if it doesn’t let up soon,” Lee grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest and staring out the passenger’s side window
Chip was still driving. They had stopped a few times for a quick break but Chip hadn’t surrendered the keys and he certainly wasn’t about to let Crane behind the wheel. They were only about an hour away at this point and Chip was determined to get there before dark. The prospect of unloading their gear in the dark AND pouring rain wasn’t one Chip looked forward to. He flicked a quick glance over to the scowling, dark haired man in the seat beside him.
“The admiral built that cabin past the highest flood mark he could find on record. The most that’s likely to happen is the boat dock will go under. Stop worrying.”
“It’s my job to worry about him,” Lee replied sourly.
Chip snorted. “No,” he corrected, “it’s your job to worry about the BOAT. Let Serena worry about the admiral for a little while. She needs the practice. Lee, I know you and the admiral are close but you can’t be responsible for watching after his every move.”
Lee turned his attention from the scenery to the blond driver. “Say that again and remind me why I’m here and you’re driving?”
This time Chip grinned but didn’t take his eyes off the road. “Because I am doing my job: looking after my skipper. Come on Lee, admit it, you’re looking forward to this.”
Lee shrugged. “Maybe, in a way I guess. I just don’t like being forced into doing something.”
“Even if it means helping a friend? This is as much for you as her.”
“But is it helping her? She has no idea we’re coming, and when I show up, she’s going to freak. Chip, you weren’t there. She’s terrified of me, and I didn’t do anything to her!”
“And you’re going to convince her you don’t bite. Much,” Chip said. Whatever else he was about to say next was lost as he hit the brake. A long line of cars ahead of him signaled something wasn't right. Lee pulled himself out of his slouch and peered ahead.
“A wreck maybe?” he asked. Chip didn't answer but shut the engine down and pocketed the keys.
“You get to car-sit. Be right back,” Chip replied and before Lee could reply, Morton had slid out of the truck and shut the door behind him. Chip darted up the road through the rain—which had slacked off to a fine drizzle—and vanished in front of several cars.
Lee glanced down at his watch, and then turned to look behind him. The road was dark and empty. He slouched back down, waiting for Morton to come back. He didn't have long to wait. The blond came jogging back up the road before Lee could get comfortable. For a split second Lee had the incredible urge to lock the door but since Morton had the keys, it would be pointless.
Chip slid back into the truck, a little more damp than when he left. “The road's underwater. Might be a while before the waters recede enough to let traffic through. I'm going around.”
Lee sat back up as Morton started the truck back up and shifted into reverse. Making a U-turn, Chip turned the SUV around and headed back in the direction they came. Lee clearly wasn't happy. Chip felt the glare and he turned to glance at his friend. Lee was staring a hole in the side of his head.
“What? You have any better ideas? We can't wait here four or five hours till the water goes down,” Chip reasoned.
“It's another hour if we go this way,” countered Lee.
“One hour beats the hell out of five. Look, I'm not happy about it either,” Chip said. “I’m sure everything is fine. The admiral's not expecting you this early anyhow. It just gives him and Serena a little more time.”
Lee slouched back down and braced a knee against the dashboard. “You realize the admiral is probably telling her a hundred stories about us?”
“About you maybe. I know how to stay out of trouble.”
Lee couldn't stop the snort of laughter. “Oh you do? Well, you won't mind it when I tell Serena about the time you were three-sheets to the wind, on duty, in the Control Room,” he challenged.
“That was nitrogen narcosis, I was not drunk, and don’t you dare tell her that!” Chip sputtered as Lee continued to smirk.
The next hour was spent much the same. Chip threatened to trot out one embarrassing story about Lee and Crane would counter with a story of his own. By mutual agreement, they decided that stories about the admiral would be left alone. He had dirt on the both of them dating back to their academy days and Nelson was known to play nasty if he had to.
Chip pulled the SUV to a halt at the foot of the bridge. Both men stared at the swirling miasma of dark muddy water rushing under the bridge, all conversation forgotten. Waves broke over the side barriers, washing across the road. Debris and driftwood cluttered the road's surface.
“Damn,” Lee whispered. The power of water was something no sailor ever underestimated. This bridge was far from safe but it was their only link to the road that would take them to Nelson's cabin. Lee spared a quick glance toward Chip, grasping the steering wheel in a two-fisted, white-knuckle grip.
“Copy that…” Chip replied, his voice trailing off as he stared at the nightmare in the making. Glancing up stream, both Lee and Chip could see a massive mat of debris being pushed along, rising and falling with the current. The water level on the road was rising even as they watched.
“Shit,” swore the blond, and he slammed the SUV into drive. He drove his foot into the gas pedal and the green and gray vehicle jerked forward, over the wooden bridge. With one eye on the one-lane bridge and one eye on the oncoming mass of debris Chip pushed the Jeep farther and farther on the bridge. Lee's fingers clutched at the dash, his whole body tense as the Jeep plowed through rising floodwaters. The road was covered, but Chip drove on, tires crunching over debris.
With a glance to the side Chip realized he wasn't going to beat the dangerous pile of rubble heading for the bridge. “Hold on,” he said grimly, hands tight on the wheel. Lee held onto the dash with one hand, the other tightening around his seat belt. Already the bridge was shuddering under the oncoming force of the torrent of wild water.
The logjam hit the bridge with the force of a battering ram. The bridge convulsed under the impact and Chip gunned the engine. The Jeep shot forward as if kicked. In the rear view mirror, Lee watched the far end of the bridge rip away from its mooring on the opposite bank.
“Ah, Chip...” Lee's voice cracked and trailed off as the timbers ripped free, the sound like thunder over the roar of the rushing water and drone of the engine. The Jeep was rocked to the side with the massive power of the floodwaters obliterating all obstacles before it.
Chip practically stood on the gas pedal. The tires spun for a second before they found traction and the Jeep trembled under the strain. The water was up to the wheel wells and both men could feel the SUV losing traction. 'Come on, come on, come on...” Chip's mantra was barely audible as the bridge wobbled under the force of the onrushing water and debris. Lee felt his heart stop as the bridge began to collapse, practically under their wheels.
They hit the opposite bank and for a gut-wrenching second, the back end of the powerful Jeep seemed to hang over the disintegrating bridge. Then as if buoyed by the power of prayer, the tires found traction and the Jeep levered up to solid ground.
Chip shifted down into park and sat behind the wheel, shaking, his fingers white from their grip on the wheel. “Lee?' he asked with a tremor in his deep voice.
“Yeah?” Lee's own voice quivered with something as he stared behind him at the frothing, debris filled river. The bridge was gone, completely and utterly destroyed.
“Remind me, I don't do my own stunt work,” Chip said flatly.
“You and me both, pal. You and me both.”
Without another word Chip shifted into drive and headed for the cabin at a more sedate pace.
The sudden crash of thunder jolted Serena awake. With a jolt she shot off the couch, the book landing on the floor with a thump. For a second, the young woman had trouble remembering what was going on and just where she was. She could have sworn the lights flickered, dimmed and nearly went out. Then as suddenly as they flickered, the lights recovered and stayed lit.
Dad's cabin...I must have fallen asleep. Groggily she rubbed at her eyes, and bent down to pick the book up.
The dizziness that caught up with her sent her to her knees, clutching the edge of the couch in an effort to keep from falling over. Blackness licked at the edges of her vision and she took a few deep breaths to try and get herself under control. When she was finally able to get to her feet, it was with the admission that she wasn't feeling too good. The cabin seemed cold to her and she chaffed her arms with both hands. A glance at the clock made her take a mental step backwards. It was well past five o'clock. She had totally forgotten about lunch. She staggered her way toward the kitchen and then stopped, remembering Nelson.
She spun around, a little too fast. She was dizzy again and she couldn't stop the cough from burbling up. She leaned against the wall as she tried to control herself, finally stopping and gasping for air. Deep in her chest she could feel the first stirrings of a rattle. She ignored it and plowed up the stairs to Nelson's bedroom.
She found her father in bed where she had left him. She sat down by his side and rested her hand across his forehead again. He was still too warm to suit her.
“Dad? Can you hear me? Wake up for me, please,” she coaxed. One fever-bright blue eye opened, focused on her then slowly closed.
“Is it dinner time already?” he muttered. Serena had to smile. At least he was coherent.
“If you're hungry, I think we can manage something. Just rest and I'll bring you some soup, okay?” She brushed a stray tendril of his auburn hair out of his eyes. Only then did she realize she had the exact same hair color as him...why hadn't she noticed it before? There were so many things about him that she just never paid attention to before. Close to him like this, the similarities between him and her were obvious. The same shape of the eyes, even if the eye color was radically different. They had the same shape of the nose, the same cast of the ears. She had never really noticed it before but somehow this time it was hard to ignore.
“Not so much hungry as thirsty,” came Nelson's thick reply, pulling her out of her thoughts.
“I can remedy both. Be right back,” She got to her feet, a little slower this time and the dizziness didn't launch a sneak attack like before.
Serena made her way to the kitchen and set to work warming up one of the cans of soup she'd set aside. She found some onion power and garlic and did her best to try and liven up the drab canned soup. A little extra garlic never hurt anyone. With a mug of warm chicken noodle soup and a glass of apple juice, Serena made her way back to Nelson's room. She was glad to see he was still in bed. It didn't look like he had tried to move.
She eased down on the edge of his bed, setting the mug and glass on the bedside table. She wondered if she should try and get some aspirin down him but she wasn’t sure how many he might have already had. “Dad, I bought you something to drink. Think you can sit up if I help you?”
Nelson's eyes parted, blue slits peering up at her. “I can sit up on my own, young lady,” he said.
“Of course you can. Come on then, up with you. You can't drink this lying down.”
The effort cost him but Nelson pulled himself into a sitting position. He didn't realize until he was leaning against the headboard that Serena had her arm around his shoulders, balancing him. He didn't argue with her. Quite frankly, he was dizzy as hell and if it weren't for her anchoring him, Nelson felt he would probably have tilted over. He felt Serena's hands on his, closing his fingers around a warm mug of something. She guided his hand up to his lips and slowly he tilted the cup back.
The soup was warm and soothing on his throat, raw from coughing. He could feel the thick broth sliding down his throat and into his stomach. Despite having told her otherwise, he was actually hungry. Nelson continued to sip at the broth, feeling Serena holding him up.
“How are you feeling?” she asked. For the first time, Nelson really noticed her voice, a meld of accents almost, not really southern but lacking the inflections of a more northern accent. He took a deep breath; a cough climbed out of his throat and he was unable to stop it. Serena held him as he was wracked from within. Finally the spasm subsided.
“Better?” she asked. Nelson nodded.
“A bit. You don't have to baby-sit me,” he replied.
“No, I don't. But I'm here and you're obviously ill. Jamie will have my hide if I don't see you take care of yourself. Now; any ideas what brought this on?
Nelson continued to sip at the broth. “I dropped my lighter,” he said.
“There has to be more to this story. Dropping a lighter does not send one into a full-fledged case of pneumonia,” Serena urged. She gently tugged the cup away from her father and Nelson glared at her.
“I do not have pneumonia. You are a horrible daughter, you know that?”
Serena smothered a grin. “Flattery will get you nowhere. Now what happened to make you so sick?”
“I dropped my lighter and when I went after it, I slipped into the creek,” Nelson replied sheepishly.
Serena sighed. “I suppose you aspirated nasty creek water then.”
Nelson snorted, erupting into another spasm of coughing. Serena held him close as he battled to control himself. The effort left him weak and shaking. “Not so much. I'll be fine in a while. Tell Lee, when he gets here, so he won't worry so much.” Nelson's voice was getting weaker and slumped against Serena for support. She could feel him slipping deeper into sleep and gently eased him off her shoulder, settling him back under the covers. He mumbled something she couldn’t quite make out. Serena paused, listening.
“He’s like my son…worries more about me…than himself…” he muttered. He had to be talking about Lee. Serena felt a touch of jealousy once more. Lee knew her father better than she did. It just wasn’t fair.
“Go back to sleep, Dad,” she urged. She pulled the covers up over his shoulders and stepped back as a chill crawled up her own spine. She couldn’t understand why she was so cold all of a sudden.
Shaking her head, she staggered back into the kitchen and dropped the empty mug into the sink. She busied herself cleaning up, throwing the empty soup can away and cleaning the handful of dishes now in the sink. She continued to fight cold chills and dizziness. Turning off the kitchen lights, she moved to the den and contemplated the fireplace. If she could make a fire maybe she wouldn’t feel so cold.
That decided it for her. There was a substantial amount of firewood stacked in the corner and Serena grabbed several logs, building a foundation for a fire. Shortly she had a fire going, and settled back as the warmth began to seep through the room. Okay, that was done, what next? Lee was coming but when? Was he on his way? Could she catch him before he left and tell him Nelson was ill? Then Lee could get with Jamie and maybe suggest better treatment or better yet, arrange for Nelson to go back to Med Bay. Since there was no phone in the cabin, that left her few options. Doing her best to ignore the growing ache in her ears, Serena made her way back to her bedroom, searching for her purse, forgotten in a chair. She dug the cell phone out and smothered a moan as the phone registered no service. Nelson had a cell phone...she's seen it on the dresser. Launching to her feet and ignoring the rattle in her lungs, Serena went back to Nelson's room, finding the cell phone on the dresser just like she remembered seeing it. But his also had no service. So how did Nelson get information out? Surely he was too canny to seclude himself without a way to contact anyone. But she hadn't seen anything looking like a shortwave anywhere in the cabin.
She walked back to the den, deep in thought. If she were the admiral, where would she hide a shortwave radio? There were shelves full of books but nothing to indicate a shortwave.
Serena collapsed on the couch, giving in to a fit of coughing. Feeling exhausted she leaned back, trying to puzzle out her next move. One thing was certain; her first priority was Nelson. She needed to keep an eye on him and make sure he kept the fever down. There was nobody else who could protect him. There had to be a shortwave somewhere in the cabin, she just had to find it. She was an archaeologist; she had found things that had been lost for hundreds of years or more. She shouldn’t have a problem finding one measly shortwave radio.
I'll just set here for a minute she thought and closed her eyes, thinking only to rest a few minutes. It was difficult to take a deep breath. The tightness around her chest and the rattle in her lungs was getting worse. There was a pressure in her left ear and she had odd crackling and popping sounds when she swallowed. She was still chilled, and could feel goose bumps rising up over her arms and neck. Curling up on the couch, she promised herself it was just for a few minutes. Serena drifted off the sleep, worn down by the worsening symptoms of a growing respiratory infection.
The first thing she noticed as she awoke was the hammering in her head and the aching in her muscles. She tried to bring her hands up to cradle her pounding skull and felt the panic blossom in her gut. Her hands were tied behind her back and she couldn’t move her arms. She heard soft laughter and with her heart pounding in her chest, she jerked her head up to see Lee staring down at her with a leering, oily smile. She started to snarl what she thought of him and only then did it dawn on her she’d been gagged. She writhed in the trunk of the small car, trying to lever herself up.
“You think you’re going somewhere, little tramp? Don’t bet on it. I’ve got plans for you, little slut. I can’t wait to tell your old man. He’s next, you know. Just imagine the look on his face when I tell him what I did to you. With Morton dead and you out of the picture and by the very man he thinks of as a son! What a glorious sight when I put a bullet in his head!” he laughed as Serena felt her breath quicken, feeling the first stirrings of terror blossoming in her gut.
Then Lee slammed the trunk shut. Trapped, the darkness closing in on her, the stifling heat sent her hyperventilating. With panic clawing at her gut she felt herself slipping away as blackness creeped in on her.
A crescendo of thunder jolted Serena awake, the nightmare in tatters as she tried to catch her breath. Her chest was tight with the effort of breathing and the rattle as fluid shifted was audible even to Serena at this point. She was burning up and the room seemed to spin, even though she was standing still.
Something that sounded like a car door slammed shut. Shaking, she took a step forward then darted for the door. She hit the deadbolt and backed hesitantly away. Trembling violently, she swallowed down a tight ball of fear, the nightmare still fresh in her mind. She didn’t know who was out there but they weren’t getting in. Something Nelson had said about Lee tickled her memory. Nelson had invited him up to the cabin—that was it.
But that didn’t make sense. Lee wanted to kill Nelson…he said so. Serena pulled her courage together, determined to not let anyone near her father. She wouldn’t let somebody hurt him. She spun around, clutching at the couch arm for balance as the room continued to spin. She spotted the black, wrought iron poker in the rack next to the fireplace. She grabbed it up, testing the weight in her hands. Armed, Serena up the steps to her father’s bedroom, making a quick check on him. He was still asleep but restless.
“Dad—Admiral, can you hear me?” she asked, her own voice hoarse in her ears. The sound of her voice was enough to start up a new pounding in her head. She shook her father, trying to bring him around but he was unresponsive. She could hear voices now, in the den. They’d gotten around the locked door and were in the house. It sounded like Lee. Mason had sounded like Lee, had looked just like Lee. Mason wanted to kill Nelson, and she couldn’t let that happen.
Gripping the fireplace poker in a tight single-handed grip, Serena darted for the door as fast as her balance and waffling vision would allow. She wouldn’t let Mason hurt anyone anymore.
It was still pouring rain again and lightning cut through the dark sky as they pulled the Jeep up beside the car Nelson had driven up. As Chip shut off the engine, both men sat in the quiet, listening to the pounding of the rain on the roof of the truck.
“Where are they?” Lee queried, watching the still cabin. There was no motion, no sign that anybody was inside.
“Well, we're not going to find out by sitting here. Come on, let's brave the elements.”
In tandem, both men slid out of the Jeep and grabbed their bags from the back seat. Hunched against the pouring rain, they pounded up the redwood staircase and onto the relatively drier covered porch.
Lee grabbed the door handle and twisted, stopping short as Chip nearly ran over him.
“It's locked!” Lee exclaimed.
“Okay, that makes no sense...” Chip trailed off as Lee pulled his key ring from his pocket and sorted through various keys until he found the one he wanted. With a click Lee had the door unlocked and both damp officers stumbled into the drier and warmer cabin.
It was quiet. Lee and Chip dropped their bags onto the floor, taking a good look around.
“Admiral? Serena?” Lee called out, waiting. There was no answer.
“Lee, I don't like this,” Chip said slowly, automatically falling two paces behind Lee as Crane stepped into the den. A fire crackled merrily in the big riverstone fireplace, chasing away the damp.
Chip, with his expert eye for detail and near photographic memory, was the first to notice that the black, wrought iron poker was missing from the set. The small ash brush and the shovel were there but the poker was gone. When he mentioned it to Lee, the dark-haired young man could only shrug.
“How should I know? We just got here,” he complained. “I'll check the upstairs. Maybe they're asleep or something. You check down here, just to be sure.”
The two split up, Lee heading up the stairs as Chip backtracked to the kitchen. The firelight from the den illuminated the lower half of the stairwell, deepening the shadows and creating an ominous atmosphere. As Lee neared the room the admiral usually claimed, a haggard looking figure darted out and slammed the door shut. Serena glared at him, her back braced against the door jam, the black iron poker from the fireplace clutched in a two-handed grip like a sword, with the point aimed directly at Lee.
Her green eyes glittered with the heat of a fever as she trembled, blocking the entrance to Nelson's room. In the flicking, diffused light from the fireplace downstairs, she looked disheveled and the dark circles under her eyes, like bruises, stood out in sharp relief against her pale skin. Serena was obviously a very sick young lady but it didn't stop her from trying to protect her father. Lee swallowed back the bile rising in his throat, seeing the terror in her eyes swim to the surface once more.
“You stay away from him. I won't let you hurt him,” she said, her voice hoarse and rough.
Lee raised his hands to show he wasn't armed. “Serena, I'm not going to hurt anyone. I'm just trying to help. Where’s the admiral?” Lee asked cautiously.
A shudder ran through Serena’s body and the iron rod wavered a second. Lee almost made a lunge for her but Serena steadied, glaring at him. There was no doubt that Lee could wrestle the instrument out of her hands but, in her state of mind, he risked breaking whatever trust he had hoped to build in her.
“You tried that once before. I’m not falling for it again.” Another tremor shook her just as Chip came up the stairs.
“Lee, you do know how to make an impression,” Chip said quietly as Serena focused glazed green eyes on him.
“Chip?” she whispered, her eyes darting from Lee back to Chip. “But you’re dead. Lee said…Mason said he’d killed you.”
“No, sweetheart, I’m not dead. I’m fine, see?” Chip took a slow step forward so Serena could get a full look at him. Thankfully the injuries he was still recovering from were tactfully hidden under his clothes. She shook with the effort of staying on her feet. Chip thought quickly, trying to come up with something she would believe.
“Mason is dead. He’s not going to hurt you or the admiral. This isn’t Mason, it’s Lee. You know Lee. You know me. Now, put the poker down, honey. We just want to help you and the admiral. But you have to put the poker down first.”
“You’re really Chip? He’s really Lee? He’s not pretending?” Serena’s voice shook as she spoke.
“I swear to you, it’s really us. The man that pretended to be Lee is dead. Please, you have to believe us. ” Chip's voice was calm and quieting as he spoke. Serena focused on him and blinked.
Lee took a step forward with an outstretched hand. “Chip wouldn’t lie to you. You know that. Have Chip or I ever lied to you?”
Serena’s voice wavered. “No, you’ve never lied…to me…”
“Lee, catch her!” Chip’s shout galvanized Lee into action. Serena’s eyes rolled into the back of her head and she went limp. Lee had just enough time to grab her around the waist before she completely collapsed. The fireplace poker slipped from her nerveless fingers and bounced harmlessly on the hardwood floor.
“Chip, she’s burning up.” Lee said as he lifted her off her feet. Lee carried her down the hall to the first room he came to and gently settled her down on the bed. The heat seemed to pour from her frail body, wracked by shivers and muscle spasms.
“Lee, the admiral’s in the same condition,” Chip said from the doorway, his blue eyes dark and cloudy with worry.
Lee darted past the blond as he bolted toward the room Serena had been guarding. He paused at the doorway just long enough to glance behind him. “Look after her,” he tossed toward Morton as he headed into Nelson’s room. He found the older man in bed, mumbling incoherently as he tossed his head back and forth.
“Admiral? Sir, it’s me. It’s Lee, can you hear me?” Lee was shocked at the condition Nelson was in. Like Serena, the heat radiated from Nelson’s stocky frame like a generator. He didn’t seem to hear Lee as he tossed, muttering snatches of incoherent phrases, some in English, and others in languages Lee couldn't identify, much less translate. One thing Lee did know: the admiral's temperature was way too high and they needed to do something to bring it down.
Lee shed his leather jacket and tossed it onto a nearby chair. Next he eased down beside the admiral, draping the back of his hand over Nelson's forehead. Lee frowned. Where the hell had this fever come from? He was fine before they left the institute.
“Sir? Admiral, can you hear me? It's Lee,” Lee tried again. The admiral tossed fitfully, his breath coming in ragged gasps. He seemed to claw for air. Listening, Lee could hear the rattle as fluid shifted and burbled in Nelson's lungs. A respiratory ailment? The flu? Pneumonia? Did Serena have the same thing? Was it contagious?
Lee made his way to the bathroom, retrieving a washrag from the towel rack and soaking it in cool water from the tap. He found a glass on the counter and in the cabinet he found a bottle of aspirin. He shook two tablets into the glass then filled the glass about a quarter of the way full of water, enough to dissolve the tablets. He came back and sank down by Nelson’s side, gently washing the sweat and heat away from Nelson’s face, neck and exposed chest. The older man hadn’t shaved in a least a day and his jaw was covered with thick stubble. Somehow it only added to the character of Nelson’s craggy features. Lee paused, seeing the small, faded bullet scar. A scar Nelson wore because of him, the result of another experiment gone wrong3. He slid his arm under Nelson’s shoulders, rising the older man up enough so Lee could get the glass to his lips. The admiral obligingly drank enough of the mixture to make Lee happy. Gently he lowered Nelson back to the mattress.
Lee repeated his actions and Nelson seemed to calm, stopping his restless tossing and incoherent mumbling. Lee folded the now warm damp washcloth on the nightstand and took a deep breath.
There were a million things to do. They could get a message out to the institute using the shortwave. Sharkey or Kowalski could bring Jamie up in FS1 as soon as they had a break in the weather and they could fly the admiral and Serena back to Med Bay where they belonged.
With that goal in mind Lee cast one brief glance towards his employer, resting quietly for the moment. Time to get the shortwave up and running and summon the cavalry.
Serena was muttering something in her fevered state, something that Chip couldn’t make out. She was agitated and Chip somehow had to calm her down so she would rest. Gently, he rested the back of his hand across her forehead, pushing an errant lock of hair away from her eyes. She was burning up with fever.
He went to the bathroom and came back with a cool, damp washrag and a thermometer. He slipped the slender tool between her slightly parted lips, hoping for a quick reading. Gently, he washed away the sweat beading up on her forehead; drawing the cool cloth around her exposed neck and chin then across her bare arms. As he worked, Chip began to talk to her, trying to calm her down. He could reach Lee when he was sick and feverish, maybe he could reach through to Serena.
“Everything’s okay now. Just relax and let us take care of everything. You did great with the admiral; now just settle down. Let Lee and me take care of you now,” he said. He pulled the thermometer out, holding the instrument up to the light. 103 degrees. Chip swore under his breath and set the thermometer aside. He ran the washcloth over her forehead and neck again, noticing the tiny little details he’d never paid attention to before. The way a stray tendril of hair curled in the opposite direction as the rest of her auburn locks, as if it had a mind of its own. The color of her eyelashes, the way her nose was slightly freckled, the collection of tiny scars on her neck. How would she react to him if she were aware of what he was doing? He didn’t mind taking care of her. He really wanted to just gather her up and hold her, to make her see no one was going to hurt her. Poor girl, she’d already been through so much and now this.
Serena slowly seemed to calm down, her breathing eased and she stopped her restless tossing. Her meaningless mutterings grew less and less until she finally grew quiet. She was still warm though and Chip figured she’d get agitated again before her fever broke.
What on earth was wrong with her? She sounded congested and she seemed to be having trouble breathing. That, coupled with the fever, seemed to indicate an infection but where had she gotten it? A sound from the doorway pulled Chip’s attention away from the young woman.
“How is she?” Lee asked
Chip glanced back at Serena. “Running a fever. Agitated but she’s calmed down for the minute.”
Lee nodded. “Before you ask, the shortwave is fried. Toasted the surge protector. I was going to ask you if there might be anything you could do with it. You’re better at that stuff than me.”
Chip growled something unpleasant under his breath. “I’ll look at it but I can’t promise anything. Can’t hurt to make an effort though. How’s the admiral?”
“Feverish—like Serena. I got him calmed down but he—they—need to be in a hospital. We need Jamie and the one time I need him, I can’t get to him.” The frustration made itself clear as Lee ground out the final words of that last sentence.
“Easy, Lee. We’ll get them some help. Think you can keep an eye on them both while I tackle the shortwave?”
Lee nodded. Chip stood up, feeling cramped muscles protest from hours of driving.
“Has she come around?” Lee asked. Chip shook his head.
“No. She’s pretty well out of it. I don’t even know if she’ll remember. She was just trying to protect the admiral. She thought you were Mason.”
Lee’s eyes were clouded with shadows. “I know,” he began softly. Chip heard the words but he knew Lee was having a hard time believing them.
“Lee, listen to me. Mason tormented you with what he was going to do to you and her. What do you think she went through? What did he say to her? We might never know but whatever it was, she needs to know that you aren’t going to hurt her now. You have to stay with her and make her see that. She won’t give me the time of day but you still stand a chance of reaching her.” Chip’s words were like a slap in the face to Lee and he jerked up, a spark of something in his eyes.
“Damn Mason. If the admiral hadn’t shot him I’d like to…” Lee’s words trailed off as Serena began coughing again. Chip grabbed Lee by the shoulder.
“I know. Watch after her. You can get through to her--I know you can. So does the admiral, else he would never have suggested you come up here. I’ll check on that shortwave.” Chip gave Lee’s shoulder a squeeze and, with a quick glance back to Serena, he made a hasty exit.
Lee eased down into the edge of the bed, his hands clasped tightly in his lap. Serena hated him, she couldn’t look him in the eye, and she couldn’t stand to be around him. Damn Mason, what the hell did he do to her?
“Serena?” Lee called out softly to her, not expecting an answer but hoping somehow that she heard him. “I’m not going to hurt you, you have to understand that. Mason is the one who hurt you before and he’s dead. He’s not coming back and he’s not going to hurt anyone again. Not you, not the admiral. I’m not Mason.”
One green eye opened to a mere slit. Slowly the other eye opened and two green slivers blinked at him.
“Lee?” her voice was rough and raspy from coughing. Lee smiled reassuringly.
“You remember me?” he asked.
“When did you get here?” she muttered. Chip was right. She didn’t remember. It was just as well.
“Little while ago. Just take it easy. Think you can manage to eat something? Maybe some soup?”
“Not really hungry. Go…ch-check on Dad.”
Dad? She's calling him Dad now? “He’s fine. You need to eat something. I’ll be back with something you and the admiral can handle.”
That’s the moment the power chose to fail. Everything was bathed in blackness and there was a strangled gasp as Serena noticed the darkness.
“It’s okay, just a power outage. We have a generator. Won’t take a minute to get it up and running. Chip’s probably already checking on it. Settle down,” Lee soothed, “There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“You promise the power will come back on?” the question made her sound like a small frightened child rather than an adult. Lee tried to be reassuring.
“Any minute now. All Chip has to do is get the unit started and we can have lights. We’ve got plenty of candles and battery-powered lanterns if something happens and he can’t get it started up. Chip’s not crazy about the dark either, trust me. He’ll get the lights back on.” Lee’s words were like a prophecy. It took a few minutes but finally there was an audible click throughout the cabin and the light flared to life. Lee was surprised to see the abject look of terror in Serena’s eyes but this time the terror didn’t seem to be directed at Lee. Slowly the fear faded as the lights stayed on.
“See?” Lee encouraged, “it’s the reason I let Chip tag along. He’s a useful kind of guy. Stay here and I’ll be right back.”
Not waiting for an answer, Lee left the younger woman to rest and made his way downstairs. As he entered the kitchen, he caught a glimpse of a thoroughly wet and bedraggled Chip Morton standing just inside the back door. His blond hair was dark with the rainwater now dripping onto his broad chest and shoulders. Chip glanced up through wet bangs, water dripping off his eyelashes as he struggled with the wet denim jacket. It landed with a splat on the floor. Next he grabbed the bottom of his blue polo shirt and pulled the wet material over his head, dropping it into the same heap as the jacket, all the while heeling out of his drenched shoes. Goosebumps were starting to jump to attention over his bare arms and chest. He pulled his belt free of the loops and unbuttoned his jeans. His left arm was still stiff, the scar from Mason's bullet still healing.
“Look, it’s a soggy Chip,” Lee teased with a grin.
Chip scowled as he dropped into the nearest chair and started to pull his socks off. “A towel would be nice right about now,” he groused as he ran a hand through his wet hair, pushing blond locks out of his eyes. Lee vanished into the small laundry room just off the kitchen and came back with two big beach towels. Chip grabbed one and did his best to dry his hair then draped the towel across his shoulders. Next he concentrated on his jeans. Wet denim didn’t give up without a fight.
Lee couldn’t stop himself. “My kingdom for a camera. The crew would never believe this, you looking like a drowned rat,” he smarted off as Chip fought with the thick material. He managed to work the waistband down to his knees then grab one cuff at a time, peeling the blue denim off his long legs.
“You want another wet sock lobbed at you, boy?” Chip growled.
“No thanks. Wet, stinky sock up the side of my head would put a damper on my vacation. Everything okay with the generator?”
Chip tossed his liberated jeans and briefs into the pile of clothes on the floor and wrapped the second towel around his narrow waist. He stood up, the scar on his side where Mason’s second attempt to kill him had plowed through very visible against his peach-toned skin. “Everything’s fine. Started up like a charm. We’ve got plenty of gas so we shouldn’t have to worry about it for twelve hours at least. ” A violent shiver coursed through Chip’s body, rattling his teeth. He gripped the towel around his shoulders, pulling it closer around him as he tried to stave off the encroaching chill.
Lee noticed the shiver and pointed down the hall. “Den. Now. Get warmed up and find some dry clothes. I don’t need you to come down with something as well,” he ordered. Chip pulled the towel tighter around his shoulders and left Lee alone in the kitchen as he plodded off to the den. Lee gathered up Chip’s wet pile of clothes and carried them into the laundry room. He dumped the pile on top the dryer, promising to get to them later, and went back to the kitchen.
Lee surveyed the cans of soup on the counter. It looked like Serena had planned ahead, pulling a few cans of chicken noodle and some cream of chicken. Lee then noticed the lidded pot sitting on the stove. Figuring it hadn’t been sitting there very long, he switched on the burner to warm it up. He stirred the soup as it warmed, noticing it didn’t quite smell like canned chicken soup. The jars of onion powder and chopped garlic caught his attention. Serena must have doctored the soup, adding a little extra to help the taste along. Chip did the same thing, saying that canned soup tasted bland. She could have picked up the trick from Wendy. Lee tested the now hot broth and found it wasn’t half bad then set the pot on a cool burner. He pulled two mugs from the cabinet and ladled soup into each mug. He’d try to get the admiral to eat something as well.
He passed the den, seeing Chip re-dressed in dry jeans and a new tee shirt. “There’s warm soup in the kitchen. Serena seems to have borrowed your trick and doctored it up with garlic already.”
“Thanks, I’ll get some in a minute,” Chip said distractedly, his attention focused on the collection of wires and circuits spread out in front of him. Lee knew if he didn’t remind him, Chip would forget all about food while he focused on trying to fix their link with the outside world. Chip was the first to harass his skipper into eating. The problem was, when faced with a similar situation, Chip was just as likely to overlook things like food and sleep till the job was done.
Lee headed upstairs, making a quick check on Nelson first. He was sleeping, still feverish but not as restless as he was earlier. Lee sat one mug on the table beside the bed. He let the older man sleep, loath to wake him just yet. He’d check back once he had Serena taken care of.
Lee made his way down the dark hallway to Serena’s room. He shouldn’t have been surprised to find his boss’s stubborn daughter out of bed and trying her best to make it across the floor. She had a bundle of clothes clutched to her and she was trying to stay on her feet, clutching at the dresser for support.
“Sweetheart, you shouldn’t be out of bed,” Lee tried in as soothing a voice as he could muster. He still remembered Serena holding an iron poker on him and Chip as she tried to protect the admiral. Serena just turned red-rimmed green eyes up at him.
“I need to change clothes. You can’t help me with that,” she said in a very weak voice and shuffled across the floor to the small bathroom.
It felt like years before the bathroom door opened and Serena staggered out, pale and shaking. She had changed out of the jeans and tee shirt Lee had found her in and was now wearing a pale green nightshirt. Serena glanced back at him as she made her very slow way across the floor.
“If I’m going to be sick, I’m at least going to be comfortable,” she muttered. Lee took a few steps forward to offer his help if she needed it but, like her father, she was determined she could do this on her own, waving him off with a dismissing hand. Obviously she’d over-exerted herself and she clutched at the dresser to keep from falling over. Lee couldn’t stop himself. He caught her around the waist and carefully lifted her off the ground.
He saw her eyes close and felt every muscle in her body tense, going rigid with the effort of not panicking. Lee crossed the distance to the bed quickly and sat her down. As he backed away, the collection of scars on her right leg caught his eye. Serena caught him staring and as quickly as she could move, she pulled the covers over her bare leg.
“Those are from your accident, aren’t they?” Lee asked.
Serena’s eyes narrowed. “You know they are.”
“You just don’t talk about it. It’s not healthy to keep things bottled up,” Lee commented, hoping to bridge the gap between her accident and Mason. He was taking a chance by prying into her personal affairs. She might not appreciate him poking around in her past.
She pulled her gaze away from him and curled back up in bed. “And what would you know about keeping things bottled up, Lee Crane?” Definitely some resentment there. Lee thought quickly on how to respond.
“It’s not the scars that make up who we are.”
Serena frowned. “Funny, I don’t see you coping with a limp or irrational fears,” she snapped. Yes, he had definitely hit a nerve. Irrational fears? He remembered her panic when the lights went out. A fear of the dark? Was Serena afraid of the dark? Anything was possible. That decided him. He began unbuttoning his shirt, watching as Serena’s eyes tracked the movement of his fingers. She didn’t say anything but the puzzlement was clear. He expected her to comment but she remained quiet as he unbuttoned his shirt enough to expose his right shoulder. Lee sat down on the edge of the bed. Serena shifted to give him room.
“Touch my shoulder,” he said quietly.
She stared, not moving. “Why?”
“Just humor me. I’m not going to hurt you. I’m trying to make a point. Go ahead.”
Timidly, Serena reached out with slightly trembling fingers, folding her hand around Lee’s shoulder, feeling muscle, bone, and finally the small, neat round scar. Her thumb and forefinger traced the circular imperfection slowly. Lee remained still while her fingers worked. He didn’t wait for her to voice the question.
“I was kidnapped and kept for three days while I was brainwashed. When I was let go I was expected to sabotage Seaview’s mission, and if that didn’t work, I was supposed to kill the admiral. They had to shoot me to stop me.4”
Serena pulled away as if shocked by a sudden spark of electricity. “I…I didn’t know…Lee, I’m sorry,” she stammered but Lee shook his head.
“Don’t be. It’s not your fault. But you see, for a long time, I thought it was my fault. I could have killed the admiral. I tried, actually. I figured after that, he wouldn’t want me around him, that he wouldn’t be able to stand the sight of me. I mean, you can’t trust someone who tried to kill you, right?”
Lee watched as the impact of his words connect. She pulled back and leaned against the headboard, folding her arms over her chest, one fist moving up to press against her mouth and chin; a defensive and closed posture.
“How did you work though that? How did you get him to trust you after that?” she finally asked.
“The funny thing is, the admiral thought I had lost faith in him. He felt he hadn’t been as supportive of me as he should have been. He blamed himself for being so caught up with the mission to not notice something was wrong with me. He though that I wouldn’t want any further association with him, since he was so self-absorbed to see something was obviously wrong with his friend. Chip kept pushing to get the two of us to talk about it.”
“Morton’s a bit stubborn, I’ve noticed.”
Lee chuckled. “You’ve no idea. But it worked. What I’m saying is that you can’t keep stuff bottled up. You have to let off some steam at some point. I’m lucky. Chip thinks he’s my big brother and makes it a point of harassing the snot out of me until I don’t have a choice but to unload. The admiral, he always knows what’s bothering me and somehow gets me to open up when I need to. We all need somebody like that. Don’t underestimate Jamie either. I won’t have anyone else as a doctor, despite the fact we don’t always see eye to eye.”
Serena looked like she was about so say something but a fit of coughing caught her and left her weak and shaking. Lee pressed the mug of warm soup into her hands and she slowly sipped, letting the broth ease her sore throat. When the mug was empty, she surrendered it back to Lee and eased back down under the covers. “What happens next?” she asked, her rough voice cracking on the last word.
“We’re trying to contact Jamie at the institute now. Cell phones aren’t picking up in this weather and lightning ran in on the shortwave. Chip’s trying to get it back into working order.”
Serena frowned in confusion. “I knew there had to be one somewhere.”
“It’s in a panel, behind a line of books. I’ll show you later. Right now, just relax and rest. Chip will have it up and working in no time.”
Serena sighed and closed her eyes, giving in to the overwhelming fatigue that seemed to have settled into her bones. She felt herself drifting off and thinking about Chip. His glowing blue eyes, like the deepest lake, and the way he smiled…
“It’s nice…that Chip came along,” she mumbled. Lee leaned in closer to listen, not even sure if she was aware of what she was saying.
“He’s handy to have in a pinch,” Lee replied quietly, tucking the blanket in around her.
“He’s very nice. He deserves somebody…nice….”
“Serena, have you got a crush on my best friend?” Crane asked, teasing her. Serena let out a long deep sigh.
“Won’t work…,” she muttered softly. “He needs somebody better…not some mediocre archaeologist…with a limp….who’s afraid of the dark.”
Lee frowned. Serena grew quiet and her breathing slowed. She had drifted off to sleep, finally. He took a step back, both physically and mentally. Was that what was wrong? Serena didn’t think she was good enough for Chip? The admiral was bound to have some things to say about that if he ever found out. He’d been right though. She was afraid of the dark. He wondered if Jamie was aware of it, or if she’d kept it a secret from him as well. Jamieson wouldn’t take the fact that Serena had hidden important medical information from him well at all. He took his job seriously.
Puzzled by the way Serena’s mind seemed to work Lee picked up the empty mug and headed to check on Nelson one more time.
The admiral was still sleeping, quiet without the restless tossing Lee had seen in him earlier. Lee was still reluctant to wake him, knowing that rest was the best thing for him. He picked up the still warm mug and thought of a better use for it.
Downstairs he found Chip still immersed in wiring. He sat the mug on the table. Chip tilted his head up, an eyebrow raised in question.
“Drink it. It won’t kill you. You need something warm in you to combat the chill.”
“Pushy, aren’t you? Even without the uniform,” Chip grumbled but picked up the cup and sipped at it. His expression changed as he realized it didn’t taste like canned soup. Then he remembered Lee said that Serena had tinkered with it. “Not half bad. Is that garlic? And onion?” He sipped again, testing.
“Onion powder. It was on the counter. There’s more where that came from. How’s it coming?”
“Slow. Fried, crispy critter is what we have here. This ain’t gonna be easy. Be thankful I’m not charging you. How’s Serena?”
“She’s a little better. I caught her out of bed.”
Chip jerked his head up, his hands freezing. “What was she doing out of bed? She has a temperature of a hundred and three. She doesn’t need to be up roaming around.”
“Easy there, pal. She’s back in bed and she’s fine. She wanted to change into something more comfortable than the clothes she was wearing.” Lee tried not to smile at the protective mode Chip had suddenly shifted into. Yeah, he was hooked. The trick was getting Serena to see that.
“Oh,” was Morton's answer as he turned his attention back to the shortwave parts spread out on the table before him. While his fingers worked, his brain shifted gears, trying to imagine what Serena considered comfortable. She didn’t seem like the fancy, lacy type of person. She was simple, unassuming. She didn’t like attention. Chip figured something modest, a plain nightgown maybe. Something that hid her curves? He liked Serena’s curves; not too skinny, a little rounder than Vanessa had been. But Vanessa was always on a diet, always counting calories, always conscious of how she looked. Chip had heard Serena comment once that she didn’t trust any word with the letters D I E hidden in it. He noticed that Lee was still watching him, and then Chip realized his hands were still. Thinking about Serena, he’d stopped working.
“It was green,” Lee said with a grin. Chip snorted.
“What was green?” he asked with a grumpy tone and tried to refocus on his work.
“Serena’s nightshirt. It was green. I’ve noticed she wears a lot of green. If you need me, just give me a yell.”
With that Lee turned and left Chip alone with the shortwave and his thoughts. Chip shook his head, thinking about Serena. He’d also noticed that she tended to wear a lot of green. Her favorite color? Green went well with her auburn hair and those eyes.
Chip shook his head to clear the cobwebs. Get your mind back on your work, mister. You can daydream later. But Chip couldn’t totally push her out of his mind, and he wondered if one day she might consider him more than just someone she worked with.
Nelson’s temperature was on the rise again. Lee picked up the damp washcloth and ran it under cool tap water once more. He settled down in the chair by Nelson’s side, keeping watch over his employer and repeating his earlier actions of wiping the sweat from Nelson’s forehead, trying to keep his temperature down to something manageable. With Lee’s touch Nelson stirred and opened fevered blue eyes.
“Not exactly my idea of a nurse but I suppose you’ll do,” Nelson said, his normally vibrant voice a shadow of its normal self.
Lee heaved a sigh of relief and allowed a small smile. “How are you feeling, sir?”
“Like I’ve been run over. Can’t recall feeling this bad since that lay-over in Hong Kong, with Jiggs…Did I ever tell you about that?”
Lee chuckled. “No sir, I believe I would have remembered that story.”
“Remind me to trot it out the next time we’re graced with his presence. Keeps the old goat humble,” Nelson replied as a round of coughing shook his whole body. He was shaking and breathless when it was over.
“We’re working on getting a hold of Jamie. We’ll get you some help in no time.”
“I would imagine I’ve worried my daughter and my captain as well,” Nelson said.
Lee nodded. He folded the damp cloth in half, and laid it on the nightstand. Nelson watched him, his eyes curious.
“Just a bit, sir. You’ve both been running a pretty high fever since we got here. Serena was delirious. She didn’t know me. Or rather, she thought I was still Mason and he was trying to kill you. Took us a bit to convince her otherwise.”
“Us? I assume you have a blond sidekick somewhere? Jamie exercised his rank and kicked you both off base, I take it. And how on earth did she get sick? I’m not contagious, am I?”
Lee grinned. “Yes sir. Chip drove us up here. Lightning fried the shortwave and Chip’s been working to get it repaired. We don’t know what Serena has. She’s resting now.”
“Like I should be?”
“I wasn’t going to say that, sir,”
Nelson snorted. “You don’t have to. I’ve known you far too long to not know some of what goes through that head of yours.” Another round of coughing left Nelson weak.
“We need to get you back to Med Bay before you get any worse,” Lee started. Before he could continue, a deep rumble seemed to shake the entire cabin. A tremendous crash shook the foundation and rattled the light fixtures. Once more the entire cabin was plunged into darkness.
“What the devil was that?” Nelson growled, rising out of bed.
“I don’t know. Something must have happened to the generator,” Lee guessed and got to his feet. First off they needed light.
Guided by touch and instinct Lee made his way to the closet, finding the lantern and its batteries on the top shelf. He popped the casing open and dropped the batteries into the empty cavity, trying to remember which slot held negative and which was positive. He got lucky on the first try. The lantern flared to life and Lee set the unit on the nightstand by Nelson’s bed.
“I’ll see what happened. Please, just stay here. I’m sure it’s a simple fix,”
“Be careful, Lee.”
“Yes sir,” Lee said and grabbed his leather jacket from where he’d abandoned it earlier then headed downstairs. Chip was already in kitchen, a flashlight in one hand, the beam playing across the floor.
“Are you going or do I draw the short straw?” Chip asked.
“You’ve already been out once, I’ll go. Do me a favor; get a battery-powered lantern, and set it in Serena’s room. She’s afraid of the dark but you didn’t hear that from me.”
Chip blinked. “She’s afraid of the dark? Are you sure?”
“Trust me. This shouldn’t take long—probably the power cable came loose or something. The admiral’s up. Make sure he stays in bed,” Lee said as he ducked out the back door into the elements. For a second Chip just stood in the hallway, flashlight in one hand and a puzzled expression on his face.
“Keep him in bed, he says. Yeah, right. What am I, a miracle worker?” he grumbled and trudged upstairs. As he passed Nelson’s room, he found the admiral up sitting up in bed, his feet resting flat-footed on the floor. Chip frowned at the sight. “Ah, sir, maybe you should lay back down. I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be up and about right now.”
“Humph,” came the characteristic snort. “I am perfectly capable of looking after myself.”
Chip tried not to sigh. “Yes sir. I’m sure Doctor Jamieson will understand completely.”
Nelson growled. “That’s playing dirty, Mister Morton,”
“I learned from the best. Sir.”
“Now you’re getting just plain nasty. Go on, I’m fine. Go…go check on Serena. Lee said she wasn’t feeling well.”
“Aye sir, on my way,” Chip retorted smartly, resisting the urge to once more ask his employer to take it slow. He knew the admiral would do damn well whatever he pleased, and telling him to stay in bed where he belonged would be pointless.
Chip found Serena curled up and sleeping peacefully. If Lee was right and she was afraid of the dark, the last thing he wanted was for her to wake up and panic if she realized the power was out. Moving quietly, he retrieved the lantern from the closet shelf and managed to get it working. Chip sat the lantern down on the bedside table and sat down beside Serena. She stirred and sighed softly.
“Lee?” she asked fuzzily. Chip frowned.
“No, it’s Chip. Just checking to see how you’re doing.”
“Fine. Sleepy. You don’t have to stay,” she muttered and snuggled down into the covers more. Chip sighed. Like always, she was pushing him away again. He stood about as much a chance as a snowball in Santa Barbara—in July.
Chip got to his feet and walked slowly down the hallway. What was keeping Lee? The power flickered on once then died again. Lee must be having trouble with the generator. Well, another trip outside certainly wouldn’t kill him. He could change clothes again. If Lee had run into a problem, it might take two sets of hands to fix whatever was wrong.
That decided Chip. He paused outside of Nelson’s room. “I’m going to see what’s keeping Lee. He might need a hand.”
“I warned him to be careful,” Nelson grumbled. He was pulling on his robe and moving slowly for the door. He noticed the disapproving glare the executive officer was giving him. “I didn’t get four stars by being reckless. I’m tired of lying down and I’m going to sit in the den. I trust that meets with your approval?”
Chip smothered a smile. “Yes sir. There’s soup in the kitchen. It would make my job easier if I could tell Jamie I knew you had a hot meal.”
“I suppose lying is out of the question,” Nelson grumbled, pushing past Chip and into the hall.
“Have you ever lied to Jamie?”
“Once and he caught me at it. We’ll wing it then. Go make sure Lee hasn’t bitten off more than he can chew.”
Chip retrieved his damp denim jacket and slipped it on, wincing at the cold feel of the sodden material on his skin. With his flashlight in a tight grip he ventured outside into the rain.
The heavy downpour had eased up, coming down now as a steady, light rain. Chip rounded the corner of the cabin and stopped dead in his tracks.
A huge cedar tree was lying across the path, its branches splayed across the outer wall of the cabin. Much closer and the trunk would have taken out the entire wall. More importantly, the tree was lying directly across the generator. Lee was nowhere to be seen.
“Lee?” Chip bellowed his friend’s name, hoping for an answer. Already he was thinking the worst. Morton clambered over the tree truck, finally able to see the bulk of the generator through the tangle of broken limbs. Sliding through the mud, Chip dropped to his knees, trying to find the power cable that ran to the cabin. There was still no sign of Lee.
Chip groped around in the slime, trying to feel for the cable under the mass of greenery when his hand found something that wasn’t the power cable; a hand. Chip could feel limp fingers and his heart came to a screeching halt when he felt the familiar ring that Lee always wore.
“Lee!” Chip’s squawk of near panic cut through the air as he clawed at the branches, trying to reach his friend. The rain continued to come down and by now Chip was a soggy, filthy mess, with mud up to his knees and bits of cedar and bark clinging to his clothes and hair.
Trying to work around the fallen tree while holding a flashlight wasn’t easy. Finally Chip was able to move enough of the branches to see the still body of the man underneath. The power cable was still clutched in Lee’s hand. Feeling for a pulse, Chip let out a deep sigh as he felt the strong, steady beat under his fingers. Chip pulled the cable free from Lee’s grip and jerked, trying to get enough slack to plug the thing back into the generator. Finally he had the reach he needed and he connected the end back into its socket.
Lights from the cabin windows suddenly flared to life, illuminating the night. Although still in the shadows, Chip had more light to see by now and he worked his way into the tangle of branches, trying to get a better look at his friend. Chip made a quick check for broken bones but everything seemed whole. He was able to grab Lee around his shoulders and, bracing with his back and legs, Chip heaved Lee’s frame out from under the mass of fallen tree, ignoring the sound of breaking branches and the snarl of ripping material.
“Lee? Lee, can you hear me?” Chip called out. Lee’s response was to twitch and let out a low groan. Jamming the flashlight into his pocket, Chip hefted Lee’s bulk into a fireman’s carry. Pushing past the ache in his side and the stiffness in his shoulder, Morton headed toward the cabin, trying his best to keep his balance in the thick, slimy mud.
He clumped onto the back porch with a second soft moan in his left ear. Lee was starting to struggle.
“Easy, Lee. Calm down,” Chip tried, moving as fast as he could toward the door. It slid open of its own accord and Chip entered the cabin. He felt hands helping ease Lee off his shoulders. It was Nelson, wobbling on his own feet, holding the soaking wet and mud covered Lee close to him.
“What happened?” Nelson asked.
“Don’t know. I found him under a downed tree. Looks like the ground was so wet, the roots lost their hold and the tree just toppled.” Chip explained.
“I’m fine,” grumbled Lee as he tried to stand on his own two feet. His balance was still questionable and he tottered dangerously before Nelson wrapped an arm around Lee’s waist for support.
“This way, lad. Just lean on me.”
“You shouldn’t be up, sir,” Lee replied as Nelson guided him to the sunroom. He felt the older man chuckle with amusement.
“You let me worry about me and I’ll let Chip worry about you,” Nelson replied with a wry grin.
“I feel so much better,” Lee growled as Chip dropped a towel over his head. Lee snatched it off and tried to glare at the blond but found himself grinning as Morton yanked his filthy shirt off and was trying to wipe the mud from his arms and torso.
“I could still use that camera,” Lee quipped. Chip rolled his eyes and continued his failing efforts to clean up.
“This is going to require a shower,” Chip remarked, shaking his head and holding the now filthy towel out away from him as he glanced down at his mud crusted chest and arms, his jeans still dripping dirty water and bits of cedar onto the floor. This would never do.
“I suggest you both get a hot shower, as soon as Lee can stand and walk on his own two feet, Nelson said.
“I’m fine. Just…just give me a minute,” Lee replied. He pulled the damp towel over his shoulders but nothing short of ditching the soaked clothes was going to help.
“And just how did you end up on the business end of a downed tree?” Nelson asked. Lee sheepishly glanced up through lowered eyelashes.
“I knew cranes sometimes roosted in trees, not under them,” Chip replied, getting the towel slung at him for his wisecrack.
“The cable came loose. I guess a limb pulled it out of the socket. It ended up under the tree and I crawled in after it. I had to do something, we needed power. The tree must have shifted, or settled in the mud or something. I felt something clunk me on the back of the head. That’s the last thing I remember till Chip started dragging me through the muck.”
“You’re welcome, mon capitan,” Chip drawled.
“That’s enough, you two. Lee, hold still.” The words were spoken in a tone that not even Lee Crane would question. He froze as Nelson’s skillful fingers probed the back of his skull, gently prodding the growing lump just behind his left ear. Lee couldn’t help but wince as Nelson touched the extremely tender spot.
“Uh-huh. Nice knot you have there. Jamie is going to love seeing that.”
“Do we have to tell him?” Lee whined.
Nelson laughed, the laugh turning into a cough as he struggled for control.
“Captain, if I have to let Chip explain about my little insignificant issues, you can better believe that we’re telling the doctor about your encounter with the local timber. Think you can navigate on your own?”
Lee nodded, refusing to admit that he was still a tad on the dizzy side. He couldn’t have the admiral worrying about him. Taking it slow, Lee got to his feet, and braced himself against a wave of dizziness and nausea before Chip rested a steadying hand on his arm.
“Come on, Wobbles. Let’s get you cleaned up. My sister wouldn’t be so impressed with you if she saw you now,”
Lee teetered up the stairs mostly using Morton for balance. Chip guided him a spare bedroom. Chip flipped on the light and Lee pulled away from Morton’s grip.
“You need any help?” Chip asked carefully, watching as Lee fumbled with the buttons of his shirt. Crane just glared at him.
“You are not the blond I had in mind to undress me,” he commented tartly and had the satisfaction of seeing Chip cringe.
“Geez, too much information, Lee. I do not need that mental image. I know you’re sleeping with my sister. I don’t need you to paint a picture for me.”
Lee snickered. He couldn’t resist. “Oh, I don’t know. Seems like you obviously need some pointers if you ever plan on asking Serena out.”
“I don’t think that’s going to be an issue.” Chip replied.
“What makes you say that? I told you; she just needs to get to know you.”
“She doesn’t want to get to know me. I checked on her earlier and she practically threw me out of her room. She tolerates me because she has to.”
Lee’s fingers froze. “Come on, Chip. Be charitable. She’s sick. She probably didn’t even know it was you.” The last button blundered free and Lee slipped the long sleeved shirt off his shoulders. The aches he hadn’t noticed before were now making themselves known as he peeled the filthy shirt off his own mud-streaked body. There was a sharp gasp as Chip saw the damage.
“Damn Lee. Jamie’s gonna yell for sure,” the blond growled.
Lee Crane’s lean, muscled chest and broad, powerful shoulders were crisscrossed with dozens of scratches, mostly shallow. But a few still bled heavily, seeping long lines of crimson that drizzled down his chest, following the lines and contours of his bare chest and abdominal muscles. His jeans, soaked with rainwater and mud, stained with drops of blood, hung low on his narrow waist, their downward slide halted only by the slight flare of his hips, accenting the tight abdomen muscles that contracted with each breath. He sighed. So much for distracting Chip with talk about Serena. He could see the concern in Morton’s eyes as he stared.
Chip couldn’t stop himself. The scratches weren’t the only things he noticed. “Lee, just how much weight have you lost in the last few weeks? Jamie is not going to like that. You’re lean enough as it is, any skinnier and we’ll have to put a weight belt on you to keep the wind from blowing you away.” Chip tried to keep his tone light but he was seriously concerned. Lee had always been on the lean, wiry side but now he was nothing but whipcord over bone. With the body of a swimmer there wasn't an ounce of fat to be found on Lee’s overly trim frame.
“I haven’t been hungry. You’re a worry wart, you know that?” Lee growled and stalked to the bathroom before Chip could comment further. The door closed and Chip was left alone with his grumblings. Muttering about stubborn submarine commanders and the need to put a few pounds on him before he went back to work, Chip made his own way to the hall and stopped. Nelson was standing just outside the hall, having changed into a new robe that wasn’t decorated in globs of mud, blood or bits of forest.
“How’s Lee?” he asked.
“As stubborn as ever. He’ll be fine once we get the scratches on his chest cleaned up,” Morton said in a tone just below a snarl. Nelson chuckled.
“Well, a few could probably use stitching but I think we can get by with just some good bandaging. Sir, I really need to get a shower and get cleaned up.”
“Serena’s asleep. Go ahead and use the shower in her room. The showerhead in the last spare room is cracked. I need to get the caretaker to deal with it .”
Nodding, Chip slogged his way down the hall, aware he was leaving a trail of slime and mud. Nelson watched him go, pondering the partial conversation he had overheard.
Eavesdropping isn’t a very nice habit, Harry. Still, he was beginning to confirm a few suspicions he was having about his esteemed executive officer. Did Chip have more than a passing interest in his daughter? If so, it was an interest Nelson would most definitely have to encourage. Chip Morton was a far better match for his daughter than Jiggs’ idea of pairing her up with either of his sons.
Still considering this newly acquired information, Nelson wandered back to the den and settled down in front of the disassembled short wave. He fought back a cough threatening to rip loose and focused on putting the unit back together, considering ways to get his first officer and his daughter paired off.
Something pulled Serena out of her happy dream, involving blue eyes and her fingers in short blond hair. Slightly disgruntled at not being able to recall most of the dream, she lay under the covers trying to pin down exactly what had awakened her.
She finally tracked the sound to the shower in her bathroom. Somebody was taking a shower in her room. The water shut off. Serena pulled herself out from under the cozy nest of blankets, seeing the shadow of movement in the crack under the bathroom door. Then the light flipped off and the door open.
Chip Morton stood in the bathroom door with a towel around his waist and nothing else. A bundle of what could only be dirty clothes was tucked under one arm. Serena blinked and unconsciously pulled the blankets up higher. Something about the man’s physique utterly fascinated her. Whenever he was around it was like all her brain cells simply dried up and stopped working. All she could think about was curling up next to that broad chest, listening to his heartbeat while he held her close in his strong arms.
“Oh. Ah, you’re awake. How are you feeling?” Chip said, seeing her sit up. He shifted the bundle of clothes so he cradled it against his chest while his free hand gripped the towel around his waist.
Serena found her voice completely gone. Why is it that she could outline the parameters of a three month project to people she had never met and yet when faced with Chip Morton, she forgot her own name? The comment she wanted to make simply refused to work loose as her vocal cords totally shut down. She could only gape like a stranded fish. She had to make herself focus to answer. “Um. Better, actually. I was thinking maybe I should try to get up and eat something,” she managed. Anything to make him go away.
“Maybe I can bring you something. You shouldn’t be wondering around,” Chip said helpfully. Serena swallowed down a tight knot of something close to panic.
“You’re not exactly dressed…I mean, I can get up, I should get up,” she stammered.
“Are you sure? I can be right back,” he said brightly.
No, go away, go away, the last thing I need is you hovering over me, “No really, you go on. I’m fine. I need to get up anyway and you can’t help me in that department,” she managed.
“Oh, I see, I mean, okay. Well, if you do need anything, just let me know. I’d be happy to get you something,”
“I’ll be fine, Chip. But thanks anyway.”
She watched Chip make an exit, trying very hard not to stare as he walked past the bed and trying very hard not to notice just how short the towel actually was as he walked passed.
With a sigh Serena levered herself out of bed, snagging the green robe draped over the nearby chair. She pulled it on and made her way to the bathroom. She was dizzier than she thought and stopped halfway there. Taking a deep breath, she concentrated on one step at a time and finally made it to her intended destination.
With that out of the way Serena now had the return journey to make. She paused in the doorway, feeling like miles stood before her and the bed. She put one foot in front of the other, making it to the dresser before a wave of dizziness slammed into her, causing her stomach to roll with nausea. There was a roaring in her ears and she didn’t hear the concerned voice calling her name.
“Serena, are you okay?” finally broke through the roar and Serena shook her head. A mistake as the nausea doubled.
“Gonna be sick,” she mumbled. An arm around her waist and a hand on her arm guided her to the bathroom and, without preamble or dignity she promptly threw up what little she had in her stomach. The ordeal left her shaking and so weak she could hardly stand up. She felt a cool cloth pressed into her hand and she slowly washed her face off, the dampness a welcome relief.
Once again there was a strong supportive arm around her waist and a guiding hand on her arm, steering her back to bed. Only when she was settled in did she realize whom she’d been leaning on.
Lee sat carefully on the edge of the bed. His amber-hazel eyes were concerned as she snuggled down under the covers. She was suddenly freezing. More than embarrassed, she had nothing to say as Lee continued to watch her.
“Thank you,” she managed weakly.
“You should have let Chip give you a hand,” Lee scolded.
“Chip was dressed in a towel,” she replied.
“It wouldn’t have taken him a minute to get changed and come back here. You don’t have to do everything on your own. If somebody says they’ll help you, they mean it. You’re in no condition to be wandering around on your own. What if you had gotten dizzy in the bathroom and passed out? What if you hit your head? You could have bled out before we would have found you.”
“I’m sorry, okay? I won’t get up again unless I have an armed escort,” she snapped with more force than she intended. Immediately she felt bad. Lee was just trying to help. “I’m sorry. I feel like crap and throwing up always makes me crabby.”
Lee smiled. His eyes were still concerned but there was a touch of humor dancing in there as well. Serena always did like Lee’s eyes. She could look into his eyes and know he could be trusted. It wasn’t the same as looking into Chip’s clear blue eyes. In his eyes she could get lost forever. Then it dawned on her. This was Lee. The man she’d gotten to know over the last few months, not someone who had attacked her and certainly not Jerome, who had threatened to drown her when she was ten years old.
Serena blinked to break the spell and realized Lee was talking. “Being sick isn’t a vacation, I understand. But let Chip help. He’s not going to bite. He reserves that for the crew.”
“Chip shouldn’t be bothering with me.” Serena closed her eyes and pulled the blanket up higher. Lee tucked it in around her shoulder, feeling her slowly relax as he moved. He eyes drifted shut. Thinking about her last admission, Lee very quietly spoke.
“And why shouldn’t Chip concern himself with you? He thinks a lot of you and just wants to be friends,”
Serena let out a deep sigh. “Can’t understand why.” Another deep sigh then silence. Serena had drifted off into an exhausted sleep.
Lee continued to sit on the edge of the bed. Absently he brushed a stray lock of auburn hair from her eyes. Whatever had happened to her to make Serena think she wasn’t worthy of what Chip could offer her?
“Lee?” Chip’s voice called to him from the hallway.
“In here,” Lee answered and Chip came around the corner. He saw Serena curled up in bed and Lee sitting by her side. “She almost passed out. I got here in time to get her to the bathroom before she threw up.”
“Good thing you checked on her then.” Chip’s words were sharp and quick. His eyes had taken on not the glow of anger Lee had seen before but instead the shadow of something he seldom saw in his friend’s eyes; disappointment.
“Chip, it’s not what you think,” Lee started only to have the sounds of Nelson in the throws of a coughing fit grab both their attention.
Both men flew downstairs and toward the den. They found the admiral doubled over, the coughing worse than ever.
“Get him to the couch,” Lee ordered. Together, he and Chip guided the admiral to the couch and settled him down. Nelson waved both men off but obviously they weren’t buying it.
“I’m fine, you two stop worrying,” he gasped.
Lee had just about had enough of stubborn admirals and hardheaded women. “Begging your pardon, sir but you are not ‘fine.’ That cough is getting worse and you’re more congested than before. Please, if you don’t go back to bed then just stay here on the couch and let Chip and me handle things.”
Nelson let the younger man gently push him back down onto the couch. The den was warm from the fire and as he settled into the couch cushions, he felt a blanket gently drape across him. A glance upwards showed Morton had pulled the comforter off his bed and settled it over him. He was too tired to argue. He let Lee fuss for a few minutes, tucking the blanket in around him.
“Alright. I’ll stay here if it makes you two mother hens happy,” Nelson grumbled.
“I’ll be happy when we contact Jamie and get you to Med Bay. Just relax and get some rest. Let me know if you need anything,” Lee urged.
Nelson felt himself drifting off but was too tired to fight it. He snorted as sleep quickly closed in. “Still not my idea of a nurse…” he grumbled before giving in and letting sleep take him.
Chip stared at Lee. “How the hell do you get him to listen to you?” he hissed, barely above a whisper. Lee shrugged.
“How the blazes should I know? He just does.”
Chip returned the shrug. “You get finished cleaning those cuts up. Don’t argue with me, or I’ll tell Jamie you might have a concussion. You’ll be twenty-four hours in his clutches. Revenge will be mine,” Chip gloated. Lee rolled his eyes.
“Dramatic. You work on the radio. The admiral said he almost had it back together.”
Chip complied while Lee addressed himself to the collection of disinfectants and antibiotic ointment the admiral had presented to him when he returned from the shower. Nelson had produced an exceptionally well-stocked first aid kit containing everything, Lee thought, except the actual doctor himself. It was Lee who found the bottle of antibiotics that he instantly plied the admiral with. If he did have a lung infection, the antibiotic couldn’t hurt.
“Chip, about Serena,” Lee began but Chip, with his back to Lee, only shook his head.
“Not now. Maybe later. I just want to get this damn thing fixed and get Jamie out here.”
Lee was quiet. He finished cleaning the deeper scratches on his chest and shoulders and set everything aside. Without another word he sat down across from Chip and silently began to help piece the radio back together. They worked with few words, Chip occasionally asking for a part or a tool that was close to Lee and the younger man would silently pass the asked-for component over. Chip was focusing on the radio, closing out everything else to deal with that one task. At one point Lee got up, ignoring the slight dizziness that continued to plague him, to check on Nelson then wander slowly back upstairs to check on Serena. He managed to rouse her into half-wakefulness and convince her to take one of the antibiotics. She had dropped back to sleep almost immediately. Like Nelson’s, her rest was punctuated by the occasional cough or rattle. Lee then made his way back down to the den and continued to offer his assistance to Chip.
Chip was focused on the radio, offering no conversation or comments as he worked. He was closing everything else out and Lee knew his best friend well enough to know it was Chip’s way of hiding.
This isn’t over Morton. We are going to talk about this, whether you like it or not.
Angie Watson was feeling particularly smug as the morning progressed. So far the day was calm and quiet. Nothing had blown up, nothing had been shot down, and there hadn’t been any record of gunshots or explosions. As Angie sipped at her second cup of coffee of the morning, she entertained the notion that maybe the command triad should consider a vacation more often. It certainly made running the institute easier knowing they were out of harm’s way.
Angie wished she was feeling as good about her own investigation into the information leak. So far no one was willing to own up to leaking that Serena Harrison was the admiral’s daughter to anyone outside the institute. Angie was quietly looking at Seaview’s crew but she knew before she started asking what kind of response she would get. Case in point: Chief Sharkey.
She cornered him in the lunchroom yesterday afternoon and asked for a few minutes of his time. Polite as always, he acquiesced and she came right out, asking if he might have made mention to anybody outside the institute that Serena Harrison was the admiral’s estranged daughter. Sharkey had just blinked those innocent green eyes at her.
“Miss Angie, now why would I go and do a stupid thing like that? Besides, the admiral, he’s already ordered that we, ah, keep this under wraps, so to speak, and I’m not about to disobey a direct order from the admiral. Ma’am,” he had said, slightly flustered that she would even suggest such a thing. Even Angie had felt bad for asking. If there was anybody who epitomized loyalty to the admiral, it was Francis Sharkey. She could tell that the inquiry bothered the sensitive chief, who was disturbed that somebody would question his loyalty.
“I don’t mean that you would, I’m just checking to make sure maybe it didn’t slip out by accident. I know you would never do anything to intentionally hurt anybody, least of all the admiral. We’re just trying to track down how Mason found out Serena was the admiral’s daughter since he was hospitalized.”
“Ma’am, I can promise you, it wasn’t this crew. Nobody, and I mean nobody, would do anything like that to the admiral. If I asked this bunch of yahoos to do something, than you can darn well believe that they’ll stick to their word and not do it. But I swear to you, if I hear one peep about somebody opening their big yap when they shouldn’t have, you’ll be the first to know.”
“Thank you, Chief. I was hoping you’d say that,” Angie had replied. With her ‘mole’ firmly planted in Seaview’s crew Angie could now focus on the institute staff. One thing was certain; she pitied the poor fool if indeed the leak came from the crew. Sharkey looked like a big teddy bear, but he could make your life a living hell if you crossed him.
A quiet knock on her doorframe had Angie glancing up from her computer screen. Wendy Morton stood there, an enormous stack of folders in one hand and an equally enormous grin plastered on her face.
“You look like the cat that ate the canary. And the goldfish. What gives? Don’t tell me those are for me.” Angie eyed the intimidating stack with trepidation.
Wendy sat the hefty stack down on the edge of the desk. “You’re welcome to go through some of them, if you like. It’s the employment records for Springhurst’s staff, going back five years.”
Angie gaped. “No way.”
Angie reached for the topmost file. “How on earth did you do that? I didn’t think you could get these without a court order…” she trailed off as Wendy explained.
“Simple. Last night I made a phone call, and explained I was with the Navy Criminal Investigation Services and I was currently investigating the recent kidnapping of one commander and the attempted murder of another and that I needed their employment records going back the past five years. I said it was in their best interests to cooperate as this was a matter of national security and if they didn’t work with me, my next phone call would be to Homeland Security.”
Angie was laughing so hard by now she had her face buried in both hands, trying to simply breath. “Oh my stars, thank the admiral you’re on our side! That was brilliant, positively brilliant. That sounds so like something Chip would pull.”
“Well, it worked and I’m not questioning it. I was hoping I could leave about half of these with you.”
Angie quickly shifted a good portion of the stack onto her desk, shuffling papers around to make room. “Done, and grateful to help. Look for anything that might connect to Serena and I’ll look for anything that might be connected to the admiral. When we get through the stacks we can switch files.”
“Tag anything you might find and we can follow up when we sort through this mess. Angie, before I delve into this,” Wendy gestured toward the stack of folders with the fingers of one hand, “just how many people might have a grudge against the admiral?”
Angie raised a dark eyebrow and leaned forward, propping her elbow on the desk and resting her chin on an upturned palm. “Wendy, if I had a nickel for every time the admiral got a death threat or crossed somebody because of their unethical thinking, I could retire. That Mason fruit bat was just the tip of the iceberg. There could be hundreds and those are just the enemies he’s made since the institute was founded. We won’t even talk about his Navy days.”
Wendy leaned against the doorframe, her arms crossed over her chest. “What do you think? Is this somebody with a grudge against Serena or the admiral?”
Angie sighed, pinching the bridge of her nose with thumb and forefinger. “I don’t know. I wasn’t there. Lee said Mason told him Serena was payment for Lee’s kidnapping. Mason knew Serena was the admiral’s daughter. You’ll have to ask Lee for more details.”
Wendy was silent, still chewing thoughtfully on her thumbnail. Finally the distant look cleared from her eyes and she focused once more on Angie. “Disgruntled employees. Every place has them. Have there been any employee terminations since Serena was hired? Someone who might have heard through the institute grapevine that there was a connection between the two and maybe sold that information to the highest bidder?”
Angie shrugged. “It’s not beyond possible. I’ll get with HR and have a list faxed to you before the end of the day. But just off the top of my head, I can’t think of anyone with that kind of ax to grind.”
Wendy snorted and frowned. “Okay, what about this: the admiral used two outside labs to confirm the DNA tests, proving Serena was his biological offspring. Could the leak have come from there?”
Angie frowned. “You’ll have to get with Dr. Jamieson. The admiral didn’t want to be accused of influencing the results and he had Jamie run supervise the tests.”
“Well, that’s a few more leads at any rate. Is there anything, I mean any little small details you can think of?”
Angie thought, trying to offer Wendy any little tidbit of information that might clear up this mess. “Wait, there was one thing. I remember after I typed up Lee’s debriefing. He said that whoever Mason’s contact was, he knew Serena.”
Wendy sighed. “Now I’m confused. I’ve never heard her mention anybody named Rinaldi. Well, I’ll add her to the list of people to interview. So how are things without the big cheese in town?” Wendy asked, trying to lighten the mood.
Angie grinned and leaned back in the chair. “Don’t get me wrong, I love this job, I love working with the admiral. There is never a dull moment here and never would I even consider leaving but I can’t tell you how nice it is, knowing that for once the three of them are safe and sound. When they’re out to sea you never know what they’re going to run into, what kind of shape or how many pieces they’re going to come back in. It’s nice to run things without worrying about who’s in Med Bay.”
Wendy laughed and turned to go. “Enjoy it while it lasts,” she tossed over her shoulder as she ambled out.
Angie focused on her computer once more, shaking her head. “Don’t I know it,” she muttered and picked up her typing.
The cabin was quiet, even the rain had given up its ceaseless pounding. Chip Morton was bone-tired and ready for a nice long nap but at the moment his attention was focused on the radio.
Two hours ago, somewhere around dawn, he and Lee had finally gotten it repaired and working. Now it was just a matter of getting a message out and praying somebody was able to pick it up. At this point it was really a one-man job and to that effect, Chip sent Lee to bed. It was obvious that Crane was fighting a headache of epic proportions and Chip demanded he take something and suggested he bunk down in one of the empty bedrooms. Chip fished around in the many bottles, tubes, and boxes of the first aid kit and came up with something he hoped would kill the headache Lee was trying hard to hide.
Lee eyed the offered pill with trepidation.
“Lee, just take it. It’s not going to hurt you, just kill the headache,” Chip wheedled. And send you to sleepy-time land, if I read the label on the bottle right.
Reluctantly Lee popped the pill, washing it down while Chip literally pushed him up the stairs. Lee grumbled about over protective executive officers but let Morton settle him into bed.
After spending the next few hours fine-tuning the radio and trying to contact the institute with little success, Chip decided to take a break and make the rounds, starting with Nelson. He was sleeping, but not quietly. There was an audible rattle that Chip recognized from his own bouts with pneumonia. Serena was in a similar condition, sleeping, but with the deep rattle that came with that particular infection.
Lee was sprawled across the bed, dressed in shorts and a tee shirt, long legs askew and tangled in the blankets as he slept quietly. To Chip he looked peaceful, and could only hope he was actually resting, not just lying still with his eyes closed. He reached out and touched Lee’s shoulder, expecting Crane to roll over and snap at him.
But Lee only sighed and shifted his position, drawing an arm up close to his chest, under his chin. His breathing was slow and steady; the even rise and fall of his chest was an indicator of his deep sleeping state. Chip smiled. Of course, the peace would be short lived. When Lee woke up he’d realize what Chip had done and probably scream bloody murder. Oh well. Lee needed to rest and if the meds Chip had pawned off on him happened to have contained a sedative, oh well. Carefully he lifted the edge of the blanket thrown back over the edge of the bed and drew it over his sleeping friend.
Morton wondered back to the den, trying not to think about all the scrapes Lee had gotten into over the years, when an odd sound caught his attention. He took the stairs two at a time as he recognized the voice of Seaview’s radioman.
“NIMR calling Sender, please respond,” came the familiar voice. Chip fumbled for the mike, sliding into the seat as he scrambled to respond.
“Sparks? Sparks this is Morton. Over.”
“Mr. Morton? Everything all right, sir? Over.”
“Sparks, listen, I need to speak with Dr. Jamieson, as soon as possible. Have Sharkey get the Flying Sub ready for launch. Over.”
Chip could hear the sounds of switches being clicked as Sparks scrambled to carry out orders. He heard the other man contacting the Med Bay, requesting Jamieson to report to Seaview, and another call to request Chief Sharkey to come to the radio shack.
“Playing with the radio again, Sparks?” Morton asked with a weak smile. He could hear the amusement in Sparks’ voice as he answered.
“Just thought she might get lonely, without you and the skipper to keep her company, sir. I decided to do a little fine-tuning when I thought I heard something like a shortwave transmission. Over,” said the radioman.
Chip closed his eyes in relief. Bless junior officers with time on their hands. A few minutes passed before Sparks spoke again. “Doctor Jamieson here for you sir.” Chip could hear the clatter of footsteps as Jamie apparently ran to the radio shack.
“Mr. Morton, you’re supposed to be on vacation,” the doctor said good-naturedly but Chip could detect the hint of worry in his voice.
“Nice to hear you, Jamie. We’ve run into a small problem. I could really use you right now. Over.”
“What’s happened? How small a problem?”
Chip went on to explain that the bridge had been washed out, keeping them from driving back. He outlined the admiral’s and Serena’s condition, doing his best to answer the doctor’s rapid-fire succession of questions concerning their symptoms. The one question he couldn’t answer was how they came about their current condition.
“Neither of them has really been forthcoming about what happened. We found some antibiotics in the first aid kit and I managed to get a dose into them both. Is there anything else I should be doing for them? Over.”
“Continue as you’ve been doing. Keep them hydrated. That cough will dry them out fast if they don’t have enough liquids. Have they complained of any nausea?
“The admiral hasn’t. Lee said Serena did.”
“Well, if you can, get another dose of the amoxicillin in them. How are you and the skipper? Considering they might be contagious, any signs you might be catching what they have? Over.”
Now it gets fun. “Lee’s had an accident,” Chip began.
“He what?” came the answering growl from the physician.
“Down, Jamie. He’s really in not too bad a shape. He has a few cuts and scratches, and he was fighting a killer headache. I stuffed him full of meds, sent him to bed, and he’s sleeping right now. I don’t think he has a concussion but he has a doozy of a knot on his head. I’d feel better if you’d take a look at him and decide for yourself.”
“You can bet I’ll do just that. As soon as I can throw some things together, we’ll be on our way. I assume Sharkey knows where we’re going? Over.”
“He should have the coordinates.”
“Just checking. Hang in there, Chip.”
“Don’t I always? Thanks Jamie. Morton out.”
Chip took a deep breath, thankful that this disaster of a vacation was almost over with. It would be a few hours before Jamie finally showed up and in the meantime Chip decided to follow up with the suggestion he try to get some more meds into the admiral and Serena.
With a glass of water and two pills, Chip found the admiral easy to work with. He awoke with Chip’s touch on his shoulder, opening blurry, bloodshot eyes to peer over to the younger man, crouched down beside the couch.
“Chip,” he muttered roughly.
“Yes sir. I managed to get a hold of Jamie. He said I needed to get another dose of these into you. If you have an infection it should help,” Chip coaxed. With a slightly trembling hand—and sour expression on his face—Nelson reached out and took the offered pills and popped them into his mouth, washing them down with the glass of water. With that he lay back down on the couch and closed his eyes.
“How’s Lee?” he asked.
“Sleeping, believe it or not.”
Nelson chuckled. It turned into a weak cough. “Anybody else told me that, I wouldn’t believe them,” he finally answered.
“You know how he is. He didn’t give up without a fight. Of course, I had a little help from Jamie’s first aid kit.”
“You slipped him a sedative?” Nelson asked with a smile
“He needed the rest. I’ll worry about the tongue-lashing later. I just hope he sleeps till Jamie gets here.”
Chip frowned. He was going to have to check on her again and he was certain that she was going to push him away. Again. Lee wasn’t here to run interference. “She was sleeping when I last checked on her.” That answer seemed to satisfy the admiral. He relaxed and took a deep, shuddering breath and closed his eyes.
“Just relax sir. Jamie will be up here in no time. Everything’s going to be fine,” Chip reassured his employer.
“Course it will. Best exec I know…handling things…” Nelson muttered then dropped into sleep. Chip smiled. Nice to know someone had faith in him when he wasn’t sure about himself.
Lee was still sacked out but Chip wanted to let him know that help was on the way. Knowing better than to wake Lee suddenly, Chip called his friend’s name as he rested a hand on Crane’s shoulder, giving him a shake.
“Lee? Can you wake a little?”
One hazel eye opened and rolled upwards to peer at Morton.
“How long have I slept?” Lee groused, frowning. He didn’t remember falling asleep. Immediately he was suspicious of the meds Chip had plied him with earlier.
Chip saw the question in Lee’s eyes and grinned. “Now, would I slip you something to make you sleep?”
Lee growled as he threw the blanket off. “Gladly.”
“You needed the sleep and don’t argue with me. I’m not apologizing,” Chip replied coldly. Lee continued to glare at him, sitting on the edge of the mattress. “How’s the head?”
“Manageable. Did you want something or did you drop in to harass me?”
Chip silently breathed a sigh of thanks. Lee didn’t seem angry, and if he could, Chip was going to try and convince him to go back to sleep. “Radio’s fixed. Jamie is on his way.”
Lee let out a deep breath. “Ohh, that’s great. How is the admiral?”
“Asleep, the same place you need to be. I was nice and I woke you to tell you the cavalry is on its way. Now go back to sleep. There isn’t anything you can do except get some rest. You’ve had precious little of that lately. Please?”
“I hate it when you beg,” Lee grumbled but did swing his long legs back into the bed. Chip grabbed the blanket and pulled it back over his friend. “You gonna read me a bed time story as well, Mr. Morton?” Lee muttered.
“Sure. Once upon a time, there was a stubborn commander who started listening to everything his exec had to say and they lived happily ever after,” Chip said trying to keep the laughter out of his voice.
“Some fantasy world you live in, Morton. Wake me when Jamie gets here,” Lee grumbled one last time. Closing his eyes, Lee was actually surprised that he seemed to be drifting off once more. He was asleep before he actually heard Chip’s answer of ‘aye aye, Skipper.”
With a new glass of water and two more pills, Chip walked the hall toward Serena’s room. He was feeling pretty good about himself for getting Lee to go back to sleep and get the rest he badly needed. He wasn’t so sure about the success he was going to have with Serena. He found the young woman sitting on the edge of the bed, bent over and coughing weakly
“You okay? You need anything?” Chip asked, waiting for the rejection. Serena glanced up at him, and with a deep shuddering breath she nodded.
“I think I’m going to be sick again.”
“Then I’ll help you,” Chip said quietly setting the glass and pills on the table by the bed. Gently, he helped her off the bed and to the bathroom. He held her long, auburn hair out of her face as she retched, finally ending in dry heaves as there was nothing left in her stomach.
Chip ran cool water over an already damp washrag and handed it to Serena. Slowly she washed off her face, feeling horrible and disgusting. Without another word, she let Chip guide her back to bed and settle her in once more. Any shred of dignity she felt she might have left was just washed down the drain and in all honesty, she was too sick to care anymore. Not that it would have mattered anyhow.
Curling up on her side, tying to get her stomach to calm down, she glanced back up to Chip, still hovering over the bed. “Thank you,” she sighed weakly.
Chip sat down on the edge of the mattress. “You’re welcome. All you have to do is ask. I’m happy to help.”
Dad? How weird does that sound? The admiral is a father…”The admiral is resting. He’s going to be just fine as soon as Jamie gets here.”
“Lee says you’re a handy person to have around,” Serena said as she closed her eyes and settled under the covers. But as she tried to get comfortable, she began coughing again and couldn’t seem to stop. She seemed unable to take a breath and Chip had a moment of panic as she gasped for air.
“Easy, just relax, let me help you,” Chip urged, and pulled her from her curled position to sit up, leaning against his chest. She began to breathe easier and slumped against him, completely spent. She leaned her head against his shoulder and curled one hand under her chin. She was seriously comfortable and Chip hated to move her. Honestly, he liked having her leaning against him, breathing in the faint scent of honeysuckle that seemed to follow her. She must like a certain perfume or shampoo. Hesitantly, he moved one hand up till it rested on the crook of her elbow. She didn’t protest.
“You’re a comfortable pillow, Mr. Morton,” she muttered. With another deep sigh, she relaxed further and Chip felt her slipping away.
“See, I am handy to have around,” Chip said quietly. But her breathing had slowed once more and he could tell she was asleep. Carefully, so that he didn’t wake her, Chip shifted his position until he was more comfortable and with a sigh of his own, he closed his eyes, intending to simply rest till Jamie arrived.
He was asleep in a matter of minutes.
Lee bolted awake as a very familiar whine cut through the air. He knew that sound. The Flying Sub was coming in low, possibly to land on the lake. He threw the blankets off and staggered to his feet, expecting to find Chip nearby to grumble at him for moving too fast.
No such person growled at him as he made his way downstairs to the living room. The admiral was still on the couch and Chip was nowhere to be found.
“Chip?” Lee called out, poking his head in the kitchen. He expected to find Morton face-first in the refrigerator but there was no blond to be found and no sign he’d been there. Lee realized with a start that the rain that that plagued them since they started this trip had finally stopped.
Going on a hunch, Lee navigated his way upstairs to Serena’s room. What he found made him smile.
Serena Harrison was deeply asleep, curled up against the broad chest of his best friend, one Charles Morton. Chip’s eyes were closed and with one arm curled protectively around the archaeologist, both looked about as comfortable as they could get.
Grinning from ear to ear, Lee crossed both arms over his chest and leaned against the door. It didn’t look to him like she was pushing Chip away. Of course, there could be a perfectly logical explanation for why she seemingly fell asleep in Morton’s arms. Lee wondered how long it would take for Chip to realize he was being watched.
With a snort and a low groan, Chip’s eyes flew open as the distinctive whine of the flying sub flew over one more time. The second pass would confirm the cabin’s location before Sharkey landed in the lake.
“Lee? Was that the Flying Sub?” Chip blinked, looking down at the woman sleeping in his arms. He glanced back to Lee, still grinning like a Cheshire cat. “What are you grinning at?”
“Me? Nothing. Not a thing. So, are you comfortable, or do you need help getting up? You look pretty comfortable to me.”
“Just help me shift her a bit. I think she’s pretty well out of it and I don’t want to wake her,”
Still grinning, Lee helped reposition the sleeping woman and Chip slid off the bed. Lee couldn’t stop the near giggle that escaped him as he pulled the blankets back up over her.
“What? She was having trouble breathing lying down. It’s easier to breathe sitting up, you know that,” Chip hissed. “Stop leering at me like that. It’s not what you think!”
Without another word, Lee led the way down the hall to the den. He found the admiral sitting up, blinking as the early morning sunlight streamed through the huge windows.
“Good morning, sir,” Lee greeted, still grinning.
Nelson raised a curious eyebrow but didn’t question Lee’s apparent good mood. The smile was something he hadn’t seen in awhile and he wasn’t about to jinx it by questioning where it came from. As Chip brought up the rear, Nelson had a pretty good hunch he was looking at the reason, or part of the reason for Lee’s good humor.
“Morning, gentlemen. I thought I heard the Flying Sub.”
“You did. Jamie and company should be beating a path to our door any minute now.”
True to his word, the front door opened and Will Jamieson trudged in, the heavy black duffle in one hand, his blue eyes swiftly accessing the company of men in the den of the cabin.
“Well, do I have to make you form a single file?” Jamieson growled. Lee was grinning as Jamieson’s gaze locked onto him. “You. Sit. I’ll get to you later. Admiral, you stay put,” he said as Nelson was trying to rise up off the couch.
There was a second of defiance in Nelson’s sapphire eyes then he remembered WHY he was in this situation to start with. With a defeated sigh, Nelson resettled himself on the couch and let Jamie get on with the job he’d been hired to do.
“Serena’s worse then I am,” Nelson said, trying to diffuse the doctor’s ire. Jamie wasn’t buying it.
“I’ll get to her in a bit. A few more minutes won’t matter at this point. Deep breath, Admiral. Okay, now another,” Jamie instructed, listening to the sounds of Nelson’s lungs. He spared a glance to Lee, watching with concern.
“Relax, Lee. It’s not life threatening—just pneumonia, from the sounds of it. I won’t know for certain till I get some x-rays. I brought you a visitor. Actually ‘brought’ isn’t the right word,” Jamie tried to explain as Lee’s look of concern morphed into one of puzzlement.
“Visitor?” he repeated and spun around with a sneaky suspicion about whom Jamie was talking about.
“You seriously didn’t think I was just going to sit in Santa Barbara and wait for word, did you?” Wendy Morton said tartly as she dropped a solidly packed duffle bag to the floor. She sauntered up to Lee, planted a quick kiss on his cheek and then sashayed up the stairs. “I assume Serena’s up here?” she queried with amusement.
“Jamie, how could you let her come along? She didn’t need to be here!” Lee exclaimed, switching his attention from the doctor on the couch to the blonde woman now disappearing up the staircase.
“Skipper, if you’d like to tell that woman she can’t do something, be my guest. Besides, she said she could help deal with Serena. If she’s anything like her father, I figure I could use all the help I could get,” Jamieson replied dryly.
Nelson glared at the doctor but the sapphire eyes danced with a touch of amusement. “Doctor, are you suggesting I’m stubborn?” Nelson challenged.
Jamieson snorted. “I would never suggest such a thing. I’ll come right out and say it.”
“Honest, isn’t he?” Lee said with a glance to Chip.
“Skipper, I thought I told you to sit,” Jamieson warned.
Lee glanced back to Chip, looking for salvation. The blond shrugged.
“Not me, pal. The man has needles. And a thermometer. That he doesn’t stick in your mouth. Count me out.”
“Coward,” Lee griped has he plopped down in the nearest chair. Still, as long as the admiral was getting the help he obviously needed, Lee couldn’t argue too much. It was worth having Jamie poke and prod him if the admiral was being taken care of.
Wendy eased down beside Serena, dropping a hand over the other woman’s forehead. Warm but not so much as to be a worry. The redhead stirred and opened a green eye.
“Wen? How’d you get here?”
“I flew,” said Wendy with a smug look. Serena frowned.
“In the Flying Sub. Chip said you and the admiral were pretty sick and so I tagged along.”
Serena groaned and rolled over. Her chest ached with the very effort of breathing. “I had the weirdest dream. I dreamt I fell asleep, leaning against Chip and he was holding me so I didn’t slide,” she said. She could still feel Chip’s strong arms holding her close, the feel of his breathing under her and his heartbeat lulling her to sleep…no that had to have been a dream.
“I’m sure he wouldn’t have minded being in your dream. He likes you, you know.”
“Yeah sure, whatever. Listen, I feel like crap, can’t you just let me die in piece?” Serena pulled the blankets up over her head and just wished everything would stop aching. She felt the blanket gently tugged away and heard Wendy’s soft laughter.
“Nope, no can do. You have to get better so you can go to Florida. The grant came through; you and three other researchers are going to play in the warm tropical waters off the tip of the Sunshine State.”
Serena snapped her head up and regretted it as everything spun. “Ohhh. Remind me not to do that so fast next time. When are we going?”
Wendy rolled her eyes. “Relax, woman. Not for another two weeks yet. Plenty of time for you to recover and make a good impression for the institute. Now. Let’s get you cleaned up a bit, get you into some fresh clothes. You’ll feel better for the flight back.”
Wendy blinked. “Dad? You’re calling him Dad now? What did you come down with?”
“Smart ass! He—he suggested I call him something other than admiral. I’m trying. He wants to be my father and I want to make this as easy as possible, for both of us.”
“It’s a start, girlfriend, it’s a start,” Wendy said with a smile. “I don’t suppose you and Lee hashed anything out?”
Serena blinked. Had she? She remembered Lee telling her that Mason was dead. Lee’s eyes, full of concern and worry. Not the dull flat eyes from her past, or the eyes of the man who had attacked her. There was no comparison.
“Maybe. You gonna lend me hand or what? I feel all grubby. I want a shower.”
“Slow. First get up then we’ll talk shower. Come on with you. One step at a time.”
Wendy helped Serena out of bed and toward the bathroom. One step at a time. Yes, that about summed up everything about her friend. One step at a time.
There was no getting around it. Harry wheedled, cajoled, and even threatened but Jamieson wasn’t listening. Harry was destined for a suite in Med Bay and there was nothing he could do to convince the doctor otherwise.
“Forget it admiral. You’re congested and while I can’t prove it, I’m sure you’re got a wonderful infection blossoming in those tobacco-laced lungs of yours. You hired me to do a job and I’m jolly well going to do it, if I have to sedate you for the trip back to do it.”
Nelson glared at his doctor and friend. “You wouldn’t.”
Lee Crane, leaning against the entrance to the hall, was trying hard not to laugh. So many times it was he or Chip tying to talk their way out of a stay in Jamie’s domain and for once it was an oddity to find Nelson on the receiving end of the equally stubborn doctor. Nelson’s burn-through-the-bulkheads glare shifted targets, settling on Lee.
“Do you find something amusing, Midshipmen Crane?”
A poorly disguised bark of laughter—female laughter—from upstairs indicated the comment had been overheard. Lee felt the heat rush up his neck, recalling other times in the past when Nelson had called on him in class, the words ‘Midshipmen Crane’ spoken in much the same tone as the word ‘cockroach.’
“No, sir, Captain Nelson sir, nothing is amusing. Sir.”
“A little heavy on the sir-sandwich there, aren’t you, lad?” Nelson replied dryly as Jamie shook his head and rolled his eyes.
“It’s the whack on the head. Shook loose all those ‘sirs’ he swallowed whole when he was a plebe,” Chip replied around mouthfuls of turkey sandwich. With the casualties of this ill-fated vacation now in the capable hands of a real physician Chip could take the time to feed his stomach, recently complaining of its empty state. He munched down on another bite, remembering he had something to say. “I’ve been thinking,” he began as soon as he disposed of the last bite.
Lee, from his leaning against the doorframe, pressed the index finger of his right hand against the index finger of his left hand, forming a ‘cross.’ With his ‘cross’ held before him, he took two steps forward, toward Chip as he stood in the kitchen door. “Back! Foul creature! Back!” he intoned, with his eyes dancing. He got a wadded napkin tossed at him for his theatric efforts, which he promptly tossed back to Chip.
“Admiral, I think your boys need a time out,” Jamie said in response to the horseplay running rampant.
“Better here than the boat,” the admiral shot back. He had changed into clean clothes and while he was still coughing and moving slow, he looked and sounded better. Faced with the prospect of taking the flight back to Santa Barbara in Sleepyland, he had opted to behave and not attract attention to himself. His plan was to get Serena to take the bunk and if he was clever, he might actually pull this off. “What’s on your mind, Chip?”
Lee was obviously about to say something but the appearance of Wendy gently leading a slightly wobbly Serena distracted him long enough for Chip to speak his mind. She glanced up to look Lee in the eye and then gave him a very slight smile, for whatever reason. Lee returned it, feeling a little better now that she didn’t seem to be on the edge of panic around him. He pulled his attention back to what Chip was saying.
“The Flying Sub’s going to be crammed; I’ll stay behind and clean things up, and I can drive back when the bridge is repaired.”
“I was thinking of having Kowalski stay and bring the cars back. Your rig has a little more horsepower, plenty to pull my rental back.” Nelson said thoughtfully.
Wendy took the opportunity to pipe up. “I can stay. Once you get our resident marine archaeologist here loaded up, my job is done. I can drive Chip’s rig and he can drive your rental. Problem solved.”
“You want to stay behind?” Chip glanced from his sister to Lee and back again. Wendy smiled serenely.
“What? Can’t I take a break and spent a little time with my big brother?” she inquired innocently.
Serena shuffled past Lee toward the den. She flinched involuntarily as Lee rested a hand on her shoulder but she didn’t panic. She took a deep breath and very calmly reached out with a finger to poked Lee in the ribs.
“Hey, what am I, the Pillsbury Doughboy?” he chuckled, slapping gently at her hand.
The young woman snorted. “Not near enough dough,” she replied before she glanced over to Chip. “Your sister wants something. Be afraid.”
Lee couldn’t stop the snort of laughter that escaped him. He knew Wendy well enough to know that statement wasn’t far from the truth. Well, Chip grew up with her. He was a big boy—he could deal with her!
Jamieson, while unwilling to break the good mood of the group, understood the need to get the admiral and Serena back to Med Bay as soon as possible. “Gentlemen, ladies, I think we’ve lollygagged long enough. It’s past check out time and most of you have VIP suites in Med Bay.”
“You’re not sticking me in Med Bay,” Lee declared, as if the doctor were inclined to listen.
Jamie speared Lee with one of those looks, a look that said, ‘I can’t believe that you would even think of telling me what to do’. “I’ll stick you wherever I’ve a mind to stick you, Skipper. Don’t argue with me or both you and the admiral will take a nice long nap,” the doctor warned.
Serena was trying hard not to smile as she listened to the banter between the four. The odd relationship between these men never ceased to amaze her. She realized that Jamieson had turned an intense blue-eyed gaze of his own on her.
“Young lady, do you have anything to add to the hilarity?” he asked with the ghost of a smile.
“What? I’m not doing anything! I’m a good girl, I promise,” she insisted and had the satisfaction of seeing Jamie laugh.
“See? She’s a quick learner. Chip, let’s get these invalids to the Flying Sub. I’ll feel better about everyone once I’ve done a complete work up on them in PROPER facilities.”
Nelson insisted on moving under his own power. Lee was happy to let Sharkey take over. The chief seemed to know just how close to hover and not get his head taken off. If anybody could handle the admiral, in whatever state he was in, it was Chief Sharkey.
Lee hesitated following, watching as Wendy led Serena out the door, leaving him and Chip alone. Jamieson paused at the door and glanced back with a curious expression on his face. Lee raised a hand.
“I’ll be along in just a minute. I promise.”
“Chip?” Will raised an eyebrow at the blond.
“I’ll see to it he doesn’t get lost. Just give us a few. You’ll need that long to sort out who bunks down and who gets a chair,” Chip replied. Jamieson slipped out the door, leaving Chip and Lee alone.
“Well?” Chip asked. Shoving his hands in his back pockets he faced Lee, curious as to what was going on.
“Well, what?” Lee repeated.
“Did you want to say something?”
“Thanks for coming up here with me.”
“Oh, it’s been a blast; hauling your six out from under a tree, getting shot down by Serena, finding the admiral half-dead from pneumonia. Most fun I’ve had in years.”
“You’re impossible,” Lee replied with a shake of his head. He ran a hand through his dark hair, mussing the already tousled dark curls. A nervous habit—but what had triggered it?
“I’m blond. Some people will tell you there’s no difference. Seriously, Lee. What gives?”
For a second Lee was silent. His eyes drifted to some far off place and he grew distant, remembering. “I think I can deal with this now,” he said finally, his eyes still seeing something only visible to Lee. Chip held his tongue, waiting.
“I keep thinking how completely helpless I was to stop him. How Mason was going to kill everyone and I couldn’t do anything to prevent it. I couldn’t warn anybody. If Sharkey hadn’t shown up when he had, you’d have never found Serena or me. Mason would have gotten away with at least part of his plan.”
“But it didn’t happen. I’m fine. Another week and Jamie will probably clear me for duty. Serena will be fine. She doesn’t freak out around you anymore. She seems a little timid yet but she’ll get over that in time. She’s tougher than she gives herself credit for. And you—you’ve come through worse things. We both have. I can’t expect you to put your shadows behind you overnight.
“That’s what it’s like, being followed by a company of shadows. You know they’re there but when you try to catch a glimpse of them, they’re gone. It helps when I’ve got people I can trust around me.”
“You’re my brother. I’d do anything for you, you know that. All you have to do is ask. We’ve been too far together and we’ve got a long way to go. So you think you’re gonna be alright?”
Lee nodded. “Yeah. I think I will. I think I can start to put it behind me now.”
“Good. Now, march. Before Jamie comes back and gets hostile. You can’t argue with the man and his syringes.”
Lee and Chip walked out of the cabin together. Three people milled about on the bank by the submersible. Jamieson was watching the cabin, arms crossed over his chest. Lee waved and he saw the doctor’s posture relax. The two continued their slow walk down to the Flying Sub. With the boat dock under water, Sharkey had maneuvered the little yellow craft onto the beach for easier disembarking and loading.
“One more thing, Chip; Wendy knows there is a leak. She’s working with Angie to try and track down this Rinaldi person. Once Jamie clears you, you’ll probably be on this and you needed to know.”
Chip nodded. “She’s got good instincts. If she can keep it low key, I won’t have a problem. I’ll have a talk with her about it before we head back. Maybe she has some ideas.”
“Sounds like a plan. Well, I guess I’ll be seeing you when the river goes down. Take care buddy. Try not to get eaten by a bear or something.” Lee said. Chip just rolled his eyes. From his lookout point on the beach, Kowalski watched and waited, ready to offer his skipper a hand if he needed it. He caught Morton’s eye and the exec nodded slightly.
“Skipper, let me give you a hand. Doc said climbing around might make you dizzy again,” Ski said carefully, knowing exactly how to phrase the request without seeming to be hovering. Lee, without comment, allowed the rating to help him over the lip of the hatch. With a smile and a salute, Ski shut the hatch and Chip heard the wheel turn and lock.
Chip motioned to Wendy and the two Morton siblings walked up the bank as the Flying Sub powered up. Kicking up a spray of mud and water, the craft finally eased out into the lake. It skimmed across the surface like a thrown skipping stone then gracefully took to the air.
The craft circled the lake once, came in low, and then dipped hard to port as Wendy and Chip waved. Then she lifted her nose, gained altitude until she was just barely a dot overhead, and vanished into the blue sky.
Chip found himself deep in thought as he and his sister walked back toward the cabin. In a couple of days the river would go back down and the locals could get a temporary bridge up. In the meantime, the admiral and Serena could work on recovery and maybe finally Lee could finally banish his shadows, once and for all.