by Fidelma C.
Lee Crane shut the door of his condo behind him, dropped his duffle at his feet, leaned wearily back against said door, closed his eyes and began to laugh weakly.
It had been one hell of a cruise. Oh, not the usual stuff that Seaview had come to expect thrown at her – no sea monsters or alien life forms or even man-eating plants this time. He’d almost have preferred to deal with them. No, just one precocious, ‘with-attitude’ sixteen-year-old child prodigy and her somewhat distracted but, when reminded of her parental role, over-protective mother.
Lee pushed himself upright and grabbed his sea-bag, walking directly to his bedroom and stashing it neatly on the ottoman at the end of the bed. He would unpack later. Years of naval discipline saw him hanging his coat in the closet and placing his cover on its designated shelf. He threw open the window to let in some welcome air, doing the same in the living room. Despite having a cleaning company service the place once a week, he felt it needed airing. Pulling at his tie and undoing the top buttons of his khaki shirt, he snagged a long neck beer from the refrigerator and retreated onto the deck. Slouching into one of the beautifully carved wooden Adirondack chairs Chip had persuaded him to buy he gazed contentedly at the view of the ocean that never failed to soothe him.
It was one of the perks of working at NIMR – this condo on the Institute grounds, both master bedroom and living area facing the ocean he loved. If he couldn’t be on his boat, this was one of the few other places he felt truly happy. He sighed as he took a long draught of the ice-cold beer. Jamie wouldn’t approve. He’d prefer Lee to eat a decent meal, forego beer and caffeine and crash for at least eight hours straight. But not even the thought of the CMO’s blatant disapproval could wipe the grin from Lee’s handsome face. Wiggling to get comfortable, he settled cosily into the cushioned softness and allowed his mind to drift.
It had all started tamely enough. Seaview had been on one of her routine charting missions in the mid Atlantic when the call had come in for Nelson from the State Department.
“Harry, the British government are requesting our assistance with a rather unusual assignment.”
Nelson sighed. However, it wasn’t unknown for the ‘rather unusual’ comment to precede requests for Seaview’s unique services. “OK, Arthur, who, why, where and when?”
Electing to take the video conference call in the observation nose of the giant submarine, he beckoned his senior officers to join him from the control room before sealing off the area.
“Are we secure, Harry?”
“Totally, Arthur,” came the wry response as Nelson lit a cigarette. Chip dropped into a chair while Lee perched himself on the edge of the table. “Crane and Morton are present, as you can see, but I’ll need them fully briefed, in any case, for whatever task you’re going to assign us. I assume you have something you wish for us to undertake.”
“Oh boy, do I, Harry,” the Secretary of State uttered feelingly. “And you’re probably not going to thank me for this one.”
Nelson exchanged speaking looks with his senior officers. “When did I ever, Arthur? But it helps fund the payroll.”
“This is a little – adrift from your usual parameters, Harry.” Arthur Butler’s tone caused the hackles to rise with all three men. Their familiarity with the high profile politician had them trading anxious glances. The hesitancy in his voice was uncharacteristic for the charismatic legislator. “We have a… potentially embarrassing situation for both the United States and Great Britain.
One of our senior foreign diplomats – a possible contender for an ambassadorial posting – is going through a rough divorce.” Butler could already see Nelson’s disbelief. “I know, Harry, I know! What has this got to do with Seaview? Hear me out. Please. Her teenage daughter is a renowned violinist and composer, a veritable wunderkind. You’ve heard of Carina Robson?”
At Nelson’s raised eyebrow, Butler hurried on. “I can see you have. She’s Petra Sonderman’s daughter. It’s been kept quiet – for several reasons. Petra is – or rather has been – on the fast track here in the US, politically. Her soon to be ex-husband is a British attaché. While her career has been on the rise, his, unfortunately, is on the wane. He has a rather regrettable problem – at the gaming tables; frequents a couple of unorthodox clubs where he has raised some substantial debts. He sees his daughter as the way out of his financial problems. And if she fulfils her not inconsiderable potential, he’ll be right. Unfortunately the mother is currently seeking a divorce and a custody battle is imminent. Which could prove pretty nasty for both parties and, inevitably, both countries would be drawn into the fray. That could be decidedly uncomfortable for both our governments. Which is where you come in, Harry.”
At the winding down of the Secretary’s explanation, Nelson crushed his half smoked cigarette out in the ashtray, eyeing both his officers bemused faces before he focused his attention on the view screen. “Oh? And what, exactly, is it that you want us to do, Arthur?” He could almost feel the palpable tension his question engendered from the younger men.
“I know this is way outside your usual remit, Harry. But we don’t have too many options right now. Petra’s presence is vital to some negotiations taking place back here in Washington but she won’t leave the UK without her daughter. We need to get them both back stateside as soon as possible and begin damage control. Each of the parties wants sole custody. By the way, from what I know, the kid has an incredible future ahead of her.” There was a wry note to the politician’s tone and all three listeners felt a twinge of pity for the girl who was undoubtedly cast as ‘pig in the middle’ of the warring factions.
“Now, we can’t risk trying to get them out through the usual channels. The father has threatened to make a public scene if his soon to be ex-wife tries to take his daughter – a minor - out of their country of residence. So the usual exits aren’t feasible. He’s not without friends and has already been courting the Press with a sob story and has a virtual media circus ready to kick into high gear if Petra and Carina attempt to leave via any of the usual airports or seaports. Neither of our governments is in favour of that sort of media hype. Not to mention what it would do to the girl.
The Brits want to deal with Robson privately but they can’t as long as he’s making threats. The timing couldn’t be worse with the G9 talks coming up in Geneva next month. This has got to be handled discretely and the President thinks your current position in the mid Atlantic could well be fortunate. We can get the mother and daughter to the south of England quite easily. No one would have reason to question if Seaview put into a UK naval base for urgent repairs – should she have a problem. We can smuggle Petra and Carina on board and, by the time Robson or the Press finds out, you’ll have put to sea and there won’t be a darn thing he can do about it. Once they’re safely out of the country, the British will place a gag order on him and he’ll face jail if he spills anything to the media.”
Lee wriggled more comfortably into the cushions, toeing his shoes off as he relaxed further. He ignored the slight rumble from his stomach, instead taking another swig from the bottle. This one was going down way too easily.
Crane had been initially distracted from the personalities by the need for secrecy. Seaview’s stealthy entrance and egress from the commercial naval base in the south of England had gone without a hitch. They’d taken the passengers on board and slipped out of the naval dockyard without the Press getting wind of their having been there.
Their first clue that there was a possible problem came when Ms. Sonderman complained to the Chief about their accommodations. Sharkey had assumed – erroneously as it turned out – that mother and daughter would be more comfortable sharing quarters and had assigned them, under the exec’s direction, a two-person cabin. Ms. Ambassadorial Candidate had had rather a lot to say about that. Sharkey had hastily given instructions to have two separate cabins prepared – to much sighing and rolling of the eyes from the daughter. It quickly became clear there wasn’t much emotional bonding between mother and child. A child who thought of herself as anything but!
Lee almost laughed aloud as he propped his feet on the deck rail, enjoying the latent heat from the waning sun that cast increasingly long orange fingers across the slowly darkening blue of the sky and the iridescent silver of the water. Things had gone so quickly from bad to worse that he’d had barely enough time to assimilate them.
Nelson had invited their guests to dinner in the Nose their first evening at sea – a treat usually reserved for visiting dignitaries or when Nelson was feeling in a particularly expansive mood. It had been an utter disaster.
Cookie had excelled himself. He’d grumbled all afternoon, his gripes beginning as soon as Nelson had asked him, via the COB, for the favour and had escalated to full blown temperament by the time the stewards had scurried to bring the food forward. Their visit to the UK port had been concluded so quickly he hadn’t had a chance to lay in any fresh supplies. How on earth was a premier chef of his ilk supposed to produce a meal fit for a lady, who dined in embassies and consulates all over the world, at a moment’s notice? It had made the man grumpy and there was nothing – well, nothing short of a grumpy XO – that could affect the mood of the boat so pervasively.
Having gotten wind of it, Morton had gone out of his way to visit the galley before heading to the Nose and managed to smooth at least some of Cookie’s ruffled feathers. They hadn’t stayed smooth for long.
Nelson had asked some of the younger off duty J.O.’s to join them for dinner – a rare treat indeed – but he’d wanted to bring down the age profile to something closer to the teenager’s tender years.
Lee took another sip of the rapidly disappearing beer and a snort of laughter emerged, his eyes sparkling at the memory. Lt. Chris James and Lt. j.g. Doug Taylor had tried their best to entertain the wannabe prima donna but she was having none of it.
“How come you don’t invite anyone other than officers to dinner, Admiral?” she challenged, earning a glare and a verbal reprimand from her mother. “Really, Mother, don’t you find it elitist and just a tad contrived?” Obviously pleased at her mother’s embarrassment she pushed further. “Admiral Nelson, perhaps you could ask the dishy sailor who delivered my luggage to join us. At least he was more my age than any of these guys are.” She cast disparaging glances at Lee, Chip, Jamieson and even Chris and a very embarrassed Doug – who was all of twenty-four years of age.
His XO mask firmly in place – although Lee had thought he’d detected a tiny twitch at the corner of Chip’s mouth – Morton had answered. “I’m sorry, Miss Robson, but Seaman Riley is on duty tonight.”
Her shrug bespoke ‘whatever’ in the way of teenagers worldwide. Unfortunately all the males at the table were bachelors and the nuances of teen boredom were lost on them.
Nelson attempted conversation – aided by the senior officers – but to little avail. The J.O.’s retreated into the welcome discretion of silence. Mother and daughter had little to say to each other and less to contribute to the conviviality that usually went with dinner in the Observation Nose.
The first course - Goat’s Cheese on a bed of baby greens with a raspberry dressing - had been cleared and the entree of Leg of Lamb - cooked with rosemary and garlic -was about to be served by Cookie, who was ceremoniously sharpening his carving knife, when a dual gasp of dismay halted him.
“Oh my goodness! Didn’t Washington inform you that my daughter and I are both vegetarian?”
Lee almost choked on the last swallow of beer as he recalled the appalled look on Cookie’s face. It was matched only by Morton’s – he knew there was some serious grovelling to be done if any one of the 125 member crew was to get a decent meal before reaching the US east coast. Lee had almost been able to read the hasty calculations Chip was mentally totting, wondering how long they’d be able to run at emergency flank before the reactors packed up.
Setting the empty bottle to one side, too relaxed to get up and hit the kitchen for another, he hunkered down further into the cushioned depths and allowed his exhaustion free rein.
Tired as he was, sleep refused to come. Perhaps it was the niggling guilt.
That first dinner having proved a disaster, Nelson hadn’t attempted a repeat. In fact, muttering excuses about an experiment in his laboratory necessitating his full attention, he had appeared very little during the ensuing two days. Lee had wished he could use the same excuse. The ladies retired to their respective cabins, Cookie’s assistant having diplomatically proposed to personally deliver omelettes to their quarters – much to Cookie’s chagrin – and the remaining officers had eaten in subdued mood and didn’t linger.
Thinking a night’s sleep might put things into a more harmonious perspective, Lee had completed his usual walk through of the boat and headed for his cabin. Knowing his steward would have ensured a clean uniform awaited him in his closet for the morning, he hadn’t hesitated in helping out the watch officer in Engineering with a stuck valve. As a result he had a streak of oil on one cheek and his shirtfront and the knees of his khaki pants were grubby from the access panel he’d crawled into.
The last person he’d thought he would be unlucky enough to bump into was his next-door neighbour – and best friend. Morton was as immaculate as ever – and raised a disapproving brow at the sight of his grubby CO.
“What ventilation shaft have you been creeping around tonight, Lee?” he asked mildly as he followed him into his cabin.
Lee’s exasperated ‘Stow it’ was halted at the sight that greeted him and he was instantly thankful for Morton’s stalwart presence. He had absently hit the light switch as he’d entered – failing to notice the cabin was already lit by the desk lamp – and the sight of the teenager in robe and slippers curled up in his large leather desk chair had brought him up short. Chip had almost cannoned into him as he’d stopped so abruptly and the exec instantly took charge, admonishing Ms. Robson that she was totally out of line by trespassing in the captain’s quarters.
She’d flicked them both a knowing look that, as XO of the world’s greatest nuclear submarine, Chip had wished he could patent. It would strip paint off a bulkhead at forty paces. Was it something all female teens came armoured with, or was this one something special? He’d shuddered to think that the entire female sex cut their teeth at such a tender age with glares as potent as that!
Her put down was instant and totally effective. “Chill, big guy. It’s not like I had designs on him or something,” she informed Chip, totally ignoring Lee as she pushed herself up out of his chair and sauntered towards the door. “I figured the captain had to have the best digs on board and just wanted to see what it looked like. No big deal. Besides, you’re all way too old for me.”
Dismissively she pushed past them and left them stupefied behind her. Chip eventually managed a growl. “Were we really that obnoxious at sixteen?”
“Can’t speak for you, Morton, but me, I was a total angel,” Lee smirked, relieved now that the danger was gone.
“Yeah, right!” Chip snorted. “And ‘angel’ ain’t quite how I remember it, Junior! But seriously, Lee, lock your cabin door. We don’t need the complication of a bored teen with wanderlust. I’ll pass the word through Sharkey to the crew, she’s dynamite and she’s jailbait. And she’s potential trouble with a capital T!”
If Lee had taken his XO’s words at face value, forewarned would have been forearmed. A weak snort of laughter was all he could manage as he tried to decide whether it was worth the trouble of moving to grab another beer or if he was too content to stir.
The age profile of Seaview’s crew was raised considerably by the presence of Admiral Harriman Nelson, Lt. Commander Will Jamieson M.D., Cookie – better known in civilian life as Joseph McKenna – and COB Francis Sharkey. The former and latter were bachelors, Doc was a widower, unfortunately childless, and the rest of the crew were either single or married with young families. Cookie was the only man aboard who had raised teenagers – fortunately two of them had been daughters.
Seaview’s luck in having that particular area of expertise wasn’t initially apparent. Following the catastrophe of the previous evening’s meal, Cookie wasn’t entirely appeased even when his skipper ate heartily and commented enthusiastically – after a swift kick in the shins from his XO – on the quality of the breakfast buffet he’d prepared. It didn’t go unnoticed that neither Ms. Sonderman nor her daughter appeared for breakfast at the posted times.
Chip and Lee had taken their last mug of coffee to the conn and were busy with the handover of the shift from Lt. James, checking their position against the GPS system and their charts, Chip verifying that the navigational computers agreed, when a volubly protesting COB entered via the aft hatch, trying to keep up with a five foot dynamo.
“Sorry, sirs,” he was practically out of breath. “I’ve been trying to tell Ms. Robson that there are areas of the boat which are restricted to civilian personnel. She doesn’t seem to…ah… kinda appreciate that there are parts of Seaview that are not safe for her to be in, sirs. Perhaps you could, like, talk to her. Please. I’ve had to ‘escort’ her from the Reactor Room, the Missile Room, the Circuitry Room and… the Crew’s Quarters already this morning.” He was almost wringing his hands at the last – Francis Sharkey was a COB who looked after his men.
Both Lee and Chip had fought down identical grins at the aghast chief and had firmly re-enforced the off limit areas to the barely-straining-to-be-polite teenager. They’d hardly begun to enunciate their various points before the girl had - ignoring them completely - drifted off towards the hydrophone station, having spotted Riley, who’d just taken over on Alpha Watch.
“Hey, how goes it! Missed you at dinner last night. You might have made it less of a yawn than it was. At least you’re nearer my age than any of these old fogies!” She nudged the rating who cast an embarrassed glance at his superiors.
Chip stepped in immediately, the epitome of the stoic exec. “Ms. Robson, Seaman Riley is on duty right now and as such is unable to respond. When he is off watch there will be time for you to catch up with him.”
Lee saw an immediate way out of all their problems. “Mr. Morton, perhaps you could re-assign Riley to escort Ms. Robson during her visit with us. He can ensure she doesn’t wander inadvertently into any restricted areas and, both being musically inclined, I’m sure they’ll have a lot in common.”
The mightily relieved look on Sharkey’s face was counter-balanced by the dubious one on Morton’s, the trepidacious glance that Riley gave the command crew and the bright, gleeful one on Carina Robson’s. None of them had noticed that Cookie himself had come forward to replace the carafe of coffee that was a resident feature in the Nose. Thankfully the one that hit the deck was empty or there would have been one hell of a mess to clear up.
The sound that escaped from Lee’s throat was part groan / part snicker. Despite the reservations of Chip and Cookie, things had worked out eventually – perhaps not exactly in the way he’d anticipated. But it had ensured the latter half of the journey was a smooth ride for the boat, her passengers and her senior staff - well, most of her senior staff.
As he drifted in that easy comfort zone between wakefulness and sleep, he wondered if Chip would ever forgive him.
What Lee Crane knew about teenagers – and teenage girls in particular – could be written on the head of a pin. Or so he had been blisteringly informed by his irate XO when Chip eventually cornered the captain in his cabin before they headed for a late dinner.
Late because Lee had been running maintenance drills all over the boat in an attempt to stay out of the way of both their passengers and, more importantly at least from Morton’s point of view, because he had spent the better part of the last two hours smoothing ruffled feathers on the part of the chief, the senior ratings, Kowalski and Patterson, plus trying to extricate Stuart Riley from a situation not of his own making. Not to mention having to deal with five-foot-nothing of pouting female and her acutely ticked off parent, who seemed to think her complaints would be taken more seriously if they were delivered at full volume.
Chip had a headache. He needed coffee – or a swift belt of something stronger – to fortify him before he had to go another round with that…that… woman. And it was all the fault of the man in front of him.
“Nice of you to toss in the ball and then desert the field just as the play starts to heat up, Lee,” he complained, his words deliberately inflammatory, refusing to allow himself to be even slightly mollified by the penitent under-the-lashes glance he received from his friend, “leaving yours truly to referee a pitched battle between our VIP passengers and four of our most trusted crewmembers. Between that and the admiral posting a ‘Do not Disturb’ sign on the door of his laboratory, I’d suggest you keep a low profile until we make port except that would leave me having to deal with them. Ms. Sonderman has a terminal case of verbal diarrhea on the subject, the girl has sulking and glaring down to a fine art, Sharkey and Patterson are sporting this ‘wounded’ look, while Ski wants to go for somebody’s jugular, and Riley…. Well, I don’t think poor Stu knows which end is up right now.” The last was said with particular feeling.
“Do you even know what happened?” Morton interrupted, for once allowing personal feelings to override protocol – a measure of his distress. Lee’s head popped up at the tone – he could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times Chip had fudged the line between XO and friend on board the boat. “Did the scuttlebutt permeate to the ballast tasks or wherever you’d hidden yourself?”
Lee drew himself up to his full height, his golden eyes flashing. There was only so much he would take. He saw Chip stiffen in response – knowing he’d been insubordinate – and his innate sense of fairness kicked back in. He couldn’t blame his exec for what obviously amounted to his own monumental screw-up – even if he wasn’t entirely sure just how he had screwed up. “OK, Chip, let’s back track here. Things have obviously been a little… tense with our guests today. Why don’t you fill me in over dinner or we’ll both be in Cookie’s bad books – and after last night I don’t think he needs any more ammunition.”
Both men shuddered companionably, having experienced Cookie’s wrath in the past. The old days of bread and water as punishment at sea had nothing on Seaview’s premier chef when he was in one of his moods – and it really didn’t take a lot to set him off. The captain was constantly in his baleful glare and, although Lee could protest that he’d eaten such a great breakfast, it wouldn’t be sufficient to excuse his absence at lunchtime – or for his tardiness tonight. At least now he’d have Chip to diffuse some of the pressure. He indicated the door, offering Chip to precede him, an olive branch – if a breach in etiquette.
Morton hesitated, then took a decisive step in the direction of the small head. “I need a couple of ibuprofen for this headache. You always have a stash.”
Lee had to snap his jaws together to keep them from dropping. He momentarily contemplated calling Jamie, it being such a rare occasion that Chip would voluntarily admit to needing a painkiller. Deciding that would be tantamount to suicide, he wisely kept his council and followed the XO to the Wardroom.
Twin frowns met them as they entered. Jamieson made no pretence of lying in wait for them and Cookie’s glower would have withered lesser mortals. “Don’t expect this to be half as good as it was two hours ago. Miracles – I don’t do.” He growled as he shoved plates of wonderfully aromatic food in front of them. Guiltily, the two senior officers knew that they had kept Cookie in the Officers’ Mess. Professional that he was, he wouldn’t leave until he knew the command staff had been fed – and they were under no illusions that what was put in front of them had been lying around for hours. Chip had no difficulty tucking in with a heartfelt thanks but it put additional pressure on Crane, who had a meagre appetite at best. He too added his thanks, knowing that he would have to put a hefty dent in the fare to satisfy both Cookie and Jamieson who – if the look on his face was any indication – knew he had skipped lunch.
Conceding to the inevitable, he sighed. “OK, Chip, lay it on me. Jamie, I take it by your presence that you’ve heard the scuttlebutt and have something to add.”
“Who, me, Skipper?” The medic answered innocently, waving his mug in the air. “I’m just enjoying a cup of Cookie’s best coffee.”
Identical snorts came from blond and brunet. Between bites, Chip filled them both in. Cookie was cleaning up in the galley but otherwise they had the place to themselves.
“Your little machinations this morning had unexpected results, Lee. Oh, it started off fair enough and Riley showed little Ms. Robson around the boat, successfully keeping her out of the restricted areas. Ms. Sonderman remained in her cabin working all morning but made her feelings very obviously known when her daughter elected to have lunch in the Crew’s Mess with Riley. Then – and I’m repeating Patterson’s version here – she discovered them mid afternoon in the crew’s lounge playing a duet on the piano. She didn’t have a problem with that, per se. If it had been Mozart or Tchaikovsky, it might have been OK, but apparently Riley was teaching her classically trained daughter some Rock & Roll. It didn’t go down too well.” Chip took a breath and shoved the remainder of his dinner aside.
Jamieson’s eyebrows rose almost to his hairline – it was just about unheard of for anything to affect the legendary Morton stomach - and he caught the slight wince that Crane couldn’t hide at the manoeuvre. Obviously they hadn’t heard the worst of it. His warm brown eyes glinted as he saw Chip rub the middle three fingers of his right hand firmly against his temple in the characteristic gesture indicative of a throbbing head. Crane habitually used his index finger to signify the same but both men were totally oblivious to the revealing trait – and Jamie wasn’t about to enlighten them to the fact that he had cottoned on to it.
Lee was beginning to get a sick feeling in his own stomach and pushed his plate aside, reaching for his coffee cup instead. Cookie silently appeared and, with reproachful looks for each man, cleared the dishes away. It wasn’t his job and both officers murmured their appreciation; usually one of his stewards would handle the clean up.
Chip took a deep breath and a draught of the strong coffee Cookie kept on tap. “In your absence I got an earful in the Conn. I informed Ms. Sonderman that I would have Riley refrain from teaching her daughter any – to quote her – ‘lewd and common attempts at that dreadful noise they deign to call modern music’. If only that had been the worst of it! I had Sharkey ask Riley to cease and desist with the music lessons. According to Ski – who heard it from Riley after the fact – she tried to get him to show her how the torpedo tubes were loaded and when he refused she dragged him into one of the aft storage areas, plastered him to the bulkhead and kissed him senseless.”
Doc’s timing could have been better. He’d just taken a large mouthful of coffee when Chip got to the end of his tirade. His snort of laughter terminated in the re-location of his coffee – right down the shirtfront of the fastidious XO.
Lee wriggled once again; what almost amounted to a giggle - if commanders of nuclear submarines could admit to giggling – emerging at the memory. The recollection of the expression on Chip’s face, as he’d swiped at his shirtfront with a napkin, was hysterical.
Crane had managed, with great difficult, to refrain from outright laughter. Chip was already ticked off enough, it would take very little to send him over the edge and it was unlikely either he or Jamieson would survive, with ears intact, a scathing diatribe by the XO in full flow. The appearance of Cookie at their elbow with three slices of Chip’s favourite lemon meringue pie was timely. Morton just closed his eyes, inhaled long-sufferingly, and picked up his spoon. The chef’s re-appearance, minutes later, with a fresh shirt for the exec was above and beyond the call of duty.
Morton gratefully changed, casting a menacing glare at the contrite CMO before breaking into a tiny, reluctant grin. Espying two hopeful smiles on his companions’ faces, he quickly resurrected his XO persona. “It wasn’t remotely funny!” He thundered, inwardly relishing their instant dismay. “That was around the boat faster than greased lightening. The silly little girl now fancies herself in love with Riley and calmly informed her mother that she’s making plans to move to California so she can – quote ‘be there for him when he returns from the hazards of the sea’ unquote.”
Jamieson had to chew on the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing aloud at the expression of intense disgruntlement on the blond’s face. Chip caught the sparkle in his eyes, however, and his own narrowed. “Laugh all you want, Jamie, but I had to do some fast talking to keep Ms. Sonderman from pressing charges against Riley. Seems our little sexpot won’t be sixteen for another two months.”
Jamie sobered immediately, fully understanding the implications, and Lee sat forward, pie forgotten, a frown marring his handsome features. He opened his mouth to speak but Chip held up a hand. “Chill, Lee, the chief and I got it sorted – eventually.” He rubbed his forehead again as if in pain. Catching Jamieson’s look, he shook his head. “It’s only a headache, Jamie, and I took something already.” At the physician’ s raised eyebrow, he continued. “Caused by aggravated earache - those two ladies sure know how to yell! The mother ranted like a shrew and the daughter cried buckets about unrequited love and parents who don’t understand her. Had to take it into the Nose to keep the watch focused on their stations.”
“Poor kid.” Three pair of eyes swivelled unanimously in Cookie’s direction. He was wiping down the galley counters and made no bones about having overheard the senior officers’ conversation. “Oh, the bit about parents not understanding her is pretty par for the course for teenagers but that young ‘un is love starved. Probably ripe to believe herself in love with the first guy who pays her any kind of attention. And Riley’s a nice kid. Decent - and good lookin’ too.”
Lee groaned, suddenly understanding his error.
“She’ll get over it, Skipper. Give it a couple o’ months and she won’t even remember his name. Been through it four times now.” The chef comforted, rolling his eyes drolly.
“Four, Cookie? I thought you only had two daughters.”
“I do, Mr. Morton, but, if anything, the boys are worse than the girls! Lovesick puppies, my pair was. Mooned round the place for weeks. Then, just when you get used to hearin’ ‘bout Clara or Maria, they’re blown out and it’s Jenny or Alicia. Bet your moms would say the same thing. Sirs.” He added, tactfully.
Jamie chuckled as a tide of red swept up Morton’s fair cheeks. Lee’s blush was easier concealed by his olive complexion. “Let’s not go there, shall we?” Crane’s muttering was rhetoric.
“Make for an interesting conversation.” Jamieson mused, to the accompaniment of almost identical glares, laser blue from one and hard amber from the other. “Kidding, just kidding!”
Typically, Morton brought the conversation back on track. “We’ve still got almost twenty hours before we make port. How do we keep our passengers out of each other’s hair and keep the wunderkind away from the crew – half of whom are ready to lynch her on Riley’s behalf.”
“You’ve got two sisters, Chip.” Lee was happy to abdicate this one to his exec. After all, as Chip had repeatedly informed him, the XO’s job was to take the pressure off the captain so the captain could do his job unhindered. He did feel slightly guilty, foisting this one off on his exec.
At Chip’s instant frown and as his friend opened his mouth to complain, Lee uttered that one little sentence guaranteed to melt the man he considered brother. “You have a heck of a lot more experience with family than I do, buddy.”
Sucker! His conscience nagged him for that one. It was true, but it had been unfair, and Lee’s eyes opened as he sighed with what he recognised was remorse. He’d been craven, cowardly – and he didn’t like the feeling. He’d done something that was total anathema to his nature – he’d abdicated his responsibilities. Oh, not towards his boat, or his crew, or the safety of their passengers. But he’d walked away from a situation on his ‘Grey Lady’. He’d allowed his personal experiences to override his professional duties. He should have been the one taking the flak from Petra Sonderman, not Chip. He should have handled the woman and her daughter – not convinced himself that his expertise was needed elsewhere and forced Chip to handle things. Even if he could rationalise that Chip had the greater expertise in the area of family relationships. He, Lee Crane, should know and appreciate family – after all he’d been adopted as a barely seventeen year old into the Morton clan.
But it had been blind panic, he recognised that now. Knew that Chip would have seen it for what it was and, knowing him better than anyone, wouldn’t blame him for his actions. Lee knew his brother too. Knew also that he owed Chip an apology – even as he acknowledged that one wouldn’t be expected. And accepted that retaliation would be swift.
Uncomfortable enough with his thoughts to need another beer, he rose and headed into the kitchen noticing that the sun had finally succumbed to the lure of the ocean and darkness was encroaching rapidly. He hit the switch for the outside lights before he took another beer from the fridge. He was back in his chair, using a penny to twist off the cap on the long neck when he heard the doorbell. Perhaps if he ignored it, whoever was there would go away.
Pie remaining largely un-eaten, much to Cookie’s disgust; Jamieson had inveigled both of them to hit their racks, only short of tucking them in! Their passengers couldn’t cause much trouble overnight and there would be time enough to deal with the fallout the following day.
Cookie, however, had his own ideas.
Neither Ms. Sonderman nor Ms. Robson had appeared in the Wardroom for breakfast. When the mother eventually appeared at around 0900, she was undemanding, merely seeking coffee. The daughter – banned from the crew’s mess – wasn’t so accommodating.
“If you wanted breakfast, you should have been here between the times posted in your cabin.” Cookie informed her bluntly. At her wide-eyed reaction, he growled intimidatingly, cogniscent of the fact that her mother’s antenna had twitched.
“Wanna eat?” At her nod, he sheparded her into the galley, handed her a bowl and a couple of eggs, two strips of bacon and some bread to toast. From her expression, she’d never seen the like. “I gotta start lunch preparations for 125 men who are working their a… sixes off on this boat. I ain’t got time to pander to folks like you who think the world revolves around them, missy.” He nodded towards the shelves where pots and skillets of all shapes and sizes resided. “Pick your tools.” Catching her hesitation, the chef sighed. “You ever done this before?” At the headshake he received, he shot a disgusted look at the mother sipping her coffee in the wardroom. “What you been teaching this kid?”
Petra Sonderman stiffened, never had she been spoken to with quite such disdain in all her adult years. “Now see here, Carina has much more important things to do with her time than learn to cook. Her timetable is rigidly adhered to at home. She has school, her music lessons, her practice schedule, concerts and recordings. Her diary is booked up for months in advance.”
Cookie swelled with indignation at the portrait she painted. “She’s not a machine, lady. She’s a sixteen-year-old kid. When does she have time for fun? When’s the last time she had a sleepover with her girlfriends, went to McD’s, dated a boy her own age?”
The coffee mug hit the table with a decided smack as the VIP passenger rose to her feet, her colour heightening at the challenge to her parenting skills. “What the hell business is it of yours? We’re on this damn submarine for three days and you think you can tell me how to bring up my daughter?”
“Maybe someone should. Cos if yesterday is anything to go by, you need lessons.”
Ignored by the two combatants, Carina’s jaw dropped. She’d never heard anyone stand up to her mother the way this man had. Well, maybe the big blond had put her in her place – politely – yesterday. But this guy, built more like a Marine than a cook, was going all out – and in her defence.
“I’ll be speaking with Admiral Nelson about this. Your rudeness is…is…intolerable!”
“You can talk to who you like, lady. But if you got an ounce of sense you’ll come down off your high horse and see what this is doing to your kid. She’s a teenager who’s growing up with a politician and a diary of events instead of a mother. Why do you think what happened yesterday happened? She latched on to the first person that was nice to her and what did you do? Threatened to have him up on charges.”
“Mother! You didn’t?”
“He kissed you! You’re not even sixteen. He took advantage of you.”
“I kissed him!” Carina yelled, plonking the bowl down on the work surface, oblivious to the fact that the eggs cracked and yolk leaked over her hands. “He didn’t have a lot of choice. And I tried to tell you that yesterday but, as usual, you didn’t want to listen.”
“I do listen….”
“Yeah, to the media consultants who tell you that I can be the next Nigel Kennedy or Vanessa Mae. Who tell you that my compositions will rank beside Mozart in years to come. Don’t you realise, Mother, they’re spinning you a line. Telling you what you want to hear. But you don’t listen to me!”
Her burst of frustration spent, she looked to Cookie for support, tears bright in her eyes. They’d been too caught up in their battle to notice that Seaview’s captain had slipped into the wardroom some minutes ago seeking a mug of coffee on his way to the Conn.
Lee elected not to advertise his presence and held back. It seemed like he was going to get a lesson in family dynamics – with or without his exec’s cajoling.
“Of course I listen. But you’re just a child; I know what’s best for you. I’ve employed experts to advise us on how to advance your career. It’s the one thing your father and I agree on.” The bitterness of the last sentence resounded. “Once we’re home….”
“Home? I don’t have a home any more.” Carina erupted, tears spurting. “You haven’t told me where we’re going to live, where I’m going to go to school. Nothing.” She wailed, scrubbing at her eyes like a small child as she tried to vent her wrath. “My teachers are in London and Europe. Who’s going to take care of me while you’re at work?”
“Oh, baby! Don’t cry. Please. We’ll work it out.” Petra drew in a ragged breath. It had all happened so fast. “I…I’ve probably not told you about the plans I’ve made. I didn’t know you worried. We’ll stay with your grandparents in Washington until we get a place of our own. There are great teachers there too. You’ll go to the top private school we can find. We’ll enrol you with the best. I promise.”
Cookie’s snort drew her eyebrows together in a severe frown. “You have something to say?”
“Yeah! Like, what about allowing her a social life? Putting her in a school where she’ll be happy, rather than where you’ll be sure she’s fulfilling her ‘potential’. What about letting her be a normal kid, date boys, have her heart broken three times before she graduates high school and let her cry out her woes on your shoulder. What about what you’re missing out on as a mother rather than as a politician. Put her first for once. Make the most of these years with her. If you don’t, she’ll be gone at twenty-one and you won’t have the chance to get her back.”
She spluttered, ready to ream him out, then took in the sadness that came into his eyes. Slowly, hesitantly, she moved towards the galley. “You… it happened to you?”
His rigid posture deflated and mother and daughter inched forward almost simultaneously. “My eldest.” He cleared his throat. “She... got caught up with a boy at seventeen. I wanted her to go to college. I’d worked my butt off to give my kids all the advantages I didn’t have. Their mom raised them. I took every tour, every duty, that would earn me money to support them. But I wasn’t there.” He came back to the present, the clenching of his fist telling them that the memory wasn’t a good one.
Petra Sonderman looked at her daughter, her teenage daughter, and the wary look that was returned caused her to catch her breath. When had she lost the adulation of the baby she’d conceived and nurtured? When had her responsibilities to her job and her country overridden her maternal duty?
“I only want what’s best for you, baby. I… You can’t know. You’re not even sixteen….”
“Mother, I know. And it’s not performing. I hate it. It churns my stomach. I want to write – I know I can write. I have so much stuff in my head but I don’t have time to get it down on paper. I want to write a Concerto. It’s crowding me, calling me. I have to write it.”
“Sweetheart, you’re too young. You have your whole life ahead of you. You can’t know….”
“Yes, she can.” The interruption startled them both. Cookie had been aware of Crane’s presence for some time. “I knew. Even before I was Carina’s age, I knew I wanted to go to the Academy. I wanted to work in subs. I knew it and I worked towards it. Don’t sell your daughter short, Ms. Sonderman. She’s a wonderfully talented individual who deserves your support – in whatever direction she chooses. And, Carina, never doubt that your mother loves you and wants what’s best for you. But you have to allow her to be a mother and appreciate the concerns that she has. You need to be honest with her, tell her how you feel and then be prepared to compromise. Both of you do.”
Having said his piece Lee slipped out, oblivious to Chip having entered the galley from the rear and overhearing his words. Morton knew how difficult it was for Crane to divulge anything from his private life – even more so to strangers.
Lee took a mouthful of the ice-cold beer, rubbing his thumb rhythmically through the dew that coated the glass bottle, as he watched the pale crescent moon rise over the water. There was the slightest of breezes but otherwise the night was still. The doorbell had stopped ringing when he didn’t answer but he knew that wouldn’t be enough to deflect his visitor.
More a sense of motion than an actuality had him tensing slightly as he realised that he was no longer alone then, without turning, he allowed himself to relax, sinking back into the chair and sipping his drink.
“How’d you know I was back? Bribe the guards?”
No one was naïve enough to think that their passengers’ problems had all been resolved but Lee thought perhaps a good start had been made – at least mother and daughter were communicating at a volume that didn’t require earplugs. Carina Robson had surprised everyone and remained in the galley with Cookie, even helping – or hindering, depending on whose account you believed – with the preparations for the midday meal. Ms. Sonderman spent the morning working in her cabin but showed up for lunch and, when confronted with the chef’s scowl, effusively praised the watery scrambled egg on barely browned toast her daughter had personally prepared – even if it would have been more appropriate for breakfast rather than lunch. She manfully swallowed every last bite – as she enviously watched the officers tuck into deliciously rare roast beef sandwiches.
Lee had remained at the Conn most of the afternoon, allowing Morton to attend to his own duties elsewhere. When Sparks handed him the coded message, barely an hour out of Norfolk, his heart sank. On top of everything else, this was really going to piss Chip off. Sometimes ONI’s timing really, really, stank.
“No bribery required. Standing orders to inform me when you hit base.”
At Lee’s I-should-have-known-better snort, the blond worked his way around the deck until he could lean against the rail and observe his friend in the muted outside lighting. He attempted nonchalance, taking a long drag from the beer he’d snagged on his way out of the kitchen, as he covertly looked Crane over for injuries.
“It was a simple courier job. No big deal.” Lee was irritated – having caught the look – and at the same time warmed by the concern. If he’d learned anything on the last cruise it was to accept that sometimes family caused irritation. Hell, sometimes more than irritation! At least where Morton was concerned. But the compensation was the love and caring he also knew was uppermost in his friend’s heart. He took another sip of his drink and motioned Chip to a chair. “Timing could have been better though.” He admitted, anticipating Morton’s snicker, knowing how his exec and friend felt about the Navy’s intelligence department.
“You don’t say?” Chip’s mid-west drawl usually only manifested itself when he was truly ticked. He continued to lean against the rail, sipping idly at his beer while he made no pretence of checking Lee over.
“Hey, I’m fine! OK?” Partly needing to re-assert himself, another part needing to re-assure the man who was the closest thing to a brother he had, Lee pushed up from the chair and took up position leaning against the opposite rail. “You get our passengers safely offloaded at Norfolk? Any problems on the way back to Santa Barbara?” Knowing the questions regarding his boat were expected, he spouted them, but really didn’t have to ask. He trusted Chip with his ‘lady’ as he did none other – and dreaded the day when Morton would be enticed to a command of his own. No one deserved it more but it would necessitate the break up of their working partnership and he couldn’t envisage anyone else in the role of exec. Selfish or what?
“Yes and No.” Chip grinned, beginning to relax now he’d assured himself that Lee was uninjured. “State had a car waiting and our VIP passengers were summarily removed. But not before Ms. Teenage Sexpot had another snog with Riley – on deck, in full view of the crew and her mother.”
At Lee’s heartfelt groan, he allowed his mirth to spill over. “Admiral Nelson had been fully briefed on the situation and chose to ignore her. Ms. Sonderman tolerated it – just about. The girl is bubbling over about her new life in the US and Riley – once he got over his embarrassment and the ribbing he took from the guys – is strutting to his heart’s content, making the most of his claim to fame. Having a wunderkind - who’s got several albums to her name already - chasing after you, is heady stuff for a twenty-one year old!”
“I just hope Cookie’s right – that she won’t even recall his name in a month’s time.”
“Ah, hate to disillusion you, buddy, but she’s talking about writing a piece of music in remembrance of her trip on Seaview – quote ‘Voyage to a new Life’ – unquote.” He took another sip of his beer. “At last count, she was vacillating between calling it ‘Cookie’s Concerto’ and ‘Ode to a Sailor’!”
Lee groaned again, then the absurdity overtook him and he began to laugh. Chip chuckled, relief at Lee’s safe return, along with the hilarity of the situation allowing him finally to relax. Within seconds they were both whooping with laughter. “Did you bring anything to eat?” Crane questioned, once he got himself together.
“What do you think?” Came the scathing response. “That I’d trust you to have anything edible in your fridge? I brought Chinese take out. Had it delivered as soon as I got word you’d reached home.”
A contentedness he’d seldom felt overwhelmed Lee. He snuggled back happily into the chair cushions. Home. It felt right. His stomach rumbled. He took a swig from his beer. “Hope you brought Kung Po Chicken….”
“And Mu Shu Pork, Shrimp and Spring Rolls. You think I don’t know you by now, Crane?” Chip extricated chopsticks from the drawers, heated the cartons in the microwave, set plates and napkins on the deck table, knowing his way around Lee’s kitchen as easily as his own. Lee sat back, affectionately watching the blond’s economical movements as he put out enough food to feed an army.
Chopsticks in hand, ready to dig in, Lee paused, chuckling again. “Cookie’s Concerto?”
“God, I hope not,” came the fervent response. “He’s temperamental enough! There’d be no living with him if he had a piece of music named for him. At least we can slap Riley down if he gets too out of hand.”
“And you’re too fond of your stomach, Morton, to go up against Cookie.” Lee watched his friend make serious inroads into his piled plate.
“Not afraid to admit it either, buddy. Food is serious business – for some of us. Remind me to order additional supplies for the next cruise, just in case. It’s a short enough one. Jamie mightn’t approve but we could probably live on cookies for a couple of weeks!”
As usual a big’ thank you’ goes to Rita for the use of Lt. Chris James.