The Night Before Christmas
Linda Delaney & Jane Daffron
The tall, lanky Texan, dressed in frayed khaki pants and a blue jean shirt, stood on 'A' dock watching as the dock crew scurried about with their various duties, unloading the many samples that the Seaview had brought back from this last short trip. Tony Rennalt stood at the bottom of the gangplank simply observing the activity as he waited for his crew to assemble prior to boarding. He was going to supervise the loading of some new electronic equipment that was to be installed in Admiral Harriman Nelson's onboard laboratory. The equipment, a new computerized magnetic spectrometer and a new electron microscope, would aid Nelson in his research of possible elemental extractions from oceanic plant life. Rennalt had been working continually for the past few months on the equipment, conferring with the Admiral, even during Seaview's other missions, and they were now ready for the final installation.
The great gray boat's crew had been departing all morning, ever since Seaview had docked around 0930 hours, but there was still an occasional crewman that nodded in his direction as he stood there. Finally, he leisurely strolled down the gangway and as his feet hit Seaview's deck, he stopped and looked at the bow. As much as he tried to deny it, Harriman Nelson's creation still impressed him. Shaking his head slightly to come back to reality, he headed for the hatchway in the Conning Tower and then proceeded down the ladder into the now empty Control Room. There was but a skeleton crew present now; most had headed out for the Christmas holidays. Looking around, he spied a lone figure sitting at a table in the Observation Nose. Sauntering to the Nose, he quietly sat down next to the stocky, auburn-haired man.
"Figured you'd be down in your cabin getting ready to go home," Tony drawled as he stretched his long legs out in front of him. "Looks like everybody else has."
"Hmmmm…oh, Tony…sorry. I didn't hear you come up," Harriman Nelson replied, startled by the appearance of his old friend.
"So I see. Ya know, there are times your security sucks…" he grinned. "…Anyway, I came down to make sure things got set up for the installation of the new equipment day after tomorrow. Figured that with the crew off, my guys can work at their leisure for the rest of the day."
"Good…good." Nelson was distracted, "Uh…when do you expect installation to be completed? I'd like to have it ready by the time we get ready to go back out after the holidays." Nelson swung his chair around and faced the man who was his Chief Electrical Engineer. In fact, the two men were old friends, dating back to the beginnings of the Nelson Institute of Marine Research.
"Well, I figured we’d get the prelims set up today so we can start in first thing day after tomorrow…so it should be done within the next few days, if we don't run into any glitches. I'll want to go over the schematics with you later, though, so you'll see the upgrades we've come up with." He then smiled, "Hey…you going to that dinner party that Davis is givin'? I hear she and that daughter of hers is gonna have some sort of formal dinner tonight since it’s Christmas Eve."
Nelson's eyes strayed to the activities outside on the dock. Almost absentmindedly, he answered, "I've been invited…yes. Whether I go or not, well, …I don't know. I don't like things like that, as you well know." Nelson sighed. " Besides, I've got a lot of work to do with what we've just brought in and I know Angie’s got a mountain of paperwork for me in the office…"
"Bullshit, Harry…This is Christmas, for cryin' out loud! Hey…even I'm goin’. Goin’ to put on a tie, too, if you can believe that!" Tony laughed.
Pretending total disbelief, Nelson laughed, "A tie? My God! I don't think I've ever seen you in one. It might be worth going to it just for that."
"Yeah…well, the only way you're going to is to get your ass there. Look, the lady's been gracious enough to invite all of us…the least we can do is go partake of the dinner. You know I'm all for a free meal."
Nelson chuckled. "Yes…I know that all too well. You've freeloaded enough at my house. I think Maria's beginning to think you actually belong there for some reason or another."
"Yeah, well…your housekeeper is a helluva cook, and it sure beats going to my place and eating out of a can. ‘Course right now, after this last project, I don't think I can find my house or my kitchen. I've got stuff scattered all over the damn place. Somewhere under all those blueprints, there's a table. I know it’s there…just gotta find it," he grinned
Harry got up wearily and replied, "Well, maybe if you'd clean up that pig sty you call a house…"
"Yeah, but, then…I'd never find anything," Tony laughed, then got up to check the ever present coffee pot on the credenza in the corner. Finding it empty, he sat back down. "Damn! You'd think your cook on board this tub could make sure there's plenty of coffee."
"You forget, the crew of this ‘tub’ is now on leave… including the cook. And the pot was emptied before we docked. Clean-up, you know…a concept you’re apparently unfamiliar with," Nelson grinned at his friend, as he rose, "C’mon, I’ll buy you a cup in the mess hall. I just need to get my briefcase from my cabin."
"Uh oh…if you don’t mind, I’ll just wait for you here. No need for me to follow you up and down the boat…wastes too much energy, you know." He raised his long legs and perched them on the coaming beneath the ports, crossed his arms behind his head and closed his eyes. "Hey, nudge me when you get back here… I know that it’ll be a while!"
Nelson humphed and briskly moved up the spiral gangway to Officer’s Country….
An easy push on his shoulder woke Tony from his brief rest. He sat up and lazily looked at his watch. "Well, damn! Let’s see, Harry… forty minutes…not too bad." He swiveled around to find not Nelson, but Chip Morton standing behind him.
"Pardon my rudeness here, Tony, but what are you doing here, on the boat? I don’t see your team on board yet."
Renault laughed a warm laugh. "Just waitin’ on Harry. He ‘just had to get his briefcase from his cabin’. I think that was about forty minutes ago. But then, again, you know Harry… probably got distracted by something or other…" He rose from his chair, the laconic air that surrounded him making his movements all the less deliberate. He stuffed his hands in his pockets, "I sure as hell didn’t plan on following him around….so I figured I’d just wait for him here." He paused, and looked at Chip, a grin on his face, "How about the Holidays, Chip? You goin’ to go to Captain Davis’ party tonight? Seems to me it’s goin’ to be quite an event! Formal, too. I hear the lady’s quite a cook!"
Chip smiled. "Yeah, she left outta here as soon as we docked this morning…said she had a lot to do to get things ready. Anyway, I haven’t decided. You know how it is… I asked Angie, but we shipped out, and well, it’s late and I’m not sure if she still wants to go."
"Morton, you’re a damn stick in the mud, just like Harry. I’m sure if you just call the woman, she’ll go with you. Hell…she’s been around here long enough to know that when Harry says ‘go’…this boat sails. And as far as the other lady in question, well…she is tryin’ to do something nice for all of us. She and her daughter are here, alone, away from family, and they’re havin’ a party. Now…the way I was raised, considering their effort here at hospitality, we all oughta be goin’. I know I fully intend to. So…what about Crane and his wife?"
"They’ll be there, as far as I know. Caitlin’s volunteered to watch Robert while we all party." Morton sat down at the table and stretched his legs out. "From what Lee’s said, she’s been helping Cathy out with Robert since they came here. Apparently she treats him like a little brother. Anyway, she’s a good kid."
"Yep, so I’ve heard. Ya gotta admit…those two have brought something into this place…" He yawned just a bit and looked down at his watch. "Damn! Where the hell’s Harry?"
There was a set of footsteps on the spiral staircase and then a voice. "Mr. Rennalt, I’m right here. Sorry about that…I had to check over a couple of things that I’d forgotten about."
Chip automatically rose out of habit, and stood, at rest, as the older man approached him. Nelson smiled at his Exec. "Well, I guess I'll be seeing you in a few hours, Chip. At Captain Davis' party?"
"Yes, sir, I guess…I mean if Angie’ll still…" Morton replied smartly, groaning inwardly at the idea of formal Dress Mess uniform.
"Oh, something tells me that my secretary will want to be there…" Nelson continued, aware of the younger man's discomfort. "Besides, it'll be worth getting into formal dress just to see this guy in a tie!"
A broad grin quickly spread over the XO's face. "Yessir! It most certainly would."
Tony looked appropriately offended. "Thanks, pal! I always thought my style of dress added a certain je ne sais quoi to any festivities. I'm mortally wounded here!" He hit his chest and coughed three times.
The three men laughed hard, and then Nelson offered, "Well, we'd better get going…none of us want to be late. I’ve got some work to do, then find my formal mess uniform."
After putting in several hours of paperwork at his office, Harry finally walked into his home on the knoll at the end of the compound grounds, throwing his briefcase into the chair near the entry table. The house was silent, but there was a fragrance of evergreen in the air from the obligatory Christmas decorations that Maria had strategically placed throughout the house.
Christmas. His memories of that holiday were just that…memories of long ago. He spied a blinking light on the answering machine and hit the ‘play’ button. Within seconds, Edith’s voice filled the empty room. She had called to tell him that she wouldn’t be coming in tonight. Something about previous plans that she couldn’t get out of, but that she would see him on the 28th.
Edith Margaret Nelson was Harriman’s only living relative…his sister. They saw little of one another, but spoke or emailed ever so often. She had retained the family home in Boston, while he had followed his Naval career and then his dreams to California. Distance separated them, but the bonds of family were always there. Still…it meant that once again, Harry would spend Christmas alone.
Walking out to the deck, he stood at the railing overlooking the blue Pacific Ocean and quietly reflected on his life. His eyes swept over the beach below and some of the buildings that could be seen from there. All of it had been his dream…his life. Katherine was supposed to have been there with him…to see all of it come to fruition. Supposed to be. Those were the operative words. What was supposed to be and what is were all too often two entirely different things.
"I guess I screwed up, Katherine. Goddamnit…why in the hell did I ever think I could take those people on myself? All it accomplished was to get you killed…" He shook his head sadly, a single tear slowly sliding down his cheek. "Dear God…I wish you could see this. What it’s all become."
He cocked his head slightly as he suddenly heard the faint strands of music coming from somewhere. Christmas music. He could barely make out the tune but finally recognized it as I’ll Be Home for Christmas. Sighing just a bit, he remembered the holidays of his youth. The 12 foot tree his father would bring home. The house fully decorated with holly and pine and poinsettias. The candles in the windows. The mouthwatering smells coming from his mother’s kitchen. The caroling. The memories all came flooding back. Memories of a happier time in his life.
It was always bad this time of the year, ever since Katherine’s death. Edith always tried to make an effort to make sure he was never alone then…after all, they were all each other had now. However, it had never really made up for the fact that everyone else seemed to have families to come home to…to celebrate with. It really hadn’t mattered much in recent years…or so he had led himself to believe. But for some reason, this evening it did. He knew he needed to start getting changed for this formal dinner party that his new Mission Specialist, Captain Karen Davis, was giving. She and her daughter had decided that since they were away from their native state for the first time, they’d try to bring some of their traditions here. One of those was a formal dinner party on Christmas Eve. And for some unknown reason, he’d accepted her invitation, even though he absolutely hated formal affairs.
He looked out over the calm sea, listening to the soothing sounds of the seagulls as the sun started its slow descent toward dusk. This new employee of his was a puzzle to him. He’d brought her there to build a Deep Water Dive team for him and she was in the beginnings of that assignment. She kept him apprised of all developments, but at the same time, he couldn’t help but feel there was more to her than she was allowing him, or others, to see. She was known as the Ice Queen. No emotion…no fear. Yet, he’d seen glimpses of both on rare occasions…the most recent being just the week before at St. Xavier’s Holly Ball. Her daughter had managed to convince him, or was it ‘con’ him, at the very last minute to escort her and her mother to the event. Even though he’d had an invitation himself, he’d never intended to go…until he came up against one Miss Caitlin Davis. Yet, it was during this affair that Nelson managed to gain a hint of the woman he’d brought aboard the Seaview. And what he had seen, and felt, that evening had left him with some very disturbing feelings.
Looking down at his watch, he realized that it was later than he’d thought. Heading inside and up the stairs to his bedroom, he started to get ready for what promised to be an interesting Christmas Eve dinner.
Captain Karen Davis studied her image carefully in the mirror on the door. The burgundy beaded satin dress fit her well, the sweetheart neckline and high capped sleeves were a perfect match for the rest of the slim fitting dress. She wondered if the side slit that rested several inches above her knee was too high, but finally decided it was fine. She slid into the burgundy strapped sandals, then finished her look by placing pearl stud earrings in her ears and a pearl necklace at her neck.
Memories flooded back to the time she had received these pearls…
…Her first Christmas with Robert. They had lived in the small apartment on the post. They'd had a small tree and a very small celebration. She'd just found out she was pregnant and they'd considered the news their unexpected Christmas present. Scheduled for duty at 0800 that morning, for the entire day, their presents had been exchanged very early, and Karen had gone on duty.
That night, when Karen had returned, there was no sign of her husband, but as she entered the tiny dining area, she found the table set with their china and silver, and candles glowing. On top of her plate, was a slim package. Sitting down, she opened it carefully. The small note attached simply said, "Merry Christmas, All my love, Robert"
She remembered that her hands had shook as she opened the package and found a dark blue velvet box. Inside that was a simple strand of gorgeous pearls with the stud earrings to match. She'd been speechless, when two hands slid around her neck. "Merry Christmas," he had whispered in her ear and then gently kissed her neck. She'd sat the box on the table and reached up to grasp his hand, then pulled him to her and kissed him warmly.
When she indicated that she was speechless, he'd told her not to say anything and that dinner was ready. Besides, with the joyous news of her pregnancy, she'd given him more than he could have ever asked for. She had squeezed his hand and whispered, "Thank you."
A sudden noise from the next room brought her back into the reality of now. Fingering the pearls, her heart was saddened as she looked at herself in the mirror. "God, how I miss you, Robert!" Then she took a deep breath, and tucked the memories away. "Get a grip on yourself, Karen! You've got a dinner party to preside over," she whispered to herself, then took a final appraising look at herself. "You know something, Davis? You may get through this yet. You've dealt with ambassadorial and high society parties with Michael...and you lived through 'the season' while you were at the Pentagon. You sure as hell can deal with a small formal dinner party for the senior staff of the NIMR. Even if that includes Admiral Harriman Nelson."
Satisfied, she patted her upswept dark blonde curls and left her room for the kitchen.
Luisa, her housekeeper, smiled as she entered the room and looked around, pleased at the organization she saw.
"Ah, Senora, the dress, it is beautiful!"
Karen smiled slightly, "Thank you, Luisa. How’s everything going in here?"
"Very well... the recipes that you and Senorita Caitlin have prepared are very delicious... and the Admiral will like them very much!" the woman expounded.
Karen quirked an eyebrow, "Oh, really?! And what makes you think he’ll like them, if I may ask?"
Luisa grinned widely, "Ahh, Senora....my sister, Maria, tells me of how much the Admiral likes her food! He has what she calls, gourmet tastes...He will like this.... You are a good cook, Senora…very good."
Both women laughed lightly, with Karen remarking, "Thank you, Luisa. It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything so formal Generally, I do everything myself, so having you here is a big help. I may even get to enjoy my own party for a change. Have you or Maria ever prepared anything for anyone else on the Senior Staff?"
Luisa nodded and replied, "Yes, Senora. When Captain Crane married Senorita Cathy, Maria and I did their wedding party. Her father liked the food very much! Everyone did, I believe."
Karen reached across the counter, and touched the housekeeper's hand, "Well, I'm glad that you’re with Caitlin and me now. Very glad. Considering that I’ve got to be away at times, it makes me feel better knowing that someone’s here with her."
"Gracias, Senora. I am also glad that I am here with you, and the Senorita. Thank you."
Karen looked around at the assortment of silver trays, food, glasses, silverware, and antique linens that graced the two buffet servers and the dining room table. As soon as Seaview had docked that morning, she’d hurried off and headed back to her apartment. As per her instructions to Luisa and Caitlin, they gotten out her good china, crystal, and silver, as well as the antique tablecloths her grandmother had made. Between Caitlin, Luisa, and her, they’d cooked, cleaned, polished, and then set the table with all the proper formality that was called for.
Luisa had brought her two adult children to help serve the party. Eduardo and Graziella smiled at Davis, and she went over last minute instructions before her guests began to arrive. Karen was decidedly nervous about this, her first official attempt at a Senior Staff Party, but she was determined that it go well. She usually prepared and served her own parties, but this one was formal, so she had hired Luisa and her family members to help her. The doorbell rang, and Eduardo nodded and moved silently to the living room where the small bar had been set up. Graziella took a tray from the counter and began to fill it with a selection of mouth watering hors' d'ourves, as Karen went to answer the door.
As she opened the door, she found Lee Crane, in his formal dress mess uniform, and his wife, Cathy, wearing a deep rose velvet gown, holding their infant son, standing in the doorway. Crane was smiling broadly, as Cathy gently rocked the curly-haired baby. The baby, dressed in a small, green velvet suit, gurgled happily.
"Lee! Cathy! You're the first to arrive… Come in!" Looking at the baby, cradled in his mother's arms, Karen asked, as they came into the foyer, "How're you and Robert doing, now that you're back to work?"
Cathy Connors Crane smiled. "Not bad…not bad. I just wish I could get some decent sleep, though. Or can’t you tell from the bags under my eyes?"
Karen laughed and reached for the baby. Taking Robert into her arms she gently kissed him on the cheek as she instinctively rocked him. "Oh…I do remember those nights. Very well." She backed away from the door to allow them entry. "I think I finally started getting a full night’s sleep about the time she was three. And God help you when he goes through a growth spurt. He’ll be up at all hours."
"Oh, now you tell me this," Cathy jokingly replied. "Course…if someone else would take the night shift occasionally…" and she glared up at Lee Crane.
"Hmmmm, I think that might just be advisable. Lee, looks like you’ve just been ‘volunteered’, my friend," their hostess chuckled and then leaned toward the tall, lanky man. "Word to the wise, ‘Dad’…if you want any more sleep of your own, either give in…or move to the boat."
Crane grinned as he took his son from Karen.. "Maybe I’ll move to the boat," then let out a small "Umpth!" as Cathy elbowed him slightly in the ribs. He shot his wife a withering look, while his eyes gave away the humor in his spirit. "Thanks, Cats, I needed that," he murmured, and then sighed dramatically, "I’ll never be able to eat again!"
"I certainly hope that’s not the case, Captain. Caitlin, Luisa and I have spent a lot of time on the food preparations. I don’t want you to disappoint me by not eating."
Lee grinned. "From what I’ve been told of the preparations for this dinner, I don’t intend to miss one bit of it! Besides, I’m under orders," he looked at Cathy, "to behave myself, and eat for a change!"
Karen grinned back and offered, "Well…Caitlin’s here to give you some respite, at least. And that should help you relax and enjoy the party…" And before she could turn around, her daughter and her daughter’s friend appeared at her elbow to take the infant from his father’s arms. "And now that you’ve been ‘rescued’, Captain, Cathy…I think that the two of you can come in and enjoy yourselves. She’ll have him down and asleep before you know it." And she led them into the living room. Guiding them to the small bar, she opened the gift Lee had handed her, and exclaimed in delight at the fine blown glass diver on a small rock pedestal. She set it on the coffee table, and thanked the Cranes. Then, before she could say another word, the doorbell rang. Excusing herself, she headed to the door and came face to face with Chip Morton and Angie Pierce.
Morton seemed uncomfortable, and Karen wasn’t sure if it was the dark blue Mess tuxedo jacket of the formal uniform, or something else. Tucked safely under his arm was a bottle of wine that he’d purchased as a gift for his hostess. Angie, on the other hand, looked comfortable and resplendent in the emerald green satin and pantsuit she was wearing.
"Well, well, Commander…I have to say…the uniform does become you," Karen grinned. Chip leaned forward, and kissed her cheek. Then he handed her the bottle, "Thank you and Merry Christmas, Karen. And thanks for inviting us."
She nodded, and smiled at Nelson’ s secretary, "I’m so glad you both could come. Angie, glad the O.O.M. gave you some time off to come to my little party…" she grinned. "Both of you come in, please. Lee and Cathy are already here and Caitlin and her friend, Josh, have charge of young Robert."
"You mean the Admiral’s not here yet? He left the office a few hours ago. I figured he’d have be already…" Angie queried.
Chip frowned just a bit. "Well, I know he and Tony were two of the last off the boat early this afternoon. I don’t think there was anyone left after they went ashore."
"Well, Terri called a little while ago and said that Tony was picking her up shortly and bringing her over. So, unless he got delayed or detoured…or went back to the office, I guess he'll be here at some point," Karen agreed. "In the meantime…come on in and have a good time. Dinner'll be served when everyone gets here."
She guided the couple to the small bar, and then moved to the couch, where Cathy and Lee Crane were seated, the two of them in an animated conversation. Karen smiled as she heard Cathy protest to her husband, "Lee! It's his first Christmas! I want him to have a gizzillion pictures with his presents, and the trees, and his train, and us, and…."
Crane laughed aloud. "Hold it, Cats!! We'll have plenty of pictures. With my mother, and your father in residence, how could it be otherwise?! But really… three rolls of film with 36 pictures on each will be more than enough!"
"Lee Crane! How do you know? How do you know that he won’t do something absolutely darling and sweet, and at that very moment, I run out of film? What then? Huh? What are you anyway? …some kind of expert on photography as well as everything else you’re an expert on?!!"
Crane rubbed at his chin, and responded in a light manner, "Well…you know as well as I do, that I did a bit of picture taking in my time… at a certain boat race in Europe."
She elbowed him, "Yes! With a certain female agent!"
"Cathy, you know that nothing …"
"Yeah, I know… nothing happened, you're just friends, you only worked together, Katy was just doing her job, and you were doing yours…" she reached for his hand, and said softly, "and once again, you could have been killed."
He leaned forward, and whispered, "But I wasn't, now was I? And all that worry was for nothing." He gently kissed her lips, and then smiled at her. "We're here, together, the three of us, and yes, miss, I want more pictures, I’ll get more film in the morning, okay?"
She sighed. "Yes… okay, but maybe Helen or Dad have some so you won't have to make a trip." She kissed him quickly, and turned to smile at their hostess. "Sorry, Karen… just being a new mother!"
Karen smiled back. "Hey…not to worry! I was there once, and before you go, let me check my camera bag. I may have a few rolls of film that I can give to you, and save Lee here a trip!"
"Thank you, Captain Davis!"
"No problem, Skipper! Just trying to help you all out!"
The next arrival was none other than Admiral Harriman Nelson. Karen had excused herself from her guests to answer the doorbell and came face to face with her employer. The stocky man, carrying a small, wrapped box and a bottle of champagne, looked absolutely handsome in the dark formal Mess uniform. As she moved toward Nelson, he politely kissed her cheek.
"Admiral…I’m glad you decided to come," she softly told him and extended her hand. "Please…come in."
"How could I turn down such a gracious invitation, particularly after last week? Besides, my housekeeper purposely didn’t cook this evening because she knew I was supposed to be here," he commented and as he took the extended hand, instinctively closed his other hand over hers. His blue eyes twinkled. "And I hope I’m not out of line when I say you look very lovely this evening, Captain. Not too many people can accomplish what you’ve managed to do tonight…getting my staff into formal attire."
"Well, sir…then I consider it quite a coupe." He handed her the bottle and the box, and she quietly thanked him, as she guided him into the living room to greet the others.
Nelson looked around the gaily decorated apartment. The spacious room had been decorated with a large blue spruce and hung with white lights, colorful blown glass ornaments, and strands of burgundy and gold beads standing next to the door to the balcony. Throughout the apartment, burgundy and hunter candles and ribbons sat, and balsam roping hung from doorways and mantle, also bedecked in ribbons. The simple, brass candelabra over the dining room table was draped in burgundy, hunter and gold ribbon with small, golden, laser ornaments hanging from it. The table itself was set in antique linen, china and crystal and had a centerpiece of pine and burgundy and pink poinsettia, which was set in a sterling silver frog. Each place setting had as a name card, a laser cut ornament with the guests name engraved on it.
Nelson took a drink of Glen Livet, straight up, from Eduardo, and stood, taking it all in. He was, to put it simply, impressed with his hostess’ sense of style and more…
Moments later, the doorbell rang again and this time, Tony Rennalt arrived with Karen’s secretary, Terri Styles, on his arm. One arm was behind his back. Rennalt was dapperly dressed in a black formal cowboy-style tuxedo. The lapels of the jacket were embroidered, and accented with heavy cording, sterling silver conchos sewn in several strategic places on the chest of the jacket. He wore black, jeans cut satin trousers, a black, matte satin cowboy hat, black patent leather boots, and completed the look with a bolero string tie with more sterling conchos at the tails.
Terri wore loose fitting black silk pants with a multi-colored sequined top that set off her upswept chestnut hair. She looked at ease and relaxed with the tall Texan.
After taking off the ten-gallon hat, he pulled a large bouquet of yellow roses from behind his back, and offered them to his hostess. He then swept Karen into an enormous and gregarious embrace, and planted an equally warm kiss on her cheek, drawling appreciatively, "Hon…that’s a definite improvement over that khaki uniform you usually wear." He looked around at those already assembled in the living room. Seeing Nelson standing by the splendidly decorated Christmas tree, drink in hand, he noticed that he was being carefully watched by his old friend. What was more interesting was the expression on Nelson’s face as Tony had taken this woman into his arms.
"Good evening to you, too, Tony. And I thank you for the compliment, sir," Karen laughed, as she stood, and uncharacteristically fussed with her dress "For the record, dear sir…I have stocked your favorite brand of tequila…the one with the worm." She slipped her arm through his, passing the flowers to Luisa, who had suddenly appeared at her side, then looked over at her secretary and grinned. "I’m glad you could come, Terri…at least you can keep an eye on this one."
Terri laughed, "That’s not in my job description…It’s hard enough keeping up with you without adding him to the mix," she replied.
"Now, Terri, darlin’…I am sincerely hopin’ that that’s not a complaint about yours truly, this night’s not one for complainin’…with two beautiful ladies on my arm…I’ve got no reason whatsoever to complain. Lead on, Captain…let’s see what a proper Virginian has done to give this place some class." He glanced over toward Nelson, nodded and then grinned.
"Tony Rennalt!" she exclaimed in a slightly exaggerated southern accent. "Why, suh!….I’m just doing what ah was taught to do…that’s all." Her eyes sparkled as she laughed.
"Uh huh…I bet," and he leaned over and kissed her again on the cheek, keeping one eye on Harriman Nelson while doing it. "Well, all I know is I’ve starved and if what I’ve had here previously is any indication…I know I won’t go away hungry…or sad."
The Texan led both women into the living room. Karen looked around, and quietly took in the small gathering. Tony and Terri, Lee and Cathy, Chip and Angie, herself, and Harriman Nelson.
Nelson! God, she had paired herself off with the Admiral without even realizing it! Caitlin had her friend to sit with!!! Jeez! Collecting herself, she motioned to Eduardo to bring a tray of champagne flutes, filled with the amber liquid, and give one to each of the adults in the room. Taking one herself, and signaling for Luisa to get Caitlin and Josh to come in, she waited a moment until the glasses were given out. The young people received glasses of sparkling cider, and when all had glasses, she began.
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, I want to begin by thanking you all for coming. I know that it takes something to get all of you gentlemen to get into Dress Mess, and believe me, I do appreciate the effort, and if you would, the honor. Caitlin and I have had an interesting year so far. We’re kinda far from home, and you all have become, for us, family. We both appreciate what all of you have done for us, and this is sorta my way of saying ‘thank you all!’" She held her glass up, "I’d like to propose a toast … To my friends – Friendship is the wine of life, the longer we have it, the warmer and mellower it grows…you all have become my friends, and I intend, Lord willing, to have a long, long acquaintance with all of you. To Friendship!"
The rest of the adults raised their glasses, replied ‘to friendship’ and drank. Caitlin then moved toward her mother and kissed Karen lightly on the cheek, "And I would like to add one more thing," she said, her mother looking at her somewhat amused. She looked back and grinned, "Merry Christmas!"
As everyone finished their drinks, Karen led them to the table. She took the head, and found that Luisa had put Nelson on her left, and Crane on her right. Caitlin sat next to Nelson, Josh next to her, Terri and Tony at the other end of the table, facing Karen. Next to Tony sat Angie, then Chip and then Cathy next to her husband.
Luisa and Graziella moved about the table, setting out the soup, a creamy peanut soup, at each place. Most of the guests looked briefly at the golden delight, carefully garnished with a smattering of crushed nuts, and tasted, then began to consume the tasty dish. Not so Tony Rennalt. He looked, then sniffed, and then tasted the soup. " Beggin' the pardon of the hostess, but, darlin'.. what the hell is this… this…?"
"This soup, Mr. Rennalt, sir? This is an old Virginia recipe, sir. It’s called peanut soup."
Tony choked and spluttered. "Peanut soup!! What the hell do you people do to perfectly good peanuts?!!" he wiped at his mouth with the damask napkin. "There's only one way to eat peanuts, my dear lady, and it certainly doesn’t involve soup! They're supposed to crunch!"
"Perhaps in the part of this country that you’re from." Karen’s eyes crinkled with laughter. She knew exactly what Rennalt was doing. He was no unsophisticated ‘cowboy’, but loved to play the part ever so often just to get a rise out of people. She knew him for what he really was…a wonderful, sophisticated, gregarious man who was warm and caring…as well as highly intelligent and independently wealthy. He was the type of man who was just as at ease attending opera or ballet , discussing world politics or classical literature, as he was working a ranch. And Karen loved the warm repartee that she could have with this man, much to the amusement, and sometimes chagrin, of others. "Besides, I heard that you Texans like them with a longneck beer and shells on the floor. In Virginia, sir, we’re just a tad bit more sophisticated than that!" Karen grinned sweetly at him, and watched his slow, easy smile as it spread across his face.
"Darlin', this is more than just ruinin' a good taste… you all are throwin' time worn habits to the wind here. Peanuts have to crunch!" he drawled, pointing the spoon in her direction.
"And in just what plane of existence is that written in, Tony Rennalt?" she returned fire.
He pushed back from the table, and raised his left leg, setting it on his right knee. "Why, darlin', didn't you know that after Harry here, I've just about the most time put in this here boat, and project? And I tend to have the right skew on things so to speak, so I kinda have the right to speak my mind, if you all get my drift, in this here plane of existence!" Grinning, he leaned the chair back on one leg, and waited for her to reply.
Nelson had been watching the byplay between the two, as was the rest of the table. Part of him was enjoying the light banter, but part of him was becoming, he didn't know how to describe what he was feeling, disconcerted was the best word that he could think of. Karen Davis disconcerted him. She made him aware of things that he’d not thought about or felt for too many years. He wanted to be as relaxed with her, able to banter with her, as easily as Tony did. Yet, he felt her being somewhat uneasy and reserved with him…always on her guard, as if she was afraid to let him see that part of her that Tony and the rest felt so at ease with. He wondered and watched; listened and slowly steamed. Tony was doing what he wanted to do with, was with her as he wanted to be. Damn! Tony's voice pulled him from his stupor. Part of him hoped that she would not notice the slight flush he felt as he listened to the light talk.
"Well, sir… I can assure you that according to proper Virginia fashion, peanut soup is traditional and time honored, and I’ll have you know that this is an old recipe that’s time tested. If you can put aside your bias for a few minutes and simply put some in your mouth…you’ll find out that it’s very, very good…" Then, with a slight twinkle in her eye, she added, "Besides, there’s a bit of sherry added for extra taste."
He grinned a bit more and raised a shaggy eyebrow. "Sherry, huh? No tequila?"
"Hmmmmm, well…I guess," and he took another taste of the rich, creamy soup. Then, as if to finish the conversation, "Not bad, darlin’…not bad. I guess I’ll have to say it passes."
Karen chuckled silently to herself and simply shook her head. Coyly, "Why, Tony…a compliment? On something other than Tex-Mex?"
"Hell, hon…I’m gonna have to teach you to appreciate some of the finer things in life…" and he laughed as he attacked the contents of the bowl with gusto.
The rest of the table chuckled…that is, with exception of Harriman Nelson. His laugh was more of uneasiness than it was of warmth. He’d been watching her face and her body language through it all and the longer the conversation had gone on, the more ill at ease he became.
The meal progressed to the main course of Seafood Norfolk and Virginia Wellington, accompanied by Sweet Potato and Apple Supreme, a Grits Soufflé, Green Beans baked with a smoked Ham Hock, and Creamed Onions with Peanuts. As each was served, the comments between hostess and guest flew, and by the time the dessert, Raspberries with Crème Brule was served, the entire table was exhausted from the laughter alone. Karen was mentally thanking Tony for his manner and company, and the way he had made the dinner pass so well.
As they were finishing dessert, there was a series of sharp raps on the door along with the doorbell being rung insistently. The Senior Staff was instantly on alert, and to no one’s real surprise, CPO Francis Sharkey burst thru the door, when Eduardo opened it.
"Admiral!! Skipper!! Mr. Morton!!!! Sirs!!There’s a fire one the boat…in the lab! I don’t know anything else! Security just called me, and I came here for you! We’d better get over there!"
The three men rose as one, quickly making for the door, with rapid excuses being made. Rennalt also rose, and followed, Harry’s quick look being answered with, "My men’ve been doing the set up for installation…"
The women sat, stunned with the news, and the rapid exit of the men. Angie spoke first, nervously breaking the silence. "Jeez…I hope it’s not too serious!"
"Frankly, I don’t think it can be. If it was, they would’ve called for all the crew that are on standby to report," Karen replied.
Cathy nodded and added, "I think that the O.O.M. would have had Chip call for all the crew if he thought he needed them."
Karen sighed to herself, wondering at what fate had dealt her first social attempt, and wondered exactly what was going on down on the boat.
Nelson, Crane, Morton and Tony quickly arrived at the dock in the car driven by the COB. Before Sharkey had even brought the car to a halt, the four men were out the doors and down the gangway to the sail, and through the hatch to the interior of the boat.
Crane cringed at the idea of anything seriously wrong with his ‘lady’, but plunged forward, and as he descended into her, he was met with a wall of choking smoke. He began to cough violently, and between coughs, he peeled off his dress jacket, dropping it to the deck next to the gangway. Very quickly, three other jackets joined his as the four men made their way aft, to the labs, where the fire had originated. By the time they reached there, their eyes were tearing, and they were all coughing hard, hands futilely trying to wave the smoke away. Inside they found several men, in air tanks with extinguishers hosing down an area of exposed wiring.
The smoke was already beginning to lessen. Now the smell from the burned wiring and plastic filled the cabin and the corridors surrounding it. Nelson made his way to the men with the extinguishers. One of them pushed back the mask on his face, "Admiral, you all need air tanks! This stuff can be toxic, sir!"
Nelson brushed the man’s concerns away. Looking around the scorched room, "What the hell happened here?"
Tommy Chin pushed his mask off. "Admiral! We found a soldering iron on the ledge, there. It was still plugged in. And there’s a pile of this," and he nodded toward a smoldering heap of charred metal debris on the floor…remains of some of the equipment that was being installed in the lab. "It could’ve been a lot worse, sir. If those new ultra sensitive smoke detectors you had installed hadn’t kicked in when they did, we would’ve had one helluva explosion in here. As it is…we got it out before it could really get going." Chin glanced over in Tony’s direction, the tall man clearly annoyed that one of his crew could have been so careless. "Mr. Rennalt…I think maybe…"
"You don’t have to say it, Lieutenant…" Rennalt looked around Nelson’s lab in disgust. "I’m gonna have somebody’s ass in a sling for this. You can damn sure bet on it." He then glanced over at Nelson as the older man surveyed the damage. "Look, the sub needs to be scrubbed of smoke and we can’t do any real damage assessment until at least the morning… Sorry, Harry…looks like it going to set the schedule back at least a week."
Harriman Nelson was more than mildly annoyed, but also thankful that nothing else had caught fire. As Chin had correctly pointed out, it could have been a lot worse. A whole lot worse.
"Yeah, well…we've got a project that can't be pushed back, Tony. This mess has to be cleaned up, and that instrumentation installed, before we sail on the 3rd," the Admiral informed him.
"It will be…that I promise you," Tony agreed, realizing that he'd have to get to the bottom of who and what had happened, and correct it, but that nothing could be done until the area had been properly cleared. He also knew Harriman Nelson's penchant for timetables and would make sure that it was kept.
Crane walked over to the two men. His face was now covered in smoky soot and black smudges stained his white Mess shirt. Morton soon joined him, his blonde hair speckled with soot and smoke.
"We'll need to open all hatches and get the blowers going to scrub the entire sub of this smoke. Thank God we had just a skeleton crew down here…" the Exec stated between a few hacking coughs.
One of the fire crew approached them as he took off his mask. "Sirs…everything's under control. I'd recommend getting the big blowers and hooking them up to the vent system and diverting it straight out. I also think we need a scrub team here ASAP." He ran his hand over a nearby shelf, and his fingers came away covered in a sticky substance. "This stuff left a film on everything here, and I'm sure the rest of the boat has the same kinda damage. We'll have to get rid of all the fabric on the boat, sheets, blankets, even uniforms, sir. The residue won't wash out."
Nelson shot a look at his Officers, and at Rennalt. Inwardly groaning at the extent of the extra work that the men would face, Morton spoke first.
"Admiral, I'll get on it first thing in the morning. I don’t have any plans, and there’s no family commitments here, so I'll get some of the men who don't have plans as well… there are a few that don't celebrate Christmas, and we can at least get started stripping her."
"No, Chip!" Crane ordered, "Whether Christmas is celebrated or not, tomorrow is a holiday. This can wait until the day after. We need to get underway by the 3rd, but we can wait one day to start the clean up. Besides, it will be a good 12 hours before any work can get started. And if I’m not mistaken, you have an invitation to our house for dinner tomorrow…" he glanced at his watch, "Actually, today… Let it go 'til the 26th! "
Reluctantly, "Aye, sir" was the reply, but Crane saw the look in his friend's eye, and made a mental note to check on him and his appointment for dinner with them on Christmas. Nelson was right. No one should be working on Christmas day here at the Institute.
Lee put an arm out toward Nelson, "Sir, there's nothing more that we can do here now. Tommy and his men have it well in hand, and we'll start cleanup at 0730 on the 26th."
Looking around at the debris that was his lab, he shot a look at Tony, "You're right of course, Lee. Let's at least return to Captain Davis' and make our apologies. Tony, you coming?"
"Sure am, Harry, and you can damn well bet I'll be here on the 26th with you… minus one very sorry tech!"
Close to 0100, the women became aware of sounds at the door of the apartment. Karen went to the door and found all four men standing in front of her. They were dirty and covered with the acrid smell of smoke. All had removed their coats and all looked like they'd personally battled with whatever had happened. Lee moved quickly to Cathy and bent over to kiss her. She put her hands up in between them.
"Hold it, bub! You stink! And I will not kiss you smelling like that!!"
"Cats! A little bit of smoke and you won't kiss me? Cut a guy a break, will you?"
"Sorry, Crane!" she stood, as Caitlin brought Robert into the room. The infant was sound asleep. "If you want wife and child to be content, it's home and to the showers!! Then," she crooked an eyebrow and grinned, "we can kiss!" She took Robert gently into her arms, and thanked Caitlin. Lee leaned over to take his son into his arms, and Cathy pushed him away again. "No way! I don't want this child to smell like you!! You need a shower, Captain!"
Crane looked at the people in the room, grinning, "Well, I guess we're leaving!" his amber-hazel eyes were full of amusement and love. "As someone once said, there are always possibilities." He looked at his hostess, "Thank you, Karen for a great evening, although it was interrupted. The food was terrific." He tipped his two fingers to his forehead, "G'nite, Admiral, Chip…Tony… ladies." He looked over at Morton, who was standing with Angie, "Chip, let's plan on being on the boat at 0715 on the 26th. We've got a lot to do, and not a lot of time to do it. At the very least the smell will be gone, but the cleanup is going to mean we'll have to recall the crew early, if we intend to sail on the Admiral's deadline."
"Aye, Skipper… The blowers should eliminate all the smoke…at least it won’t reek as bad as apparently we do right now," he acknowledged Crane, as the Captain and his family left, and then turned to his date, "Angie, would you mind if we called it a night? I'd kinda like to follow Lee's lead and hit my own shower!"
Nelson's secretary smiled at the tall blonde. "I'd be happy to help…" Chip grinned broadly, and reached for Angie’s arm, which she tactfully pulled away. "Later, I think, Chip…"
Terri looked over at the tall blonde exec and frowned. "Just don’t let anyone get down wind of you, Morton." And then she looked at all three men. "Correction…any of you. However, if I’m going to get home, I guess I’ve got to put up with it." She rose and asked, "Chip, could you drop me by my place? I'd like to leave too, and I'm just down the road from you, and it will save Tony a trip"
"Darlin’" Tony protested loudly, "at least let me see you home! I did have the honor of escorting you here."
She waved a hand at him, "Thank you, darlin’, but Chip here is going my way, and it’s just as easy for me to get a ride with him. I do appreciate the escort, however, and you’ll allow me to make it up to you sometime soon?"
"Don’t make offers you don’t intend to keep, Terri, darlin’. ‘Cause once the offer’s made, I intend to take you up on it."
Terri Styles smiled at the Texan, "I don’t make offers that I don’t intend to make good on, Mr. Rennalt!" Sweetly to Morton, "Chip, can you take me?"
Grinning, Morton nodded, "Sure, Terri… no problem. 'Nite, Karen, Merry Christmas… and thanks for a wonderful party."
Angie laughed. "That makes two of us." She looked over at Karen and asked, "I guess we’d better get out of here and let you and Caitlin get some rest. After all, it is Christmas morning." Reaching over to kiss her hostess on the cheek, "It was beautiful, Karen…thank you, even if it was interrupted."
Karen smiled, "Oh, well…I guess I’ve got to get used to the fact that things don’t always go as planned around here. Glad that you enjoyed yourself, Commander." She moved over to him and placed a light kiss on his cheek, wrinkling her nose slightly. "You do need a shower, my friend!"
They all laughed, and then the trio left the apartment, leaving Nelson and Rennalt with Karen. Caitlin's friend, Josh, left as well, making a somewhat awkward exit, after remarking that it had definitely been an interesting evening. Caitlin headed to her room, and changing clothes quickly, went to the kitchen to help with the last of the cleanup.
Nelson and Tony stood in the middle of the Living Room, looking at one another and than at Karen. After several seconds, Karen offered, "Ok, gentlemen…why don't you each take one of the bathrooms and wash up a bit. I think both of you need a drink so I'll fix them while you clean up."
She gestured to two of the bathrooms in the apartment, Tony heading to the one off the hall, and Nelson to the one just inside her bedroom.
Nelson looked around the bath, suddenly aware of the intimate look at Karen Davis that he was getting without either of them realizing it. Her vanilla soaps and lotions were scattered about the room, as were candles as well. He reached for soap and began to scrub vigorously at his hands, arms and face. He wrinkled his nose in disgust at the foul smell and mentally swore at the incompetence of the tech that caused the fire. He then mentally smiled. The poor man would be a sorry mess when Tony finished with him. The Texan's laid back manner belied a strong sense of doing the job right to begin with. He, like Nelson, didn't tolerate incompetence very well, and Nelson knew that the man would get a dressing down the likes of which only he, Nelson, could do better.
He looked around for a towel to dry himself with, and again glanced around at the bathroom. Karen Davis was quite a woman, and this little look into the woman behind the uniform was enlightening at the very least. The little glimpses he’d been privileged to have so far indicated she was by far more complicated than he’d ever imagined.
He carried the towel with him, anxious to give it to his hostess, so that it would not smell up the bath. In the small hallway, he met Rennalt, who was also carrying a towel.
Tony grinned widely at him, "Great minds, Harry.."
"Looks like it, Tony. Let's hope the lady in question here understands the gesture."
They walked into the living room and saw a large sheet spread over the couch. Standing next to it was Karen, holding two drinks in her hands. She offered one to Nelson, and the other to Rennalt. "I hope you don't mind the sheet but guys, I really don't want my sofa to smell as badly as your clothes. Admiral, Glen Livet for you, bourbon and branch water for you, Tony."
The men exchanged the drinks for the towels they carried, and sat on the covered sofa.
"Well, darlin', I sure as hell don't mind the sheet…we are a pair of odiferous characters after all, and far be it for me to mess up a lady's couch!"
Harriman Nelson nodded in agreement. "Tony's right, Captain. We appreciate your hospitality, but don't want to leave any unpleasant reminders behind." Looking at the towels in her hands, he added, "and I would get those washed ASAP. Otherwise, memories of this evening's fiasco on the boat may linger here longer than you wish."
"Advice noted and taken, Admiral… You two have a seat and I’ll be right back," and with that she disappeared into the kitchen. A few moments later, they heard a washing machine turn on and then she stuck her head around the door. "I’m going to put a pot of coffee on…it should be ready in about 5 minutes, if you all are interested."
Before either could respond, she’d disappeared again. The two men already having shed themselves of their coats and ties, had, upon washing, rolled up their sleeves and unbuttoned their shirts slightly. In other words, both were a sight to see. They sat at opposite ends of the couch, sipping on their drinks until their hostess reentered the room, carrying a couple of 6 inch columnar candles. Placing them on the coffee table in front of them, she then took a book of matches from an end table drawer and lit them.
"Hon…we’ve got plenty of light…" Tony drawled.
"They’re not for ambiance, Mr. Rennalt," she smiled dryly. "The purpose they serve is to make the air a bit more…agreeable." Seating herself in one of the wing chairs opposite them, she kicked off her shoes and pulled her feet up under her. "Ok…so how bad’s the damage?" she looked at Nelson.
Taking a long sip of his drink, he crooked an eyebrow. "We won’t really know until tomorrow, but from what I could see, it’s not as bad as it could have been."
Tony downed a healthy swig of his glass. "Not bad bourbon…what kind?"
Karen chuckled. "For your information…I only keep two kinds. One is Jack Daniels, Black Label…the other is Virginia Gentleman. You’re drinking the Gentleman.
"Somehow it figures…"
Just then, Caitlin walked into the room, her formerly coiffed hair now hanging loosely down past her shoulders. "Mom…clean up’s finished. Luisa had done most of it before they left anyway." She yawned and looked at the two men on the sofa. "Jeez, you two look like you’ve been there and back again. And what’s that God-awful smell?" She wrinkled her nose as she pointed to the coats near the patio door. "I think I’m gonna put these outside, if you don’t mind." She walked over and gingerly picked up both coats, then unceremoniously placed both on the back of a chair on the balcony patio. Coming back inside, she gazed back at the two men as she sat down on the arm of the chair her mother was occupying.
"Well, I didn’t think we were that offensive, Ms. Davis…" Rennalt replied. "Although your mother did place these two candles out in front of us for some reason."
"Don’t let her fool you, Tony," Caitlin grinned. "Mom just happens to like candle light…makes things more…romantic." Turning to her mother, she grinned slyly, "Don’t you, Mother?"
Karen’s face flushed and she quickly answered, "Would you please go check on the coffee? I think it might be just about ready."
"I don’t think it’s ready yet, you just put it on, but I’ll let you all talk. I just want to go and stand out on the balcony for a bit. It’s been a beautiful night…"
"Sure, Sweets, go on… time for yourself after a busy night."
"Yeah, Mom, something like that."
Half an hour later, Karen headed toward the kitchen for more coffee when she saw her daughter still standing alone out on the balcony, looking up into the night sky She looked at the 17 year old and marveled how grown up she had become. Opening the balcony door, she silently walked out and stood beside her.
"Are they gone?" Caitlin asked as her mother leaned across the railing.
"No…I was just going into the kitchen to put another pot of coffee on. I swear…I’ve never seen two men down so much caffeine…I thought I was bad…" and she chuckled.
"You’re not as bad as you think you are, Mom," she smiled. "Well, I think our first dinner here went well. The guys actually looked comfortable in Mess dress, for once."
Karen noticed something in her voice that belied her façade. "Yeah…I have to admit…I think it did, too." Hesitating a moment, "What’s wrong? You look like you’re in a funk for some reason."
"Motherrrrrr…that word isn’t used anymore," she snorted as she turned around and leaded back against the railing, looking in at Nelson and Rennalt as they stood next to the Christmas tree.
"What?! Funk? Oh, come on…you were fine a little while ago. Don’t you think I noticed how you came out here and suddenly didn’t want to be sociable at all?" Karen replied. "We’ve still got 2 guests inside, you know. Maybe you ought to go on to bed. It is around two, you know."
Caitlin didn’t answer right away but turned to her mother after a few moments. "I guess…I just…miss Daddy more at this time of year." There was a sadness both in her eyes and in the tone of voice. "I watched Cathy and Lee with little Robert…and I remember…what it was like when Daddy was alive."
There was silence between the two women. Karen didn’t quite know how to respond, knowing that, if the truth be told, she, too, was missing her late husband. She never really had gotten over his death, although she had gone on with her own life.
"I know, Caitlin," she softly said and placed her arm around her daughter’s shoulders. "I miss him, too. Even with our schedules…things were always very special." She pulled her child to her and gently kissed the top of her head.
"It’s just that…I don’t know, Mom. I mean…this is the first time that I can’t go talk to him…"
"Sweets…you can always talk to him. He’s right here," and Karen placed her hand on Caitlin’s heart. "No matter where we go…or what we do…he’ll always be there with us."
"Then why did we go to the cemetery right before we left to come here, Mom? I know what you’re saying is true, but…"
Karen was fighting to hold her voice steady. "We went…because…" and a tear formed, "because I needed to, Caitlin. I wanted your father to understand why we were leaving. His body’s there, honey…but his spirit and his love are in us. Your father wouldn’t want us to ever be sad at this time of year…you know that. He’d want us to be as happy as we can possibly be…even if we’re away from home."
"I just miss him so much, Mom…" and the girl put her arms around her mother’s waist, burying her head in her shoulder.
Karen cradled her…just as she’d done for so many times before. This time of year was always the hardest…only time was making it more bearable. "I know…I know," she whispered. Moments later, she pulled back and wiped the tears from Caitlin’s eyes. "God saw fit to take him home, honey…and we have to remember the good times we had with him while he was here. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t see him…in you. That’s the way I deal with it. I have you…that part of him will always live on. Remember your daddy, Sweets. Remember him with love…and laughter…and good times. He would want us to go on with our lives. Your father…was a kind, wonderful man who loved both of us very much. I know it sounds schmaltzy…and cliché…but, we have to…for him…and for us. It’s hard…but…we have to. And coming here…I think…was the right thing at the right time, for us both." She then kissed her again on the top of her head and just held her.
Nelson stood there, frozen, as he listened to the older woman talk to the younger. He hadn’t meant to eavesdrop…it just happened. He’d been heading to the kitchen to refill his coffee cup when he saw the two of them standing there. He’d started to go out and say something, when he heard what Karen was saying to her daughter.
How many times had he felt lost and lonely at this time of year? How many times had he stared out at the ocean, his heart aching from his own loss? Christmas. It was a time for those with families…with loved ones. Not for him.
He watched as the mother, Karen Davis, held her daughter and was spellbound. A week ago, he’d held this same woman in his arms as they’d made their way around the dance floor at the annual Holly Ball for St. Xavier’s School. There was something about her as he watched and listened. A tenderness…and yet, a deep sadness that existed beneath her ‘show no fear’ exterior. He found he was fairly surprised by it. He had thought that the toughness in Karen Davis was through and through. Now he saw that it wasn’t, he saw her vulnerability, and was amazed at the depth of emotion that she was expressing. He shook his head, sadly, realizing how much they truly had in common with one another, if only either of them felt at ease enough to share.
He snapped out of his reverie, as Tony came up behind him, "Not wanting to interrupt them, are you?"
Harry turned to Rennalt, "No, I don’t. What say we leave, and leave them to their memories. I think maybe we’ve worn out our welcome."
"Sounds good." He took Nelson’s glass and put both on the coffee table. He took a piece of paper from a pad lying there, and with the pen he had in his pocket, wrote a quick note. "We can get the jackets in the morning. Or the day after…they won’t do any harm on the deck."
The Admiral nodded soberly, and the two men quietly took their leave, closing the door quietly behind them.
Karen returned to the living room some ten minutes later, as Caitlin quietly went down the hallway to her room. She looked around, curious as to where the men went, and her eyes fell on the note next to the glasses. In a bold scrawl, it read;
Harry and I decided to leave you two ladies with your memories. We didn’t want to intrude on the moment. Suffice it to say, it was a wonderful evening...I know I haven’t spent a Christmas Eve this fine in too many years to count, and I’m sure that Harry feels the same.
She smiled at the content of the note and slowly blew out the candles. It had been an interesting evening and Caitlin was right. The evening was a success.
It was 0817 when he turned over to pick up the ringing telephone. He felt as if he had hardly closed his eyes and now the damn thing wouldn’t let him alone.
"Nelson," he groggily said into the receiver.
"Harry…Merry Christmas," a woman’s voice replied. It was Edith, calling from Boston. "Did I wake you up? Get up, you silly man. It’s Christmas morning."
He struggled to sit up, the sudden odor of his smoky uniform on the chair assaulting his nose. Her cheerfulness was almost irritating in light of the events of a few hours before. "Sorry, Edie…I got to bed late. We had a fire on board the boat last night. A member of Tony’s crew left a soldering iron on and it caused a fire."
Her tone changed from joy to concern. "Anyone hurt?"
"No, thank God. But my main lab’s a mess right now. We’ve got the exhaust blowers on to scrub the boat of the smoke and we’ll determine the damage tomorrow. We’re due to sail on the 3rd, so everything’s got to be cleaned up and fixed before then."
"Well, at least no one was hurt. Anyway, I called around eight last night, but you weren’t home. I guess you were down at the dock…"
He propped himself up against the headboard with a pillow as he talked. "No…actually I, ah, was at a Christmas Eve dinner party. One of my new employees gave it and invited the senior staff, as well as Angie and Terri Styles."
"Oh? And you actually went? Will wonders never cease, big brother," she chuckled. "Have a good time?"
"Humpth! She required all the men to be in Dress Mess uniforms. How comfortable can one be in those damn things," he returned fire.
"She? You mean to tell me that an employee of the female gender actually got you to come to dinner…and in Dress Mess no less? My, my, Harry…I’ve got to meet this woman. Who is she, pray tell?"
Nelson smiled. His little sister was always kidding him about his social life…or lack thereof. "Her name is Captain Karen Davis, Edith. She’s the Mission Specialist I hired to develop the new Deep Water Dive team for the boat. She and her daughter decided to throw a formal dinner party last night, so I went. Now…are you satisfied?"
"The fact that she got you into a formal uniform and that you actually went impresses me. A daughter, you say. And what about her husband? I assume he was there as well," she slyly commented.
Harry knew exactly what she was trying to do. Pump him for information on Davis. He also knew his sister well enough to know that if he didn’t tell her, she would find out on her own. Sighing just a bit, he commented, "Captain Davis is a widow, Edith. Her husband died in a tragic accident some years ago. And her daughter is a senior at St. Xavier’s High School. This is the first time they’ve spent Christmas away from ‘home’, so to speak…so they decided to compensate for it by throwing the party."
"And just where is home, Harry? Come on, brother. You’re not going to clam up on me now. Give."
"They’re from Norfolk, Virginia, Edie. Now…will you please stop it? I know exactly where you’re going with this…"
"Hmmmmm, Virginia, huh? Well, now…"
"Edie…stop it, will you? I don’t need or want this…from you or anyone else."
There was a slight hesitation at the other end of the phone and then Edith’s voice softened. "Harry…I’m glad you went. You can’t stay cooped up in that house at this time of the year. It’s not healthy. I’m sorry I couldn’t be there with you today, but I made a commitment to St. John’s Hospital to oversee some things today and tomorrow. I’ll be there on the 28th."
"Maria’s already got the room ready for you," he replied, glad that she’d slightly changed topics.
"Tell her thanks, will you? Look, Harry…I’m just concerned that maybe…well, you really need to start getting on with your life. Katherine’s been dead for several years but you’ve never really let go. You just bury yourself in that sub and your labs. I know you loved her but don’t you think it’s time…"
His voice took on a testy tone. "Edith…I appreciate your concern. But it’s really none of your business, ok? My life is just fine the way it is."
She realized from the sudden irritation in his voice that what he was saying was just the opposite of what was true, only he would never admit it. "Ok…you’re right. I’ll see you on the 28th, ok? And do me a favor? Tell Lee and Cathy hello and Merry Christmas for me, will you? I can’t wait to see that baby of theirs."
"I will…and Merry Christmas to you, Edith." He hung up the phone and sat up on the edge of the bed. His life was his own responsibility, not hers nor anyone else’s, for that matter. Grabbing his robe, he headed for the bathroom, then moments later, padded down the hall and stairs to the kitchen to make himself some coffee.
He turned the radio on and a bevy of Christmas carols sprang forth. Sipping the steaming hot coffee, he walked through his home and looked around. The Christmas tree that Maria had put up for him stood in the front window of the great room. Underneath were numerous gaily wrapped presents for him from various members of his staff, as well as those for Edith. And yet, for all the outward appearances, he was, in fact, alone.
Sighing just a bit, he sat down in one of the chairs in his living room and focused in on one of the carols playing.
Starlight falling on the snow
Fire glows within
Celebrate the joyful news
Hope is born again
There is holly 'round the doorway
There is cider on the stove
And the sound of Psalm will fill the air
As the family gathers close
Lift your voices high and sing
Grace has entered in
Praises to the infant King
Hope is born again
Through the frost upon the window
See the stocking on the
Where the light reflects the cheerfulness
That's growing in our hearts
Lift your voices high and sing
Grace has entered in
Celebrate the joyful news
Hope is born again
Lift your voices high and sing
Grace has entered in
Praises to the infant King
Hope is born again
And the hope of that first Christmas
The day that heaven came to Earth
Now it comes again and fills our heart
As we celebrate his birth
Starlight falling on the snow
Fire glows within
Celebrate the joyful news
Hope is born again
Hope is born again
Just as the song ended, there was a knock at the front door and the doorbell rang. Someone was obviously very impatient. Grunting just a bit, he knew it had to be Tony. And if it was, he was going to have to deal with telling him that he just wasn’t really up for company this morning. Opening the door, he was about to be slightly inhospitable when he suddenly came face to face with Caitlin Davis.
"Admiral…Merry Christmas," she beamed.
"And Merry Christmas to you, Miss Davis. To what do I owe this pleasure? Shouldn’t you and your mother be opening presents or something like that?" he inquired of the teenager.
"We’ve already done a few…and we’re getting ready to head to St. Xavier’s for church. Mom’s waiting on me, so I’ll make this quick. We’d like for you to come over for brunch. She usually fixes a special breakfast for us on Christmas…and I…well, I thought maybe you’d, ah, like to come join us."
He smiled at the young woman, mindful of her thoughtfulness and yet not wanting to hurt her feelings. "Thank you very much, Caitlin, but I think I’ll decline your very generous invitation.
I'm not really very good company this morning, and I don't want to spoil your or your mother's day. Please thank her again for the wonderful evening that you both hosted. I really did enjoy myself, in spite of the fact that we had that problem on the boat."
Caitlin’s smile fell just a tiny bit. However, she refused to show how disappointed she was. Undaunted, she slyly replied, "Oh, well then, you’ll just have to come by later and pick up your jacket… Tony’s stopping by this afternoon for his. He said something about not wanting to leave it ‘stinking up the place’. We told him it could stay there ‘til tomorrow, but he wants to get it today…" Hesitating just a moment, "Well, sir, I'm sorry that you can't join us…and I know Mom will be, too. I hope that you have a good Christmas morning…and, well…bye."
And before he could reply, she turned and walked down the walk to her car, and waved gaily as she drove off. He slowly closed the door, wondering why he had turned down the invitation. Maybe it was the fact that he really did want to be alone on Christmas. Or maybe it was the fact that, for some reason, he was afraid that if he allowed himself to be placed into a ‘family’ situation, he’d fully realize what he was truly missing in his life. Regardless of the reason, he didn’t want to subject the Davis women to his rather than less joyous mood.
Walking along the beach late that afternoon, he gazed aimlessly out over the crashing waves as they slowly regressed from the shore. As he climbed the array of rocks at the jetty not far from the compound, he pondered his life…or lack of one. What could have been had always weighed heavily on his mind, but now…there was something else.
Now there were the many possibilities of the future. After all, he wasn't all that old, as he was wont to tell himself. Not that someone like the Captain could be interested in him, but maybe, just maybe he should go out more. A companion for the rest of his life wouldn't' be a bad thing. It would be nice to have someone to come home to…someone to share his life and work with. He was supposed to have that with Katherine. Supposed to… a foolish idea. He couldn't put anyone in the jeopardy that he put Katherine, the jeopardy that had cost her her life… her very special life… no… no one deserved to be put in that position by his selfish needs.
No, Harry, forget that… no one… no one should be in that position.
He sighed. Looking at his watch, he shook his head. Maybe he should go to the Davis' and get that jacket this afternoon… Maybe…