Note: This is primarily a romance. And I make no apologies for it. So if you don’t like romance, don’t read it! Several people asked for a continuation of the Chip and Angie storyline so this is for them. But I hope there is enough action to satisfy the rest of you and there are several references to my previous stories.
Although this story can stand alone, it is part of that whole timeline that began with ‘The Puppet Master’. Huge thanks to Liz M. for the beta. She is the one who points out the flaws in the story not just the typos! I posted this unbeta’d and regret it hugely. Lesson learned. This revised version is not much changed but there are subtle differences that make for a better story – thanks to Liz.
Thanks also to Rita for the title and for allowing me to use her underwater locking device for FS1. And Chris James gets just a mention in this one but it needs to be noted that he is Rita’s OC and I am privileged to have been allowed to adopt him. I do hope you enjoy it, raw as it is. Caution: There is some mild use of language.
The argument was fierce and loud. Loud with a capital L. She couldn’t hear many of the actual words – except for one or two that were patently bitten off – but the volume and tone told her that no punches were being pulled, no quarter given. She frowned; something was out of whack here though. It was more usual for the well-modulated voice of Chip Morton to be trying to mediate between his superior officers than to be in the thick of things. Thankfully it was early enough, 0715 on a Monday, for no one else to be present on the command floor of the Institute and therefore no possibility for anyone to overhear Seaview’s top officers or for rumours to abound afterwards. Shaking her head – after all it wasn’t the first time she’d come upon a similar scenario during the seven plus years she’d been working at NIMR and probably wouldn’t be the last – she crossed into the small, newly installed, kitchenette attached to the recently extended ante-room that provided the singular access route to Admiral Nelson’s office.
Almost nine months ago, when she’d been appointed Deputy Director of NIMR, Angie had been offered a very nice corner office on the command floor. She had refused, preferring to maintain her position as the final bulwark against those seeking entry to the admiral’s inner sanctum. Instead she had overseen the expansion of her office to encompass a secure filing room along with a tiny closet and the aforementioned kitchenette which housed a small refrigerator, a sink and a couple of cupboards and drawers. She’d told herself that it helped ensure Admiral Nelson’s privacy and added a necessary layer of security but the truth was that she didn’t want to be cut off in an office of her own. She liked being in the centre of the action and most of the action at the Institute centred around the admiral’s office.
Wincing, as the volume from behind the closed doors escalated abruptly, she began to pour the water from the glass carafe into the coffee maker on the credenza just as a male voice spoke from directly over her right shoulder. She shrieked, dropping the jug which bounced harmlessly on the carpet but splashed water on her skirt and legs along with the khaki pants of the man directly behind into whom she stumbled awkwardly. Hands came down hard on her shoulders to save her from falling but in her fright she failed to appreciate that and wrenched herself away from the taller male figure, scrambling to put some distance between them.
I’m sorry. Guess with all that
noise from the admiral’s office you didn’t hear me come in.” Will Jamieson bent to retrieve the document case
he’d dropped and scooped up the now empty coffee pot, shaking out his splotched
pants leg as he straightened up. “Just
as well this wasn’t hot coffee or we’d both be on our way to
He watched her gather her composure but noticed that she was still shaking as she squared her shoulders and tucked a loose strand of dark hair behind her right ear. She indicated that he should put the coffee pot down and edged around him carefully to pick it up before going to the kitchen to re-fill it. “My fault, Doctor. I must have been wool gathering. Sorry about your trousers.”
“It’s only water. Won’t stain.” He assured her as she resumed preparing the coffee. Angie had never been a huge fan of his – their paths hadn’t crossed much in a professional sense until recently when he’d been forced to treat her for some minor injuries. She was even more phobic about all things medical than Lee Crane – if that was possible – but he’d worked hard at improving their relationship since then, trying to make her more comfortable with him. He’d thought lately he was getting somewhere but now she was acting as if he was the devil himself – avoiding sustained eye contact and giving him a wide berth as she worked. She was skittish and, as soon as she’d set the coffee to perk, retreated behind her solid mahogany desk – firmly re-establishing territory.
His concern spiked; but the door to Admiral Nelson’s office being wrenched open and disgorging two large angry males, with military bearing and almost identical furious features – although one was dark haired and one wheaten fair – successfully distracted him. The two men, captain and XO respectively of Seaview, were usually the best of friends. There didn’t look to be too much common ground between them right now as they strode from the office and disappeared down the corridor without so much glancing from left to right, fury practically radiating from both. Jamieson raised a bemused eyebrow as Nelson came to the door of his office. “What was that all about?”
“Good morning, Angie, Will. It appears our meeting will have to be re-scheduled. We’ve just lost the two main components.” Harriman Nelson crossed to the coffee pot, frowning when he realised that the brew wasn’t quite ready.
“I’ll bring it in as soon as it’s perked, Admiral.” Angie assured him, although Will noted that her brittle smile didn’t quite reach her pretty green eyes. If anything, she looked even more shaken than she had minutes earlier.
“You don’t have to fetch me coffee, Angie. I’m quite capable of fending for myself. And that’s no longer part of your brief.” Nelson groused, but with a gentle smile at the brunette. She grinned back, visibly relaxing and beginning the routine of powering up the computers that dominated her big desk.
“You know I don’t mind, sir. I’ll bring it in when it’s ready. And I’ll chase down the captain and exec – giving both of them sufficient time to cool off,” she hastily added as Nelson looked like he was going to interrupt. At his nod of appreciation she turned to the computer screens, busily scanning the overnight mail.
“Will, you got a minute?”
“I’m yours for the next sixty, Harry, thinking
we were meeting to discuss the overhaul of
“Unfortunately, that’s being put on hold, Will. As is the entire refit, I’m afraid. Seaview is very shortly going to be on stand-by for re-activation to official Navy status.”
“I take it that has something to do with the absence of the captain and exec – not to mention the war of words taking place a little earlier?” Will settled himself comfortably in one of the chairs in front of Nelson’s imposing desk as the admiral dropped into his leather swivel chair.
“Not exactly.” Nelson countered carefully, ignoring the CMO’s frown as he tapped a cigarette from the open packet on his desk, lit it and inhaled with a sense of guilty pleasure.
Jamieson shook his head; Harry and nicotine had been partners for so long that none of his lecturing was having a modicum of effect. Didn’t stop him trying – though he picked his moments now. This was clearly not one of them.
“So, what set Lee off this time?”
Nelson’s cough was part barked laugh. “Actually, it would be more appropriate to ask what set Chip off!”
Will’s eyebrows rose so far that if his hairline had been lower they would have disappeared. As it was he already blamed Seaview’s command trio for his thinning locks and his incredulous tone was indicative of his disbelief. “Chip? Morton? The self-same Chip Morton that is our sane, serene, ultra-calm executive officer? That Chip?”
“The very one, I’m afraid.” Harry took a last much-needed drag from the cigarette before crushing the remains into the crystal ashtray in deference to Jamie’s sensibilities.
Jamieson sighed. He liked to think he knew the two concerned as well as anyone could know another person outside of a blood bond – or marriage. In this case the two men were brothers in all but blood – and even closer than a lot of siblings he’d encountered during his fifty-plus years. For Chip Morton to be the aggressor in the argument could mean only one thing – especially as the exec had spent the last couple of weeks recuperating at home with his parents in Chicago.
He’d found out about Lee’s latest ONI activity.
“Oops! Not good, I’m surmising. He didn’t take it well?”
“THAT would be a decided under-statement, Will.”
“Even though our intrepid commander returned without a single scratch? Totally unique, in my experience to date.” He murmured, sotto voce.
“Didn’t count for a lot.” Nelson’s tone was droll. “I’ve discovered – the hard way, I might add – that the swiftest route to totally ticking off our exec is to keep him out of the loop. And I’ve probably not helped the cause on some of our missions – but this time, according to our esteemed XO, I’ve let ONI run roughshod over both the boat, the Institute and Lee – not necessarily in that particular order, you will appreciate.”
“Ouch! Sounds like he’d built up quite a head of steam.” Will couldn’t suppress a grin at the thought of the usually stoic and quiet exec taking on the voluble admiral and the go-to guy that was their captain.
“You have no idea! And you weren’t immune either, I may add. If you hadn’t sidelined him and restricted his access to Institute property until last Friday he’d have known what was going on and….”
Jamieson held up a hand in surrender. “I get the picture. Chip takes his role as Lee’s keeper seriously. And woe betide anyone who gets in his way. I should plan on getting out my earplugs for his fitness-for-duty evaluation this morning, I suppose.”
Nelson smirked – unable to resist. “Couldn’t hurt – you being mentioned in dispatches and all. I take it you’ve already cleared Lee?”
“Friday afternoon when he got back. I managed to purloin him and he didn’t put up too much resistance as – for once – he wasn’t in any way injured.”
“Must’ve caught him at a weak moment!”
“I have no doubt! He was anxious to go check on Chip so I kind of… maybe….”
“Blackmailed him?” Nelson’s grin indicated that he wasn’t put out in any way.
“Gotta go with whatever works, Harry.”
“No argument there, Will.” But Nelson’s frown told the medic that he had other things on his mind that their early morning banter – however pleasant it might be – didn’t outweigh.
“You’re thinking about Lee’s trek into
Harry grabbed reflexively for the cigarette packet, remembered the company he was in and threw it down in disgust, opting instead to pace. He rounded the desk, making instinctively for the large picture window that was the prime feature of his office, fronting as it did onto the upper pen that usually held Seaview when in port.
“And not sure how you feel about that either. Whether to be glad that Lee didn’t encounter Di Fabrioni or sorry that he didn’t.” The medic added softly.
“You’re getting just too damn astute, Will!” Nelson growled, edgy, unable to settle, his body language mirroring his thought processes.
Jamieson shrugged. “It’s not hard to figure, Harry. And not anything I haven’t wrestled with
either, to be honest. I want this guy
caught and punished for Linda Nugent’s murder and the deaths of two of our
divers, not to mention Chip’s and Patterson’s injuries – and Lee’s. And that’s besides the threat he posed to the
It was Nelson’s turn to sigh as he scratched
distractedly as his freshly-shaven jaw.
“I agreed with the President and the Joint Chiefs when they made
their decision, Will. At the time it was
the lesser of several evils. The problem
with these terrorist organisations is that they have infiltrated so
successfully into our mainstream that they are almost impossible to
detect. For every one we take out,
another head sprouts. Taking down Nusair
and imprisoning him either here on the mainland or in
Jamieson sympathised with Nelson, knew how he
felt, visualised the helplessness the other man was experiencing in the face of
the double blows they’d been dealt in the several weeks that had passed since
Lee’s capture at the hands of the man they had come to view as their nemesis;
not only the deaths and injuries to crewmen and the murder of a friend but the
new realisation that there was a very real possibility that Nusair had
perfected the ultimate biological weapon.
One so advanced that NIMR and a rash of scientists brought in from every
agency in existence on the continental US and beyond hadn’t managed to isolate
the components in the three weeks since the attack on Seaview’s
divers. Not to mention the fact that the
Spec Ops teams sent in to track and follow Nusair’s every movement had lost him
almost the moment the man had set foot in the
Which had led to Lee Crane being ‘volunteered’
by ONI to deploy into
The hell of it was that they both knew Lee Crane could do the job a hundred times better than anyone else. Therein lay the dichotomy – they wanted their friend safe from both the physical and emotional traumas chasing Nusair would entail, but they also wanted their country and the western world safe from the nutcase terrorist too. And unfortunately Lee Crane was their best bet for either capturing or killing him. The consequences to be borne didn’t even come into the equation. That was the real kicker.
“Nothing yet from the team going over the samples from Linda Nugent and the shark?” They had had high hopes of identifying the blocking agent, which allowed the ‘triggering’ of the lethal drug seemingly on command.
“No, damn it! Some the best brains from the NSA, CDC, and John Hopkins, not to mention the private research facilities I’ve brought in, and - nothing! Not one god-blamed blasted shred uncovered.”
Seeing Nelson’s famous temper was about to erupt Jamieson attempted a little levity. “And Lee brought back nothing but a tan either.” Which caused the sapphire blue eyes of the four-star flag officer to narrow into slits and harden until they could pierce solid steel. Oops! Joking not appreciated. Thankfully a quick rap at the door preceded Angie’s arrival with the coffee. Expertly balancing the heavy silver tray laden with mugs, sugar, cream and the coffee pot in one hand, she served Nelson with a stack of mail and message slips, rattling off details of calls and scheduled meetings. When Will politely attempted to take the tray she graced him with a quick flash of small pearly teeth that just about passed muster as a smile with an “I’ve got it, thanks” as she deposited the tray on the desk right in front of the admiral.
“You’ve got a pretty full diary today,
sir. The Chief of Staff has scheduled a
videoconference at noon, CDC want your permission to send a virologist to join
their team already here, the director of the CIA is jumping up and down about
the ONI’s interference in Afghanistan – I’m assuming that’s Lee – and he wants
you to call him ASAP, Director Shepard of NCIS requests you call her
regarding any assistance they can provide and the director of the FBI is
complaining about being left out of the loop and would appreciate a call. Oh, and I’m leaving for
Nelson absorbed all of the above while
appearing only to respond to her question.
“I’m not sure if ‘cope’ is the right word, Angie. But I think we can muddle along without you
for a few days. Seaview is
preparing to deploy to the
“I could always pull out, sir.”
He considered that briefly but shook his head. “No, it’s important that NIMR is represented at a senior level – and that means you. I want us kept appraised of any proposals on port security schemes that are discussed. Some of these agencies are so intransigent that they risk an economic meltdown by antagonising the genuine tourist and all the while allow the likes of Nusair to live, work and invest here freely. Sometimes I wonder about the people who govern our nation. See if you can’t instil some semblance of normality into the equation, Angie, without our security being compromised.”
“Will do, Admiral. And I’ll make sure your views are known, sir. Debbie has volunteered to take care of you while I’m gone.” She grinned engagingly at him, as she mentioned Chip’s secretary, before retreating back to her office.
There was a full minute’s silence after her departure, Nelson lost in thought and Jamieson loath to break it. Eventually it was the admiral who shifted in his chair, somewhat uncomfortably, and finally made eye contact with the doctor.
“It’s not getting any better, is it, Will? Despite giving her time.”
Jamieson must have allowed his surprise to show as Harry’s mouth tipped upwards into a mirthless grin. “Oh, I know I don’t have children, Will. Nor am I a medic. But I do know battle scars and it doesn’t take much to see that young lady is suffering from some form of PTSD. She’s dropped a ton of weight in the past couple of months that she didn’t need to, so it isn’t because of some newfangled diet or other. She ensconces herself behind her desk when anyone bar either myself or one of the secretaries comes in and she positively shies away if an unfamiliar male manages to invade her ‘territory’. And I notice that you’re coming in for the cold treatment too.”
Jamie nodded acknowledgement. “Not that she was ever one of my major fans, Harry. But I’m impressed. Even I hadn’t put it all together until just now. But then again I’m not in contact with Angie on a daily basis as you are. Not that it’s any excuse. I should have been on the lookout for repercussions from that whole debacle.” *
Harry shook his head at the self-condemnation in Jamieson’s voice. “Don’t feel too badly, Will; or too impressed at my degree of observation. It took a phone call from Claire Morton to put me wise. It seems that Angie has – in modern parlance – ‘ditched’ Chip.”
Jamie’s eyebrows shot up once again – this time in genuine surprise. It was no secret that Angie and Chip had been dating for a number of months now whenever their busy schedules meshed and bets had been hot between Seaview’s crew and NIMR staff as to when an engagement would be announced. His expression changed as his agile brain computed the ramifications. “That is not good, Harry. What exactly did Chip tell Claire? Or are you breaking a confidence?”
Both men had a history with Chip’s mother prior to coming together on the boat so Jamie didn’t think it necessary to pussyfoot around.
“She wouldn’t have called if she wasn’t concerned for Angie, Will. That was the total focus of the conversation. She was reluctant to call in the first instance as she felt it might be considered interfering and knows her son wouldn’t stand for that. But having managed to inveigle the entire story out of him and knowing that he would do exactly as Angie asked – which was to give her space – she was afraid that nothing further would happen. Claire has met Angie here at various functions over the years and had always earmarked her for Chip.” He paused at Jamie’s snort.
“Why am I not surprised? I guess it comes from knowing Claire. She’s always seen more than most, especially where children are concerned – and she considers anyone younger than her a child.”
“Yes, we both have experience of Claire’s wiles. Anyway, she wormed the story out of Chip, discovered that he’d confided in Lee and was concerned that they would both just leave it there. That Chip would respect Angie’s wishes while Lee wouldn’t betray a confidence and in the meantime Angie might not get the help she needs to get over this.”
“She will now.” There was a wealth of determination in Jamieson’s tone.
“Not so fast, Will. I’m not sure that a battery of psychiatrists or psychological mumbo-jumbo is what’s required here.”
“I’m wounded, Harry. What I had in mind was a quiet chat with Angie and an offer of support or assistance if she….”
Nelson was already shaking his head. “I have a plan.”
“NOW I’m really worried!”
“What’s the strongest sea-sick drug in your arsenal?”
“Have you ever noticed that Angie never sets foot on Seaview unless she absolutely has to? How do you think she’ll take to FS1?”
Lee Crane was furious. Coldly, icily furious. He strode through the outer office, past the desk occupied during normal working hours by his secretary, Jason, and slammed open the door to his private office. The blond following in his wake was no less irate but hid it better, catching the door on the rebound and closing it with a soft snick.
Lee rounded his desk, sending the cover he held under his arm sailing onto the armchair as he passed it. He propped his hands on the desktop, bracing his weight on his arms, allowing his head to drop to his chest for a moment before slowly bringing it up to connect with the bright blue eyes that blazed from his oldest friend’s otherwise stony countenance. He blew out a ragged breath, the anger leaving him abruptly.
Abating just that quickly.
He could understand Chip’s ire, knew it came from worry as much as being kept in the dark – and admitted to himself that if the roles had been reversed he’d have felt much the same. Knowing Chip as he did, sometimes it was just better to take the lecture, let him vent, then move on. But Chip had blown a gasket on Friday evening when he’d discovered Lee’s whereabouts while he’d been on sick leave and Lee had endured the subsequent rant for over an hour before leaving, realising that Chip needed time and space to get over it. He’d left his friend alone over the weekend and had taken it as a good sign when they’d met in the car park on the way to Nelson’s office and Chip hadn’t started in on him again. But it had only taken one inadvertent comment on the admiral’s part for all hell to let loose again.
Nelson had been shocked at the usually ultra-controlled exec’s show of temper, Lee had been annoyed that Chip had carried on their row in front of their superior officer and they’d been off again. Complete role reversal with Nelson as the mediator this time – until even he had lost his cool and thrown the pair of them out to ‘sort it out between you as I’ve got better things to do with my time, Gentlemen.’
“I’m guessing you’re not done yet. Have at it, now that we’re alone.” He spread his arms wide, opening himself for the salvo.
Chip felt himself deflate, his anger flatlining in the face of Lee’s invitation to do his worst. Suddenly feeling ashamed of himself for forcing Lee into that defensive position, when he knew the other man had put his life on the line on that mission, he dropped into one of the chairs in front of the desk. “I owe you an apology, Lee.” His words were quietly spoken but no less sincere and he winced inwardly at Lee’s surprised start.
What he was doing to his friend with his abhorrence of all things ONI related.
He sighed heavily, fighting to find the words as an explanation for his unusual behaviour that Lee needed. No – that he needed Lee to understand. “I knew you had gone after him.”
At Lee’s almost silent exclamation he
shrugged. “Didn’t take a genius to
figure out what you’d do. Boat’s portside, Admiral’s in
Lee lowered himself into his swivel chair, dense black eyelashes dropping to cover amber eyes that revealed too much to the one person he knew could read him like a book. He wanted – needed – to be truthful before Chip read it in his eyes and went off like a rocket again. “Chip, I instigated the contact with ONI. Told them I was available and asked to go after Nusair.” He waited for the inevitable fallout.
Morton snorted. “I knew that! What I hold issue with is the fact that they let you off without any on the ground support or viable extraction plan.”
Lee’s head snapped up. “How the hell do you know …” His jaw clamped shut but he knew he’d admitted as much. He positively snarled as Chip almost smirked – once again he’d under-estimated his friend’s reach within the on-line arena. He shook his head in wonderment. “You’re not safe anywhere – even on medical leave at home!”
Chip’s grin was fleeting; the issue at hand was
too important for levity. “Lee, I love
you like a brother. You know that. But when you do stupid things I’m gonna be
the one to kick your six from one end of
Problem was – Lee could. But he wished – for once – that Chip could see it from his.
How to explain that?
“It’s not that I can’t see it from your point of view. I can. I do. But you’ve got to learn to trust me, Chip.” When it looked like Morton was about to protest, Lee barrelled on. “I know ONI doesn’t always have my back the way either of us would like but I do have my gut instinct and I rely on that – always. Sometimes I make mistakes – but they are MY mistakes and no amount of backup would prevent that. They are my calls and my errors. If that means I have to fly by the seat of my pants then so be it. And sometimes I get injured. But if I get out with the intel or the package or whatever then it’s worth it.”
Morton shook his head. Lee just wasn’t getting it – but he couldn’t fault his friend for his selflessness. “Just maybe not to us, Bro. But I’ve known you almost twenty years now so I guess it’s too late for me to hope that you’re gonna change. What scares me most is when you shut me out, Lee. Don’t do that again. Please.”
Lee’s lashes lowered, hiding the brilliance of his amber green-flecked eyes, casting shadows on his olive toned cheeks. “Can’t promise that, Chip. So don’t ask. What I will promise is that where and whenever I can I will always keep you informed. I value your opinions and trust your ability to read a situation like I do no one else. Plus there is nobody I’d rather have at my side in a close call.”
Morton shifted uncomfortably, unused to Lee’s volubility. “I sense a ‘but’ on the way.”
Lee smiled gently, tacitly acknowledging his oldest friend’s ability to read him. “Oh yeah. ‘But’ – just remember, Bro, I’m gonna be protecting you just like you’re gonna be trying to protect me. Only reason you weren’t in on this one was you chose to tangle with those sharks and get a bloody inconvenient lung infection!”
Morton’s sputtered yelp was drowned out by the insistent drone from Crane’s desk phone. Lee picked up immediately. “Hey, Angie. What can I do for you?”
He saw Morton straighten at the mention of the Deputy Director’s name as he listened. “Yeah, he’s here. OK, we’ll be there. You have a good time and I’ll see you Thursday.” He could barely contain a smirk at the expectant look on his friend’s face as he hung up. “That was Angie re-scheduling the meeting for this afternoon at…”
“Where’s she going til Thursday?” Morton interrupted tersely.
Chip frowned. “I hope she’s up to it.”
Lee raised an eyebrow. “It’s not the first time she’s represented the Institute at something of this magnitude.”
The blond scowled. “I didn’t mean it like that! But it’s the first time she’s been out of state since the attacks on her. I just wish there was someone going with her.”
Crane’s grin was slow but devilish. “Volunteering?” He didn’t get the reaction he was expecting.
Morton stood, hands clenched into fists at his side. “I would if I thought it would do any good. Unfortunately, I don’t think I’m what Angie needs right now.”
On that note he left Lee’s office, closing the door quietly on the thoughtful man he’d left behind.
“Commander Morton! Good to see you. I heard you had been injured. I do hope you’re feeling much better now?”
Chip turned at the dulcet, faintly southern feminine voice calling his name, coming to a halt as the greeter all but stood in his path. He remembered encountering her several weeks earlier. Who wouldn’t? The gym; blond goddess. She looked equally as delectable now dressed in a formal business suit as she had in revealing spandex. Chloe Snow. Her blonde hair shone in the over-bright corridor lights, almost violet eyes sweeping him with undisguised appreciation. Her toned figure was little short of stunning and her smile was heart stopping.
Dipping his head in acknowledgement, Chip
returned her greeting. “Ms. Snow. Thank you, yes, I’m fully recovered.” Politeness demanded that he enquire after
her. “I hope you’re settling into your
new position and enjoying all that
Her laughter tinkled; a hint of southern
musicality that was enchanting even as something about the woman rang all his
alarm bells. “Well, yes and no,
Commander – may I call you Chip? And actually it’s Dr. Snow, but of course you
may call me Chloe. While I’m relishing
the work here at NIMR I’m finding it hard to… integrate into
Her quaint southern charm, coupled with the slight formality of her speech and her obvious beauty, was infectious and, as she took his arm, he found himself moving down the corridor with her. He could see how she might ensnare a man and, if he wasn’t totally besotted with a certain petite brunette, he might find himself easily tempted by the tall, lithe blonde. Not that it wasn’t flattering, especially in the current circumstances, to be singled out for attention by one so beautiful.
With a slightly impatient sigh he disengaged her arm from the sleeve of his khaki jacket, feeling obliged not to let his dislike of her boldness show. “Unfortunately, Dr. Snow, Seaview sails in a couple of days and my schedule doesn’t grant me much leeway so….”
“Chloe, please, Chip.” Oblivious to his intentions, she took his hand, squeezing it tightly between both of hers, her smile lighting up her whole face as her almost purple eyes locked on his sky blue ones, head tilting a little to the side as she allowed her eyes to roam his extremely attractive visage. “I do understand how busy a man in your position must be but surely you have to eat? Lunch, now, perhaps? If not, maybe dinner later? I’m quite willing to work around your schedule. You see, I think you and I have a lot in common.” Still several inches shorter than him, she stepped closer, running one French-polished fingernail familiarly down the line of his jaw, stopping at the point of his chin, momentarily mesmerising him. It took all he had to maintain an impassive façade – he really was beginning to intensely dislike – not to mention distrust – this woman.
It was only the frosty ‘excuse me’ accompanied by an acid glare from Debbie, Chip’s secretary, as she pointedly stepped around them that had him realising how compromising their positions looked. Taking a step back, allowing her hand to fall from his face, he retreated behind the emotionless mask that he’d perfected years earlier and few could penetrate. A frisson of unease at her forwardness assailed him but he wasn’t comfortable – as things stood at the moment – using his relationship with Angie as an excuse. “I’m sorry, Dr. Snow – Chloe, and I don’t mean to be rude but I’m going to be really tied up during the coming weeks. Perhaps it might be better to find someone else to introduce you around.”
Her pout was all feminine wiles, the look in her stunning violet eyes anything but – and had Chip’s antenna coming to full alert. “Pity, Commander – Chip.” Echoing his phrasing. “I had great hopes that you and I would be compatible. Never mind. Perhaps Captain Crane and I have more in common than I’d thought.”
It was a nothing other than a covert threat and Chip felt his entire body tighten as rage ripped through him, realising that he had no choice but to find out what exactly was this woman’s agenda. Pulling her – not ungently – around to him again, he tucked his arm under her elbow. “Perhaps I do have time for lunch, after all.”
He studiedly ignored the blatantly smug expression that marred her beautiful features, gritting his teeth as she patted his sleeve with her free hand, forced to match her shorter steps while he propelled her towards the elevators.
“Debs, chill!” Angie pleaded with her agitated friend as she re-arranged a file neatly – too neatly – in the already tidy document case. “Chip is perfectly free to have lunch with whomever he likes. For goodness sake – it’s lunch in the cafeteria we’re talking about! Not like he’s shagging her senseless in the middle of the Institute foyer!”
Debbie found herself giggling at her friend’s irreverent exasperation. Then firmed her lips as she was reminded just why she’d come to Angie’s office to impart this disturbing news. Not to cause trouble for her friend – far from it. She wanted to be bridesmaid at the wedding. And she knew just what Angie was going through at the minute – probably more than most. Happily married with a terrific husband and two great (mostly) kids, Debbie wanted the same for her best friend. And the man her friend wanted – who more than wanted her in return – was her boss, Chip Morton.
She’d watched their relationship develop slowly over several years, pushing delicately where she could and dancing a jig when it looked like things were finally – finally – going in the right direction. Until the recent attacks had Angie reacting to all men like a skittish kitten. Not that she could blame Angie. Two horrific attacks in the space of less than twenty-four hours – one of them a near rape – were enough to give anyone the screaming heebie-jeebies. She’d been torn to shreds by the depth of her friend’s anguish as Angie had confided her fears after several glasses of wine some weeks following the attacks and the explosive conclusion. They’d cried together as Angie had finally allowed the cracks to show in the strong persona she wore day in–day out as deputy director of NIMR.
A very private person – shy, in many ways – Angie projected a totally composed façade to those who didn’t know her intimately. And they were few and far between. Her ability to handle presidents, heads of state and alphabet agency bosses was renowned in NIMR spheres and little went on at the Institute that Angie either wasn’t privy to or hadn’t heard about within the hour. But her private life was strictly that – private. She had a small but intensely loyal circle of friends who met regularly, laughed together and cried together at the momentous events in their lives.
Debbie felt privileged to be one of them and had been more than concerned when Angie had asked her not to reveal the details of the attacks to the others – vaguely citing security as an excuse. It meant that Angie hadn’t been allowed the cathartic healing that sharing the horrific events would have afforded her. Debbie had been relieved when Angie had finally broken down to her and let it all out – then more than worried about the timing; it being the night they’d gotten news of the shark attack on Seaview’s divers and Chip Morton’s injuries.
In the end, while appreciating all that Angie had been through and her fears about a burgeoning relationship with the handsome young commander, she’d wanted to shake her til her teeth rattled for all but dumping Chip and refusing to acknowledge that she needed professional help to get over the trauma of the assaults.
Instead Angie thought she could work it through
on her own, given time. Debbie knew Chip
would honour any request the young brunette made and would allow her the space
she purported to need. Privately, Debbie
thought he shouldn’t back off but push her to accept his love and get her the help
she needed. She had planned to broach it
with him – OK, interfere – but hadn’t had a chance yet as today was her boss’s
first day back on duty at the Institute and he’d been holed up in meetings most
of the morning. Then she’d spotted him
with Chloe Snow – the wicked witch of the South, as she’d immediately dubbed
her, being that the blonde was from
“Have you spoken to Chip today?” She changed tack as she watched Angie methodically clear her desk and lock everything she wasn’t taking with her into her desk drawers.
“Nope. He was already in with the admiral when I got here and he’s been with Lee most of the morning since then. Now, it seems, he’s at lunch with Dr. Snow.” There was no rancour, just a calm acceptance in her tone as she re-checked her briefcase one last time and snapped the locks shut, spinning the combination dials with her thumbs. “Besides, what do I have to say to him? Glad you’re OK? Good to see you back, Commander? I told him to back off, to give me space. I…I dumped the guy, for God’s sake. I’m sorry, I can’t do this now. ” She grabbed the briefcase from the desk and picked up her purse from where she’d placed it beside the small roll-on suitcase.
“Angie….” The statuesque redhead almost
wailed. She hadn’t meant to upset her
friend – especially just before she left for an important conference. “No, I’m sorry, my timing sucks. I just wish you’d seen him once since the
shark attack. You didn’t even go see him
Angie stilled as she bent over to pull out the
handle of the roll-on, eyes closing tightly and teeth clenching as nausea
threatened viciously. It had been doing
that a lot lately – every time she thought of her cowardliness in not visiting
Chip when he’d been transferred from Seaview to
Realising she’d overstepped the mark, Debbie went quiet for several key seconds.
Eventually rounding the side of the desk she pulled the other girl into a bear hug.
“Oh, love, I’m not stupid. I know you can’t go there. But you and I are going to have a serious talk when you get back this weekend. You cannot go on like this. You know it and I know it.
I’m glad you’re going away for a few days. Take the time, Angie. Think about what you have here and what you’re doing to yourself – and others – by refusing to face the fact that you can’t do this on your own. And you don’t have to, hon. We’re your friends and we’re all here for you – and we want to be – but you need to accept our help. We all love you, Angie, and you’re not being fair by shutting us out, Chip more than anyone. Just promise me you’ll think about things while you’re gone. Please.”
It was the heartfelt plea in the final word that was almost her undoing. She rested her head on the taller woman’s shoulder, surrendering control for a few wonderful seconds. It was nice to have someone to lean on for a change. But she hadn’t been brought up that way and only knew how to rely on herself – or so she’d thought. The rug had been well and truly pulled from under her this time.
“I can’t do this to him.” The whispered words were barely caught, so deeply had she buried her face in Debbie’s warm embrace.
“What, sweetie? I don’t understand.” Debbie pried Angie’s chin up so she could see her face, reluctant to relinquish her but knowing she was finally close to the truth of what was behind the other girl’s very real fear.
“He’s strong. They all are. And I can’t even deal with this. I wasn’t raped, it didn’t happen. So why can’t I just put it behind me and move on? Compared to what they continually face, I’m just a prissy little wuss with no guts.”
Chip Morton was no coward. He had medals for bravery and commendations up the wazoo in his service record. But he couldn’t escape fast enough from the clutches of one very determined blonde once they’d eaten lunch. She was enough to make his legendary appetite non-existent – well, almost. He liked women – all sizes and shapes – and had had his fair share in his day. He’d become a lot more discerning as he’d matured and found himself (scarily when he thought about it) more often than not comparing the women he came in contact with to his mom. Or at least asking himself if his mom would approve.
He was very certain that she would not be enamoured of Dr. Chloe Snow. Oh, there was no denying she was beautiful, witty, and intelligent but there was something about her he just didn’t like. He couldn’t quite put a finger on what it was that was so distasteful to him but it was there. And he certainly didn’t want her getting her clutches into Lee.
Not that his friend wasn’t imminently capable of handling her but Lee had been through enough in the past couple of weeks and the last thing he needed right now was that little witch digging her claws in. Chip wasn’t sure of her agenda as yet but he was astute enough to realise that he had been gently and cleverly pumped for information over lunch - on the subjects of the Institute, Seaview and her captain.
Wasn’t the first time it had happened and probably wouldn’t be the last but it was a pain in the ass having to adroitly steer the conversation elsewhere while he was trying to eat. There was also something niggling at him that he just couldn’t quite grasp.
Frowning, he changed direction, heading to Lee’s office instead of his own. He needed to bring Lee up to speed on a couple of things – not least the Blonde Bombshell, as he’d christened her. After all, Lee was the acknowledged babe magnet at NIMR. Given his failure to ignite her spark, it wouldn’t be long before she targeted his CO.
Three days later Morton brought the Flying Sub in to a gentle landing at King’s Bay’s outermost docking facility – NIMR having made advance secure arrangements for its temporary lodging. Stepping onto the pier he saluted the guards as he activated the remote and sent the little yellow craft sinking beneath the water. It was one of Nelson’s most recent inventions – negating the need for a crewmember to stay with the vessel; a total departure from the norm for the admiral – usually he insisted on at least one crewmember staffing what was commonly known as ‘Lee’s Baby’. He had ‘suggested’ that Chip take the Flying Sub on a solo run, emphasising that he needed Angie back at NIMR as soon as possible once her conference was done while advocating that it was an ideal opportunity to test the new technology in a non-threatening environment – not too often available.
In the meantime Seaview had been
deployed - with O’Brien as acting captain - on a milk run to
Angie Newman watched the Navy staff car pull into
the Redondo in front of
Her stomach actually flipped (she hadn’t known it could DO that) and her heart rate increased so that she felt the searing heat of the Savannah sun beating down on her silk clad shoulders intensify to a point where she momentarily thought she would pass out. The palms of her hands went slick with perspiration and the handle of the carry on slipped out of her grip, crashing noisily to the ground. Agape at the sight of him, wheaten hair gleaming under the burning sun as he removed his aviator style sunglasses and casually tucked them into the neck of his khaki shirt, and totally flustered, she bent hurriedly for the small suitcase, almost clashing heads with the eager bellhop who had rushed forward to assist.
Pulse pounding too hard to re-act logically Angie let the bellboy grab her case and, clutching the laptop bag and her purse for dear life, allowed her suddenly noodle-like legs to propel her towards the car. She could do this. SHE. COULD. DO. THIS.
Three days away from NIMR had given her time to put this into perspective. Hadn’t it?
Hell, the weeks since he’d been injured hadn’t,
so why should she believe that the short time she’d spent away from
Logic, Angie, logic.
Get a grip, girl. Act like the title you hold. She took a deep breath – not as calming as it should have been but, hey, this WAS Chip Morton.
“Hi, Chip.” How was that for casual? Probably OK if you discounted the squeak. She wished the little voice in her skull would shut up. “What brings you here?” Duh, how obvious could you be!
His slow grin
should be licensed and she felt her heart rate kick up another notch. Oh God, this was not good. Beads of sweat began to pop out on her
forehead. Part of her wanted to throw herself into his arms and the other – petrified – part
wanted, needed, to put as much distance between them as humanly possible. Even as the saner part vied for supremacy,
her stomach churned at the thought of the inevitable intimacy. Spots danced.
She fanned herself with her clutch purse – desperately needing to get
out of the hot
He came around the back of the car, popping the trunk for the over-eager bellhop to place her suitcase inside. Grabbing the laptop bag from her slack fingers he tossed it in the trunk and, movements quick and smooth, opened the front passenger door for her. She subsided, semi-gracefully (she hoped) and tucked her legs in as he closed the door gently, cocooning her in the small space. Which became even smaller when Chip slid into the driver’s seat – having tipped the bell guy, which she had totally meant to do, but the sight of him had completely thrown her. She shook her head, hoping to clear some cogent brain cells, and repeated her unanswered question.
“I knew the admiral was sending someone from
“Admiral Nelson and Lee were called to
“You drew the short straw.” She said it lightly but the whitening of his knuckles as his long fingers tightened around the steering wheel had her suddenly hugging the doorframe.
“That’s not quite how I saw it.” The reproof in his tone, coupled with the reprimand in the blue eyes that shot her way, as he momentarily took his eyes off the road, had her remembering tales the crew had passed on about the exec making you feel about an inch high without using profanity or even raising his voice. And she felt ashamed. He’d been nothing but kind to her, never caused her a moment’s distress, acquiesced to her wishes for time and space – and here she was with her subtle put downs. Debbie was right; she was seriously in need of help – counselling? Try psychiatric!
The small voice had him glancing at her again. If she attempted to put much more space between
them she’d merge with the metal side plates of the damn car. But her chin was thrust forward at an
aggressive angle that had a grin tugging up one side of his previously firmed
lips. An avid and eclectic reader, he’d
read enough crime novels and police procedurals to be able to define a
scared-but-determined-to-put-a-brave-face-on-it woman. Hellfire!
He didn’t want Angie terrified of him.
What had he done to cause that reaction in her? He realised that his hands were clenched
around the wheel, knuckles bone white with tension. It hit him like a thunderbolt – during the
attack all Angie had seen of her assailant had been his hands, manhandling her,
wielding a knife and terrifying her. He
released his grip immediately, relaxing his forearms where the bunched muscles
must have been evident as he’d rolled the sleeves of his khaki shirt up to his
elbows in deference to the
“No problem.” He modulated his tone to match, concentrated on his driving and watched covertly the tension slowly drain from her once the sedan settled into a steady speed for the hour and a half drive to the King’s Bay naval base. Few words were spoken after that, other than him enquiring if she needed to stop for a comfort break or something to eat and her polite refusal. He was hyper aware of her sweet scent, a faint mix of apple and coconut that hinted at shampoo and a light perfume or body lotion - he preferred to think it was the latter, envisioning her smoothing it on her silky skin after she’d bathed. He knew when she slid into a light doze, her head shifting from the windowpane to the headrest, trying to find a comfortable spot. He had already noted the almost translucence of the skin under her eyes, marred only by the bruising that suggested she hadn’t been sleeping well for quite a while. Damnit, why hadn’t he noticed that before now? Protective instincts that only arose around her kicked in with a vicious stab.
How the hell had he not realised that she wasn’t sleeping? Probably because you haven’t been around for the past few weeks, doofus, he answered himself. A judicious once over had him realising that there had been a noticeable drop in weight also. He’d seen her wear that pale pink suit in the office occasionally – mainly when they were expecting serious dignitaries. The fabric was some kind of silk and, while being decorous, emphasised her curves in a most attractive way – curves that were rather lacking at the moment. Her slumped position in the car seat had allowed the silk jacket to slide to one side and he could see the hollows at her collarbone – hollows that hadn’t been there several months ago. He grimly registered the fact that the skirt was loose around her waist and hung slightly from her hips where before it had moulded them quite nicely. His wry grin changed to a frown as he contemplated the possible causes. There were basically two – either the job of DD at NIMR was too much for her or she was suffering some kind of PTSD from her attack. Or it could be a combination of the two. He’d been accused often enough of being methodical and analytical – and sometimes it wasn’t a compliment. Time to put deductive reasoning to work, Morton.
One – she’d been coping without any problem with the new job, and the additional stress coupled with the increased workload, right up until the attack. In fact she’d been revelling in it. The position suited her calm self-possessed persona and her organisational skills were second to none. Plus she was a people person and got on well with everyone at the Institute. They gravitated to her with their problems and she took them as her own until a satisfactory solution was achieved. And Seaview’s crew – a shrewder bunch he would be hard pushed to find – positively adored her. Lee considered her all but a pesky little sister and the admiral treated her as one would a favourite niece or goddaughter. She ran the place with the proverbial iron hand in a velvet glove. Hell, she even had the President on speed dial!
Two – the attack had happened in
Contrary to popular belief, they weren’t sleeping together – hadn’t yet made love. Part of it was due to their crazy work schedules and part of it was an admittance that this relationship was one that counted – not a series of one-night-stands. They’d had some serious kiss and cuddle sessions but were both waiting for the right time to cement their relationship in physical terms. The ‘right time’ seemed to be conspiring against them.
And if he couldn’t help Angie get past her current block then he couldn’t see a time in the future when he’d have a chance to offer her the ring that currently – optimistically – occupied the back of his office safe at NIMR. His mom had wheedled it out of him while he’d been recuperating at home in Chicago. His respect for her was enormous and what she had said made sense. She’d met Angie at a number of Institute functions over the years – and Claire Morton had never met a stranger. Once she realised the importance of the young woman in her son’s life she’d made it a point to get to know her. She’d listened to his tale and sympathised with Angie’s pain. Then torn a strip off him for not recognising that her ‘dumping’ was actually an unconscious cry for help. She’d realised the first time of meeting Angie that the girl was soft on her son. That she hadn’t pursued him – as most of the women in his life did – but allowed him to ‘find’ her had raised Angie in her estimation.
She’d urged her son to talk to Will Jamieson, having worked with him when he was head of Trauma Surgery in Chicago General before he’d taken the position as Seaview’s CMO. Chip had hesitated, reluctant to bring up personal issues with Jamie and knowing that Angie would be really ticked at the invasion of her privacy. But he was seriously considering doing it when they got back – him to Seaview and her to Santa Barbara. Her reactions to him today were telling in themselves and he realised that, once again, his astute mother had been right on the money.
Suddenly the penny dropped. And he almost swerved the car as reaction set in. His brow was deeply furrowed as he realised how easily he’d been manipulated by his friends – and he was positively sure now they’d ganged up on him. He could see Lee’s hand at work, and even Jamie’s – but the admiral? He wouldn’t have thought Nelson was even aware of the current difficulties in his relationship with Angie…. Uh, oh…. Talk about hitting him between the eyes with a sledgehammer. He should have known his mom would feel free to interfere by calling the admiral. His lips firmed into a thin line and the scowl on his face was formidable. He went so far as to call up her number on speed dial before pausing. Obviously she hadn’t been convinced that he would act on her advice and had taken matters into her own hands. He was convinced of it – and couldn’t fault her for her concern. It had taken some time but he’d eventually come to the same conclusion. Now he wondered just how many of his ‘family’ were involved in the decision to send him to fetch Angie – and just how necessary her presence at NIMR was. Then he got a twinge of conscience –
Nelson wouldn’t dispatch FS1 if it weren’t entirely necessary. He’d dropped Lee and the admiral off at Annapolis on his way to Georgia but they would have to make their own way from the capital to Norfolk and Seaview. By the time he dropped Angie back to Santa Barbara he would have just enough time for a quick turnaround to rendezvous with the boat on the east coast. It was a lot of flying time but he was up to it. And a quick glance at the slumbering brunette in the passenger seat was all he needed to convince him that it was worth it.
Not that Angie Newman was a conventional beauty. Casual observers would view her as pretty, bordering on moderately attractive. She was frequently described as petite, not quite reaching his shoulder without heels and it made him feel disgustingly protective when she was by his side. Oh, she had a reasonably good figure, not overly toned but slender and curved enough where it counted (a B rather than a C cup), sinfully soft skin and silky-to-the-touch dark brown hair with strands of gold blended in when the light caught it a certain way. But it was her expressive face that made her beautiful to him. Her slightly slanted moss-green eyes radiated her every emotion, her broad forehead denoting her sharp intelligence. She possessed high cheekbones, most often hidden under the bell shape of her shoulder length hair as it cut the corners of her facial structure.
Her lips usually held a ready smile that lit up her features – and called to him. Her lower lip was significantly fuller than the upper and he loved nipping it gently as he kissed her. She’d altered her hair style some months ago to compensate for a small scar on her forehead resulting from her car coming into contact with the wall at NIMR’s exit gate. Now she sported a frothy fringe that, while it hid the small crease, added to the mysterious almost-Cleopatra look. Usually even tempered, she was a stickler when it came to work ethics and a detail merchant – much as he was, which was one of the reasons they got on so well – but had been known to lose her cool on the very odd occasion and display a temper that bespoke a (mostly hidden) passionate nature. If he was to take one single element of her personality that appealed to him most it was probably that she was a champion for the underdog. It both amused and gratified him and totally stole his heart. Whether it was a ball game where one side was getting trounced or a movie where there was an inevitable loser, she was always on the side of the small fry. It was a totally endearing characteristic and one he’d grown up with – his mom having the self same personality trait.
On that ‘happy’ thought he drove slowly through the gates of King’s Bay Naval Submarine Base, stopping at the security hut to present his credentials to the studious scrutiny of the watchful security guard, waited patiently while another guard swept the undercarriage of the borrowed sedan with a wheeled detection device and then drove unerringly through the base heading for the furthermost pier.
Angie woke when the car stopped, looking around in momentary confusion before catching herself up. She couldn’t believe she’d actually slept, the smooth momentum of the car and the soothing engine noise allowing her the most rest she’d had in ages. Not that she’d been burning the candle at both ends during the conference. She hadn’t. In fact she’d socialised as little as she could get away with. Most of the other attendees had been male and she’d certainly had several offers – some more suggestive than others. She had been more than brusque in some of her refusals but had ended up sleeping badly anyway, her hotel room door locked and bolted and with a chair pushed under the door handle for added security.
At least she hadn’t woken her neighbours screaming from her nightmares. Then again she hadn’t allowed herself to fall deeply enough asleep to actually dream. Embarrassed – and stunned – that she’d fallen asleep in front of Chip she hauled herself upright in the seat, trying to unobtrusively stretch out the kinks in her neck and back from the uncomfortable sleeping position she’d ended up in. Running both hands over her hair to ensure it wasn’t totally wild she finally slid a discomfited glance in Chip’s direction.
“Sorry about that.” She cleared the frog from her throat self-consciously. “I don’t usually fall asleep like that – conference was a bit intense and I didn’t have much time for sleeping.” Silently berating herself for the need to make excuses, she watched with mounting puzzlement as the car had pulled into a parking spot along the waterway that housed several submarines in various stages of repair, some in and some out of the water. She’d expected them to end up close to an airstrip and turned questioningly towards the tall blond who, having cut the engine – leaving the keys in the ignition – was levering himself out of the car and gathering her gear from the trunk before coming around to the passenger side and opening the door. Grabbing her purse she scrambled from the seat before he could assist her. Totally confused, she stared after him as he walked out onto a concrete pier, one of several unoccupied ones and the furthest away from the activity that surrounded the subs undergoing repair.
“Chip?” She questioned uncertainly, following him hesitantly as she slanted a hand over her eyes to block the glare of the sun refracted off the water. She skimmed the perimeter – searching for…perhaps a seaplane? She dismissed that thought even as the water to the left of the pier began to churn violently, causing her to jump back in fright. She almost squeaked when the waters began to break apart as something thrust through the agitated depths forcing its way to the surface. She sent a panicked glance Chip’s way only to see the exec step forward as the waters parted to allow the yellow hull bob gently against the rubber stanchions that edged the pier. The credit card sized object in his hand activated the entry portal as the small craft came to bobbing rest and the door to FS1 slid open. Chip deftly made the small leap onto the outer hull and pulled the craft closer, efficiently tying it off to the pier then loading her rolling suitcase and laptop bag before holding out his hand to help her aboard.
“You have so got to be kidding me.”
Perplexed by the obvious panic in the words, he caught the sudden pallor on her face seconds before she sprinted for the car he’d – so conveniently – left the keys in.
He caught her just as she reached for the door handle, encountering more resistance from her petite frame than he’d expected. She struggled frantically as he tried to pull her away from the car.
“Whoa, Angie! Cool it! Calm down, honey!”
“Let go! Let me go! Get off me!”
Her panicked thrashing about caused her to drop her purse and, as one flailing arm almost caught him in the face despite his quick reflexes, he was obligated to take a firmer grasp on her wriggling body, catching each of her wrists in turn and forcing them down crossways across her body which he pinned firmly with her back to his chest and her feet several inches from the ground. All of which only heightened her panic. She managed to get in a couple of good kicks to his shins with her heeled pumps before her adrenalin-fuelled energy ran out and her brain could absorb the softly spoken litany he was repeating in soothing tones. When she finally quieted, she could feel the vibration of his calm words right next to her ear.
“I’m sorry, sweetheart. I’m so sorry I frightened you. I should have explained before we got here. We’re not going under the water, honey. We’re flying home. I promise, Angie. I won’t take you under the water. The admiral needs you back at the office. Calm down for me now, honey. Deep breaths, Angie. Slow and deep, baby. Slow and deep.”
She felt her frenetic heart rate slowing as he continued to calmly talk her down from her panic and her struggles slowly ceased. She was hyper-aware when he allowed her to slide down his body until her feet touched solid ground again and, although he slackened the tight hold he had on her, he didn’t release her fully. She was glad for that, as her legs most likely wouldn’t have held her upright just then. She bent her upper body forward – not only to get away from the feel of him against her back but also to try and suck in some much needed air. The rational part of her knew this was Chip Morton but the other part – the part she hated with all that she was – could not condone the trapped feeling that came from having a much larger male body covering her from shoulder to thigh.
“Please. Please, let me loose. Please!” She slumped in his hold, trying to convey the fact that she wasn’t going anywhere and was no longer a threat to him.
He moved too fast for her aching brain to comprehend but suddenly his forearm was beneath her knees and she was scooped up, forcing her to cling with one arm around his neck. Within what seemed like seconds she was seated in one of the two black leather pilot chairs in the Flying Sub with Chip crouching in front of her, holding her visibly trembling hands, sombre sky blue eyes on a level with her rapidly blinking green ones. When she realised where she was he saw her eyes widen with shock, swiftly replaced by horror. He could almost see her stomach heave beneath the pale pink top she wore and swore silently. He’d been so distracted since picking her up that he’d forgotten all about the small envelope Jamie had handed him, instructing him to give her the pills before attempting to board FS1. The gentle ebb and sway of the small craft as it rode the surface was nothing to him. Angie obviously didn’t feel the same way.
“I’m gonna be sick.”
“No, you’re not, honey. Take a breath, Angie. Inhale. Exhale. Now again. Good girl.”
His soothing, coaxing tone had been working right up til those last two words. But if there was one thing that got her going was that single patronising phrase. Her face didn’t get any less pale but her green eyes flashed emerald fire and if looks could kill he’d be keeling over on the metal deck plates sincerely rueing his fatal last words.
“Don’t ever – ever – call me that again or you won’t like my payback.” There was little power behind the threat but Chip didn’t doubt her intent to make good on it. Thankfully it also seemed to dissipate some of the nausea he could see still threatened and he felt safe in leaving her long enough to grab a bottle of water from the built in mini-fridge and tear open Jamie’s small packet, dumping two white pills into his palm. She took the bottle gratefully and twisted the top off immediately. She flicked him a ‘look’ at his cautionary “not too much” but sipped slowly. She totally ignored the pills.
Knowing her – not entirely unwarranted – suspicions regarding Seaview’s CMO’s sometimes underhand tactics, he hastened to assure her.
“They’re only travel sickness pills, I promise, nothing more sinister than that.”
“Yeah, right!” She groused, feeling the tide of colour sweep up her cheeks. She’d thought her secret safe with the admiral. Deputy Director of one of the most famous marine institutes in the world and she suffered from seasickness.
He was gratified to see the return of some colour to her face – if for all the wrong reasons. “Angie, you can’t help suffering from seasickness. It’s a pain in the neck and I’ve seen strong sailors affected. It doesn’t interfere with your job or your life, so don’t get bent out of shape over it. Take the pills – they work.” The last was just short of an order as he pushed them towards her. She hesitated but – good sense prevailing – finally took them. “Jamie said to give them ten minutes to work. Want to lie down while I complete the pre-flight check?” He indicated the bunk built into the far wall.
The speaking glance she sent him was answer enough and he backed off with a smothered laugh. Credit where it was due – the girl had bottle.
In actuality Angie was afraid that if she moved from the chair she sensed her butt was permanently frozen to, she’d fall over. The sway of the craft on the surface of the water didn’t seem to bother Chip as he confidently moved around its surprisingly roomy interior, dogging the hatch and checking the storage areas, working from a clipboard and ticking off items before slipping into the seat to the left of her. She’d purposely avoided looking out the wide windows at the water lapping serenely (obscenely) against the glass. She’d never heretofore had occasion to venture aboard the Flying Sub – thankfully. She’d limited her visits to Seaview to those times when she absolutely couldn’t get out of it. Harriman Nelson was the only person at the Institute who had known her secret – until now. Reminding herself that she was doing this for the admiral she almost jumped when Chip’s question had her realising that she must have spoken aloud.
“You think any one of us would embarrass you that way? Come on, Angie, you know better than that.” The mildly chiding tone had her flushing with discomfort – she knew none of the senior officers would lower themselves sufficiently – it would be totally against their nature.
“Sorry, I just feel like a bit of a wuss.” It was the closest to an apology she could muster under the circumstances with her stomach still doing the equivalent of a triple Lutz.
He flashed her one of ‘those’ grins – the one that showed plenty of even white teeth and lit up his entire face. She wasn’t sure whether it made her cavorting stomach worse or better! “No need, honey. I’ve seen seasoned submariners toss their cookies when they’ve surfaced into what I’d consider a milk pond. No wuss factor necessary.”
She sent him a shaky smile – grateful for his attempt at humouring her but aware he was lying abysmally. “Yeah, right! But don’t mention ‘cookies’ and ‘tossing’ in the same sentence or I might embarrass myself and I’d hate to see your pretty silver deck suffer from a revisit of my breakfast.”
He grinned because it was expected and it was the first real smile he’d seen on her beautiful face in weeks. Her choice of words also caught his – sometime ironic – sense of humour. It was the first time he’d ever heard FS1’s functional deck plates described as ‘pretty’. He bet Lee would blanch at the very thought! “If you’re in dire need – and I stress dire – there’s a very small, very rudimentary head over there. Wouldn’t swing a cat and I don’t recommend it until you’ve no other choice but it’s there ‘just in case’.”
She got the drift. “Hmmn, just how long will it take us to get back to Santa Barbara?”
“About 4 hours if we don’t get any unexpected headwinds.”
“And we won’t go underwater?”
He held up three fingers with thumb and little finger touching in front. “Scouts honour.”
Taking a deep breath, she nodded compliance – more for herself than him. I can DO this – I think.
Her confidence was diametrically opposed some fifteen minutes later – not to mention in abject sympathy with her stomach – as FS1 skimmed the surface for what seemed like a lot longer than the thirty seconds Chip had promised before launching into the sky. The transition from water to air was like bright day to dark night and she finally managed to peel her white-knuckled fingers from the chair’s armrests as the little craft settled into a relatively smooth and level airborne pattern – much like any flight she’d ever taken except for the cloud bank that was all that could be seen through the front windows. It was more than enough to set her nerves jangling - in tandem with the roller coaster ride that was taking place in her stomach. The four-point seat belt held her securely in the chair – she didn’t even want to think about touching the joysticks at the end of the chair arms, which Chip handled so expertly.
He’d assured her that hers were currently de-activated but she wasn’t taking any chances. She eyed the blinking lights on the console in front of them. Chip had explained some of the workings but she’d been too nervous to take in much of what he’d said. She knew that the controls could be operated from either seat if necessary but almost everything else had gone over her head. She could operate computers to do her job but anything more advanced than that had her eyes glazing over. But Chip appeared very comfortable and at home in the pilot seat and, taking its lead from his casually efficient demeanour, her stomach eventually stopped its insane gyrations. Maybe it had something to do with Dr. Jamieson’s pills – she wasn’t going to question it, being only too grateful for the results. Her panic levels had dropped dramatically as her nausea disappeared. At least they had until she saw him flick a switch on the console and then swiftly undo his seatbelt and stand up.
“What are you doing? What’s wrong?” She didn’t recognise the almost shriek that emerged as being her own voice.
“Nothing’s wrong, Angie. I’m just gonna grab some coffee and something to eat. Cookie packed a goodie bag and I’m hungry.” He crossed to one of the storage hatches under the bunk and pulled out a wicker picnic hamper and a cooler, setting both on the blanket and diving enthusiastically into the contents.
She looked around wildly, panic setting her stomach off again. “But don’t you need to fly this thing?”
“It’s on auto-pilot, hon. Relax, Angie, I know what I’m doing. You can get up and walk around if you want. It’s like flying on a regular airplane. Only when the seatbelt light is on do you need
to stay put. Otherwise you’re free to move about.”
She caught the flash of humour in his blue eyes even though his expression remained serious. She’d bet her last dollar there was no ‘seat belt sign’ on FS1. “I’m fine, thanks. Honest.” No way was she taking her butt off the seat unless she was forced at pain of death.
“Want something to eat? Cookie packed us quite a collection. I missed breakfast.” He continued to rummage through the fare, pulling out anything that caught his fancy.
A reluctant grin tugged at Angie’s lips – Morton’s appetite was legendary at the Institute. Lee Crane swore that if the end of the world was declared Chip would be found in a restaurant eating everything in sight. It was amazing the man had a ripped physique given the amount of food he ingested. Then again he worked hard and exercised religiously to keep in shape so he probably burnt off the calories before they had cause to linger. She could recall the exact time and place when she’d first ‘taken a shine’ – as her Celtic grandmother would have said – to the tall blond. It had been one month and three days after he’d joined NIMR. There had been some panic on and Nelson had set her to tracking down the exec who was on the property but not answering his cell phone or pager.
She’d found him in the gym lifting weights, dressed in exercise shorts and a tank, biceps bulging, chest heaving and sweat darkening his closely cropped wheaten locks. He’d been so focused on his workout that he hadn’t heard her approach or the clearing of her throat as she’d tried to get his attention. Intent on delivering Nelson’s urgent summons she’d done the unacceptable and approached him from (what she now knew was) his blind side and put her hand on his shoulder. Startled, he’d almost dropped the weight bar onto his chest, barely managing to fumble it back onto the rests before letting forth with a tirade as he practically reamed her a new one. She’d stammered out her message before fleeing. Proud of herself for getting out of there dry-eyed, she’d finally succumbed to tears in the ladies room.
The following day he’d apologised unreservedly, acknowledging his own complicity in not having a spotter and sent her a posy of flowers. He’d also invited her out for dinner the following Saturday night and her twenty-three year old heart had gone pitta-pat. He’d been called away to Washington with the admiral and per force had to cancel. It had been only the first of many such cancellations in the intervening six years.
She could pinpoint equally as clearly the moment she’d fallen in love with him. Oh, she’d been on the verge for a long time but she’d finally succumbed to her feelings three days after Lee Crane’s shooting by Cassie Sommers – in the corridor outside of his room in Med Bay. Chip had been leaning against the wall, forefinger and thumb pinching the bridge of his nose as if to ward off an impending headache. He’d invited her to dinner but he’d been beyond exhaustion so she’d teased him about falling asleep in his soup and asked for a rain check. He’d rested his forearms on her shoulders and pulled her close until their foreheads were touching. It had been one of those ‘Kodak’ moments – so sharp, so clear, so sweet that she had found herself waking in the middle of the night reliving it over and over. It had been the moment she’d fallen headlong. Hook, line and sinker. And they’d never even gone out on an actual date at that point. In some weird way she’d known it was the same for him. Not that they’d ever discussed it but she’d sensed that he didn’t allow his vulnerability to show very often – at least not outside of the close knit bond that was Seaview’s upper echelon. And she’d basked in the unspoken connection that had been established, loving the relationship that had slowly been developing between them over the years they’d worked together and then Lee Crane setting her up with him when Chip had been injured – right up until that fateful early morning she’d been attacked in Med Bay.
“Sure you don’t want anything?”
The mundane words brought her back to the present with a start. As always the memory of being pinned helpless on the bed by a large male figure, the bite of the knife as he carved a message for Nelson into her shoulder, the explicit threat of much, much more, had her shuddering in reaction and her stomach in knots again.
“No! Thank you.” She tacked the latter on as Chip shot her a quizzical look. She managed a shaky smile in response, grateful when he let it go although the shrewd gaze he sent her revealed that he saw more than he was prepared to acknowledge. Her heartbeat sped up again as he dropped into the chair beside her and took a large bite out of his sandwich, eyeing her thoughtfully all the while.
His next words almost sent her into full-blown panic mode.
“We need to talk.”
If there was anywhere to go she’d have gone. On the spot. But hiding out in the minute head for the next three plus hours wasn’t a viable option. Nor was passing out peacefully on the deck plates – she’d never fainted in her life. She couldn’t cry prettily (always ending up a blotched mess) and didn’t think tears would sway him in any case. The stubborn, square set of his clean-shaven jaw – which she’d always loved – bespoke a certain determination that she guessed he’d honed over his years in the military. She’d heard stories from Seaview’s crew of the terror their exec could wield with the steely glint in his eye and the hard set of his jaw. Now she was privy to the reality. It didn’t stop her attempt to prevaricate.
She almost jumped out of her skin as his eyes turned from their usual cerulean blue to an icy slate that she’d seen just once before – the day he’d held her in Med Bay while Doctor Jamieson had cleaned up her shoulder – and she’d been too ill to take much note of it then. The memories came flooding back now and she could almost feel the tension radiating from him as it had back then. Only now the message was one of anger, disappointment and frustration. And, as if the realisation had come on a slow burn, she recognised that she was stronger now than she’d been that day, and gaining strength every day since.
So, maybe it had taken her a while. Perhaps she was a slow learner but her first reaction now was kick-ass fury. Poor baby – he felt hard done by? Try living where she’d been! “And don’t you look at me like that, Chip Morton!”
“Just how am I looking at you, Angie?” The quiet tone was at odds with the intense blue light that now sparked from his eyes and had her practically gasping – and gripping the arms of the co-pilot seat as if to anchor herself.
“Like…like…” she spluttered. Like he wanted to eat her up. Her brain went into overdrive. Concentrate, girl! “Like you’re mad at me for something!” Way to go, Angie. Now you sound like a whining kid!
Only the white knuckled grip he had on the coffee mug gave away Morton’s feelings as he, seemingly casually, sipped at Cookie’s high-octane brew. “I am mad at you, Angie.”
She did gasp aloud then, not at the fact that he’d admitted it – he had the right after the way she’d treated him – but that he’d come straight out and said it.
“And not for the reasons you’re thinking either.” He kept the tone level and continued to eat his sandwich as if they were discussing nothing more serious than the weather, his even white teeth biting cleanly and with obvious enjoyment into one of Cookie’s masterpieces. “I’m mad at you because you’re hiding out. Playing chicken. In denial. Call it what you will. You’re not dealing with what happened to you. And you won’t get the help you know you need. Instead you’re pushing away everyone who cares for you and internalising your problem. In short, you’re making us pay.”
Her jaw dropped at his words, the brutal message slamming home as she watched him calmly finish off his sandwich, wipe his hands on a paper towel and twiddle some dials on the instrument panel in front of him. “That’s… not entirely fair.” She had to swallow the huge knot his words had left in her throat before she could speak.”
The look he shot her pierced to her very soul. And where had he learnt that sneaky (way too sexy) under the lashes look anyway? Only from Lee Crane, she almost pouted petulantly. He was a past master at the puppy dog eyes look – and the killer was he wasn’t even aware of just how effective it was! Neither was Chip.
“Unfortunately, Angie, it is. Every time a man comes close to you, unless it’s Admiral Nelson, you practically jump five feet in the air. And that includes Lee and myself, whom you’ve known for years and know in your heart of hearts that neither of us would harm a single hair on your head. How do you think that makes us feel? Or Ski, or Pat or even Riley, whose tongue practically trips him up when you walk by? You’re letting the bastard win, honey. And that is NOT like you.”
“I’m dealing.” Even she could hear the defensiveness in her voice as she argued the point. “I managed just fine at the conference.” She wanted to cross her fingers at the small lie but knew his eagle eyes would spot it. “And that was predominantly male.”
“Managed? By attending the sessions and hiding out in your room every evening?”
And how the hell did he know that? Her defensive posture must have given her away cos she didn’t get a chance to open her mouth.
“You’re wondering how I know that? Because the shadows that are almost black beneath your eyes tell me you’ve not slept well for a long time and the amount of weight you’ve dropped has your clothes all but hanging on you. And I can practically feel the stress dripping off you. I’m the exec on a submarine, Angie. I can read stress levels from highly trained sailors at fifty paces. You’re a civilian and – no offence – a no-brainer.”
She was gritting her teeth so hard she doubted her molars would survive intact. “I am dealing with it. I managed. I gave the addresses at the symposium and got a standing ovation, damnit.”
He was glad he’d roused her dander. It was good to have her mad at him. It meant the old Angie was in there and ready to come out. He would have cheered if he hadn’t realised that there was still a hard row to hoe.
“No one’s questioning you professionally, Angie. That’s part of the problem. You’re so darn good at your job that you’ve masked the problem from all but those of us who know you too well. You asked me for space and I’ve given you that but now I think I owe it to both of us to be frank.
You hurt me by not trusting me to be there for you. And you hurt all of those who love you by not letting them in – not allowing them to help you when you need it.”
She was compelled to respond to the gritty tone that told her he was really, really ticked at her. “I do trust you! I lo… like you and Lee and the admiral and all the guys. I just need some time to come to terms with what happened!”
“If you trust us you’ll let us in, Angie.”
Christ, he was relentless. She didn’t envy any crewmember who transgressed in whatever small misdemeanour.
“It’s hard, OK?” She almost shouted. “I wasn’t raped. It never happened so why am I having such a hard time with it when you and Lee and the admiral and every member of Seaview’s crew have been though so much worse! I feel like a fraud that I can’t just shrug off what didn’t happen! It didn’t happen. OK?”
Chip was stunned and speechless for several moments. She was putting herself and everyone else through the mill because she thought her traumatic experience didn’t measure up? What sort of convoluted female logic was that? To his – admittedly – male brain it didn’t come close to stacking up.
“Angie, honey, you went through a violent carjacking that would shake anybody up and then were attacked and almost raped in what had previously been a secure environment for all of us. You are entitled to feel aggrieved, violated, let down by our own security. You were tortured, honey. Used as a tool to get to the admiral. What happened to you was unconscionable and horrific and we’ve increased the security in Med Bay in light of it but it wasn’t your fault! Soldiers trained to resist have broken down under lesser torture. You have nothing to forgive yourself for. But you have got to let us in.”
He watched her put her hand over her mouth as if to stifle an outraged scream as her shoulders slumped and she turned away from him. He’d known this wouldn’t be easy on her but he’d instinctively recognised that this God-given opportunity might be a long time in presenting itself again. Then he saw her – impressively – draw herself together and flick the traitorous tears from the tops of her flushed cheeks.
“You are so wrong. If you’re telling me that Savannah was a test then I aced it! Go figure. I’m coping. I survived!” Her eyes glittered with unshed tears as she proudly faced him, her small chin thrust forward pugnaciously.
The gentle sympathy in blue eyes turned to cobalt was almost her undoing as he tenderly stroked one hand down her slender forearm beneath the short sleeve of her silk shirt. His voice was equally gentle as he intoned, “If survival is all that counts then you’re good to go, Angie. But believe me when I say that life is more complicated than that, honey.”
Her only defence was attack. “Don’t patronise me, Chip. I’m a grown woman, not a child.” Even as the words left her mouth she knew she was making a mistake. This wasn’t a condescending male – inwardly she knew he had only her best interests at heart. And she knew she was pushing him to the brink of his reserves. A part of her relished that – needed it, craved the control.
The alpha-male in him wasn’t letting her gain it. “You’re certainly not that, Angie. But what you’re forgetting – or, to be more precise, are not allowing yourself to realise is that you don’t have to measure up. Not to me, not to Lee, not to Nelson. Not to anyone. You are your own person, the Deputy Director of the Nelson Institute of Marine Research. And thank God for it. Do you honestly think the Institute would function as it does if it was staffed with a bunch of us Navy officers plus the rag tag assortment we’d glean from the crew? Hell, the entire US Navy wouldn’t survive without their unique civilian operatives. Every branch of the military has their own glory guys – and they perform an exceptional service but they wouldn’t be capable of doing their jobs the way they need to do them if it weren’t for the guys back at base who make it happen.
I guess what I’m trying – ineptly – to say is that we don’t need you to measure up to us. We need you to do what you do so well – which is to keep us all hopping to your tune, lady.”
How in God’s name had he managed to hit the nail on the head? He really didn’t know but the small, disbelieving sort of ladylike snort she made told him he’d struck a chord. It caused his lips to quiver as he attempted to conceal the smile that threatened to break through – she’d probably slug him if she saw it.
“Oh, Angie, you have no idea, do you, honey? You don’t have to compete. We don’t want that. I don’t need that. None of us do. What we need is for you to be whole and back where you were before the attack.”
“I wasn’t raped.” She bit the words out between clenched teeth, white knuckled fingers dug into the armrests of her seat, shaking so much inside that she hoped it didn’t show outwardly.
“I know, sweetheart, and thank God for that. But you were attacked – twice – within twenty-four hours and in a particularly threatening and traumatic way. No-one expects you to get over that quickly or not have….”
“Lee did. What happened to him and Linda was worse and he didn’t fall….” She clamped her lips shut before she spilled anything more revealing.
“Fall apart? Angie, Lee’s been in the military all his adult life. Hell, even before that! Plus he’s a highly trained agent for ONI.” Much as I wish he wasn’t, Chip added silently. “And believe me, he didn’t just shrug off what Nusair did to him - or Linda’s death. He’s been tearing himself up since it happened. This last little jaunt into Afghanistan chasing Nusair is just a case in point.” He raked his hands through his hair in frustration at his friend’s obduracy. He knew Angie’s high security clearance meant she was aware of Lee’s latest foray. “And don’t forget my condo is right next to his. Sometimes I hear his nightmares.”
At the way her head bowed he realised he’d inadvertently struck a nerve and the shadows beneath her moss green eyes took on new meaning. His lips thinned but he strove to keep his voice calm. “Who hears yours, honey?”
It was his turn to snort derisively. He’d heard that phrase too many times to count. “It doesn’t take an expert to see that that is a gross exaggeration! It’s obvious you’re not sleeping, probably having nightmares and flashbacks and you’re too darn stubborn to let anyone close enough to help you!” His frustration overrode his desire to remain composed.
“If you want to help me, then leave me the hell alone!”
Even as her mouth spouted the words she knew she didn’t mean them. She’d already decided – before she’d left California, if the truth be known – that she needed to talk to somebody in a professional capacity. She just didn’t need him – or anyone –pushing her. Something perverse inside her wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d won.
“Tried it, babe. Didn’t work. Now I’m attempting another tack.” His tone was the one the crew knew was relentless – she’d never heard it from him. He was equally determined she would learn to recognise it.
The response she wanted to come back with was one her mother would have washed her mouth out with soap for. Prudently she refrained.
“You’re pushing, Morton.” She barely managed to get the words past her gritted teeth. At this rate she’d be paying her dentist a small fortune to atone for the grinding she’d put them through in the last several weeks.
“Believe it! And know this – you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!” He was determined to force her out of her comfort zone. He’d tried the softly-softly approach – it hadn’t worked. Now it was time to play hardball – or at least at hard as he could be with the person he had determined was the love of his life. And Chip Morton was known the length and breadth of the Institute, not to mention the long corridors of Seaview, for his tenacity.
His seat belt still unfastened it was easy for him to slide over towards her. He saw her eyes – green as Irish moss – widen as she registered his intent. And the slight withdrawal she couldn’t quite hide even as she stiffened her spine and prepared for the assault. He wound his fingers into her hair, stroking rhythmically through the silky tresses that almost-but-not-quite touched her shoulders in the front and caressed the warm nape of her neck in back. He heard her breath hitch as he leaned closer but continued the non-threatening sweep of long fingers through smooth fronds that clung to the almost invisible fair hairs on the backs of his hands – like seeking like. Her hair was finely textured and smooth as silk, a rich chocolate brown with bronze tints that glowed like warmed brandy under his seeking digits.
His heart ached as he saw the swirl of uncertainty cloud her irises – muddying their mossy colour – and briefly thought of stopping. Hardening his resolve he let his fingers dig into her scalp and kneed softly just above her hairline. After a single moment’s hesitation she inclined her head slightly forward and his pulse tripped at the small concession. She was enjoying this. Emboldened, he pushed his fingers further upwards and deepened the massage until she let out a small unconscious moan of approval and twisted her neck for him to apply pressure in a different spot, the rigidity in her spine lessening perceptibly. Bringing his other hand into play he continued the sensual massage until her eyes drifted closed and her pink lips parted in sumptuous enjoyment.
Shifting a little to close the gap between them and, holding her head securely between his cupped palms, he gently allowed his lips to settle over her warm soft ones. He couldn’t help but feel the sudden jerk and tensing of her upper body followed by an almost imperceptible relaxing of same as she realised that the only place their bodies were touching was lip to lip and palms to hair. Not wanting to cause her any fright he made sure as he eased closer to keep his lower half well away – she SO didn’t need to know right now just how fundamentally she affected him. Refusing to be put off by her lack of response to his kiss, Chip continued to knead her scalp with regulated pressure. Alert to any slight shift in her movement or breathing he concentrated on giving her the ultimate pleasure of their shared kiss, stroking gently across her slightly parted lips then sipping lightly at the slightly plumper lower one. He was very conscious of the small catch in her breath as he allowed his teeth to graze across that tempting treat and the almost moan that was emitted from the back of her throat was music to his ears.
Willing to be hung for a sheep as for a lamb – as his grandmother used to say – he permitted himself to deepen the kiss, all the while conscious of her fragility under his hands. Her hands had moved – when he didn’t know – from the chair arms to curl around his biceps. Her short nails dug into him through the sleeves of his khaki shirt, pricking his skin but neither pulling him closer nor pushing him away. It was a very positive first step and he decided to quit while he was ahead. He nipped gently at her now tender and slightly kiss-swollen lips, causing her to gasp into his mouth as he slowly eased back. Their lips clung for several seconds as if reluctant to part and he had to force himself to back away, pulling his fingers slowly through the tresses of her dark hair as he released her. She hung onto his upper arms, dazed and slightly disoriented, but certainly not panicked. He took some satisfaction from that, even as he steadied her in the seat and she released her grip on him.
The emergency blast of the klaxon brought him back to reality so immediately that he had no time to savour his small triumph. After that everything went from sugar to shit way too fast for him to do anything else but try to get them on the ground in one piece.
“Ah, Lee, I wondered if you were here.”
Lee’s brow furrowed. “I didn’t get a message that you were looking for me, Admiral.”
Nelson chuckled. “I didn’t leave one. I know you usually like to spend the night before we depart on board Seaview and wondered if you’d made dinner arrangements.” He saw the tightening of his captain’s mouth and knew he’d probably overstepped the mark. It was like walking a tightrope with Lee at the moment. A closet workaholic at the best of times, Lee wasn’t making any bones about the hours he’d been putting in the past two months. Smoothly continuing before his captain could mount a protest, he strode past him into the boat’s nose; protocol forcing Lee to follow him. “I recall some extremely notable restaurants from the times I’ve been in Norfolk and wondered if you’d care to join me for some more than decent Italian.”
He knew Lee’s fondness for really good Italian food. To sweeten the pot he tossed in a deal breaker. “Some of Cookie’s supplies have been unavoidably delayed and won’t arrive til morning so he’s understandably a tad ‘upset’.” He took pleasure in Lee’s wince. An unhappy chef was not someone lightly confronted.
“I should go and talk to him, see how….” He tailed off at Nelson’s shaken head.
“I’d… give it a while, lad. According to the OOD the supplier tried to pawn off inferior produce and Cookie took umbrage. It wasn’t a pretty sight dockside by the time he’d finished and I’m told the supply truck was last seen high tailing it out of here with the driver vowing never to supply the US Navy again.”
It was Lee’s turn to chuckle at the vivid picture Nelson painted, his sense of humour tickled by the image of young Lt. Donnehy’s graphic, assuredly animated, depiction of the scene. Still…. Cookie was an extremely valued member of Seaview’s crew and his sense of duty demanded that he should ensure the man was at least calmed down enough to provide a palatable meal for the duty crew who’d drawn the short straw on the liberty rotation. It wasn’t as if Chip was here and he could lay off the responsibility onto his broad and more than capable shoulders. The fact that Cookie liked Mr. Munch-anything-Morton more than his picky-way-too-finicky captain was a major factor in their division of duties.
Seeing the torn look in Lee’s hazel eyes, Nelson decided to let him off the hook – somewhat. “Why don’t you go check your stations, Captain, and meet me back here in a couple of hours. We’ll have an early dinner and you can prowl the boat to your heart’s content once we get back. As long as you make sure to get sufficient sleep tonight. I don’t want a tired captain manning my bridge first thing in the morning. Not to mention the stick Chip would give you if you scrape the paint on the way out of Norfolk harbour.”
“You’re on, Admiral. Back here in two. And, by the way, it’ll never happen. I make sure Chip is in charge whenever we leave port. If there’s any paint scraping it’s gonna be on his head!”
“Excuse me, sirs.” Sparks’ worried tone had both men immediately turning to face the communications expert who had uncharacteristically left his post and followed them into the nose. While standards were more relaxed in port it was unusual for the junior officer to leave his post unmanned – albeit momentarily – to deliver a message. Coupled with his tone and concerned expression, Crane and Nelson braced for unwelcome news. “The Institute reports that it lost touch with FS1 approximately thirty minutes ago. They are not responding to repeated hails and when I tried to raise them from here there was nothing.”
“When was the last contact with them, Sparks?” Lee was already moving to the plot table and pulling up maps of the south-eastern seaboard on the broad flat digital display.
“Over two hours ago, sir. Mr. Morton filed a flight plan for Santa Barbara and reported take off at 13.40 from Kings Bay. He reached cruising altitude without any problem and last report indicated he was going on autopilot. Nothing since then, sir.”
“So he obviously hadn’t any problems when he engaged the autopilot.” Lee muttered, almost to himself, as he used the stylus to plot the most likely course his friend would have taken to the west coast. “Speed and altitude, Sparks?”
The JO rattled off the figures Chip had reported to the Institute and the local ATC’s (Air Traffic Control). Lee’s frown had Nelson crowding him to check the data the captain had input into the computerised mapping system that had replaced the more familiar (to him) paper charts during Seaview’s last computer upgrade. Morton had been ecstatic at the installation he had been a party to developing – his captain and admiral less so. Now Lee was working the damn thing like a pro! He’d overlaid weather charts and wind velocity for the sectors Chip would have travelled in seconds rather than the minutes it would have taken manually. Nelson was reluctantly impressed. He admitted to himself that he was old-fashioned about certain things but knew enough to realise that there were times he had to give the young bucks their heads – and he wasn’t above acknowledging when he was wrong and giving credit where it was due. In the case of the often-overlooked Chip Morton – when compared to Lee, that was – he had no problem eating humble pie with that young man and thanking God every so often for his foresight in pulling Chip from his hated desk job at the Pentagon just before he was about to resign his commission due to terminal boredom, as he’d later discovered courtesy of Claire Morton.
“Looks like you’ve been taking lessons, Lee.” He intoned drolly.
A flash of white teeth was his only response so he remained quiet, allowing Lee time to gather the information he needed. “No choice, sir.” The captain eventually replied, indicating he’d been aware of the conversation and confident enough in his sphere to know an immediate return was neither expected nor warranted. “Chip was relentless in his training. Me, Bobby, Chris, Sparks, in fact all the JOs; he wasn’t happy until we were fully au fait with the software and application. The back up still exists in the event of a total systems failure.” He re-assured his superior; even knowing that Nelson was cognisant of that little pearl.
“Knowing our exec, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t have a back-up to the back-up stashed somewhere on board.” It was every submariner’s nightmare – a computerised boat in the event of total electrical meltdown and no manual back-up. Nelson knew Morton was more aware of this than most first officers would ever be, having lived the nightmare of trawling through a minefield in the not-fully-functional Bell to reach the stranded Seaview. It brought back wholly unwelcome memories along with the clutch to his heart that always heralded a reminder of Seaview’s crusty first COB, the late Curley Jones.
“Wouldn’t surprise me either, sir.” Lee quipped as he moved a virtual quadrangle over the flat screen, scribbling notes as an aside as he went. A barely breathed epithet was Nelson’s only clue. Sparks’ – who had been standing back a pace in deference to his seniors – eyebrows shot upwards at the unusual, though muted, outburst from his CO.
“What is it, Lee?”
“Best as I can figure Chip’s airspeed, trajectory and time out from King’s Bay land him smack in the middle of the south western quadrant of the Okefenokee Swamp.”
Nelson winced. What a place to have a forced landing – and he had no reason to think that Chip would have voluntarily set down there. Especially with Angie on board.
“Sparks, can you get a fix on FS1’s homing beacon and give us a definitive lock on their position?”
The younger man was moving swiftly back to his station as his captain spoke. “Already have the programme running, sir. Just give me a couple of minutes, Skipper.”
“Quick as you can, Lt.”
“Aye, sir.” Sparks hands were flying over the console keys as he tried several frequencies, his frown becoming denser as each failed to give the desired response.
The low mutterings – with a few quiet invectives thrown in – were enough to draw the senior officers to his post. “What’s the problem, Dave?” It was the captain’s use of his first name that got to him. He so hated letting this man down.
“I’m sorry, sir, but I can’t get a reading from FS1’s tracker. I’ve tried every relay I know, bounced it off a couple of satellites and even attempted a few tricks Mr. Morton told me I should use only in the direst of emergencies. But – nothing.” The confusion and frustration in the JO’s voice were evident. “It’s like… something is jamming their homing signal. The exec practically designed that system. AND oversaw the latest upgrade. This just shouldn’t be possible!”
Sapphire blue eyes met molten amber; there were quite a few things they’d come up against in the past months that ‘shouldn’t’ have been possible.
“Sparks, Chief Sharkey and Riley were due to take the 17.30 flight out of Santa Barbara tonight to meet us. They’ll still be at the Institute. Contact Cmdr. Morton’s secretary and have FS2 ready and waiting for take off. Get on to the Chief and have him get her airborne ASAP. Riley has enough experience to take the senior pilot role.” ***
“Admiral, FS2 hasn’t finished her flight trials.” Lee felt obligated to interject.
Nelson waved his concern aside. “All but the final one, Lee. She’s flight worthy - and sea worthy if it comes to that. I wouldn’t risk Sharkey or Riley if I thought she wasn’t. But she’s our best hope of getting to FS1’s search area fast. We can commandeer a helo out of Norfolk to rendezvous with them in the general location you’ve pinpointed. FS2 has the same sequencing parameters as FS1 so she should be able to track her sister ship faster than any other programme and despite any jamming frequencies. At least that’s what Morton convinced me of when I agreed to install his software.”
A glimmer of a smile lightened Lee’s features for a brief moment before his command mode engaged and he quickly scribbled down some figures on a notepad, tore off the page and passed it to the JO. “Sparks, get on to the base commandant and request a helo to pick us up en route to these co-ordinates then tell Debbie to have FS2 deployed upon the Chief’s order with whatever he deems necessary aboard. By your leave, Admiral.” Tacitly conceding the older man’s seniority.
Nelson waved a hand in acknowledgment, knowing the captain meant FS2 should arm itself with a considerable cache of weaponry for whatever they could be facing. “You might want to have Dr. Jamieson standing by to accompany us, Lee.” And watched the pinched expression that washed over his captain’s face at the unwelcome thought of injuries.
“Aye, sir. And I suggest Kowalski also. I’ll brief O’Brien on the potential delay if we’re not back on time to sail with the tide.” It was a given that both he and Nelson would lead the search for their friends.
“Good thinking.” Ski was both a trained field medic and a proven street fighter – a good man to have in a situation. Especially if, as he feared from the lack of communication, that both their friends could potentially be seriously injured. “I’ll update the President and see if there’s any additional data on our friend’s (Nusair) position.” With a brief encouraging clasp to Lee’s elbow he left for his cabin and a secure line to Washington.
“On it, sir, you’ve got the Chief on line 1 and Ms. Coleman on line 2.”
Lee debated – briefly – about talking to Debbie first but he really needed to give Sharkey the heads up and get him moving. Then it would be Chip’s secretary’s turn. He knew he could count on Debbie – she was a rock – but she was going to be upset at the news that her boss and friend were at best missing, possibly injured.
Angie woke with a groan. Totally disoriented, it took almost a full minute for her surroundings to register. Metal bulkheads dully gleaming, lots of glass, a high tech console in front of her – and every single muscle from her neck down aching in sympathy with the obscene throbbing in her head. What the hell had happened? Where were they? A second panicked scan confirmed her suspicions – FS1 – and her stomach reacted appropriately, nausea roiling viciously. A glance through the wide view port registered green vegetation, dense green vegetation. Sighing with immediate relief that they were on the ground – any ground, at least it was better than under water – and seemingly intact, she looked to the left where Chip was in the pilot seat. Make that – not in the pilot seat. Oh, shit! Double shit! Her panic levels tripled as she frantically cast her eyes around for the man who wasn’t where he was supposed to be!
“Oh my God! Chip!” She launched herself out of the chair as she saw the exec crumpled on the floor to the side of the instrument panel; only to be yanked back into place by the four-point harness she still wore. Yelping at the pain that little manoeuvre sent ricocheting through her body, she struggled to undo the straps held into a central point at her mid-section. Chip had shown her how the straps opened with one simple twisting motion in event of emergency but she was all fingers and thumbs and the damn thing was un-cooperative anyway. Sobbing under her breath as the webbed belts eventually gave way, she almost fell to her knees when her shaky legs failed to support her. Scrabbling awkwardly, practically on all fours, she made her way to the side of the un-responsive blond.
Reaching tentatively for his broad shoulder she attempted to turn him from his side onto his back. He was heavier than he looked and the space was tight. Every muscle in her body, especially her back, protested as she managed to get him into position. Wishing fervently now that she’d attended some of the First Aid lectures Dr. Jamieson held at the Institute, she cursed her antipathy towards the man that had kept her away. Her conscience pricked her – it wasn’t antipathy towards the doctor, just sheer terror. And a hatred of all things medical. And blood – oh yeah, blood was right up there with it! Not that she was going to be able to indulge that little phobia just now. Being conscious and all while Chip patently wasn’t. She sucked in a breath at the sight of the huge knot on his left temple, already interesting shades of dark red and purple, then almost threw up at the sight of the blood on the decking revealed by his change of position.
Clapping a hand over her mouth, Angie forced herself to lean closer and identify where the blood was coming from. There was a nasty cut to the back right hand side of Chip’s head, still sluggishly weeping but there was no longer any major blood loss. She remembered Ski mentioning once that head wounds bled a lot and prayed he was right. Wished too that she’d paid more attention to the conversation. Wished a lot of things but wishing wasn’t going to accomplish anything concrete right now. Placing a hand on his chest she was re-assured by the rhythmic beating of his heart. At least he was still alive. She needed to find out just how badly injured he was. Gently slapping his cheeks produced no result so she ran her hands carefully down his arms and legs, checking for breaks. Everything looked good but he still didn’t wake.
“Don’t do this to me, Chip. Please! You’re the go-to guy, the hero. I don’t know anything about this stuff. Please don’t make me do this.” Tears welled as he remained unresponsive. She sniffed them back defiantly – crying certainly wasn’t going to get her anywhere. “Knowing Jamieson there must be a First Aid around here somewhere.” She muttered aloud, more for the comfort of the sounds than the hope of a response. Then she stilled. Silence. It was too silent. Throughout their journey there had been the muted sounds of Air Traffic Control and other ‘stuff’ coming through the radio. Now there was nothing. “Jeez, Newman, even you know that’s not good. It’s gonna have to keep though. First things first. And maybe if the gentle giant here would co-operate and come to, you won’t have to deal with it. Though the way your luck’s been holding lately, I wouldn’t bet on it.”
Rummaging through the myriad storage cabinets as she continued the monologue, she was amazed at the stuff she came across. Finally locating the First Aid kit stored in a cabinet to the right of the bunk – with a large red cross on a white background blatantly advertising the contents – she gave herself a moment to breathe deeply while administering a swift mental kick in the pants for her blindness.
Scuttling back to Chip’s side, trying to ignore the ache in her back and the pounding in her skull, she inventoried the contents and sent a silent prayer of thanks to Will Jamieson for his thoroughness. Quickly reading the instructions she cracked a cold pack and felt it freeze instantly in her hands. Carefully positioning it over the knot on Chip’s forehead she scooted around behind him in the small space and assessed the most serious, bleeding, injury. Tearing open a number of medi-wipe packs she carefully began to blot the blood from the blond hair to see how bad the wound was.
As it had been weeping for a while the blood had congealed and she had to part his hair to gain access to the actual cut. The blood sickened her stomach and she had to take several deep breaths to keep from losing her lunch – make that breakfast – but the silken strands of blond hair slid through her fingers and a lump formed in her throat. God, she loved this man. OK – something else to be dealt with later.
Carefully wiping the blood away she was able to see the extent of the wound. It was about an inch long and still oozing. Cursing herself again for not attending any of Jamieson’s lectures she taped a thick gauze pad over the site, re-adjusted the ice pack on his temple and plopped down next to him with a whimper to contemplate their situation. She rooted through the kit to find something to take the edge off her headache.
Most of the drugs were liquids to be injected but she finally found a package of Tylenol and popped two pills dry. Not that she had much hope they would do anything for the hammering going on in her head but they might alleviate the slight case of hysteria that was building as she contemplated their situation.
She had absolutely no idea where they were, how secure the craft was or how to call for help. Plus she was faced with an unconscious male that she was frightened to move from his position for fear of doing even more damage. And to top it all it was beginning to get dark outside. She had no clue as to how much time had passed since their crash but she knew enough to guess that they would have raised questions at NIMR and their next due call in with local ATC having gone amiss would have teams deploying. She knew FS1 had distress beacons that would have been activated when they crash-landed and that somebody would be out there looking for them. Convincing herself that their best bet was to stay where they were until someone found them she also admitted that she had no clue as to how to exit the small craft.
Snorting derisively, she acknowledged that she hadn’t asked a single sensible question when she’d boarded. She’d been too hung up with her own agenda and now she – and Chip – were paying the price. Well, she’d better just snap out of it and see what she could do cos it didn’t look like she was getting any assistance in the short term.
Clamouring over Chip she managed to pull herself up onto her still wobbly legs and take stock of the very impressive console that Chip had been playing as easily as a PC keyboard. Not a lot made sense to her. Oh, there were labels on several of the knobs indicating latitude, longitude, airspeed etc. Typically, there was nothing labelled ‘mayday’ or ‘radio’.
Then she remembered the throat mic Chip had been wearing. She found it on the ground close to where he’d fallen as if it had been ripped off during the crash. There was nothing coming from the link and her repeated mayday calls heralded no feedback. In fact there were no lights flashing on the console and, as darkness encroached, the inside of FS1 was growing dimmer, not even the emergency lighting working. A shiver of apprehension wended its way down her already aching back. Grabbing her purse up from under the console she tried her cell phone – dead. Likewise her laptop. Stymied, she dumped them back on the floor. She knew she’d charged both of them just this morning and used neither in the interim. But they were dead as the proverbial dodo.
“Oh, God, Chip, if there was ever a time for you to wake up, hon, then this is it.” Ignoring her aching back and trembling legs she crawled across the metal floor until she was beside the unconscious blond. Pulling her knees up to her chest and clasping her arms around them, the movements sending acute twinges throughout her body, she settled her bruised spine as best she could against the pilot’s chair and rested her aching head on her crossed arms. Slow tears leaked from her gritty eyes even as she despised herself for her weakness.
A pounding headache, throbbing shoulder and a knife-like pain stabbing his ribs greeted Chip Morton when he woke.
Unfortunately not un-used to waking in pain, he took a moment to assess his injuries before attempting to blink his eyes open. He hurt everywhere, especially his head, but nothing appeared imminently terminal so he slowly cracked open reluctant eyelids, idly wondering how long he’d been out – and immediately wished he hadn’t.
A shriek had him quickly closing his eyes again, agony spiking through his brain, wishing he could close off his ears too as a babbling voice – whose words he couldn’t quite decipher – echoed endlessly and sent spears of pain throughout his head. He tried raising said head off the floor – keeping his eyes tightly closed – but it refused to co-operate.
The babbling continued, accompanied now by hands patting over his chest and arms. He didn’t mind the latter but the former reminded him of his pesky younger sisters and he groaned. That caused the hands to be immediately removed – bummer – but the yakking didn’t stop. Unfortunately. Definitely one of his sisters. Girls couldn’t shut up for five minutes if they were guaranteed a million dollar lottery win.
But he loved his sisters – really – and couldn’t lie here forever with his eyes closed anyway. So he cranked open the lids and looked into a pair of the most beautiful, luminous, tear drenched, green eyes he had ever hoped to see again. Angie. An uncharacteristically babbling Angie.
His ears coming back on line he began to make out her words.
“Thank God, Chip. I don’t know what to do. Nothing’s responding. I’ve tried raising the Institute or any local ATCs but there’s nothing. My cell won’t work, yours either, nor the laptop. I don’t have a clue where we are. You’ve been unconscious for hours and…. Oh my God, how do you feel? Can you move? Where does it hurt?”
His sisters must have been giving her lessons. Angie NEVER behaved like this. She was the epitome of cool, calm and composed. In the office. Not in the field obviously – she’d never been in the field. What field? His brain blanked again and he shook his head to try to clear it.
Big mistake. Big. His head felt as if his brain was slewing from side to side within its confines. Something cold and wet slid down his face and plopped on his chest.
Groping for it he encountered one of Jamie’s special ice packs; which caused him to cautiously probe his forehead until he came in contact with the knot on his left temple. Using his left hand, because – as he had painfully discovered – his right was singularly useless.
“Awful. Yes. And everywhere.” He managed to croak. “You OK?”
That put a stop to her chatter – thankfully. “What?” She stared at him blankly, obviously wondering just how out of it he was.
“Your questions. I feel awful. I can move. And I hurt everywhere. Well, mostly head, shoulder and chest.” Then felt even more awful as he saw the slow tears wending their way down the track marks already on her cheeks from previous bouts. Angie wasn’t a crier. She must have been seriously frightened. “Now, are you OK?” At her nod, he extended a hand. “Help me up.”
“No!” Her shout reverberated through his skull and he had to grit his teeth to suppress a moan. “You’re still bleeding.”
He hadn’t felt any blood. “Where?” He asked tersely.
“Your head. Back of. I cleaned it as best I could and taped it but it’s still oozing.”
That would explain why the top of his head felt as if it were going to explode. The knot on his forehead wasn’t enough to cause that. “Head wounds bleed a lot.”
“I know. Ski told me.”
“How long have I been out?”
“About three and a half hours. Since I woke anyway. I don’t know how long after we crashed that I woke up.”
“Honey, we didn’t crash.”
“Yeah, we did!” The look she gave him told him she was seriously worried about his mental state. He did his best to reassure her.
“Any landing you walk away from isn’t a crash.”
It obviously didn’t work. He hadn’t realised Angie Newman knew so many cuss words. He – vainly – hoped she’d gone through her entire inventory but, as she’d worked almost seven years at NIMR and been around any number of sailors, he kinda doubted it. He raised an eyebrow – not without pain – and watched her blush endearingly.
“Sorry ‘bout that.”
“Bet the admiral doesn’t know you know those words.”
“Where do you think I heard them?” He was enchanted to hear her muted giggle having recognised her proximity to total hysteria. Now it was time to get serious.
“Ang, you’re going to have to help me up.”
“No! You’re injured. You need to stay there until help comes.” A small hand to the middle of his chest tried to pin him in place.
“I’m fine.” He actually had to grit his teeth as he uttered the words. Not only from the waves of pain movement caused him but also at the number of times those very words had passed Lee Crane’s lips – each time a total lie. Now he was perpetrating the very same economy of truth. “I just need to check on a few things.” He didn’t want to worry her but the lack of emergency lighting coupled with the encroaching dusk meant that he had little time to act before night and total darkness arrived. And if what he feared was fact – that all of FS1’s systems were shot – then they were in a whole lot more trouble than he was comfortable with.
Using his left arm to push himself semi-upright he was forced to stop when the pain in his right shoulder and ribs sent what felt like lightening bolts through his entire upper body. Deep breaths and focus allowed him to push past the pain and evaluate the situation. It wasn’t pretty. He was obviously suffering a concussion, some rib damage – hopefully cracked and not broken – and he guessed from the pattern of the pain that his right shoulder was dislocated. Wouldn’t have been a major problem – he’d dislocated one on a previous mission and managed just fine – if he wasn’t right handed.
Or if he didn’t have Angie on board.
He raked her from head to toe with an all-encompassing clinical glance. She had a small cut on her right temple, no longer bleeding, and a shallow six-inch gash on her left leg. Again nothing major. But it was the way she held herself that clued him in. She was very careful to move her entire body when she looked around, not just her head. Plus she held herself stiffly as if every movement caused her pain. But he could see that there was no point in pressing the issue. She was as unlikely to admit to it as Lee would. Hell, her phobia towards all things medical practically outstripped his best friend’s.
Nothing life threatening or appearing to require immediate care so he was happy enough to allow her to help him to a seated position. Not so happy as the pain slammed into him in tidal wave proportions.
Now for the bad news. Only way was to give it to her straight.
“My right shoulder’s dislocated. You’re going to have to help me pop it back in place before I can be much use around here.”
Her green eyes widened before her gaze dropped to his khaki covered shoulder. A sickly expression crossed her expressive face as she slowly, determinately, shook her head. “I saw that in a movie once. No way. No way, no how.” She began to back carefully away from him as he began to unbutton his shirt, wincing as she bumped into the co-pilot seat.
“Angie.” The steely note in his voice compelled her to connect with eyes that had gone ice blue and resolute.
THIS was the exec the crew talked about in hallowed tones.
“We don’t have a choice right now. YOU don’t have a choice. I can tell from here that none of our systems are up and running, especially environmental, which means - if my calculations are correct - that we’ll soon be out of air if I can’t either find out what’s wrong or cobble something together. That’s our most immediate problem.
Without power we can’t open the hatch to allow some real air in. Actually we could, but I can’t be sure we can seal it tight again without electrical back up so I’d rather we take our changes with whatever I can piece together. If it comes down to it, then we’ll re-evaluate the situation.
There’s also the issue of our homing beacon – which I can tell by the absence of the beeper’s tone is not transmitting. Add to that our emergency back up generator hasn’t come on line and we have a succession of issues going on.
Now I can’t do it from here and the throbbing in my shoulder is debilitating and not going to go way with a couple of Ibuprofen or much of anything that Jamie packed in that First Aid kit. So unless you think you can handle that and trying to get us out of here then you need to can the waterworks and help me.”
He knew he was being cruel and unfeeling and the wounded look on her starkly pale face, coupled with her sharply indrawn breath, cut him to the quick. But he also knew that she was a little toughie and guessed she would be angry enough with him to put her fears aside and step up to the plate. He almost sighed with satisfaction when he was proved correct but – thankfully – the dispassionate mask he had schooled over the years kept his feelings from showing.
“You are an arrogant ass, Chip Morton. And I take back all the times I have defended you to your crew.” Her huff of displeasure told him that he’d be paying for this in the future – handsomely. For now he didn’t care. She could add it to his tab. As long as she did what was necessary to get him up and moving. “Just tell me what to do. And if it hurts you so much the better!”
He grinned at that last jibe, albeit following it with a groan as he tried to gain purchase and lever himself upright. His centre of balance wasn’t co-operating with trauma to both sides of his head and his shoulder screaming in agony. “Help me sit up and get my shirt off.”
“Ohhhh, want to show off your manly chest?” She asked derisively. Positioning herself behind him, she helped him into a semi-upright stance braced against her front. Mad enough to spit she briskly finished unbuttoning his shirt and pulled it down his left arm then off his shoulders and eased it down his unresponsive right arm.
He resisted the urge to smile smugly. His girl was doing good. Her sassy attitude had always held her in good stead and he had known riling her would get her dander up. “You’re going to have to help me turn around so I wedge my good side against the console. Then I want you to grab my upper arm and bend it back up between my shoulder blades until I tell you to stop. You’re gonna have to exert a lot of pressure and I’m probably gonna yell,” he ignored her muttered ‘so what’s new’, “but you can’t stop until I tell you to.”
Numbly she helped him shift, knowing if she thought about it overly much she wouldn’t be able to do what he asked. When he was propped in position she took his right arm in her two hands at his nod, circling the bicep and gripping the forearm as she pulled steadily backwards. Beads of sweat popped out on his forehead and he gritted his teeth. “Further. Again. Keep going.” Agony ripped through the right side of his body but he pushed past the pain. He could feel her faltering; hating the fact that she was hurting him. He felt the trembling in her petite frame but if she couldn’t do this then their chances for survival were seriously depleted. “Christ, Angie, I thought you were up to this.” He managed to gasp out through his clenched teeth. “Never realised you were so puny.”
A scream of rage followed his words as two hands pushed his much larger arm behind his back as far up as they could reach. Sweat dripped off his face onto his bare chest and he pushed himself back against the console to increase the leverage. With a roar he managed to trap her hands between his bicep and the metal desk and drop his upper body towards the deck in a practiced manoeuvre that had the ball joint popping back into place. The relief was instant but brought tears to his eyes. They were nothing to the ones that poured down Angie’s cheeks.
She couldn’t speak. She could barely get the sobs that blocked her throat out. Never had she witnessed such anguish. And she’d taunted him that she hoped it hurt. She felt lower than slime. And wanted to crawl off into the nearest corner and bawl. But that wasn’t what he needed of her. Not proud of the croak that emerged from her throat, at least she managed coherency. “What do you want me to do next?”
He didn’t answer for a full minute. She wasn’t sure if that was because he was unable to. “Jamie’s kit, there’s a painkiller, won’t knock me out. And an anti-inflammatory. Then help me get my shirt on so you won’t be exposed to my manly chest.” He hadn’t lost his sense of humour, she noted, even if the words came out between harshly drawn breaths and his face was the colour of putty. “See if there’s anything you can make a sling with – it’s easier if the arm is immobilised.” He was already pulling himself up slowly from the deck and into the pilot’s chair.
She poked through the First Aid Kit and offered him several vials. The first couple he rejected – obviously familiar with its contents – but allowed her to fill a syringe with the third. He took the hypo from her and, left-handed, expertly expelled any air from it and quickly injected the contents into his upper right arm. Same procedure with the anti-inflammatory. She helped him back into his shirt and buttoned it up. He even tucked it into his pants – ever the meticulous exec. There was a large roll of Ace bandage and she managed to fashion it into a sling of sorts and bind his arm tightly to his chest.
Then he got to work.
It was several hours later when he sat back in the pilot’s chair, exhaustion and pain etching white lines around his tight mouth. He rubbed the fore and middle fingers of his left hand across his aching brow before he caught himself – it was a gesture he had seen Lee Crane make many times. He downed the last of the coffee Angie had poured him, grimacing at the cold, bitter taste. Bitter he could handle, cold he couldn’t. Working one handed had been laborious and time consuming but he had managed to splice together enough to get the environmentals and emergency lighting functioning. Good thing too – it was now fully dark outside. He checked his watch – 21.40. His stomach growled as if on cue. He looked sideways to see if Angie was still awake. He’d tried several times to get her to lie down on the bunk but she’d resisted all his attempts, assuring him she was fine. There was that word again.
In truth, she’d been a big help, passing him tools as he needed them, holding the flashlight in place when he’d had to crawl under the instrument console to repair a ripped out system, twisting wires together – which was pretty awkward one-handed – and plying him with Cookie’s coffee to keep him functioning. Despite the fact that he knew she was bruised and sore from the tossing she’d received during their ‘landing’.
“That’s it. That’s as much as I can do tonight. We have light – such as it is – and air back on line.”
“What about the homing beacon? What about getting out of here – wherever here is?” He could detect exhaustion and something else – nerves – in her voice?
“Want the good news or the bad news?” His flippancy didn’t have the desired effect. Instead alarm flared in her tired eyes and he regretted the attempt at levity – she was about at the end of her rope. “OK, good news – we’re stable, on solid ground and, as best I can figure without power to the instruments, we’re probably on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp.” He watched her steadily to see how she took the news, careful to make it sound casual as if it were no big deal. “Bad news is that I can’t get the beacon activated and have no idea why it’s not transmitting so we’re stuck here until morning when we have enough light that I can see what I’m doing and poke around outside.”
Angie drew in a long breath then let it out slowly. “So we’ve got no way out of here and no-one knows where we are?”
“They know we’re missing and the route we’ve taken from the flight plan I filed. They’ll be looking for us already and it’s only a matter of time before they find us – even without the beacon to assist them.” He didn’t add that it could take weeks to search the entire area they might have crashed – landed – in. “But I’m pretty sure I’ll be able to get it working tomorrow. In the meantime, we have food, drink, air, facilities, even a bed, such as it is. We’ll be OK.” He tried to project a reassurance he didn’t really feel.
She searched his eyes, knowing instinctively that he was lying. It had been hours since he’d taken Jamie’s medication and pain etched his features and dulled his usually bright blue eyes. He was beyond pale and sweat dampened his upper lip and beaded his forehead. In short he looked ready to collapse. Angie felt her stomach do a series of gyrations worthy of a roller coaster.
“I think I’m gonna be sick now.”
She didn’t throw up but only because she knew Chip could hear everything from the main deck of the Flying Sub. He hadn’t been joking when he’d said the facilities were spartan. Not to mention tiny. There was barely room to turn around so she’d just done the necessary and washed her face and hands, bathing her eyes which were gritty from the tears it seemed like she’d spent hours shedding. She’d given the pasty face and red-rimmed eyes that stared out at her from the small mirror over the miniscule sink a stern lecture, hoping it sank in. Chip had been ravenous – nothing seemed to affect his appetite – and wolfed down several of Cookie’s thick sandwiches and a ton of coleslaw and potato salad. She’d known she’d have to eat something when the steely glint in his eyes had accompanied the plate he’d handed her but had been unable to force down more than a couple of small bites – and that had tasted like cardboard. She had polished off the can of soda he’d insisted she drink instead of water and it had settled her roiling stomach somewhat. At least he didn’t have to worry about her being dehydrated.
And he was worried about her, she knew, despite his own injuries. Her bruises and aches were manifesting themselves now and her entire body had stiffened from sitting so long on the floor while she’d been helping Chip try to restore FS1’s systems. He’d watched intently as she’d practically hobbled to the facilities. She’d managed not to moan aloud at the thought of a steaming hot bath and a back massage – with scented oils. She’d even settle for a tepid shower but FS1 didn’t run to the luxury. Realising she couldn’t hide in there much longer she straightened her skirt, tucked her shirt securely into her waistband and smoothed her straight brown hair. There wasn’t much else she could do to improve her appearance, the makeup she had applied that morning long since having worn off.
Stepping back into the body of the small craft she found Chip one-handedly trying to stow the cooler with the remains of their food back into one of the storage bins under the bunk. “Let me do that.”
“I’ve got it. Besides you shouldn’t be bending down. How bad is your back anyway?” He straightened and eyed her assessingly.
She flushed under the intense scrutiny but was more worried about him than herself. She was a lot of things, but she wasn’t stupid and knew that if it came to getting out of here in the morning that they had a better chance with Chip than with her. Which was why he needed rest – preferably eight hours of decent sleep, which he would not attain without taking something stronger than he had earlier. She didn’t know what stronger painkillers Jamieson might have packed in the First Aid kit but if she knew anything about the doctor she knew he’d have prepared for every eventuality bar the Bubonic Plague – and she wouldn’t discount that either. She also realised that there was no getting around Chip Morton in full executive officer mode. Therefore lying was not an option.
“It’s bruised and a bit sore but manageable.” OK, so she was going to be economical with the truth. A single raised eyebrow in an inscrutable face had her unable to meet his eyes. “It hurts, OK. Happy?” She ground out, incensed. And stomped over to where her carry on was stashed in one of the rear storage bins. Biting her lip against the flare of agony that shot up her spine as she stubbornly bent to retrieve it, she laid it on the deck and unzipped it, pulling out a delicate knit cardigan and sliding it over her shoulders and arms. It was the warmest thing she had with her and the temperatures had dropped noticeably.
Silently observing, Chip immediately crossed over to the centre console and adjusted the controls. “We’re operating on minimum environmentals so we don’t have control of the temperature as we should have. It’s going to get colder through the night. We have adequate supplies to sustain us but it’s not gonna be five star accommodations, I’m afraid.”
“I didn’t grow up with five star, Chip, and don’t have a problem roughing it for one night.” She assured him.
Nodding at the sweater she’d donned he opined, “That’s not going to do you much good, I’m afraid.”
“It’s the warmest thing I’ve got. I was packing for Savannah and a hotel, Chip, not an overnight stay in FS1.” Her sarcasm brought a fleeting grin to his grim countenance.
“I appreciate that. But we’re both in dire need of some rest and if you’re cold and in pain you won’t sleep. So I want you to let me give you a shot of this painkiller.” He continued to talk over her immediate protests. “It won’t knock you out, I promise, just make you more comfortable so you can sleep.”
He didn’t want to add that – worst case scenario – if he couldn’t either get the homing beacon working or get the little craft back in the air come morning they were likely going to have to hike out to some semblance of civilisation and, until he could scout outside and get some bearings and a possible location from the GPS programme on his cell phone, he had no idea how far that would be or even if it was feasible. Angie, despite her willingness, wasn’t used to trekking through swampland and certainly hadn’t dressed the part. She had no suitable clothing but they could cobble something together. However her footwear wouldn’t last a mile and that would be a significant problem. He didn’t want to scare the bejeepers out of her right now or she’d never get to sleep but it was imperative that she take something to ensure she got adequate rest in case the worst came to pass.
For the first time he actually understood where Will Jamieson was coming from when he overrode the protests of stubborn patients like Lee and Nelson – and himself, if truth be known. Of course, being Angie meant stubbornness personified. Then again he wasn’t the exec of a nuclear submarine, with one hundred and twenty plus men under his command, for nothing. And Angie was nothing if not reasonable. Usually.
The argument was fierce and - a little - loud at times. Compromise was the name of the game at the end of the day, to his ultimate relief. She agreed to accept an analgesic – as long as it didn’t come in injection form – if he agreed to the same. He’d planned to anyway, knowing he’d be all the better for it come morning. The triumph of logic over obduracy. He wasn’t a fan of needles but knew he needed the strength of the injected pain relief over the pill form she was ‘happy’ to take. If necessity forced them to hike out he would need to inject her with an antibiotic for the cuts on her forehead and leg before they went anywhere but that was a fight for another time.
He was going to have enough on his plate convincing her that proper sleep meant sharing the bunk with him. He thought about taking a couple of ibuprofen for the headache he was in for when he imparted that little nugget but declined on the grounds of over medicating. And he wasn’t going to be getting a whole lot of sleep anyway. He had enough suspicions regarding their enforced landing that he wasn’t entirely comfortable that the hull couldn’t be breached. He was ninety nine percent positive that it couldn’t be but he’d taken additional precautions anyway and would be sleeping with his trusted Sig under his pillow just to be cover all eventualities.
“I hope you know I hate this.” She granted him the most fearsome glare she had in her arsenal. It bounced off him - much to her fury – even as she swallowed the pills he’d substituted for the shot he’d proposed. She’d winced as she watched him inject himself with the syringe he’d prepared for her. She wasn’t joking when she said she had a phobia for needles. But it soothed her somewhat that he hadn’t been trying to trick her into accepting medication other than he’d spelt out. Chip Morton had a protective streak a mile wide and there was no way he’d have injected himself with anything that would knock him out leaving her to cope with whatever might arise in the coming hours.
“I know, honey. But you need to trust me on this.”
“I do. Only cos I know you’ve got more experience than I do.” Well, duh! Could you have said anything more stupid, Newman? She would have kicked herself if she’d had the energy. She didn’t miss the grin that lit up his grey, exhausted features even as colour suffused her cheeks. Hoping he’d missed that – but not willing to bet on it, there was little Seaview’s XO missed – she bustled about trying to find what she was seeking in the storage bins.
When her search became slightly frantic he was compelled to ask, curiosity driving him. “What, exactly, are you looking for, Angie?”
Her response was muffled as she dug through the floor level compartments. “Additional blankets and stuff. So I can make myself a bed on the floor.”
He’d been waiting for this but inhaled deeply before replying, running his fingers through his thick blond hair, blatantly stalling, anticipating the earache. And the effort it would cause her to overcome her fear. “There aren’t any. The bunk is purely for emergencies. We’ve got one blanket and one pillow. That’s what I meant by roughing it, hon.”
She froze. He couldn’t mean what she thought he meant. Panic had her heartbeat escalating. She fought it down, the triumph of logic over emotion; one of Nelson’s favourite mantras. She swallowed the bitter tasting saliva that filled her mouth. Sucked in deep breaths, filling her lungs with clean, sweet air – well, as clean and sweet as the not-fully-functioning environmental controls on FS1 permitted. None of it worked.
Straightening up, she gestured towards the chair she’d occupied for the duration of the flight. “No problem, I can bunk down here. You need to rest and….” She trailed off as he slowly shook his head, implacability in every facial feature. He didn’t move a muscle from the neck down. He didn’t have to. She got the point and had to physically restrain herself from making a bolt for the tiny facilities she’d only recently left.
He made sure to keep any hint of censure or irritation out of his voice, mentally feeling the smack upside his head from his mother if he failed to make her comfortable with this as he laid out the single available – logical – option.
“Angie, honey, that’s just not feasible. It’s going to get a lot colder during the night as the outside temperatures drop. I can’t get the environs working any better right now and we need to conserve what energy we can so we’re able to face whatever tomorrow throws at us. We have one blanket and one heat sheet – that’s the equivalent of what they use to quickly bring divers back up to temperature from freezing conditions – so it’s not much use to us except as an additional layer. We need to conserve what energy we can and that means sharing body heat.” Not giving her time for objections he ploughed on. “I realise you find that distasteful just now, given what you’ve been through, but it’s not like we’re strangers.”
Taking a deep breath he prepared to expose himself totally, not anything he hadn’t dreamt of saying, just not in the current circumstances. “I love you very much, Angie, have for a long time. And that’s not something I’ve ever said to a woman before – well, except for my mother. Hell, I even bought you a ring. I think – know – you feel something for me too. What you went through with Richardson was horrific and I can understand that you need space and time to come to terms with it. I’ve tried to give you that and you have to know that I would never put pressure on you or want you to do anything – anything – that you’re not ready for and completely OK with.
This entire… situation… has been thrust on us and is about nothing more than survival. I’m not trying to put the moves on you or force you into anything. Quite honestly, I don’t think I could even if I wanted to.” He shrugged, then wished he hadn’t as his shoulder and arm screamed in reaction to the pull on the abused muscles.
Seeing the tears that were running unrestricted down her pale cheeks caught at his heart but he plunged on, knowing he had one chance at this – probably wouldn’t have the guts to do it again. Blame Jamie’s potent painkillers. Unconsciously lowering his voice he almost whispered. “When I take you to bed, honey, and I will – you can bet your house on that – I want both of us on the same page. I want time, privacy, supreme comfort and the two of us in the whole of our health. And I don’t care how long that takes. I love you, Angie Newman.”
“I love you too, Chip Morton.” She managed to choke out; how she didn’t know. Her throat muscles felt as if they were spasming and her lungs couldn’t take in her erratic breaths fast enough to get air to her frantically beating heart which was having its own difficulty pumping blood through her body. She was hyper aware of every microbe of her body; her skin was tingling – wanting the caress of his gentle hands, her scalp ached - yearning for the firm massage he knew she loved, her hair tickled the sensitive skin at the nape of her neck - almost begging for him to run his hands through it, her lips were just short of pleading for him to kiss her. And still he hadn’t touched her. He wouldn’t either, she realised, unless and until she asked him. She looked into the steadfast blue of the eyes locked on hers and knew, in her heart of hearts, that she was meant to be with this man. It might not be the way either of them had envisaged it, wouldn’t always be easy - but then again, nothing worthwhile ever was.
She stepped forward and he held his breath, wanting to meet her half way but knowing that both of them needed her to make this move. She slid her arms around his waist, resting her cheek against his chest and his eyes burned. Slowly he brought his unbound arm up to circle her back, holding her to him; resisting the urge to crush her tightly and never let her go. Lowering his head he kissed the top of hers where it rested just beneath his shoulder. For first steps it was a doozey. “Trust me, sweetheart. I will never do anything to consciously hurt you.”
Relaxing perceptively as he ran his broad hand down her spine she acknowledged the fact that she really did trust this man. He was unlike anyone she had ever known and something inside her had recognised that when he’d first come to work at NIMR some six years back. Her trust base for the entire male gender – not to mention her vulnerability to the powerful physical specimens such as those she had known and worked with – had been thrown for a loop with the near rape. But she had slowly come to realise that if she tarred the entire male population with Richardson’s brush then he would have won something that she was not inclined to allow him. It had taken more time than she’d thought possible and a number of severe self-administered butt-kicks to come to this conclusion. She’d always seen herself as a fairly pragmatic person and found it hard to come to terms with the scaredy cat she’d allowed herself to become since that very personal attack. Only latterly had she acknowledged that she was going to need some help in getting her head screwed back on straight and reverting to the level-headed person she had been before she’d become the target of a pair of sadistic avengers. And much as she trusted Chip, she needed to verbally relay that. He needed to know that she wasn’t as – together – as she had been… before.
It was going to have to come out all at once or she wouldn’t have the courage to do it, so she took a deep breath and blurted it out. “I do trust you, Chip. More than I have ever or will ever trust anyone. But you need to know that I don’t sleep well and still have some nightmares so if it’s all the same to you I’m OK with catching a couple hours sleep in the chair and letting you have the bunk. You need to be well rested in the morning and you won’t if I keep you awake half the night.”
He was shaking his head long before she finished. “No deal, honey. If we do end up hiking out of here we both need adequate rest. If I could, I’d pick you up and dump you on the bunk but I can’t so I’m askin’ you nicely. Hop to it, lady. Shuck the shoes and scoot over so you’re on my left side.”
Angie knew that meant he was on the edge and closer to any possible danger – but it also meant his injured right shoulder wasn’t in contact with her. Unfortunately it also left her between him and FS1’s metal bulkhead. And given that she’d been having some issues with claustrophobia since the attack, it didn’t bode well for a peaceful night’s sleep. Then again, not a lot about this situation did. With a deep breath and a silent prayer she slipped out of her heels and, wrapping her cardigan tightly around her, slid onto the bunk, scrunching herself as close into the corner as she could get.
Chip was unable to suppress a slight moan as he eased onto the too-short-too-narrow-for-two emergency bunk, gritting his teeth against the pain as he forced his bruised body horizontal. For some reason every abrasion and graze made itself known in triplicate as he lay down. He was also supremely conscious that Angie had taken up the least amount of space her diminutive stature could occupy and was all but embracing the bulkhead to ensure sufficient distance between them – in spite of her bravura. He would have laughed aloud if he’d had the inclination – or insensitivity.
Did she honestly think he was in any state to put the moves on her? He only wished! Pulling the heat sheet and the single blanket up around them he was ultra-conscious of the intimacy of the slightly-larger-than-single bunk. The only way he could attain any semblance of comfort was flat on his back – and that certainly wasn’t conducive to any type of seduction. Hell, it didn’t even approximate comfort, with what amounted to (what he reckoned was) a pretty severe concussion, a couple of busted ribs and a wonky shoulder.
He could only grimace at his run of back luck where this woman was concerned. If he believed in all that cosmic shit he would be calling on the deities to give him a break but his practical nature eschewed that nonsense. However he wouldn’t mind some good luck starting any time in the not too distant future. Or at least as soon as he was back up to par again. Golf analogies aside, he felt as weak as a kitten. If they were to have any chance of making it out of here tomorrow he needed sleep to recoup some stamina and get his brain motoring at its usual six-cylinder efficiency. He tried to zone out the peripherals and recall some of his sleep training instruction. It didn’t help that the little package hugging the bulkhead wiggled off scratch.
Lee paced the length of the control room. Again. He knew he was driving the skeleton crew nuts with his incessant tread. Frustration oozed from every pore. He couldn’t believe the run of bad luck. First Chief Sharkey had reported that NIMR’s ground crew had FS2’s upgraded landing gear stripped down for a final check and wouldn’t have it operational for several hours. Then he’d called with a second revised take off time as the crew weren’t happy with the navigational equipment – another re-design – and proposed hauling it out and re-installing the current version that worked successfully in FS1. Their ETA now would be close to dawn. Lee had wanted to leave Norfolk anyway and head south but Nelson wouldn’t hear of it.
He had – logically – argued that being on site wouldn’t help locate Chip and Angie any quicker without the tracking programme FS2 carried and that they should take the time now to plan their search grid in a methodical pattern rather than haring off half-cocked and wasting time. Thus they’d spent several hours charting the entire six hundred and sixty plus square miles of swampland, not willing to limit the grid solely to the south western section in the event that Chip had had problems that might have taken him off course. It had been the sensible thing to do and Lee acknowledged the value but it chaffed to sit in the comfort of Seaview’s nose when Chip was enduring God knew what.
And Angie. His heart clenched. He was an only child and Chip was the closet thing he had to a brother but if he’d had a little sister he’d have wanted her to be exactly like Angie Newman; smart as a whip, funny, compassionate and wildly in love with his best friend. He had sworn an oath to himself after Nusair’s last attempt that he would do whatever it took to get Angie and Chip back together. Now he hoped fervently that he would be given the chance.
He started, realising that he was no longer alone in the nose. Hell, he hadn’t even noticed that he’d left the control room and headed automatically to his favourite spot on his boat, affectionately known as the Admiral’s Front Porch. He turned and stifled an immediate groan at the sight of the two men with almost identical concerned expressions. Some ONI agent he was! He hadn’t heard either of them approach.
He didn’t get any further before Jamieson butted in. “It’s almost one o’clock in the morning, Captain. You should be in your cabin resting, if it’s beyond your abilities to actually manage to sleep.” Despite the sarcasm there was a ton of friendship and worry in the doctor’s short lecture.
“I could say the same about you two.” Came the quick rejoinder.
“On our way, lad. Just thought we’d make sure you were headed the same direction.” Nelson’s sapphire blue eyes emitted empathy but an order was couched in the unspoken words.
“Aye, sir. I just wanted to check if Sparks had managed to get anything from the GPS locator in either Chip or Angie’s phones or laptops.” As captain he didn’t have to make excuses and he knew both the admiral and CMO had no realistic hope that he would be in his bunk but he always felt he owed the man who was closer to him than most fathers to their sons an explanation.
Nelson knew the communications officer had remained on duty long past his shift hoping to pick up something from the missing craft. “You’d have been informed if he’d come up with anything, Lee. You have a good crew. And they don’t need you looking over their shoulders to get the job done.” It was a mild reproof but a reproof none the less.
Point taken, Lee nodded. “I’ll see you here at 0530, sir. The chopper pilot estimates first possible lift off in daylight at that time.”
Jamie couldn’t resist one last interjection. “Make sure you lie down and get some rest, Lee. No more work tonight.”
Lee waited for the usual ‘I can give you something to ensure you sleep’ but surprisingly it wasn’t forthcoming. He nodded compliance anyway. There was no way he’d sleep but he knew he needed some down time to decompress – and get out from under the feet of his very capable crew.
He managed a credible grin. “I bet Angie is cursing you right now, Admiral. If she’d taken the commercial flight she’d have been back home in Santa Barbara by now.”
He didn’t miss the enigmatic look that passed between the two men but no explanation was forthcoming and his semi-smile died.
Nelson reached out and patted his forearm reassuringly. “Chip will look after Angie, son. She’ll be fine. They’ll both be fine.”
Lee had no doubt that Chip Morton would give his life for Angie. He loved her that much. He only hoped that his friend was alive to look after her. Much as he ached and feared for his brother, Chip was an extremely competent naval officer. But if he’d perished in the crash – or whatever had happened to FS1 – then that meant Angie was out there on her own. And that just didn’t bear thinking about.
Head aching, heart heavy and worry suddenly making him feel much older than his physical years he headed for his cabin knowing sleep was going to be elusive for what remained of the night.
She couldn’t believe that she’d gotten any sleep but woke to the ethereal fingers of daylight creeping across the silver hued roof of the Flying Sub and casting ghostly shadows throughout the metallic bulkheads of the small craft. Lifting her head from the rock hard pillow her cheek rested on she stilled, taking a full minute to realise that the solid unyielding cushion beneath her cheek was actually moving with a rhythmic cadence. Every instinct she possessed made her want to cuddle into its warmth – the arm she’d thrown over the covers was freezing. It took a full minute for reality to surface. She was lying up-close-and-personal-in-a-bed with Chip Morton.
Not only was she lying in a bed with him – she was draped over him like a blanket! Like white on rice. Fluff on a sheep. Close enough for lovers – who weren’t lovers. Way too close for anything else.
Seems like in her sleep she’d abdicated all her fears and terrors and snuggled into the only man she’d ever loved - at the first opportunity. She was certainly all over him! He lay flat on his back and her head rested perfectly on his broad chest, just below his shoulder. His left arm held her securely against him, his large hand splayed across her midriff, just under her breasts. Her left leg was wedged between his sprawled thighs a bit more intimately than she’d ever been with a man before and she shifted uncomfortably, trying to dislodge it without waking him. Unfortunately his lightening reflexes came into play and, although he didn’t quite wake, his arm tightened around her and his legs closed to trap hers effectively between them. She didn’t have a lot of room to manoeuvre anyway due to the width of the bunk, his stretched out position and her proximity to the bulkhead. She’d woken him once in the night. He’d obviously slept ultra-lightly since then.
Thankfully it hadn’t been one of the screaming heebie-jeebies-nightmares she’d had in the early days. This one had left her quivering, whimpering with fright – which possibly had everything to do with the hard body lying next to her in the narrow bunk. He’d woken immediately, pulled her to him, refusing to let her withdraw. Perspiration had her soaked and chilled but he’d gathered her into the heat of his body, murmuring softly and soothed her eventually into a deeper sleep - and obviously for longer - than she’d managed in a single night since the attack. She didn’t feel exactly refreshed, aching as she did in every bone and muscle, but it gave her hope for the future. A future that included the blond lying next to her. Whose cerulean eyes were wide open and watching her carefully.
Now she knew he was awake she had a sudden need to move, to get away, to have her own space. An abrupt kick of apprehension had her twisting from his grasp, sitting up and attempting to swing her legs across him to hop down from the bunk. She was counting on his injuries to slow him down. She didn’t know much about Chip Morton in the field.
He saw the flare of alarm in her green eyes; eyes that had been clouded with sleep and dreams only seconds earlier, caught the intent even as she moved to slide across him. To escape. He’d held her through the long night, waiting until the overwhelming stress of the situation had eventually overtaken her and she’d reluctantly succumbed to exhaustion. Pulled her from hugging the bulkhead into a more comfortable position lying in his arms – well, arm. It wasn’t anywhere near what he’d have chosen for their first night together but it was more than he’d dared to hope this soon after his return from Chicago just over a week ago.
He’d buried his face in the fragrant mass of her dark hair as she’d slept curled trustingly into his side, breathing in the fragrance that was so innately a part of her. He’d kissed and cuddled her, gently soothing her as she’d thrashed through the nightmare that had consumed her until she’d finally surrendered to a fatigued slumber. Even then she’d whimpered and tried to find space away from him. The narrowness of the bunk had played into his hands, as did the lack of coverings. He’d given her the lion’s share of the blanket, doubling it over and cocooning her in its warmth. She’d still shuddered with cold and he’d surrendered to his baser instincts and hauled her into his side, surrounding her as best he could with the heat of his body, felt her surrender to the absolute need for sleep and finally slump against him with abject trust – driven, he’d acknowledged, by total exhaustion. To his unmitigated discredit he savoured it anyway.
Her heart felt as if it was going to pound out of her chest. She had trouble breathing as he tightened his hold on her, refusing to let her pull away from him. She stilled, tacitly – finally – acknowledging that she was where she’d wanted to be for a very long time, only her fears keeping them apart. She knew in the deepest recesses of her heart and mind that he’d die rather than ever knowingly hurt her. Finally she concluded that not every man was the scum-of-the-earth that Philip Richardson had been. It had been a hard fought battle and she knew it wasn’t done with yet. He was currently behind bars and scheduled to be there for a very long time. That didn’t stop her shuddering every time she thought of him or relived that morning in her dreams. But she knew that if she didn’t let this go now then he’d taken more away from her than a patch of skin. Edging slowly forward, eyes locked on the mesmerising azure ones that seemed to see into her very soul, she laid her lips hesitantly over his slightly parted ones.
He didn’t react, allowing her to set the pace, though his heart almost beat its way out of his chest and he wanted to shout triumphantly. She squirmed closer, her body aligning itself along the length of his, pressing her lips more confidently to his as his arm eventually tightened around her, banding her to him. Every Neanderthal instinct he possessed wanted to take control of the kiss, to roll over until she lay supine beneath him and ravage her soft mouth the way he wanted, needed. Logic dictated that he do the exact opposite, allow her to set the limits she needed right now. She’d made huge strides in the past twenty-four hours. He wasn’t going to do anything to negate that so he let her move her mouth over his until he could feel her frustration at his lack of response begin to build.
Then he let his hand drift from where it caressed her spine up to the back of her head, holding it in place as his lips firmed under hers and he returned her kiss. Restraining himself was difficult; she was an enticing bundle of femininity and horizontally fit him like a glove. He wanted to make love to her in the worst possible way and his body couldn’t hide the fact. Not wanting to scare her off, he shifted his lower half away from her, releasing her legs - but restraint wasn’t funny and desperation had him deepening the kiss, thrusting his tongue into her sweetly parted mouth and sweeping it over the interior, loving the feel of her hesitant but enthusiastic response. He fisted the hand that held her hair, pulling her closer to his ravaging mouth when sanity prevailed. He wasn’t in a position to bring this to any satisfactory conclusion; he was feeling the full effects of the cracked or broken ribs on his right side, the dull throb of the concussion had his head reeling and his shoulder ached like a son of a bitch, Jamie’s painkillers not-withstanding. She had to be hurting too. He knew her back had taken a severe bruising during the landing and she’d not had sufficient down time to recover. Coupled with her restless sleep she really didn’t need him adding to her discomfort.
Reluctantly he pulled away, pressing her face into his chest, willing his heart rate to subside. He held her there when she would have moved, protesting. Resting his cheek against her hair as he ran his hand down her back caressing lightly over her shoulders, down the length of her spine, curving outwards over her hips, stopping just short of the taut swell of her bottom. With a huge sigh, he disengaged them, rolling her to the side and sitting up.
She watched him, confusion evident in her wide green eyes; her cheeks flushed an enticing shade of pink with desire. Unable to resist he ran a single finger down the length of her cheekbone, tracing the blush on her silky soft skin. “Not here, not now, baby, but soon. Promise. My heart to yours.”
Tears trembled on her dark lashes at his words but she valiantly nodded. Taking the hand he extended she allowed him to pull her to the edge of the bunk, wincing as she sat up and the bruises she’d sustained during the crash made themselves known. The light emanating through the cabin told that dawn had stolen through the night once again. Chip set about checking the environmental controls while she found her shoes and pushed her feet into them. Still reeling somewhat from the transition from traumatised victim to willing wanton she was glad of the time and space she knew he’d had the wisdom to afford her. Angie acknowledged that she could easily have allowed herself to be seduced by the situation – and a lesser man – but it would have ultimately worked against her. She needed to talk to someone professionally before she made love with Chip. Theirs was a once in a lifetime connection and, as time had decreed, both were going to have to wait for their perfect moment.
Now, being not their time, this was Chip’s show and she could only stand back and watch curiously as he went through the various knobs and dials on the instrument panel. She’d been longing for a shower to get rid of the overnight grunge, had just about persuaded herself that a sponge bath and change of clothes in the limited facilities would do when she realised that the lighting in the cabin had brightened considerably and there was a hum in the newly cooled air that had been missing.
Not to mention the barely heard curse word that was emitted by the usually all too controlled exec – evidence of his total distraction at whatever had just come to hand.
“What was that?”
“A blip, sir. Give me a second to verify but it sounds like the Flying Sub. Well, FS1, sir.” Riley was tripping over himself in his excitement. He had readily ceded the pilot’s seat in FS2 to the skipper when Crane had come aboard and now pounced on the control, obscuring Lee’s view. They had left Sharkey and Kowalski with the chopper crew, reckoning that, as the Navy helo was going to support FS2 in its search, if a medical evacuation was needed a field medic in either craft was optimum. Sharkey could be counted on to provide muscle if it was needed. So Riley had the co-pilot’s chair and Nelson and Jamieson had taken the rear seats. It would be a tight squeeze with eight occupants on board if they had to evac both Chip and Angie - which was one of the reasons the Navy helo was sticking around. FS2 could ferry any badly injured parties to a trauma centre faster than the helo and the less weight on board the better. So the helo could take any non-essential personnel back to Norfolk – if worse came to worst.
Nelson couldn’t see Lee’s eyes, but could read his animation through the change in his body language. Seaview’s captain straightened in his seat, shoulders tautening as he briefly acknowledged Riley’s exhilarated verification of FS1’s identification ping. He could see Lee’s focus sharpen on the instrumentation while trusting Riley to observe through the windows. The admiral followed the rate’s rapt attention, both men knowing what they were seeking. Dual exclamations reverberated through FS2’s bulkheads when visual coincided with the electronic pick up of the downed yellow craft.
“Easy, people.” Nelson cautioned as he checked the weapon at his hip. “Let’s take this slow and steady. No guarantees the only people we’re going to face inside are Chip and Angie. Let’s hope for the best but prepare for the other thing.”
Jamieson hung back, a wry smile on his lips at Nelson’s words. He wouldn’t be involved in the initial foray, only being called in after the situation was secured if medical aid was deemed necessary. He listened avidly as the pilots swooped over the downed craft in decreasing circles, preparing to land a cautious distance away.
There was a tumult of noise and shouted instructions.
“Riley, scan and report.”
“All clear, sir. No explosives detected.” Seaview’s youngest seaman worked the systems diligently, not prepared to risk either of his COs on a bad call.
“Heat signatures?” Lee had brought the small craft into a slow, ever tightening orbit around its sister ship but was happy to concentrate on flying and leave his co-pilot to do the other work. FS2 just didn’t feel as familiar as her counterpart.
“Two, sir. With the standard software it equates to two live humans but using Commander Morton’s new programme it reads as a male one hundred eighty seven pound body and a female one hundred twelve pounds. Both signatures indicate heartbeat within normal ranges and body temperatures AOK.”
A quiet chuckle from the back seats had Lee glancing over his shoulder at the doctor, who shrugged, a grin still tugging at his mouth.
“Trust Chip to have refined the damn programme to allow it to specify a female’s weight.”
“Don’t necessarily think that was on his mind when he was working on it, Doc. Helps to know what you’re going up against in advance sometimes.” Lee’s lips tightened, thinking of the many times that information would have influenced his decisions. He knew that’s what Chip had been thinking of when he’d designed the programme.
“I don’t think I want to know.” Came the retort from the rear seat.
“Probably better.” Nelson’s wry tone brought a snort from the oft-beleaguered Jamieson. “Riley, try raising FS1. See if Cmdr. Morton is in the mood for visitors this early in the morning.”
Lee began to look for a landing place, noting that FS1 had taken a giant swathe out of the countryside, flattening much of the surrounding dense vegetation. Seemed like she’d come in low but hard and he mentioned as much to Nelson and Jamieson. It wouldn’t have been a comfortable landing.
“They were lucky not to have hit any of these trees. Not to mention landing in the swamp itself.” Nelson’s comment had them all re-evaluating their luck. FS1 could have lain beneath the swamp for decades before being found. And if the two people aboard her were still alive…. That scenario didn’t bear thinking about.
“No response to our hails, sir. FS1 appears to be dead as a dodo.” Belatedly realising the insensitivity of his words Riley tried to backtrack. “Well, except for the heat signatures. We know they’re alive but they ain’t moving around none.” His Brooklyn accent became broader with his embarrassment.
“Keep trying, Riley.” Lee bit out, concern overtaking him. He had eventually located a suitable landing place but it was too far from FS1 for his liking, necessitating a trek of a couple of miles through some pretty solid undergrowth. “And send the Navy helo these co-ordinates. Then brace yourselves. In the event their only problem is communications, and going on the basis that they’re conscious, I’m going to give them a visual they can’t possibly miss.”
“Chip?” Frustration at his lack of response had her repeating his name. He was one-handedly working his way through the systems dial by dial but she wanted to smack him because he wasn’t telling her what was going on. From the grim expression and intense concentration on his task, it obviously wasn’t good.
“Good & bad news.” He finally deigned to speak!
Clipped and concise, in total XO mode, he gave it to her straight.
“Operational systems appear to be back on line. Nothing showing to explain why they went out. We have lights, air, navigation, thrust, engines etc. Homing beacon appears to be working perfectly.”
“That’s good, right?” She set her tone to ‘encouraging’.
His response was a quick, humourless, laugh and she mentally braced herself. “Yeah, that’s good, honey. What’s bad is that communications are still completely out.”
She didn’t understand and it showed. So they sat here and waited for someone to lock on to their homing beacon and find them? Knowing NIMR and Seaview’s capabilities that shouldn’t take too long. So what was the problem?
Softening his tone somewhat, he explained. “Sweetheart, I don’t know what caused this forced landing but I am damn sure as I can be that it wasn’t instrument failure. They all popped back up to speed too readily for that to have happened. All except communications. If we’d had total systems failure there’s no way ninety five percent would come back on stream and the most vital five percent – communications – just happens to be the one system that doesn’t. Believe me, I know this stuff. It’s as if something – someone – is externally manipulating us. And given what’s been happening over the past couple of months I’m thinking of just one person.”
Angie hadn’t reached the position of deputy director of NIMR by being a dummy.
“Got it in one. Which leads me to the really bad news. I’m not sure if I can trust the systems entirely. What’s to stop him from doing the same thing again? And this time we might not be as lucky with the landing.”
“So, basically, we’re stuck here until someone finds us? But you said the homing beacon is working perfectly….”
She didn’t like the fact that he was shaking his head. “What I said was that the homing beacon appears to be working perfectly. Knowing the technology this guy has access to, I wouldn’t put it past him to have the capability to jam it or re-direct it all while making us think it’s working just fine.”
“What would be the point in that?” And had she actually detected a note of admiration in his voice? Quite likely. Chip Morton’s fascination with all things technological was well known around the Institute.
“To have us doing exactly what we’re doing right now. Precisely nothing. We don’t have any clue as to where he is, what he’s up to or who’s helping him. For all we know he could be right out there just waiting to pick us off when we step outside.”
“Who knows? Maybe just for the hell off it. Just because he can. Because we messed up his plans for Linda Nugent. Because Nelson was instrumental in having him deported. Take your pick.”
Angie shivered. This was beginning to sound a whole lot worse than a simple crash – sorry, emergency landing. “Maybe he knows the admiral has been working on trying to figure out how he triggers the blocker.”
Chip snorted. “You can take that as a given. I’m sure he knows every move the admiral and NIMR makes.”
“You think we’ve got a mole?”
“Honey, I’d take any bet you care to give me that these guys have moles everywhere. Hell, he probably has a direct line into the White House. Lee and I were working on it when he got called to Washington.”
“Holy shit.” She wasn’t above a curse word or two herself – when the occasion called for it. “So what do we do?”
“What do you want to do? Way I see it we can sit here and see what happens or we can take off and head for Norfolk and Seaview – it’s closer than Santa Barbara and I really don’t trust going anywhere else. Problem is, I can’t guarantee we can reach her. Can’t predict which, if any, of our systems are totally functional. It could be absolutely the wrong thing to do.”
“Your call, Chip. You have lots more experience in these situations than I do. And I trust your instincts.”
“Then we go.”
“OK, I’d certainly prefer to be a moving target than a sitting duck.” Then it struck her and she looked at him accusingly. “Crap! You’re going to make me go under the water, aren’t you?”
The lethal grin he returned had her wanting to smack him upside the head. Sanity prevailed – just. She couldn’t afford for his brains to be rattled right about now.
A barrage of shouted instructions accompanied by FS2’s sudden ninety-degree turn – along with Jamieson’s stomach – had him glued to the chair, knuckles whitening on the black leather armrest.
Tautly enunciated exchanges – along with several WTFs from the pilots – had his head spinning in tandem with his stomach.
“What the hell was that?”
“THAT was FS1 lifting off and almost getting creamed during my fly-by.” A very tense Lee Crane answered.
“Can you raise her?” Tersely from Nelson.
“No, sir. They’re not responding.” Riley.
“Keep trying, Stu. And I also want you to try calling both cell phones. We may get lucky.” Crane’s expression was grim – it had been too close for comfort.
“I don’t know, Admiral. I have a lot of the same questions you’re thinking. Until we can raise FS1 we won’t know the answers. In the meantime I suggest we follow their flight path and observe. They appear to be stable in the air. They’ve just levelled out at twenty eight thousand feet, no apparent difficulty with the ascent. We have two heat signatures – one male, one female. Are they Chip and Angie? I think we have to go with that assumption until we know otherwise. Why aren’t they acknowledging us? Why haven’t they communicated with us? Are all their instruments fully functional? I just can’t answer those questions.”
As he spoke he seemed to Nelson to become even more rigid in the command chair.
“Riley, arm the lasers. I want to be prepared in the event that FS1 becomes a threat to national security – in any way.”
“What the hell was that?”
“THAT appeared to be FS2 almost colliding with us!” Chip’s voice was grimmer than grim as pain radiated throughout his entire right side and his head felt as if it was about to explode.
“They found us!” The abject relief in Angie’s voice had him clenching his teeth at her naivety. Only the thought of the dental visits he would have to endure if he continued had him forcibly relaxing his jaw. “Aren’t you going to land so they can pick us up?”
“It’s not quite that simple, Angie. The fact that they’re here and we can’t communicate with them presents us with a whole new set of problems. First off, FS2 is supposed to be in its final check sequence in Santa Barbara and hasn’t been cleared for flight status. We can’t be completely sure that anyone from NIMR is commanding her.” He hated to see her deflate so thoroughly but he needed to be straight with her. After all, her life was on the line alongside his.
“Right now we need to treat them as ‘non-aggressive un-friendlies’. If it IS Lee in command you can be sure he’ll be doing exactly the same thing. I’m arming our lasers as we speak – on the off-chance that they ‘go hot’ with weapons.” He grinned self-deprecatorily then had to explain at her uncomprehending expression. “One of the new programmes I had some input into on FS2 was a recognition system for when another craft in our co-ordinates went live with their armaments. FS2 knows we just went ‘hot’. Unfortunately I can’t tell the same with them but I’d take a good guess that they have already armed themselves. They’d be guessing if they assumed we’re ‘us’, so to speak.”
“You mean they might shoot us down?” She wasn’t proud of the fact that her voice emerged as little more than a squeak.
“Worst case scenario. But only if we appear to be a threat and we’re not going to give them any excuse. So you can belay your worries about going underwater. Good news is - we won’t be going anywhere close to Seaview. I’m going to find a nice big flat field as close as I can get to her but far enough from any military installations as I can find so as to paint the biggest non-threatening picture this baby can be.”
Smiling forbiddingly, he continued to manoeuvre the still smoothly operating craft as he plotted a way to allay FS2’s fears. There was more than one way to communicate.
“What in blazes is he doing? No earthly way is that Chip piloting. I’ve seen rookies handle her better than that.”
“I think that’s the point, Admiral.” The tautness in Lee’s shoulders was gradually abating as he watched the little yellow craft in the airspace just ahead of them. “Chip knows we’ll be suspicious of whoever’s aboard her. He’ll also know we’re aware they’ve gone ‘weapons hot’. Heck, he practically designed the technology. He’ll also expect that we’ve done likewise although he won’t be able to verify that as FS1 doesn’t have the programme installed as yet. If I were him I’d head for the boat – or as near as I could get to her without compromising everyone on board. And if I know Chip, which I think I can lay claim to, he’ll give us sufficient signals to let us know that he’s in command. He’ll also let me know if there are any outside influences pertaining.”
Jamieson felt he had to intervene. He could almost feel Nelson holding himself back from wanting to take over. It wasn’t the norm for the senior officer to take a back seat – especially when a rate was in the co-pilot chair. But it was the captain’s choice and he had to live with it. Didn’t stop him champing at the bit. Or making the person in the next chair – namely him – doubly anxious! “How’s he going to do that, Lee? When he can’t communicate with us?”
“With great ingenuity, Jamie.”
“What’s happening? What are you doing?” FS1 was wobbling all over the place and Angie clutched the chair arms as the pitch and yaw of the small craft had the ache in her back intensify – not to mention what it was doing to her stomach. At first she had thought it was a problem with the vessel but Chip’s calm demeanour had her thinking other things – like he was doing this deliberately.
She was quick to cop on. “Lee? You’re betting if it’s Lee in FS2 he’ll pick up on what you’re…ahh, transmitting?” The rocking got a bit rougher before it settled down again.
“Lee – or someone who knows Morse code.”
“Make me ask, why don’t you?” She muttered, more to herself than to him as she hung on for dear life as the vehicle began to gyrate again, the spasms going through her spine causing her to feel nauseous. She only hoped she didn’t throw up cos no way was she going to be able to make it to the head.
“Ask what?” Distracted.
“What are you sending?” Exasperated.
“My name. Short and sweet.”
“And what’s that gonna prove?”
“If Lee’s flying her, he’ll overtake us and send me back his name in the same way.”
“Then what?” Intrigued.
“Then I’ll tell him you’re aboard, he’ll tell me who he’s got aboard and I’ll send him a ‘follow me’ signal.”
“But how can you be sure it’s Lee and not someone else?” Sceptical
“I’ll know.” Certainty.
She’d long since recognised and acknowledged a certain arrogance in Chip – and in Lee too – not an objectionable conceit or superiority but rather a deep-seated confidence in their own abilities. Perhaps it came with the territory – or was handed out upon graduating from Annapolis – for Nelson displayed the self-same trait. He had the stars to back it up.
“He’s signalling.” Lee had been waiting for it – looking for it. His relief was palpable.
Nelson had spotted it too. “Morse?”
“Yeah. I need to get ahead of him. Hang on to your stomachs.” Lee hit the thrusters and the responsive, extremely flexible engines allowed him to overtake FS1. He began the gyrations to respond in kind.
“What’s he saying?” Jamieson.
“That’s it. Chip.”
“What are you going to reply with?” The doctor sucked in a breath as the aircraft began to move in a slight but discernable side-to-side up-and-down wiggle pattern, causing his stomach to hit his sternum then drop swiftly back into place.
“And that’s going to prove that it’s Chip flying that thing?”
“No. His reply will do that.”
“Which will be?”
“The name of whoever else is aboard her. If it’s unfriendlies he’ll make it seem like they’re experiencing severe turbulence. But he’ll get the message to me. He knows I’ll respond with the same information and then he’ll send me a ‘follow me’ signal. It’s something we’ve worked out in the past.”
“Did it work?” The physician was nothing other than pedantic. Lee’s shrug wasn’t re-assuring and the grin he threw over his shoulder was positively evil.
“Never had cause to use it.”
“And Lee will – ow! – trust that it’s just us on board and then follow us to wherever you go?” Things had gotten a little hairy as FS1 transmitted her message and she’d banged her elbow.
“That’s the plan.”
“Do your plans always work?” She enquired waspishly as she rubbed her sore arm and arched to try to work the kinks out of her back.
“That’s certainly re-assuring, Commander. Not!”
“Nothing’s one hundred percent certain in life, Angie. But if you figure the percentages then this plan has a good chance. Ahhh!” His sigh oozed satisfaction. “And it just got better. Lee just signalled that he has Nelson, Riley and Jamieson on board.”
“Which helps how?”
“That re-affirms – to my mind – it’s Lee in command. Just the guys I’d pick for a search and rescue op; with maybe Ski and Sharkey - or Patterson - in the background somewhere. I’m just surprised he took FS2 before her official launch.” The last was more of a muttering to himself.
“Sorry, but am I missing something?”
“What?” He was quite obviously distracted, concentrating on putting the vessel through her paces.
“You suspect we have one of Nusair’s moles at the Institute and you’re not communicating that to Lee? If we do go down and he doesn’t know then that information goes with us. I’d have thought that was your priority.”
It must have been the pain medication wearing off – or something – because he knew he should have thought of that as a priority. Angie was an intriguing mix of grit and girly and he loved and admired both. In the midst of her apprehension regarding their status she had zeroed in on the single most important piece of information he’d neglected to transmit. OK, so it hadn’t been part of the code recognition but now it damn well needed to be transmitted.
“I knew I loved you for a reason, Angie. You’re brilliant! Now, hang on. It’s going to get rocky for a while. But I promise to make it up to you.”
“A mole!” Nelson and Crane both exploded the word simultaneously.
“It’s a leap.” Nelson.
“It’s Chip, sir. We both know he doesn’t make leaps without a reason.” Lee.
“Damn it all to hell! How could he know?”
“I couldn’t tell you, Lee. The President swore me to secrecy. But he suspects that Nusair has at least one mole in the Pentagon and also at the Institute. And possibly someone on Seaview.”
“Not possible.” Lee’s voice rang with certainty.
“I know you don’t want to consider it…”
“Oh, I can believe the one in the Pentagon – that place leaks worse than a sieve. I can even believe there’s one at NIMR. But Seaview? No. We haven’t had anyone new join the rotation in over six months and there’s no way I believe he’s turned one of the regular crew.”
“Lee, you know as well as I do that he could have – and probably has had – people in place for a lot longer than six months.”
“I’ll concede that, Admiral. But not on Seaview.”
His stubborn certainty had Nelson sighing. He knew Lee liked to think that all Seaview’s crew were above suspicion. He was an excellent captain and worked well with his crew, knowing each of them personally. But Nelson wasn’t blind. He also knew that Lee, despite being a seasoned commander and ONI agent, liked to see only the good in each of his team – until, as Chip Morton was prone to say, he got kicked in the teeth but good. The small craft began to rock slightly again as Lee fired off another short message.
“What was that one?”
“I asked Chip if he had any names.”
Nelson had no problem deciphering the quick ‘no’ that was returned or the ‘follow me’ that came directly after.
“Lee, let’s save this for another time.” He was acutely aware that Riley was blatantly eavesdropping - while trying to appear otherwise engaged. No doubt the entire conversation would be repeated to Kowalski and Patterson, his buddies, as soon as they landed. Nelson had no problem with that. The three ratings were among Seaview’s most loyal crewmembers. But he didn’t want it going any further than that, lest they tip their hand to the mole he was almost positive lived in their midst. He would have to see to it that their youngest crewmember was given a severe talking to regarding repeating senior officers conversations. “Right now, I’m more interested in getting FS1 on the ground safely and having a crew go over her thoroughly to ascertain why she went down as she did and still can’t communicate with us.”
“You want me to get him to put her down sooner?”
“No. Let Chip play this one out. I trust him to do whatever’s necessary. But keep on her tail. I want to be right behind her when she lands.”
“And I want access to them straight away to ascertain any injuries they might be… exhibiting.” Jamieson had to adroitly change his wording at the last minute. Knowing the persons involved he’d wanted to say ‘hiding’ but, recognising that it wouldn’t be appreciated by either of his COs, had pulled it for something less confrontational.
“We’ll want full evaluations on both of them, Jamie, to ensure that they haven’t come under any undue influence.” It didn’t escape Nelson that Lee’s shoulders bunched with tension. The younger man had endured a gruelling brainwashing by a foreign power and the subsequent debrief some time back. It wouldn’t sit well with him to have his friends undergo the same procedure. Unfortunately he couldn’t see any alternative. Not with the news President Jackson had given him that he hadn’t had a chance to share with Lee – as yet.
But first things first – he wanted both Flying Subs on the ground and his two errant staff members back on the boat for de-briefing and some decent rest. Not to mention his impetuous captain, whom he knew hadn’t slept for almost thirty hours now.
“I don’t need to go to Sick Bay! And I certainly don’t want to go on the boat! There’s nothing wrong with me that a long soak in a hot bath won’t cure. So just point me in the direction of the nearest hotel and have someone book me a seat on the first flight out to California. Scratch that, I can do that myself.”
Underneath the belligerence Will Jamieson could detect a panicked note in her voice. His experienced eye had noted that she was moving stiffly, had a shallow laceration on her right leg, a bump on her forehead and was scared out of her wits about going on board Seaview.
But with Nelson’s instructions in mind he had no recourse but to insist that she accompany them. Didn’t mean he couldn’t be wily though. Using Chip Morton as an incentive wasn’t above him and if he’d taken note of the exec’s stance, which he had, he knew Chip wanted Angie going wherever he was – which was Seaview’s Sick Bay. Because the XO wasn’t fit to be anywhere else right now.
Quids in. Good result all round. Except that the lady in question wasn’t being at all co-operative.
“Chip needs medical attention. I get that. But I don’t! I’m fine. Nothing wrong with me. I need to get back to the office. Admiral Nelson needs me in the office. Otherwise why did he send the Flying Sub to pick me up in the first place? Now I’m so far behind schedule it’s not funny. If I can get a car to take me to DC there’s a flight out at two that will have me back before the end of the day so I can get some work done.”
She faced four men all shaking their heads at her, varying degrees of sympathy, obduracy and chagrin on their faces. Nelson, Lee and Sharkey had left to set up… whatever it was they were going to set up, leaving Jamieson, Ski and Riley to get Chip and her on board the boat and treated. Chip had little choice; his injuries were serious enough to require tending by a better medic than she was. She, on the other hand, was not in Seaview’s chain of command. However the pitying looks on their faces didn’t bode well for her chances – OK, three sympathetic looks and one tough, mulish one. The doctor.
“Angie, I need to check you….”
“How many times do I have to tell you I’m fine?” She knew she was losing it and hated that. But she really, really needed to get out of here. Chip had landed FS1 in a secured area at Norfolk in tandem with FS2; Lee having brought the other Flying Sub down right beside them. He’d warned her they were in for some questioning but she still hadn’t been prepared for – what she privately termed – the ‘assault’ on the little craft. Chip had released the hatch and cautioned her to stand in a non-aggressive position, arms out. She’d still shrieked in a totally – humiliatingly – girly fashion when the entryway had suddenly burst open, teeming with men in full body armour and toting lethal weapons. She’d only just been short of throwing herself at Chip, but was cogniscent of his injuries and too terrified to move in case someone loosed a shot – either at him or her.
Chip had already removed his injured arm from the sling and turned to face the rear hatch, presenting as non-threatening a picture as he could. She SO was not cut out to be in the field and had a totally new appreciation for his calm serenity in the face of being both frisked and hugged by Lee in a blurring series of movements. She’d been patted down – briskly and clinically – by an anonymous man wearing bulky Kevlar and loaded for bear. She’d wanted to yell that they weren’t the bad guys – but she hadn’t wanted to be a victim either. Been there. So she’d sucked it up.
Until Jamieson started spouting about Sick Bay. It took a barked command from Chip Morton, in a voice she’d never expected to hear levelled at her, to bring her back looking at him - round-eyed.
“Angie! SOP. You wrote the rules into the contracts. You know the procedure. Don’t think you can fight it. Plus they need to de-brief us. We’ve got to tell them what we know and what we suspect. It’s the only way we can protect Seaview and NIMR from this guy. Ski, Riley, take Ms. Newman to Guest Cabin A. Her luggage is in one of the forward storage bins. Get her settled and when doc is finished with me he’ll stop by and check on her. That OK with you, Jamie?”
Jamieson admired the way Chip had taken command of what could have turned into a bad scene. He’d taken the wind out of Angie’s sails, ensured she didn’t have to go to Sick Bay, secured her in a non-threatening environment – even if it was aboard Seaview – and surrendered himself to medical treatment (in a show of trust and sense?) all in a few short sentences. He silently wished it could always be so easy to treat the usually reluctant exec. Maybe he should keep Angie around. Then again ….
“Fine by me.” He dug into his medical bag and pulled out two small white pills. Grabbing the bottle of water from the instrument console he proffered them to her. “Take these.” And before she could mouth a protest he continued, “They’re just sea sick pills. Even though Seaview is moored she’s still going to be bobbing around a bit. Just thought this would make you more comfortable.” He watched as she blushed, casting a glance at Ski and Riley who made like they saw nothing, hesitantly palmed the pills, looked to Chip and, at his nod, swallowed the tablets and washed them down with water. In truth, Seaview was so big that, at anchor in harbour, no one other than the most seasick-prone would even feel the soft swells. He wasn’t prepared to take the chance with Angie. And levelled a glare at Riley as the rate opened his mouth as if to rib her. The boat’s regular crew held Angie in high regard. They had taken an even more protective stance since the recent attacks. Ski, in particular, had been her champion and he knew Chip would have no issues assigning the senior rating to her protection detail.
He felt Chip wince as he probed the muscles around his shoulder. He’d given both of them a quick look over, judged the exec to be the more severely injured and concentrated on him, allowing Angie to get more comfortable with the idea of an exam. Didn’t seem to be working, as she appeared to grow more tense and stuck by Chip’s side like a barnacle. “Looks like you dislocated this one this time, Chip. How’d you manage to pop it back?”
“Angie did it.” And watched with satisfaction as all three heads swivelled in a combination of admiration and disbelief at the petite woman by his side, gratified to see her chin come up and she raised herself to her full height beside him at the accolade. And he shot a quick look at Jamieson – out of her line of sight – urging him to comment. The wily doctor didn’t disappoint.
“Nice job, Angie.” He imbued his tone with genuine admiration. “You probably saved him from surgery – or at the very least a night of severe pain and several weeks of physio. Now can we please get this show on the road? Mr. Morton, Sick Bay awaits. Ski, take Ms. Newman to Cabin A. Angie, you can take a shower and change and I’ll be with you as soon as I’m done with the exec.”
She wasn’t dumb and knew it was tantamount to house arrest. But the thought of anything medical had her stomach heaving. She only hoped she could make it to the guest cabin before throwing up. She certainly didn’t want to embarrass herself in front of Ski and Riley, both of whom she considered friends.
“Ouch, Jamie. Take it easy, will ya?”
Jamieson was used to the frequent refrain – it was just the patient that changed. His skilful fingers probed the cut at the back of Chip’s head, deemed it more than slight but less then critical and moved on to the bump over his left temple. Chip sat shirtless on the exam table, cradling his right arm across his chest as the doctor completed his examination.
“Sorry, Chip.” By the cheeriness of the tone he was patently unrepentant. Which meant – in Jamie-speak – that he wasn’t terminal. All of which Chip knew anyway. “That’s a nasty cut on your head but Angie did a good job cleaning it up and icing the bump on your forehead. It’s already begun to close so there’s no point stitching it now. I’m just going to put a little of this adhesive to glue the sides together and keep the scarring to a minimum. What did you hit and how long were you out?”
Chip shrugged and lied, all the while meeting the doctor’s suspicious gaze directly. “I didn’t have time to get a harness on when the power went out. Too busy trying to get us down in one piece. Must have hit the side of the instrument panel. No idea how long I was out. Not long, from what Angie said.” He knew it had been several hours but wasn’t about to give the doctor any ammunition. Jamieson was dangerous enough without encouragement.
The sceptical glance and the ‘hmmm’ told him Jamie wasn’t buying it but he kept his expression as innocent as only he could while the doctor finished gluing the cut. It intensified the headache he already had but he wasn’t about to admit that either. The fight would start when Jamie tried to keep him in Sick Bay. He couldn’t help but wince as Jamie tested the range of movement in his right arm and shoulder. The painkiller he’d taken that morning had long since worn off.
“Did you take anything for the pain and how long ago?” The doctor asked as he noted the beads of sweat beginning to pump out on Chip’s forehead. It was obviously hurting a lot more than the exec was willing to admit – par of the course with the stubborn first officer.
“I was singing your praises for the extensive medical kit you’d packed on FS1. Took a diluted shot of morphine and also the pre-loaded anti-inflammatory in the First Aid kit. Couldn’t risk taking anything stronger that might knock me out. Didn’t know what we might be facing. Plus I figured I might have a mild concussion.”
Which translated as the exec had had a major headache and nausea. He’d been there enough times to know that strong painkillers were a no-no when concussion entered the equation. Sometimes Jamieson felt like a detective trying to pry out information from a suspect – especially where the command trio were concerned.
Chip’s grin lit up his entire face but only served to accentuate his tiredness. Jamie would guess he hadn’t slept a wink in the preceding forty-eight hours. Turning to the corpsman hovering in the background awaiting instructions he asked, “John, I want some X-rays of this arm and shoulder and the ribs too. Thought I wouldn’t notice that, didn’t you.” He said as an aside and watched Chip’s chagrin. “Will you set up please? Frank, can you get the exec a fresh uniform from his cabin while I draw some blood and finish up? He can use the shower here to clean up then I’ll strap him up before releasing him to light duty.” He stressed the last two words as his assistant left with a nod and a grin towards the surprised XO.
“You’re springing me?”
“No point in keeping you. The skipper and admiral need to de-brief you. You’d be champing at the bit to escape and, while the head wounds were nasty, I’d have only kept you twenty-four hours for observation anyway. You’ve already put in the time so I’m gonna give you a break. BUT! When I say light duty, I mean light duty, Mr. Morton. I want you in your cabin in bed with the lights out by 2100 – after you’ve had a good meal.” Jamieson quickly and efficiently drew several vials of blood as he talked. “Now scoot over here so John can X-ray your shoulder. Then go shower while I review the films.”
A hot shower helped to alleviate some of the stiffness and a shave had him feeling half way human again. Walking back into the exam area, wearing just his fresh khaki uniform pants, he found Jamie studying the X-rays. He stood behind the doctor and looked at the films. He’d been the recipient of enough over the years to be able to read them quite proficiently. “No breaks in the ribs then?”
“No. But you’re going to have some spectacular bruises and there are a couple of hairline cracks so don’t go doing anything tricky. Angie did a good job popping the shoulder back. Couldn’t have been easy.” He gestured to Chip to take a seat on the exam table and grabbed up a length of ace bandage Frank had already laid out.
“It wasn’t – for her. She cried buckets, in between cussing me out for making her do it. The lady has quite a vocabulary. Must be hanging round with sailors too much.”
“Hmmm. As if a single rate would dream of mouthing off in front of her.” Jamieson knew the crew all adored the admiral’s assistant. She was sweet to all of them. In fact the only one she wasn’t ‘sweet’ to was possibly him.
“She blames the admiral.”
Jamie snorted. “A likely story!” He began to bind Chip’s shoulder tightly noting, without comment, when the exec’s face began to lose its colour. “And just how is Angie?”
Chip knew the doctor was asking more than what physical injuries she’d received. He hesitated before answering. “She’s good. Better. She was wearing her seat harness when we came down but I think she wrenched her back. And I know she had a headache too. I made her take a couple of the pain pills in your First Aid kit going to bed last night and I know she had some Tylenol earlier. She wouldn’t take anything this morning though.”
“Did she get any sleep last night?” He phrased the question casually as he helped Chip pull the sleeve of his shirt up his arm and over his bound shoulder, holding it for the younger man to shrug his good arm into it.
“Some. Few hours maybe.”
“Did she sleep with you?” He held up both hands as Chip straightened abruptly and shot him a piercing glance from suddenly ice-cold blue eyes. His voice quieted as he explained. “I’m not asking out of prurient curiosity, Chip. You know me better than that. It hasn’t escaped me that Angie’s been having problems since the incident with Richardson in Med Bay. She practically jumps when any man comes within five feet of her and that includes guys she’s known and worked with for years. Lee included. I’m actually surprised she went with Kowalski and Riley.”
“Riley’s just a kid and she trusts Ski. They’re friends. She knows he’d kill for her. Hell, he’d die for her.” Morton wasn’t exaggerating. The senior rating treated Angie like a baby sister and she regarded him as a favourite older brother. It was Ski who had gone car shopping with her – twice – when her car had been totalled.
“I heard she’d broken it off with you.” He batted Chip’s clumsy left hand out of the way and buttoned the shirt for him.
“She wanted – wants – some space, which I totally understand. Now can we change the subject – please?” He stood up from the gurney, angry and ready to leave.
Jamie waved at him to sit back down, pulling a khaki coloured sling from a drawer and, slipping it over Chip’s head, settled his arm into it. “Keep the sling on for the next forty eight hours. The shoulder needs the support. And take these.” He proffered a paper spill with three pills in it and a glass of water. “Ibuprofen and an anti-inflammatory. You’re going to be taking them for the guts of a week. And I want you back here first thing in the morning. Frank will have a pain-relieving gel to massage into the shoulder and re-strap it. Now, you didn’t answer my question.”
Chip sighed deeply. He knew Jamie only had Angie’s best interest at heart but still felt vaguely disloyal divulging the information. “Yes, she slept on the bunk next to me. She had a nightmare. Satisfied?”
He ignored the sarcasm. “Did she let you hold her?”
“Yeah. But I’m not sure how awake she was.”
“Good, very good. It’s progress. Now get out of here. And make sure you get something to eat before you hit your rack.”
Chip stopped with his good hand propped on the open door. “Take it easy with her, Jamie. Please.”
“You know me better than to have to ask, Chip. But, for her sake, I need to do my job. I’ve seen this reaction to an attack before. I’m only sorry I didn’t realise earlier that Angie was having problems coping.”
“She hid it well. She thought she was coping.”
“You’ve given her a good head start now.”
“How do you figure that?”
“She stuck close enough to you that I thought we’d have to prise her off til we got her to go with Ski and Riley. She let you hold her through her nightmare. She tended your wounds and even tried to shield you when the Navy Seals boarded FS1 after you landed in Norfolk.” He couldn’t help the grin that emerged at the memory of the feisty little chick that had battled to place herself in front of the way taller, broader exec while he was trying to place her behind him.
“Don’t get too carried away, Jamie. I’m a long way from…. Never mind.” He went out the door before he got carried away and told the good doctor about the ring that resided in the wall safe in his office. The ring no one knew he’d bought before that whole God-awful debacle.
He knew exactly where he’d find Nelson and Crane – the nose. If he’d had any doubts, finding Patterson outside Sick Bay ready to escort him sent them on their way. He only hoped they had coffee, piping hot, diesel fuel strength and lots of it. The two senior officers were seated at the long table; both with coffee mugs in front of them and a fresh pot had just completed brewing on the credenza to the right of them. Lee stood at Chip’s approach, studied him intently for several long seconds before reaching for a mug and filling it, placing the strong black beverage on the table in Chip’s usual spot. He took it as a good omen and gulped the first mug, still standing, almost in one draft. Lee refilled it with a grin and handed it back to him before taking the seat next to him, facing the admiral – staunchly placing himself in Chip’s corner. They’d long had each other’s backs.
“Sit down, son, you look exhausted.” Nelson pushed a plate of cookies his way. “Let’s clear this up quickly so you can get some rest. Doc says your blood tests are clear of any toxins. Take us through everything that happened from the time you boarded FS1 at Kings Bay. Oh – and sorry for the rather dramatic welcome earlier.”
The latter was said with a touch of the admiral’s sometimes ironic humour. It had the effect of relaxing Chip – knowing the trust that had always cemented them was firmly in place.
He gave a concise report, filling them in with the salient details and they swapped out theories on the mole both agreed had to be in place at NIMR or on board Seaview. Both Lee and Chip were loath to think the latter and convinced Nelson to take a first look at the new hires at NIMR. For that the admiral conceded he needed Angie back at base as soon as possible and, once she was cleared by Jamieson – it being almost a foregone conclusion, based on Chip’s debrief – she would be transported by Navy jet back to Santa Barbara while they proceeded with the mission at hand. A mission whose parameters had been changed dramatically with the new information President Jackson had imparted – which he still needed to share with his command crew.
He was about to continue when the clatter of shoes on the spiral staircase heralded the approach of Angie accompanied by someone with a heavier tread. Had to be Angie – no one else on the boat was wearing heels. Or if there was, they were in more trouble than he thought. Nelson chided himself for his whimsy as all three men stood.
She was pale – make that colourless – but comported herself well. She’d showered and changed clothes. The black pantsuit had narrow legged trousers and a fitted jacket and with the heels she wore made her look taller than she actually was. The pale pink shell underneath should have given her face a warm glow. It didn’t. She appeared nervous but determined and met the admiral’s and Lee’s concerned looks with a wan smile. The doctor, following slightly behind her, gave a quick nod, indicating that her blood results were clear – as expected. Lee stood and hugged her, offered her his seat – next to Chip – picked up the intercom and ordered her hot tea from the galley, knowing she didn’t drink coffee.
“Thanks, Will.” Nelson effectively dismissed the CMO with a nod of gratitude.
“Mind if I stay?” Without waiting for an answer Jamieson poured himself coffee and took a seat at the end of the table.
Nelson raised an eyebrow but the physician just smiled quizzically and sipped at his coffee. The admiral turned to Angie. “I’m sure you’d like something to eat and some sleep but I just have a few questions. Chip has filled us in on most of the happenings since he picked you up but we’d like your impressions too. Then I have some news from the president that I need to update you with. But first – Angie…”
Her story corroborated Morton’s – except when it came to who was the most heroic. He’d spun her up in his recanting but she gave him total credit during hers. Nelson and Crane traded ironic looks and even Jamieson sported an amused grin at the end of her telling. There was colour in her face, courtesy of a heated blush, and Chip was obviously uncomfortable with the praise. Will decided to give them an out.
“I’ve cleared Chip for light duty and Angie’s up to resuming her role at NIMR after the weekend but they need to eat and get a night’s sleep in a proper bed…” He tailed off, realising it probably hadn’t been the most tactful wording ever.
Four pair of eyes studiously avoided each other while three glared daggers at him. Angie obviously found something fascinating out of the full-width nose windows.
Nelson rescued the uncomfortable moment by suggesting that they repair to the officers’ mess where Cookie had prepared a meal. “We’ll have the place to ourselves as the JOs are either on duty or leave. And I have some information I need to share.”
Angie pushed her food around on the plate, hoping no one noticed that she did more playing with it than eating it. Not that the food wasn’t delectable – the admiral only employed the best and ensuring his crew was well fed was high up on his priority list – but she hadn’t had much of an appetite in a while. The pantsuit she’d changed into was a recent purchase and a size smaller than she usually wore. It made more sense wearing pants on a sub and she hadn’t wanted Jamieson to notice how loose the waistband of the skirt she’d been wearing was. What she hadn’t counted on was how thin black made her look. She didn’t wear it usually. Oh, she had the obligatory LBD in her wardrobe but preferred pastels or various hues of red and yellow – feel good colours. When she’d recently shopped for business clothes that actually fit her she’d found herself drawn to the darker shades – they’d seemed to suit her mood.
She knew she should be grateful that the doctor had paid a house call and not made her go to Sick Bay but she couldn’t help but tense up around him. She knew her phobia was irrational – as a person she quite liked what she knew of Will Jamieson, he’d been nothing but kind and gentle with her – she just couldn’t shake her dread of all things medical. Not since…. OK, this is not the time to go there, Angie. But she had enormous sympathy for Lee Crane who had the same issues – problem was he ended up needing attention a heck of lot more often than she did. Until recently she’d managed to skate under the radar. Of late it seemed like she was making up for lost time.
Jamie – as he’d encouraged her to call him – had been kind but thorough when he’d come to her cabin. Thankfully she’d had time to shower and change before he’d shown up. And she’d had the added advantage of being behind the desk in the spacious but utilitarian cabin she’d been escorted to. She’d set up her laptop and been checking her e-mail when he’d knocked – and waited for her call to come in. Thankfully, she hadn’t thrown up when Ski and Riley had accompanied her to her temporary accommodation – probably courtesy of the pills she’d had no choice but to take - unfortunately she’d felt like it when the doctor entered. Just the sight of his traditional black medical bag was enough to have her wanting to make a run for the bathroom. She’d managed to refrain and he was savvy enough to take one of the seats in front of the desk and place the damn thing out of her sight at his feet. She’d broken the silence.
“He’s fine. Blood tests were clear. X-rays showed no break in the ribs and you did a good job on his shoulder. He’ll be sore for a couple of days but a good night’s sleep will work wonders. He can take duty tomorrow. Provided he doesn’t go crawling through the ventilation system or take on any mutated plankton.”
She knew he was trying to lighten the mood and appreciated it – even if it didn’t make her any less tense. She managed to paste a smile on her face anyway. After all she’d seen Seaview’s mission reports.
“Hopefully, berthed in Norfolk they won’t encounter anything… untoward.”
“You’d think.” It was a mutter as he shifted in the chair – as if she’d spooked him or something. “But I’ve learned never to take anything for granted where this boat is concerned.”
She couldn’t help but grin in sympathy at his grumpy tone. “Thing is, Chip hates anything green so I think you don’t need to worry about the plankton.”
Intense brown eyes locked on her green ones (apparently Chip didn’t hate everything green) and his eyes and his tone were as serious as he could make them. “I worry about everything where those three are concerned.”
Then he blew out an obviously frustrated breath. “Hell, somebody has to.”
That single comment notched him up a rank in her personal good-guys-roll-call.
Then his gaze went from sharp to sharper as he morphed into business mode. “And he’s worried about you.”
“I’m fine.” The automatic response had him rolling his eyes.
“You have no idea how many times I’ve heard that!” The wryness in his voice almost – almost – coaxed a smile from her. “Chip tells me you hurt your back in the crash.”
Honour bound to defend him – and in her own interests – she corrected him. “It wasn’t a crash. It was a landing. And I’ve got a few bruises but nothing you need to….”
He was already shaking his head so she knew she was on a hiding to nothing. “Doesn’t work like that, Angie. I know you hate this and I hate like hell to put you through it after the last twenty-four hours but I need to know that you’re OK. I don’t have to tell you that stuff is going down and Admiral Nelson is depending on you to hold things together at the Institute while Seaview does her thing.”
Oh, play the guilt trip, why don’t you? She knew Jamieson was sneaky – she’d had up close and personal experience of it. She also knew he was right.
“You want to take blood?” At his nod, she pushed up the sleeve of her jacket and bared her forearm to the elbow. “Go ahead.”
He liked to think he had a little more finesse. “Chip is worried about whiplash. He won’t rest easy if he thinks you’re in pain. Just let me take a quick look at your back, draw some blood and check that cut on your temple and the one on your leg then I promise I’ll leave you alone.” He knew there was no point in taking pulse or respiration – her abject fear would have the readings off the scale already. If guilting her was the only way he could gain her co-operation he wasn’t above it. But he was sensitive enough to have seen the way her eyes had zeroed in on his medical bag so, instead of putting it on the desk or chair he reached down and pulled what he needed from it. “Why don’t you slip off the jacket for me?”
She hadn’t had much colour to start with but when he’d opened the blood draw kit – deciding to get the worst over first – her complexion had turned ashen. He’d thanked God that she was sitting or he’d have been scooping her off the floor. Quickly and efficiently he’d swabbed her inner elbow with an alcohol wipe and inserted the needle. He’d thought she was going to pass out initially then watched and admired as she’d held on to her equilibrium. He’d taken three vials, labelled them and taped a cotton ball to the site quicker than he’d ever done it before. She was still pale as a ghost. He’d treated the minor cuts on her face and leg, cajoled her into letting him check out her back and hips. He would have liked to have had X-rays to back up his diagnosis but didn’t deem them necessary enough to spook her at this point in time. She was bruised and sore but had no obvious neck or spinal trauma so he was happy enough to go with his gut instinct. He knew she’d be more comfortable if she had something to take the edge off, but knew she wouldn’t. He’d already planned to ensure that she got a night’s sleep before departing for California the next morning but he wasn’t going to share that particular plan with her.
She’d gained a new appreciation for his kindness, realising he’d made this as easy for her as he could. Maybe he was different from the doctors who’d…. No, not now. Not here.
“So you OK with that, Angie?” Nelson’s mellifluent baritone had her jerking back to the present.
“Sorry, Admiral. I must have spaced out there for a minute.” No need for them to know it had been way longer than a minute. As her gaze swept them all apologetically she caught the doctor’s incisive look. He knew. Where she’d been. No, he couldn’t. But his sympathetic gaze told differently. Their eyes locked for a brief moment. She was the first to break away.
“I know you’re tired. But I’ve just cleared a Navy transport to take you directly to the Institute tomorrow morning. Patterson will accompany you.”
“I don’t need a babysitter, sir.” She protested, as he knew she would.
“And Patterson is no babysitter.” He barked in return. “He’s a bodyguard.”
That got everyone’s attention.
“Why do I need a bodyguard?” It gave her a legitimate excuse to push her almost untouched plate away.
“I’m not convinced you do, Angie, but I’m past taking chances with this bastard. And I need to fill you all in on what the president confided to me just before we left Washington.” He saw Lee jerk upright and felt somewhat guilty for keeping him in the dark these past twenty-four hours. He had planned to tell him over dinner the previous evening but that hadn’t happened. Given Chip’s suspicions about a possible mole at NIMR he definitely needed to clue them in on the latest intel. Taking a deep breath and knowing it wouldn’t be easy on any of them he divulged it as calmly as he could and waited for the inevitable explosions.
“President Jackson believes Jaali Nusair is already back in the United States. And –after Washington and the Pentagon – we’re next up on his hit list.”
He worried most about Lee who had been held captive by the terrorist, seen an ex-lover and long time friend die because of his involvement with her and almost lost his best friend twice now.
Twice. Was there a reason Chip Morton had been targeted a second time? Or was he just reaching? Perhaps it was complete co-incidence that Chip had been diving when the sharks had attacked and he’d been piloting FS1 when it had experienced a total systems failure. Who knew what the hell Nusair had up his sleeve.
“Sir, what information does the president have that leads him to suspect Nusair is back on the mainland? The latest intel we have puts him solidly in Afghanistan and the agency has confirmed sightings of him there as recently as last week.” Lee raked the fingers of his right hand through his dark hair, frustration evident as he shoved away his half eaten meal.
Nelson caught Jamieson’s reproachful glance and knew he should have held off the news until the other man had finished eating. Hell, even Morton had put down his cutlery! Cookie was going to be ticked. Blowing out a hard breath, he surrendered his own utensils. “You know that Sam Todd retired a month or so back as director of ONI.” It was more statement than question and three heads nodded confirmation. Only Jamieson looked surprised. Todd was one of the good guys – promoted from second in command of the Office of Naval Intelligence after his predecessor, Admiral Hunter Beckett, had been moved adroitly sideways following an attempt to make Chip Morton a scapegoat for his ineptitude. Admiral Todd was only in his late fifties and fit as the proverbial fiddle – a little young for voluntary retirement.
“Sam’s ‘retirement’ was as a favour to the president. In reality, he’s heading up a covert counter terrorist unit comprised of the best brains the agencies have, coupled with the finest strategists in the country. Answering only to President Jackson. Their sole task is now tracking down Nusair and his organisation.” He held up a hand to forestall Lee’s anticipated protest. “I know, Lee, I know. You should have been informed. Especially before you went to Afghanistan. But the president wanted – needed – you to make that trip. It took the focus off Sam and his group who were actually making some small headway at that point.”
“I was a damn decoy.” Lee snapped bitterly. Nothing nicer than finding out that you’d chased your tail all over Kabul and the god-awful surrounding countryside for nothing.
“In a sense, yes. And if I’d known about it in advance, I’d have had plenty to say. But it worked. Allowed Sam time to set up his people and get his unit on track while others were looking elsewhere.”
“You knew about this.” Chip’s tone was curt, almost bordering on insubordination.
Nelson raised a single eyebrow and remained silent until the exec dropped his eyes. “I knew about Sam’s new appointment, yes. About the fact that Nusair has re-appeared on US soil – I found out just a couple of hours ago from Andrew Jackson. And, much as I hate the fact that you traipsed around the Middle East for several weeks to no avail, Lee, I can’t say that it didn’t bring about a result. Not the one you were hoping for, but a result none-the-less. Sam’s team has been able to able to set up under the radar and run all the stats. That’s how they found out that Nusair is back here, most likely under an alias. It’s only a matter of time before they locate him.”
“I want in.” Lee.
“Me too.” Chip.
“I thought you both would.” He didn’t add that Jackson had wanted both of them and he’d had to fight hard to hang on to his staff, knowing they could be better utilized outside the task force and with their safety paramount. They were the sons he’d never had and, while the good of the many sometimes necessitated the blood of the few, he didn’t want it to be their blood. And if that was selfish then – sue him. He still ached that he’d had to give up one of them.
It only took an ‘ahem’ from Jamieson and a finger point at Chip’s bound shoulder to start the row. A single barked ‘enough!’ from the admiral finally ended it.
“Obviously, in light of this latest information, Seaview won’t be deploying to the Middle East. Lee, you are cleared to join Sam’s team – on temporary transfer; it was always on the cards once it had been established in the spook community – theirs and ours – that we had our best man looking for him far afield but to no avail.”
Lee wanted to argue the toss but he could – sorta – see the logic. Didn’t make up for almost three weeks of freezing his ass off in the mountains outside of Kabul trying to extract information from genuine goatherds and terrorists posing as same.
“Chip, I’m sorry, but your unique talents are required elsewhere. And, in light of your current injury, you’d be more of a hindrance than a help to Lee.” He could practically see the young exec grind his molars at the bluntness of his statement. But Morton was nothing if not pragmatic and eventually, having worked through the disappointment, nodded a brief acceptance. “You’ll be in command of Seaview while Lee is seconded to Todd’s team and I’ll also want you working the computers to back him up with any information that you can … glean.” On principle he refused to use the word ‘hack’. He couldn’t fail to note that Chip got an almost feral look in his bright blue, albeit tired, eyes at the mention of his beloved computers. He’d have to keep an eye that the XO didn’t overdo things. He’d have an able and willing assistant in Dr. Jamieson, from the look of him.
“While I know you are all not convinced that we have a mole on the boat I want every crew member’s record pulled and a watch put on anyone who has been with us less than a year or has exhibited any sudden spending splurges in the past six months. It’ll mean accessing bank accounts, doing in depth background checks etc. Chip, you’ll take that – I’ll see you have some reliable help. Angie, you’ll do the same at the Institute. Chip will show Patterson how best he can help you – he’s pretty savvy with computers. I want him sticking with you at all times so I hope you have a spare room. Otherwise he’s going to be pretty uncomfortable on your couch.”
She opened her mouth to argue that it wasn’t necessary but closed it before she’d gotten a word out. Nelson was akin to a Tsunami when he was on a roll.
Cookie’s appearance to clear their plates was an uncomfortable interruption, as they had to suffer his reproachful glares for the half eaten food. He offered dessert and was obviously seriously offended when his apple pie á la mode and raspberry cheesecake were summarily rejected. The look he cast Morton bode ill for the menu on the trip back to Santa Barbara. His almost sulky offer of coffee was, however, taken up with alacrity.
Lee dug his cell phone out of his pants pocket as it began to vibrate. He excused himself from the table to take the call and returned with his cameleon eyes practically snapping brilliant amber. “That was Chief Sharkey. His crew has gone over FS1 with a fine-toothed comb. They found what can best be described as an ‘anomaly’ in the fuel line - an inhibitor designed to cut the fuel to the engines as and when it was remotely triggered. In other words a blocker. Ring any bells?”
“God damn it! What in God’s name has he created? And how the hell can he replicate it in the differing media? ” Nelson erupted. It hadn’t escaped any of them that a blocker had been used to remotely trigger Linda Nugent’s death and the shark attack on Chip and his diving party. Two good men had died on that assignment. (** & ****) The myriad resources NIMR had put in place hadn’t yielded any results to date. Right now no one had any answers to the admiral’s rhetorical question and the mood around the table was sombre in the extreme.
Jamieson watched Nelson draw in air as if it were a lifeline – then exhale in a long hard breath, exuding his innate frustrations.
“It’s been a long day. And we need time to regroup. We have to get some solid rest. Perhaps things will look somewhat clearer after a good night’s sleep. What say we rendezvous back here at 0800 tomorrow?”
Lee, Chip, Angie and Jamieson looked sceptically at the four star admiral, each knowing instinctively that Nelson had no intention of going to his cabin. Nothing would suffice other than for him to get his hands on the evidence that Sharkey had unearthed from FS1, pouring over it and comprehensively linking it to Nusair’s previous assaults. It was patently obvious that he had the bit between his teeth. And if that meant working in his lab all night then that was what he would do. What they could and would do was ensure that worrying about them was out of the equation.
“I’m going to check the control room one more time, then I’m going to turn in.” Lee rose to his feet as he drained the last of his coffee and deposited the mug in the bin for used utensils.
“I’ll go with you.” Chip volunteered as he dumped the remains of his coffee in the sink.
“Not the words I want to hear, Mr. Morton. I cleared you for light duty starting tomorrow.” Came the doctor’s swift rejoinder.
“OK, I’m beat. So I’m gonna hit my rack.” Chip conceded graciously enough although he gave Jamie the almost mandatory scowl.
“Better. I need to check that Sick Bay is in order so I’ll say goodnight.” Jamieson cast a swift glance at the two remaining seated before exiting on the heels of his captain and exec.
“Would you like me to organise some tea for you?”
She shook her head. “You don’t need to do that.”
He pressed - gently. “I don’t need to do it but I’d like to do it. If you’d like some. I know you haven’t drunk coffee since the incident with the guy we named the ‘puppet master’. I don’t know if that’s a reflection on the fact that you were inadvertently poisoning my habit or you’ve genuinely gone off the stuff. Either way I think you need to get over it. It wasn’t your fault and you have to let it go. Just like I have to get over the fact that I let you down when Richardson attacked you in Med Bay.”
Startled green eyes jumped to his. “That wasn’t your fault.”
“Neither was the fact that you were inadvertently poisoning my coffee.” He reminded her wryly. Reaching across the table he took her much smaller hand in his, rubbed his thumbs over the back then turned it and did the same across her palm. It was surprisingly soothing and, other than a peck on the cheek or a hug at Christmas or on her birthday, the most personal gesture he’d ever shown her.
“And I think we both need to put it behind us and move on. We have a lot to accomplish and only one lifetime in which to do it. I’m not just talking about Nusair here, Angie. I’m talking about life, yours and mine, Chip’s, Lee. Right now our lives are focused on bringing a terrorist and a murderer to justice. I let a woman’s betrayal rob me of a chance to build a home, a family, and I won’t let the same thing happen to you. I want you to consider what it will do to you and Chip if you let Richardson’s actions impinge on your life any further. I should have acted sooner, seen you got help after the attack but you were handling it so well….”
“Hiding it.” Her voice was barely audible. “I was hiding the fact that I was so ashamed.”
“Angie, you have nothing to be ashamed of! Good God, the man was six and a half feet and two hundred and fifty pounds! You didn’t stand a chance against him.” Nelson scrubbed the hand not holding hers through his auburn hair, standing it on end. He so wasn’t equipped for this type of conversation but it was important to him that he had it now. He’d put it off long enough.
She sat up straight in the chair and glared at him. “I wasn’t ashamed of the fact that he overpowered me! There was nothing I could do about that. What I hated was that afterwards I felt so … so… violated and he had hardly touched me. I feel – felt – like such a coward! Everyone was treating me like I was made of spun glass – so brave to be carrying on, so fragile that I’d crack if they said ‘boo’. Rape victims have to deal with so much. I honestly don’t know how they do it. And I didn’t have to! He didn’t rape me… but I felt like he did.” She hadn’t realised she was crying until he handed her one of the fine linen handkerchiefs he always carried. (He’d often said they made a better bandage than tissue and, in his line of work, frequently came in handy.)
She grabbed it and dabbed furiously at her leaky eyes. God, she must look like a raccoon again! She’d actually managed to put on some mascara and liner before joining the men for dinner. Now she wished she hadn’t bothered. She hated seeming anything other than coolly in control. Especially in front of this man.
“Angie, you have a right to feel violated. You were molested by a thug who used a knife on you, for Heaven’s sake. Dear God, I can never forget seeing that initial carved into your shoulder so how in hell do you imagine you could just shrug it off?” His voice was pitched low but the intensity was unmistakable.
She watched him carefully for any sign that he was trying to placate her but instinct told her otherwise.
“The carjacking – if that had been a stand alone incident I would tell you to get over it and move on. It was frightening and I hate like blazes that it happened to you but it was commercially motivated, not personally driven. But for him to come back and do what he did to you in Med Bay…. On Institute property…. We let you down, Angie. I let you down. And it was a very personal traumatic attack, physically and emotionally devastating. You wouldn’t be human if it didn’t affect you in a profound sense. I’m only sorry that I didn’t take better care of you – both then and afterwards. But you did too good a job concealing the after effects.”
“Not with everybody.” She couldn’t meet his gaze then.
“No.” He acknowledged, sighing. “But I do think Chip understands. He’s certainly been solidly in your corner – despite the fact that you dumped him.”
“I didn’t du…. OK, I probably did but I didn’t mean to hurt him.” Her chin quivered ominously and her eyes threatened to tear up again.
“Angie, you have got to know the man is head over heels in love with you.”
She blushed – endearingly, he thought. He hadn’t seen a woman’s cheeks turn quite that pink in a long time, had thought it was a lost art in this modern age.
“And Dr. Jamieson – I wasn’t very nice to him, dumping water all over him like that the other day.”
He was shaking his head. “Not just him, Angie. I think the only man you didn’t react badly to was me. Which was probably why I didn’t notice the problem earlier.”
After working with him for over seven years now she could read between the lines. “But once you did, you decided to do something about it. Which is why you sent Chip to pick me up, isn’t it?”
“Guilty as charged. I thought several hours alone together in a fairly confined space might force you both to bring things into the open. What I hadn’t counted on was outside interference and you having to endure injury and a night of hell. I hope you know I’m not that manipulative.”
She wasn’t about to enlighten him that, while it hadn’t been ‘easy’, lying beside Chip couldn’t exactly be described as ‘hell’!
“It’s all right, Admiral. And I think it’s going to be a lot better from here on too.”
“I still think you need to talk to someone. Professionally.”
“Not Dr. Jamieson! I just … couldn’t.”
“I understand that and I wasn’t going to suggest him. Although Jamie has a very good listening ear if you ever do need it. The person I have in mind trained as a psychologist but hasn’t practiced for many years. She has, however, kept her hand in and is both smart, knowledgeable, and a rock of sense. She listens to me bounce my theories off her every now and then and gives some very sound advice. Isn’t afraid to slap me down either when she thinks I need it! She’s also a big fan of yours and I believe you’d be comfortable talking to her.”
At Angie’s puzzled look he elaborated. “Nancy Fitzpatrick. She had a very lucrative practice at one time but when she married Con and had her daughter she gave it up to allow him to follow his dream. A very rare quality in a woman. But she still subscribes to all the journals and has taken numerous courses over the years as time allowed. I’ve tried to encourage her to go back to it since Con died but she says she’s too busy. She divides her time between visiting her daughter and grandchildren in Santa Barbara and volunteering at her pet charities on the east coast. But I know she likes you and I feel sure she’s someone you could talk this over with. I do think you need to talk about it.”
Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and squeezed the hand that still held hers. “I’ve quite recently come to the same conclusion. I just didn’t know to whom I should talk. I didn’t feel comfortable asking Dr. Jamieson for a recommendation but I think Mrs. Fitzpatrick would be perfect. She’s a lovely lady and I adore her acerbic sense of humour. She’s a real pistol.”
Nelson gave one of his patented harrumphs. “Oh, she’s a pistol, all right. Long as she’s not going off in your direction.”
The knock on her cabin door came as a surprise and she called out a hesitant “Who is it?” She’d already taken off the light makeup she’d applied earlier and changed for bed – and taken a caustic look at the seasick pills that had been left in a prominent position on the desk.
“It’s me.” Chip’s deep voice came clearly through the door. She tightened the belt of the full-length silky midnight blue robe she wore over matching pjs and unlocked the door. He just about filled the doorframe and she stepped back automatically – not out of fear but because she felt almost confined even though the cabin was reasonably spacious. He was still dressed in the khaki uniform he’d worn at dinner and carried a small tray in his left hand – awkwardly, as his right arm was strapped tightly across his broad chest. “Mind if I…” He nodded towards the desk and at her gesture he took the few steps needed to set the tray down. As she moved to close the door he stopped her with a shake of his head. “Protocol deems that I shouldn’t be in here with a lady without the door being open. The admiral thought some tea might help you settle and wanted to make sure you took the pills Jamie left.”
“Does everyone on the boat know that I get seasick?” Exasperation overrode nerves.
He tilted his blond head to one side and gave her question substantial consideration.
“No, I can categorically state that not all one hundred and twenty five men on Seaview know that Angie Newman gets seasick as soon as she steps on the boat – even when she’s in harbour. There are, of course, a select few. The admiral, Lee as captain, me as exec, Jamie as CMO, his corpsmen, Ski, Pat, Riley, the Chief….”
“OK, OK, I get it!” She threw up her hands and couldn’t help but grin at the blatant amusement that danced across his handsome features. She’d gotten away with it for seven years and assorted months, now it was time to concede defeat. “I guess it is pretty funny – the deputy director of NIMR can’t set foot on a boat without tossing her cookies.”
“Hey, don’t sell yourself short! You haven’t tossed them yet and you held up well in FS1.”
“You didn’t go under the water. Guess you’re not that brave.” She clapped her hand over her recalcitrant mouth, disbelieving that the flirting that had once come so naturally, but had been absent for several months, had chosen just now to show up again.
He didn’t seem to realise quite how momentous that was as he flashed her the trademark Morton grin that caused the entire steno pool to drool for days after the fact. “Darlin’, you have no idea how brave I could be where you’re concerned.”
Totally flustered she retreated to put the desk between them, fussing with the small tray of tea he’d brought.
Concerned that he’d pushed her too far too fast, Chip forced himself to take a step back. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, honey. I’m gonna leave now and let you get some sleep. If you need anything, my cabin is just across the way, two doors down, or you can pick up the phone and the duty officer will have someone with you in minutes. Did you take Jamie’s pills?”
“Can I trust them?” She shot back. She’d had first hand experience of Jamieson’s sneaky streak.
“If it was anybody else I’d question it but he knows you won’t take them if you’ve any hesitation that they aren’t what they purport to be, so I’d say they’re perfectly safe.” He didn’t mention – as she didn’t ask – that he knew for a fact that the tea he’d set on the desk was doctored. If Jamie was to be believed she’d have a good night’s sleep and never know he’d had hand, act or part in it.
“I’m wiped so I’m guessing you must be too. I just needed to know that you’re OK before I crashed.” He rounded the desk, blatantly invading her space, but she didn’t back away – which he took as a good sign. Running the backs of the fore and middle fingers of his left hand across the downy softness of her cheek, his gut clenched. He’d never wanted a woman as badly as he wanted her – on so many levels. Or been prepared to wait until the time was right for her to come to him. She was his. She just didn’t know it yet. And he was fine with giving her the time she needed to come to terms with it. That wasn’t to say that he wasn’t going to press his case at every opportunity now that she’d given him an opening of sorts. And his chat with Nelson had been quite revealing. He’d known the old man had set up the pick up in Savannah but had gotten more than he’d bargained for. Chip was beyond gratified at the level of trust extended to him. And wouldn’t do anything to invalidate it now.
“Drink your tea, honey. And go to bed. The same problems will, unfortunately, still be here in the morning but we’ll have clearer heads. And when this is over….”
Tugging her gently towards him, cupping the base of her skull in his large calloused hand and bringing her up onto her bare toes to align her to his much taller frame, he still had to bend his head to press a relatively chaste but distinctly possessive kiss on her soft blush pink cheek – with the promise of so much more. It thrilled her to the depths of her scared little soul. But when he dipped down to capture her lips she met him eagerly if hesitantly. He took what she shyly offered, no more and no less, then pulled back slowly, sipping gently at her lower lip for a moment before setting her back on her feet. He steadied her – well, he must have for her legs felt like jelly – then tapped her nose, winked, and left her reeling.
She plopped down into the desk chair, her head whirling. Deciding that sleep deprivation didn’t suit her and that if she wanted to be any way useful at the next day’s briefing then she needed some sleep to get her thoughts together, she downed the pills Jamieson had left on the desk – after inspecting them closely and determining from the markings that they were as described – and drunk the tea Chip had brought, more to alleviate the slight case of nerves that remained than because she actually wanted it. If anyone had told her in Savannah that she’d be spending tonight in a cabin aboard a submarine she’d have been calling for the men in white coats. For them.
About to crawl into the suddenly comfortable looking bunk that was all but calling her name, she realised that she hadn’t locked the door after Chip had left. Turning the lock she paused to reflect that she hadn’t once thought about the fact that she was spending the night on the boat as the only woman in the company of one hundred plus men. She’d been more concerned about her sea legs than the male contingent and realised belatedly that - subconsciously - she felt safe both on the boat and with these men. A delighted grin spread across her pretty face and she was almost giddy at the dawning revelation as she shed her robe and climbed into the bed – bunk. Maybe Nelson was a devious manipulator but he was also the best boss in the world. And she was lucky to work with the people he hand picked for both the Institute and Seaview.
So there had been a couple of bad apples over the years but it was a big barrel and when life threw you the curve ball you just dealt with it and moved on. She yawned as she wriggled into a comfortable position. Big talk, Newman! Now walk the walk.
Chip retired to his cabin, more tired than he’d been in a long time. Well, three weeks of enforced medical leave and a mother’s smothering care will do that to you. But he was also elated, he’d made more progress with Angie than he could have envisaged. He would take it as slow as she needed but he would regain control of their relationship, so slowly and sweetly that she wouldn’t even realise it. And if that made him a Neanderthal then they were both going to have to deal with that. He had no illusions but that Angie would give him a run for his money and he was thrilled to see the confident, take-charge, flirty, feminine woman she had been before the attack begin to re-emerge.
With a grimace he eased the sling over his head and dropped it onto his desk. Unbuttoning his shirt he pulled it from his pants and shrugged it off his good arm then eased it over the bulky bandage on his injured shoulder, undid the cuff and tossed it into the laundry hamper. Sinking gratefully into the leather swivel chair behind his desk, he booted up his various computer screens – three in all. Back in his comfort zone he hardly felt the ache in his right arm as he used that hand to type in his passwords and commands to bring up the programmes he wanted.
He studiously ignored the tiny cup of pills that held centre stage on the desk, right next to his primary screen where he couldn’t fail to miss them. Pulling up his e-mail programme he clicked into the In Box and quickly scanned the one hundred plus e-mails that had accumulated in the thirty-six hours he’d been away from his computers. Awkwardly working the mouse with his left hand and skimming the e-mails as quickly as he could, he almost missed the light tap on his door. Muttering under his breath, guessing who was on the other side of the door, he called out permission to enter.
“Saw your light under the door and guessed you were still up.” Lee didn’t wait for his exec’s OK, just plonked himself in one of the seats in front of the desk. “How’s the shoulder?”
Lee grinned; knowing if Chip was prepared to admit to ‘sore’, then the shoulder was beyond painful.
“Didn’t take Jamie’s pills though.” He nodded at the untouched pill cup.
“Not that sore.” His wince as he shifted belied the words and he was forced to admit, “Actually the ribs are worse. Why is it that when you bruise a single rib your entire body suffers the consequences?” He continued to scroll through his mails as he bantered.
“Can’t answer that one. Only know it usually hurts like hell so I’d take the pills if I were you.”
Morton snorted. “Yeah, right! You forget who you’re talking to, bro?”
“No. The same guy who thinks he’s invincible when he really needs to be in Sick Bay. I’m just overwhelmed with admiration that you got Jamie to release you to duty tomorrow. Need to borrow that trick.” He watched for Chip’s usual smirk at having outfoxed their CMO. And straightened in his seat as he saw every nerve in his friend’s body go on full alert. “What? What is it?”
Chip’s eyes scanned the message that had appeared on his screen and, without taking his eyes off it, intoned. “Come over here. You need to see this. Incoming message and I’m afraid to even scroll down in case it disappears.” *
Lee was around the desk in seconds and reading the message.
‘I do hope you enjoyed my little experiment. It did not work as well as it should however. Twice now you have gotten away lightly. Don’t you Americans have a saying that the third time is the charm?
PS – Did you know that you loosened two of my teeth? Payback is sweet.’
Lee took his cell phone from his pocket and snapped a shot of the screen. “Just in case it fades away once you’ve read it.”
Chip turned to one of the other computers and began to tap in commands one handed. “I’ll bet the arrogant bastard is full sure that we won’t be able to track it. Even if we do he’s likely to be long gone from wherever he is before we can get there. But he sent it in on my NIMR e-mail account and I have an automatic trace on all incoming mails. Should have a location … now. New York. He’s in NYC – Manhattan exchange, come on, come on. The New York Public Library. The Technology Training Centre. Goddamn it, he’s laughing at us.”
Lee was already dialling. “Admiral Todd, we’ve just received an e-mail communication from Nusair. Cmdr. Morton has traced it to the Tech Training Centre at NYC’s Public Library. Can you….? Thank you, sir. Yes, I realise he may not have sent it personally but it’s a lead and we need to follow up on it. Yes, sir, I do appreciate that. I’ll be in Washington tomorrow, probably early afternoon.” He paused and flicked a glance in Chip’s direction. “I think Admiral Nelson wants him on Seaview, sir. And our CMO has only cleared him for light duty. Yes, sir, I will pass on the message. Goodnight, sir.”
Chip was putting the internal phone down as Lee ended his call. “The admiral’s on his way. I thought he needed to be aware of this latest.” He stood and crossed to the small closet next to the head, pulled a fresh khaki shirt from a hanger and began to struggle into it. He didn’t mind being bare-chested in front of Lee but didn’t feel it appropriate in Nelson’s presence. Deciding it was too much trouble to try to get his injured arm into it, he awkwardly buttoned it leaving the right sleeve empty.
A quick rap at the door preceded Nelson’s entry. Chip’s tone had been indicative of bad tidings so he wasn’t surprised by the grim looks on their faces. “What’s going on?” He was unintentionally brusque but they were used to it and brought him up to date with a concise but thorough report. As was his wont, he shifted mental gears and cut to the quick.
“So Todd wants you in on the briefing tomorrow, Chip.”
“Just the briefing, sir. Lee told him that I’m needed on the boat and he was OK with that.”
At Nelson’s derisory snort, Lee felt obliged to interject. “What he actually said, when I told him that Chip was restricted to light duty, was that commanding Seaview was a much more onerous task than attending a briefing in the capitol.”
“Unfortunately we both know that it won’t end with just a briefing. He wants Chip on his team. And I can’t blame him. If I were in his shoes I’d want the best. But if Seaview has to go eventually after Nusair I want one of you in command. Todd knows I won’t release you both. He’s playing me.”
“Sir, if Nusair is targeting me personally then perhaps we’d all be better off if he thinks I’m away from Seaview and the Institute.”
Lee was already shaking his head before he’d finished. “He knows enough about me to know that I won’t let this go. I have no doubt that he’ll have found out I tracked him to Afghanistan and if, as we suspect, he has moles in place then he’ll know soon enough that I’m part of Todd’s team. He knows you throw a mean punch, Chip, and he’s not going to forget that easily. BUT he probably doesn’t know your expertise with computers. Not many people outside of the command floor at NIMR and a select few in various government agencies know quite how … adept … you are. The admiral’s right. We need you here.”
Morton sat back, deflated.
“Don’t look so glum, Chip. We’ll be working your tail off. Between commanding the boat and working on whatever intel Lee sends you I doubt you’ll have time to feel short-changed in the coming weeks.” Nelson’s tone was droll but the sentiment behind the words was very serious.
“We need to flush out Nusair’s moles. Lee, that has got to be a priority for Sam. He must put a task force together with the sole aim of pinpointing them. Our priority will be locating our spy or spies and that’s where you come in, Chip. There are a limited number we can trust both here and at the Institute. Angie will be working on the ground at base and trawling the personnel files. Patterson will assist her and act as bodyguard while Debbie will help with the groundwork. But none of them are trained agents so I’m going to have Sam station one of his people in Santa Barbara - undercover. Chip, I’m seconding Chief Sharkey to you.”
He could almost hear the exec’s groan and held up a conciliatory hand. “Francis knows the crew like the back of his hand, every man jack of her. If there’s anything he can’t ferret out then he’ll know someone who can. Lee, I want Kowalski to guard your back. Now, I know you think that’s not necessary but I beg to differ. Sam is going to have you so overworked that you won’t even think to watch your tail. Ski will have it covered. And it will greatly relieve all of us.” Chip’s emphatically vocal accord had Lee scowling but he eventually nodded agreement.
“Chip, can you forward that message to Sam’s inbox? I’m sure there’s nothing his people can find that you couldn’t, but better to hedge our bets and give them our intel upfront. We may need them to return the favour before this is over. I guess we’ve got no choice but to let you attend his briefing tomorrow but I’m going with you both - to ensure that he releases you once it’s done. You are on light duty as Lee informed him. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jamie insisted on accompanying us.” The look of sheer horror that pervaded his XO’s face was worth the cost he knew would be extracted – in invidious increments as the opportunities came the exec’s way.
The ringing of Lee’s cell phone interrupted his response. The conversation was quick and one sided.
“Nothing from the Library. Their network set up precluded Sam’s techs from narrowing it down to a single terminal and without that parameter none of the staff could limit it to anyone in particular using a specific machine during the time frame in question. They get a huge number of people in there throughout the day. No one stands out.”
Chip practically growled. “I’d spot you a twenty that I could narrow it down to one machine if I was there. Or tell you if he sent it remotely at a pre-destined time.”
“Well, you’re not there. And if we are going to Washington in the morning I want you fresh and able to disarm Jamie before he has a go at me for corrupting your healing process.” Nelson pointed a finger at Chip’s bunk and indicated to Lee that it was time to leave.
Morton couldn’t help it. “Thought you were the one with the four stars, sir.”
“You think? Bed. Now. Commander. That’s an order. You too, Lee. We need creative minds to find this guy and beat him at his own game. If I could only isolate the component that ….”
Lee grinned wryly at his friend as he held the door for the still muttering admiral. Both men knew Nelson was probably heading straight back to his lab. The man never could rest when a puzzle had him in its thrall.
Chip couldn’t sleep. He didn’t know whether the soreness in his arm and shoulder was the cause or the effect. He couldn’t find a comfortable position to allow him to fall asleep and all the twisting and turning during his attempts caused the shoulder to protest quite vehemently. Funny – he hadn’t had that problem the previous night. Maybe because he’d had something – or someone – to distract him. He snickered. Could just imagine the furore he would cause if he wandered across to Angie’s cabin and slid in beside her. He sighed, berating himself for the very thought. Now he had another ache to add to his list of woes. He checked the time on the digital clock on his desk. The numbers seemed to glow mockingly at him – 0245.
Of course, he knew what he should do. Which was, to call down to Sick Bay and have one of the corpsmen administer a painkiller. What he was going to do; was pop a couple or three of the ibuprofen in the cabinet in his small head. At least that was the plan until he discovered just how difficult it was to get the childproof top off with only one hand in commission. He cursed a blue streak – silently. He’d never been a huge fan of profanity but meeting Lee Crane, who hated it with a passion, had cured him of any slight tendency he’d been prone to - mostly. Oh, there was a time when nothing but a good cuss word worked – like now – but he had found that usually a mere lift of the eyebrow and a glacial stare did the trick. It wasn’t doing it now to the darn pill bottle. He eventually threw it into the sink in disgust.
OK, he had two choices. He could call or trot down to Sick Bay and request a couple of ibuprofen or he could suck it up and try to distract himself by doing some work. The former would require a question and answer session from whoever was on duty and probably result in something a lot heavier than ibuprofen. Which he did not want. So the latter looked like the way to go – Angie’s cabin being totally out of the equation.
He had just settled himself in his desk chair and booted up his screens when a light rap on the door interrupted him. At his disgruntled bark to enter, given the hour he was more than surprised to see Lee, clad in robe and pjs, come in with a loaded tray.
“Before you start, I come bearing gifts.” He set the tray on the desk and removed the cover from a plate of cookies, another bearing two slices of pie, a carafe, cream jug and two mugs.
“How did you know I was awake?”
“Heard you moving around.”
Now he made Chip feel guilty. “Sorry.”
Lee flashed a tired version of his mega-watt smile. “Wasn’t sleeping. Thought we could keep each other company and you can bring me up to date on what you’re doing on your magic machines.” Nodding at the computers Chip was idly tapping away at. “First off though, what were you doing in the head for so long? You OK?”
Chip explained about the ibuprofen. Lee stood immediately and retrieved them, popping the top effortlessly. He grinned at Chip’s instant scowl, understanding his frustration. They were brothers in all but name – scary sometimes. His grin changed to a frown as he watched his friend tap out three pills and swallow them dry. Taking any meant he was in pain; three meant it was pretty serious. He briefly thought about pulling rank and calling Sick Bay but reckoned, if he did, he’d be lucky to make it out of the cabin alive. And he knew enough to trust his friend with his own pain management.
So, he wouldn’t get a lot of sleep this night, but he’d manage. It wasn’t unusual in their line of work and, while he usually slept soundly on the boat, he always had an ear tuned for trouble. He knew Chip was the same. Nature of the beast.
He poured the coffee and, unusually for him, added cream to his – guilted by Jamie, most likely. Chip shook his head at the invitation and took his black, washing down the pills. He grunted in surprise at the first gulp. “Not Cookie’s, evidently.”
Lee snorted softly. “At this time of the morning? What do you think?”
“You made this? Shoulda guessed. You always did make lousy coffee.” He groused, even as he pulled one of the plates closer to him and snagged a piece of the cherry pie.
“Knock yourself out, Morton.” The insult harked back to their younger Annapolis days and Chip grinned openly, azure eyes sparkling as he tried for a snappy comeback. A soft tap at the door interrupted his thought processes and he raised an eyebrow at Lee, both of them mouthing silently ‘Nelson’.
The admiral pushed the door in and stuck his head around it as if unsure of his welcome. Spotting the two men obviously awake and with coffee he closed the door behind him and pulled up a chair. “Any chance you’ve got a spare mug around here, Chip?”
Delving into the depths of his bottom drawer, Seaview’s exec pulled out a mug still cocooned in bubble wrap. Ripping away the packaging awkwardly he plonked it almost defiantly in front of the senior officer. Grabbing the carafe he poured the coffee, murmuring under his breath. “It was a gag gift from my sister last Christmas.”
Nelson frowned, confused, until he lifted the mug to his lips and caught sight of the message hand painted on the ceramic.
‘Submariners do it underwater.’
He couldn’t quite repress the chuckle. “Little does she know. Chance would be a fine thing!”
Unwilling to go that route Chip asked, “Couldn’t you sleep either, sir? Or have you made a breakthrough in your research?”
At his words Lee turned to look at his CO and caught what Chip had obviously seen from the moment Nelson sat down.
“A bit of both, actually, Chip.” Nelson’s sapphire eyes gleamed with a mix of exhilaration and anticipation and both younger officers found themselves sitting forward in blatant expectation. “Something’s been nagging at me since this whole thing started and I know I’m that close but just can’t quite find the missing link. I’ve been concentrating on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ – but not the ‘who’.
My focus has been on finding out how he created the blocker and what triggers it. It’s phenomenal – and has the potential to wreak havoc on the developed world if we can’t find an answer as to how he does it – what components he uses and how he times the effects. We’ve already established that he has a number of moles in place and we need to flush them – but let’s do it quietly. Once we identify them we leave them in place and feed them whatever we want them to hear and pass on. That’s our priority. And we’ll dovetail with Todd and his boys and girls.
I’ve also been thinking about Nusair on a more personal level. Lee, working with Sam’s task force on locating him is not going to be easy. He’s a slippery sucker with an intellect that’s off the charts and a stalwart following. Probably here as well as in the Middle East. He’s not doing this alone. Besides his moles he must have a network of people taking care of the day-to-day stuff – living arrangements, cleaning, food, clothing, transportation and finances. Chip, go after the money. Find his cash source. Who knows what that will divulge?
Lee, you’ve been up close and personal with him so you know what you’re dealing with. Of all Sam’s people you’re the only one who can positively identify Nusair. He’s led the agencies quite a dance and I suspect that he has several ‘doubles’ popping up all over the middle east to confuse us and allow him to move around freely. You and Chip have both been close to him so while you’re working out of Washington, Chip’s going to be delving into any database you can lay access to. Nusair’s an arrogant bastard but he’s far from stupid. He’s most likely changed his appearance somewhat and for sure he’s using an alias. We need DHS (Dept. of Homeland Security) involvement on this. Have Sam get someone to run the tapes from every port of entry for the past month to six weeks. I’d do it myself but they’re a tight, suspicious bunch and I’d have to get clearance from the president. We don’t have the time for that. So let Sam take on ….” He saw Chip shaking his head and raised an eyebrow in query.
“I’d rather keep our suspicions between us for now, sir. The more people we involve the greater the chance of a leak.”
“I’m aware of that. But we don’t have a contact that can help us on this one without going through channels.”
“We don’t but I’m betting we know someone who does.”
“Well, spit it out, man.” Nelson wasn’t known for his patience.
“The conference Angie just attended – it was on immigration and port security measures, right? I’ll take a guess that she has the business card of every attendee and that she’s cultivated contacts from Immigration and Customs Enforcement right up to Homeland Security. A couple of phone calls and I’d think she could get your tapes. There’s a superb face recognition programme I know ICE have been developing that I could ha… access. If we narrow down the port of entry it might give us some idea of where he’s holed up.”
“But he’d have chosen a port that has less stringent entry procedures surely? And could have gone anywhere internally from there.” Lee hated to be a killjoy.
“True, but if we find him entering the country we can trawl that port’s digital footage and see who meets him, how he leaves the port and maybe follow the mule. Find out what he knows. It’s tenuous but it could spark something.” Chip argued his case stubbornly.
“I agree.” Nelson. “We follow up everything and anything. And, yes, Angie should run with this. Delays her return to the Institute but this takes priority. Talk to Debbie in the morning, Chip, and fill her in. She can make a start on pulling the personnel files. She’s a bright girl and I’ve thought about promoting her but I’m not sure she’d willingly leave you.” A twinkle appeared in his serious blue eyes at the flush that Chip’s fair skin couldn’t hide. Both Lee and Chip’s secretaries were devoted to their boss, intensely loyal and guarded them zealously. “We should bring Jason in on this too.” Lee’s assistant had only been with the Institute a little over a year but had established himself as an integral part of the team in that short space of time. His credentials were stellar – as Chip had both put him through the mill and every background check imaginable after the betrayal by Lee’s previous secretary. #
Nods of agreement came from both men and Chip keyed a notation into his computer.
Checking his watch, Nelson winced as he noted the time. If Jamie knew about this clandestine meeting he’d have a fit. Probably would anyway when he discovered that Chip was heading to Washington with them. “Gentlemen, why don’t we try to get some sleep for the couple of hours remaining. I appreciate that you’re probably too wired but at least try to get some rest. Chip, your shoulder is obviously bothering you. Do you need something for the pain?”
“Already took something, sir.” He held up the little bottle of pills, still uncapped.
Mistaking the reason, Nelson pressed, concern flooding him. General consensus held that he had a soft spot for Lee Crane. And truth to tell, he had a connection to the younger man that went back to their initial meeting at Annapolis as pupil and teacher. He’d seen a need in the fatherless teen that had called to him but Crane came as a twofer. He and his roommate were practically joined at the hip after their first term at the naval academy and he had come to appreciate the rare individual that was Chip Morton – to the extent that he had been his immediate choice for exec when building Seaview. He’d had cause to thank the deities for that decision more than once. And when Lee had taken over as Seaview’s captain the two had slid into a natural rhythm and were in perfect sync. If he thought of Lee as a favoured son, then Chip came a close second. “If you’re in pain, son, I can have doc prescribe something stronger.”
Chip shook his head but his indecision was evident as he paused before speaking. “Thank you, sir, but it’s not that. I think we’re making all the right noises and doing the right things – as far as it goes – in tracking down Nusair. But I can’t help feeling that it’s not going to be enough. This guy is sharp, too savvy not to have covered his bases with extreme care. He’s not going to fall into our laps and, with the moles we suspect he has in place, he’ll most likely know what we’re planning before we even set it in motion. ”
Lee saw where this was leading and jerked upright from the slouched position he’d tiredly allowed himself to adopt. Nelson held up a hand to forestall the protest he saw was imminent. “And your recommendation, Chip?”
“A trap. We set him up. Offer him something he can’t resist going after.”
“And that would be?”
“Third time’s the charm – that’s what he said. That was personal.” Chip was as impassioned as Nelson had ever seen him, his features animated and a ruddy hue tracking his high cheekbones.
“That’ll happen every time you knock someone’s teeth down their throat. Sorta makes it somewhat personal.” You could almost hear Crane’s teeth grinding out the words.
Morton chose to ignore him.
“He’s not backing off his original intent, Admiral. He’s plotting an all out strike. It’s going to be something major – something that he envisages will turn our world on its axis. I seem to have been unlucky enough to impact his radar and killing me is going to be just a small part of his ultimate goal. We know, for whatever madness is his current raison d’etre, that he intends to come after me again. Therefore we use that.
And we bait the trap accordingly.”
“With what?” Lee’s voice echoed harshly and his stomach clenched, knowing instinctively what was coming.
References to previous stories :
* Full Circle
*** No Easy Extraction
# The Puppet Master
While writing this story I re-discovered the rock band Journey and the mellifluous voice of their original lead singer, Steve Perry. I couldn’t help but make this Chip & Angie’s song. Check it out on U tube – the 1982 version.
Lying beside you, here in the dark
Feeling your heart beat with mine
Softly you whisper, you’re so sincere
How could our love be so blind
We sailed on together
We drifted apart
And here you are by my side
So now I come to you, with open arms
Nothing to hide, believe what I say
So here I am with open arms
Hoping youll see what your love means to me
Living without you, living alone
This empty house seems so cold
Wanting to hold you, wanting you near
How much I wanted you home
But now that you’ve come back
Turned night into day
I need you to stay.
So now I come to you, with open arms
Nothing to hide, believe what I say
So here I am with open arms
Hoping youll see what your love means to me