For disclaimers, please see Part 1 .
Note: Thanks for the feedback, everyone. It took a little longer to post this than I thought it would, because I went back and corrected a few things. Yes, I actually took many of your suggestions to heart. Thanks for your patience and happy reading!
At noon, Lacey finished up her daily rounds and decided to head to the mess for a quick bite. She had already taken a moment to check on Jimenez. His surgery had gone well and the bullet had been removed with little damage to the surrounding tissue. Thankfully, he was well on his way to a full recovery and would not be sent home—much to his relief. His leg was bandaged and he was already up and walking around on it. Lacey cautioned him to take it slow and easy, so he didn't do any further damage.
To her chagrin, he just smiled charmingly and kept right on going. He explained that he wanted to get back to his duties, as soon as possible. It didn't surprise Lacey in the least. Men could be such idiots when it came to stuff like that. Always showing off. Always trying to be the courageous soldiers they wanted everyone to think they were.
Lacey just shook her head, returned the smile and moved on to her next patient. The Corporal's surgery had also gone well. Unfortunately, after surgery, one of his doctors found an anomaly in his blood work that precipitated further testing. It turned out that Pitts suffered from a rare blood disorder that disqualified him from further service. He was being sent to one of the hospitals in Germany for more tests, and then he would be shipped home. Whether or not the Corporal was happy with the development, Lacey couldn't tell. His warm smile and words of thanks made her feel as if she had done her best for him, regardless.
Private Avery was looking much better than he had looked during their return flight, but he was still weak from blood loss. A few quick notations on his chart and then she let him know he had a one-way ticket home, with a quick stopover in Germany . He was definitely not happy with the news, but he graciously thanked her for everything she did for him.
Lacey's thoughts returned to Avery, as she made her way to the mess tent. He had begged her to keep him there until he was well enough to return to active duty. She, in turn, had told him that it would take some reconstructive surgery and months of physical therapy for him to regain the full use of his knee. Then she explained that his best chance for a full recovery would be to return to the States, where he would receive the best care possible. When he insisted she allow him to stay, she finally admitted that the decision was out of her hands.
After several more pleas, he reluctantly dropped the argument, although he was still not happy to be leaving his buddies behind. He told her how much he had grown, both physically and mentally, since he had joined the Army and how much he was going to miss life in the military. Lacey listened to him and explained that there was a whole world of opportunities available to him outside the military. She knew her words fell on deaf ears, though. So, she decided to just leave him alone to ponder his situation and come to grips with what would happen next.
Reaching the open flaps of the mess, Lacey walked inside and joined the chow line. The place was bustling with loud voices and people, most of which noticed her arrival and nodded or waved at her. She acknowledged them with brief nods and a few waves of her own, as the line moved at a steady pace. It wasn't long before she found herself selecting a few items for lunch – a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich with fries, a dish of fresh fruit and cottage cheese, and a side-salad with ranch dressing. She set a cup of iced tea on her tray then turned to survey the area, looking for a vacant seat. The place was packed, but she managed to find an open chair between a couple of young Privates from a unit she didn't immediately recognize.
“Mind if I sit here, Private?” Lacey asked a young soldier in his early twenties. He was clean-shaven, with a small thatch of blond hair on top of his otherwise bare head.
“No, ma'am,” the Private said, smiling up at her with hazel eyes. His buddies gave her a quick once-over and returned to their meals.
Lacey sat in their midst without feeling a bit self-conscious. She had been around soldiers long enough to know that most of them were mostly harmless and regarded her like a teacher or older sister, rather than as a rival for their affections. She ignored their jibes and elbow rubs, instead concentrating on the food before her.
“So, what unit are you boys from?” She said conversationally, after taking a bite of her grilled cheese.
“The 157 th Mechanized Infantry, ma'am,” the young Hispanic next to her answered politely.
She noticed that he bore a slight resemblance to Sgt. Jimenez, but had more angular features than her new crew chief.
“And what brings you here, of all places?” Lacey asked, taking another bite of her sandwich.
“We're visiting a couple of our buddies, before they're shipped Stateside, ma'am,” the blond-haired Private answered. “They were injured in a fire-fight while we were on patrol yesterday. Once we had the situation under control, they were airlifted back here.”
“Private Avery and Corporal Pitts?” She asked with a raised brow.
All eyes suddenly turned toward her. “Yes, ma'am,” another Private, this one with boyish features and dark brown eyes, said. “Do you know them, ma'am?”
Lacey smiled. “I do. I'm the flight surgeon who brought them in,” she finished with a proud smile. “We had some harrowing moments out there, before we got them back here. You gentlemen did a fine job protecting our six out there. My heartfelt appreciation.” She raised her sandwich in a feigned salute.
Everyone around her suddenly started talking all at once. “Are they okay?” “How are they doing?” “Can we see them?” “When are they shipping out?” “Are they being shipped Stateside?”
Lacey put up a staying hand. “Hang on, there, gentlemen,” she said with a warm smile. “One question at a time. Let's start with the private to my right, here.”
“How are they doing, ma'am?” The man asked hopefully. “Are they all right?”
“Both men are doing fine,” Lacey answered to a collective sigh of relief. “Private Avery will need more surgery when he's Stateside, but they both should make a full recovery in a few months. They'll probably receive commendations for their bravery, as well as honorable medical discharges.”
The faces around her were full of a mixture of relief and happiness at her news. Lacey was glad that she could bring joy to these men, if only for a little while before they returned to the field. Too often she had to deliver news that was just the opposite, telling the buddies of their fallen comrades that there was nothing she could do to save a soldier's life. Those moments really sucked and always weighed heavily on her conscience for days afterward.
“Well, ma'am,” one soldier said, as all of them got suddenly to their feet. “Please excuse us, but we have some friends to visit.”
The men all smiled, then each man offered his hand, in turn. Lacey shook their hands and returned their heartfelt smiles with one of her own. When it was finally the blond private's turn, rather than reach for her hand, he bent down to her and gave her a hug, instead. He then kissed her affectionately on the cheek and blushed to his roots.
“Thanks, ma'am,” he said with a huge grin. “Avery is my best friend. He's like a brother to me. We've been battle buddies since boot camp. I don't know what I would have done if…” The words died on his lips and Lacey saw unshed tears in his hazel eyes that he quickly blinked away.
“I'm just glad he's okay, Private,” Lacey answered with an understanding nod.
“If there's ever anything I can do for you, Captain,” the young Private continued. “Please don't hesitate to ask. I am forever in your debt, ma'am.”
He then turned to follow his fellow soldiers out of the mess tent, leaving Lacey to ponder his words. It wasn't often that she got to bask in the glow of her success. Usually, she was so busy with flights, surgeries, paperwork and rounds, that she had little time to herself. Keeping busy allowed her to stay focused, which also kept her from dwelling on the rocky path her life had taken.
Her thoughts turned to the nightmare she'd had the previous night. She tried to remember just how many nightmares she'd had over the last few months. The number didn't matter as much as the frequency and that was steadily on the rise. She briefly wondered if she should make an appointment to talk to the camp psychologist, then discarded that thought. She hated shrinks.
Only three months to go , she told herself resolutely. Three months and I can walk away from this fucking hell hole—return to a normal life . Normal life? She frowned, as she pondered that phrase. What the hell is normal? And why the hell would I want to go back to a worthless existence in a place I never wanted to be in the first place?
Lacey couldn't imagine returning to her former life in Houston . Because she was born into that life of privilege and expectation, she hadn't had a choice in how she was raised. But that didn't change the fact that she resented being one of “them.” If she returned to Houston , she would be expected to take over Daddy's practice – plastic surgery for the rich and famous. She would be forced to go back to a life that she had learned to loathe—dinners at the Club, golf on Wednesdays, charity benefits and fundraisers, movie premieres, the opera, box seats at the symphony and…Plastic Paul. Just the thought of him made her shudder.
Ah, yes. Charming, handsome, Plastic Paul, with his black convertible BMW and his Ivey League education. He had a perfect smile to match his well-tanned complexion, perfect manners to hide the pretentiousness behind his cold exterior and a perfect career as an attorney in his father's law firm. His hair was never out of place and wrinkles had no place on his designer clothes. When Lacey thought of him, she felt nothing but loathing for the man.
She had started silently calling him “Plastic Paul” on their third date, when his pasted-on smile never wavered. He took her to a pricey steak house and his food was so overcooked that his steak was nothing more than a shriveled piece of shoe leather. Lacey couldn't help but smile inwardly as he politely explained to their waiter that he just couldn't tolerate such poor fare.
Even after the man offered to bring Paul another steak, the man merely shook his head and silently dismissed the waiter. He then regaled her with dry stories of his legal exploits for the better part of her meal, which only turned her off her own food and made her want to run from the restaurant in a fit of hysterics.
Her father had insisted that she continue dating the man, even after she confided in him that she had absolutely no desire to see Paul again. She hadn't felt a thing for him and really didn't want to date anyone. She even went so far as to put her foot down about it. But her father didn't listen to a word she said. Never had.
Her father. The man who spent his early years building a life out of nothing but the sweat of his brow. Right. The man loved to hear himself speak and always regaled his fellow socialites with stories of his hard work and dedication at every opportunity. He insisted that Lacey go to one of the finest medical schools in the country, even though she really just wanted to get away from home.
So, she went to Harvard and graduated somewhere near the top of her class. Daddy was reluctantly proud of her on graduation day. Unfortunately, his pride was short-lived. Using his extensive clout in the medical field, he pulled some strings and got her into one of the best hospitals in the country, where she was to serve her residency.
During college, though, she'd done something that neither of her parents could have foreseen. And it had nothing to do with her preference in sexual partners. She managed to keep a tight lid on her experimental sexual exploits, preferring women over men. When her parents learned that she was dating women, they were quite adamant that she cease and desist. But that wasn't what had surprised them the most. No. What surprised them was even more of a betrayal than her seemingly out-of-control love life.
The one thing that sent her father into an apoplectic fit was the one thing she decided to pursue with a passion. She joined the Army ROTC. Seeing them in their fatigues, marching in perfect ranks across the campus grounds hadn't interested her, not at first. She hadn't really taken notice, until one of her classmates had arrived in class, dressed in fatigues. The sight of the woman in BDUs intrigued Lacey. She was also impressed at the confidence the woman exuded. It was as if the uniform itself elevated the woman into something more.
During their brief conversation, the woman expounded on the benefits of being in the ROTC. It didn't take long for her to invite Lacey to one of their Saturday training sessions. Lacey agreed to show up and attended the session the very next Saturday.
She loved it. Following orders fit into her ideal at the time. But she also knew her father would blow a gasket when he found out what she was doing. It wasn't just rebellion that drove her, however, but a wish to do more than just the normal college thing. She wanted to belong to something important and felt she was part of something greater than herself. She wasn't just some rich kid with a silver spoon stuck in her mouth. She belonged.
Not long after graduation, she signed her name on the dotted line, so to speak, and became an active member of the United States Army. At that point there was no turning back. Not even her father could use his extensive influence to weasel her out of her commitment.
When it came time to tell her father, however, she wasn't quite prepared for his reaction. It was the hardest day of her life and one that still haunted her. The look in her father's eyes when she told him she turned down the residency and joined the Army, was a look that would haunt her for years to come.
Disappointment would have been easier to deal with. Anger she could have faced. No, it was as if she had suddenly become invisible to him, like he was looking right through her. That was the last time she had spoken to him and he to her. It was also the last time she'd seen her parents, because the very next day she was on a plane to Army Officer Candidate School .
After packing a few things from her room and saying a quick goodbye to her sister, Lacey had taken a cab to the nearest MEPs station and boarded a flight to the East Coast. Two months later, she was working as a resident in a VA hospital, in Virginia , with her captain's bars proudly displayed on her uniform collar.
Lacey's thoughts returned to the present and she wondered what would eventually become of her. Where would she go? What would she do when she was finally released from her obligation to the Army? She could open her own practice somewhere, she knew. But where? She certainly didn't want to go back to Houston , even though she knew her sister would welcome her with open arms.
Lily. Her only sibling. She'd been the only person in Lacey's family to keep in touch with her after she left. They had exchanged emails regularly for several years. Lily would tell her about the goings-on there in Houston – who was dating or marrying whom, which operas were playing, what political maneuverings were taking place and how they affected everyone in their social circle. Lily never mentioned their parents or what had happened on that fateful day when she'd left home.
Lacey, in turn, told her sister all the things she was doing. She wrote about her days in OCS, when she learned all aspects of being a commanding officer in the Army. She shared her secret misgivings over using a weapon and explained that all she wanted to do was heal, not kill. After OCS, she wrote about her time in Virginia and the long hours she spent at the hospital. She even mentioned her brief relationship with Kevin and the friendship they shared afterward. She loved being part of something greater than herself and didn't mind working two or three shifts at a time. But she also didn't know if the Army was right for her.
Then, the second war with Iraq began, and Lily wrote that she was getting married. Lacey wrote back that she had signed on to go to Iraq as a flight surgeon. It was the last time they had communicated. Lacey shipped out less than a week later. She wanted to email Lily on several occasions, but each time something came up to distract her.
Lacey looked down at her barely-touched meal and pushed it away. Thoughts of her sister drove her appetite away and made her stomach churn. Despite everything that had happened between her and her father, she missed her sister dearly and knew that somehow he was the one responsible for her sister's sudden silence.
“Hey, there,” a voice surprised her. She looked up to find Mac standing across the table from her with a hesitant smile. “Mind if I join you?”
Mac sat down across from Lacey without waiting for a reply. She eyed the doctor's nearly-full tray and one dark eyebrow quirked.
“Is something wrong with the food here?” Mac asked. “I know it ain't the Ritz, but I hear it's not the worst the Army has to offer.”
Lacey glanced at the tray and pulled it back toward her. She took several bites of her salad, not really tasting it, as she chewed mechanically.
“Satisfied?” She said as she swallowed.
Mac was just about to take a bite of her Rueben sandwich, which was overflowing with pastrami, kraut and sauce, but stopped in mid-bite to look at the woman across from her.
“Yeah, I suppose,” she said, taking a rather big bite and chewing with relish. “Mmmm.” Some sauce dripped unheeded down her chin.
Lacey glanced at the pilot and rolled her eyes. She was suddenly glad for the distraction and her appetite returned with gusto.
“So, why aren't you flying that bird of yours?” Lacey asked after finishing her salad and starting on her fruit and fries. “I hear she was cleared for duty.”
Mac swallowed. “Argo's grounded for the rest of the weekend,” she answered with disappointment, using her napkin to wipe the sauce from her chin before it dripped onto her uniform. “Tiny won't sign off on her until he has every hole patched to his satisfaction.”
“Oh, sorry to hear that,” Lacey smirked. “Tiny's thorough. I'll give him that. He's very good at what he does, but I hear he can go overboard sometimes.”
“Doesn't bother me, just as long as he gets her flight-worthy come Monday morning,” Mac said. “Anyway, I still don't have a crew chief, so I'm grounded, regardless.”
“Does the colonel have someone in mind?”
“He says he will by Monday morning,” Mac answered. “By the way, how are those guys we brought in?”
“Avery and Pitts are being transferred this afternoon,” Lacey answered. “They were both doing fine when I checked on them this morning.”
“That's good to hear,” Mac said. “How about Jimenez?”
“He's already up and around,” Lacey said. “I think he's giving the nurses a run for their money.”
“Sounds like Jimenez,” Mac smiled. “He loves being BMOC when he gets the chance.”
“Speaking of our crew, you haven't seen any sign of Simmons lately, have you?” Lacey asked. “I haven't seen her since we landed yesterday.”
“The colonel gave her a few days R&R,” Mac answered. “He thought she needed it after what she went through. I heard she had to shoot someone.” She paused to consider her next words. “The funny thing is she never carries a weapon, so I don't know where she got the pistol. You don't know anything about that, do you?” Mac looked pointedly at the doctor.
In all the excitement, Lacey completely forgot about the previous day's events. She suddenly felt terrible for what the young woman had gone through. It hadn't been her intention to put the Private in harm's way, but giving Simmons the pistol seemed like her only option at the time.
“Yeah,” she answered flatly. “I gave her my sidearm and ordered her to use it to protect our patient. She was just following orders.”
Mac considered Lacey's answer for a second. “Why did you give her your weapon?”
Lacey's eyes met Mac's and there was a hint of accusation in the pilot's baby-blues.
“In case you hadn't noticed, Chief,” Lacey answered, suddenly finding herself on the defensive. “We were under attack out there. They all had weapons and not all of them were on our side. It wasn't a peace-keeping mission or a backyard barbeque, Papadopoulos. The other guys don't exactly give a shit if you're armed or not. They will kill you, regardless.”
Silence stretched between them, as they each seethed in their own way. Mac wanted to apologize for her accusation, but decided against it. The doctor was right, of course, but Mac's pride wouldn't allow her to back down. Then again, she knew there was more to the doctor's outburst than met the eye. It didn't bode well that the woman seemed to be teetering on the edge.
Mac had seen it before. Not everyone could cope with the everyday brutality of war or its constant stresses. The harsh reality could test even the hardest soul. She'd known more than one soldier who cracked under the strain. If the doctor was buckling under the pressure, Mac hoped it didn't happen at some crucial moment, when they were all counting on her to tow the line.
“Hm,” Mac uttered. “I also heard a rumor that you had a little excitement yourself. Wanna talk about that? It might help to get it off your chest. Maybe improve your attitude a bit.” She looked pointedly at the doctor's bruised left cheek and eye, then her eyes tracked down to the Lacey's open collar and she noticed the purpling around the woman's neck.
Lacey didn't immediately respond. She was trying to just put the whole damned episode out of her mind. Unfortunately, hand-to-hand combat was not something she had been particularly prepared for, much less able to handle psychologically. The man's face haunted her, and she still couldn't shake her near-death experience. Not to mention the fact that she'd been in her own life-and-death struggle, where her only option was to kill or be killed. Her hand went unconsciously to her throat and she felt the residual soreness there.
Lacey shrugged. “It was a little scuffle, that's all.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Mac deadpanned. “Nice cut on your cheek, by the way. That bruise on your head and those hand prints on your neck look painful. Hurt much?”
Lacey reached up and touched the scabbed-over cut and grimaced. She hadn't done more than clean the cuts when she'd returned. They were annoying reminders of her inadequacies as a soldier, which didn't help her battered psyche any.
“I totally forgot about those,” she said absently. “Dr. Michaels wanted to admit me for observation last night, but I told him to buzz off. I don't think he was none too happy about that, especially since he outranks me.” Lacey smiled, but the smile didn't reach her tired eyes. “What about you?” She shot back, eyeing Mac's shiner.
Mac shrugged, “I'll heal. Makes me look tough.”
“Tough, eh?” Lacey returned with a smirk. “I heard you got decked by a PMSing captain having one hell of a nightmare.”
Mac smiled in response to the teasing. “Yeah? Where'd you hear that nasty rumor?”
“Oh, it's a small base, Mac,” Lacey continued. “And the grapevine is alive and kicking.”
“Hm,” was the grunted response as the pilot continued to eat her sandwich.
Between bites Mac studied the woman across from her. She could tell there was more to Lacey's story than she was letting on. There was a haunted look in the wary green eyes that wasn't there before. Mac also noticed dark circles beneath those eyes and wondered just how much sleep the woman was getting.
“Are you okay, Doc?” Mac lowered her tone so only Lacey could hear her.
She reached over and was about to brush a stray lock of hair from Lacey's forehead, but caught herself before she actually touched the woman. She distinctly remembered their earlier contact and how it had left her feeling…bereft. She hid her intent by grabbing her iced tea, instead.
There it was again, that feeling of protectiveness that came over her whenever she was around the doctor. What the hell was it that kept driving her to want to hug the woman and hold her until everything was okay again?
Lacey was a bit surprised by Mac's awkward maneuver. She really thought the woman was about to touch her and then thought better of it. Lacey hid her disappointment behind her customary mask of indifference, but deep-down she ached for Mac's touch. The ache was so strong, in fact, that Lacey was hard-pressed to keep the hurt from showing.
“I'm fine,” Lacey finally answered, then noticed Mac's unease. “Are you okay? You look like you just swallowed a lemon or worse.”
“Perfect,” Mac grimaced. “Just some nasty tea they're serving today.” Mac hid her discomfort behind her own mask. She didn't want the doctor to think there was anything strange going on, when she knew perfectly well what she was really feeling.
Lacey knew differently, but decided to let the matter drop without further comment. She couldn't remember the last time someone cared enough to comfort her, much less touch her. She was always the one to give comfort. She was the one who took care of everyone else.
As a matter of fact, she spent so much time taking care of others – her patients and those under her command – that she didn't remember the last time she'd taken her own advice. Physician, heal thyself. The words echoed in her mind with ironic clarity.
“So.” Mac said, breaking the awkward silence.
“So?” Lacey returned, looking up and finding compassionate blue eyes gazing back at her. That compassion was almost her undoing. “I'm not sure what else there is to say, Mac.”
“What happened out there, Captain?” Mac asked in a tone that mirrored the concern in her eyes. “Why do you look like you got in a fight with a rabid bulldog?”
Mac watched Lacey closely and saw a myriad of expressions – from confusion to hurt to guarded – cross the doctor's features. She waited patiently for the woman to answer and was about to speak again, when Lacey finally spoke, instead.
“Sorry,” Lacey shook herself, then shrugged. “I just got into a little scuffle with an enemy soldier.”
“Really,” Mac smiled. “Did you kick his sorry ass?”
Lacey couldn't help the wistful smile that touched her lips. “Yeah, I did—a little. He pinned me and tried to choke me to death, when Corporal Pitts hit him over the head with the butt of an M-16.”
“Was he still alive when you left him?” Mac prodded quietly and in all seriousness.
“Yeah,” Lacey sighed. “He was unconscious. I'm sure he woke up with one hell of a headache and a story about how some eight-foot giant took him down in the heat of battle.”
Both women snickered.
“I'm sure he did,” Mac said with a smile. “What about you?”
“What about me?” Lacey returned flatly. She didn't look into the blue eyes she knew were watching her, for fear she would drown in their caring depths. She couldn't afford to break down and give in to the longing she felt. That territory was just too precarious to explore.
“Come on, Doc,” Mac prodded on a frustrated sigh. “Stop it with the cat and mouse. I'm concerned, all right? Can't you just answer the damned question, without putting on this...this tough-as-nails facade? God, you're worse than most of the guys around here. I swear.”
With that, Mac got up, grabbed her tray and stormed away, leaving Lacey in stunned silence. What the hell did she do to deserve that? Lacey thought. Then it suddenly hit her that she didn't want to leave things as they were.
Grabbing her own tray, Lacey rushed after the pilot. She deposited the tray in the bus tub and raced outside, spotting Mac's retreating figure several yards away. The pilot's long strides were quickly putting distance between them and the distance was like a void to Lacey's already battered heart. She realized, in that moment, that she valued the pilot's friendship, no matter that they had only known each other for a brief time.
“Mac, wait!” Lacey shouted.
Mac was steamed, but couldn't for the life of her pinpoint exactly why. She knew her emotions were getting the better of her, but she also knew she needed to distance herself from the doctor. She was too involved already and knew it wasn't a wise move on her part. She was in the military, after all. That, in and of itself, was reason enough to leave well enough alone.
She heard her name called behind her and knew exactly who it was. She didn't stop or slow her pace. She just kept right on going, her long strides taking her toward the only haven she knew – Argo – her trusty helicopter.
Lacey caught up to the pilot just as they were passing the last tent of the officer's quarters. She could feel the sweat running in tiny rivulets down her back from the effort it took to catch up to the taller woman. She guessed that the temperature was close to 120 degrees in the shade. Not a really good time to be out running full-tilt in the heat of the day.
“Wait up, will ya?” Lacey said breathlessly. “Some of us have short legs, here.”
Mac stopped and turned to confront the shorter woman. She crossed her arms over her chest, quirked a dark brow and merely stood there, waiting. The look of irritation in her eyes and her defensive posture spoke volumes—volumes that Lacey summarily dismissed.
“Look, I'm sorry,” Lacey bent forward and rested her hands on her knees to catch her breath. “I'm just not used to…” She took several deep breaths and let them out slowly. After a moment, she finally straightened and met the other woman's gaze. “I'm not used to people caring about me. Understand?” she looked away, unable to hold the pilot's gaze for long. She kicked at a rock and sent it skittering across the ground. “I'm the one who takes care of people. It's my job. It's what I do. It's…”
“Apology accepted,” Mac said shortly, turning on her heel and resuming her march toward the flight line.
“No, I really mean it,” Lacey chased after the elusive woman, her short strides barely keeping pace with the pilot's longer ones. “Would you slow down, please?” It was her turn to be irritated. “This heat is killing me, dammit!”
Mac stopped and put her hands on her hips. “You know something, Doc? There aren't many people in this world that I take the time to care about. As a matter of fact, I can probably count on one hand the number of people who really matter to me.” She looked off into the distance, trying to keep some sense of focus, as she gathered her thoughts for her next words. She then turned to face the smaller woman. “I don't know what it is or why, but for some odd reason you seem to be one of those people.” Mac held up a staying hand as Lacey was about to interrupt. “No, I know that we've only known each other for a couple of days, but the simple fact of the matter is I do care. I know it's weird and all, but – and I know this is going to sound strange – but…” She looked away and back again. “Well, I feel like I know you. It's like we've been friends all our lives. I'm sorry if it makes you uncomfortable or creeps you out. You've no idea how uncomfortable it makes me. I just...I can't help it. It's there and I can't seem to shake it.” She turned suddenly and was striding off again before Lacey could reply.
This time Lacey did not follow. She merely stood there with her mouth slightly agape, staring after the woman who had basically just put her in her place. She just didn't know what to do or say to counter the woman's heartfelt words.
Lacey continued to stand there, when she realized someone was approaching from another direction. She turned to find Sgt. Gonzales next her. She turned to glare at him.
“Ma'am,” Gonzales greeted her. “Colonel Farrell wants to see you, A-SAP.”
Lacey's back suddenly straightened and her mind instantly snapped back into professional mode. Thoughts of Mac and their recent conversation slid from her mind, as she contemplated the reasons for her summons.
“Is he in a good mood, Sergeant?” Lacey asked as she gathered up her resolve, before turning to walk next to the Colonel's assistant.
“Not sure, ma'am,” Gonzales answered. “He was on the phone to General Fisher just before he ordered me to come find you.”
“Uh, oh,” Lacey winced and then added, “Not Iron-fist Fisher. Shit!”
“Ma'am?” Gonzales couldn't keep the surprise from his tone.
“If I come out of this with my ass intact, Sergeant,” Lacey said in all seriousness, “I'll buy the first round.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly in an effort to still her racing heart. “Understand, however, that I may not come out of this at all. I seriously sense a court martial on the horizon.” She caught the wry smirk he shot her. “Yeah, I wasn't kidding, Gonzales.” She groused.
His brow quirked. “Seriously, ma'am?”
“I screwed up. What more can I say?” Lacey shrugged and stared off into the distance. “I guess I might as well face the colonel and get this over with. It was nice working with you, Sergeant.”
“Yes, ma'am,” he said, as they both headed toward the Colonel's tent, the Captain matching him, stride-for-stride.
They approached a non-descript temporary building and Gonzales held the door for her.
“Good luck, ma'am,” he winked at her, as she ducked inside. “You'll be fine. Just remember, he likes you.”
Lacey nodded, then approached the desk of Lieutenant Dix, removing her hat and sliding it under her arm. She waited for the clerk to acknowledge her presence. There were enormous stacks of file folders on the woman's desk and she was furiously scribbling on some paperwork in front of her. It was a few moments before Dix looked up.
“What can I do for you, Captain?” Dix said, summarily returning her attention to her work.
“I'm here to see the Colonel, as ordered, Lieutenant,” Lacey answered.
Dix pressed a button on the phone hiding behind one of the piles, “Captain Stephens here to see you, sir.”
“Send her in, Lieutenant,” was the crisp reply.
“Go on in, Captain,” Dix answered without looking up again.
Lacey leaned down and whispered conspiratorially, “As I told Gonzales, if I come out of there with my ass in one piece, the first round's on me tonight.”
Dix looked up and smiled brightly. The smile transformed her usually serious countenance and then was gone in an instant. The dour clerk gave Lacey a look that spoke louder than words.
“I wouldn't count on it, Captain,” Dix said in a hushed tone. “He's in a pisser of a mood. Something about an incident that occurred in Baghdad recently.”
Lacey frowned. “Yeah.”
“Go right in, Captain Stephens,” Dix said in a voice loud enough for the Colonel to hear her. “The Colonel will see you now.”
Dix looked worried, which was very out-of-character for the otherwise dour company clerk. Lacey merely squared her shoulders and charged towards the fate that awaited her.
“You wanted to see me, Colonel?” Lacey said, closing the door, walking up to his desk and standing at stiff attention.
He didn't look up and Lacey took it as a really bad sign.
“Where have you been, Captain?” Farrell barked. “I sent Sgt. Gonzalez to find you over an hour ago.”
Lacey knew she was in for a butt-chewing or worse. Farrell wasn't one to pass up on the opportunity to share in small talk, unless he was in a mood. He was definitely in a mood.
“I was in the mess, sir,” Lacey answered, noting the barely-controlled tone of his voice. “Just getting acquainted with my new pilot, sir.”
“Never mind, Captain,” he snapped, barely glancing up from the papers he was signing. “Do you know who I just got off the phone with?”
“No, sir,” Lacey lied.
She was still standing at attention and sensed the storm clouds brewing. She wasn't quite prepared when said storm finally hit, though.
“Well, Captain Stephens,” Farrell said, folding his hands on his desk and looking at her with an unreadable expression. “I just spoke with General Fisher. He told me you refused to follow a direct order concerning the wearing of the traditional Arab garb and that you yelled at an Iraqi doctor in charge of the hospital there.” His lips seemed to grow thinner with each word. “Now, I told him that there had to be some mistake, as I know you would never knowingly disobey a direct order, Captain.” He rose from his chair and moved around the desk, much like a predator stalking its prey. “Please, tell me you did not do either of those, Captain. Because, if you did, I am now a liar, as well as a very poor judge of character.”
Lacey considered her answer carefully, knowing that what she said next would determine just how much of a butt-chewing she was going to receive. Or if she would actually be in for the dreaded court martial she had mentioned to Gonzales.
“Yes, sir, I did,” she blurted.
That did it. “You WHAT ?!?” He shouted so loud that she could have sworn the walls actually shook. “Do you have the slightest idea what our main objective is here, Captain?!? Do you know why our people are out there getting their asses shot off, not to mention dying in the service of their country?!? DO YOU , Captain?”
There was a vein popping out on his forehead and his face had turned bright red. Definitely not a good sign, Lacey realized. She'd never seen him that irate before and felt her stomach drop.
“Yes, sir,” she answered evenly. “I am well aware of our objective, sir.”
He turned away and returned to stand behind his desk. Then, mustering some semblance of patience, he leaned forward, his closed fists supporting him on the desktop.
“Then, tell me, Captain Stephens,” his voice was suddenly low and menacing. “Why did my best officer just disobey a direct order and risk court martial for her inability to keep her mouth SHUT? And why did I have to lie to a four-star general about it? What the HELL possessed you to disregard your training and confront that man, Captain? Hmm ?!? Are you insane? Or are you just plain STUPID ?”
Lacey kept her eyes straight ahead and her body ramrod straight. “I'm sorry, sir. I was tired and frustrated by their lack of proper...”
“I do NOT want your apology, Captain Stephens! Nor do I wish to hear any of your lame excuses!” He barked, coming around the desk again and putting his face just inches from hers. “I don't give a rat's ass what the circumstances were! You were ordered to wear the proper attire when not in the operating room, and you CHOSE to disobey that order! Your thoughts and feelings on the matter are irrelevant. And I don't care what conditions you were working in. You could have been in a fucking fox hole, patching up a stray fucking dog and it wouldn't matter! The fact remains, you did NOT FOLLOW ORDERS! Now I have the damned general on my ass telling me he wants me to issue a formal apology— ASAP! Since Ahmad has requested that he never be subjected to your presence—properly attired or otherwise—again, I will have to deliver the apology myself, in person. I DO NOT appreciate having to make a trip into Baghdad just to apologize for something YOU DID.” He jabbed a finger in her chest to emphasize his point. “ DO I MAKE MYSELF CLEAR, CAPTAIN STEPHENS?”
“Sir! Yes, sir!” Lacey snapped. “It won't happen again, sir. I assure you,” she added in a hushed tone.
“You bet your ass it won't, Captain Stephens,” he said between gritted teeth. He returned to stand behind his desk and took a moment to calm himself. “You are hereby docked three days pay and ordered to take a mandatory leave in order to get your head together. You will return to duty no earlier than 0800 Monday morning.” His voice grew steadily quieter with each word, until he was speaking in normal tones again. “Do I make myself clear, Captain?” He watched her nod, then sat down in his chair and tiredly swiped both hands down his face. “Dismissed.”
“Sir! Yes, sir!” She snapped again, turning on her heel and striding from the office.
When she reached the outer office, Lacey relaxed noticeably and made a point of checking her rear end.
“Still there, Captain,” Dix commented with a wry smirk.
“Yeah,” Lacey sighed in relief. “Barely. Guess I should count myself lucky to have any left after that tirade.”
“Didn't sound as bad as I thought it would,” Dix continued. “Especially after all the ass-kissing he did on the phone to General Fisher, earlier. He must really like you, ma'am.” She winked. “See you at the OC, later? I'm looking forward to that drink, ma'am.”
“Yeah, I'll be there,” Lacey answered, putting on her hat and sunglasses, before striding out into the blistering heat.
She stood just outside the tent for a moment, her face upturned to the blue sky, and her mind replaying the scene with the colonel. She'd never seen him go off like that, especially with her. It wasn't an experience she wanted to repeat anytime soon, that was for sure.
Collecting her thoughts, Lacey strode toward the hospital, then suddenly remembered that she'd been ordered to take time off. It was definitely not the time to disobey another order, she realized, as she changed direction toward the Officer's Club. She checked her watch—1500 hours. There was definitely time to kill—perish the thought—before the rest of her comrades finished their shifts.
Four hours later, Lacey was on her sixth or seventh beer—she couldn't remember which, since she'd pretty much lost count after the third. She had already bought the first and second round of drinks for her comrades, as promised. She was doing her best to drown out the events of the last few days and, to some extent, her plan was working.
The place was loud and crowded, with an old Boston tune playing in the background and more than two dozen voices all vying to be heard above the din. Lacey watched the people around her through bleary green eyes as she nursed her beer. Life was good, just as long as the beer kept coming. She briefly wondered how they got beer into the country, what with the strict ban on alcohol, then shoved the thought away. She didn't really care and didn't want to think about anything to do with military protocol or relations with the natives. Soldiers weren't supposed to think. They were just supposed to follow orders.
Lacey glanced around and noticed Dix flirting with several guys. She could never picture the stoic company clerk doing anything other than sitting behind that enormous stack of paperwork and scowling at everyone who invaded her office. Now she was smiling and laughing like a giddy school girl.
Lacey then noticed her good friend, Kevin, dancing with one of the nurses. She smiled to herself when she realized some things never changed where he was concerned. He was and always would be nothing but a charmer. She watched him for a moment and was content to just be his friend and nothing more.
Suddenly, as if her mind conjured him, he was standing in front of her with his hand held out. “Care to dance, Captain?”
Lacey drunkenly eyed his extended hand with suspicion. “Not this time, Major,” she answered, awkwardly saluting him with her beer and finishing it with gusto. “I'm working on… hiccup …a satisfying buzz. Don't think I could… dance right now.”
Lacey's attention was instantly diverted, as a figure entered through the door behind Kevin. She watched in bleary-eyed fascination as the tall, dark-haired pilot surveyed her surroundings before anyone else noticed she was there. Kevin shrugged and disappeared back into the crowd of dancers, leaving Lacey to continue watching Mac as she walked past her on her way to the bar.
Mac gingerly elbowed her way through the crowd, trying not to run over anyone or knock any of the obviously inebriated people down who crossed her path. It was more crowded than usual, or at least more crowded than she'd seen it in the last few days. Apparently, Friday nights were a time to celebrate life. Go figure.
“Give me whatever you have,” she nodded to the bartender who smiled in return.
She found a vacant spot at the bar and edged her way between two burly Lieutenants. When the bartender, who looked vaguely familiar, pushed a non-descript beer in front of her, she nodded. Mac sipped the beer and turned to survey the room. Laughter in one corner caught her attention and the crowd parted just enough for her to catch a glimpse of blond hair and familiar features.
Lacey was surrounded by a group of soldiers, both male and female. On the table in front of her were about twenty half-empty and mostly-empty bottles. There were some dollar bills in the center of the table and peanut shells littered both the table and floor around her.
“Hey, Mac,” Simmons came up next to her with a lazy smile. “How are the repairs to Argo coming along?”
Mac pulled her attention from the blond she was watching and focused on the woman next to her. Simmons was dressed in only a tank top and shorts, which meant she was still enjoying her R&R.
“Good,” Mac answered, taking another sip of her beer and surveying the rest of the room. “I think she'll be good to go by Monday.”
“That's fantastic,” Simmons answered. “Hey, you doing anything later? The guys are going over to the showers to break in some newbies. We could always use an extra pair of hands, especially with your muscles.”
The crowd parted again and Mac caught a glimpse of Lacey, who was laughing hysterically at something someone was saying. The blond was drinking and, from what Mac could see, it wasn't the first or second she'd had that night.
“Would you excuse me, Private?” Mac was distracted, as she walked toward the group surrounding the obviously inebriated doctor.
Lacey took several long gulps from the bottle in her hand and turned bleary eyes to the Sergeant next to her. He was talking loudly and waving his arms like a bird. Everyone around the two burst out laughing as the overly-animated sergeant made a noise that was a cross between a chicken and a dying cow.
“…and you shoulda seen her face when the damned thing took off right in front of her,” his words were slightly slurred and he swayed from side to side. There were tears in his eyes as he laughed hysterically. “I swear to God, she nearly shit her pants right there on the spot. Couldn't get the gun up fast enough to shoot the damned thing, either.”
Lacey laughed right along with those around her. She was drunk. She knew it, but didn't care in the least. Her confrontation with Colonel Farrell, her run-in with the Iraqi doctor and all the events in between were long forgotten as she took another swallow of her nearly-empty beer. How many beers had she consumed?
“Get the Doc another!” Someone shouted nearby.
A full bottle appeared out of nowhere, and Lacey just managed to grab it. She tried to focus on the person standing over her, but all she could make out was a tall, dark-haired blur. A wistful thought came unbidden to her mind that the woman was some sort of goddess. But the thought quickly slid away in the smoky air.
“Than's,” she slurred, raising the bottle in a tipsy salute.
“You okay?” The voice was low and definitely female.
Lacey tried to focus on the blue eyes locked on hers. She searched her alcohol-fogged brain for a name that seemed just out of reach, until suddenly...
“Mac!” She exclaimed. “You came! Hey, ev'ryone!” She shouted to be heard above the din. “Y'all meet my new ace pilot, Mac?” She put an arm around Mac's neck and swayed into the woman. “Mac… this is…” she waved toward the group of unfamiliar faces. “Well, this is… is ev'ryone.”
Mac just smiled and raised her own beer to those around her. They all greeted her with “Hey,” “Great to meet ya” and a couple other unintelligible words of welcome.
“You shoul' see her fly tha' bird o' hers,” Lacey continued, making Mac blush behind her well-tanned features. “Issss magic.” She squeezed the taller woman's neck, then let go and almost toppled over in the other direction.
Mac caught Lacey's arm and pulled her upright before the doctor could fall off the chair. No one else seemed to take notice, as their attention returned to the bar where another female officer was doing a makeshift striptease to the title song from the movie Footloose .
Mac righted Lacey in her chair and held on to the woman until she was sure the doctor wasn't going to fall over again. Concern knit her brow as she took in the doctor's obviously inebriated state.
“I think you've had enough, don't you?” Mac whispered, as Lacey took a long drag on the bottle.
“No,” Lacey answered. “No' n-nearly enu ffff , yet.” She hiccupped, swallowed another mouthful and swayed again. “Not enuff to for-forget. Not by a long…sh-shot.”
“Yeah,” Mac said, making a grab for the beer in Lacey's hand and watching as the amber fluid sloshed out onto the floor. “You've definitely had enough, Doc.”
Lacey clumsily moved the bottle just out of the pilot's reach, nearly toppling herself and sloshing more beer onto them both in the process. “Have not. Sssstop that. You're no' my m-mother. You're much too buti... betif...” she shook her head to clear it, “…pretty to be my mother.”
Not to be deterred, Mac made another grab and was finally successful. She took the bottle from Lacey's hand just as the doctor was about to take a drink and managed to spill some on herself. “Damn.”
“Give it back!” Lacey glared at her, making a final grab and coming away empty-handed. “Tha's an or-order, so'dier.” Her face was so comically stern that Mac almost burst out laughing.
Mac held the bottle up and out of reach. “You've had enough for one night, Doc,” she said pointedly. “I think it's time to take you home and put you to bed.”
Lacey wasn't having any of it. She lunged again, knocking her chair backwards in the process. Unfortunately, there was a rather beefy officer behind her who was caught off-guard as the chair hit him in the back and knocked his drink from his hand.
“Son of a bitch!” He shouted, turning to stand and confront the culprit. Instead, he was confronted by a pair of ice-blue eyes that stared daggers at him.
“You got a problem, soldier?” Mac growled into the drunken man's face.
“Uh, no, ma'am. Sorry, ma'am,” he apologized.
Don't worry about it,” Mac put Lacey's beer into his hand and brushed off his uniform. “Here. Take mine.”
He accepted the drink without question and turned back to his buddies, while Mac's attention returned to the woman lying prone on the floor at her feet. She reached down and pulled the doctor up, until Lacey was standing unsteadily beside her.
“Come on, Captain,” Mac said, leaning down to provide a measure of support. “Let's get you out of here and into your nice, warm bed.”
No one paid them any mind, as the two women disappeared into the night. The revelry continued uninterrupted, as yet another tune blared in the background. It would be hours before anyone decided to return to their quarters.
Once she had the doctor outside in the fresh evening air, Mac decided that leaning down to support the shorter woman all the way to her tent was not an option. So, she grabbed Lacey's arm and leg and hoisted her over her shoulder fireman style, then carried her toward the officers' quarters. Lacey was lighter than Mac would have expected, which made the trip a lot easier and quicker for them both.
Through her drunken haze, Lacey barely registered the fact that her face was pressed against someone's back. Her head bobbed, upside down, and all she was aware of was the faint hint of grease that clung to the pilot's clothes. She admired the rather muscular planes of the t-shirt covered back her cheek rested against.
“Wh-where're we goin'?” Lacey asked, just before she passed out cold.
Hoping she wasn't in for more than she bargained for, Mac finally and thankfully reached the doctor's quarters. Remembering that the light was located on the nightstand, she walked instinctively over to where she thought the bed was – yep, there it was – and flipped the light on.
The first thing she noticed, as she placed the snoring doctor on the perfectly-made bed, was that the place was immaculate and completely devoid of anything personal. There were no pictures of family or friends, no toiletries anywhere, and no clothes out of place. Actually, except for the Army-issue footlocker, the bed and the nightstand, there were no furnishings in the place, either.
A rather loud and unladylike snort in the darkness brought her attention back to the bed's occupant, who was passed out cold.
“Damn! Now what?” Mac stood there with her hands on her hips.
She decided that the doctor probably wouldn't want to wake up in clothes that smelled of stale beer and cigarettes. So, she went to work removing Lacey's clothing. Starting with the doctor's boots, Mac made quick work of removing them and tossing the tan footwear into the corner next to the footlocker. She removed the doctor's socks and was just unbuckling the woman's pants, when she looked up and found a pair of bleary green eyes watching her from droopy lashes.
“Am I dead?” Lacey slurred and smiled drunkenly. “'Cause you are the mos' beatifical angel...”
“You're drunk,” Mac cut the woman off, as she roughly pulled the doctor's pants off.
“Oo, I like it rufff,” Lacey giggled and tried to grab Mac's elusive hands.
Mac reached for the buttons on the doctor's shirt and, this time, the doctor successfully grabbed her and pulled her close. Their eyes met for what seemed like an eternity, as they gazed intently at each other.
“Don't do this,” Mac said breathlessly. “We'll both regret it.”
Lacey had no idea why her heart was pounding and her face was so flushed. She felt like she'd just run a marathon. Her mouth was dry and her befuddled mind just wouldn't focus. She licked her dry lips and broke eye-contact to glance at the full lips just inches from her own. They were so tempting, so soft and inviting.
She felt strongly attracted to the woman hovering over her. Even in her drunken state, she knew it was more than just simple admiration for the dark-haired woman's gorgeous looks. They shared a connection that Lacey couldn't quite put a finger on.
“I won't tell, if you don't,” Lacey whispered seductively, as she leaned forward to brush a light kiss against the lips only inches from her own. The tingle that shot through her at the contact was instantly sobering.
She felt a burst of warmth spread throughout her entire body that was quickly followed by a deep longing to be touched and caressed by hands she knew would be both strong, yet gentle. She leaned into the kiss and continued exploring the soft, full lips. So good. And the taste of beer lingered between them—not unpleasant, in the least.
Lacey's hands moved up to Mac's collar and clumsily delved beneath the course fabric. When she met resistance, her hands trailed down until they were clumsily lifting Mac's shirt.
“Lacey…” Mac's voice was barely more than a whisper.
“S-stop,” Mac pleaded as she forced herself to pull back just enough to break the mesmerizing contact.
“Somethin' wrong?” Lacey asked innocently, as blue eyes met green in the inky darkness.
“We…c-can't,” Mac answered shakily, as she got up from the bed and moved a few steps back. “This can't happen.”
A seductive smile played at the corners of Lacey's lips. “Wha's a matter, Mac? You don't like being kissed?”
“It's not that,” Mac blew out a frustrated breath. “You don't know what you're doing, Doc. You're drunk.”
“I'm not that drunk,” Lacey pouted. “'Sides, I like you.”
Lacey tried to make a grab for the elusive woman and fell out of bed. Mac was instantly there and helped her back into bed, then suddenly found herself in the woman's arms again. The doctor's lips found her throat and worked their way down her pulse point, making her heartbeat jump.
“Come on, Captain,” Mac tried to push the woman away. “You need to sleep this off.”
Lacey slapped the hands away and wrapped herself around the woman. Her mouth found Mac's, despite her drunken state, and soon their kiss grew heated. When Mac opened her mouth to protest, Lacey's tongue quickly slipped in and all was suddenly lost. The kiss deepened as they both vied for dominance.
Mac had no idea if it was the alcohol that was clouding her judgment or something else entirely. All she knew was that she couldn't get enough of the woman in her arms. As the kiss deepened, Mac felt their connection deepen, too, until she didn't want to ever let go. She felt her body responding to Lacey's touch and wanted nothing more than to give in to the sensations threatening to overwhelm her.
And then reason reared its ugly head and the world came crashing in. A noise outside the tent made Mac pull up short.
“Did you hear that?” The pilot panted breathlessly.
“Nope,” Lacey's lips lazily blazed a trail along the other woman's jaw line. “This certainly has promise,” she muttered against Mac's heated flesh.
“Lacey!” Mac hissed loudly. “Stop! This instant! Someone's out there. I swear I heard something.”
Lacey met the taller woman's gaze. “'S probably jus' a cat,” she tried to kiss the woman again and found a hand over her mouth, instead. “Nnn ffrr, Shf.”
“Shh,” Mac jumped from the bed and walked over to the tent opening. She moved the tent flap aside a bit and looked outside. Nothing moved. “Okay, so maybe I was wrong,” she whispered, as she turned to find the doctor shakily sitting up on the edge of the bed in just her underwear and tank top. “You need to get some sleep, Doc. And I do, too. I'll see you in the morning.” She hesitantly turned to leave.
“Wait!” Lacey hissed loudly and stopped Mac before she could duck outside. “Don't you want to tuck me in?”
In her drunken haze, Lacey was barely aware of what was going on. All she knew was that she wanted—no, needed—Mac to stay with her. Something inside her yearned for that close physical contact and craved the connection they shared, nearly as much as she needed air to breathe.
Mac took a hesitant step back inside, but firmly stood her ground. “You need to sleep this off, Doc. You don't know what you're saying or doing right now. It's the alcohol talking.” She glanced at the tent opening and then returned her attention to the sparsely-clothed woman seated before her. “I seriously don't want us to jeopardize everything for…something we'll both regret in the light of a new day.”
Lacey cocked her head at the woman. “What? You don't like the way I kiss?” She couldn't keep the hurt from her tone, as her shoulders slumped dejectedly. “I thought you liked me.”
Mac noticed the pout and her resolve nearly crumbled. “Doc, come on. That's not fair and you know it,” she returned to the woman and knelt in front of her. “I like you, Doc. We just can't…”
Her words were cut short when Lacey's lips met hers again. The woman's arms wrapped around her neck and the kiss deepened. Mac felt her libido flare to life again, but managed to grab the arms wrapped around her and pull away.
“Stop!” She hissed again. “You seriously need to stop doing that, Doc.”
“Aww, come on, Mac, yer ruinin' my fun,” Lacey slurred, as she tried to kiss the pilot again.
“That's enough!” Mac shot to her feet and nearly sent the doctor head-first onto the floor. “I gotta go, Doc. Get some sleep and I'll see you in the morning.”
Mac escaped without a backward glance, leaving Lacey just sitting there in stunned silence. The doctor ran a shaky hand through her disheveled hair, before she toppled over onto her pillow. A tear escaped and ran down her cheek, as she turned and buried her face in her pillow and cried herself to sleep.
After leaving the doctor's, Mac went in search of a distraction to take her mind off the uncomfortable residual tingling her body was experiencing. It seemed that every fiber of her being was on fire and in need of some type of physical release. Check that. All she really wanted was Lacey Stephens. Mac swallowed audibly at the thought. She stopped her mad dash and took a few calming breaths to clear her head, but the tingling sensations continued. The lingering scent of their lovemaking still clung to her, as well.
It didn't take long for Mac to find a distraction in the Enlisted Club, just beyond the still-raucous Officer's Club. She knew the party was still in full swing in the OC. Good thing she'd taken Lacey back to her quarters. That thought only made her think of the kisses she'd just shared with the doctor. Bad idea.
In a dark corner of the room, a game of poker was just heating up. Mac joined the game without any protest from the six men sitting there. A haze of cigar smoke hung overhead, as several of the soldiers puffed and drank.
“Gentlemen,” Mac greeted them with a nod and her best poker face, taking a seat in the back corner and removing a handful of chips from her pocket. She slapped the chips down in front of her and threw a meaningful look at the bartender.
“A round for the boys here,” she said, then looked at the men at the table. “Deal me in, gentlemen.”
They just smiled and someone dealt her a hand.
“Five card stud, Mac,” Schlotsky said, puffing on the stub of a cigar between his teeth. “Nothing's wild.”
She threw her ante into the pot, then picked up her cards and rearranged them to her satisfaction. The young corporal to her left—Davis, by the name sewn onto his unbuttoned uniform—handed her a cigar, which she took with a grateful smile.
She placed the cigar between her teeth and accepted the light from the soldier to her right. After a few puffs, she settled in, accepted a beer from an outstretched hand and sat back to play her hand. She downed the first beer in record time, hoping to drown out her recent memories. Her mind was still trying to deal with her encounter with the doctor, but she drank some more and pushed the thoughts away, as she laid a card face-down on the table.
“Hope you boys are in for the long haul,” Mac boasted, a pair of aces and kings in her hand. “'Cause I think we're gonna be here a while.”
It was the incessantly loud buzzing that woke her. That, coupled with the fact that it was hotter than hell. She was sweating like the proverbial pig and her tank top was soaking wet. The top was bunched up under her armpits and her bedding was gone. She sat up and immediately regretted doing so.
She dropped back to the pillow with a resounding thud and groaned. A ray of harsh sunlight pierced a hole in the tent ceiling and nearly blinded her. She closed her eyes again, but the damage was done. Her head was pounding like a bass drum and the incessant alarm was still blaring. She reached over and frantically grabbed for the alarm, just managing to hit the OFF button before the thing toppled off the table and hit the floor. The noise was enough to wake the dead.
Lacey spared a brief thought for why her head was pounding so incessantly and chalked it up to too much alcohol. Then she wondered how she'd gotten back to her quarters the previous night. She had no recollection of leaving the OC. Someone must have brought her home and deposited her in her bed. That thought sent an elusive memory tickling the back of her mind, but it was soon replaced by the incredible hangover that hit her like a ton of bricks.
“ Ugh!” She groaned, hiding her face behind a sweaty arm.
She took a few deep breaths, then tried sitting up again. She instantly regretted the move, however, as a wave of nausea hit her hard.
“Son of a bitch!” Lacey wanted to scream, but only managed a weak croak.
She leaned over the side of the bed and breathed deeply, until the nausea passed enough for her to get her bearings. Squinting down at the clock on the floor, she realized it was a little after 1100 hours. The pounding in her head told her that she was in serious trouble. Her rebelling stomach, which took that moment to twist painfully in silent protest, confirmed her suspicions.
“Knock, knock!” A cheery voice from the tent opening announced Mac's presence before she walked in carrying a canteen of water. “Anybody home?”
Lacey squinted at the newcomer, then frowned and tried to bury her face in her damp pillow. “Go away. I'm not in the mood for visitors right now, Chief.”
“Ah, ah,” Mac said, putting the canteen on the nightstand and reaching into her pocket for something. “Not until I know you're okay.”
“What do you care?” Lacey snapped, with her face still buried in the pillow.
“You wound me, Doc,” Mac said. “Contrary to popular belief, I have a heart the size of Texas, even if I'm not the one who grew up there.”
Lacey slowly shifted until she was nearly upright and regretted the move for the second time that morning. Her stomach roiled, and this time she couldn't stop its violent rebellion. A bucket suddenly appeared from nowhere, into which she emptied the meager contents of her stomach. She heaved several more times and managed a few dry heaves after that. Lacey felt a cool hand on her forehead, as her stomach continued its violent protest of the abuse she had heaped on it the previous night.
“God!” Lacey choked between dry heaves, as tears streamed from her eyes. “I think I'm dying.”
“No,” Mac replied. “It's just your body's way of telling you to be a little more careful with the alcohol.”
“How much...” she dry-heaved into the bucket again, nothing but a small bit of saliva dribbled from her lower lip, as the tears continued to slide unheeded down her cheeks. A damp cloth wiped the spittle away and dabbed at her tears.
“Not sure,” Mac replied shortly, a little concerned at the doctor's condition. “Should I get someone over here to take a look at you?” The tone of her voice reflected her growing concern. “I don't think it's normal to throw up this much.”
Lacey could only shake her head, as another wave of nausea hit her. Her eyes were closed tight against her exertions and more tears slipped from between her lashes. The tears were gently wiped from her cheeks again and a wet cloth found its way to the back of her neck. This was the most miserable she had ever felt in her entire life, and she didn't want to be left alone to deal with it on her own.
“Breathe, Doc,” Mac encouraged. “Come on, it'll help the nausea pass.”
Lacey inhaled deeply and let the breath out slowly. It did help dispel the nausea a bit. She took several more deep breaths and felt her head clear slightly. Unfortunately, the headache returned with a vengeance, so she just sat there holding her aching head and praying silently for a quick death.
“Kill me now,” she groaned.
“Here,” Mac said, extending an open palm to her. She noticed the damp tank top clinging revealingly to the doctor's skin and quickly looked away. She couldn't help the blush that suffused her cheeks. “I hope they make you feel better.”
Lacey was completely oblivious to her companion's discomfort, as she looked up to find two aspirin in the hand in front of her face. She took the pain relievers and the canteen, then popped the pills into her mouth and quickly swallowed several mouthfuls of water before her stomach had a chance to rebel again.
“Thanks,” Lacey said when she was finally able to speak. “God, I feel like shit. No, I take that back. I feel like dirt under a pile of shit that's been sitting in the damned sun for days… no, weeks. Ugh!”
Mac winced at the analogy and kept her eyes averted from the woman seated in front of her.
Lacey dropped her head into her hands again, trying to rid herself of the splitting headache by sheer force of will. It wasn't working at all. She was, however, grateful for the reassuring company of the woman kneeling in front of her. She could feel a sense of comfort radiating from her companion that she had never felt around anyone else in her life. It was… strange.
“You gonna make it, Doc?” Mac asked hopefully, gently stroking the doctor's back reassuringly.
Mac never gave a thought to what she was doing, until she realized how warm and wonderful it felt.
“Yeah, I think so,” Lacey said, managing a weak smile. “What are you doing here, anyway?” The question wasn't meant to be blunt, but the pilot's hand on her back was sending pleasant shivers down her body. It vaguely reminded her of…of what? The thought was elusive, as she felt her headache ease slightly.
Mac sat down on the foot of the bed and looked her patient in the eye to keep her gaze from straying. The green eyes that looked back at her were red, swollen and slightly bloodshot. Fortunately, the pain in them was subsiding, little-by-little.
She hadn't wanted the doctor to wake up feeling alone and vulnerable, but had started to worry when the woman hadn't made an appearance in the mess at all that morning. Armed with the pain relievers and water, she decided to bury her libido and gird her loins to face the woman.
“I just came by to see if you needed anything,” Mac replied. “Good thing I did. I think I got here just in time.”
“Yeah, just in time to see me puke my guts out,” Lacey grimaced. “Sorry about that, by the way.”
“We all have our moments, Doc,” Mac replied with a sympathetic smile. “It's what makes us human. It's also what makes us need others and satisfies our desire to offer comfort.”
“I can't afford to have those moments, I'm afraid,” Lacey said in all seriousness. “Until now, that is. Being a doctor comes with certain… responsibilities. Getting shit-faced just isn't on the list.”
“Really? Excuse me for saying so, but you're just as human as the rest of us, Doc,” Mac said as she glanced away. “By the way, how're you feeling now? Better?”
“A little,” Lacey said with a lopsided grin mixed with a blush of embarrassment. “I haven't gone on a bender like that in… Well, I don't quite remember the last time. It was probably college. Don't quite remember much of last night, either.”
Mac's brows lifted in surprise. She considered Lacey's words and a spark of hope entered her blue eyes. Was it possible that the doctor didn't remember what they'd done? She remembered their heated kisses and a blush suffused her cheeks. At least she wasn't a man, she mused silently. Lacey would certainly realize what was going through her mind, if that were the case.
“Do you remember how you got here?” Mac asked tentatively, trying to keep her rising hope and her libido under control.
Lacey just sat there and thought about the events of the previous evening. Images swam before her, but nothing concrete came to mind. Did she do something stupid? She sighed heavily, as she considered the possibility that she had danced on the bar for all the guys to drool over.
“Let's see,” Lacey said, biting her bottom lip and frowning. “I remember going to the Officer's Club after Colonel Farrell nearly took my head off. Damn, I guess I wasn't quite as prepared for that as I thought I would be,” she muttered thoughtfully. “Anyway, when I got to the Club the place was practically empty, so I sat at the bar, had a beer or two and talked to the bartender until a few more people came in.
“When I finished the beer, I remember Lt. Dix came in with some friends. That's when I bought the first round, like I promised I would. After that,” she shrugged. “It's mostly a blur. I think someone produced a round of tequila shots—Wait, was there really tequila there?” She shook her head to clear it and groaned in pain. “Huh, I didn't think we had any hard liquor over here. Anyway, it got pretty…loud, crowded and smoky. Did I pass out?”
“At one point, yeah,” Mac smirked teasingly.
“Did I do something really stupid?” Lacey asked tentatively, afraid to hear the answer, yet curious just the same. “Please tell me I didn't sleep with someone I shouldn't have. Or did I just dance on the bar in my underwear? Come on, Mac. As my friend and fellow teammate, you have to tell me.”
Mac couldn't believe her luck. A clean slate was what they needed and here it was. Was it possible for the doctor to forget so easily? Mac studied her companion and noted how young and vulnerable Lacey looked in the light of a new day. With her hair falling loosely around her shoulders, the doctor looked like a fresh recruit straight off the transport. She shook herself, as she saw the expectant look in Lacey's eyes.
“No, none of the above,” Mac answered, relaxing noticeably.
“You know something,” Lacey gave the pilot a suspicious look. “You look like you could use a couple of those pain relievers yourself. Did you get any sleep last night?” She eyed the pilot surreptitiously. “You really look like hell, Mac.”
“Thanks for the compliment, but I'm fine,” Mac answered sarcastically.
“What is it, then?” Lacey noticed the smirk. “Are you hiding something?”
“It's nothing,” Mac answered a little too quickly. “You had a lot to drink, that's all.”
“Am I missing something? Because I'm getting this vibe from you that there's more to last night than you're letting on,” Lacey squinted at Mac, trying to see through her façade.
“Nope,” Mac lied. “So, what are your plans for today?”
Lacey shrugged. “I don't have any at the moment. Farrell gave me a mandatory three-day leave, so…” she shrugged. “Maybe I'll just hang out at the Club,” she winced at her own stupidity. “Or not. I don't think I want a repeat of this morning. My mouth feels like I swallowed a wad of cotton and tastes like… well, you know.”
Lacey grabbed her tooth brush and a tube of paste from her footlocker and started brushing her teeth. Silence ensued while the doctor took care of her oral hygiene and Mac stared out the tent opening. She couldn't bring herself to glance at the woman, for fear she would have another embarrassing relapse. The pleasant tingle she was feeling was enough to make her wish they had actually taken the next step, instead of merely kissing.
“You wanna hang with me today?” Mac finally asked past an uncomfortable lump in her throat. “I'm going over to see if I can help Tiny with the repairs to Argo. If we finish before sunset, I might be able to convince him to let me take her up for a test flight. You could come with, if you want.”
Lacey stopped brushing long enough to consider the offer, then used the remainder of the water in the canteen to rinse her mouth out. She walked to the tent opening and unceremoniously spit it out onto the ground. Lacey then turned to Mac, who was watching her with one raised brow and a smirk at the corner of her lips. Mac glanced outside and then returned her attention to the woman standing proudly before her.
“Let me take a shower and get cleaned up first,” Lacey said. “I'll meet you there.”
She walked over to her footlocker and grabbed her shower supplies. Mac took the hint and was about to leave when a thought occurred to her.
“Okay,” Mac said with an open smirk. “But you might want to put some pants on first, Doc. I don't think the rest of the camp will appreciate you walking around in your underwear. See you there.”
Lacey watched the pilot leave her tent, then looked down at her half-dressed state and grumbled something about cheeky pilots. She couldn't put her finger on it, but there was definitely something different about the pilot's demeanor toward her. She decided, right then, that the only way to find out was for her to spend a little more time in the woman's company.
“All right, Lacey,” she said to herself, donning her discarded pants and grabbing her sunglasses. “Let's get this show on the road.”
As she made a beeline for the showers, no one acknowledged her. Sometimes, it was nice to be invisible, she thought. What would it be like to go back to being a civilian? Would she miss military life? And what about Mac? What was up with her, anyway?
Three hours later she was no closer to finding out what was going on in the mind of the elusive pilot. Tiny was deep in the bowels of the aircraft, repairing the damage sustained during their firefight. He had an assistant right under there with him and Mac was hovering close by. The three seemed to share some sort of secret code that Lacey couldn't decipher. Mac handed the young sergeant and Tiny tools when they asked for them and, together, they continued to work tirelessly on the aircraft. Lacey felt a bit left out, at first. But then she decided to just relax and enjoy the downtime.
As she lounged in a chair just inside the hangar door and out of the direct sunlight, she thought about life. She had stripped down to her tank top long ago and was fanning herself with a three-week-old grease-stained newspaper from somewhere in the Midwest . The paper had “Northwestern” in blue at the top of it, but Lacey didn't care. It was a fan that was moving the stifling air. Even in the shade of the hangar, it was hotter than hell, as she sat there watching several aircraft whiz by. The breeze they stirred up wasn't nearly enough to dispel the heat.
She could feel her headache creeping up behind her eyes again, as she tipped a bottle of soda to her lips and drank deeply. She tried not to think of why she'd agreed to sit out there in the first place.
Lacey could tell that it was topping 110 or better, but didn't want to glance back at the thermometer to be sure. Her hangover had subsided, mostly, but she still felt slightly queasy. She took another drag from her Coke and glanced at the two pairs of legs sticking out from beneath the Black Hawk. She then glanced at the tall woman leaning against the fuselage. As she took in the long legs and lean figure, Lacey had a sudden flash of soft lips firmly pressed against her own.
The image was so vivid, so real, that she suddenly felt... what? Just then, an aircraft roared by, abruptly bringing Lacey back to her senses.
What the hell? Lacey sat bolt upright and tried to still her racing heart. She panted and she felt a cold trickle slide down her back. She looked around guiltily to see if anyone had noticed her sudden lapse and realized she was virtually alone with her errant thoughts. The others were still engrossed in their activities, including Mac. Lacey breathed a sigh of relief and downed the rest of her soda.
She ran a hand over her face and sighed in exasperation. Must be the heat , she silently mused. Yeah, that was it. She was hallucinating, because she'd been out in the heat for too damned long. The desert was finally getting to her, she decided. Lacey's gaze took in the landscape, noting how much it reminded her of Texas . Damn. I'm going nuts , she thought with an involuntary shudder. But it was so real. Wasn't it?
She impatiently pushed up out of the rickety old lawn chair and walked to the back of the sweltering hangar. Grabbing some coins from her pocket, she shoved them into the machine and slammed a button a bit harder than necessary. The machine rattled for a second, then belched out a frosty liter bottle. Lacey deposited more coins into the slot and the machine belched out three more bottles. She grabbed up her treasures and returned to the front of the hangar.
“You three ready for a break, yet?” She said to the disembodied legs.
Both Tiny and the sergeant pushed themselves out from under the aircraft, while Mac pushed away from the chopper. Three sets of eyes squinted in the bright sunlight. They each grabbed the drinks Lacey handed them and sat there on the ground, drinking in companionable silence.
“ Ahhhhhhhh ,” Tiny sighed, then belched loudly as he grinned at his two companions. “That hit the spot. Thanks, Doc.” He saluted her with the half-empty bottle.
“No problem,” Lacey answered, sipping her own soda. “How's it coming?” She blushed at her choice of words.
“Pretty good,” Sergeant Phillips answered and belched loudly. “We have most of the auxiliary controls repaired and are just making sure those bastards didn't damage any of the main lines.”
Mac patted the chopper with a smirk. “Argo's a stubborn old bird. She'll be good to go in no time.”
Lacey stood there nursing her soda and gazed at the distant horizon. She was bored and still slightly freaked out by the images her mind had conjured earlier. Time for a change, she decided.
“How much longer?” She asked impatiently.
Mac watched the doctor through hooded eyes. Something was wrong. Although she hadn't known the doctor for very long, she was beginning to pick up on the woman's moods. It was strange to think that she could tell that there was something wrong just by looking at the smaller woman. She'd never been able to do that with anyone but…an image of her brother Derek came to mind. She shook herself to dispel the painful memory of his laughing blue eyes.
“An hour, maybe less,” Tiny obliviously answered, tossing his empty bottle toward the recycle bin. He missed and didn't move to pick up the discarded container.
“As much as I'm enjoying all this excitement,” Lacey's words dripped sarcasm, as she reached down, grabbed the discarded bottle and tossed it into the bin. “I think I'll head back to camp and find something less strenuous to occupy me.”
She walked back to the chair and grabbed her discarded shirt, hat and sunglasses. She threw the shirt over a tanned shoulder and simply stood there for a moment. Finally putting on the hat and glasses, she walked out of the hangar without another word.
“Wait up, Doc,” Mac caught up to Lacey in a few short strides. “What just happened back there?” She reached for the doctor's arm, grabbed it and stopped the woman in mid-stride.
“Nothing,” Lacey answered shortly, pulling her arm free as a welcome tingle lingered from the brief contact.
“Yeah? Why the sudden mood swing, then?” Mac continued, hands on her hips as she patiently waited for an explanation.
“Well, let's see,” Lacey crossed her arms defensively over her chest. “I'm just sitting there, staring at the beautiful scenery, and suddenly I see these flashes of something that happened last night. Images of you and…” her voice lowered and she swallowed noticeably, “and me and…”
Sudden realization hit Mac like a bucket of ice water.
“You remembered last night?” She squeaked.
“Uh, yeah,” Lacey turned and resumed walking. “I thought I was hallucinating. But your reaction, just now, merely confirms it happened. Why the hell didn't you just tell me?”
“Hold on a minute,” Mac said, grabbing the doctor's arm again and stopping her in her tracks. “Tell you what? That we...” she glanced around to be sure they were alone and then lowered her voice to a loud hiss, “How was I supposed to know you would remember?”
“Are you kidding me?” Lacey's voice rose an octave, as she pulled her arm free and crossed her arms protectively over her chest again. “We kissed,” she hissed, leaning closer to the taller woman. “It happened, didn't it?”
“Yes, it did,” Mac continued, her eyes unable to meet the other woman's intense stare, despite the sunglasses that separated them. “But...” Her mind replayed the moment when Lacey had undressed her and a blush crept up her neck. “I stopped it before it got out of hand, Captain.”
Lacey slapped a hand to her forehead, as she turned and stalked away. “I can't believe you didn't tell me. I can't believe we...” her voice lowered to a hiss, “I can't believe we did that.” She stopped suddenly and Mac nearly collided with her back. “Why?” Lacey suddenly rounded on the taller woman.
“Why, what?” Mac was confused by the abrupt change in direction and train of thought.
“Why did you let me do that?”
“Hey, you kissed me first,” Mac answered defensively. “I just…well...um…” The words died on her lips, as she tried desperately to come up with a reasonable explanation for her own reaction to Lacey's seduction—to the seduction they both succumbed to.
What did she do? What did they do? And why was she suddenly defending herself? It happened and there was nothing either of them could do to change the fact.
“I did not kiss you first!” Lacey argued vehemently in a loud whisper.
“Yes, you did,” Mac shot back, folding her arms over her own chest defensively.
Lacey thought back to the previous night and tried really hard to picture exactly what happened. The image of her leaning up to press her lips longingly against the other woman's and the resulting spark of desire she'd experienced came back full force. She was the one who had initiated the kiss.
“Oh. My. God!” Lacey groaned and slapped her forehead again. “I can't believe I did that. Shit! I can't… ugh!”
“Hey, calm down, will ya? It wasn't that bad.” Mac was trying her best to calm the other woman down, but her own thoughts were in just as much of a jumble at the moment. “It was a release for both of us.” A smirk played at the corners of her mouth. “Besides, I can safely say, I enjoyed it,” Mac shrugged, then added, “considering.”
“I'm not gay,” Lacey lied flatly. “I'm not bisexual, either. I'm an officer in the United States Army, for Christ's sake. I don't kiss women! And I certainly don't…Well, you know!”
“Jeez, Doc, whatever happened to Don't Ask, Don't Tell? Huh?” Mac tried to joke – the joke fell flat. “I won't say anything if you don't. As far as I'm concerned, last night never happened.” She shrugged to hide the hurt that was smoldering below her stoic façade. “It was just a stupid mistake.”
“It was a mistake, yeah,” Lacey decided to go with Mac's line of reasoning, but missed the hurt in the other woman's blue eyes. “We were just two lonely souls caught up in the moment. And I was drunk. Really drunk. I didn't know what I was doing, I was so drunk. It didn't mean anything...”
She looked up and caught a glint of – was it pain? – swimming in the pilot's eyes. The look was instantly replaced by cold indifference, as Mac's eyes became shards of ice.
“Don't worry about your precious career, Doc,” Mac snapped through gritted teeth. “I won't say anything. You have my word.”
That said, Mac turned on her heel and marched back toward the hangar, leaving Lacey to stare after her in dumbfounded silence.
What? It couldn't have meant anything to either of us. Could it? She tried hard to wade through the scattered images, feelings and emotions of the previous night. It was just a kiss. Wasn't it? Or was there something more? Hadn't she felt…something? A spark of longing, maybe? And what about her state of undress that morning? Had Mac been the one to remove her clothing? And where had the pilot gone after they had…?
No, there could be nothing between them. The soldier in her suddenly resurfaced and reason took control. It was against regulations to have relations with someone of the same gender. But reason couldn't stop the ache in her heart.
As Lacey walked back to camp, her thoughts continued to wage a furious battle. Her sensible side told her she had no feelings for the tall pilot. But her heart, her traitorous heart, told another story. Before she knew it, her strides took her to her tent and the sanctuary she hoped to find there.
But there was no sanctuary once she was inside the stuffy confines. She stopped just inside and stared at the unmade bed in front of her. A quick flash of heated kisses and the taste of the pilot on her lips were suddenly overwhelming.
“Shit!” Lacey breathed raggedly. “Shit! Shit! Shit !”
She rushed from her tent and collided with a passing soldier. She saw that his name was Gregory, as her eyes took in the cloth nametag sewn into his uniform.
“You okay, ma'am?” Lieutenant Gregory asked, grabbing her shoulders to steady her. “I am so sorry. I should watch where I'm going, ma'am.”
“I'm fine, Lieutenant,” she answered as she righted herself. She looked up to find him smiling at her through hooded lids. He was passably handsome, but not overly so. “Just heading to the Officer's Club to pass some time. Would you care to join me?” She batted her eyes in her best imitation of a southern belle. Lacey cringed inwardly with disgust, but put on her best face for the young lieutenant.
The man smiled shyly. “Ma'am,” he answered, glancing at his watch. “It's still early. As much as I'd love to, I'm still on duty.”
“Oh,” Lacey was noticeably disappointed. “I guess I'll just go it alone, then.”
“I'd love to join you after I'm off-duty, ma'am,” he continued. “That is, if your offer still stands.”
Lacey smiled up into his tanned features. He had light brown hair that was cut in the high-and-tight military style and his smiling walnut brown eyes revealed a welcome warmth that she could feel as he gazed down at her. A good distraction, she decided. Definitely what she needed to wipe away her recent memories.
“I look forward to seeing you again, Lieutenant,” she gave him a little seductive smile.
“Ma'am,” he smiled back.
She winked, then turned and walked toward the Officers' Club. When she reached the dusky interior, she noticed that it was deserted, as usual. Lacey stopped just inside the door, surveying the interior and trying to decide if she was going to stay.
“We're closed, Captain,” an unfamiliar guy stepped through a doorway behind the bar.
Lacey just stood there for a second. She didn't really know if she wanted to stay or not. Mostly, she just wanted the company. She sidled over to the bar and sat down.
“You don't mind if I just sit here and keep you company, do you?” She asked hopefully.
He shrugged. “I'm just doing inventory, so it's no skin off my nose, ma'am.”
“You got a name, soldier?” She looked him over.
“ Anderson , ma'am,” He answered with a congenial smirk. “You want a soda or something? We just got a fresh shipment in this morning. Supply confiscated the rest of the alcohol and sent it back to the States. I still can't believe we ended up with that stuff. The colonel was livid when it showed up here. Said we were breaking about a dozen laws or something.”
Lacey's face fell. “No more booze?”
He leaned in conspiratorially. “Nope, ma'am,” he said in a low voice. “Turns out the shipment came to us by mistake.” He wiggled his dark brows several times. “Ten kegs and six cases of beer and tequila got mixed up with a medical shipment we were supposed to receive. Don't ask me how that happened.”
Lacey took a long drag from her soda, attempting to quench a thirst that went far deeper than the one tickling her throat. She took another long drink, gulping down several mouthfuls in an attempt to drown out everything around her. The syrupy drink did nothing to dispel the longing deep in her soul.
Lacey looked up to find a pair of concerned eyes watching her intently. She smiled, but the smile did not reach her eyes.
“You sure you're okay, ma'am?” He asked.
“You ever do something that seemed really right at the time,” she asked, sipping her soda. “Then, later, regret doing it? Not that you didn't enjoy it. But…”
Grabbing the bar rag from his shoulder, the bartender wiped an imaginary speck from the counter in front of him.
“We all do things that we regret, ma'am,” he smirked. “It's what makes us human. Add the fact that we're here and not with our families and you get a pretty regrettable combination.”
She leaned her elbows on the bar and finished her soda.
“Yeah,” she agreed.
“That it, ma'am?” He asked.
“I'll be back later, Lieutenant,” she answered. “I need to go bug someone else for a while. You're a little too philosophical for me.” She smiled to take the sting from her words. “Thanks for the drink, Anderson .”
He just smiled and watched as the woman everyone called ‘Doc' left the club without a backward glance.
Mac sat in the cockpit of her precious Argo and just stared off into space. Her mind wandered back to the previous night and the woman whose arms had so lovingly held her. Warm, soft lips pressed to her own, the sweet taste of beer, and a pair of sea-green eyes filled with passion. It was all haunting her with vivid clarity.
“Damn!” She shook herself and tried to concentrate on the checklist in front of her.
“You okay, Mac?” Tiny's voice broke into her reverie.
“Just peachy,” she growled.
He was wiping his greasy hands on an equally greasy rag and leaned against the co-pilot's open door.
“She's all patched up and ready for a test flight,” he said. “I'll put her on the list for Monday and let Brunell know what we did to her. He can put her through her paces and make sure we didn't miss anything.”
“No,” Mac answered, looking up from her checklist. “I'll take her up myself.”
“That don't cut it, Mac,” Tiny shot back, a look of resignation in his brown eyes. “It's against regs.”
“I don't care,” Mac continued with a menacingly scowl that brooked no further argument. “Argo's mine—my responsibility. If anyone's taking her for a test flight, it's gonna be me.”
Tiny scratched the stubble on his chin, as he considered how to counter her words. Mac knew her stuff and knew her chopper, inside and out. Not only was she intimately familiar with all the systems and mechanics, but she wasn't afraid to get down and dirty to help with repairs.
“Sorry, Chief, but rules is rules,” Tiny answered. “It's my hide on the line if this damned chopper takes a header out there. I sure as hell don't want your death on my conscience. No sirree. Bad enough I gotta put Brunell's ass on the line, but that's his job. I ain't tossin' you in the mix, too.”
“Hey, Tiny,” Mac called as he walked away from her. He stopped and turned. “Thanks for taking good care of her for me.” Mac smirked. “You understand I had to try.”
He just smiled in return and headed back inside the hangar. “Women,” he said under his breath, shaking his head.
“Okay, baby,” Mac said to the cockpit surrounding her. “I guess I'll see you first thing Monday morning. Be a good girl and don't do anything to keep us grounded.”
The first thing Lacey noticed as she awoke the next morning and opened her eyes was that she wasn't in her own quarters. Sure, they looked familiar – same drab colors, same Army-issue footlocker, same nightstand and lamp – but there were subtle differences. A framed picture of an unfamiliar blond woman sat on the nightstand. The woman was smiling down at her in a way that made Lacey shudder.
“Morning, Captain,” a sleepy male voice purred next to her and caused her eyes to widen in shock.
She felt a strong, hairy arm wrap itself around her and her hair was pulled back in order to allow a pair of hard, masculine lips to gain access to her ear. A calloused hand moved to a bare breast and squeezed. It was all wrong.
Lacey rolled over toward her bedmate and found herself face-to-face with Lieutenant ... what was his name again? Garrison? Grimwald? Gregory.
“Morning,” she managed a half-smile.
His lips descended on hers and she was struck by the differences in his rather scratchy lips compared to those of a certain female pilot. His were harder, firmer, wetter. Wetter? Was that really a word? The thought popped unbidden to her mind and she nearly laughed at the absurdity of it. She also nearly lost it when his tongue insistently probed her lips and begged entry.
The one-sided kiss deepened and became more insistent, as her lips were parted and he thrust his tongue inside. Invaded, was more like it. Had she really granted him permission to enter? The thought brought a giggle to her, which stopped him in his tracks. Nothing like a giggle to dampen a man's ardor. Viagra anyone?
“What?” His gaze was almost accusing. “What's so funny?”
“Nothing,” she answered, pulling him back down to her. Damn, she thought. I have to stop doing that.
Their kiss resumed and grew more heated with his mounting desire. Actually, his desire grew more heated while she just basically let him have his way. He moved from her still-closed lips to her throat and trailed wet kisses down her collar bone. Her mind wandered back to the previous night, as his wet lips continued down toward a bare breast and he latched on like a hungry wolf—a hungry, wet-lipped, scratchy-faced wolf.
Her thoughts drifted back to the previous night, as he continued his ministrations. As the fog of sleep lifted, she remembered everything with vivid clarity. She'd tried to let him wipe her feelings for Mac away. But every kiss, every caress, merely reminded her how much she longed to be in the pilot's arms, instead of his.
Lacey's thoughts jerked back to the present, as he suddenly entered her unexpectedly. She wanted this, didn't she? Wanted the feel of a man inside her. She wanted to feel all of him, thrusting deep, filling her with his need. It was a primal desire—a normal desire. One that every normal human being felt toward the opposite sex. Wasn't it? So why was it so wrong for her?
She thought she wanted it, but her body and heart had other ideas. Her traitorous heart wanted Mac, longed for Mac's touch, even as she felt Gregory's release. As he poured himself out for her, Lacey wanted to pour her heart and soul out to Mac, instead. She wanted it with all her being and felt shame wash over her, as Gregory collapsed on top of her.
“God, Doc, that was good,” he breathed heavily into her cleavage.
Lacey couldn't help but just lay there, staring up at the drab ceiling. She wanted nothing more than to bolt from the tent and wash away the shame that was threatening to overwhelm her. What the hell was wrong with her? The thought came unbidden as she swiped an impatient hand through her hair. What the hell was she doing?
Gregory slid down next to her, turned and propped his head on one hand. He searched her eyes and found a sadness there that he wasn't expecting.
“You okay?” He gently pushed a lock of hair away from her face.
Lacey sat up, pulling the discarded sheet up to cover her nakedness. She was on her feet collecting her discarded clothing, when she suddenly stopped and turned to look at him. He hadn't covered himself and was lying there with a satisfied grin.
Lacey was not moved in the least. As a matter of fact, she had absolutely no feelings for him whatsoever. Not for his muscular body—which certainly wasn't half bad—nor for the man himself. She realized that he could have been any number of the men she had dated or slept with in the past and it wouldn't have mattered. She had absolutely no attraction to any one of them.
“I have to go,” she looked away as she finished grabbing up her discarded clothing. “I have somewhere I need to be.”
She dropped the sheet onto the bed and quickly got dressed. As she was buttoning the front of her over shirt, she noticed that he had covered himself and was now looking at her with confusion and a touch of irritation.
“Did I do something wrong?” The question was blunt and held a note of irritation. “I thought we had something good, Captain.”
“No…um…yes…um,” Lacey stammered, shoving her hat on her head. “It's not you. It's me. I just need some time to sort through a few things.”
“Will I see you again?” Now he was sitting on the edge of the bed. She watched as he wrapped the discarded sheet around his hips, leaving his chest bare. The site did nothing for her—not even a glimmer of desire.
“It's a small camp, Lieutenant,” she returned flatly. “I'm sure we'll see plenty of each other. Right now, though, I have to go.”
Before he could say another word, she was outside in the bright—extremely bright—sunlight. She paused briefly to get her bearings, before heading toward the mess tent for a much-needed cup of coffee.
Lacey sat by herself, nursing her third cup of the barely-palatable camp brew and willing the pounding in her head to subside, when she was joined unexpectedly.
“Is this seat taken?” Mac's sultry voice purred just above her and kicked her libido into overdrive.
Okay, so that was obviously a sure sign that her lack of attraction for the young lieutenant wasn't a hormonal imbalance of some kind. Did she really think of Mac's voice as sultry?
Without waiting for an invitation, Mac sat down across from her. She lifted her own cup of coffee to her lips and took a drink. Her eyes remained locked on Lacey's, as if searching for some clue as to the woman's mood.
“Rough night? Because you look like hell, Doc,” Mac commented.
“Thanks for your concern,” Lacey's tone dripped sarcasm, as her defenses kicked in. “What brings you to these parts, Chief? Slumming?”
“Coffee's hot and I knew I'd find you here,” Mac answered easily, a teasing smile on her lips. “I went to your tent this morning, but it was empty. Didn't look like you made it home at all last night.”
Home. A flash of memory suddenly hit Lacey—of warm, soft lips against her own. She cleared her throat, uncomfortable as she realized the subject of her musings was sitting directly across the table from her. She felt her body react without warning and wanted nothing more than to bolt for the second time that morning. Every instinct screamed “Run! Go AWOL and never look back.”
“I didn't,” Lacey couldn't hold back the bite to her words. “What is it you want from me, Chief?”
“To take your mind off this place for a little while,” Mac answered. “I was wondering if you'd like to take me on a tour of the base. You game?”
“And what about the rest of the team?” Lacey asked. “You don't hang around with them when there's nothing else to do?”
Mac could sense an undertone of mild hostility in the woman's tone. She had no idea if she was responsible for the woman's mood or if it had to do with something else, entirely.
“What the hell is your problem, Stephens?” Mac asked in a hushed tone. “Are you still sore that I didn't tell you about the other night?”
“My problem?” Lacey returned with a hiss. “I don't have a problem, Chief. I am a perfectly normal human being, with perfectly normal urges and desires. No problems, whatsoever.”
The pilot stood abruptly, nearly knocking her chair over in the process. She leaned down until her mouth was inches from the doctor's ear. Lacey felt a thrill of anticipation chase down her spine, despite the anger she'd seen flashing in Mac's eyes.
“Lay off the sex, Doc,” Mac hissed. “It won't fix what's really ailing you.”
Mac was gone before Lacey could come back with a suitable retort. Instead, she just sat there staring into her empty cup and wondering why she was being such an asshole to the one person who cared. Check that. Kevin cared, too. He just never rose to her baiting and always seemed capable of deflecting her shitty moods.
She impatiently brushed a stray lock of hair from her eyes, as she tried to quiet the sudden restlessness in her heart. She felt an ache deep within that she knew would not go away anytime soon.
“I'm such a shit,” she groused.
With a sigh, Lacey stood up, deposited her empty mug in the bus tub next to the door and left the tent. She didn't know where else to go, so she headed to the one place where she could seek refuge – the hospital.
The instant Lacey stepped into the air-conditioned hospital, she felt instant relief. The cool air cleared her head and chased away the nagging headache that had been plaguing her all day.
“Jeez, I shoulda come here sooner,” she muttered as she continued inside.
She walked down the center aisle of the main room, where vacant beds lined both walls. When she was almost to the last bed, she looked up and noticed a familiar face.
“Simmons?” She addressed the young woman who was sitting with a patient in the bed in front of her. Lacey then recognized the occupant of the bed. “Private Avery,” she smiled at them both, as she stepped up to the foot of the bed. “Good to see you both.”
“Ma'am,” Simmons and Avery said in unison.
“I was wondering where you were hiding, Simmons,” Lacey smirked. “Now, I know.”
“The Private and I have been keeping each other company, ma'am,” Simmons glanced at Avery with a shy smile. “Turns out we have a lot in common.”
“And how are you doing, Private?” Lacey asked.
“Better, ma'am,” he squeezed Simmons' hand. “I'm looking forward to getting home, I suppose.”
Lacey noticed their clasped hands and surmised the rest.
“Well,” she said. “I'll leave you two alone. Take care of yourself, Private.”
“Yes, ma'am,” Avery said. “Uh, ma'am?”
Lacey stopped. “Yes?”
“I just wanted to say... Well, I wanted to thank you for...well, for all you did out there, ma'am,” he finally managed. “We've done a lot of talking and, well, we decided you did a good job of keeping things... well, you know...” He shrugged the last.
“What the Private is so eloquently trying to say, ma'am,” Simmons interjected, “is you kept us all focused out there, and we're grateful to you for it.”
“Yeah,” Lacey replied, a little embarrassed by the praise. “I guess I don't know what to say to that, except you're welcome. Now, if you'll both excuse me, I have something I need to take care of.”
“Watch out for Nurse Broomhilda,” Simmons warned. “She's on the warpath today.”
“Right,” Lacey nodded her understanding and smirked at the nickname.
Lacey headed through a set of double doors that led to the small operating room, as well as a few other rooms. One of those was a supply room that housed their medical equipment – a Langston sterilizer, clean linens and gowns, and a locked drug cabinet.
Reaching into the pocket of a lab coat hanging behind the door, Lacey pulled out a set of keys. She found the one she was looking for and stepped over to the drug cabinet. When she had the cabinet open, she returned the keys to the coat and began searching for what she needed.
“Ah, there you are,” she said quietly, grabbing a small bottle of pills from a shelf.
She slipped the bottle into the pocket of her over shirt, then closed the cabinet door. She was just locking up, when she felt a presence behind her.
“Can I help you, Captain?” The familiar, no-nonsense female voice sent a chill of foreboding down Lacey's spine.
“Not really, Lieutenant,” Lacey said, turning to face the newcomer with her most endearing smile.
Lieutenant Paula Emery was a short, squat woman in her mid-thirties. She was also head nurse of the hospital and ran things like the head frau at a German concentration camp. Behind her back, everyone called her Nurse Broomhilda, because of her no-nonsense attitude and her frowning demeanor. To the doctors, she was a godsend. To everyone else, she was a terror in size-fours.
“Captain Stephens,” the woman eyed Lacey with suspicion, her hands on her ample hips. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Enjoying the…um…air-conditioning?” Lacey stammered.
“Try again,” Emery frowned and crossed her arms over her ample bosom. “What are you doing in my supply room? You know you're not allowed anywhere near this hospital, much less in my supply room. Colonel's orders. And I do not take kindly to those who disobey orders. You of all people should know that.”
“Tongue depressors,” Lacey answered, grabbing a handful of the wooden sticks and stuffing them into her pocket. “We're using them for a...uh, well...let's just say, we need them for a project. I've decided to play big sister to some of the kids in the area.” She knew the lie was completely lame, but couldn't think of anything else to say to cover her tracks.
“We?” The imposing nurse looked skeptically around the room. “I don't see anyone else here with you, Stephens.”
“No,” Lacey continued without hope of actually convincing the woman. “I was sent here... alone. But, now I have to go. Can't keep the kids waiting.”
Lacey skirted around the imposing woman and just made it to the door.
“Hand them over, ma'am,” Emery said flatly. “Or I will have absolutely no choice but to report you to the colonel, who will probably have you scrubbing pots and pans for the next month, in addition to your punishment for your other indiscretions.”
Lacey turned to face the woman. “What?”
The woman merely held out her hand and waved it, palm-side up.
“Fine,” Lacey sighed, reaching into her pocket and pulling out the bottle of pills. She slapped them into the Lieutenant's hand like a petulant child who had been caught doing something wrong.
“And the tongue depressors,” Emery continued, her other hand held out. “Nothing gets out of here without my say-so, not even if it is for some lame excuse of a ‘project.'”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Lacey said, digging them out and slapping them into the waiting hand.
Emery examined the pill bottle, then looked Lacey in the eye.
“For you or a patient?”
Lacey considered her answer carefully, then shrugged. The truth was probably all she could get away with at that point, she reasoned. No use dragging her feet when Nurse Broomhilda was not going to back down.
“No,” Lacey answered quickly. “At least, not that I'm aware of. I had a little…you know, with one of the guys last night and I didn't want to… well, you know.”
“Why didn't you just ask me for the key, Captain?” Emery's countenance softened noticeably, as she impatiently opened the bottle and handed over one of the pills. “Here. Far be it for me to stop you from protecting yourself against an unwanted pregnancy, Captain.”
Lacey took the pill and swallowed it down without any water. “Thanks, Paula,” Lacey sighed gratefully, smiling at the woman who was not much older than herself. “I appreciate this and your discretion.”
“Don't mention it, Lac,” Emery said familiarly. “I've had my share of those little buggers over the last few months. So have a few others. Seems like word's getting around that we have them and are distributing them, no questions asked. I've had more requests in the last few weeks than for pain relievers.”
“I'll just bet,” Lacey said. “Well, I guess I'd better get out of your hair. It was nice to see you, Paula. And thanks again.”
“Good to see you, too,” Emery said. “Is the colonel allowing you to return on Monday?”
“Yeah,” Lacey answered with a nod. “He only gave me a three-day.”
“Well, then,” the Lieutenant continued, “You'd better scoot your ass on out of here, before the colonel catches you and adds a couple more days to your sentence. We both know that would just about kill you.”
Lacey smiled and Emery returned the smile. They shared another moment of mutual silent friendship that quickly passed. Emery was suddenly all business again and plastered her stern ‘Broomhilda' expression back in place.
“Get, Doctor,” she shooed Lacey toward the door. “Before I change my mind and prove why I earned my nickname.”
With a surprised glance, Lacey scooted out the door and headed back toward the patient ward. How in the world did she know about her nickname? Lacey pondered the question as she emerged into the patient area, where she motioned to Simmons.
“Private, a word please,” she said to the woman who was still sitting with Private Avery.
“Yes, ma'am,” Simmons said, leaving her charge and following the Captain outside.
The instant Lacey stepped into the bright sunlight, the heat hit her like a blast furnace and brought her headache back with a vengeance. She donned her sunglasses, but they did nothing to keep the bright glare from piercing her eyes and making her head throb.
“Ugh,” she uttered, squinting behind the dark lenses.
“Yes, ma'am?” Simmons prodded.
“Yeah,” Lacey said, pinching the bridge of her nose and taking a moment to compose her thoughts. “I wanted to apologize for what happened the other day.”
“Ma'am?” Confusion registered on the young woman's face.
“I didn't mean to put you in a position that would force you to have to… well, to shoot someone, to put it bluntly,” Lacey finished lamely. “It wasn't right for me to relinquish my sidearm and order you to protect the private.”
“Ma'am,” Simmons began. “It's all right. You were right to do what you did. I'm just sorry you had to leave yourself unprotected to do it.”
Now it was Lacey's turn to look confused. “Excuse me?”
“I should have been carrying a sidearm, ma'am,” Simmons explained. “I was never issued one, because when we were doing supply runs up north, there didn't seem to be a need for me to carry a weapon. But, the other day made me realize that I should be armed, if for no other reason than to protect our patients. So, I went to Colonel Farrell with my request, and he had the master at arms issue me a sidearm, right there on the spot.”
“Wait a minute,” Lacey said, still confused and shading her eyes from the sun's glare. “I thought you were given time off after killing that rebel.” She waved dismissively.
“Oh, yeah, that,” Simmons shrugged. “I was a little shaken up afterwards. But once I gave it some thought, I realized I did what I had to do to protect the patient. It's okay, ma'am. Really. I don't blame you for what you did. It's what I've trained for since I joined the Army. I'm a soldier.”
“Really?” Lacey asked, incredulously. “You're really okay with having killed someone?”
“It was either kill him or let him kill us, ma'am,” Simmons answered with a shrug. “Those guys don't think twice about shooting us, so why should I feel bad about taking him out first?”
Why, indeed, Lacey thought wryly as she gazed fondly at the younger woman. It often amazed her how very mature some of these soldiers were when faced with life and death decisions. It certainly was a far cry from the people she had grown up with back home. Some of their ideals didn't extend beyond making a killing in the board room or on the golf course.
“Well, just for the record, I'm still sorry that I put you in that position in the first place, Private,” Lacey answered with a shrug.
“Apology accepted, ma'am,” Simmons said with a forgiving smile. “Permission to return to Private Avery, ma'am?”
“Granted,” Lacey answered. “Go take care of our boy, Private.”
“Thank you, ma'am,” Simmons said, stepping back and saluting.
Lacey returned the salute and watched as Simmons rushed back inside the building. The doctor stood there for another moment, wondering at the absurdity of it all. Then, with a shake of her head, turned and decided to head elsewhere.
“I need a damned drink,” she said to herself and let her feet take her to the Officers' Club.
It was the very next morning that Lacey stood at attention in front of Colonel Farrell's desk, waiting for the man to give her a clue as to why he had requested her presence in his office—again. She had been rudely awakened just a short time ago. Sergeant Gonzales arrived in her quarters with a summons from the colonel. He waited until she was dressed then escorted her to the place, never once veering off to run another errand.
Her head was pounding from yet another late night, but Lacey refused to let her discomfort show. It was Saturday morning and she had spent the better part of the previous night in the Officer's Club. It was the only place she could go that allowed her to unwind and release some of the day's pent up tension. She wanted to drown her troubles in alcohol, but there was none available anymore.
And now she was standing at rigid attention in front of her CO, with no clue to what she had done to earn the scowl that creased his features. The man didn't acknowledge her presence when she entered the office and was still ignoring her as she stood there. He just sat there, studying a file folder.
“Captain,” Farrell suddenly rose from his chair and set his reading glasses on top of the closed folder.
“Sir,” Lacey acknowledged.
He crossed his arms over his chest and met her gaze. The frown on his features should have given her a clue. Lacey knew he was only about ten years her senior and probably close to retirement. The gray at his temples spoke of his time in the Army and reminded her that it probably hadn't been without its trials. She just hoped this wasn't one of them.
“How much longer are you scheduled to remain here on your current tour?” He asked.
“Three months, sir,” Lacey decided to just go with his line of questioning.
“Three months,” Farrell moved around his desk and sat on the front corner, his arms still crossed over his chest. “And do you plan to re-up when the time comes? Is this really what you want to do with your life?”
“Excuse me, sir?” Lacey's only allowed her eyes to glance in his direction. He had not yet allowed her to stand at ease.
Farrell rose, straightened and stepped close enough to be within inches of her left shoulder. The man was more than six feet tall and towered over her in an impressive show of authority. He stood there for several moments and then returned to stand behind his desk. He lifted the manila folder into his hands and slapped it down on the desk with a resounding smack that made Lacey jump.
“I am being forced to do something I never thought I would do, Captain,” Farrell continued in an even, yet menacing tone. “It has come to my attention that you were seen in a rather compromising position in the company of another officer. Your behavior on said evening is in question for an officer in the United States Army—”
The words thereafter just seemed to flow right over her, as she tuned out most of it. Lacey couldn't believe she was being accused of fraternizing with another officer. Then again, she knew the accusation was one hundred percent accurate.
“Excuse me, Colonel,” Lacey interrupted his tirade before he had a chance to finish. She decided to play the ignorance card. “Are you accusing me of sleeping with another officer?” She kept her tone as neutral as possible, as if they were merely discussing the weather or a recent surgery. “Because I'm sensing that I did something inappropriate. I guess I'm confused, sir.”
Farrell stopped abruptly and gave Lacey an incredulous look. “I am most definitely saying exactly that, Captain.”
“And?” Lacey continued with more courage than she actually felt. “It is my understanding that my actions are not exactly inappropriate, sir. I have it on good authority that visits to the infirmary for the Day-After pill are quite common these days.”
“What?!?” Farrell nearly exploded. He pointed an accusing finger at Lacey. “Where did you hear that, Captain?”
Lacey shrugged. “I can't reveal my source, sir. I really don't want to open that kettle of fish, begging your pardon, sir.”
Farrell bristled and then blew out an exasperated breath. “This has nothing to do with what goes on in the infirmary, Captain. This is about your choice of sexual partners.”
Lacey gave him her most innocent look. “Sir? I'm afraid I really don't understand.”
This time it was Farrell who was confused. “What I'm getting at is that you were seen in the company of Chief Papadopoulos. Someone saw the two of you…Actually, you were seen being carried over the Chief's shoulder to your tent, Captain.”
“Isn't this bordering on the ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy, then, sir?” Lacey pushed. “After all, Chief Papadopoulos is a woman.” She looked down at her own chest and then met his glare. “And, since I am also a woman, this is more than a mere misconduct accusation, sir.”
“Were you or were you not in the company of Chief Papadopoulos several nights ago, Captain?” Farrell ground out between clenched teeth.
“I was, sir,” Lacey answered. “She carried me to my quarters, because I was too drunk to walk there on my own recognizance, sir. I'd had several drinks in the OC and was barely conscious when Mac showed up. She carried me home and then left, sir.”
“Did she leave your quarters immediately after carrying you inside?” Farrell prodded.
“No, she did not, sir,” Lacey answered and then decided to beat him to the punch before he could ask her a question that she was required to answer directly. Don't Ask, Don't Tell didn't apply when there was sufficient evidence to make a firm accusation. “The Chief was kind enough to stay with me briefly, to be sure I was all right and didn't choke on my own vomit, sir. She was concerned for my welfare. That's all, sir.”
Farrell gave Lacey a hard stare before his expression changed to one of hesitant acceptance. “I still have to proceed with the investigation, Captain.” He shrugged. “I'm sorry that it has come to this. You're a good officer and an asset to this company. But regulations are regulations. You understand.”
“Understood, sir,” Lacey answered calmly. Inside she was reeling with the implication of his words. “May I ask where this accusation originated from, sir?”
Farrell folded his arms over his chest and scowled. “I'm not at liberty to say, Captain.”
“Was it Lieutenant Gregory, sir?” Lacey prodded further and watched closely for a reaction from her commanding officer.
Farrell didn't realize that his non-verbal cues gave her the answer she was looking for before his next words even left his lips. “I'm sorry, Captain, but that information is confidential until the investigation is completed and a determination has been made.”
“That's fine, Colonel,” Lacey answered as she felt an uncomfortable shiver race up her spine. “I understand.” Lacey braced herself. “Permission to return to my quarters and resume my temporary leave, sir?”
“Permission granted, Captain,” Farrell answered on a heavy sigh. “Just stay out of trouble, Captain Stephens. I'm really getting tired of these little chats of ours.”
“Am I still allowed to resume my rounds when the weekend is over, sir?” She asked. “I feel an obligation to return to duty, in the interest of my patients.”
“That's fine,” Farrell answered. “Dismissed, Captain.”
Lacey saluted and turned on her heel, but stopped halfway to the door and turned to face him. “I'm sorry I've disappointed you, sir. It wasn't my intention to put you in this situation.”
Farrell glanced up from the papers on his desk and met her expectant stare. “You're a good officer, Stephens, one of my best, as a matter of fact. I just hope…” he paused as a sorrowful expression crossed his features and made him appear years older than he really was. “I will be very disappointed if this ends up in court martial proceedings, Captain Stephens.”
Lacey gave him a quick nod. “Understood, sir.” Then she turned and left his office.
As soon as she was outside, Lacey breathed a heavy sigh of relief that quickly turned to a short gasp. Someone stepped up next to her and startled her.
“Mac!” Lacey hissed loudly, as she put a hand to her chest in an attempt to regain some measure of composure. “Jesus Christ! You scared the shit out of me.”
Mac shrugged. “Sorry about that. I didn't mean to startle you.” She looked Lacey over for a moment. “You don't look any the worse for wear. I think you even still have some butt left.” She lowered her voice. “And a cute butt it is, might I add.”
Lacey blushed to her roots. “Thanks, I think,” she answered as she donned her hat and glasses, then started across the compound toward her quarters. “What are you doing lurking around the CO's office, anyway?”
“A little birdie told me you were escorted to Farrell's office earlier this morning,” Mac answered conversationally. “I just wanted to make sure you're okay.”
Lacey glanced sidelong at her taller companion. “What makes you think I'm not?”
“A feeling,” Mac shrugged. “And I heard through the grapevine that Farrell has launched an investigation into your behavior a few nights ago.” Her expression became concerned. “Does he suspect anything…?”
“Someone told him you were in my tent,” Lacey answered shortly. “Apparently he's skirting the DADT policy at the moment. And if I catch that son of a bitch…” She let her words trail off, as well as her anger.
“You know who tipped him off?”
“Gregory,” Lacey frowned. “I slept with him and…” a glance in Mac's direction and Lacey noticed a glimmer of a hurt cross the pilot's features. “Mac, it wasn't like that.”
Mac shrugged off Lacey's words. “It doesn't matter,” she forced the words out without revealing any of the turmoil roiling within her. “You don't have to answer to anyone about who you choose as a sexual partner.”
Lacey managed to get ahead of the taller woman enough to stop Mac in her tracks. “It wasn't like that, Mac. Please, you have to believe me.” She realized they were standing in the middle of the compound, where anyone could overhear their conversation, and abruptly let Mac's arm go. “Can we take this somewhere more private? I really don't want a repeat of my earlier discussion with the colonel. I've had enough confrontation lately to last a lifetime.”
“Sure,” Mac shrugged and sidestepped the smaller woman. “We could go to my quarters.”
“No,” Lacey adamantly shook her head. “Let's go someplace a little more public that will provide us the privacy we need to discuss this further. I know just the place.”
Lacey changed directions and marched off toward the flight line. She didn't stop or say another word until they reached the deserted airstrip. The helicopters were lined up in a neat row and Lacey spotted Mac's among them. When she reached the bird, she climbed into the cockpit and settled back in the rather uncomfortable seat. She quickly surveyed the rear of the bird to make sure they were completely alone, as Mac climbed into the pilot's seat.
“You sure you want to sit here in this heat?” Mac asked as she quickly undid the buttons of her camouflage over shirt and removed it. She wore a tank top underneath, but that did nothing to dispel the intense heat in the cockpit. “It's hotter than a baker's oven in here.”
Lacey removed her own over shirt, as cool beads of sweat broke out on her back. “I guess I didn't consider how damned hot it would be in here.”
Mac reached for a button on the console and the electronics suddenly whirred to life. A blast of heated air hit them both and eventually turned into a cooler stream from the aircraft's conditioning system.
“A little better,” Lacey commented. “Maybe we should take her up for a short flight and really cool off.”
“No can do,” Mac answered with obvious disappointment. “She's still grounded until Monday morning. Tiny won't clear her for flight until after one of his goons takes her up for a test flight.”
Lacey frowned. “Maybe we should go somewhere else, then.”
“No, this is fine,” Mac said as the cockpit finally cooled to a more tolerable level.
There was a long silence as Lacey tried to gather her own errant thoughts together. She knew she had to explain things right up front to the pilot. Mac deserved the truth.
“I was in college when I had my first…encounter,” Lacey said with a knowing smile. “I was young and stupid and wanted nothing more than to choose a lifestyle that would drive my parents crazy.” She shrugged. “You know, the whole ‘rebellion against all the parents stand for' thing.” She glanced sidelong at Mac and found the pilot listening intently. “Her name was Amanda.” Lacey paused to let the memories wash over her. “We were together for six weeks before I realized we just weren't a good fit.”
“Not up to your austere standards?” Mac gave Lacey a wry half smile.
“Actually, we had a lot in common,” Lacey turned her gaze out the window and watched the hazy ripples of heat in the distance. “We both came from wealthy families and mostly liked the same things. But, I eventually realized that I didn't want to play anymore. I wanted more out of the relationship, but Amanda was…Well, let's just say she enjoyed the upheaval our relationship caused for her family.”
Mac nodded sagely. “She wasn't a lesbian,” she stated.
“No,” Lacey shook her head. “She finally found a guy who had everything she was looking for, and then she married him.” She smirked. “She thanked me for our time together and gave me a chaste kiss on the cheek. Then she left without another word. I vowed never to get involved with another woman again.”
Mac watched Lacey's expression turn somber. “You really liked her.”
Lacey nodded. “She wasn't my first, but…” She shrugged. “Amanda and I could talk about anything and everything—our hopes, our dreams, life in general. We used to stay up late and just talk about what it was like growing up in the shadow of parents who gave us everything.” She bowed her head. “And the sex was amazing,” a grin split her face as she looked up and found Mac watching her intently. “We connected on so many levels. I thought she was someone I could settle down with. I thought I was in love.”
Mac returned the smile. “Sounds like this Amanda made you happy for a while.”
“She did,” Lacey nodded again. “But, like the saying goes, all good things must come to an end. I just didn't think it would happen so soon. One day we were holding hands and the next it was over.”
“You wanted the whole enchilada.” Mac stated.
“I wanted her more than anything,” Lacey shrugged. “It just wasn't meant to be.”
“So you're saying…” Mac swallowed noticeably.
“I'm saying these feelings I have for you aren't new to me, Mac,” Lacey said. The electronics and avionics between them kept her from touching Mac, but that didn't stop her from having the urge to touch the pilot. “You might think it was the alcohol talking that night, but the truth is I've wanted to kiss you ever since that first time we met in Farrell's office.” She turned away from the uncomfortable look Mac gave her. “What I'm saying is that, yes, I'm a lesbian.”
Mac ran an impatient hand down her face, as she tried to absorb what Lacey was telling her. “And the guy you slept with after we…um…Well, you know.”
Lacey sighed heavily and leaned back in her seat, until she was absently staring up at a bank of flashing lights above her. “It was…I…” She breathed out a frustrated breath. “You have to understand how long it's been since I've allowed myself to feel anything for another woman. I've had relations with men in keeping with that asinine policy and to keep up appearances. Mostly to maintain a reputation as a normal woman with normal sexual urges. But, the fact of the matter is, I've just been waiting for the right person to come along.” She turned her gaze on Mac with such openness that the pilot couldn't miss the misery in their sea-green depths. As quickly as the emotions surfaced, however, they were gone. Lacey once again put up the emotional barriers that kept people from seeing her true feelings. “I'm not very good at this, I'm afraid.”
Mac was torn. On the one hand, she felt slightly used by the woman sitting across from her and on the other she was elated that Lacey had feelings for her. The fact that Lacey jumped from her arms to some guy's didn't sit well, though. The maneuver played off like one of those ‘experimenting-with-sexuality' nightmares that she always promised herself she would avoid at all costs.
“So, who's the guy?” Mac asked.
“Lieutenant Michael Gregory,” Lacey answered. “I think he's a transfer. I've never seen him around here before the other day.”
“He's the one that turned you in?” Mac continued.
“I'm pretty sure he is,” Lacey answered. “There's no one else who has a reason to bring the colonel into this. Gregory and I didn't exactly leave on the best of terms. He was a little…” she shrugged, “I guess you could say I probably insulted him when I jumped out of bed and left him without explanation.”
“So, you used him,” Mac stated flatly.
Lacey considered her answer. “Yeah, I guess I did. It's not something I'm particularly proud of, but, yeah, I did use him. I was confused. I guess I just acted on impulse without any regard for his feelings…or yours, for that matter. I'm sorry.”
“So, his beef with you is fairly legit,” Mac continued and watched the guilt cross the doctor's features.
“Yeah,” Lacey answered simply. “I guess you could say that.”
“Where does that leave us?” Mac's expression was neutral, as she continued to watch the myriad of expressions cross the doctor's features.
Lacey finally met Mac's intense gaze hopefully. “That depends on your feelings about the whole thing, Mac. I mean, I wasn't exactly fair or honest with you, so you could just say we're through.”
“Well, we didn't exactly sleep together,” Mac reasoned with a nonchalant shrug. “I mean, I didn't stay overnight.”
“No,” Lacey said and tried to figure out where the pilot was going with their conversation. “We didn't have sex, either.”
Mac nodded. “He doesn't have anything to go on, then.” She shrugged. “There's nothing for the colonel to charge you with at this point. It's just his word against yours. If anything, all Farrell has on you is misconduct with a subordinate. That's about it.”
Lacey's confusion was obvious. “Mac, I have feelings for you that go well beyond this whole inquiry thing with the colonel. I'm not even really worried about that, as much as I'm worried that I hurt you—that I disappointed you and put you in an awkward position.”
“You didn't hurt me, Captain,” Mac smirked and shrugged again. “You were just doing what you do.”
“And exactly what is that?” Lacey shot the woman an irritated glare.
“We shared some kisses,” Mac stated with a shrug. “Obviously it meant very little to you, because you jumped into bed with someone else the very next night in order to hide your true feelings. All I can come up with is that you didn't really feel anything for what we shared. You're too concerned with what other people think to really open yourself up to someone who might actually care about you. Am I wrong?”
Lacey nearly choked on the sentiment behind Mac's words. “I don't…”
“Face facts, Captain,” Mac continued. “Your career means more to you than those elusive feelings you're going on about. If your career weren't so damned important, you wouldn't have thrown yourself at the first guy who came along. You needed a patsy to help you bury what's really churning behind that façade of yours. Because to face the fact that you care about people would mean that you might have to grow up and be the person you've been hiding from all your pampered life. You used the lieutenant and he simply retaliated the only way he knew how.”
Lacey sat there in stunned silence for a long moment, as she digested Mac's words. The words stung, but they also rang true. She couldn't deny that she had used Lieutenant Gregory, especially after already admitting to it. There was no denying that. But how could she rectify the situation? Before she said anything, though, Mac beat her to the punch.
“When you're ready to open yourself up to the joy and pain that comes with an intimate relationship, give me a call, Captain,” Mac said, as she shut down the helicopter's systems and pushed open her door. “I do care. If that means anything to you. But I won't be used. I think you're a wonderful person and we could certainly have something great together. But you need to figure out if you're willing to risk your career and all you've worked for to give us a chance.”
Lacey watched as Mac closed the door behind her and marched back across the sun-baked concrete towards camp. Lacey was torn between following after the tall pilot and simply remaining where she was. Mac's words hurt, but they also hit home.
“Shit!” Lacey quietly exclaimed, as she felt the sweltering heat return to the closed cockpit.
She shoved the door open and felt very little relief, as she climbed from the cockpit. The afternoon heat was probably topping 120 degrees, which did nothing to dispel her dour mood. Lacey made her way to the shade of the metal hangar and was slightly relieved to find herself completely alone, as she entered the vast interior. Another aircraft was in pieces on the hangar floor, and she managed to skirt around the mess as she headed for the back office.
The air conditioner grumbled loudly, as Lacey entered and surveyed the cluttered space. She smirked as she pushed one of Tiny's signature grease rags off the chair and sat down. Her thoughts were still on her conversation with Mac, as she leaned back in the squeaky chair and placed her booted feet on the desk.
“I've made a real mess of things,” she muttered and settled back with an exasperated sigh.
Mac hadn't meant to be so blunt with the doctor, nor had she meant to leave so abruptly. As she made her way towards camp, she thought about the conversation and what Lacey Stephens said. Mac's harsh words at the end had only served to make her feel guilty about the whole thing. The captain was only being honest with her, and Mac had used her own hurt feelings to retaliate against Lacey's admission.
“You are such an ass, Papadopoulos,” Mac chided herself.
She glanced up and found that her long strides had taken her to the mess tent. As she was about to enter, a group of men left the tent in front of her. They were laughing and carrying on, much like men did. One man, in particular, was talking loudly and waving his arms animatedly. The name embroidered on his uniform caught Mac's attention.
“Lieutenant Gregory?” Mac said as the men passed her without sparing her a glance.
“Yeah?” The young officer with brown hair and eyes turned to face her. He waved his buddies to go on without him. “Catch you guys later.” He then turned his full attention on the tall woman towering over him in the shade of the entrance. “What can I do for you, Chief?”
“I believe we have a mutual acquaintance,” Mac said, as she motioned for him to precede her to a more secluded place behind the mess tent. “Do you mind if we have a private word? We haven't met yet, but I feel like I already know you.”
“Not at all, Chief,” he answered warily, as he moved to a shaded area far removed from any regular foot traffic. “What's up?”
“I'm a little concerned about our mutual acquaintance, Lieutenant,” Mac took a seat across the table from him. She lowered her voice and continued. “Captain Stephens is a good officer and doesn't deserve the investigation that's been launched against her.”
“I don't know what you're talking about, Chief,” he said, but Mac could see that he was suddenly uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was headed.
“She didn't mean to hurt you,” Mac continued.
“She didn't,” Gregory glared daggers at the woman.
“Then why the accusation against her?”
“I'm afraid I have no idea what you're talking about, Chief,” he said, as he glanced around to be sure they were alone. “This is really none of your business.” He paused a moment and then added, “I don't know why you would defend her honor, but I have a pretty good idea what happened after you carried her into her tent.”
“Nothing happened, Lieutenant,” Mac kept her gaze locked on his. “If you knew the doctor, you'd know your accusation is unfounded.”
“Captain Stephens is a disgrace to the uniform,” he hissed, his expression mirroring his disgust. “I know what the two of you did that night, Chief. I heard everything. I'm not an idiot. At the very least, the two of you were making out like a couple of crazed weasels.”
“What the hell were you doing sneaking around outside her tent in the middle of the night, anyway?” Mac sneered. “And why would you sleep with her?”
Gregory's expression hardened. “I wasn't sneaking. I just happened to see you carrying her over your shoulder, then saw you duck inside her tent. You were in there a long time, Chief. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to know what was going on. It ain't right, two women making out like that. Not to mention how it looks for you two to wear that uniform. It just ain't right. And it's none of your damned business why I slept with the captain.”
It was Mac's turn to look disgusted, as she stood taller. “And how would you know what's right? Huh?”
“I know what the Bible says and what military policy dictates, Chief,” Gregory gave her a satisfied sneer. “I also know that Captain Stephens is disgusting. She's a perv. You're both a couple of dyke pervs.”
“And you're an asshole, Gregory,” Mac shot back. “She's done more for the soldiers in her care than any other doctor in this company.”
“Maybe, but that don't excuse her behavior, one bit,” he countered as he tried to skirt around her until he wasn't boxed in. “I heard what I heard, and I have an obligation to report it to the colonel. Military policy is clear on the gay issue.”
Mac took a step back from the man who was almost a head shorter than she was. “You are a sick bastard, Gregory. I can't believe you would deign to have sex with someone you consider in such low regard.”
“I did what I had to do,” he said, as he tried to stand taller and crossed his arms over his chest. “It was a sacrifice I was more than willing to make. And I would do it again in a heartbeat, if for no other reason than to prove that this,” he crudely grabbed his crotch, “package beats your dyke shit any day.”
Mac shook her head in disbelief. “Asshole.” She decided on a different tactic, as she took a step toward him and jabbed a finger into his chest. “Did it make you feel like a man to put one over on a superior officer? Is your dick bigger for having screwed a dyke, as you so eloquently put it?” She put her face inches from his. “You want a piece of this?” She grabbed her own crotch. “'Cause I'm as much a lesbian as Captain Stephens, you little fuck.”
Gregory bristled. “You're a sick bitch, you know that?”
“No sicker than you, you spineless little shit,” Mac continued in a level tone. “You're no more a man than any other little bigoted prick in this place, Lieutenant.” She turned to leave, but stopped and shot over her shoulder, “And for the record, Lieutenant, Captain Stephens didn't enjoy your attentions in the slightest. She was actually rather put off by your…um…package, there.”
“She told you that?” His face went bright red.
“We're friends,” Mac stated. “She tells me things. And I'm a very good listener.”
Gregory suddenly raised a fist at her. “You…”
Mac's expression turned icy, as she faced him down with a dangerous glare. “Retract the accusation, Gregory. Retract it or you'll be sorry you ever crossed paths with Captain Stephens or me.”
“Yeah?” His hackles were suddenly up. “Why the hell should I let that…that dyke bitch prowl this camp with her unnatural ways? And you. I should just tell the colonel he can expand his investigation to include you, too. Now that I know the real goddamned truth.”
Mac closed the distance again, until they were nose-to-nose, then she glanced around to be sure they were still alone. “I'm not playing, Lieutenant. I will most certainly bury you if you don't let this go. And that's a promise you can take to the bank, Lieutenant Gregory.”
Gregory just glared up at her. “I don't think so, Chief. I didn't get my lieutenant's bars by being stupid or acting like a fucking coward.”
Mac inched forward and watched with satisfaction as Gregory took a step back. “Tell the colonel you made a mistake or you will be spending the next several months looking over your shoulder every second of every day, Lieutenant.”
“Are you threatening me, Chief?” He said with far less bravado.
“Let's just say, I can make your life a living hell while you're here, Lieutenant,” Mac answered. “You won't know when it's coming, from where, or from whom, but it will happen in a way that will send you screaming into the night like the cowardly little ferret that you most certainly are.”
Mac could see the sweat beading on the shorter man's brow, as the full force of her words sank in. He was scared, which was just fine with her. Fear was a great motivator. She just hoped it worked and he would leave Lacey alone.
Lacey awoke early on Sunday morning to complete silence. It was eerie. Not a sound reached her in her quarters. It was strange and not a bit abnormal for a medical facility in a war zone. It was also strange that she didn't have a hangover. Of course, no more alcohol at the Officer's Club had everything to do with that, she reasoned with a smirk. She'd been avoiding the place since learning there was no more alcohol to be had. Involuntary sobriety was working wonders for her constitution and her moods.
Instead of drinking the night away, Lacey spent the time in the small cramped hospital office doing paperwork. It was either that or run the risk of having the colonel discover that she wasn't exactly following orders.
Lacey's thoughts turned to the inquiry. She hadn't heard a word from the colonel about the investigation since his meeting with her the previous morning. Not a word. That could go either way, depending on how one looked at it.
As she sat up and shook the sleep away, Lacey gazed at the clock on her nightstand. She had sixteen hours to kill. Tomorrow would definitely be a day of celebration. Not only would she be allowed back in the hospital for more than just lousy paperwork, but Mac's chopper would be flight tested and would hopefully pass inspection. Lacey smirked as her thoughts turned to the tall pilot.
“Gorgeous,” Lacey muttered in the silence.
“You talking about me, Captain?” Mac's voice came unbidden from Lacey's tent opening, as the pilot removed her hat and glasses and stepped inside.
“Shit, Mac!” Lacey exclaimed and nearly jumped out of her skin. “Have you ever given serious thought to a career in espionage or maybe taking on a career as an undercover high school narc? You could sneak up on a strung-out teenager before they knew what hit ‘em.”
Mac crossed the room and sat down on the edge of the bed. “You planning on getting up anytime soon? I know it's Sunday, but…”
“I'm getting up, yeah,” Lacey answered with a wry smile. “I can't believe you're here. What are you doing in my tent, anyway? You know the colonel's breathing down my neck.”
“Relax. I'm just checking on a teammate,” Mac answered with a wry smile. “When you didn't show up to the OC last night, I got a little worried. Asked around and found out that you spent the night doing paperwork at the hospital. Didn't want to disturb you, so I waited until this morning to come by and check on you.”
Lacey smiled warmly. “Aw, you care that much?”
Mac shrugged. “I care about you, yeah. Got a problem with that?”
Lacey squirmed a bit under Mac's scrutiny. “No, not really. It's just been a really long time since that's happened. Having you around is gonna take some getting used to.”
Mac slapped Lacey's blanket-covered knee. “Get used to it, Cap'n. I ain't goin' anywhere, anytime soon.” She glanced around the tent. “You have some clothes tucked away in here somewhere?”
“Yeah, why?” Lacey glanced at her foot locker. “You need a doctor or something?”
“Not really, no,” Mac answered as she opened the foot locker and rummaged around in it. She emerged with a fresh set of underwear. “You want a shower to start your day?”
Lacey lifted an arm and did a cursory sniff. “I guess it couldn't hurt. You volunteering to be my chaperone? ‘Cause I don't think the colonel would be none too happy to learn that we were caught showering together.”
Mac grimaced. “No.” She tossed the undergarments to Lacey, who caught them easily. “I can wait here until you get back. Then I thought we'd hang out today. There's not much to do around here, but maybe we can come up with something that will keep us both out of trouble.”
“Just the two of us?” Lacey gave Mac an engaging flirty smile. “Like a date?”
“Like two friends who have nothing to hide,” Mac replied with a grimace. “Be serious, Lacey. I really don't want you to get in trouble with the CO, and I certainly don't want either of us to face a court martial for what happened the other night.” She shrugged, as she sat back down on the bed. “Besides, you deserve more than to have a blemish on your military record for something we both had a…um…part in.”
Lacey felt a thrill of happiness chase down her spine at the words. It was so refreshing to have someone on her side that actually cared enough to say it. She gazed at Mac with fresh eyes and realized they could actually have something together besides a few stolen kisses.
“Can I ask you something?” Lacey asked hesitantly.
“Sure.” Mac answered with an easy air. “What's on your mind?”
“Um…I'm not really sure how to say this,” Lacey couldn't help the blush that infused her fair cheeks.
“Then just spit it out,” Mac said. “That usually works for me.”
“Okay,” Lacey breathed out a heavy sigh. “Could the two of us ever…? You know, could we ever be, say, a couple?” Lacey held her breath and waited for the answer.
Mac cocked her head and considered the question. “Well,” she said as she met Lacey's expectant gaze. “I guess that depends.”
“On how much we value our careers in the Army, for one,” Mac gave her a wry smirk. “I don't see our illustrious military, or the U.S. Congress, changing the policy on same-sex relations anytime soon. It took them this long to reluctantly accept women in combat.”
Lacey nodded. “Yeah, I guess you're right,” she frowned. “I guess that would be a ‘no' then.” She watched Mac's expression change and hurriedly added, “It's all right. I understand. After all, I've been in the Army long enough to know what all this crap really means. The whole ‘Don't Ask, Don't Tell' thing was a real let down. I actually thought they might progress far enough to drop the whole issue and just accept everyone on equal footing. It's not like being gay actually spreads or infects anyone else.”
“No, it doesn't,” Mac chuckled. “But I think the whole acceptance thing is just a bit much for the powers-that-be to swallow all in one bite. Bad enough they allowed women to serve in limited combat situations. That certainly was over the top for some.”
They both chuckled, until the full impact of the conversation finally hit home. Lacey realized there was nothing more for them to discuss at that point. She climbed from her bed and grabbed her discarded BDUs and the clean underwear.
“Well, I guess I'll go take that shower, then,” she said as she made her way towards the tent opening. She grabbed a khaki robe from a chair and covered herself, then ducked outside.
Mac merely watched the doctor leave and made herself comfortable, while she waited for Lacey's return.
As soon as she finished her shower, Lacey made her way back to her tent. She was clean and feeling rather good about herself, as she made her way across the compound in a tank top and her BDU pants. Actually, she felt better than she had in a long time. She didn't know if it was because Mac was waiting for her in her tent or because she didn't have the customary hangover that followed after a night of binge drinking.
“You certainly look chipper this morning, Captain,” Kevin unexpectedly fell into step next to her. “You even have a little spring in your step that I haven't seen in a while.”
Lacey glanced sideways at him and smirked. “I feel chipper, Major.”
“Dare I ask why?” He watched her under hooded eyes as they continued on toward the officer's quarters. “I heard the colonel is investigating your…er, questionable activities of the other night.”
Lacey shrugged. “Let him. I have nothing to hide.”
Lacey pulled up short in front of her tent and faced her friend. She noted the stress lines around his eyes that marked his increasing responsibilities and the worry that came with rank. His face also held a golden tan that said he spent much of his time in the sun. None of it mattered to her. He was handsome by anyone's standards, but Lacey had absolutely no feelings for him, other than as a very dear friend.
“You going to invite me in, Lac?” Kevin remarked with a conspicuous smirk. “It's Sunday…”
“There's nothing to drink in there,” Lacey shot back with a grimace. She threw her towel over a shoulder and stood her ground. “Besides, I already told you I'm not interested, Major. You're a great guy and all, but…”
Lacey frowned. How best to tell him without breaking the rules? “I have a policy.”
“Yeah,” she continued and placed her hands on her hips. “I don't date my superiors. Gets too messy when the relationship ends.” She cringed inwardly at the boldfaced lie, but outwardly she was as cool as granite.
Mac took that opportunity to peek her head out of Lacey's tent. Her presence did not go unnoticed by the Kevin, as he eyed her suspiciously. Mac boldly emerged completely into the bright sunlight to stand next to Lacey.
“Major Kevin Johnson,” he said and held a hand out to Mac. He glanced at Lacey with a quirked brow. “A policy, huh?”
“Chief Warrant Officer Mackenzie Papadopoulos,” Mac congenially took his hand and shook it firmly.
“Mac, yes, I know who you are,” Kevin said. “I've heard all about your exploits in Stan. The colonel was quite impressed by your rather austere credentials. Of course, I managed to give him a heads-up that you're one hell of a Pilot in Command.”
“You were in Afghanistan , sir?” Mac asked.
“Had the pleasure of serving a tour, year before last,” Kevin responded, as he folded his arms over his chest. “Not exactly the most hospitable place on earth. Too many mountains, caves and guys with SAMs and RPGs for my tastes. Had a close call with one during a routine border patrol. Didn't see the damned missile until it was almost too late. It skinned our underbelly and left a nice mark, but luckily didn't explode on impact.”
“Yeah, been there done that,” Mac said and her face broke out into an easy smile. “Had three such run-ins while I was doing supply runs. Even had to set down once after a guy with an AK-47 shot up my underbelly and put a nice big hole in my fuel tank.”
“Anything come of it?”
“Managed to set her down in friendly territory—at least friendly enough for our guys to come to the rescue,” Mac chuckled. “My gunner took out their heavy artillery before we took the downing hit. The landing wasn't pretty, but we all survived with only a few bumps and bruises.”
Lacey watched the two suspiciously. They were becoming a little too friendly for her tastes. Her gaze went from Kevin to Mac and back again.
“All right, Kev,” she finally decided to confront him directly. “Why are you sniffing around my tent on a Sunday? Is this a social call or is there an ulterior motive I should know about?”
Kevin gave Mac a knowing smirk before turning his attention to Lacey. “I came over here to invite you out.”
Lacey put her hands on her hips. “Out? Where?” She motioned around the camp with an impatient hand. “In case you haven't noticed, there isn't exactly a restaurant or movie theatre around here. Besides, we're in the middle of a war zone and we're soldiers in the damned Army.”
“It's Baghdad , Lac,” Kevin said. “They have restaurants and at least a dozen movie theatres. It's a very civilized place, if you take the time to get to know your way around. I swear, you base jockeys all think the place is a damned cave. Do you know they've got some of the best universities in the world here?” A smirk touched the corners of his mouth. “Of course, I'm not sure what kind of movies they show at those theatres. They're probably all in Arabic, for all I know…” he shrugged. “But that's not really where I was going with this.”
“So, where are you going?”
“I thought you might want to do something a little more interesting than hang around the base all day long,” he said and then turned to Mac. “There's no flying involved, but you're welcome to join us, Chief.”
“There's more to me than the whole pilot mystique, sir,” Mac gave him her best playful smirk. She gave Lacey's shoulder a playful pat. “You never said the major was so charming, Captain Stephens.”
Lacey rolled her eyes and rolled her tongue in her cheek. “Oh, didn't I?” The response dripped sarcasm as she met Kevin's gaze. “I'm so glad the two of you are hitting it off so well, Major.” She shoved aside the flap to her tent and ducked inside without a backward glance. “Wait there while I make myself more presentable.” She ducked inside the tent, rummaged for a fresh change of clothes, dressed and quickly swiped a brush through her hair. Working her hair into a French braid, Lacey blew out an exasperated breath. “Men,” she muttered.
Mac and Kevin exchanged glances and shrugs.
“So, is that a yes, Lac?” Kevin asked.
“I'll be out in a minute,” Lacey called from inside the tent.
Mac gave Kevin another shrug and crossed her arms over her chest.
“Don't worry, Mac, we go back a long way, Lacey and me,” Kevin said in a low voice. “She's good people, but a little rough around the edges.”
“I heard that, Kevin…um, Major,” Lacey groused, as she emerged from the tent fully dressed in her BDUs. She was just putting the finishing touches to the French braid and then donned her hat and sunglasses. “Where exactly are we going, anyway?”
“Follow me,” Kevin said. “Did you bring your flak jackets? We can't leave home without ‘em.”
“I'm wearing mine,” Mac glanced down at the vest she was wearing. “Had my own plans to kidnap the Captain and have her give me a tour of the neighborhood. Luckily, I came prepared.”
“Hang on,” Lacey jogged back to her tent, ducked back inside and emerged with the kaki garment slung over one shoulder and her helmet in her other hand. “You need me to grab my pistol, too, Major?”
“Not really necessary where we're headed, Captain,” Kevin responded with a sly grin.
Lacey and Mac fell into step next to Kevin, as they approached the squat vehicle. He climbed into the driver's side, while Mac motioned for Lacey to precede her into the back seat of the vehicle.
“I'm not really a big fan of back seat driving, people,” Lacey grumbled, as she squeezed behind the passenger seat and made herself as comfortable as possible. “I have an unfortunate history of motion sickness. And where in the damned manual does it say the short person always has to take the back seat?”
“It doesn't,” Mac shrugged. “I just can't squeeze back there like you apparently can, Captain. And why do you get sick in a vehicle, when you seem just fine in the chopper?”
“It's a ground thing,” Lacey groused and then glared at the back of Kevin's head. “All that bouncing around tends to churn my insides and…um…stuff.”
“Just let me know if you need me to pull over,” Kevin strapped himself in. He turned enough so he could see her in the back seat. “I wouldn't want you to lose your breakfast on my plush interior or on Mac, here.”
“What breakfast?” Lacey grumbled. “Never got the chance to partake in our illustrious fare. My chaperones seem to think breakfast is an unnecessary part of the morning.”
“Ya got an extra helmet back there, Major?” Mac ignored their passenger's grumpy comments. “I seem to have forgotten mine back in my quarters. Never gave it a thought.”
“Captain, there's a helmet back there somewhere,” Kevin shot a thumb over his shoulder. “Can you grab it and hand it to Mac?”
Lacey reached back and grabbed the item in question. “Here, Mac,” she handed the head gear to the woman. “You'll probably have to adjust it to make it fit. Kevin's got a rather big head for someone his size.”
“Ha, ha, very funny, Captain,” Kevin glanced back with an evil grin. “Just for that, I'm gonna make sure I hit every pot hole and bump from here to our destination. Buckle up, ladies.”
“Oh, goody,” Lacey donned her helmet, strapped herself in and rested her chin on her fist with her elbow on her upraised knee. “Good thing I have really short legs.”
Kevin navigated the Humvee out of the compound and toward Baghdad with expert skill and a wary eye. He knew the dangers that were ever-present in and around the capital city, especially for a military vehicle. He passed through one of the checkpoints and then navigated the busy streets with relative ease. Much to Lacey's relief, he managed to keep from hitting any potholes or bumps along the way.
“Almost there now,” Kevin commented. “How're you doing back there, Captain?”
“I'm fine, Major,” Lacey answered. “Just enjoying the lovely view,” she said in a quieter voice, as she kept her gaze on the back of Mac's helmet.
“You sure?” Mac said as she turned in her seat and met a pair of interested green eyes. “We could switch seats. Doesn't matter to me.”
“No, I'm fine. Really,” Lacey gave Mac a reassuring smile. “Where are we going again, Major?”
“Nice try, Captain,” Kevin answered with a conspiratorial smirk. “I never told you where we were going, now, did I?”
“No, which is why I'd really like to know,” Lacey shot back. “I hate surprises, Kev. You of all people should know that, by now.”
“I do, actually,” Kevin glanced at Mac. “It was one of the reasons we stopped seeing each other.”
“Ah,” Mac nodded her understanding. “I had no idea the two of you were once an item.”
“We weren't,” Lacey answered quickly, before Kevin could get a word in. “It was one night of mediocre sex. That was it. And we were both shit-faced when it happened.” Lacey couldn't help the blush that suffused her cheeks. “Then we graduated and it wasn't long after that Kevin got promoted. I still don't see what the review board saw in you that the rest of us didn't, Major.”
“Heeeey!” Kevin exclaimed. “Not nice, Captain .”
“But oh so true, Major ,” Lacey returned with a teasing smirk.
“I don't know about you, but I enjoyed it,” Kevin said. “Do you mind not calling it mediocre? I really get offended by that.”
“You would,” Lacey scoffed. “Men.”
“What?” He glanced at Mac and saw that she was trying unsuccessfully to hide a chuckle. “I'll have you know there is more to me than just sex and…and…well, okay, so there's not much else.” He shrugged. “That's probably why I haven't found the right person to settle down with yet. It takes a certain kinda woman to satisfy someone like me.”
“Anything's possible, Major,” Mac said. “Personally, though, I prefer someone with a wider range of interests. Sex is only one small aspect of a relationship. It's nice to share other stuff with another person, one who enjoys some of the same things you do.”
Kevin snorted loudly in derision and received a scowl from Mac in response. Lacey merely sat silently and watched the passing scenery. She had no wish to join the conversation, but was intrigued by Mac's response to Kevin's admission. She was so intrigued, in fact, that she decided to file away Mac's words for later consideration.
Twenty minutes later, the Humvee pulled up in front of a non-descript, concrete building in an obscure section of the large city. The building had a handful of barred windows and one recessed door, as well as an outdoor area surrounded by a chain link fence.
“This is where you decided to bring me on my day off, Kev?” Lacey climbed from the vehicle and surveyed the place with a critical eye. “Nice.”
“It doesn't look like much from the outside,” Kevin said with an inviting smile, as he made his way toward the entrance. He opened the door and chivalrously held it for them. “Just wait. You'll see.” He was nearly grinning in anticipation of their reactions.
Lacey entered first and was relieved to be out of the oppressive heat. The concrete blocks cut the heat in half and made the stifling air semi-tolerable. The next thing she noticed was the noise. Lacey looked around and saw children at various stations throughout the building. The walls were painted in bright colors and decorated with pictures and cutouts of animals and other things of interest to children.
“Is this a school?” She said, as Kevin stepped up on one side and Mac joined her on the other.
“Told you it was worth it,” Kevin said as he continued on into the building. He turned back and spread his hands wide. “Just a little pet project of mine. I've been working on it for the past three months and am really enjoying the challenge. It's pretty cool, isn't it?”
Lacey and Mac watched as a number of children suddenly spotted the tall man and ran to greet him. The two women exchanged wry glances, as they shrugged and joined him. The children were soon crowding all three Americans with happy smiles and outstretched hands.
Lacey wasn't sure exactly what the children wanted from her, as she stood there and listened to them talk to her in their native tongue. She simply smiled and let them pat her clothing.
“They want to see your hair,” Kevin said and removed his hat to reveal his dark-brown, short-cropped hair.
“My hair?” Lacey gave him a look and removed her hat.
“Now, just go ahead and get down at their level,” Kevin advised as he crouched low. “They're just kids. They won't hurt you or anything.”
Lacey did as he said and was a little overwhelmed when several hands lightly brushed her braided hair. The children were ooing and awing at the texture and color of her hair.
“They don't get to see hair like yours very often,” Kevin smirked. He then glanced up at Mac, who was still towering over all of them and was leaning against a wall off to one side. “Come on, Mac. They don't bite…much.” He teased.
“My hair's the same color as theirs,” Mac stood uncertainly by. “Besides, I don't do kids very well.”
“It's okay, Mac,” Lacey encouraged. “Really. They're just curious. The color of your eyes is actually pretty unique. They'll like that about you. Or you could just smile and show them how friendly you can be.” She gave the children surrounding her a friendly smile and chuckled when they responded enthusiastically to the attention. “See?”
Mac was still hesitant, but decided to give it a try. She saw a young boy standing by himself on the far side of where the other children were playing and made her way over to him. She approached him cautiously and decided to just sit several feet away from where he was standing. As she pretended to watch the other children, she glanced over in his direction and saw that he was watching her curiously.
“Here, try this,” Kevin was suddenly there next to her and holding a chocolate bar out to her. They both saw that the boy's curiosity was suddenly peaked. “Candy works wonders with kids, every time,” he said as he moved away. “And don't forget to smile.”
Mac took the chocolate bar and glanced over at the lone boy. He was still watching her, but his expression showed that he was more interested in the candy bar than he was in her. She took the wrapper off the chocolate bar and broke off a piece, then held it out to him with an expectant smile.
The boy watched her warily for a moment. Mac noticed that his hair and clothes were rather disheveled. He also had several sores on his face, arms and bare feet. It was obvious to Mac that this boy had already experienced more hardship in his short life than most Americans experienced in an entire lifetime. It touched her heart to think that kids had to suffer for the decisions made by the very adults who were supposed to protect them.
Mac was relieved to see that the boy had moved several steps closer to her. She continued to hold the chocolate out to him and even motioned for him to take it. He hesitated a moment longer before taking the final steps to stand next to her. He gingerly reached for the chocolate, took it and immediately shoved it in his mouth. A tentative smile touched the corners of his mouth, as he savored the treat. Mac broke off another piece and handed it to him. This time he didn't hesitate and simply took it from her. As he put the second piece in his mouth, he sat down next to her and placed a small hand on her knee.
“I see you found a friend,” a woman in a burqa stepped up next to Mac and smiled at the boy. “Jamal is a very shy boy, but he is also quite friendly once he gets to know you.”
“He likes chocolate, too,” Mac glanced up at the woman and smiled.
“Yes, many of the children enjoy your American treats,” the woman gave her a tolerant smile. “They have not yet learned what the American presence in our country means for us.”
Mac took note of the woman's plain attire and even plainer features. She appeared to be in her late twenties or early thirties. Dark brown hair peeked out from beneath the requisite Islamic head gear and matched her dark brows and even darker eyes. Her skin was smooth, but there was a hardness in her eyes that gave Mac the impression that the woman did not approve of the American presence in her country.
“I sense a note of disapproval in your tone,” Mac stated bluntly.
The woman was taken slightly aback by the comment. “Some are very grateful for what your country has done for our people. Those who bark the loudest, usually get the most attention. We were a very modern country, even before you came with your guns and your capitalist agenda.”
“Bark?” Mac said. “I don't remember seeing any dogs around here. And I wasn't speaking of your countrymen. I was talking about you, personally. I get the distinct impression you don't like us.”
“I have no feelings, one way or the other,” the woman said. “I am but a woman. My opinion matters little in the greater scheme of things, especially to you.”
“You are a person with an opinion,” Mac continued. “It's okay to speak your mind. There isn't anyone here but us and I'm not going to turn you in to the goon squad.” She looked up and caught a flash of something akin to wariness in the woman's eyes. “By the way, they call me Mac.”
“I am Shadir, Shadir Mussafarif,” the woman said with a quick nod. “I am the headmistress of this school. And, for your information, I attended the University of California , at Berkley . I have a doctorate in child psychology and another in sociology. My father wanted all his children to be well-educated, so he worked very hard to provide us with the means to attend university wherever we wished. My oldest brother attended Oxford . That's in England .”
Mac shrugged. “My brother owns a ranch in Wyoming and is a veterinarian. All I ever wanted to do was fly and play with my horses. I try not to get involved in world politics. I'm just a pilot.”
Shadir eyed Mac for a moment. “Do you mock me?”
“Not at all,” Mac handed Jamal another piece of chocolate. “I'm just here today for the kids.” She raised the candy bar toward the woman. “Apparently, relations between our countries begins with the younger generations. After all, they aren't politicians.”
Shadir glanced at Jamal, who was smiling as he leaned against the dark-haired pilot, and then returned her gaze to Mac. “My apologies for my rudeness. Could we possibly start again?”
“My name's Mac. It's nice to meet you, Shadir,” Mac smirked at the woman, as she handed the boy another piece of chocolate and put an arm around his shoulders.
“Jamal's parents were killed during the initial attack on Baghdad ,” Shadir said, as she smiled fondly at the boy. “He has not spoken since he came to us.”
“You house them here?” Mac asked.
“Yes,” Shadir answered with a nod. “There is a large area in the back of the building where a number of cots are set up for the children to sleep on. It is much safer than sending them back to their homes. We worry that they might once again get caught in the crossfire or possibly starve to death. Some of them, like Jamal here, have no homes to return to. So we give them food and shelter, as well as an education. Our funds are quite limited, but we do our best. Major Johnson has helped us acquire contributions from some of his friends and family back in the United States . He is quite a generous and giving man.”
“I wouldn't know,” Mac glanced over at Kevin and then back down at the dark head against her arm. “I just met the man this morning. He seems pretty nice, though. So, isn't there someone who could take Jamal in as part of their family?”
Shadir gave Mac a stern look. “I wish it were that easy. But the truth of the matter is there are few who are willing to do so. Resources are scarce in this part of the city and many families simply cannot afford to take in another mouth to feed.” She sighed heavily and shook her head. “I am afraid this is the best place for young Jamal and others like him.”
“So, why not send him somewhere else?” Mac couldn't quite comprehend the situation.
“To Jamal and the others, this is their home,” Shadir shrugged. “They feel safe here and we take care of their needs. Sending them elsewhere would not guarantee that they would be safe or that they would receive a proper education.”
Mac pulled the boy closer and squeezed his shoulders. He glanced up at her with liquid eyes, and she gave him a warm smile. Mac was never overly fond of children, other than her nephews, but Jamal seemed to touch a chord deep within her. Even though they didn't share a common language, there was something between them that said what words could not convey.
“Don't get too attached, Chief,” Kevin said as he approached. He glanced at Shadir. “I brought one of our field doctors with us.”
Shadir looked from Kevin to Mac. “You are a doctor?”
“No,” Mac answered quickly. “I'm just a pilot.”
“She's one of our best pilots,” Kevin added and then motioned with his chin towards Lacey, who was busy entertaining a group of children and completely oblivious to the conversation centered on her. “That's our doctor, over there.”
Shadir followed Kevin's gaze, until her gaze rested on the smaller blond head in the midst of a sea of brown. “She is quite small, is she not?” Her look turned skeptical.
“Dr. Stephens is a very good doctor,” Kevin continued. “She worked with Dr. Ahmad over at the El Shahazar Hotel when he needed a surgeon to take care of some of his more critical female patients. We loaned her out as part of a peace-keeping agreement.”
Shadir frowned. “Ahmad is a pig. He believes that it is not a man's place to lower himself to help women, even if he took the oath to become a doctor. My friend's sister died in his care, simply because he would not perform the necessary surgery to save her life.”
“I'm sorry, Shadir,” Kevin gave her a sympathetic look. “If it's any consolation, Dr. Stephens told Ahmad off and is currently on disciplinary leave because she went against a superior's orders. After she told Ahmad off, she stormed out of the hotel and returned to our base.”
Shadir's expression turned thoughtful. “This Dr. Stephens actually stood up to Ahmad and told him…How do you say? Off? No woman has ever stood up to Ahmad before. Like I said, he is a pig who often works both sides of this war to get what he wants. He was once a close advisor to the Hussein family, until someone discovered he was feeding information to the insurgents.”
“Well,” Kevin replied. “To answer your question, yes, Lacey did tell him off.”
“Most interesting,” Shadir's expression showed respect for the small woman sitting amidst the children. Lacey was motioning animatedly, as she told them a story. “Would the doctor be willing to see some of the children today?” She glanced up and met Kevin's gaze. “I would be most grateful if you both would do me this service, Major Johnson.”
Kevin shrugged. “Couldn't hurt to ask her, I guess.”
Mac continued to watch Lacey as she finished her story and glanced in their direction. There was a peaceful smile on the doctor's face that Mac had never seen before. Being with innocent children really seemed to do wonders for the harried doctor. Mac thought about that a moment and was amazed to realize that the doctor really hadn't been at peace since the day they met.
Hours later, Kevin, Mac and Lacey sat at one of the round tables in the OC, drinking soda and relaxing after the long day. Lacey had her booted feet propped up on a chair and was nursing her third drink, as she gazed absently across the room.
She and Kevin had examined twenty children, after the major had reluctantly asked her to do the “doctor thing” with him at the school-slash-orphanage. Twelve of the children were in relatively good health. She diagnosed the rest with various ailments that ranged from respiratory infections to one child who showed signs of the early stages of tuberculosis.
Lacey sighed heavily and glanced over at Mac, who was watching her curiously beneath hooded lashes.
“What?” Lacey raised a brow at the taller woman.
“Nothing,” Mac answered, as she glanced away.
“So, Kev,” Lacey turned to the man sitting next to her. “Did you get enough to file a report with the colonel?”
Kevin's feet instantly hit the floor, as he sat upright and stared at Lacey in flabbergasted shock. “What?”
“Your report to the colonel,” Lacey continued with a wry smirk. “Come on, Kev. Don't try to pull a fast one over on me. I know you, remember? I know that little excursion you took us on was just a ploy to see how Mac and I get along together. Admit it. You're the investigator the colonel was alluding to.”
Kevin ran a hand through his hair and met Lacey's intent stare. “Okay, you win. You're right. I'm the colonel's stool pigeon.”
Kevin's words certainly peaked Mac's interest. She also sat up and glared at the major.
“You want to tell me what's going on?” Mac glanced from Kevin to Lacey.
“He's a spy,” Lacey smirked conspiratorially and then finished off her drink. “The colonel needed someone close to me to do the investigation and Kevin volunteered.” She turned to Kevin. “Am I right?”
“Partially,” Kevin returned his booted feet to the tabletop and leaned casually back in his chair. “I didn't volunteer, but I did accept the assignment.”
“To make sure I get what's coming to me,” Lacey stated flatly. “Is that it?”
“To find out the truth,” Kevin countered. “I'm not vindictive, Lac. Please don't think that of me. I just want to know the truth. I need to know the truth.”
“You could have just asked me,” Lacey was hurt. “We've never kept secrets from each other, Kev.”
“Would one of you mind explaining what's going on? I'm still a little confused here,” Mac chimed in.
“I'm sorry, Lac,” Kevin continued. “I thought if I had the chance to observe the two of you away from our work environment, I'd get a better bead on…well, things.” He shrugged. “I guess I just wanted to see if the accusation against you had any merit.”
“And?” Lacey kept her eyes on his, even though she wanted nothing more than to look over at Mac to see if she was upset or hurt by what her supposed friend had just done. “Does it?”
“Not that I've seen,” Kevin answered, missing the glance the two women exchanged, as he tilted his head back and finished off his drink. “You two work very well together. If there's something there besides that, then I don't see it.”
“And that's the official version?” Lacey eyed him suspiciously.
“It's what I'm putting in my report,” Kevin answered. “I'll leave out the part about finding Mac in your quarters this morning. Don't need to upset the apple cart anymore than it already is.”
“It wasn't like that,” Mac shot back.
“Look,” Kevin leaned forward over the table and gave them both a serious stare. “I don't know what the hell happened between you two, and frankly I don't care. This place does strange things to the best of us, and sometimes we just need a distraction to get us through the day. Now, whether you chose to give in to your baser urges or not makes no difference to me. Who am I to judge? I've slept with more women than most high school jocks have a right to brag about.” He smirked and shrugged. “What the colonel doesn't know won't hurt anyone.”
“Don't Ask, Don't Tell?” Lacey smirked.
Kevin raised his empty glass, “Here, here.”
Mac and Lacey both raised their glasses, “Here, here.”
“So I take it we passed muster?” Mac gave Lacey a raised-brow look, before meeting Kevin's gaze.
“A word of warning,” Kevin leaned over the table again and lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “Try to keep it down when the two of you…” he smirked and waved the empty glass at both of them, “Well, you know.”
Lacey blushed to her roots and Mac just sat there with a silly grin on her face. Lacey quickly recovered her composure.
“The next round's on me,” Lacey said, as she waved at the bartender. “Another round of drinks for our table here.”
Just then, a group of rowdy soldiers entered the tent. They were loud and obnoxious and not really paying attention to the room they entered. Chief among them was a familiar face that Lacey recognized immediately. Her face fell as she watched Lieutenant Gregory and his buddies sidle up to the bar and order drinks.
“Something wrong, Doc?” Mac asked as saw Lacey's features pale.
“A dark pall just fell over our little celebration,” Lacey nodded toward the group of new arrivals.
“Oh, shit!” Mac spotted Gregory in the midst of the group. “What the hell is that asshole doing here?”
“Someone I should know about?” Kevin asked innocently, as he surveyed the group of men who were busy slapping each other's backs and laughing about something. “They seem to be a congenial group.”
Lacey accepted another glass of cola that was handed to her. “My accuser just walked in,” she answered as she gulped down several swallows of the cool beverage.
Kevin surveyed the group and tried to pick out the man he knew had made the accusation against his friend. When he couldn't tell one soldier from another, he glanced at Mac.
“The short guy with dark brown hair,” she answered his unspoken question.
Kevin looked more closely, before giving her a skeptical look. “Him?” He pointed to Lieutenant Gregory and received nods from both women. “He's the little weasel that's trying to get you court martialed, Lac?”
“One and the same,” Lacey sipped her drink. “You'd think he woulda at least had the balls to confront me face-to-face.”
As if on cue, “Well, lookey what we have here, boys!” Gregory sauntered over to the table and leaned on the back of Lacey's chair. “If it ain't the dykes and their token male escort.” He turned to his buddies and laughed along with them, then realized exactly who he was addressing. “Holy shit! My apologies, Major. Didn't realize you were with these two…uh, ladies.”
Kevin shot out of his chair and knocked it over with a loud crash, as he charged toward the four men. Mac quickly intercepted him before he had a chance to make it more than three steps.
“Stand down, Major!” Mac exclaimed, as she grabbed his over shirt and pushed him back a step. She then turned to face the group of younger men. “Why don't you take your bullshit somewhere else, men.”
“I don't think so,” Gregory stood his ground. The intimidation factor fell flat when he had to look up at her. “My rank says I have as much right to be here as you do.” He glanced from Mac to the other two standing behind her. “I ain't leavin' til I've had a few drinks and shared some down time with my buddies, Chief .”
Lacey moved in next to Mac. “Well, Lieutenant, my rank says I can order you ‘boys' to return to quarters.” She then pointed to Kevin. “And his says he can throw you all in the brig for insubordination and talking trash to a superior officer.” She folded her arms over her chest.
“And it also says I can kick your asses for not following orders,” Kevin added. “Now, leave before this gets ugly, boys. You heard the lady. Vamoose!”
Gregory glanced at Kevin, then sneered openly at Mac and Lacey. “Maybe we should find a place that's not tainted with the stink of the likes of them. It's a bit too queer in here for my tastes, anyway.”
Gregory turned to walk away, but suddenly found a hand on his shoulder that stopped his forward progress. He turned in time to catch a fist to his face that sent him into the arms of his companions. The men caught him and set him back on his feet, as he wiped blood from his nose.
“Fuck you, you little prick!” Kevin barked, as he shook out his hand and watched with satisfaction as Gregory tried to stifle the flow of blood from his nose.
The room suddenly erupted in utter chaos, as Gregory's companions rushed Kevin, Mac and Lacey in retaliation and all hell broke loose. Kevin took a blow to his jaw, as Mac managed to evade a jab to the cheek. Lacey merely ducked beneath the table behind her. She wasn't afraid to fight, but didn't want to break a hand in a needless show of barbaric brawling.
Mac held her own against several more brawlers and managed to take out two of Gregory's buddies. One of them took an upper cut to the jaw that sent him flying over the bar. The other doubled over from a blow to the stomach and then Mac knocked him over the head with a full plastic soda bottle. It didn't have the desired effect, so she tossed it over her shoulder and landed a right hook to the guy's jaw that sent him into three others.
Gregory came up with more blood streaming from his nose and took a swing at Kevin that connected with the major's midsection. Kevin countered with a blow to the lieutenant's jaw that sent him crashing into a table and chairs. Kevin wore a smile of satisfaction that quickly turned into surprise when a glass crashed over the back of his head.
Lacey saw the soldier hit Kevin from behind, but was too late to help him. She crawled out from under the table and over to where her friend was lying unconscious on the ground. She placed her fingers to the pulse point in his neck and breathed a sigh of relief when she felt a strong, steady pulse. Another glass shattered overhead and Lacey decided that a hasty retreat was in order. She grabbed Kevin under the arms and dragged him across the floor toward the exit. He was bigger and heavier than she remembered, but she finally reached her destination and quickly ducked outside.
With one last glance at the chaos around her, Lacey pulled Kevin outside with her. The noise from the brawl still carried outside, but Lacey ignored it and propped the unconscious man against a light pole. She was about to poke her head back inside, to see where Mac was and how she was faring, when the pilot suddenly charged through the door and nearly collided with her.
“Oh, Mac! You're all right!” Lacey exclaimed.
“Damn straight,” Mac quickly moved away from the entrance and doubled over to catch her breath. A moment later, she glanced at the still-unconscious major and frowned. “What happened to him? He okay?”
“Took a glass to the back of the head,” Lacey said as she examined the area in question beneath the dim light of the muted overhead lamp. “I don't think it broke the skin or anything. There's a lump the size of a golf ball back here, though.”
Just then, Kevin moaned and his eyes fluttered open. “What the hell?” He blurted, as he touched a hand to his head and winced. “Anyone catch the license number of the truck that hit me? Did she have a nice rack, at least?”
Mac and Lacey chuckled, then lifted him to his feet. They held onto him, as he teetered and then got his bearings. He straightened with some effort and continued to rub the back of his head.
“You gonna be all right, Major?” Lacey watched him closely.
“Yeah. It's just a lump the size of a damned golf ball. My head's hard enough to survive worse than those assholes can deliver.”
“Just the same, Kev,” Lacey continued. “I'm ordering you to visit the hospital and have it looked at. That guy hit you pretty hard and you might have a concussion.”
Kevin was about to argue, but thought better of it. He knew Lacey would hound him unmercifully if he didn't just do what she suggested. She was one stubborn woman, who also just happened to be a damned good doctor.
As if reading his mind, Mac added, “I'd do as she says without arguing about it. She hates it when you argue.”
Kevin just smirked. “Yeah, I know.”
With Mac supporting him on one side and Lacey on the other, they made their way toward the hospital in companionable silence.
After saying goodbye to Kevin at the hospital, Lacey and Mac walked arm-in-arm toward the officer barracks. Actually, Lacey was leaning against Mac for support, as the taller woman tried to keep to the walking path. The night's activities and the brawl had taken a toll on both women.
“It's a beautiful night,” Lacey commented as she gazed up at the stars overhead. “Even if Gregory and his goons almost ruined it for us.”
Mac gazed down at her companion, barely making out Lacey's features in the dim light of a nearby light. “Yeah, gorgeous.”
“I was talking about the sky,” Lacey snorted, her gaze meeting Mac's as she squeezed the pilot's slim waist a little tighter. “But, thank you.”
“You are most certainly welcome,” Mac responded by squeezing Lacey's shoulders, as they approached the doctor's quarters. Mac stopped in front of the tent and turned to face her companion. She looked down into Lacey's features and smiled. “Well, I guess this is where we part ways, Captain.”
Lacey grabbed the front of the tall pilot's over shirt and pulled her inside the tent. She then proceeded to slowly unbutton Mac's over shirt. As she finished with the last button, she rose on her tiptoes and kissed the pilot long and hard, leaving them both breathless.
“Slow down, Doc,” Mac breathed when they came up for air. “Are you sure about this? We still haven't…”
“Yes,” Lacey blurted, as she tried clumsily to undo Mac's belt buckle. “I have never been surer about anything in my life, Mac.” She stopped and lifted her gaze to meet Mac's. “You're so beautiful,” she brushed her fingers against a chiseled cheekbone, then moved Mac's over shirt aside and traced the top of her tank top with the same finger. “I want to know every inch of your gorgeous body.” Her lips replaced her finger and she blazed a trail against the woman's heated flesh. “Mmm, so sweet.”
Mac swallowed hard as her heartrate jumped into overdrive. Then she threw caution to the wind and helped remove her pants, boots and the remainder of her clothing. Lacey stopped her before she could remove her bra and panties, however.
“My turn,” the doctor slid a finger along the edge of the satin bra and felt Mac shudder in anticipation. She then kissed a rounded mound just above the edge of the bra and felt her body respond when Mac groaned softly. “God, you smell fantastic.”
“I smell like a grease monkey,” Mac replied with a snort. “And you are entirely too overdressed, Lacey Stephens.”
Mac lifted Lacey chin with a finger and took the smaller woman's mouth in a heated kiss. The kiss deepened and before she knew it, Mac's bra fell to the floor at her feet. She pulled back slightly and looked into teasing green eyes gone misty in the darkness.
“I have many skills,” Lacey snickered. “I always wanted to say that ever since I heard some character say it on TV once. Damned hilarious line, don't you think?”
“I do,” Mac reached for the buttons on the doctor's over shirt. “And you're still overdressed.”
Mac's dog tags jangled noisily between her bare breasts in the still silence, so she deftly removed those as well. When she stood there in only her bikini briefs, Lacey stepped back and stared in awed silence.
“Pure perfection,” she whispered, as she took a tentative step closer and kissed a bare collar bone at eye level. The kiss trailed down to the curve of a breast. “You're so beautiful, I can hardly breathe.”
“I'm not the only beautiful woman in this tent,” Mac whispered as she made quick work of the buttons on Lacey's over shirt. “There, that's much better,” she said, as she freed Lacey's hair from its braided confines and plunged her hands into the silky locks.
Another smoldering kiss followed, leaving both women standing on shaky legs, as tongues vied for dominance and they breathed the same air. They quickly maneuvered to the well-made bed and dropped down with wild abandon. Bare arms and legs were soon entangled as they savored each other. When they finally came up for air again, they just stared into each other's eyes in the dim light.
“This could ruin everything,” Mac panted, her lips a hair's breath away from her partner's. “Our careers are over if the colonel finds out.”
“I don't give a good God damned,” Lacey captured Mac's lips again and slowly reveled in the sensations that raced through her.
Lacey wrapped her arms around Mac's body and deepened the kiss. The feel of Mac's skin against her own was enough to bring her to the height of arousal. Desire burned deep and threatened to consume her. She lost all sense of her surroundings, as her mouth left Mac's to trail along the pilot's jawline. She savored the skin along Mac's pulse point and delved lower. Her lips finally found a full breast and she gave it all the attention it deserved.
“God, you're hot, Mackenzie,” Lacey gasped, against the fevered flesh. Her fingers trailed a path of their own down Mac's lithe body, as her lips continued their own explorations.
“Mmm,” Mac moaned softly as she gave in completely to the smaller woman's touch.
Lacey took Mac to the brink and beyond, as she blazed a white-hot trail over every inch of the pilot's body. Not a single patch of skin was left untouched. No place left unexplored. The doctor was thorough in her tactile examination, Mac could certainly give her that.
“Oh. My. God!” Mac exclaimed, when Lacey found her center and plunged her over the edge into an abyss of pure ecstasy. “Fuck…me!”
When Lacey was finished and Mac finally returned to earth again, the smaller woman gingerly slid up until she was sprawled on top of her satiated lover.
“I think I just did,” Lacey chuckled quietly, as she rested her chin on top her hands on Mac's chest and gazed fondly up at the pilot's face. “You are so utterly adorable when you let yourself go like that. I never thought you could be so…um…vocal.”
Mac weakly wrapped her arms around the still-chuckling woman. “Just wait, Doc. Paybacks are a bitch.”
Lacey leaned forward and placed a kiss at the base of Mac's neck. “Promises, promises, Chief.” She chuckled again and then returned to nibbling the sweat-slicked flesh.
In one swift and unexpected motion, Mac reversed their positions and began her own assault on the startled doctor.
“I don't make promises I don't keep,” Mac uttered against the exposed flesh of Lacey's taught belly.
Mac continued her ministrations until Lacey was writhing beneath her in hopeful anticipation of the release she knew was only a breath away. But Mac knew how far to go in order to keep from driving the doctor completely over the edge. She teased and nipped Lacey's delicate flesh in a feint-and-dodge strategy that eventually had the smaller woman panting with need and groaning in frustration.
“P-please,” Lacey begged, unable to stand the teasing any longer, as Mac's soft lips found her center. “God, please…” She cried out, as she shoved a hand into Mac's hair and pulled her closer still.
Mac savored every movement of the hips that clung to her, as she took the doctor to the edge of bliss. Her world centered on the woman beneath her and everything else just fell away in the sweet ecstasy of the moment. She touched, tasted, inhaled deeply and reveled in the feel of all that was Lacey Stephens, without another thought to what their moment together might mean for them, later on.
As blissful waves eventually washed over them both, Mac rode the tumultuous tide and took Lacey to a place the doctor had never imagined existed. When the final breaker crashed over her, Lacey collapsed in a heap of jellied limbs and pounding heartbeats that stole her breath away. She was blissfully sated and could do nothing more than revel in the afterglow.
“That…was… nghhhh …” she managed on an exhausted sigh, as Mac edged her way along the short length of the doctor's body, until her head rested on the blonde's chest.
Mac glanced up into a pair of green eyes gone gray in the misty darkness. “I aim to please, ma'am,” she broke out into a silly grin that brought a chuckle to the both. Mac's fingers traced lazy circles on Lacey's torso and watched with satisfaction as little goose bumps danced in their wake. “You're gorgeous, you know that?”
“Hey, that's my line, thief,” Lacey playfully slapped a bare shoulder and then ran a hand through the silky locks spread over her chest. “Mmmm, I wish this moment could last forever. I can't think of anything more perfect than this.”
Mac raised her head and caught the wistful gleam in the doctor's eyes. “Me, too, Doc,” she wrapped a protective arm around Lacey's waist. “I could really get used to all this lazing around. It's nice to lose ourselves in the moment for a change.”
“Yeah,” Lacey sighed heavily and continued playing with Mac's hair. “I feel like we were meant to be together like this forever. Is that weird?”
“No,” Mac answered. “I feel the same. I guess we're just two lost souls who've finally found what we've been searching for.”
Lacey scoffed. “Such deep thoughts, Chief? Tell me you're not going all philosophical on me. Or do I detect a romantic underneath all that tough exterior?”
Mac lifted her head and gazed deeply into Lacey's eyes. “I've had half a lifetime of loneliness to figure out exactly what I want and with whom. I just never thought I'd find that person way out here in the middle of a war zone.”
“Yeah,” Lacey let her head drop back onto the pillow. “It's been one hell of a ride, so far.” She smiled. “Do you think we can keep this up without anyone becoming the wiser? I'd like to see how far this can go.”
It was Mac's turn to scoff. “Yeah, right. I don't think people like Gregory will be too keen to have a couple lesbos,” she raised her hands and mimed quotes, “in their midst. It's enough that you're under investigation for just kissing me. Not to mention that brawl we just left in the OC. I hope your friend is okay, by the way.”
Lacey turned on her side until she was facing Mac and gently swiped a stray lock of hair away from the pilot's forehead. “We can make this work, you know.”
“How, pray tell?” Mac shook her head. “The Brass isn't gonna take kindly to…um…this,” she nipped the skin beneath her chin. “You and I both know that. We're not exactly civilians, you know.”
“And I'm supposed to be the cynical one, here,” Lacey rolled her eyes. “Why, I do believe I'm rubbing off on you, Mackenzie Papadopoulos.” She scooted down and placed a gentle kiss on Mac's lips.
Mac pushed a lock of hair behind Lacey's ear. “It's quite possible, Dr. Stephens. You do have a way of influencing those around you. Look at how well the major followed your suggestion.”
Lacey faked a pout. “I resemble that remark.”
Mac chuckled. “You certainly do.” She placed a hand on Lacey's cheek and kissed her, then was a bit surprised when the doctor deepened the kiss until they were both breathless again. “Mmmm. I could seriously get used to this.”
“Me, too,” Lacey said with a lazy half-smile, as she caressed Mac's cheek and rubbed her thumb across the pilot's swollen lips. “Let's just forget about all the other bullshit in the world and concentrate on the here and now. Okay?”
“I like that idea,” Mac captured Lacey's lips in a searing kiss that took them both back down into the sensuous world that only existed for them.
They sank deeper into their explorations and were soon lost to the rhythm and heat of a shared desire that transcended all earthly understanding. They moved together in perfect harmony and brought each other to the brink of yet another earth-shattering, mind-blowing level of ecstasy that had them both plunging over the edge of a cliff so vast that neither woman wanted to emerge into the light of day again. Two souls merged into one and for a few stolen moments, time stopped completely.
It was Monday morning and Lacey was freshly showered and dressed for work. She woke up to find her lover gone without a trace. The elusive pilot had even managed to take her dog tags with her, which brought a smile to the doctor's lips. Lacey wondered briefly if her time with Mac had only been a dream, but then discarded the notion. The pleasant ache in certain seldom-used muscles and the sated feeling that only came from a night of lovemaking were certainly not something her dreams could have conjured. She smiled as the memories of their shared night together washed over her, then quickly sobered.
Lacey could never remember a time when she felt so…free, and yet so confined. Her three remaining months in the Army seemed like an eternity in the face of her newfound relationship with the gorgeous pilot. The thought brought another smile to her lips that disappeared instantly when she noticed a group of soldiers watching her from a distance.
Lacey straightened her shoulders and nodded toward the group and continued on her way. She knew word of her liaison with Gregory had spread throughout the camp, eliciting a few crude proposals from a few bold idiots. She also knew the rumor mill was running rampant concerning her relationship with Mac and the ongoing investigation. The brawl in the OC the previous night would only add fuel to the fire, she realized. It made her smile to know she was actually enjoying the attentions of the beautiful pilot, despite everything else. Gorgeous.
She realized her thoughts were heading in a direction she couldn't afford to go and quickly put a lid on them. It was Monday and time to get back to work. Her disciplinary leave was over and the colonel had cleared her to return to duty. No more time for fun and games.
What she really needed, Lacey decided, was a good crisis to get her back into the swing of things. Not that she was hoping something bad would happen. But things were fairly quiet around camp. So, she had to settle for being the on-call doctor at the hospital for the day.
Lacey stepped inside the air-conditioned interior of the hospital and headed to the locker room. After stowing her hat and glasses, she walked out into the hallway and almost ran into Lieutenant Emery.
“Hey there, Paula,” Lacey greeted the woman brightly. “Don't you ever leave this place?”
“And go where?” The shorter woman replied sarcastically. “Besides, if I left here, you doctors wouldn't know your asses from a hole in the ground. And don't get me started on what those yahoos did to my supply room last week while you were lazing around.”
Lacey smiled. Some things never changed and for her that was okay.
“We're not out of tongue depressors, are we?” Lacey winked teasingly.
“Tsh! You wish,” Emery replied. “You're not here for anymore of your little friends, are you?” This last was said in a conspiratorial whisper, even though there was no one else around. “I heard about you and a certain young lieutenant.” She threw the doctor a covert wink. “We just got a fresh shipment in on Friday, so we won't be running low anytime soon. Leave it to the Army to keep the birthing population on hold while our guys are out there getting blown up and shot at.”
“No, I'm not here for the pill,” Lacey answered. “I've decided to lay off men for a while. It's time I concentrated on my career and put my personal life on hold for a while. Good thing I'm slotted in as the on-call for today.”
“Well, aren't I the lucky one,” Emery quipped with a wry grin. “You just keep your nose clean, Doc, and don't let those rumors get to you. People got nothin' better to do around here than make up stories when things are slow. Word from HQ is we're in for even more quiet time for the next few days, at least. Don't know how long it'll last, but it'll be nice to catch up on some of the more mundane things.”
“Hm, not what I wanted to hear,” Lacey said sarcastically. “Quiet time means nothing to do and no casualties to take care of.”
“Oh, there's plenty to do, Ms. I-been-spending-too-much-free-time-at-the-OC,” Emery shot back. “Your buddies left a nice pile of paperwork on your desk back there. We had a visit from Major Johnson last night. Said you ordered him to have his head checked. Dickerson took an x-ray that came up negative, so he let the major return to his quarters. Gave him a couple pain relievers for the headache. Also had a visit from a couple of officers who looked like they'd just come from a brawl. I cleaned ‘em all up and sent ‘em on their way with a few stitches and such. Nothing serious. I'm more worried about the paperwork the boys left for you. They said you'd know what to do with it.”
Lacey glanced at one of the closed doors. “Oh, you've got to be kidding me.”
Emery started to walk away. “Does Nurse Broomhilda look like she has a sense of humor?” Then she disappeared beyond the double-doors without a backward glance.
Lacey just shook her head and moved slowly toward the office. She knew her colleagues and could only imagine the mess they left for her as punishment for forcing them to work all weekend. Six doctors shared the tiny space and single desk where they wrote out their reports and kept track of patient information.
Nothing could have prepared her for what greeted her when she opened the door and stepped inside, however. There were piles of folders, charts and paperwork scattered all over the desk and she could barely see the ancient computer beneath the mess. She skirted around the desk and came up short when she saw that even the chair was covered.
“Holy, Mary, Mother of God!” Lacey exclaimed loudly.
Her exclamation could be heard throughout the entire building and managed to reach the sharp ears of Lieutenant Emery, who was busy checking a patient's IV. A devilish grin split her features, as she savored the moment and continued with her duties, humming a ditty as she went.
“Serves her right,” she muttered under her breath.
Four hours and six bottles of soda later, Lacey looked up from behind the single stack still remaining on the desk in front of her. The green cursor blinked on the black screen of the monitor in front of her, reminding her that she was still inputting data into the sluggish system. She set her elbows on the desk and wiped her tired eyes. Her headache had returned with a vengeance. The three ibuprofen she'd gulped down earlier in the afternoon were already wearing off. A knock at the door drew her attention away from the report on the desk in front of her.
“Come in,” she called tiredly.
Mac opened the door and peeked inside. “Hi,” she said with a warm smile.
“Hi, yourself,” Lacey replied, perking up instantly. “Come on in, Mac.”
Mac stepped into the office and closed the door behind her. She held up a plain brown bag in front of her, as she moved closer to the desk.
“I brought you some lunch,” she said as she plopped the bag down on the desk. She took note of the neat stacks of folders, the computer and her companion's weariness. “Whatcha doin'?”
“Paperwork, paperwork and more paperwork,” Lacey answered, as she opened the bag and delved inside. She pulled out a foil-wrapped, warm bundle and set it on the desk in front of her. “Pastrami?”
Mac nodded. “I asked Kevin what you like. He said you have a soft spot for pastrami on rye.”
Lacey took a huge bite of the overloaded sandwich and groaned. “Mmmm. ‘S really good.”
“Glad you like it,” Mac rested a hip on the edge of the desk. “There's also some fries in there.”
Lacey took a handful of fries from the bag and set them on the sandwich wrapper. “Thank you,” she grinned, as she took another bite of her sandwich.
“You're welcome,” Mac snatched a fry and popped it in her mouth.
“When did you see Kevin?”
“We had lunch together,” Mac answered as she chewed the fry. “He's a really nice guy. I like him.”
Lacey's brows lifted. “You like him?”
Mac's eyes shot up at the surprised tone in Lacey's voice. “Yeah, why?”
“Oh, nothing,” Lacey shrugged nonchalantly. “I just…” She took another huge bite of the sandwich and chewed vigorously to hide her discomfort.
“Oooohhh,” Mac suddenly caught on. “No, no, no. It's not like that. I just think he's a nice guy. Nothing more than that. Honestly. My bat never swings in that direction, unlike…well…”
Relief and then shame washed over Lacey as she swallowed the food in her mouth. She eyed the pilot and then decided to just ignore the jibe. “I believe you.”
“Good, because I agreed to sit in on a card game with him tonight,” Mac continued. “He's playing poker with the colonel.”
“Yeah,” Mac answered, as she grabbed another fry and received a playful slap on the back of the hand. “Ow! Not nice to slap the hand that feeds you, Doc.” She shot Lacey a teasing smirk and wiggled her index finger at the doctor. “I could tell the colonel what a naughty girl you've been lately.”
Lacey squinted her eyes. “I wasn't the only naughty girl, Ms. Papadopoulos. I definitely had an accomplice.”
“A willing accomplice, might I add,” Mac gave Lacey a smoldering look as she leaned close enough to catch a whiff of the pastrami on the doctor's breath.
They remained inches apart for the space of several heartbeats, before a noise in the hallway intruded on their private moment. Mac was the first to pull away and straighten up. An instant later there was a brisk knock on the door and Paula Emery poked her head in.
“Am I interrupting something?” The lieutenant asked as she squeezed her bulk all the way inside the small office.
“No, not really,” Lacey said through a mouthful of sandwich. “Mac was just…”
“I was just leaving,” Mac supplied before Lacey choked on her food. “I'll let you finish your lunch, Doc. See you on the flight line.”
Mac was gone before Lacey could thank her for the sandwich and fries. So, the doctor turned her attention to the shorter woman standing expectantly before her.
Paula gave Lacey a raised-brow look. “Dare I ask, Captain?”
Lacey shrugged and took another bite of her quickly-diminishing sandwich. She didn't bother to wipe away the sauce that was trickling down her chin. “You can ask all you want, Lieutenant. I just don't have to answer your questions. Rank does have certain privileges, you know.”
Paula snorted and managed to stifle a snippy retort. “I came in here to tell you that there's a patient waiting for you. He says you gave him some sound advice last night. Oddly, he wants to make sure he's okay for duty.” She caught the doctor's raised-brow look. “I know. It just boggles the mind, Captain.”
Lacey polished off the rest of her sandwich in one large bite. “Tell him I'll be out in a minute. I'm just finishing up my lunch.”
Paula nodded and turned to the door, but stopped with her hand on the knob. “For the record, Captain, I do believe friendships are important in this place. We all need to pull together and rely on each other when things get tough.” She gave Lacey a conspiratorial wink and a knowing smile. “I also believe that what people do in the privacy of their quarters is their business and should stay that way. Other people should just keep their noses on their own business and out of places said noses don't belong. That's all I'm sayin'.”
“Duly noted, Lieutenant,” Lacey nodded as she shoved the rest of her fries in her mouth and chewed with gusto. “And Pauwa?” Lacey continued.
Paula stopped partially in the doorway. “Yes, ma'am?”
“Thanks,” Lacey swallowed. “I really appreciate your discretion and your candor.”
“Just doin' my job, Captain Stephens,” Paula answered with a knowing smirk. “Someone has to keep you doctors in line, and I'm just the person for the job.”
“You sure are,” Lacey shook her head as Paula left and the door closed behind her with a resounding click.
Lacey sat there for a moment, as she chewed thoughtfully on the last of her sandwich and Paula's words. She wondered why Paula was giving her advice. The stoic nurse never gave anything but medical advice. It wasn't like her to share her thoughts and feelings. Lacey shook off her musings and turned her attention to the patient waiting for her. Quickly wiping her mouth with a napkin, she stood up with a heavy sigh. Time to get back to work.
When she stepped out into the nearly-empty patient area, Lacey saw Kevin fidgeting across the room. The man looked more like a school boy with his first crush on a teacher than a major in the Army. He also looked like he was in pain.
“Major?” She approached him and cocked her head to look at him more closely. “You doing okay? You look a little green this morning.”
“Captain,” he gave her a lopsided grin and pinched his nose. “Just following doctor's orders.”
“Since when?” Lacey teased. “Sorry, I guess that was uncalled for. What can I do for you, Major?”
Kevin gingerly rubbed the back of his head. “Can you give me something stronger for this damned headache? It's been bothering me all morning. The ibuprofen wore off hours ago, but it wasn't doing much anyway.”
“Come with me,” Lacey led the way to one of the curtained-off exam areas. “Sit,” she motioned to the paper-covered table and waited for him to situate himself. “So, your head's been bothering you?”
She pulled a pen light from a pocket and shined it in each eye. She then gingerly pulled his head down and examined the lump still prominent on his scalp.
“Yeah,” Kevin answered. “It just keeps throbbing and pounding. Fisher gave me the ibuprofen, but they didn't help.”
Lacey probed the spot without actually touching the lump. Her fingers lightly skimmed the small bump and he jumped slightly.
“Still pretty tender, huh?”
“Yeah. Hurts like a son of a…” He blushed. “Sorry.”
“Don't be. I've heard worse…and probably said worse,” Lacey grinned. “You want me to take another x-ray? I could have Dickerson do a CAT scan to be sure there's no hemorrhaging.”
“No, I don't think that's necessary,” Kevin answered. “I just need something a little stronger to take the edge off this damned headache.”
Lacey stood back and put her hands on her hips, then looked at him with a quirked brow. “You're not trying to pull one over on a fellow colleague are you, Major?”
“No,” he answered adamantly. “Seriously, Lac. Do you really think I have it in me to do that? You know me better than that.”
He looked her straight in the eye. “I'm not a drug addict, Lacey. I give you my word.”
Lacey watched his features for a moment longer, gauging his sincerity until she was reasonably sure he really was telling the truth. Then she just sighed.
“Okay, I believe you, Kev,” she acquiesced.
“Thanks, Lac,” he smirked as he watched her walk toward a cabinet and remove a vial. She then opened a drawer and took out a syringe encased in plastic. “Whoa! What the hell is that for?” There was no mistaking the fear in his voice.
“I thought you said you wanted something stronger,” she answered, removing the syringe from the plastic, taking the cap off the needle with her teeth and inserting it into the glass vial. “Don't worry, it won't hurt…much.” A teasing smirk played at the corners of her lips.
Kevin eyed the syringe warily, completely missing the smirk as Lacey moved closer. “You know I hate needles, Lac. Those things scare the shit out of me.”
“Yeah, I know,” Lacey answered matter-of-factly. “I also know that you are genuinely in pain or you wouldn't still be sitting here waiting for me to poke you.”
He cringed and looked away. “Can I ask where you intend to stick that thing?”
“In your ass,” Lacey shot him a wry grin before moving behind him. “Unbuckle your belt and lower your pants, Major. And relax. I'll go easy on you.”
He stood up, undid his belt and pants, then proceeded to drop them to his ankles. “Is that really…n-necessary?” His voice went an octave higher as she jabbed the needle into his bare behind without warning. “Ouch! That really hurts!”
“All done,” Lacey discarded the syringe and placed a Band-Aid over the small pin prick on his rather white butt. “Would you like a sucker, since you were such a good boy? Nice ass, by the way.” She teased. “You could model men's underwear with cheeks like those.”
“You…” he glared at her as he pulled his pants up and resecured them. “I really think you enjoyed that a little too much, Captain Stephens.”
“It's not every day I get to give one of my superiors a pain in the ass,” Lacey shot back with a wry grin. “It's kinda nice to return the favor once in a while, Major.”
“Yeah, well…” he sat back down on the exam table, yelped when his butt protested and then crossed his arms over his chest in a petulant pout. “I'm not just here for medical reasons, Lac.”
Lacey washed her hands and glanced over her shoulder at him. “Really? So, what brings you here, Kev?”
“I came to give you a heads-up,” he answered. “Look, I'm your friend and…” he ran a hand through his short-cropped hair in agitation.
“Yeah, we've been friends since OCS, when I kicked your butt on the obstacle course and in the classroom,” Lacey's grin widened. “You kept falling over the tires and getting caught in the barbed wire. Not to mention the F+ you got in military etiquette.”
“Yeah,” he chuckled, then sobered. “Good times.”
She leaned against the counter behind her and waited for him to continue. “So?”
“So, Gregory paid another visit to the colonel this morning,” Kevin said. “He was whining about what happened in the OC last night.”
“He doesn't really have much to bitch about, since he was just as much a part of the festivities as anyone,” Lacey shot back with annoyance. “I can't believe he would even dare to go to the colonel about it.”
“Well, he did,” Kevin said. “Anyway, long story short, he implicated you, Mac and me. He said we started the whole thing. I guess the MPs showed up after we left and cleared everyone out. Colonel Farrell ordered the club closed until further notice and told the MPs to lock it up tight. He's pissed.”
“Oh, for cryin' out loud,” Lacey couldn't believe her ears. “We weren't even there for most of it. I dragged your ass out shortly after that guy clonked you with that glass. The fighting hadn't even been going on for five minutes, at that point.”
“Still,” Kevin shrugged. “I guess Farrell is looking to kick someone's ass for the whole affair. He was none too happy when that alcohol showed up on base and now this. He thinks the OC is a breeding ground for some of the problems that have cropped up. And last night was the last straw. It gave him the incentive he needed to shut the place down.”
Lacey stood there in stunned silence for several long moments, as she tried to absorb the implications of Kevin's words. Try as she might, however, she just couldn't wrap her mind around what he was telling her.
“There's more,” Kevin added and watched Lacey's stunned expression harden. “The rumor mill has been working overtime. Gregory must be feeding the flames with more than just his own speculation. I think he's been telling people that you and Mac are sleeping together.”
“How could he…” Lacey suddenly clammed up.
“So, it's not just a rumor, then?” Kevin scowled at her. “Seriously, Lac? Do you know what this could do to your military career?”
Lacey eyed him suspiciously. “Are we on or off record, here, Major?”
Kevin considered the question thoughtfully, then sighed heavily. “You're my friend, Lac. Of course this is off the record.”
“The rumor's true,” Lacey stated. “At least, it's true as of last night.”
Kevin winced. “You have feelings for each other?”
“Yes,” Lacey answered with a shrug. “Is it going to be a problem for you, Major? I don't want you getting into trouble because of this.”
Kevin shifted uncomfortably and rubbed the back of his neck. “I guess not, as long as you two aren't seen kissing in public. Right now, it's just Gregory's word against yours. But…”
“And yours,” Lacey added. “You did submit a report to the colonel, didn't you?”
“Yes,” Kevin answered. “I gave it to him yesterday, before all this other shit cropped up.”
Lacey looked him in the eye. “So, what happens now? You going to go to the colonel and revise your report? I know I just put you in a bad spot, Kev.”
Kevin shrugged. “No. As far as I'm concerned, this conversation never happened.”
Lacey allowed a small smile to show. “Thanks, Kevin. I really appreciate this.” She reached up and kissed his cheek. “You're a good friend.”
Kevin rubbed his rear. “Yeah, well I'm not so sure the feeling's mutual, Lac. That damned shot really hurt.”
“I never said I was good at giving shots,” Lacey shrugged. “That's why I usually have one of the nurses do it for me. Saves on the general animosity from the patients.”
“Oh, now that's not fair,” Kevin said as he jumped down from the table and stood facing her. He put his hands on her shoulders and looked her in the eye. “Lacey, you need to watch your back. I really don't know what the fallout will be from all this or if Gregory will spread enough rumors to get others on his band wagon.”
Lacey put her hands on his. “I'll be fine, Kev. But thanks for caring. I appreciate having you and Mac in my corner. It's comforting to know you both care so much.”
He nodded. “I do.” And then he grinned like a Cheshire Cat. “And I'm really happy you finally found someone who can put a genuine smile back on that otherwise scowly face of yours. It really lights up your eyes and makes ‘em kinda glow.” He watched a blush suffuse her cheeks. “It's nice to see the old sparkle again.”
Lacey looked down and then up again. “I really am a lot happier around her, Kev.”
“I can see that,” he said. “Actually,” he added with a sly grin, “a blind man could see how happy the two of you are together. You suck at hiding your feelings and so does Mac.”
Lacey blushed even deeper. “Kev- in .”
“What? Can't I do a little teasing of my own?”
“Grrrrr,” she growled with a playful smirk.
“That's more like it,” he gave her a chaste kiss on the forehead. “Just don't get caught, or we'll all be serving time in Leavenworth .”
“I won't,” Lacey returned his hug. “Promise.”
“I'm holding you to that,” he pulled away and headed out. “I hope you don't mind that I asked Mac to join me and the guys for a few hands of poker tonight. I heard from the enlisted guys that she's pretty good.”
“No, I don't mind,” Lacey watched him leave. “I have some things to take care of here, and then I'll just call it an early night. After all, there's not much to do around here, now that the OC is out of commission.”
“Yeah,” he said with his hand on the door. “The colonel has offered to let us use his quarters tonight. Of course, that means he will be playing cards with us. Maybe I can win a few hands and get him off my ass about that whole Baghdad fiasco.”
“Maybe,” Lacey said. “I'd put my chips on Mac, though. She has a lot of time to kill and rumor has it she plays a lot of poker on the side.”
“Oh, wonderful,” Kevin said as he left the hospital with a quick goodbye wave.
Hours later that same night, Lacey finally finished up the interminable mound of paperwork that always seemed to plague her. She also took care of the few patients who came in for minor medical ailments. She sighed heavily, as she tossed her stethoscope in her locker and grabbed her hat and glasses. She was tired and simply wanted to go back to her quarters and sleep.
She briefly thought about Mac and wondered if the woman was still playing cards. Were they still in the colonel's quarters? Lacey tried to picture Mac with a cigar between her lips, as she dealt a hand with a haze of smoke hovering around her dark head. The mental image merely made her smirk and shake her head.
“Are you finally calling it a night, Dr. Stephens?” Paula poked her head into the locker room.
“Yeah,” Lacey answered. “I finished all that paperwork the guys left me. I can't believe they did that again. What the hell? Can't they give a girl a break? Just ‘cause I can use the computer and type better than any of those yahoos, doesn't mean they can always throw the paperwork in my face for it.”
“Better you than me,” the buxom nurse added with a wry smirk. “I have enough on my hands just keeping up with my own paperwork and you people.”
“Paperwork wasn't as bad as it was the last time. But, still,” Lacey conceded with a shrug. “So, who's the nurse on for tonight's shift?”
“Bev Taylor,” Paula answered. “She's been doing the late shift for about a month now.”
“I think I know Lieutenant Taylor,” Lacey commented as she walked with Paula out into the still, cloudless night. “She hales from Eerie, Indiana , if I remember correctly.”
“Yes, she does,” Paula smiled. “We like to tease her about that, too.”
“I'll just bet,” Lacey acknowledged with a grin. “Well, this is where I say goodnight,” she said as they reached an intersection in the gravel footpath. “Get some sleep, Paula. I'll see you tomorrow.”
“You too, Captain Stephens,” Paula continued on with a little wave. “Sweet dreams.”
Lacey had walked that particular footpath so often over the past few months that she could almost do it with her eyes closed and almost did. That's how tired she was. It was the end of a very long day and, coupled with the stress of having her personal affairs under investigation, she was sporting a headache that just wouldn't quit. She was so distracted, in fact, that she didn't hear the soft crunch of gravel footfalls, until it was too late.
“Well, well, well. What have we here, boys?” A male voice behind her made Lacey spin around.
What she saw standing there made her heart leap into her throat. Three burly guys in beige t-shirts stood in the path with their muscular arms crossed over their chests. All three wore hats, dark glasses and bandanas over their faces to hide their identities. They stood with feet spread wide and didn't have their camouflage over shirts on, so there were no name patches to identify them. Lacey did, however, notice a dark smudge on each of their right arms. A cold shiver of fear ran through her, as she glanced around at the darkness that surrounded her.
“Get her!” The shorter and stockier of the three motioned to his two companions, as he charged forward. “Don't let her get away, boys!”
Lacey wasn't fast enough to escape, as the two quickly grabbed and held her arms. The third—their leader—approached and pounded a fist into his hand. Although she couldn't see his face or look into his eyes, Lacey could tell there was menace there that didn't bode well for her.
“What do you want?” Lacey tried to struggle against the hands holding her. “You won't get away with this. I swear, I'm gonna fight you with everything I've got.”
The leader moved closer, until his masked face was inches from hers. “Oh, we intend to teach you a little lesson that you won't soon forget, Captain.” He punched her in the stomach so hard that Lacey doubled over in pain and couldn't catch her breath.
The world spun out of control as another blow connected with her jaw so hard that she saw stars. Her head reeled in pain and confusion as she tried to figure out what to do—how to defend herself from the onslaught. And then she was being hauled farther back into the darkness.
“Let me go!” She shouted and suddenly felt a clammy hand clamp over her mouth and nose. At that point it was all she could do to breathe. But she didn't give in. She struggled and kicked out with all her strength, but to no avail.
“Hold her still,” the leader growled low, as the hands holding her bent her backwards over something hard and unyielding.
Panic suddenly seized her, as she felt rough hands tug on the belt at her waist. She tried to kick at her attacker, as her pants were unceremoniously yanked down around her boots. The hand over her mouth kept her from screaming, but she still used every ounce of strength she had left to at least make some noise as she continued to struggle in vain.
“Keep her still,” the leader growled again.
“We're trying,” one of the two holding her answered with obvious effort.
Lacey felt the grip on both arms tighten painfully, but ignored the discomfort in the face of the more pressing issue. A fist connected with first one cheek and then the other until she was so dazed that she forgot to struggle for a few seconds. Her panties were suddenly ripped from her waist and the certainty of what was happening brought a wave of overwhelmingly blinding panic.
It happened so fast that she barely had a chance to breathe, much less think. Beefy hands forced her legs apart, a hard body thrust between them and she was being raped. She tried to scream again and tried to open her mouth to bite the hand holding hers. Her lips wouldn't part with the pressure against them, however. Her mind reeled with the implications, as everything suddenly crashed in on her.
Wild panic seized her as the guy slammed inside her with such force that she thought she would split in two. Her body certainly hadn't been ready for the invasion. It felt as if a white-hot poker was ripping into her flesh and there wasn't anything she could do to stop it. And then she felt hot breath on her throbbing cheek.
“Just a little lesson to put you in your place, dyke bitch,” he grunted, his words ringing loudly in her ears as he grunted loudly.
Hot bile rose in her throat and had nowhere to go. She felt it rush into her mouth and nearly choked on the acrid taste. Her captors must have been too distracted by their companion's assault to care when she suddenly wrenched her head free and broke contact with the hand over her mouth. Hot vomit spewed from her mouth onto a pair of dusty boots.
“Ah, shit!” The guy to her left shouted. “The fucking bitch just puked on me!”
“Shut the fuck up, idiot!”
“Fuck you, asshole! You ain't the one with puke all over your boots!”
“Shut up or someone'll hear you, you shit!”
The words did nothing to temper the ardor of the man still invading her.
“Stop!!!” Lacey managed a weak croak just before a sweaty cloth was unceremoniously shoved into her mouth.
The grunts of her attacker suddenly gave way to one last painful thrust, as he finished his business. When he moved back a step, Lacey managed to bring her feet up high enough to kick him in the groin. He squealed and doubled over in pain. Her victory was short-lived, however, when one of the two holding her clocked her so hard that she briefly lost consciousness.
When she came-to again, the assault continued. Obviously aroused by his buddy's ardor, this one didn't take as long to finish his business. In a few short, painful thrusts, he took care of business and stepped away.
Lacey was oblivious at that point. Her head was spinning wildly and her body was on fire from the unexpected violations. Her third attacker unceremoniously shoved the second aside and drove inside her with as much vehemence as the first two. She was only vaguely aware this time and couldn't muster the strength to struggle against the men—beasts in her mind—holding her.
“Don't worry, dyke, lesson's almost over,” came a harsh whisper in her ear. “Then you can go back to your bitch lover and tell her how great it was to be fucked by three real men.” The grip on her mouth loosened slightly and a rough thumb rubbed her bruised and swollen lip. “We know you won't soon forget this lesson. Hope it stays with you for a real long time.”
“F-fu' oo,” Lacey tried to mutter through the disgusting cloth in her mouth. “Fu' oo aaa.”
Another blow struck her so hard that Lacey sank gratefully into the darkness of oblivion.
“Captain Stephens? Ma'am?” A frantic voice called loudly but seemed miles away, as Lacey slowly regained consciousness. “Ma'am, are you all right in there?”
In there? Lacey tried to open her eyes, but couldn't quite make her body respond to her silent commands. Every muscle screamed in protest as she tried to move and she thought she would die right then and there. But where was there? She moved slightly and groaned loudly, as a sharp pain shot through her guts and radiated throughout her body.
“Fuck…me,” she croaked hoarsely, as she curled into a fetal position to escape the pain.
“Ma'am? Ma'am?” Lacey suddenly realized the voice was much closer, as a hand gently touched her shoulder and she cringed. “Ma'am, what happened? Are you all right? Captain Stephens?”
Lacey tried to form a coherent thought, but nothing made any sense to her. She didn't know where she was or who was with her. She couldn't talk around her swollen lips or the dry-as-cotton acrid taste in her mouth. And she certainly couldn't move, not with the pain that even the slightest shift in position caused her. All she could do was lay there, curled up in as tight a ball as she could muster.
“I need a medic here!” The voice shouted. “Someone get a medic here, A-SAP!!!”
Lacey wished she could open her eyes to see who was shouting so loudly. Her head was pounding painfully with each shout and she really wanted to order the person to just shut the fuck up. And why did it sound like the person was panicking? She felt beads of sweat on her face and a shudder ran through her. The shudder caused a wave of pain to pass through her again and she groaned aloud.
“Hang in there, ma'am,” the person said in a hushed tone.
A hand lightly brushed the hair from her brow and Lacey winced again. Even that slight touch hurt. Why? She heard another low moan and realized it came from her own throat. Ugh! Why did everything hurt so much? What happened?
There was a sudden rush of pounding feet on gravel and the place around her quickly erupted in chaos. Voices were everywhere and someone touched her shoulder, eliciting another low groan.
“Careful. We don't know the extent of her injuries,” a female voice close to her ear was one that Lacey vaguely recognized. Whose voice was it? “Captain Stephens, can you hear me? It's Simmons, ma'am. Can you hear me?”
Lacey felt a small measure of relief that it was Simmons who was talking to her. She gingerly nodded her head to let the young woman know she had heard her. Even that slight movement left her reeling and caused another groan to escape.
“Okay, ma'am,” Simmons continued softly. “We need to get you over to the hospital and find out how extensive your injuries are. Do you understand?”
Lacey nodded again. Where the hell was she? She knew she wasn't lying on the hard ground and that she was on her side. But other than that, she still had no idea.
“Let's just take the whole cot,” Simmons said. “I don't think we should risk moving her to a stretcher at this point. At least not until we know what we're dealing with here.”
“What the hell happened, Simmons?” Another familiar female voice suddenly intruded on the hushed scene. “Oh. My. God.”
“We think she was attacked sometime last night, Mac,” Simmons said.
“Lacey?” Mac's voice next to her ear held such anguish that it drove Lacey to open her eyes. “Lacey, who did this to you?”
As her eyes fluttered open slightly, Lacey only saw blurry images swimming in her vision. She tried desperately to focus on the dark head leaning close to her face and even blinked a few times in an attempt to clear her vision. Nothing worked and she simply let her lids flutter closed.
“She's only barely conscious,” Simmons voice said.
“Who found her?”
There was more shuffling and then all Lacey could hear were low murmurs nearby. She was so tired and in so much pain that she was tempted to let the threatening darkness take her again.
“Hang in there, Captain. We're going to take real good care of you, ma'am,” Simmons' words of comfort did little to ease the ache deep inside her or calm the panic that was threatening to overwhelm her.
Mac was beside herself with worry, as she emerged from Lacey's tent into the bright daylight. Gonzales was standing to one side with the colonel. The two men were discussing something in hushed tones.
“Does anyone know what happened?” Mac asked when she was standing in front of them.
“Not yet, Chief,” Farrell answered. “Lieutenant Emery gave me a heads-up just after 0900 that Stephens still hadn't shown up for morning rounds. That's when I sent the sergeant over here to check on her.”
“She didn't respond, but I heard a noise and decided to investigate. That's when I saw her lying there and called for help,” Gonzales added.
“It looks like someone attacked her and then dumped her in her tent,” Farrell provided.
“Why do you say that, sir?” Mac prodded. “They could have done it right here.”
“No,” Farrell shook his head. “There's no evidence to support that, Chief. No blood anywhere in the tent, other than on the cot.”
“There's also vomit on her shirt and not a trace of it inside the tent,” Gonzales added.
“I have the MPs on their way,” Farrell said. “They'll launch a full investigation and get to the bottom of this. I want to make sure we nail the bastards responsible this.”
“Even if it's one of our own?” Mac gave the colonel a level stare. “You might have them start with Lieutenant Gregory and his buddies, sir.”
“I'm well aware of Gregory's track record with the Captain, Chief,” Farrell returned her challenging stare with one of his own. “Don't you worry about the particulars of the investigation, Mac.” He placed a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “I will make sure our boys are thorough and that the guilty party or parties are apprehended. I will not tolerate this behavior under my command.”
“Yes, sir,” Mac nodded her understanding. “Let me know if there's anything I can do to help.”
Colonel Farrell eyed Mac warily for a moment. “You can stay close to Captain Stephens and make sure she has a friend there to get her through the next few days. She's going to need support during her recovery, Mac. Can I trust you to be there for her?”
“You can count on me, sir,” Mac answered without hesitation. “The captain and I are already good friends, so it won't be a problem.”
“Good,” Farrell answered with a concise nod. “This isn't going to be easy for Captain Stephens. She's not exactly an ideal patient to begin with, being a doctor and all.”
“Noted, sir,” Mac said with a slight grin. “I will do my best to make sure the captain doesn't give her caregivers any grief.”
“I'm holding you to it, Mac,” Farrell said. He then turned on his heel and purposefully strode away.
Mac turned back toward the tent in time to see two medics and Simmons emerging from the interior. The two male medics were carrying Lacey's cot between them and the doctor was covered by a blanket, with only her head visible. Mac could plainly see that Lacey's entire face was swollen and bruised. She could also see pain etched on the unconscious woman's features.
Mac straightened her shoulders and girded herself for what was to come. She didn't yet know what the reason behind the attack on her lover was, nor did she know if Lacey's injuries went deeper than the visible bruises and scrapes. Rape was definitely a possibility. The thought sent a shiver of dread down Mac's spine. She hoped and prayed that the doctor hadn't suffered through that possibility, but didn't hold out much hope, as she followed the procession toward the hospital.
There was a hand clasped firmly in hers. That was the first thing Lacey noticed, as the last vestiges of unconsciousness cleared from her foggy mind. Hope chased through her at the possibility that the hand belonged to a certain dark-haired pilot.
She felt the hand gently squeeze hers, as her eyes fluttered open. Blinking to clear her vision, Lacey realized the face hovering close to her own was not Mac's. Disappointment stabbed through her and was quickly replaced with relief, as her companion smiled.
“You're finally awake,” Kevin's voice rolled over her warmly. “You really had us worried there for a while.”
Lacey swallowed with some effort. “Water?” Her voice was hoarse from disuse.
“Certainly,” Kevin said as he put a straw to her lips.
Lacey drank deeply and was glad for the relief. “Thanks,” she cleared her throat and was glad her voice sounded slightly stronger.
“No problem,” Kevin set the cup down aside and returned his attention to her. “How do you feel?”
Lacey gingerly moved her arms and legs and was relieved to feel only a few slight twinges in her limbs. The rest of her body ached, but it was bearable. She just felt like she'd been in a barroom brawl. She was a little confused by Kevin's presence and glanced around, noticing that she was the only patient in the hospital.
“What happened?” she met his gaze and saw a look of surprise briefly cross his features. “Kevin? Why am I in the hospital? And what day is it?”
“You don't remember?”
“Would I ask if I did?”
Kevin eyed her. “They brought you in yesterday, after Gonzales found you unconscious in your tent. It's Wednesday afternoon.”
“Wednesday afternoon?” Lacey couldn't believe her ears, as panic seized her. “How…What…”
“Calm down, Lac,” Kevin squeezed her hand to reassure her. “It's okay. Everything's going to be fine.”
Lacey took a deep breath, winced when her ribs protested and tried to remember exactly what had happened to land her in the hospital. Her memory was fuzzy and disjointed, which frustrated her. She shifted positions and sucked in a breath as a stabbing pain shot down through her lower body.
“Ugh,” she groaned and rolled her eyes. “Tell me what happened, Kevin. Or, so help me, I'll jump out of this bed and deck you.”
“You were attacked,” Kevin blurted. “We don't exactly know what happened or who attacked you, but the colonel has launched a full investigation.”
“Attacked?” Lacey tried to digest this latest bit of information, as she closed her eyes tightly against the pain that was still throbbing incessantly in her lower guts. “I was raped, wasn't I?” Kevin met her gaze and nodded. “Ugh,” she groaned again as the full impact of her situation sank in.
“They did a D & C when you were brought in, Lac,” he said matter-of-factly. “Paula was with you the entire time and Mac, too. Neither one left your side as Richardson performed the procedure. After he gave the sample to the MPs for further analysis, they cleaned you up and dressed your superficial wounds. They also wrapped your bruised ribs.” He paused to gauge her reaction and noted unshed tears swimming in her eyes. “The preliminary findings indicate there were at least three assailants.”
“Three,” Lacey stated flatly and with very little emotion. “I assume that means all three of them…participated in the…” she couldn't finish the statement, as hot tears spilled down her cheeks.
Kevin nodded. “I'm sorry, Lac. I should have been there for you.”
Lacey couldn't stop the tears and tried to swallow down the huge lump in her throat, as an image flashed in her mind. She reached up and rubbed the painful bruises on her upper arms. “They jumped me on my way back to my quarters.” The words came out barely above a whisper, as an unconscious tremor shook her. “There were three of them…”
Kevin squeezed her hand reassuringly again. “Can you remember what they looked like?”
Lacey shut her eyes tight against the memories and tried to concentrate. She finally shook her head. “They weren't wearing their BDUs and their faces were covered with scarves.” She opened her eyes and caught the sympathy in Kevin's chocolate brown eyes. “It's okay, Kev,” she squeezed his hand reassuringly. “Don't blame yourself for what happened. It wasn't your fault.”
“Still,” he said. “I should have been there to kick their asses and protect you.”
Lacey shook her head. “They probably would've waited for another opportunity, instead.”
“That would have been something, at least.”
Lacey let a half-smile touch her lips, as she impatiently swiped the tears away. “They were determined, Kev.” She rubbed her arm again, as the memories came flooding back with such force that she thought she would drown in them. If not for Kevin's hand firmly anchoring her, she probably would have succumbed to the overwhelming panic. “I was an example.”
“An example of what?”
“Of what happens to people who don't conform to their idea of the…” she mimed one-handed quotes, “ideal soldier.”
“They did this because of those rumors that Gregory is spreading about you?” Kevin seethed with sudden unexpected fury. “I'll kill the son of a bitch!”
“Calm down, Kev,” Lacey kept a firm hold on his hand to keep him from flying off in a blind rage. “Just calm down, Major!”
That got his attention and he hesitantly resumed his seat. “Sorry.”
“It's okay,” Lacey answered softly. “I understand completely. I'd love to go out there, find him and beat the crap out of him. But he's not worth a court martial and I'm not exactly in any shape to be charging off after anyone, right now. Besides, I don't think it would do any good. Gregory may be a dick, but he really doesn't have the balls to pull off something like this. And I know his voice. He wasn't one of them.”
Kevin smirked. “You're right,” he conceded. “Just the same, though, I'm gonna make sure the little prick gets what's coming to him. I'll see to it.”
“Kevin,” she growled a warning.
“Just let it go,” she said on a tired sigh. “I don't want you to get in trouble because of me.”
“Okay, fine,” Kevin shrugged. “I guess you're right.”
“Major?” Paula stuck her head around the white cloth partition that had been erected to give Lacey some measure of privacy.
“Lieutenant,” Kevin acknowledged the nurse without getting up. “What can I do for you?”
“There's someone here to see the captain,” Paula smiled at Lacey, who winked at her in return.
“So, let her in,” Kevin said.
Paula disappeared and Mac's head and shoulders took her place.
“Hey, there,” Mac stepped around the partition until she was standing behind the seated major. She put a hand on Kevin's shoulder. “Can you give us a few minutes, Major?”
“Sure,” he said, scooting back and vacating the seat next to Lacey's bed. He gave Lacey's hand a final squeeze. “I'll see you later, Captain.”
“Definitely,” Lacey answered and watched as Mac scooted close. “Hey.”
“Been there, said that,” Mac pushed a stray lock of hair from Lacey's brow. “How're you feeling? The last time I saw you your eyes were swollen shut and you were pretty out of it. I think they gave you some heavy drugs to keep you under, especially when they…um…well, it's not important. You were just out.”
“Yeah,” Mac fidgeted with Lacey's covers and wouldn't meet her eyes. “You scared the crap out of me, Doc,” she said softly.
Lacey took Mac's hand and just held onto it, as if it were a lifeline. Mac's eyes met hers. “We'll pretend you're comforting me, instead of the other way around,” Lacey shrugged.
Mac turned sorrowful eyes on the doctor. “I feel really terrible about what happened to you, Lacey.”
“Why? You didn't do anything,” Lacey scoffed. “I got jumped by some assholes that were looking to blame someone for their tiny problems,” she smirked, but the humor didn't reach her eyes. “I didn't even have the chance to scream or kick the shit out of them, it happened just too fast.”
“You remember what happened?”
“Yeah,” Lacey felt her throat closing up again and cleared it loudly. “I remember most of it. I told Kevin that there were three of them, but that I couldn't see their faces. They had them covered.”
“It must have been pretty dark.”
“That's not it,” Lacey shook her head. “They had it all planned out. They weren't wearing their BDUs and they had bandanas and sunglasses on, so I wouldn't be able to identify them.”
Mac sighed heavily. “Did they…”
Tears sprang to Lacey's eyes again, as she looked away in shame and nodded. “Yeah.”
“Do you…do you remember?” Mac tried to get Lacey to look her way.
“I don't think I'll ever forget,” Lacey answered with some effort. She pulled her hand out of Mac's and wrapped both arms around herself. “It was worse than facing that Iraqi with the knife or a whole battalion of bloody mortar victims.” She sniffed loudly and impatiently swiped tears from her cheeks. “It hurts so much,” she finished in a small voice, as the tears continued flowing freely.
“Oh, Lac,” Mac shoved out of the chair and climbed into bed with the woman, holding Lacey close against her, as the doctor cried her heart out.
Lacey continued to sob uncontrollably, until Mac started to worry about the doctor's emotional state of mind. As the tears continued and soaked through her over shirt and into the t-shirt beneath, Mac just sat there holding Lacey and offering soothing words of comfort. She had no experience with such a display of hysterics and didn't know what else to do.
When Lacey's tears finally subsided and turned into quiet hiccups, Mac scooted them up enough that she could lean back against the wall behind her.
“You all right?” Mac finally asked.
“I will be—eventually,” Lacey answered and swiped impatiently at her wet cheeks. “God, I am so sorry about that, Chief. I didn't mean to lose it on you like that.”
“It's okay,” Mac continued to just hold the woman and was glad that Lacey didn't try to pull away from her. “You're entitled. It's been hell the last couple days. I'm really glad I could be here for you.”
“Yeah,” Lacey sniffed. “It was nice to see Kevin's familiar face when I woke up. But having you here means a lot more to me right now. Not to say that Kevin's presence wasn't a good thing, but…”
“I understand,” Mac rubbed her cheek against Lacey's hair. “I'm not sure how the colonel will react to finding us in this rather compromising position, though.” She chuckled softly. “He might just have both our asses tossed into the stockade.”
“Mmmm,” Lacey burrowed further into Mac's embrace and savored the moment. “I don't really care about Farrell, Gregory, or any of the rest of this bullshit. For all I care, they can all go to hell, just as long as we can stay like this for the rest of our lives.”
“That long, huh?” Mac teased.
“You got a problem with that, Mackenzie Papadopoulos?”
“Not at all, Lacey Stephens,” Mac kissed the top of Lacey's head affectionately. “I think I could really get used to holding you.”
They stayed that way for a few more stolen moments, until Paula poked her head around the partition and loudly cleared her throat. She gave them both a quick raised-brow chastising look, then smiled to soften the blow.
“Now that you've had your moment together…” her head disappeared from site for a moment and then reappeared. “The colonel's on his way over here with two MPs. Major Johnson informed him that the captain is conscious and lucid.” She looked pointedly at Lacey, as Mac squeezed out from behind her and returned to the seat next to the bed. “He wants to get your statement, Captain.”
Lacey rolled her eyes and shifted positions with some difficulty. “Can't it wait ‘til later?” She groused. “I'm really not ready to go through this again…” Her eyes met Mac's and saw only understanding and support in them. “I don't know if I can.” Mac's hand was suddenly there holding hers and gently squeezing it.
“I'll be right here, Lacey,” Mac reassured her. “Paula will be here, too. Isn't that right, Lieutenant?”
The nurse moved to the other side of the bed and took Lacey's other hand in hers. “That's right, Captain. We'll both be here to give you the moral support you need to get through this.” She smiled.
“I couldn't have said it better myself,” Mac added.
“Thanks, guys,” Lacey gave them a smile that didn't reach her eyes. “I appreciate it.”
Lacey was even more of an emotional and psychological wreck by the time the colonel and the MPs finished with her. She spent two long hours reliving the attack in such minute detail that she was still reeling from the images that continued to run through her mind. Although most of her wounds were internal, the emotional ones felt like gaping maws open for the entire world to see.
“You okay?” Mac asked and gently squeezed her hand.
“Peachy,” Lacey answered flatly. “That was…I'm peachy.”
Mac leaned forward until her chin was resting on Lacey's arm. “You don't sound or look peachy, Lac.”
“I don't really feel peachy, either,” Lacey said in a small voice and sighed heavily. “I feel like an emotional train wreck. This whole thing is just…bullshit. Fucking bullshit!” She slammed a hand down on the mattress.
Mac gently stroked the hand in hers. “You did a great job remembering everything. I'm proud of you for getting through that without getting hysterical. You did great, Lacey.”
Tears that she didn't know she had left suddenly sprang to Lacey's eyes, again. “I fucking hate this. I'm a decorated officer in the United States Army, for Christ's sake. I don't have emotional breakdowns and I don't cry.”
“You were violently attacked by assholes that should be fighting next to you, not against you,” Mac uttered softly. “It's okay to have a breakdown over it. I certainly would.”
“It's still bullshit,” Lacey hissed angrily. “I didn't ask for this to happen. And I certainly didn't ask to be the poster child for what happens to gays in the military. Those assholes had no right…” she sniffed, but the tears still fell unheeded. “Goddammit!”
“No, they didn't,” Mac agreed and sat up. “Lacey, you didn't do anything wrong.”
“Didn't I?” Lacey glared daggers at the woman seated next to her.
Mac was taken aback. “What the hell does that mean?”
“We slept together, for Christ's sake!” The words came out in a loud hiss, but carried the weight of a full-fledged shout. “Not only that, but the whole fucking camp knows what's going on between us. This is just going to add fuel to the fire and cause us more fucking problems.”
“So,” Lacey paused to carefully consider her next words. “It can't happen again.” She shook her head and couldn't meet Mac's gaze. “It ends now.”
Mac felt the words hit her like a hard slap. She couldn't believe her ears, much less that the words were coming from Lacey.
“You don't mean that,” Mac said as tears sprang to her own eyes.
“I do,” Lacey stated over the growing lump in her throat. “I mean it as surely as I meant to take the oath that got me into this mess in the first place. Don't get me wrong, I love my country and I've served it above and beyond expectations. But I'm done. I can't do this anymore.” Her voice lowered to barely above a whisper. “And I can't do us anymore. I just can't. I…” She swallowed hard. “I'm not strong enough to do this.”
Mac slowly rose to her feet and stood facing Lacey. Her emotional barriers suddenly went up and helped to cushion the blow she was experiencing.
“That's it, then?” Mac searched Lacey for some sign that the doctor was not really serious about ending their brief relationship.
“That's it,” Lacey nodded and refused to meet the cold eyes staring back at her.
She wanted nothing more than to raise her own emotional barriers, but she was just too raw, too vulnerable—too exhausted from the past few days' events to make the effort. The ache in her body went far deeper than just the physical injuries. Her emotional nerves were completely fried. And now she was pushing away the only person in the world who meant anything to her. Lacey wanted to cry, but even the tears that seemed so abundant earlier would not come.
“I'll see you on the flight line, then, Captain Stephens,” Mac said as she brushed past the partition that separated Lacey from the rest of the patients. When she was just on the other side, she paused. “You might want to talk to the camp psychologist. They're better equipped to deal with this kind of thing than I am.” And with that, she was gone.
Lacey's heart plummeted in the silence that followed. She wanted to call Mac back and explain her erratic behavior—explain why she always seemed to push the people that she loved away—but she couldn't. Her pride—the stupid, insipid pride she had inherited from her father—wouldn't allow it. And so she just lay there feeling miserable until sleep finally took her.
The next time Lacey awoke, she knew she wasn't alone. She also knew her body felt slightly better. The incessant ache was mostly gone and she could breathe more easily. She didn't open her eyes right away. Instead, she listened intently to her companion's steady breathing, trying to figure out who was there with her. And then she realized what had awakened her. The person's foot was tapping incessantly on the tile floor.
“Would you please stop that,” Lacey ground out, as she let her eyes flutter open.
A blond brow rose, as she realized it wasn't Mac, Kevin or Paula who sat there watching her. She tried to keep her expression neutral as she met Lieutenant Gregory's steady gaze.
“Ma'am,” Gregory greeted her with a quick nod.
“Lieutenant,” Lacey felt the anger flare, but kept her expression completely neutral. “What brings you here?”
“I…” He looked down at the hat he was fidgeting with. “I came to see how you're doing.”
“Oh?” Lacey brow quirked higher. “Do you intend to give your buddies an update on my condition?”
His eyes jerked up to meet her intense gaze. “N-no, ma'am,” he stammered. “I…They're not…”
“Oh, come on, Lieutenant,” Lacey couldn't keep the anger from her tone. “You and I both know you put them up to it. And even if you didn't, you're still as responsible for me being here as they are, even if you weren't actually there to…” She let the words hang.
“N-no, ma'am,” he adamantly shook his head and jumped from the chair, nearly toppling it backwards. “You gotta believe me, ma'am. I don't know who did this to you. I never…I would never…” he swallowed audibly. “I had no idea things would go this far. I-I would never…”
Lacey searched his features, gauging his words against the fear in his eyes. “You really expect me to believe those rumors you've been spreading didn't have anything to do with this? Did you even stop to consider what your actions might yield, Lieutenant?”
“I'm so sorry, ma'am,” Gregory moved a step closer and reached out to her, but she flinched and he instantly pulled his hand back.
Lacey took a deep breath and let it out slowly in an attempt to still her racing heart. “You son of a bitch,” she hissed. “You think you can come here and throw out an apology to make it all just go away? Do you even know what they did to me? And why?” Her voice quivered with rage. “They raped me, because they wanted to teach me a lesson. Three of them, Lieutenant! And I couldn't do anything to stop them. Do you even know how that feels? I did nothing to deserve that. I d-did n-nothing…” She didn't even bother to hold back the tears as they ran down her cheeks.
“I am so s-sorry,” Gregory's voice dropped to a whisper, as he slowly backed away and ran a hand through his short-cropped hair. “I'll make it right, ma'am. I promise.”
And then he skirted around the partition and was gone. Lacey's head dropped back against her pillow, as she just sat there and cried until there were no more tears. She closed her eyes and let herself drift to sleep, all thoughts of her confrontation put aside as her breathing evened out.
A week of torturously boring bed rest passed before Lacey was well enough to leave the hospital and return to light duty. The physical wounds were mostly healed, leaving her with the bruises on her face, a few twinges in her bruised ribs and occasional cramps that hit her unexpectedly when she overexerted. If she took it easy, like the doctor ordered, then she was relatively fine—at least physically.
Emotionally, however, Lacey was at the lowest she'd ever been. Mac hadn't visited her again since Lacey had told her they were finished. Paula Emery had asked where the pilot was and why she hadn't returned for a visit. When Lacey explained that their relationship was over, Paula patiently listened to all the reasons Lacey gave her for the breakup. Then Paula explained that there were much more important things in the world than military rules and regulations, a political war over a piece of land that wasn't worth spit, and some jackass' idea of a perfect relationship between two mature adults.
Lacey only listened with half an ear and then thanked the nurse for sharing her thoughts. When Lacey returned to her duties without any of her former enthusiasm, Paula commented on the change in the doctor's demeanor. But Lacey just didn't care anymore.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Kevin's voice from behind her made Lacey jump.
“Don't do that, Major,” Lacey scolded flatly, as she listened to a patient's heartbeat and checked his pulse.
“Sorry. Didn't mean to startle you,” Kevin had the grace to look abashed. “I was just heading over to the mess for lunch and wondered if you wanted to catch a bite.”
Lacey didn't bother meeting his expectant gaze, as she wrote the patient's vitals on a chart. “I'm on duty, Major.”
“I can see that,” Kevin took the chart out of her hands and replaced it at the foot of the bed. “But you also need to eat, Captain. Lieutenant Emery says you haven't been taking care of yourself like you should. She's worried that you'll have a relapse.”
“I'm not hungry,” she said, as she headed out of the patient area toward the back office. “Besides, Lieutenant Emery isn't my mother.”
“You're not hungry? Or not interested?” He followed close behind her and nearly collided with the door as it swung closed in his face. “And the lieutenant is just looking after one of her patients, Captain.”
“Does it really matter, Major?”
“It does to me, Lac,” he prodded as he caught up to her. “I have some news to share concerning the investigations.”
“You're being investigated?” She shot over her shoulder, as she entered the office and sank down wearily into the chair behind the desk.
“Charming, as always, Lac,” he closed the door behind him and stood there. “Gregory recanted his statement.”
Lacey rested her head against her fist. “I really don't care anymore. Gregory's a coward who doesn't deserve to wear the uniform.”
“That may very well be, but at least you're off the hook,” He crossed his arms over his chest and stared at her with incredulity. “This is big news, Lacey. Huge!”
“It just doesn't matter anymore,” she said dejectedly.
“Why aren't you happy about this?” He sat on the corner of the desk and crossed his arms over his chest as he gazed intently at her. “You should at least be glad that the little prick is off your back and not pressing charges anymore. It closes that investigation and lets the MPs concentrate on finding the assholes that attacked you.”
Lacey just shook her head and looked up at him. “None of it matters anymore, Kev. Don't you get it?”
Kevin eyed her more closely. “What happened?”
“Nothing,” Lacey avoided his intense scrutiny, even when he moved within inches of her face.
Kevin moved around the desk and pinned her with his gaze. “Has Mac been by to see you lately?”
Her eyes shot up to his. “No.”
He leaned a hip casually against the desk. “Why not?”
“I don't know,” Lacey shrugged. “Maybe she got tired of being around an emotional shipwreck.”
“Bullshit,” he shot back. “You and I both know that's not true, Lacey. Mac cares about you and was by your side every step of the way. So, what happened? What did you do?”
Lacey blew out a frustrated breath. “Do you want the official or unofficial version, Major?”
“I'm asking as your friend, Lac, not as your superior,” he crossed his arms over his chest and waited for her to continue. “What happened?”
“I told her it can't work between us,” Lacey finally answered, “that we can't have a relationship. It's just not right. We're in the Army, for Christ's sake.”
“Not right that you can't be together and still have your careers in the Army?” He gave her a skeptical shrug. “Or not right that you are together period? Because I sure thought the two of you had something, even when I submitted that report to the colonel that contradicted what I suspected.”
Lacey squeezed her closed eyes with the fingers of one hand to stem the frustration and emotional turmoil she was feeling. She really didn't want to discuss her love life with one of her former lovers, even if he was a good friend and they had only had one night together. She also didn't think that she was entitled to a love life after everything she'd been through.
“I don't know,” Lacey shook her head and sighed heavily in frustration. “I like her. I really do, but…”
“But you're scared,” Kevin supplied when she clammed up. “You're scared that she might actually be the one that forces you to stay, rather than run. That she's the one who could make leaving all this,” he motioned to the cramped office around them and smirked, “worth it. Come on, Lac, admit it. You and I both know there's more out there than this uniform. You only joined to escape, to run away from making your own decisions or having them made for you by your father. You didn't want the responsibility of standing up to the old man and telling him to let you live your life and make your own mistakes. So you ran. And now you're running again.”
“I don't run,” she ground out.
“Yes, you do, and you're doing it again,” he countered. “You told me that, in no uncertain terms, when we first met. You said you were glad you joined the Army, because your father no longer had control over your life.”
“I said that?”
“Yeah,” he continued. “And you also told me you preferred women over men for the same reason.”
“Oh, I don't think so,” she blushed.
“Yeah, you did. You said you did some experimenting in college and discovered that men just didn't do it for you. Remember? That's when we both got really pissed up and tried to…well, you know.”
“I remember how gentle and caring you were, even when I pushed you away,” Lacey finished. “You said you understood and then shrugged it off, like it was no big deal.”
“The point that I'm trying to make, Lacey,” he looked sternly at her, “is that you need to stop running away. Mac is a good person and she really likes you. Don't let your fear keep you from the one person in this world who cares enough to see past your numerous faults to the wonderful woman that lies beneath. It's a once in a lifetime opportunity. Excuse the cliché.”
“Numerous faults?” She gave him a wry smirk.
He shrugged. “Hey, we all have our little skeletons hidden away in our closets. I'm just better at hiding mine than you are.”
“Oh, really,” Lacey gave him a skeptical glare.
“Don't be so hard on yourself, Lac,” he affectionately patted her shoulder and winked.
Lacey thoughtfully considered his words and then met his gaze. “I guess, for once, you're right.”
“Damned straight, I'm right,” Kevin smirked. “I'm always right.”
Lacey just rolled her eyes at him. “You are so utterly egotistical sometimes,” she said as she rose from her chair and launched herself into his arms. “But that's also one of the things I like about you,” and then she hugged him in earnest. “You say it like it is and honestly mean it.”
“It's my charm,” he said with a chuckle as he returned the hug.
“Thanks, Kev,” she squeezed him one last time and pulled away. “You've given me a lot to think about.”
“I aim to please,” he winked at her and got a slap on the arm in return. “Ow! What the hell was that for?”
“You can also be an incredible jerk sometimes, Major,” she returned to her chair with a teasing smirk.
He shrugged. “Yeah, well we can't all be perfect, Captain.”
Lacey finished the stitches she was working on and tied them off. She smiled tiredly at the young private whose leg she had just treated. He seemed so young that Lacey almost slipped up and asked his age. She knew better, though.
“You're good to go, soldier,” she said, as she wrapped a gauze bandage around his calf to keep the dirt out. “Keep it clean and dry, and don't take the bandage off for at least a week. Come back and see me if it gives you any problems.”
The young man jumped down from the exam table and pushed his pant leg down. He grabbed his beige boot and limped over to a chair. “Thanks, Doc,” he gave her a shy smile. “I appreciate this.”
“You're welcome, soldier,” Lacey removed the latex gloves and tossed them onto the tray with the other supplies. “Just doing my job, so you can keep doing yours.”
“It don't even hurt much, ma'am,” he pulled on the laces and tucked his pant leg into his boot.
“It will later, when the local wears off,” Lacey shot him a knowing grin. “Just try to stay off it for a couple days and keep it clean. I know that won't be easy, but I have faith you'll come up with a way to stick your leg out the window of that truck of yours.”
“Yes, ma'am,” he said with another shy smile.
“Dismissed, Private Riley,” Lacey said when he didn't immediately turn to leave.
“Ma'am, yes, ma'am,” he smirked and snapped to attention, before turning on his heel and striding away without any noticeable limp.
Lacey merely shook her head at the soldier's antics. So typical of a field soldier, she mused. She left the exam area and headed back toward the office to file a report on Private Riley's unfortunate mishap, when the field radio suddenly crackled loudly.
“ Base, this is medical transport three-seven-niner ,” the male voice came over the radio loud and clear.
“Go ahead, seven-niner,” Lacey responded into the receiver.
“ Base, we're en route with casualties ,” a chill raced down Lacey's spine.
“Acknowledged seven-niner,” she answered. “Do you have an ETA and a number of casualties?”
“ETA twelve minutes,” the voice continued. “We have three with minor burns, six with severe injuries and another four DOA.”
Lacey sighed heavily—thirteen casualties. “We'll be ready, seven-niner. Base out.”
“ Roger that, Base. Seven-niner out ,” the radio clicked off.
Lacey grabbed a LAN-line phone and quickly placed a call. “Yes, this is Captain Stephens. Have all available medical personnel report to the hospital for inbound casualties, A-SAP.” She listened to the voice on the other end. “Yes, ETA twelve minutes.”
As soon as she hung up the phone, Paula appeared at her elbow. Lacey tried not to jump, but her nerves were still too ragged for her to stifle the reaction. She ran a hand over her face and glowered at the nurse.
“Calm down, Captain,” Paula put a staying hand on Lacey's shoulder. “I didn't mean to startle you.”
“I know, Lieutenant,” Lacey took a deep breath and let it out slowly to slow her racing heart. “We need to get things ready for incoming casualties. I just got off the horn with dispatch and let them know to have all available personnel here before the first transport arrives.”
“Nine treatable, four DOAs,” Lacey answered. “I'm not sure what we're looking at, so be prepared for any contingency. Make sure we have all bases covered.”
“Yes, ma'am,” Paula nodded, as she headed off to carry out her orders.
Lacey stepped out of the hospital in time to have two doctors approach her.
“Hey, Stephens,” Captain Frank Richardson towered over her. “Any word on what's coming in?”
Lacey waited until the other doctor—Captain Charley Taft—took his place on her other side. Charley was only a few inches taller than she was, so they were on more level footing than she and Frank.
“Hey, yourself, Frank,” she answered. “Yeah, we have a transport with about nine to triage and four more for the morgue.”
“Roadside bomb?” Charley didn't like to use military jargon, so he didn't.
“Don't really know yet, but that's my guess.” Lacey shielded her eyes and stared into the distance at a cloud of dust heading their way. “Dispatch says some of the casualties suffered burns, which goes without saying.”
“It's your call, Cap,” Frank said. “Give us our orders.”
“Let's get them triaged, then take it from there,” Lacey answered. “Frank, you take the minor burns and injuries, while Charley takes the severe cases and stabilizes them enough for immediate transport to Ramstein. I'll do the initial honors this time around. I don't think we'll have time for much more than that.”
They were soon joined by a group of medical personnel—several nurses, orderlies and other staff who would assist in treating the incoming casualties. Lacey watched with pride as they all went about the task of preparing for the onslaught that would soon arrive. Her thoughts turned to a certain dark-haired pilot and she wondered what Mac was doing at that moment.
Mac veered the chopper toward a stream of dark smoke billowing into the sky. “We'll set her down over by that last vehicle, L-T.”
“Roger that, Mac,” Donaldson answered. “Be ready for anything back there!” He called into his mic.
“Ready for anything, L-T!” O'Leary's gruff voice called back over the loud whir of the blades overhead.
“Shit!” Mac exclaimed quietly. “Damned bastards really did a number on our boys down there.”
Donaldson peered out the front windshield and couldn't believe his eyes. The charred shells of several sand-colored tankers loomed before them. A few were still upright, as if they had merely stopped to survey the scenery. Six of the large trucks were lying on their sides and spewing fire and molten metal everywhere. Soldiers were running from truck to truck, trying to pull their comrades from the burning wreckages, while others were standing by in shock or lying on the ground where they were being treated.
“Let's go to work, people,” Mac called into her mic, as she flipped a few switches and shut the aircraft down.
Her skeleton crew consisted of Simmons, O'Leary, and Dr. Bruce Sheets. Sheets was the temporary replacement for Lacey, and Mac desperately missed having the woman as part of her team. Actually, she just missed Lacey, period. Ever since the day the woman told her they were finished, Mac wanted nothing more than to confront Lacey and tell her how much she still wanted to be with her.
Mac sighed as she watched the others rush off to do their jobs. Another Black Hawk landed next to hers and she nodded at the pilot. They would transport the more critically wounded by air, while the ground transport would follow as quickly as possible with the DOAs. Mac watched as a stretcher came toward the helicopter. O'Leary and Sheets quickly loaded the stretcher into the cargo hold and Mac could hear them securing it, while also reassuring the patient that everything would be fine.
She wondered about that. Would Lacey be there to meet them and take care of their patients? Was the doctor enjoying this chance to be at the hospital, rather than out in the field? Mac's attention returned to the scene, as Simmons and Sheets hurried toward the copter with another patient. This time Mac caught a glimpse of the man on the stretcher—if the tattered remains of said patient could be called a man. Mac saw that the soldier's head was one large, gaping wound, while the rest of him was charred and bloody. She'd seen casualties before, but this time it just hit her and brought about a wave of revulsion.
She choked down the bile that was threatening and asked, “We secure back there, yet?”
“Just about, Mac,” O'Leary answered. “Just getting the second stretcher locked down for transport.”
“We only transporting the two?”
“Two more on the way, Mac,” Simmons answered and, sure enough, Mac glanced out the side window as two additional stretchers headed their way. “Captain Fisher's calling into Base to let them know we're coming. They'll be ready when we get there.”
Mac keyed in a different channel and opened it. “Alpha-six-charlie-one-seven-niner to Charlie-six-six-bravo.”
“ Go ahead seven-niner ,” a male voice answered.
“Did you notify Base Camp that we're on our way?”
“ Roger that, seven-niner ,” came the immediate reply. “Base Camp standing by.”
“We're just about set here,” Mac continued. “We'll meet you there.”
“ Roger that, six-bravo out. ”
“Seven-niner out,” Mac clicked off the channel and returned to the internal comm system. “You ready back there, yet?”
“Roger that, Mac,” Simmons answered. “Let's get these boys back to Base Camp, A-SAP.”
And into the hands of the one person she knew would take really good care of them, Mac silently added. She just hoped Lacey was anxiously awaiting their arrival. Mac was even looking forward to seeing the petite doctor herself. That thought brought on a bout of melancholy, though. She wished they were still together, that there was still a chance for them.
Mac flipped several switches and felt a satisfying rumble, as the engines responded and settled into a familiar whir. Dust kicked up all around them and seemed to close them off from the rest of the world for a moment, as Mac lifted them into the air with practiced ease. Soon they were speeding off in the direction of their home away from home.
Lacey watched from the hospital entrance as the first helicopter touched down on the flight line and her medical staff jumped into action. Four stretchers were pulled from the cargo hold and strapped into the back of an ambulance. But Lacey's gaze took in the cockpit and the two nondescript people seated behind the controls. She recognized both of them and felt a familiar tug in her gut when the one on the right nodded.
Lacey returned the nod, before all hell broke loose and she found herself inundated with four inbound patients. She and Charley triaged the first of the casualties quickly and efficiently. One soldier was burned badly, so Lacey sent him directly to surgery. She knew time was of the essence if they were to get him stabilized for transport to their medical facility in Ramstein, Germany. A transport was standing by and ready to fly the worst of the casualties at a moment's notice.
Stepping to the side of the next patient, Lacey was slightly surprised by the sight that greeted her. The man's left sleeve was torn away, revealing a barbed-wire tattoo that brought on an instant flashback that took her to her knees.
She was suddenly being held by two burly men, as a third pounded between her legs. She caught a glimpse of a tattoo peeking out from the sleeve of her attacker's t-shirt and felt everything closing in.
“Captain?” A familiar voice next to her brought her instantly back to the present. “Are you all right, ma'am?”
Lacey felt a hand on her shoulder, as she wavered slightly and then managed to get back to her feet. “Yeah, I'm…I'm fine, Private.” She inhaled deeply and let the breath out slowly to calm the panic that was threatening to overwhelm her. Her heart was pounding a thousand miles a minute and she couldn't catch her breath. She then looked down at the tattoo again, before meeting the eyes of the man himself. That's when she saw it—the look of recognition that told her all she needed to know. “Do we know what happened to these guys?” Her eyes stayed locked with his, as she conveyed her recognition and the rage that bubbled up unexpectedly. “Who are they and where were they headed?” Her tone was cold.
“The convoy they were in was attacked on Hell's Highway, ma'am,” Simmons answered. “The first detonation took out the three lead vehicles. There was nothing left for us to bring in.” Simmons swallowed with difficulty, as the full impact of her own words hit her. “The explosions caused a chain reaction and these guys were caught in the middle of it.”
Lacey just shook her head, as she shoved her feelings about the man down into the deepest recess of her mind. It took her another full minute to shut the anger away for later. That was the only way she could do her job and treat the patient. And that's what he became to her, as she shut out every other thought. His breathing was shallow and labored, as his eyes watched her with silent pleading. She checked beneath his tattered over shirt and found a gaping wound in his side that was steadily oozing dark red blood.
“Get this one into surgery, too, nurse,” she said to the young woman standing next to Simmons.
“Yes, ma'am,” the nurse waved over two orderlies.
“Simmons,” Lacey's tone was cool and quiet. “Notify the MPs and the colonel that one of the casualties is a criminal suspect.”
“Ma'am?” Simmons stopped dead and glanced from the doctor towards the wounded soldier being carried into the hospital.
“He's one of the men that…” Lacey swallowed down the bile and panic that clenched in her guts. She shut her eyes tight and took several deep breaths. “He was one of my attackers.”
Simmons' expression turned sympathetic, as she looked at the captain. “Yes, ma'am. Right away, Captain Stephens,” and she rushed off toward the center of camp where the colonel's office was located.
Lacey kept her eyes shut tight for another few moments and took several shuddering breaths, in order to settle her racing heart and the wave of nausea that was still threatening to bring her breakfast up again. She took a moment to just breathe—in and out, in and out. Her heart was pounding so hard that Lacey thought it would burst from her chest. But the breathing seemed to help, even if just a little bit.
“You okay?” Mac's voice in her ear made Lacey steel herself to face the woman.
“I'm... fine,” Lacey turned around and caught the concern in sky-blue eyes. “I have work…”
“Yeah,” Mac's expression hardened. “I just came by to make sure we didn't lose any of the patients during transport. They were all in pretty bad shape.”
“We're not done, either,” Lacey's gaze tracked to the flight line, as another helicopter touched down, kicking up a plume of dust.
“No, I guess not,” Mac absently commented and was about to turn away.
“Look, Mac,” Lacey grabbed Mac's tanned arm to stop her from walking away. Her expression softened as she stared up into familiar blue eyes. “Could we…”
Lacey turned toward the voice and saw someone waving her over. She turned back to Mac with hope in her eyes. “I really want to sit down and talk about…well, us,” she shrugged. “I…I need to talk.”
Mac couldn't help the small half-smile that quirked one corner of her mouth. “Okay,” she answered. “I'll meet you in the mess when you're done here. Okay with you?”
“I look forward to a hot cup of crappy coffee,” Lacey smirked. “And some friendly conversation,” she added.
“See you then, Doc,” and then Mac walked away.
Lacey saw the colonel approaching with two MPs and Simmons flanking him. The man was heading straight for her, so she just stayed put and waited for his approach.
“Sir,” Lacey nodded a greeting.
“Captain,” he nodded back. “Simmons tells me you've ID'd one of your attackers.”
“Yes, sir,” Lacey walked toward the hospital in time for the next ambulance to arrive. “He's in surgery, sir. He came in with severe burns, an open wound and multiple contusions.”
“And you know he's one of the soldiers who attacked you, how?” Farrell gave her a skeptical look. “I thought you didn't see their faces.”
“He has a tattoo, sir,” Lacey answered, her mouth suddenly bone dry. “I remember seeing the tattoo during the…um…well, you know, sir.”
“And you're sure about this, Captain?” Farrell stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. “Describe the tattoo for me.”
“Barbed wire, sir,” Lacey answered flatly. “But it wasn't the same type of generic barbed wire tattoo that I've seen on others, sir. This particular design has a distinct flare that I would recognize anywhere. It was almost as if the artist signed it with his own personal signature.”
“Did the others have the same tattoo, ma'am?” One of the MPs spoke up from behind the colonel.
“Yes,” Lacey answered. “I remember thinking how strange it was that they all wore the same exact design, but completely forgot about it…” she paused to swallow down a wave of nausea. “Well, you understand.” Lacey felt raw and exposed, as the memories continued to assail her. She hid her distress well, though. Time enough later to have that breakdown that was threatening.
The colonel saw how pale the woman was and put a comforting hand on her shoulder. He gave her shoulder a gentle squeeze and smiled reassuringly.
“That'll be all, Captain,” Farrell said. “We'll take it from here. As you were.” He started to walk away, considered something, stopped and returned to her side. “Have you been to the camp psychologist for a psych eval, Captain Stephens?”
“N-no, sir,” Lacey fidgeted uncomfortably under his intense gaze.
“You know you can't return to duty until you've been cleared,” Farrell set his hands on his hips. “You shouldn't even be here right now, as a matter of fact.”
“Y-yes, sir,” Lacey nodded once and didn't meet his gaze. “I was on my way over there when the call came in that we were receiving casualties, sir.” The boldfaced lie rolled easily off her tongue.
Farrell eyed her more closely as he moved to stand in front of her. “I can't let you return to duty until you sit down with Captain Kitridge and she clears you. There's no wiggle room on this one, Captain. Understand?”
“Understood, sir,” Lacey met his gaze and decided to challenge what he was saying. “But I also know I'm needed here, sir. We need all hands, right now, sir.”
“We need all able hands right now, Captain,” he countered, lowering his voice so only she could hear him. “If I were to venture a guess, I'd say you're not exactly functioning at optimum levels at the moment.”
Lacey tried valiantly to hide the roiling emotions that were threatening to send her into a fit of hysterical tears. She knew she wasn't ready to return to duty. The face-to-face encounter with one of her attackers had nearly been her undoing, except that Simmons was standing right there and she knew she couldn't lose it in front of the woman. Lacey didn't know what would have happened if the young private hadn't been there. It was all still so fresh and raw—her emotions just too close to the surface.
Lacey took a shuddering breath and let it out slowly. “I'm fine, sir,” she turned her best smile on him. “Never better.”
Farrell eyed her for another moment longer and then sighed heavily. “I've known you for several months now, Captain Stephens. I've also known other soldiers who've been through situations similar to yours. Seasoned veterans on the front lines have a hard time holding it together in the face of such adversity.” He watched her closely for any sign of emotion and didn't even see a flinch. “I'm sure you think you can best handle this your own way, but I'm ordering you to sit down with the camp psychologist and talk through what happened.”
“Would you give the same order if I were a man, sir?” Lacey's tone hardened.
Farrell's expression became unreadable. “An order is an order, Captain,” he answered with a hard edge. “I expect you to follow orders, regardless. Is that understood?”
“Yes, sir,” Lacey conceded. “Understood perfectly, sir.” She watched a litter pass close by and knew she was needed. “Permission to finish up here first, sir.”
“Dismissed, Captain,” Farrell turned on his heel and walked away.
Lacey stood there watching his retreating figure, before finally releasing the breath she'd been holding. She knew she'd crossed a line with him and would pay later for her open defiance. But she didn't care. She had a job to do and couldn't afford to get bogged down in a sea of emotions and feelings that were better left for another time and place. She locked it all away, then turned on her heel and jumped back into the chaos of triaging the new arrivals. She would tackle the shrink thing later—much later.
Charley glanced questioningly her way, but she merely shook her head and ignored his unspoken question. She knew the only way for her to keep her composure was to immerse herself wholeheartedly in work, which was exactly what she did.
It was almost ten at night by the time Lacey finally emerged from the hospital into the moonless night. A touch of apprehension stopped her in her tracks, but she quickly shook off the feeling. The overhead light was bright enough to light her way, and she was grateful for the chance to stretch sore muscles. She arched her back to relieve the kinks after nearly sixteen hours of stress and work.
“You heading to your quarters, Captain?” Kevin Johnson was suddenly there beside her.
She managed to stifle her reaction to his sudden presence and was too tired to chastise him for startling her again.
“Hey, Kev,” she answered casually. “No, I'm headed to the mess, actually.”
“Coffee? At this hour?” He glanced at his wrist watch and then at her. “That stuff will just keep you wired for hours, you know. Either that or it will burn a hole in your gut. Yeesh.”
“I'm meeting someone,” Lacey managed to hide her grin, as her thoughts turned to the person who she hoped was waiting for her.
“Ah, the illustrious Mackenzie Papadopoulos, I presume,” he nodded. “Can I escort you over there, then?” He put a hand to the small of her back and set them in the direction of the mess.
“You don't really need to do this, you know,” Lacey said, but was secretly grateful for the company.
“Why, because two of the guys who attacked you are in the morgue and the third is on his way to Germany under heavy guard and equally heavy sedation?” He smirked. “Contrary to popular belief, Captain, chivalry is not yet dead. Besides, I still enjoy your company and don't mind escorting a pretty woman on a moonless strole.”
“Are you sure it's chivalry and my company that's motivating you, Major? Or is there an ulterior motive?” Lacey teased, as they slowly made their way toward the non-descript beige tent.
“I'm rather hoping my two best friends will kiss and make up,” Kevin winked at her. “Who knows, maybe I can play matchmaker and get you two back together again. I miss my poker partner. Mac has been sulking for days and has spent all her time in the weight room. I think she's working off her frustrations. Still, this has promise.”
“I don't think there's much chance she'll forgive me, Major,” Lacey shot him a scowl. “I really blew it when I told her it wouldn't work.” She shook her head and sighed. “Why do relationships have to be so complicated?”
He stopped her in front of the mess tent. “Just give it a chance, will you?” He stroked her cheek affectionately and let his hand drift down to cup her chin. “I'd really like to see that gleam return to your eyes again, Lacey. I miss it.” He gave her a chaste kiss on the forehead and turned on his heel.
Lacey stood there a moment and watched his swift retreat. She thought briefly that he was a chicken for offering to play matchmaker and then bolting the first chance he got. Then she shrugged off her thoughts and smiled in anticipation. It briefly occurred to her that Mac might have already gotten tired of waiting around and left. But she quickly dismissed the notion and optimistically entered the tent.
Lacey was mildly amused to find Mac leaning back in a chair in the corner. The pilot's feet were propped up on the table and she was snoring softly. The serene picture warmed Lacey to the core and made her…feel…something.
“Wake up, sleepyhead,” Lacey gingerly approached and sat down across the table from the pilot.
She didn't know why she wanted to put space between them, but figured it had something to do with the vulnerability that was suddenly making her heart do flip-flops in her chest. Her emotions were just too close to the surface at that moment. Farrell's earlier words rang through her head, but she merely shook them off and concentrated on the matter at hand.
“Wha…who?” Mac awoke with a start and nearly tipped over backward. She managed to right herself at the last moment and slammed her feet firmly on the ground. “Oh, you're here.”
“Yeah,” Lacey yawned unexpectedly. “Sorry.”
“No, no, don't be sorry. I'm really glad you came. Sorry about falling asleep like that, but I've been up since dawn. What time is it, anyway?”
“I think it's after eleven,” Lacey answered on another unexpected yawn. “Or maybe ten. Not sure.”
“You want some coffee?” Mac didn't wait for a reply as she got up and helped herself to two large mugs of what was left in the large metal coffee dispenser.
Mac returned with the tepid brew and sat down again. Lacey watched her wearily.
“Thanks,” the doctor accept the mug Mac handed her. “Mmm, that's…well, at least it's semi-palatable, I guess.”
Mac smirked as she took a sip from her own mug and winced. “Ugh.” She set the mug on the table and pushed it away. “Oil tastes better than this crap. And, believe me, I've had enough of that in my face to know.”
“It's not that bad,” Lacey took another sip and set her mug on the table between them. She cleared her throat as her gaze met Mac's. “The guys who attacked me were brought in today,” she stated flatly. “One of them was badly injured. The other two are dead.”
Mac's eyes widened at the unexpected news. “How do you know they're the guys?”
“Tattoos,” Lacey scratched absently at a piece of dried food stuck to the table. “I remembered seeing them during the…um…well, you know.” She shrugged and felt her stomach twist painfully—not sure if it was the coffee or her anxiety over the situation.
“So, it's over,” Mac watched Lacey closely, saw the slight nod and noticed how pale the woman appeared, even in the mess hall's dim interior. “You okay?”
Lacey sighed. “I've been better.” She ran a hand back over her hair, then smiled sadly. “Actually, I've never felt this low before.” The admission hurt more than she was willing to admit. “I…I'm…” A tear slipped from one eye and trailed down her cheek.
Mac got up and moved around the table until she was seated next to the smaller woman. She put a comforting arm around Lacey's shoulders and was glad when the doctor didn't pull away. As a matter of fact, Lacey seemed to melt into Mac's body, eliciting an unexpected rush of heat between them. Mac just girded herself and shoved her feelings away.
“It's okay, Doc,” Mac placed her cheek against Lacey's hair and encircled the doctor with both arms. She held Lacey close and noticed that the smaller woman was shaking with silent sobs. “I've got ya, Lac. I promise not to let go anytime soon.”
Lacey was unprepared for the sudden rush of emotions. The flood gates were wide open and the tears just flowed like a raging torrent. Warm arms held her as she continued to empty her soul of all the baggage she'd been carrying around for months. Thoughts of her recent attack and the casualties that included her three attackers swam away with all the other stresses that came with being a surgeon in a war zone. She let it all wash over her and almost lost herself in the misery of it all—almost. There was a stong anchor that kept her from completely going over the edge. That anchor was holding her firmly and whispering words of comfort against the top of her head.
The flood gates finally emptied and the tears eventually subsided enough for Lacey to return to the land of semi-normalcy. As hiccups replaced her tears, Lacey realized Mac was still silently holding her.
“You okay?” Mac finally said. “That was more tears than I've seen anyone shed in all my years on this earth, Doc. I'm beginning to think that a visit to the camp shrink might be in order.”
“Funny you should say that,” Lacey sniffed and tried to wipe the wet from her cheeks, but only managed to smear the dirt and tears. “Farrell ordered me to do just that today. He said he wants me cleared before I return to duty.”
Mac shifted so they were face to face. “You don't have to suffer through this alone, Lacey. It's okay to open up and let others help you through these difficult times. After all, you're as human as the rest of us.”
“What's that supposed to mean?” Lacey pulled back.
Mac sighed. “It's just that you always seem to put everyone else's needs ahead of your own, in order to do your job. You can't keep doing that and not pay the price. It will eventually catch up to you.”
“Oh, so now you're a shrink, too?” Lacey shot back. “Since when do pilots and commanders know anything about the inner workings of the human mind?”
“Since I watched several good friends burn out and lose it in Afghanistan because they were too stubborn or too pigheaded to seek psychiatric help,” Mac answered with a frown. “Contrary to popular belief, Doc, it doesn't take a degree in psychology to recognize the signs that someone is about to suffer a mental breakdown. And you're not the only one around here who's seen or experienced a boatload of shit.” Mac's gaze remained locked on Lacey's. “You were brutally attacked and raped by those guys. You suffered terrible trauma, both physically and emotionally. There's no way you can tell me you haven't been affected by what happened. I just don't believe it.”
Lacey considered Mac's words. “You're right,” she conceded. “It has affected me. I just choose not to let it be a factor in how I do my job or live my life. I'm still a doctor and an officer. Those two things take precedence over anything in my personal life.”
“Your personal life?” Mac scoffed incredulously. “Lacey, they attacked you right here, on this base. You weren't walking through the streets of Houston or along some backwoods country road somewhere. They attacked you because you're an officer in the Army and they didn't agree with your choice of a bed mate.”
Lacey swallowed with difficulty and met Mac's gaze, then shook her head. “I don't need a shrink to tell me I'm fit for duty.”
“Farrell says differently,” Mac stated. “He ordered you to see her and you can't disobey a direct order.”
“I know,” Lacey said, as she shoved her emotions back down and dropped her head down against Mac's chest. “I just can't go there right now. Can't anyone see that? I have to keep doing my job. I only have three months left in this hell hole, and then I'll return State-side and deal with all this shit.” The tears came unbidden again and she just let them fall. “I just want to do my job until they send me back. Then I can fall apart and become the emotional wreck everyone seems to think I am.”
Mac stroked Lacey's back and rested her chin on top of the woman's head. “Shhh, you're not an emotional wreck, Lacey.”
Lacey sniffed loudly. “I'm not?”
“No,” Mac smirked. “You're human, like the rest of us, sweetheart.”
The endearment did not go unnoticed by the smaller woman, who felt her heart warm as Mac's arms encircled her and held her close. Her tears finally subsided and she wiped her face with the back of her sleeve, as she continued to remain firmly anchored in Mac's arms.
“Thanks,” Lacey said. “I think I really needed that…and this.” She snuggled closer. “Kitridge can't hold a candle to this kind of therapy.”
“My pleasure,” Mac answered with a wry smirk. “I'm glad I was here to offer a shoulder to cry on. And who's Kitridge? Should I be jealous?”
“Camp shrink,” Lacey was enjoying the closeness more than she cared to admit and didn't want to move out of Mac's arms. “She reminds me of a teacher from the ‘50s—an older, matronly teacher who doesn't take shit from anyone and uses a ruler to get her point across.”
“Oh, the two of you…”
“No,” Lacey answered adamantly. “Terry Kitridge isn't my type. She has a yen for men, if you know what I mean.”
“Ah,” Mac nodded sagely, then chuckled. “A yen for men? Never heard that one before.”
Lacey joined in with a chuckle of her own until they were both giggling like a couple of teenagers. The laughter soon subsided. Their amusement having worked wonders to lighten the somber mood between them.
“I really appreciate this, Mac,” Lacey said.
“No problem, Doc,” Mac answered. “I don't have anything else going on right now.”
“No pressing poker games?”
“Nah,” Mac responded. “Not in the mood for poker.”
“Yeah,” Lacey nodded.
They sat in companionable silence for a while and listened to the quiet sounds around them. Although the camp never really slept, especially at night, there seemed to be a certain measure of peace on this particular night. The darkness allowed a break from the sweltering heat of the day and also gave the soldiers a measure of camouflage against enemy eyes. That was why most of the missions that were carried out from the various bases took place at night.
Lacey listened to the steady chirp of a nearby cricket, as she let her thoughts wander. She sniffed loudly and wiped her nose with her sleeve again.
“Guess I should have brought a box of Kleenex with me,” Mac commented out of the blue. “Or maybe I should just invest in the company that makes them.”
“Been there, done that,” Lacey commented with a wry smirk. “I own enough shares to get a free box a month.”
“You own stock in KC?” Mac asked with some surprise.
“Yeah,” Lacey nodded. “It's one of the few companies that actually still offers perks to its stockholders.”
“Let me guess,” Mac continued. “You own stock in other companies, too?”
Lacey shrugged. “You could say that.”
“So, how much're we talking here? Hundreds?”
“Of shares,” Lacey ducked down into Mac's chest again. “My father gave my sister and me owner's shares in various companies when we were born, for our birthdays, when we graduated high school and so on. He thought it was a practical gift that would keep on giving.” She breathed out an exasperated sigh. “My father has always been a man of immense practicality.”
“It's a gift that keeps on giving, all right. I sit on the boards of several companies because of those stocks,” Lacey frowned. “So, I started using some of the money I make in the Army to expand my interests. I can safely say it's paid off in the long run.”
“So, you're a wealthy woman,” Mac shifted uncomfortably.
“I have a million-dollar trust fund,” Lacey grumbled. “If that makes me wealthy, then, yes, I'm a wealthy woman. Does it make me happy to have a shitload of money sitting in some bank back in the States? No. I'm no happier knowing I can eventually go back and invest that money in a nice million-dollar house somewhere, than I am sitting here in the middle of a war zone. Money doesn't make you happy or fix your problems. Mostly, it just compounds them and makes everyone miserable.”
“But you don't have to rely on your family for money,” Mac countered. “You're free to live anywhere you choose.”
“Am I?” Lacey turned in Mac's arms and looked up into confused blue eyes. “In order to access my trust fund, I have to get the numbers from my father. In order to do that, I have to return to Houston and face him. I haven't seen the man since I left for college. Nor do I want to. I would rather face those three rapists and an entire army of AK-47-wielding insurgents than my own father. That's how much I love and respect the man who helped bring me into this world.”
“Does he scare you that much?”
Lacey considered the question. “Not as much as when I was younger. But, like I said, I haven't seen him in a really long time. Who knows, maybe he's mellowed over the years.”
“You're a decorated officer and a leader in the United States Army, not to mention a damned good doctor,” Mac continued. “You've more than earned the respect of your subordinates and colleagues, alike. Why should it matter what your father thinks?”
Lacey shrugged. “It just always has, I guess.” She sighed heavily. “But I didn't come here to talk about him. I came to talk about us.”
Mac stiffened. “Us?” She swallowed audibly. “There's still an ‘us' to talk about, then?”
“Yeah,” Lacey moved back to her own chair, in order to give them both the space they needed. She took Mac's hands in hers and tried to look the pilot in the eye. Mac was too busy studying the ground at their feet to notice that Lacey was actually watching her intently. “I was wrong and I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive me for pushing you away like that. I didn't mean to do it. I was just—” She raised a hand and lifted Mac's chin so they were eye-to-eye. “There, that's better. I want to look into your beautiful eyes when I say this. I love looking into your eyes. They're so expressive.” She cleared her throat of the sudden, unexpected dryness. “I want us to start over, Mackenzie.”
“Start over, like, how?” Mac's gaze met Lacey's with a note of challenge. “It's not like we don't already know each other.”
“I want to start over, from square one,” Lacey explained. “I don't want to have anymore of this emotional barrier crap between us. No more walls. I'd like to try really hard to give you what you deserve, which is my full honesty and trust. I want…I need you to know the real me behind this uniform.” Lacey blew out a breath. “I'm not…I don't know how to…” She stopped to gather her errant thoughts and blew out a frustrated breath. “I'm not a real warm and fuzzy kinda girl, Mac. But I'd like to learn, so we can make a go at a real relationship. I'd really like for there to be an ‘us' again.”
Mac considered Lacey's words for a moment. “You said there was no ‘us.'”
“I know and I was wrong,” Lacey gently caressed the hands in hers. “I tried not to think about you while I was in my self-imposed isolation. But the truth is, I couldn't think of anything—anyone—else.” She bit her lip when Mac remained stoically silent. “I know I hurt you. I'm so sorry. It won't happen again, I promise.”
Mac's brow rose skeptically. “I don't think you can keep a promise like that, Doc.”
Lacey considered the truth of Mac's words and shrugged. No, she probably couldn't keep from hurting the woman. It was something Lacey had never quite learned how to do. But she was certainly willing to try.
“Okay,” Lacey conceded. “So I'll work really hard not to hurt you. I promise that I will spend every waking moment showing you just how I feel about you—at least, as far as we're able to within the confines of our current situation.”
“And how do you feel, Doc?” Mac felt her heart swell with something she had only dreamed of experiencing, but kept her expression neutral. She didn't dare hope that Lacey might feel the same way she did. And Mac knew she was head-over-heels in love with the smaller woman. They were so right for each other, no matter what the Army thought of their relationship.
“I…” Lacey stammered over the words, took a deep breath and girded herself to say them. “I l-l—really, really like you.” She finished the last on a loud exhale and instantly knew the answer was lacking.
Mac's face fell. “That's it, then? You really like me?”
“Ugh! I don't really…” Lacey felt a thousand butterflies racing in circles in her stomach. “God, I…I don't know...I'm not a serious relationship kinda girl. I really…I'm not…Ugh!!!” She dropped her head in consternation.
Mac sat back and pulled her hands from Lacey's. “You really are clueless, aren't you?” Her frustration grew as she stood up and moved farther away from the still-seated woman. She ran a hand through her loose bangs in frustration. “I'm not looking for a meaningless fling, Lacey. I know what I want and with whom. I also know that I've spent the last few days thinking long and hard about us.
“I love you, Lacey Stephens,” Mac declared, as she turned her head to meet the woman's gaze. “I know you may not know how to handle that just now, but it's that simple for me. I love everything about you—your cluelessness and the way you hold your head just so when you're trying to reason through a dilemma. I love that you care about your patients and are willing to put your life on the line to save them. I love that you see the good in everyone, even those who don't deserve it. And I love holding you when that tough-as-nails façade of yours crumbles to reveal the vulnerable, hurt little girl that you keep so hidden from the rest of the world.”
“You…you love me?” Lacey stumbled over the sentiment, trying to wrap her brain around Mac's unexpected declaration. “But how do you know?”
Mac stood there with her hands on her hips and glared at Lacey. “I know because I can't stop thinking about you, either, Lacey Stephens. My first waking thought in the morning is of how much I wish you were lying next to me. I don't even care about flying as much as I care about seeing that twinkle in your eye right before you crack that lopsided grin of yours. And at night I pray to God that the next day brings us together, even if it's just to share a cup of crappy coffee here.”
Lacey swallowed with difficulty. Was that what she'd been feeling since her first meeting with Mac? Love? The incessant butterflies were multiplying exponentially at the thought. She put a hand to her stomach and rubbed it in an attempt to dispel the strange queasy feeling that was so familiar when she was around the woman.
“I'm not sure I know what love is,” Lacey uttered honestly. “I've never…I don't know—“
“Are you all right, Doc?” Mac knelt at a level with the woman and gazed into confused green eyes. “You look a little green around the gills.”
Lacey met Mac's gaze, as she decided to throw caution to the wind. She put her hands on either side of Mac's face and leaned in to kiss the pilot. The kiss deepened quickly as both women felt a rush of heat flare between them with such intensity that it left them both breathless and panting with need.
“We should—” Lacey's voice trailed off as she rose to her feet and put a hand out to Mac.
“Yeah,” Mac agreed, knowing full well what Lacey intended and not hesitating in the least.
They made it to Lacey's tent in record time and undressed each other quickly. When the last clothing barrier was removed, both women fell onto Lacey's bed in a tangle of arms and legs. Their kisses became more heated and the slow burn soon ignited into a full-blown conflagration. They couldn't seem to get enough of each other, as they came together. It was sweet, yet spicy. And two souls joined as one to share in love's perfection.
“Mmmm,” Lacey snuggled against Mac's chest and affectionately kissed the soft mound of flesh within reach. She could still feel the pilot's heartbeat racing beneath her cheek and reveled in the fact that they both had climaxed at the same time. “That was…exceptional.”
“Incredible,” Mac added on a heavy sigh, as she tried to breathe more evenly and calm her racing heart. She wrapped her arms around Lacey's bare shoulders and kissed the top of the blond head. “I do love you, Lacey Stephens. Hey, what's your middle name, anyway?”
“Justine,” Lacey ran her fingers lightly over Mac's belly and smiled when the pilot's flesh jumped beneath her touch. “You're ticklish.”
“Lacey Justine Stephens. I like it,” Mac ran her own longer fingers along Lacey's bare back and down her spine. “And, yes, I'm a little ticklish.”
“Justine was my great-grandmother's name,” Lacey continued, as she absently arched into the contact. “Mmmm, I like that.” She snuggled closer and placed another kiss on the heated skin. “What's your middle name, Mackenzie Papadopoulos? Hm?”
“Bridget,” Mac answered with a slight frown. “Named after my mother's aunt on her father's side.”
“Was she Irish, by chance?” She asked with a soft burr.
“I believe she was, yes,” Mac answered in her best imitation of an Irish brogue.
“So, let me get this straight,” Lacey moved until she was lying half on top of her bed mate. “You've the blood of Irish, Scot and Greek running through your veins? That's quite the melting pot, I must say.”
“And some English, as well as a dash of Sicilian, a smidge of Cherokee and a few others that we haven't as yet identified,” Mac ran her hands up and down the sleek body half-covering hers. “I guess you could say I'm a Heinz 57 kinda girl.”
“Yeah, me too,” Lacey smirked, as she continued to lazily sample the bare skin beneath her lips and within reach.
“Lacey Stephens seems fairly generic and all-American to me,” Mac commented as her libido kicked up a notch again.
“Stephens was once Stephanopoulos,” Lacey smirked. “The family shortened it when they came through Ellis Island . Or maybe the immigration people did it because they couldn't spell the full name. I'm not sure. Anyway, my great-grandparents also didn't want to be discriminated against just because they weren't—wait, how did you put it—generic and all-American? My mom's family is a hodgepodge of eastern and western European. We also have a touch of Irish, Scot, Dane, and even a bit of German thrown in for good measure.”
“The last would probably explain why you like beer so much,” Mac chuckled softly. “Ow! What the hell…?” Mac felt a nip at her throat that she knew would leave a mark.
Lacey grinned evilly as she met Mac's questioning gaze. She then looked down at the red mark she'd left with her teeth. “Ooo, kinda sexy there, Chief.”
Mac was quick as lightning as she flipped her bedmate so Lacey was pinned beneath her. She grinned evilly down on the smaller woman and cocked a dark brow.
“Two can play at that game, Doc,” Mac said as she dipped her head down and delved into Lacey's cleavage with a menacing chuckle.
Lacey squirmed and tried to escape the gentle attack, but was soon caught up in a myriad of exquisite sensations that were driving her to the brink again. Mac's lips left a burning trail of kisses down her body and finally found her center. Every thought of escape soon left her in a rush of heat so intense that Lacey thought she would burst into flames right there on the spot. And then Mac's lips abruptly left her fevered flesh.
“What the…” Lacey was panting with unfulfilled need. “Please—” She couldn't help the pleading note in her tone.
“Say you're sorry for biting me,” Mac teased with a playful gleam in eyes gone smoky with desire.
“Are you kidding me?” Lacey felt like she was dangling on the edge of a cliff with no hope of rescue. “I'm not apologizing for that. You deserved it. You made it sound like I'm a drunken lush with that beer comment of yours. I'll have you know, I'm no such thing. As a matter of fact, I'm…”
“A lusty harlot who drinks…a lot?” Mac teased and shifted positions until she had Lacey's legs pinned beneath her. She rubbed her cheek against Lacey's thighs teasingly and glanced up to see the look of longing in dark-green eyes. “Say you're sorry, my blue-blooded friend.”
“I'm sorry,” Lacey panted breathlessly. “Now, please—”
Mac smirked in triumph and nodded her acceptance of the apology. She could press the issue later, if she so chose. But, right at that moment, all she wanted to do was press other…issues. She smirked, as she released Lacey's legs and felt them quickly shift beneath her. The smirk turned into a full-fledged grin when those legs, those silky-smooth legs, parted quickly to give her full access.
“Whatever the doctor wants—” Mac dove back in with gusto and brought Lacey to climax quickly and with very little effort.
“We good, now?” Lacey trailed her finger lightly over the taught abdomen beneath her. “I did apologize.”
“ Purrrrrfect ,” Mac purred quietly, as she splayed her fingers in Lacey's loose hair.
They were still lying in Lacey's bed and had somehow managed to remain in the narrow bed, despite the fact that they had performed some rather gymnastic maneuvers during their lovemaking. Who knew? Lacey silently mused. She was content to just lay there, half-sprawled on top of the taller woman. It felt good to have Mac playing with her hair. She was content for the first time in months and didn't give a rat's ass if the rest of the world had a problem with it. She could also tell Mac was enjoying the soft caresses of her fingers.
“You hungry, yet?” Mac glanced at the tent opening and noticed the faint gray tinge that signaled the approaching dawn.
“Starving,” Lacey nipped playfully at the bare skin beneath her chin. “I could eat you for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day of my life and still not be completely satisfied.”
Both women chuckled when Lacey's stomach chose that exact moment to protest rather loudly. Their eyes met and both sets of brows rose—one blond and the other dark-brown.
“Yeah, but it sounds like you're keeping a bear in that little cave of yours, Doc,” Mac teased and tickled Lacey's belly. “It growls louder than a hungry grizzly after a full winter of hibernation. You sure you been feeding it regularly?”
“Three square a day, Chief,” Lacey giggle and lifted her chin enough to meet the gray-blue gaze. “Of course, yesterday I had to get by with only that delicious sandwich you brought me. I had my hands kinda full during dinner.”
Mac's brow rose into her hairline. “I guess the beast has a reason to protest, then.”
“Probably,” Lacey nodded and blew softly against the soft skin beneath her lips.
“Maybe we should—“ She didn't get a chance to say more, as those same lips delved lower and set her on fire again.
It was well past dawn before either woman thought of food again. They made love one last time, with as much enthusiasm as a couple of youths on a soccer field. And neither woman gave a thought to anything beyond the thin walls of their private haven. The war could wage around them and a missile could land right on top of them, none of it mattered. And, strangely enough, no one disturbed them during their private little retreat and the camp remained relatively quiet during the early-morning hours.
After a quick shower, a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, bacon and a stack of blueberry pancakes, and a quick promise to her lover that they would definitely see each other again later, Lacey headed to the hospital to check on the few patients who had not been transferred to Ramstein the previous day. She felt really good, despite only having slept for two hours. Thoughts of her time with her dark-haired lover swirled around in the back of her mind, as she mechanically performed her rounds and then ducked into the back office. A large pile of patient files greeted her, but she just blew them off.
She knew she was grinning from ear-to-ear and didn't want anyone commenting on why she was suddenly so happy. She also didn't want to explain herself, because she knew there were at least two people on-base who knew exactly what was going on. At least one of them had actually escorted her to her rendezvous with Mac the night before.
Lacey glanced at the stack of manila folders on the desk and sighed. “How the hell did we end up with that much paperwork in such a short time?”
She picked up the top file and glanced at the patient name that was neatly typed on the tab. Her blood suddenly ran cold when she realized the file belonged to one of her attackers. Corporal Victor Benson was dead, but his face was still etched clearly in her mind's eye—or, at least, the half that hadn't been burned beyond recognition. He'd had dark hair that was shaved in the high-and-tight style. And he'd only been nineteen years old. The tattoo on his right bicep matched the one shared by the other two culprits—a unique circle of swirling, flaming barbed wire that ended in a small blooming rose.
Lacey sat down in the chair behind the desk, as her legs gave out on her and a shudder raced through her. She read the file from cover to cover. Corporal Benson's official COD (cause of death) was major trauma to the head and torso. He'd died instantly after his truck exploded. He had a mother and sister who still lived in North Carolina. The two were listed as his next of kin.
Lacey swallowed down the bile that rose in her throat, shut her eyes against a sudden flood of tears and snapped the file shut. Then she just sat there staring at the closed door in front of her for several long moments, unable to reconcile the fact that two of the men who had raped her were dead.
It didn't seem possible. How could they be dead? She hadn't even gotten the chance to face them and tell them how much she hated them for what they did to her. She didn't need to know why they did it. Was it really because they thought she was gay? Could soldiers trained for combat really be that petty? They didn't even know her.
And then she glanced at the next file in the stack and caught site of the name—Sergeant Mitchell James. He was the other dead man whose face Lacey would never forget. He was also the one whose voice she remembered most—the one that haunted her dreams, because he had been the one to speak directly to her during the ordeal. His words echoed in her mind and she tried to shut them out, as she closed her eyes tightly against a sudden onslaught of painful memories.
A tear slipped down her cheek. Lacey impatiently swiped the tear away and shoved both files lower in the stack. She then took a shuddering breath and let it out with an exasperated sigh.
“Get your shit together, Stephens,” she chided softly, as she rose from the desk.
A sudden knock at the door made her jump, but she quickly composed her expression into a practiced mask of indifference. “Come!”
“Ma'am,” Sergeant Gonzalez greeted her, as he stood in the doorway. “The Colonel wants to see you, A-SAP.”
“Oh, for the love of…!” She exclaimed quietly. “Please tell me I didn't screw up, again, Sergeant,” Lacey sighed. “Because I really can't go there right now.”
“No, ma'am,” he said with a touch of concern. “I think it has something to do with an assignment, ma'am.”
“Oh,” Lacey replied, her spirits suddenly lifting at the prospect of seeing Mac sooner, rather than later. “Well, then. Let the Colonel know I'll be right there.”
“Yes, ma'am,” the man nodded.
“Dismissed, Sergeant.” As he left, she glanced down at the stack of folders with an evil grin. “Screw this shit. Let the guys take care of the damned paperwork, for once. I'm sure they'll just leave it for me to do later, anyway.”
Lacey left the office and the hospital without a backward glance, for once glad that she was heading to the CO's office. Her thoughts turned to Mac and she smiled a Cheshire grin that actually reached her eyes. A mission was just what she needed to take her mind off her morbid thoughts of just a few moments ago. But she was also looking forward to her time with Mac. So many things to look forward to, now, she realized with an excited grin.
As she crossed the compound toward the command building, she was joined by a smugly strutting Mac. The tall pilot wore a pair of aviator sunglasses that made her look very…Lacey caught herself before she could finish the thought. The word ‘sexy' tickled the back of her mind, though.
“Hey,” Lacey greeted the woman with a lopsided half-grin.
“Hey, yourself,” Mac replied without looking at the doctor. A playful smirk played at the corners of her lips, as she tried valiantly not to reveal her pleasure at being in the smaller woman's company.
“You look like the cat that swallowed the proverbial canary,” Lacey smirked. “Something interesting happen last night to put you such good humor?”
Mac didn't miss a stride. “I had a wonderful…er…adventure.”
Lacey's brow quirked. “Adventure?”
Mac nodded. “One of the best of my life.” She glanced at her companion and noted the sparkle in the sea-green—were they seriously that green—eyes. “How was your night, Captain? Having any adventures of your own?”
Lacey purred. “Purrrrfect and yesssss.”
They exchanged a knowing glance.
“Hm,” Mac chuckled. “Sounds like we both had a good night, then.”
Lacey had not seen the pilot all morning. She wondered briefly how the tall, dark-haired woman kept herself busy, then reasoned that Mac was most likely taking care of her precious chopper.
They entered the Colonel's outer office together in silence and were greeted by a scowling company clerk.
“Go right in, ladies. He's expecting you,” Dix said from behind a tall stack of folders.
The two silently exchanged worried glances at the company clerk's brusque tone, but then shrugged. Who knew what kind of mood the woman was in?
Mac pushed the inner door open and held it, while Lacey walked through. Neither woman commented as they turned to face their Commander and snapped to attention in front of his desk.
“Sir,” Lacey said. “Stephens and Papadopoulos reporting, as ordered, sir.”
“Have a seat, ladies,” Farrell said in his no-nonsense command tone. “I'll get right to the point. I'm sending you out on a search and rescue op, with possible casualties. You'll be working with Special Ops out of Kobul. One of their aircraft was shot down a few hours ago, and they haven't been able to locate the wreckage. There's been no radio contact with the pilot or any of the crew, and the area is crawling with enemy militants. I don't have to tell you how dangerous this mission will be for you and your crew.”
He handed Mac a sealed envelope. She opened it and scanned the contents, then handed the envelope to Lacey, who did the same.
“As you can see, their last reported position puts them right in the middle of a hot zone,” Farrell continued. “You will fly into said hot zone and locate the aircraft. A demolitions specialist will be joining you. Once you've located the aircraft and recovered the crew, dead or alive, the demolitions specialist has orders to destroy the wreckage.”
“Will we be escorted by gunships, sir?” Mac asked.
“No, you will not,” he answered. “We believe our guys were flying in a no-fly zone at the time they went down, which means they are most likely trapped behind enemy lines. If we send a gunship in there, all hell breaks loose and we'll be looking at a possible escalation of hostilities. With the elections just around the corner, that is something that Command wants to avoid at all costs.”
“So, we're flying in there with our butts exposed.” Lacey stated bluntly. “What happens if we're fired on? Will we have a means of defense?”
“I've ordered Sergeant Brooks to double your ammunition and mount a belly gun on your undercarriage,” he answered. “The upgrade should be ready by the time you reach the flight line.”
“But, sir,” Lacey was not usually one to question orders, but this mission was raising the hairs on the back of her neck. “How—“
“You have your orders, Captain,” the Colonel interrupted. “Chief Papadopoulos, dismissed. Captain, a word.”
Both women stood, at once, and snapped to attention.
“Sir,” they said in unison.
Mac shot Lacey a quick glance, before she turned on her heel and left the office. Lacey stood at rigid attention before the colonel's desk, a myriad of thoughts running through her mind. Foremost was what she could have done this time to invoke the colonel's wrath.
Farrell sat casually on the corner of his desk. “At ease, Captain,” he waited until she was standing at parade rest—not quite at ease, but close enough. “Have you been to see Captain Kitridge yet, Captain?”
Lacey swallowed. “No, sir, not yet.”
Lacey glanced at him and noticed his relaxed posture. She slowly let out the breath she was holding, as she realized he wasn't going to give her another dressing down.
“I-I haven't had time, sir,” she answered honestly without revealing too much. “I was working on paperwork in at the hospital when Sergeant Gonzales told me to report here, sir.”
Farrell folded his arms across his chest and sighed. “You know I can't send you on this mission unless I have you cleared for duty, Captain.”
Lacey's eyes shot to his and she saw regret there. “Sir?”
“You've put me in a bad spot, here, Captain,” he went on. “Regulations clearly state that I can't send a soldier back into the field until they've been cleared for duty.” He shrugged. “But I also need a flight surgeon on this mission and, unfortunately, you're the only one available at the moment.”
“I'm fine, sir,” Lacey said. “I assure you.”
Farrell eyed her with open skepticism. “And you expect me to just take your word for it, Captain Stephens?” His expression softened. “I can only imagine what you've been through over the last few weeks. It's been tough.” He saw that she was about to interrupt and held up a staying hand. “Let me finish. If what happened to you had happened to any other soldier under my command, I would most certainly push for that psych eval and probably drag them over myself. But it happened to you, Stephens.” He watched her expression become one of interested confusion. “I'm going to send you out there, because I need your cool head and iron nerves, Captain.” He held up his hand when it looked like she was about to interrupt again. “I'm not finished. I have one condition. You are to report immediately to Captain Kitridge upon completion of the mission. You are not to find any further excuses or deviate from my orders in any way. Do I make myself clear, Captain?”
Lacey tried not to let her sudden triumphant smile show. “Yes, sir.”
“If I find out that you did not immediately report to Kitridge on your return, I will personally drag your ass over there, even if you're kicking and screaming,” he added with a stern look that brooked no argument.
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir,” Lacey snapped to attention.
“Dismissed, Captain,” Farrell returned her quick salute.
Lacey rushed from the command tent with renewed excitement. For a moment, there, she actually wondered if Farrell would deny her the chance to go on the mission with Mac. It was a real possibility that he would make her see Kitridge, instead.
Lacey shuddered at the thought of being grilled by the camp shrink. She didn't know what a psych eval entailed, but had a pretty good idea that Kitridge—who had a reputation for ferreting out the deepest, darkest secrets of even the most seasoned soldiers—would not clear her for duty until they had hashed out every detail of her past, present and mostly likely her future.
As Lacey emerged into the bright sunlight, she was joined by a concerned Mac. The tall pilot gave her a raised-browed silent look.
“I'm still in,” Lacey stated with a shrug.
“Okay,” Mac said. “So?”
“He ordered me to see Kitridge as soon as we return,” Lacey continued, as they made their way across the compound.
“Well, at least he didn't ground you,” Mac nodded sagely. “That's something, at least.”
“No, that he didn't,” Lacey was thoughtful. “She's gonna tear me apart, you know.”
“Kitridge,” Lacey continued with a frown.
“Does that worry you more than the mission?” Mac asked. She wanted nothing more than to put an arm around the smaller woman's shoulders and pull her close, but stifled the urge.
“Speaking of,” Lacey stopped and crossed her arms over her chest. “Did you know anything about this? You didn't seem real surprised when Farrell mentioned that we had a mission today.”
Mac stopped to face the feisty blond. “I was told they were mounting a gun to Argo's undercarriage. If that's what you're asking, then yeah, I knew something. I didn't know we were going on a search and rescue mission, though.”
Lacey just rolled her eyes and started moving again. “This is a suicide mission, you know,” she said under her breath. “We'll all be lucky if we come out of it in one piece.” She couldn't help the shudder that raced down her spine. “I don't know if I'm really looking forward to doing this. Although, it beats the alternative.”
“It's a mission, just like any other, Doc,” Mac shrugged. “It just happens to be more dangerous than your garden-variety rescue mission. Kinda makes things more exciting, don't ya think?” She rubbed her hands together in anticipation. “I love a good challenge.”
“Tell me you're not okay with this,” Lacey said, glancing at the pilot for a reaction.
“I just said I love a good challenge,” Mac smiled down at her companion, revealing perfect white teeth. “Besides, you heard Farrell. We've got extra ammo and a really big gun.” There was a definite gleam in her blue eyes, as her eyebrows lifted a few times. “And I'll have control of the trigger for that really big gun. Makes my mouth water just thinking about it.”
Lacey sighed in exasperation. “Pilots,” she hissed. “You're all the same, no matter what your gender. A bunch of cowboys in the sky with your guns and stuff.”
“And doctors are any different?” Mac shot Lacey a challenging look. “You know you're scared to sit down with Kitridge, because you might just learn a few things about yourself that you've been too afraid to examine too closely over the years. Face it, Doc, you're no different than the rest of us.”
“I'm not afraid,” Lacey thrust out her lower lip in a mock pout. “I just don't need a shrink crawling around in my head. That's all.”
Mac grabbed both of Lacey's shoulders, stopped her and turned her until they were face-to-face. “I may be a cowboy in the sky, but at least I know my limitations, Doc. And I don't run from my problems.”
Lacey glared daggers at the taller woman. “I. Don't. Run,” she emphasized each word.
“You've been running since you went away to college,” Mac knew she was treading on dangerous ground that could blow up in her face and end their relationship before it really had a chance, but she was determined to play her hand for what it was worth. “It's time to stop running and let someone help you, Lacey Stephens.”
Lacey regarded Mac for a moment, as her temper slowly deflated. She knew Mac was right. She also knew that Mac's words made a great deal of sense. That was exasperating. But she had to admit, she really had been running for most of her life. The question was could she stop long enough to face her problems head-on.
“Okay,” Lacey conceded. “You're right.” She watched as Mac's wary expression turned hopeful. “I'll sit down with Kitridge and air all my dirty laundry, no matter how painful or humiliating—even if it puts an end to my illustrious military career.” Her serious expression softened. “But I still think you're a flying cowboy in that steel tin can of yours.”
Mac released Lacey's shoulders and smiled at the smaller woman. “Yeah, well, at least I ain't from Tex-ass,” she said in her best southern drawl.
“Smart-ass, more like,” Lacey shot over her shoulder, as she took off toward the flight line at a dead run and then slowed to a steady walk.
She tried increasing her pace a few times, but Mac still caught up to her. So, they just continued walking in companionable silence, until they reached the row of helicopters and small buildings.
Argo was in the air, heading toward the last known coordinates of the downed aircraft. Just before taxiing to the flight pad, Mac had welcomed their newest team member, Sergeant Michael Peters. The demolitions expert was armed to the teeth with grenades, a large bowie knife and several spare clips for the M-16 he had slung over one shoulder. Not to mention that the duffel he carried had enough C4 in it to blow up a small battleship. Fortunately, only he and Mac knew about the explosives. The pilot didn't think it was worth mentioning to the rest of the crew—especially their flight surgeon. What the good doctor didn't know wouldn't hurt any of them.
“Never know what you'll be up against,” Peters said with a conspiratorial grin, as he passed by the dark-haired pilot and hopped up inside the cargo hold of the helicopter.
Simmons was none too happy to be left behind at the hospital. She hadn't been assigned to this particular mission, because there was no room for her, especially with all the extra stuff they were carrying. As it was, there was very little room for Lacey and her single medical bag. The gun that was mounted on their underbelly included three large cases of spare ammunition, which was stored in the tail section. O'Leary and his M-240 were also aboard, which added to the already crowded, yet necessary, payload.
Lacey sat in her fold-away seat, staring out one of the small windows, as the ground below flew past in a brown blur. The scenery was always the same—sand, low scrub and non-distinct hills that stretched for miles. Her thoughts, however, turned toward a certain woman pilot.
She realized her attitude toward the pilot had become a little more hostile and bitchy lately. She tried to think of a specific reason for why she was acting the way she was and couldn't come up with anything. She wanted to attribute her behavior to something the pilot did or said, but even that excuse didn't fly. Then it came to her with heart-wrenching clarity—she was in love with the woman.
The realization brought a lump to her throat and set a whole army of butterflies loose in her gut. But Lacey managed to push her personal thoughts back into their place. She had a job to do. That job took precedence over everything else going on in her life. At least, that's what she told herself.
Lacey shifted uncomfortably on the hard seat and tried not to let her flight helmet fall down over her eyes. She hated that even the smallest helmet didn't fit her head. Even with extra padding glued in specifically for her, the bulky helmet didn't fit right. She wondered briefly what the rest of the crew thought of her oversized head gear. When she looked up to see if anyone was looking at her, her gaze met the newcomer's.
“I understand you're the flight surgeon,” he said with the slightest hint of a southern drawl. “You're a little thing, ain't ya?”
Lacey felt her hackles rise at the obvious slight, but didn't get a chance to respond to the man.
“Everyone set, back there?” Mac's voice came through their headsets.
“Good to go, Mac,” Lacey answered with a scowl. “All present and accounted for, even us little things,” she added the last with a leer in Peters' direction.
A chuckle came through their headsets and warmed Lacey's heart.
Peters turned his attention to O'Leary and the two were sitting with their heads together, examining each other's weapons. Men and their toys, Lacey silently scoffed. She looked toward the tail of the aircraft and noticed their temporary crew chief, Sergeant Montgomery. He was reading a book by the light of a small Maglite between his teeth. Lacey couldn't tell which book he was reading, but could see that he was completely engrossed.
Lacey turned back to the tiny window and continued watching the blurry scenery fly by. She glanced off into the distance and something caught her eye.
“Uh, Mac?” She said into her own helmet mic.
“Yeah, go ahead, Doc,” came the tinny reply that always sent a tingle of excitement down Lacey's back.
“Are you seeing what I'm seeing at our nine o'clock?” Lacey asked, a note of alarm in her voice.
“That depends,” Mac replied. “What are you seeing, Doc?”
Suddenly Lacey had three helmets next to her own, as the others crowded in to see what she was gazing at in the distance.
“Uh, Mac,” O'Leary said, adjusting his mic. “You better set this bird down somewhere, so we can get her ready for that sandstorm that's heading our way.”
“Ah, shit!” Mac exclaimed, obviously finally spotting the approaching storm. “How much time until we reach hostile territory?”
Donaldson consulted a topographical map of the area.
“We're about twelve clicks out from the target coordinates,” he answered. “That means we're probably already within the hot zone.”
“That's just fan- freakin '-tastic,” Mac muttered, then flipped a switch on the toggle. “Alpha-six-charlie-one-seven-niner to Base, one-seven-niner to Base. Come in,” she called into the mic.
“Go ahead, one-seven-niner,” a male voice crackled.
“We've reached the hot zone and have a sandstorm approaching from the north,” Mac continued. “Request permission to set down and wait out the storm.”
“Stand-by, one-seven-niner,” the voice responded.
Mac kept the toggle in exactly the same position and kept them on the same course. In her mind, though, she was playing through the possibilities—reverse course and return to friendly territory, set down in enemy territory and face hostiles intent on taking out another American aircraft, or land in the neutral zone long enough to let the storm pass.
“Base to alpha-six-charlie-one-seven-niner,” the voice finally came back.
“Go ahead, Base,” Mac answered in a clipped, impatient tone.
“Change your heading to one-two-zero and set down in the neutral zone, one-seven-niner. Copy that?” The voice confirmed. “Repeat, heading one-two-zero to the neutral zone.”
“Roger that, Base, one-seven-niner out,” Mac answered, shifting the toggle to the right.
The aircraft banked south, until Mac was sure they were out of the hot zone. With only minutes to spare before the storm hit, she set the aircraft down in a cloud of its own dust.
“All right, everyone,” Mac spoke into her mic as she quickly shut down the electronic and mechanical systems. “Get the tarps over this bird and secure the props, A-SAP. We have less than ten minutes before that storm hits. Make sure you grab a scarf and a pair of goggles. I don't want anyone caught outside without protection when it hits.”
Everyone moved at once. Both doors slid open and Montgomery threw the bundled tarps out, followed by several coiled ropes. While Mac continued to monitor the systems from the cockpit, O'Leary and Donaldson worked on getting one tarp covered over the front of the bird to protect the electronics. Lacey and Montgomery dragged another tarp to the tail section and set it aside until the tail rudder stopped spinning.
“Here,” Montgomery handed Lacey one end of the rope he had slung over his shoulder. “Hold that end and I'll secure this end.”
Lacey held tightly to the rope, as he fed the other end through a ring on the tail and drove a long metal tent stake into the hard ground on the other side. He secured the other end of the rope to the stake, careful to make sure it was knotted properly. Montgomery then moved to Lacey's side and drove another stake into the ground. Together they managed to secure the other end of the rope and tighten it down. By the time they had the tail tied down, the rudder prop had stopped spinning.
“Do me a favor, Doc, and hand me that tarp when I get up there,” Montgomery said.
She nodded and he climbed up onto the tail, then reached down to grab the tarp from her. In just a few short moments he had the cover secured around the tail rudder. Just then, they both turned at the sound of a loud roar approaching from the north.
“Thank you, ma'am,” Montgomery said, climbing down from the tail. “Looks like we made it, just in time.”
They both put on their scarves and goggles before they started back toward the cargo compartment of the aircraft. Just then, the first stirrings of the approaching storm began to blow around them. The others had not quite finished tying down the main props, so Lacey and Montgomery offered a helping hand.
Before they knew it, the storm was upon them and their world was plunged into inky darkness. The storm brought stinging, blowing sand with it and everyone quickly pulled their scarves up over their noses and mouths. The winds picked up and were soon blowing with gale force. The sand stung like pinpricks as it hit any exposed flesh.
“Get inside the aircraft!” O'Leary shouted to be heard above the din. “Everyone, inside, now!”
The group climbed inside the cargo compartment and the doors were pulled closed on either side. Sand settled on the floor of the compartment and the noise level dropped considerably.
“Everyone present and accounted for?” Montgomery asked, looking around at the sand-covered faces.
O'Leary, Montgomery and Lacey pulled their scarves down to reveal their features, which had not gone unscathed by the driving wind and sand. Each person had red patches on their faces where the sand had hit them.
“Donaldson, are you and Mac still in the cockpit?” O'Leary called to the front of the aircraft.
No one answered.
Still no answer.
“Damn,” O'Leary ground out. “They must still be securing the cowling over the main engines.”
Lacey looked up at the ceiling. They could all hear the sand beating against the outside of the aircraft.
“You have got to be kidding,” Lacey incredulously pulled her goggles and scarf back in place. “We can't just leave them out there. Come on!”
O'Leary threw open the far door and jumped outside. Lacey and Montgomery followed. They all looked up at the two main engines and could barely make out two figures struggling to secure one of the engine tarps.
Suddenly, the tarp broke free and sailed over their heads. Lacey raced after it in hot pursuit, but was stopped when Montgomery grabbed her arm.
“You can't go after it!” He shouted. “You'll never find your way back!”
And then O'Leary was there with a rope in his hands. “Here, hang on to this!” He shouted, handing her one end of the rope.
Lacey nodded and took off after the tarp. She kept a firm hold on the rope as she continued forward and immediately lost her bearings. She felt the wind pushing her from behind and hoped that it didn't pick her up and carry her away.
The farther out she got, the harder it was to see anything. The sand was so thick that it blocked out everything, including the sun. She searched the ground for the tarp and finally saw it. Unfortunately, she had literally reached the end of her rope and the tarp was still several yards away.
Lacey just stood there contemplating her choices. She could return to the aircraft empty-handed and have the guys tie another rope to the one she was holding. Then she could make another attempt to grab the tarp. But she knew that if she left the canvas lying there: 1.) she probably wouldn't be able to locate it again, and 2.) she risked having the tarp picked up by the wind and carried even farther away.
Her other option was to drop the rope and go after the tarp, then come back and hopefully find the rope again. It was the most dangerous option and brought with it the possibility that she might not be able to find her way back to the rope and, subsequently, the chopper. Getting lost in a sandstorm wasn't something Lacey really wanted to contemplate, but was a very real possibility. She'd been briefed on the dangers and knew the worst case scenario. She really didn't want to be lost in the desert without food or water.
Lacey weighed her options. Without the tarp, they might not get the aircraft airborne once the storm passed. Despite her limited mechanical knowledge, she knew that sand in one of the engines would definitely ground them, which, in turn, would put them at risk of not being able to complete their mission. They had to find the downed aircraft and rescue its crew or retrieve their bodies. They had to complete the mission.
Her decision made, Lacey dropped the rope and made her way toward the tarp. She couldn't see, couldn't hear anything but the wind, so she just moved step-by-step in what she hoped was the right direction.
O'Leary felt his end of the rope go limp in his hands. Mac, who had carefully climbed down from atop the aircraft to see Lacey take off in pursuit of the tarp, was now standing next to him. They both looked at the suddenly limp rope and then at each other with dread.
“What happened!?!” Mac shouted to be heard above the howling wind.
O'Leary shrugged. “Maybe she couldn't reach the tarp!”
“So she let go of the damned rope?!” Mac replied incredulously. “Tell me she's not that stupid!”
She was scared. Horror stories of people getting lost in sandstorms and never turning up again raced through her mind. What if the doctor didn't mean to lose her grip on the rope and was wandering around aimlessly out there? What if she was seriously hurt? The thoughts did nothing to calm her frazzled nerves.
O'Leary merely shrugged again and kept a firm grip on his end of the rope, just in case. He had faith in the doctor's judgment, even if his pilot didn't. He said a silent prayer that all would be well.
“Give her a couple minutes, Chief!” Montgomery shouted beside them. “She'll find her way back!”
“She's a doctor, for Christ's sake!” Mac threw up her hands and paced a few steps. “She doesn't know the first thing about—“
“Mac!” O'Leary shouted.
They all looked at the rope, which was now taught in O'Leary's hands. Exchanging brief glances, they waited patiently as the rope jerked sporadically.
Lacey's heart was pounding and her mouth was bone dry. It had taken longer than anticipated to reach the tarp, gather it up and relocate the rope. But after what seemed like forever, she finally managed to accomplish her task. The wind and blowing sand were almost blinding in their intensity, now. Her goggles were so scratched from the sand that she could barely see. She wanted nothing more than to return to the chopper and hide away from the storm's fury.
Her trip back, she discovered, was proving much more difficult than she thought, as she was now facing a strong headwind. Sand blew against every exposed part of her, embedding in her skin like little shards of glass. To add insult to injury, the rough fibers of the rope in her hands were rubbing her palms raw through her gloves, as she used the rope to keep herself upright in the driving wind. When her gloves finally gave way, she could feel the rope's coarse fibers digging into her flesh. She didn't let go, however, and hoped she was making more headway than she felt she was.
She was hard-pressed to make out where she was going, since the sand etching itself into her goggles was actually sticking. She could only imagine what that sand would do to her eyeballs and shuddered at the thought. Soon, however, she could make out three shapes waiting for her in the distance.
One shape grabbed the rope and headed toward her, while the other two remained stationery. Suddenly, the shape loomed tall and imposing in front of her, unceremoniously grabbing the tarp from her arms and silently stalking back toward the aircraft. Lacey followed in the tall figure's shadow, guessing who it might be from the tingle that raced up her spine. She silently prayed Mac wasn't furious with her, but held very little hope that the pilot wouldn't give her a good dressing-down for her impulsiveness.
When they reached the other two figures, Mac dumped the tarp in O'Leary's waiting hands. All four of them returned to the relative shelter of the aircraft without a word. They seemed to sense Mac's dark mood, even if they couldn't see the hard set to her jaw or the anger blazing in her eyes.
While O'Leary climbed up to join Donaldson, and the two of them secured the tarp, Montgomery jumped into the cargo hold and stowed the rope.
Mac, who had removed her goggles and scarf, turned her anger on Lacey.
“What the hell did you think you were doing out there, Captain Stephens?” Mac shot at Lacey with open hostility. “Are you fucking nuts or just that stupid? Huh?”
Lacey, who was examining her palms and picking out small bits of coarse rope, looked up and met the icy glare of the taller woman. She suddenly felt her own hackles rise at the verbal attack.
“Ex- cuse me?” Lacey ground out her irritation as she stood her ground. “I just risked my ass to retrieve your precious tarp, Chief . What do you think I was doing? Sightseeing?” She turned to climb inside the aircraft. “I am not a wilting flower, if you hadn't noticed, Chief. I'm part of this team, like it or not.”
“I'm not finished,” Mac grabbed the doctor's arm and spun her back around.
Lacey ripped her arm free of the pilot's grasp and glared up into angry blue eyes. “Oh, yes, you are, Papadopoulos,” she said with finality. “Don't forget, I outrank every single person on this damned mission. If I decide to take off on a wild tarp chase, then it's my decision and no one else's. Put a lid on it, Chief. That's an order.”
“When you're a part of my crew,” Mac's eyes flashed red-hot anger. “You do as I say.”
Lacey straightened to her full height in front of the taller woman and stood with her hands on her hips. Although she had to crane her neck a bit to look the woman in the eye, she didn't care in the least. “What the hell is your problem, Chief?” Her voice lowered in deference to the others. “Did my little stunt hurt your pride and bring your cowboy reputation down a peg?”
“Fuck the heroics, Doc!” Mac exlaimed. “My problem is that you could have gotten lost out there when you dropped that rope. It was stupid and downright dangerous—not heroic in the least. Not only that, but you could have been killed. No member of my crew dies on a mission, not even if they're as stubborn as a fuckin' mule.” She turned away and crossed her arms over her chest in an obvious huff.
Lacey watched Mac turn away from her, but caught the slightest glimmer of something in the pilot's eyes that made her pull up short. It was at that moment that Lacey's resolved faltered. She knew Mac cared about and loved her. Hell, she could now admit that she loved the taller woman. That was why she suddenly considered the situation from Mac's point of view and realized how scared Mac must be.
“Look,” Lacey conceded, her voice softening as her anger fizzled. “I'm... I'm sorry, Mac. I didn't have much time to think about the consequences. But I did actually consider all my options. I just didn't think about how my actions would affect you. Dropping that rope wasn't an easy decision for me to make. I didn't mean to worry you or anyone else. I just did what I had to do.” She uncrossed her arms and looked down at her raw hands. They were starting to really annoy her, as the exposed flesh stung and burned.
Mac turned to glance at the sand-covered woman behind her and saw that the doctor was worrying her palms, which were red and raw with rope burns.
“Here, let me take a look,” she turned around completely and grabbed the smaller hands in her own. “Jeez, Doc, you really did a number on these.”
O'Leary was suddenly next to them, looking impatiently from one to the other with a gruff scowl. He noticed Mac holding the doctor's hands, but chose to ignore it.
“You two yahoos gonna stand out here holdin' hands all day?” O'Leary growled. “We got us a nice sand-free zone inside, especially now that we have this bird covered.”
Both O'Leary and Donaldson were covered from head to toe in sand. O'Leary pulled his goggles off and climbed up inside the aircraft and Donaldson climbed up right behind him. The demolitions expert just smirked at them from inside the chopper. Not a speck of sand marred his BDUs.
“You got a problem helping us out, Sergeant?” O'Leary groused to Peters.
“Just followin' orders,” Peters continued to smirk. “Can't desert my special cargo,” he patted the explosives duffle.
“Green berets are sissies,” O'Leary muttered under his breath, as he settled in next to Montgomery . “Are you two comin'?” His voice just carried over the storm's fury.
“Coming, Sergeant!” Mac then indicated Lacey's hands and shrugged toward the interior of the aircraft. “Let's get these taken care of. Might as well get out of this storm. Sand's sliding into places that sand is not meant to go.”
“Your turn to play doctor, huh?” Lacey smirked and wiggled her eyebrows at the pilot in what she hoped was a teasing, yet suggestive manner.
She wasn't sure, but Lacey thought she saw a slight blush creep up into the other woman's cheeks beneath the layer of grime. Mac climbed up into the chopper and reached a hand down to help Lacey up. When they were both inside, Montgomery closed the door and the noise level died down to a dull roar.
It was almost peaceful, despite the fact that the wind and sand still howled outside. The aircraft rocked from side-to-side but remained firmly tied to the ground.
Mac grabbed the medical duffel and rummaged around for what she needed. She pulled out several items and moved back to kneel in front of the doctor, who was attempting to pick out bits of rope and sand from her injured palms.
“My hands are my life,” Lacey said with a nervous smile. “No surgeon worth her salt lets something like this happen.”
“Don't worry, Doc,” Mac said, taking some sterile gauze and peroxide to gently clean around the rope burns. “They'll be good to go in no time.”
Mac worked carefully to clean the scrapes and gently pick out as much debris as she could see. With her head bent low over the doctor's hands, she did not see the longing in Lacey's eyes or the open adoration on her features. O'Leary, however, didn't miss a thing.
Lacey studied the dark head in front of her. There were bits of sand in the pilot's hair. She also noticed that the hair was not as dark as she had originally thought. She had a sudden urge to bury her hands in those dark locks, but was thankfully unable to do so in their present company.
Around her, she could sense something in the silence, as if her comrades were making a conscious effort not to watch her and the pilot. She looked up and her eyes met O'Leary's. There was an almost-ancient wisdom in his pale-gray depths, and she got the distinct feeling he knew what she was too afraid to admit openly. Moments passed before he finally looked away with a knowing smirk and took up a hushed conversation with the Marine.
“Ouch!” Lacey exclaimed, pulling her right hand out of the pilot's grasp.
“Sorry,” Mac apologized, holding up a set of tweezers that held a half-inch-long piece of rope. “Didn't think you wanted this embedded in your skin anymore.”
Mac discarded the debris and put the tweezers away. She used the peroxide-soaked gauze to finish cleaning the wounds, then wrapped each hand in strips of clean gauze.
“There,” she sat back on her heels when she was finished. “That should do it.”
“Thanks, Mac,” Lacey smiled. “You did a good job.”
Their eyes met and, for a brief moment, something passed silently between them. The mood was broken, though, when Donaldson took the seat next to the doctor, and Mac busied herself with putting the extra supplies back into the medical bag.
“So, how are you doing, Doctor?” He asked with genuine concern.
Not really knowing much about the man, she didn't know if his concern was directed at her as a person or at the fact that she was a doctor and needed her hands to do her job. His eyes scanned the people around them and then settled on her. When they did, she realized her latter thought was probably more accurate.
“Fine,” Lacey answered, examining and testing the bandages for flexibility. “Don't worry, Lieutenant, I'll be able to help our boys when we find them.” She smiled confidently and received a tentative smile in return.
“When this storm lets up, I'm taking us back,” Mac stated flatly.
“But, what about the mission?” Donaldson countered. “We still have to find that aircraft and recover our men. This mission is too damned important to abandon now, Mac.”
“We'll be lucky to find anything after this storm passes,” Mac barked. “Besides, we need to get the doctor back and have her hands looked at. I'm not sure I got all the debris out of them.”
Her eyes met Lacey's and the doctor felt her heart swell, despite her attempts to push her feelings down where no one would notice.
“My hands are fine, Mac,” Lacey countered, flexing her fingers to emphasize her point. “See.” She held them up and flexed them in front of the pilot's face.
Mac sat back on her heels and considered their options. The expressions on the faces of those around her told her they all were in agreement with Donaldson. They had to finish their mission.
“Fine,” Mac conceded. “We finish the mission. Just don't go blaming me if anything else goes wrong. Got it?”
All five heads bobbed their agreement.
“Anyone up for a game of poker?” Montgomery chimed in, producing a deck of cards from one of his numerous pockets.
They all gathered around him and the game began. Lacey glanced across the makeshift “table” and met a pair of blue eyes staring back at her. She gave Mac a brief wink and returned her attention to the game. Montgomery dealt five cards to each of them. They started to produce money from various pockets, but Mac held up a staying hand.
“No money, people,” the pilot shook her head.
“Seriously, Mac?” Montgomery threw her a questioning glare.
“Seriously, Montgomery,” Mac nodded. “The colonel reminded me that gambling for money is strictly against regulations. Apparently, someone,” she glanced pointedly toward the cockpit, where Donaldson was keeping himself busy, “tipped him off. He warned me to cease and desist or face the consequences. I'm not about to get bumped down a grade for a few bucks. It's just not worth it. So, no money, gentlemen,” she looked at Lacey, “and lady.” She reached into a cabinet and produced a small box.
“Aw, that sucks,” Montgomery groused and then perked up when he saw the box in Mac's hands. “What's that?”
“Poker chips,” Mac smirked. “The colonel didn't say anything about using them, instead of money.”
O'Leary rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “Let's get this show on the road, then,” he accepted the stack of chips Mac handed him.
“What's the rush, Sarg?” Montgomery glanced pointedly out a window. “Don't look like the storm's about to let up anytime soon.”
Mac sat back down after giving each player a small stack of chips. She then shot a covert wink at the doctor and tossed a chip into the center of the table.
“Ante up, people,” Mac said, as she grabbed her cards and fanned them in one hand.
“Your turn, Doc,” Montgomery said.
“Hit me,” Lacey shoved two cards into the center of the table and was dealt two more. She pulled the cards into her hand and waited.
“I'll take three,” O'Leary slapped his cards on top of Lacey's and grabbed up the three additional.
“Two for me,” Mac tossed hers on the pile and lifted two new cards into her hand.
Montgomery eyed his fellow players in turn, then dropped a card onto the pile. “One for the dealer,” he said as he lifted a card from the top of the deck and shoved it into his hand.
Lacey took her time arranging her cards to her satisfaction, then tossed a few chips into the pot. “I'll open with five.”
“I'll see your five,” O'Leary said, “and raise you two more.”
Lacey frowned, but dropped another two chips onto the table.
“Too rich for my blood,” Mac tossed her cards face-down onto table. “I'm out.”
“Dealer calls,” Montgomery said as he tossed seven chips onto the pile.
Lacey fanned her cards out on the table in front of her, “Full House, kings over nines.”
“Ah, that's crap!” Montgomery tossed his cards away.
Lacey's eyes met O'Leary's. “You gonna show us what you got, Sarg?”
“Damned if you didn't beat me, Doc,” O'Leary showed his hand. “Full House—sixes over twos.”
Mac just shook her head and waved a dismissive hand. “You all can keep playing. I'm gonna take care of a few things.”
“Ah, come on, Mac,” O'Leary watched as Lacey gathered up her meager winnings and neatly stacked them in front of her. “Ain't no fun if there's just the three of us.”
Mac glanced at Lacey, who was smiling from ear-to-ear. “You gonna keep this up all day, Doc?”
Lacey shrugged. “Can't say that it's beginner's luck, Mac. I played a few rounds in college and wasn't half bad. I even learned to play Texas Hold ‘Em.”
“Oh, all right,” Mac rolled her eyes and tossed in another ante chip. “Let's just play for fun, people. Maybe put a ceiling on the bets or something? I don't want to lose all my chips on one lousy hand.”
“And you're the one who's always at the NCO playing with the guys?” Lacey frowned at the woman across from her.
“We keep it light,” Mac groused, as O'Leary dealt another hand to each of them. “Five card draw, dueces wild, Sarg?”
“Works for me, Mac,” O'Leary held back on dealing a full hand to each player.
Lacey took up her cards and stared intently at them. She then took a chip off her stack and tossed it into the pot. “I've never played with chips before. What do we do after the game is over?”
“Put the chips back in the box,” Mac just shook her head.
Lacey leaned toward the center of the table and lowered her voice. “You mean we can cash ‘em in for the real thing?”
Mac held up a chip with $15 embossed in gold in the middle. “I don't know about you, Doc, but I don't have enough in my bank account to cover what these guys just gave up.”
“Me, either,” O'Leary picked up his chips and eyed the $50 embossed on them. “Matter of fact, I'm all tapped out and kinda glad we're not playing for the real deal.”
“Bummer,” Lacey sat back with a faux-pout. “'Cause I was all for cleaning you guys out.”
Mac watched a teasing smile lift the corners of Lacey's mouth. “You have a terrible poker face, Captain.”
“Can we just get on with this, before the storm lets up and we have to wrap this up?” O'Leary groused. “It's your bet, Captain Stephens.”
Lacey tossed in another chip and glanced up to find Mac smirking at her. “What?”
Montgomery tossed in a chip, as well. “Nothing.”
“I'll see your bets and raise another two,” O'Leary tossed the requisite chips into the pot, much to the dismay of everyone else.
“Jeez, Sarg,” Lacey groused. “What happened to playing for fun?”
“It ain't fun if there's no risk of losing,” Peters suddenly appeared at the table with them.
Lacey glanced at the newcomer. “You want us to deal you in for the next hand, Sergeant?” She glanced at Mac. “Give the man some chips, Mac.”
“Thanks,” he accepted the small stack that Mac handed over to him. “I ain't much of a poker player. Don't get much opportunity for games in my line of work.”
Lacey glanced at the man seated next to her. “And what line of work is that again, Sergeant?”
“Demolitions, ma'am,” he glanced around the table and noticed the frowns the two men were giving him. “I blow things up.”
O'Leary glanced at the duffle sitting behind Peters. “Tools of the trade?”
“You could say that,” he nodded. He reached into a pocket and produced a dollar bill, which he then proceeded to hand over to Lacey.
“What's this?” Lacey glanced at the money without taking it.
“A greenback,” Peters answered, as if the term explained everything.
“I don't need your money, Sergeant,” Lacey shook her head.
“You gotta take it, ma'am,” the man grabbed her hand and slapped the dollar bill into it. “It's for luck.”
Lacey glanced up from the dollar bill and met his gaze. “I don't want your money, Sergeant. Here, take it back.” She tried to drop the bill back in his lap, but found her wrist gripped in a calloused hand, instead. “Hey!”
“It's okay, ma'am,” Peters continued. “It's customary to loan money to a fellow soldier before a mission. It ensures your survival.”
“It's true,” Montgomery chimed in. “If you lend or owe someone money, then you can't die until you pay them back. So, as long as you owe someone money or someone owes you, then you'll make it through the mission.”
Mac scoffed. “Where'd you hear that line of bull, Montgomery? You been talking to my superstitious crew chief behind my back? Or is that just one of those things you mechanics come up with in your downtime?”
“Makes sense to me, Mac,” O'Leary chimed in. “I suppose, on some level, you'll fight harder to stay alive if you owe money to someone or vice versa.”
“Psychobabble,” Lacey added, as she pulled her arm from Peters' grasp. “Don't believe all the crap you hear from the shrinks, gentlemen.”
“Are we playing cards or talking BS?” Mac tossed the requisite chips into the pot and took her next card. “Idiots.”
The game continued, but was much more subdued from that point forward.
Six hours and twenty poker hands later, as the worst of the storm finally blew itself out, the mood in the aircraft was somber at best. O'Leary came out as the final victor, just barely ahead of Lacey. The man was currently propped against a bulkhead, sleeping soundly and snoring loudly. Montgomery was back to reading his paperback, while the Green Beret was taking apart and cleaning his weapon for the tenth time. No one said a word, as they patiently waited out the worst of the sandstorm.
Donaldson stayed in the cockpit and was giving Base Camp yet another update on their situation. And Mac sat next to Lacey, neither of them having said a word for the better part of an hour. They merely sat there in companionable silence, enjoying each other's company and trying to remain a respectable distance from each other. It was becoming harder and harder not to at least touch each other, as they exchanged covert glances.
“Mac!” Donaldson called from the cockpit.
“Yes, Lieutenant?” Mac answered with a bit more enthusiasm than was necessary.
“I think we may be good to go soon,” he continued. “Storm seems to be just about past us.”
They all gathered around the windows and looked outside at the steadily clearing skies. Sure enough, the sand was dissipating and the winds were quickly dying down.
Mac threw the side door open and climbed out of the aircraft. The sand was still blowing, but at a much more tolerable level.
“Let's go, boys,” she said, moving to one of the tie-downs and undoing a rope. “Time to rock and roll. Doctor,” she aimed a pointed look at Lacey, who was about to step outside. “Stay there and let us take care of this.” Her eyes met Lacey's with pleading in their blue depths. “Otherwise, you'll just be in the way.” That comment earned Mac a wrinkled-nose glower of disapproval.
Lacey conceded without a word, knowing the pilot was just being honest with her. Her hands were sore, probably too sore to untie the ropes and tarps around the aircraft. So, she resumed her seat and grabbed her flight helmet. With some effort, she managed to get the helmet strapped on and sat waiting for the others to finish readying the chopper for take-off.
They all worked quickly to get the tarps and ropes stowed. Then, Montgomery did a quick inspection of the main engines, electronics and rotors. When he was finished, he gave Mac the thumbs-up and quickly climbed down from the top of the aircraft.
Mac jumped up into the cockpit and shoved her helmet on. She and Donaldson quickly completed another pre-flight check, then began flipping switches and powering up the engines.
“Alpha-six-charlie-one-seven-niner to Base. Come in, Base,” Mac called into her mic.
“Go ahead, one-seven-niner, over,” a different voice, this one female, responded.
“The storm has cleared and we're resuming our search,” Mac said. “One-seven-niner out.”
“Roger that, one-seven-niner,” was the reply. “Keep us posted on your progress. Out.”
“Everything set back there?” Mac's voice came through all their headsets.
“Roger that,” Montgomery responded.
“O'Leary?” Mac continued.
“Yes, ma'am?” He responded.
“Get harnessed in,” Mac ordered. “We're heading into that hot zone again. I don't want to take any chances that we'll miss our target. Keep your eyes peeled, everyone.”
The aircraft was airborne in seconds and moving in the direction they had been headed before the storm hit. The skies were clear and vividly blue, all trace of the sandstorm completely gone.
With help from Montgomery and Peters, O'Leary climbed into his gunner's harness and settled the M-240 into position. Both doors had been thrown wide open to allow him access to both sides of the chopper. The wind whipped all around them as they ascended into a cloudless blue sky.
Lacey watched the ground quickly drop away, as the aircraft climbed to cruising altitude and leveled off. The scenery below was much the same as it had been before the storm, except that sand now blanketed the ground and covered most of the sparse vegetation once visible from the air. She knew that, in time, the vegetation would eventually find its way back to the surface.
The doctor never knew when they crossed into enemy territory. Nothing below seemed to change. Brown as far as the eye could see. She gave a brief thought to the men in the downed aircraft and hoped they'd survived the sandstorm. Then again, chances were slim that they'd survived the initial crash. If they had, someone would have heard them.
“Keep your eyes open, everyone,” Mac called into their headsets. “We're nearing the aircraft's last known coordinates.”
Lacey searched the ground below for signs of a downed aircraft and saw nothing. She felt the Black Hawk descend and felt her stomach bottom-out in response. She was used to flying, so the sudden drop didn't affect her in the least. It just reminded her that she wasn't safely on the ground, where a body truly belonged.
“Hang on, boys—ma'am,” Mac said. “I'm taking us lower, so be prepared for anything.”
They skimmed through the air, barely a hundred feet off the ground and faster than Lacey felt comfortable with, considering how close to the ground they were. No room for error. The words echoed in her mind, as she watched the ground pass by in a beige blur.
The aircraft suddenly shuddered and bucked beneath them, as something hit them.
O'Leary fired randomly out the side door, aiming at God-knew-what, as the aircraft continued to bounce and rock violently.
“Base, this is Alpha-six-charlie-one-seven-niner, we are under attack and taking heavy fire. I repeat, one-seven-niner is taking heavy fire over coordinates—“
Her words were unexpectedly cut short, as something hit them with enough force to knock out communications and set off every alarm in the cockpit. Sirens and bells howled and screamed as the Black Hawk shuddered and pitched.
“Shit!” Mac exclaimed, struggling to keep the shaking chopper from dropping out of the sky like a lead balloon. “We're hit! We're hit!”
Mac knew they were going down. Her thoughts turned to Lacey and she wondered if any of them would survive. Would she get to hold the doctor in her arms again? She felt panic well up inside her as the aircraft bucked wildly and dropped. Smoke billowed into the cockpit. And time quickly ran out.
“We're going down!” She shouted into her mic and glanced over at Donaldson through the smoke.
Their eyes met for a brief instant. There was regret in both their gazes before they each turned to watch the ground rise up quickly to meet them.
Continued in Part 3
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