Posted 1 April 03
"I'm leaving the Corps," Kirsten said softly but with complete finality.
"I'm resigning my commission. It's over."
Captain Taelor Phillips sat in stunned silence at her friend's sudden announcement. A mere six months before they had been sitting in this very same Officer's Club celebrating Taelor's promotion. After a few moments Taelor managed to squeak a question past the obstruction in her throat.
"Why? Why now?"
A humorless smirk twisted Kirsten's features. "Could it be that I'm just tired of the discipline?"
"Yes, and tomorrow I'm going to wake up as an Irish setter," Taelor said in complete disbelief.
"Well you do have the right hair colour." The attempt at levity was completely lost on the captain. Taelor was about to badger her further when a junior officer came to attention next to their table.
"Excuse me Captain, Lieutenant Colonel," he said with the deference befitting their ranks.
"At ease, Lieutenant. What's the problem?" Taelor asked the young man.
"Lieutenant Colonel Brennan. You have a phone call, Ma'am."
"Thank you." Kirsten nodded.
The young man acknowledged his dismissal and left the table.
"I wonder who's keeping tabs on me." Kirsten said under her breath. "Excuse me, Captain." she said with another of her trademark smirks as she raised a lazy salute to the senior officer.
Taelor sat in stunned silence after Kirsten left.
This was the first time she had seen Brennan since their impromptu promotion celebration and now the Marine was here dropping this bombshell on her.
"What the hell is going on here?" Taelor said under her breath.
The Captain had received one email from Kirsten since that night and it had been purely to make sure Taelor wasn’t angry about the incident outside the girl bar. Now here she was, back from her first shakedown voyage as Captain a mere two days and Kirsten turns up out of the blue with this news. A sudden thought occurred to Taelor accompanied by a lead weight materialising in her stomach. Taelor had always been conscious of her position, having all but buried her personal life for the sake of her career; however Brennan was slightly more transparent.
What if the brass had asked and she had told?
Kirsten's return to the table pulled Taelor out of her thoughts. Taelor looked Brennan over with a Captain's eye for detail, suddenly noticing small things she had missed before. A slight tensing around her eyes and mouth and Kirsten's normally relaxed posture just the slightest bit tighter. A sudden panicked thought flashed into her mind. "If they are investigating her where does that leave me?" Shame followed in the wake of cowardice. "It leaves me as her friend!"
"Hey," Kirsten said, grabbing her attention. "What happened? You swallow a bug while I was gone or what?" White teeth flashed into a smile that reached all the way to the crystal blue eyes above. Taelor sat for a moment silently regarding her friend.
"What the hell is going on, Brennan?"
"I told you already. I'm through with the Marines."
"Yes, but why? You told me once the military was all you ever wanted to do. All you were ever meant to do."
"Maybe I was wrong."
"Excuse me Brennan. You didn’t receive all those awards on your chest by being wrong and you certainly didn’t become one of the youngest female Lieutenant Colonels the Marine Corps have ever seen because you made an incorrect career choice. God, woman, you're due for another promotion any time soon."
"In combat the orders I give personnel under my command kill people," she said quietly.
"Yes and those same orders also save lives." Taelor said then she sat back in her chair, silence yawning between them. The captain didn't understand what was going on here. The woman sitting in front of her was not the highly decorated Marine she had seen just six months previously.
"The phone call I just received was from David." Kirsten said, finally breaking the silence.
"Striker?" Taelor asked, slightly bewildered at the sudden course change.
"They're investigating me." Taelor didn't need to ask who 'they' were; suddenly realising her first thought had been correct. "Conduct Unbecoming," Kirsten continued, providing the captain with an unnecessary clarification.
"Aren't you going to fight it?"
"No. I'm not."
"For God's sake! Why not?!"
"For the reason I mentioned a minute ago. What we do for a living has the potential to kill people."
"Yes, but you knew that before you signed on. What's changed now?"
A tiny grin lit Kirsten's eyes as she said simply, "Emma."
"Who the hell is Emma?"
"The most important thing in my life."
"Important enough to give up your career?"
Kirsten stared across the table at her friend for a moment before saying simply, "Yes. I want you to meet her."
"Why?" Taelor asked shortly.
"Because she's important to me and so are you."
"I'm obviously not important enough to hear about this a little earlier." Taelor knew she was being ridiculous; Kirsten didn’t owe her any explanation for god's sake. She just couldn’t help it. The Marine was her friend and all Taelor could see was her throwing her career away for a piece of arse.
"Taelor, please. I really would like you to meet her." As it always did, the use of her first name, a rare occurrence, pulled the captain up short.
"Okay, fine," she said with a sigh. "Where and when?"
"Tomorrow night suit you? We could meet you at that little Italian place in town you love so much."
"Alright. 1900 hours."
"Great, 7 o'clock it is." Kirsten grinned and bounded up from the table. "I have to run; I'll see you tomorrow night."
She left before seeing the shock flash through the captain's eyes again. Since when did Brennan run on anything but military time?
* * * * *
Taelor entered the restaurant, trepidation laying heavy in her. Who was this woman who had so thoroughly turned one of the finest Military Officers the captain had ever met? Her eyes scanned the room and she spotted her dinner companions just as the headwaiter approached her.
"Captain Phillips, it's good to see you again. Are you dining alone tonight?"
"Thank you, Michael. No, I'm joining friends this evening." Taelor said, indicating the far corner of the room.
"Let me show you to their table."
"Thanks but I think I can make it," she said with a small smile. "I could use a scotch though, make it a double."
"Certainly, Captain. I'll bring it right over." The man left without further comment and Taelor made her way slowly through the tables. Kirsten stood as she approached an odd tight look on her face.
"Captain, I'm glad you could join us," she said. Taelor raised an eyebrow her mouth quirking at the formality.
"I was interested to meet the woman who has managed to so capture the … heart of one of the best Marine officers I know."
Kirsten tilted her head slightly and looked intently at the captain for a moment as if trying to divine a hidden meaning behind the words.
"Captain, I'd like to present Emma Williams. Emma this is Captain Taelor Phillips." For the first time Taelor actually focused on Brennan's companion as the smaller woman rose to shake her hand. Something about her; something indefinable almost gentle, instantly melted the captain's icy command persona. She had been prepared to grill this woman, to show Brennan she wasn’t worth giving up her career; now all of a sudden she was at a loss.
"Ms. Williams. It's … a pleasure to meet you."
"And you, Captain Phillips, but please call me Emma. Kirsten has told me so much about you." The woman's smile lit up her face and Taelor could instantly see what had drawn Brennan to her. Her face seemed to radiate calm, warmth, innocence and sensuality all at the same time. The smile was genuine from the strong white teeth all the way to her clear green eyes. Taelor struggled to regain her equilibrium and was relieved when the waiter chose that moment to arrive with her drink.
"Here are your menus, ladies; the specials are listed in the front. I shall return shortly for your order."
”Thank you, Michael," the captain said as she busied herself with the red leather folder.
"Kirsten tells me this is your favorite restaurant, Captain Phillips," Emma said. "Can you suggest something; I'm having a seafood craving."
"Please call me Taelor and sorry I can't help you there," Taelor paused for a beat before continuing. "I'm allergic to seafood." She knew how Brennan would react and wasn’t disappointed when the woman laughed out loud.
"You know, Phillips," Brennan said around a broad grin. "That has never ceased to amaze me. You make your living as a sea captain, you have a doctorate in marine biology and coastal ecosystem management and eating fish puts you in the emergency room!"
"It's ugly too," Kirsten said to Emma with a wink. "We had Thai one night and they put fish sauce in the good Captain's meal when she asked them not to. Her face and hands were all swollen and blotchy and she couldn’t breathe properly. Good thing it wasn’t a date, I would have been turned off for life!"
"Alright, Brennan," Taelor said with an indulgent chuckle. "But if memory serves, our brave Marine here panicked and started screaming at the wait staff. Finally one of the other patrons had the presence of mind to call an ambulance."
The last of the tension at the table dissipated with the laughter, as the three women turned their attention to the menu. Before long Michael appeared at the captain's elbow to take their orders.
"The antipasto platter looks wonderful if you would like to share, I couldn’t finish it on my own," noting her companions' consent she turned to the waiter. "Remember no…"
"No seafood." Michael said, finishing her sentence. "How could I forget one of my best customers?" he said with a grin. Taelor went on to order her main meal followed by Kirsten, then the waiter turned to Emma.
"I would like the Gamberi fritti in padella and the Branzino al forgo followed by Cassata Sicilian for dessert."
"Ah … Ma'am? You do realize you've ordered two main meals."
"Yes, is that a problem?"
"No ma'am, not at all," Michael said somewhat uncertainly. "Would you like one of them as an entrée?"
"Yes, I'll have the shrimp with the antipasto and the Sea Bass… What?" Emma looked up at the incredulous expressions on the faces of both the waiter and Taelor. "Well I told you I had a craving for seafood," she said indignantly as Kirsten smothered a chuckle.
"Where on earth will you fit all that?" Taelor asked as she eyed Emma's small frame. A mischievous twinkle appeared in Emma's clear green eyes.
"A girl has to keep her strength up, Captain." Her eyes grew hot as she turned, focusing on Kirsten. "My nights are quite… strenuous these days."
Taelor looked over at the tall Marine and blinked in surprise, Kirsten's skin flushed as she was nailed back in her seat by the clear gaze.
"Oh, my God." Taelor thought.
* * * * *
A small smile graced the captain's classic features as she leaned back in the rich leather. Her mind was so focused on the past she didn't register the magnificent scenery that flashed past the BMW. Not the lush tropical gardens as they drove through the suburbs or the even lusher rainforest as they climbed up towards the township of Kuranda. Finally she drifted into sleep.
* * * * *
"Is she asleep?" Kirsten asked after Emma had turned to glance at the captain.
"Oh, yeah," she replied with a grin. "She's asleep alright."
Kirsten shifted the rear view mirror to get a look at Taelor's face and added her own quiet snort of laughter.
"Ah … I'm not sure we should mention this to her when we get home, ok?"
The very dignified captain was fast asleep in the back of the car in a very undignified pose. Her mouth was hanging open and her head in a position that could only be achieved if she were either dead to the world or just plain dead. Emma chuckled and agreed readily.
"What do you suppose is going on?" Kirsten asked, suddenly serious.
"I honestly don’t know but it's bad enough for her to run away. As much as I know we've been bugging her to visit, this is still very sudden. Maybe it's all the media attention she's been getting. You know how she hates the spotlight," Emma sighed.
"Well, whatever is going on, I guess we'll find out soon enough," Kirsten said and Emma nodded in agreement. The remainder of the trip was made in silence except for the heavy sleep laden breathing coming from the back seat.
* * * * *
Taelor was pulled from sleep slowly when her body registered the lack of forward motion of the BMW. She drew a deep breath as she muzzily scanned her surroundings; for a second not entirely sure where she was.
"Welcome back to the land of the living, Taelor," Emma said grinning back at the older woman.
"Ah … Sorry. It seems the lack of sleep finally caught up with me," Taelor replied, slightly embarrassed.
"Don’t worry about it, Phillips," Kirsten said, as she opened the rear door of the car. "This is just one more thing I can add to the ’Stories of Captain Phillips' file." Taelor simply grimaced at her and climbed out.
"Em, why don’t you show the captain around while I unload the car."
"Right this way, Taelor," Emma said, linking her arm through Taelor's.
The house was set in a lush garden with the path to the front door following a haphazard line around the plantings. Worn sandstone steps led up onto a deep veranda. Taelor stopped short and let out a small chuckle when she spotted the front door.
"Your idea or hers?" she asked Emma.
"What do you think?" Emma replied with a fond smile.
The door was huge; at least half again as wide as a regular doorway. The gleaming oiled timber bound in iron wouldn’t have looked out of place in a medieval fortress. Emma slid the key into the door and the locks released with an audible click and when the door swung open Taelor could see it was solid timber and about two inches thick. Hearing Kirsten climbing onto the veranda behind them Taelor turned to her.
"Why on earth do you need a door like this?"
Kirsten grinned at her friend's question.
"I didn’t need a door like this. I wanted a door like this. Must be a previous life reasserting itself," she said with a laugh. Taelor raised an elegant eyebrow and shook her head at her friend.
"C'mon Captain, your room is this way."
A long hallway led straight through the middle of the house with a door opening off either side. Kirsten walked through the door on the left followed by Emma. The captain stopped short when she followed them into the room; it was huge. An ornate timber bed surrounded by filmy mosquito netting sat at one end of the room with a desk and small sitting area at the other. The walls were painted a muted off white and the twelve foot ceilings were covered in ornate plaster moldings.
"Your bathroom is through that door." Kirsten said and grinned knowingly at Emma when she heard the captain gasp.
"Err … How close are your neighbors?" Taelor asked from the bathroom.
"Why? Afraid they might see something odd?" Kirsten said through laughter. Emma decided to take pity on their friend and joined her in the bathroom.
"Don’t worry Taelor, there's a screen you can draw across if you want, it folds back behind the shelving."
Taelor finally managed to pull her attention away from the wall of glass at one end of the bathroom looking out over the rainforest to take in the rest of the room and was impressed by what she saw. A glass enclosed shower big enough for two sat in one corner and next to it was a truly decadent half sunken bath. The entire room was finished with tiles in the deep blue and green of ocean and rainforest.
"If you aren’t careful you might end up with a full time boarder at this rate," Taelor grinned, never taking her eyes off the tub. Kirsten and Emma laughed.
"So, would you like the rest of the tour?"
"Would you mind if I gave it a miss for now? I think I'm about ready to drop." Taelor said, still not taking her eyes off the tub except now there was an almost yearning look in them.
"No problem. We'll just leave you two alone shall we? Shout if you need anything," Kirsten said over her shoulder as she wrapped her arm around Emma's waist and left the room.
Taelor was standing in the bathroom trying to decide whether to bath now and sleep later or vice versa when the sleep deprivation of the last few days rolled over her like a tsunami.
"Sleep first or you could become the first Navy Captain in history to drown in the tub." she said to herself.
* * * * *
An hour later Taelor was still awake she could hear her friends moving around further in the house but she did not feel up to joining them right now. After extracting herself from the tangled sheets she moved to sit in the armchair at the other end of the room. She was bone weary after the last few days and the nap in the car had done nothing to refresh her. Taelor needed to sleep but her mind steadfastly refused to quit; her thoughts drifting to recent events and her conversation with David just before her departure. She had been so goddamn careful or so she thought. She had crept around like Tessa was some dirty little secret, which she supposed in the Navy's eyes the woman was. Taelor realised her first mistake had been going to that place in uniform though hers was far from the only one there, just the highest ranking.
* * * * *
"You look like you could use a friend," a voice said as the captain sat at the bar.
"Well that’s an original pick up line if I've ever heard one," Taelor replied, not looking at the woman just breathing in the musky scent of her perfume.
"If you're not here to pick up, then you must be here to find a friend," the laughter tinged voice replied, Taelor turned her head to look at her questioner. The woman was about Taelor's height with short dark hair, olive skin and rich sherry brown eyes.
"I'm here to do neither. I just want to drink and forget."
"Ah, now there lays a challenge," the woman said. "I can think of a number of wonderful ways to forget and all start with a drink." Her voice dropped to a husky register as she spoke. She turned to the bartender and ordered a drink for herself and another for the captain.
"My name's Tessa and you are the famous Captain Phillips."
Taelor winced as the woman recognized her.
"Right now, I'm nobody," she said with a little fire in her voice.
"If you were nobody you wouldn’t have come here in your uniform now would you?" Tessa said, her eyes roaming over the captain's clothing, a smile of appreciation on her face.
"I'm just now realising what a mistake that was. Thanks for the drink." Taelor stood up and made her way to the door silently berating herself for coming here in the first place. She had listened to the brass telling her what a great hero she was for most of the day and when she finally managed to leave she decided a drink was in order. After driving around aimlessly for an hour she spotted the bar Brennan had tried to drag her into the night she met Emma.
"What the hell, Phillips. It’s a bar and right now that’s what you are looking for." She had thought.
Taelor was almost to her car when the woman from the bar caught up with her.
"Did you want something?" she asked as she unlocked the driver's door of her Lexus.
"Only this," Tessa said as she turned the captain and molded her body against her. Lips met and Taelor raised her hands to the woman's shoulders to push her away. Tessa chose that moment to gain entry to Taelor's mouth and bolt of electricity washed through the captain's body; the hands that had intended to push Tessa away now wound around her neck and clutched her tighter. The frantic kiss seemed to last an eternity until the need for air forced them both to pull back panting hard.
"Come home with me," Tessa asked in a husky voice. "I won't expect anything beyond tonight, but please come home with me now."
Taelor's mind screamed warnings at her reminding her of her reputation and her career, but her body ignored them and she nodded to the other woman and they climbed into the car. The only words spoken from the bar to Tessa's apartment were for the sake of navigation as the tension between them steadily built. They barely made it through the front door when an explosion of raw lust overtook them both. They made love, if you could call it that, twice before they actually made it to the bedroom. A little warning voice in the back of Taelor's mind kept trying to make itself heard. She ignored it.
All she wanted at this moment was to forget the five faces of the sailors that visited her constantly since their deaths under her command.
* * * * *
All too soon, daylight announced its presence and Taelor awoke to feel every one of her 43 years of life. She shifted in bed and an entire set of muscles she had forgotten she possessed made themselves known. Then a thick blanket of panic settled over her and she froze as strong arms circled her from behind.
"Mmm … Good morning, Captain," her bedmate said, her voice husky with sleep.
"Ah… Yes… good morning," Taelor said apprehension obvious in her voice. The arms withdrew from around her and Tessa pulled back to look at her companion.
"You don’t have to worry you know," she said quietly. Taelor sat up clutching the sheet to her as she scooted over to the edge of the large bed.
"Hey, I mean it. You really have nothing to worry about; your secret is safe with me. I was military as well… Desert Storm."
Taelor looked at her sharply.
"Was? Did they…"
"No, they didn't throw me out, I resigned. After the Middle East I realised I wasn’t cut out for it…" Tessa's voice trailed off as she looked at the captain.
"You don't look old enough to have even been there," Taelor said searching for a neutral topic, the conversation beginning to feel surreal.
Tessa laughed softly.
"Good genes, I guess. Feel like some breakfast?"
"I … I'd like to take a shower first."
"No problem. I'll hunt up some clothes for you."
"No. I don't want to put you out," the captain said in a rush. The woman just smiled again and climbed out of bed; ignoring Taelor's audible intake of breath as she padded naked across the room.
"The bathroom is through that door," she said, indicating the door to the left of the bed, before she left the room.
Taelor waited until Tessa left the room before she climbed out of bed. She felt like a fool, firstly because this whole situation was happening and second because of how she was handling it.
"Some leader you are," she berated herself as she stepped into the shower. "All Hail the conquering hero … What a joke."
Finishing up her shower in record time she returned to the bedroom and found jeans and a white shirt folded on the end of the bed; the other woman nowhere in sight. She hesitated for a moment before picking up the clothing realising her only other alternative was to walk out into the living area in search of her uniform dressed only in a towel. Catching sight of herself in the long mirror in the bedroom Taelor stopped to look feeling odd in the unfamiliar clothes. Feeling like she was wearing a costume she straightened her spine and slipped on her well worn command mask.
"This has to end now," she said to her reflection. "You have too much to lose." Shoring up the crumbling walls of her composure she strode out into the living area, relieved when she saw Tessa was now dressed in baggy shorts and a loose shirt.
"I'm sorry but I will have to skip breakfast. Could you tell me where my uniform is?" Tessa didn’t look surprised when she turned to look at the captain.
"I thought as much," she said with a slightly sad smile. "Will you at least have a coffee with me?"
Taelor hesitated for a moment, a part of her desperately wanting to reach out for someone to share her burden.
"No… thank you. I should go," she said quietly.
"Taelor, I still mean what I said, I don’t expect anything beyond last night. I guess I just hoped…" she trailed off as she handed the captain a bag containing her clothing.
"I… I'm sorry. I have to go." Taelor said and left.
continued in Chapter 3
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