Love Under Fire – Chapter 1

The whooshing of the helicopter blades sliced through the bright afternoon sun. Even with headphones on to communicate with the pilot, the sounds of the chopper made it hard to hear or even to think. The rush of air through the open doors was hot; she hated when people used the description of it being a dry heat – it didn’t diminish the fact that it was hot. And after all, ovens have dry heat. She wasn’t excited about this trip, they were sending her to a remote outpost, and these trips were never welcomed. As the helicopter began to land, it kicked up dust and dirt and made it almost impossible to see. She was glad her pilot was experienced because she had no clue as to how the hell he could see the ground or his landing spot. She closed her eyes and waited for the thud to announce that they were down – she hated helicopters.

All around her were mountains; the fear began to rise that they were in a valley and would be prime targets for an ambush. She remembered there was a story very similar to this in which an entire team was almost lost; she was pretty sure someone got the Congressional Medal of Honor for actually surviving it and trying to save members of his team. Surely the military wouldn’t be stupid enough to set up another team like that. She unbuckled from the helicopter and grabbed her gear. The liaison officer began to approach her, and she steeled herself for the shit-storm that was about to erupt.

“Good Afternoon, I’m Corporal Brandon Miller.” The look on his face was not inviting. Instead, he appeared quite confused and a little leery about the woman standing in front of him.

She extended her hand to the officer, “Good Afternoon Corporal Miller. I take it that you were expecting a man to be arriving? Yeah, your disappointment mirrors that of the day when I was born; Carter Gray pleased to meet you.”

“Sorry ma’am, I didn’t mean any offense.”

“It is okay Miller; I am used to it,” She was a bit cold and unfriendly but figured it was best. They didn’t want her here so no sense being nice. She scanned the landscape before looking back at the man in front of her, “Can you show me to my barracks and where I can begin working?”

“Absolutely, yes ma’am. Our Captain would like to have a word with you once you are settled.”

She stopped and turned to face Miller, “No need to keep the Captain waiting, please point me in his direction.”

Carter had known that the Captain of this post had made it clear to the top brass that he did not want some analyst coming in to tell him how to operate his post. He didn’t need some pencil pushing frat boy coming in and giving directions when he didn’t know the first thing about military operations. Imagine his surprise when finds out the pencil pushing frat boy is a woman! She could imagine the look on his face, but she had to admit she knew nothing of this man other than his propensity to generalize stereotypes and discount military analysts.

Corporal Miller knocked and waited for approval before opening the door. The Captain stood with his back to the door and a phone held up to his ear. Carter could tell that he was well built and beautifully proportioned before ever seeing his face. The ratio from his shoulders to his waist was well defined; about as well defined as his arms. Good grief, she believed the phrase was ‘built like a brick shithouse’ and it definitely seemed appropriate here. His voice was smooth and gruff at the same time; the velvet voice had perfect timbre, but he was brusque with whoever was on the phone with.
“You heard me damn it; I am done arguing this point. I don’t want an analyst on my base, and I am not going to come around to your side of it. The war on terror is not going to be won by some pencil pushing number cruncher telling me how to manage my team. I don’t give two fucks if you are sending me some brilliant analyst who knows their shit – have they been in combat? Yeah didn’t think so.”

He turned around to slam the phone down, and Carter’s breath caught. He was a good-looking man with messed brown hair, piercing eyes, and perfectly shaped lips. Beards were not allowed within the Marine Corps, but he had the stubble to show he was pushing the rule. “Sorry, Miller I did not intend the call to go in that direction. What can I do for you?

“Captain Evans, this is Ms. Gray. She is the military analyst sent by Washington. I advised that you wanted to speak to her, and she suggested coming to see you before settling in, sir.” Miller was nervous to bring Gray into the office, especially after hearing that phone call.

Evans hung his head, not realizing that the person he had just been screaming about on the phone was in earshot. He looked at her for a moment before addressing her, “Hello Ms. Gray, I trust your trip in was uneventful?”

“Yes, sir just how like a like it.”

“Miller you are dismissed. Please, have a seat.” He said motioning to the chair directly in front of Carter.

“You can cut the pleasantries, Captain. I heard your call, I know you think there is no need for me to be in your camp and would like nothing more than for Washington to keep their pencil pushing frat boys and, I assume, sorority girls, away from your team. I am here to do a job, and I am damn good at it. You can work with me, or I can work without you; I am good either way. Are we clear?”

“I see someone is unclear on how to speak to a military officer,” he said, crossing his arms and taking his own defensive stance.

“I am very clear on how to talk to an officer that I respect. You want my respect then you need to show some to me and my position.” Carter turned on her heels; picked up her bags and began walking out of the office without being properly dismissed.

Corporal Miller was outside of the office and was able to hear every bit of the conversation since the door had not been closed. He quietly opened the door leading outside when Carter approached. “Ms. Gray, I hope you do not view all of us in the same light at Captain Evans – not all of us are cut from that cloth so to speak.”

Carter stopped and reached for Miller’s arm, “Hey, I’m aware that not everyone is like Evans; I get it. I’m just making him understand that I’m not going to let him run over me just because he doesn’t like that I am here. I might be, in his mind, only an analyst but I have a military background, and I’ve worked in intelligence. I’m not a dog for him to kick around.”

Miller shook his head and understood that she needed to assert herself. This was going to be interesting, to say the least. He knew that before too long these two would bang heads again; for her sake, he hoped Gray was as tough as she was portraying.

Captain Evans picked up the phone and dialed, getting impatient waiting for the line to connect, “Let me talk to the Major please…this is Captain Evans,” his voice was terse.

“Hello Chris, is this going to be another call to tell me how much you hate the idea of an analyst being in your camp?”

“Frank, you let them send a woman to my camp? Are you serious? How will she survive without the ability to shop or go out for coffee?” He began pacing back and forth behind his desk, “Frank, she has to go, I can’t babysit her if we get action – this has to be a bad joke.”

“Who did they send you? I had no idea how the assignments were passed out man, I swear.”

“I got some woman named Gray.”

“Oh man, they sent you Gray? Chris, I have heard stories about her. They say she can handle herself, has brass ones and can spit nails. I don’t think you have to worry about her wanting to shop or get coffee; although she might try and eat you for lunch.” Frank let out a dry chuckle, “Hell Chris I would just be careful and make sure you don’t fall in love with her.”

“Oh, I don’t think you need to worry about that Frank. She just told me off – I said she didn’t know how to talk to an officer, and she told me she knows how to talk to ones she respects. She has a mouth on her Frank, and I know it will be hell having her here.”

“Chris, don’t do anything stupid. She is only going to be there a short time. Don’t make waves for her and let her do her analysis and go home. Just play it very cool.”

“Yeah thanks, Frank, appreciate the support.” With that, he hung up the phone and pondered how he could get her to go home.

~ * * * ~

The first few days in the camp had been difficult; every day Evans was finding something to get worked up about. The constant fights with him were beginning to drain Carter of her enthusiasm for her job. She was sent here to work with the intelligence officers at the camp and to help ensure protocols were being followed for their patrols. This was all routine and just a way for Washington to make sure that each unit was following the appropriate guidelines so they weren’t blindsided if something went wrong. She could not figure out why Evans so was worked up about it; they weren’t questioning his leadership, and she was not there to dig up ‘dirt’ on him – this was a routine type of visit.

Carter knew a thing or two about Marines with amazingly fragile egos. They are rough and tumble men who have no reservations about marching into battle and doing what needs to be done, but question them on protocols or their leadership, and they become difficult to talk to. Carter had grown up the only child of a Brigadier General in the Marine Corps; when she was a young girl her mother decided that being someone’s mom was not a job she wanted – so she left. It was just her and her dad as they hopscotched the world when his orders would change; he did his best trying to raise a little girl, but it was not always easy. He was very strict, and she tried to push the limits. He seemed to understand that she was testing her limits; however, he was very clear that Carter would go into the military and serve her country. She knew there was no sense in fighting it; this was an order that she would not be able to get out of. She wanted to go to college first – it would help when she enlisted and provide a strong background to get the right type of assignment when her orders would come down. Having a college degree meant that she would go to Officer Training School where your test scores dictated what you would do for the Corps. She never wanted to be on the front lines and ironically hated firing her weapon. Luckily her test scores were high, and they realized she would be valuable in other areas; she was spared front line duty. She was able to quote military strategies and understood how to decipher intelligence data that was being collected; she was stationed at Quantico.

Her officer commitment was four years active duty with another four years of inactive reserves. Meaning she could be recalled when and if her services were needed. At the end of her four years, she decided that being a career Officer was not what she wanted. She needed to have some variety and the ability to have a life not dictated by her service. She was provided an opportunity to retain her job but as a civilian contractor and went in that direction; the money was better, and the chances for deployment were greatly diminished. Her father was not happy with her decision.

She was finishing her last year of inactive duty when she uncovered some information about certain military outposts being at risk. Not all outposts were in danger, but there were concerns over locations and their risk for infiltration that drew the red flags. Carter had briefed the top brass on her findings and tried to compel them to look into this further. They were not completely sold on the idea but told her if she was so sure – she could go herself to test her theories and collect the data. In their mind one of two things would happen, she would find issues and save lives or she would be wrong and be discredited. The brass was okay with either scenario.

To avoid setting Evans off as much as possible, Carter kept to herself in the workspace provided. She reviewed maps and ledgers and had conversations with different members of the team. She did all of this with Corporal Miller at her side. She knew he said he was a liaison, but he was more like a jailer – the only time he left her side was when she slept or went to the bathroom. She was fairly sure that Miller was giving Evans a daily briefing on her movements; she wasn’t doing anything out of step so she didn’t care. You only really care that someone is watching if you have something to hide.

One of the rules for being on base was that she had to report to Evans at the end of each week in regards to her findings. She was not looking forward to this and, therefore, was extremely slow in her walk to his office. She entered the building and tried to get her attitude ready before approaching his door and knocking. She had hoped he was not in, and she could avoid this, but, unfortunately, that was not the case.

“Enter!” She heard as she knocked solidly on the door. As she stepped into the office, Captain Evans looked up at her, making direct eye contact. The clarity in his eyes and his stare were off-putting. This man was gorgeous, and she had to pretend she didn’t notice. “Gray, what can I do for you?”

“It is the end of the week I guess you want my report? Is now a good time or should I schedule an appointment?” There was a slight tone of sarcasm in her voice; she couldn’t help it this man infuriated her and turned her on at the same time.

“Now is fine, please sit,” he motioned to the chair while he rose and walked to shut the door behind her. “Gray, I would like to see if we can clear the air and try to make the best of this arrangement for the next few weeks.”

“Sorry to hear you have been unable to get me pulled from this assignment. I am going to guess that it is taking everything within you to be polite.”

“And what makes you say that?”

“Oh, I have my sources, Evans. Remember I am in intelligence and not just a sorority girl. ” She gave a wry smile, “You aren’t really great at hiding your feelings about me anyway.”

He was taken aback by her boldness and her declaration. She was a beautiful woman, and her feisty attitude was alarmingly sexy. “Right, well I have made it clear that I don’t think you need to be here but as you know, I have been overruled.”

“Do you not want me here because of my job or because I am a woman? I just want to be clear on that.” She was not backing down.

“I have been opposed to this all along and to be frank, I had no idea they were sending a female analyst. I just didn’t want someone coming in here and telling me how to do my job.”

“You’re in the military Evans, you should be used to taking orders by now,” she scoffed.

“I am, from my superior officers not from civilians who have no idea what they are talking about,” he was not backing down either. She had a fiery and sassy attitude, but she was on his base, and he was not going to go easy on her just because she is a woman.

Carter rose to stand toe-to-toe with him, “I am not your average civilian. I am a Marine first and an analyst second. I have a job to do, the same as you and I will not let your attitude get in my way.”

“You are a former Marine?”

“Former? You should know there is no such thing; once a Marine, always a Marine. Plus, my father was a Brigadier General in the Corps so I am well versed in military strategy. And after my entire rant, that is what you latched on to? So does that make a difference to you?”

His use of the word ‘former’ was a test, and she passed; it is easy to tell someone’s respect for the Corps based on how they refer to themselves in it. He had no idea how old she was but guessing, she would still be in the inactive reserves. He was snapped back to reality when she mentioned her father, “I never put it together – is your father Brigadier General William Gray?”

Carter was a little surprised; she didn’t expect Evans to know who he was. “Let me guess, you’re a fan?”

“Well I know of him; I heard him speak several years ago. He is of course well known for some of his tactics and views, and I have caught him on TV from time to time. I respect the man for his service – he has seen quite a bit of action. ”

“Yeah, well he likes to hear himself talk and loves the idea of being on TV,” she said with a touch of bitterness. William Gray was not a lovable man, and he did not share or show emotions; she had hoped her accomplishments would earn respect from him, but she was still waiting. “So, now you know my pedigree, and that suddenly changes your mind about me being here?”

“No, doesn’t change a thing except that maybe now I see why you are here.”

“Excuse me? Don’t tell me that you know think that I got my job because of the General? You have nerve, Evans. Nothing is handed to me because of him – actually, it is the opposite.”

“Oh I don’t think you are here because your father sent you – I believe that you are here to prove something to him and to yourself. I believe that it should be interesting to see what you have to say, please enlighten me as to your findings.” The tone of his voice was condescending at best.

“Ten minutes ago you weren’t willing to hear anything I have to say. Now you think you have me figured out based on some armchair quarterbacking?” Carter tossed something on the desk, turned and began walking towards the door. “Men, you idiots are all the same.” She opened the door and slammed it on her way out.

She continued a mental argument with Evans as she marched across the base and back to her barracks. Being on one of these missions was never easy; she was used to the resentment and the sneers from the personnel. Everyone took it personal when there was an audit or an analyst on base, but this guy took it to a freaking art form. Amazingly, most of the Marines at this base were respectful and friendly enough – she wasn’t going to be best friends with any of them, but the healthy dose of respect and the wide berth went a long way.

She sat at her computer and began typing her email to Quantico when her Skype program began to buzz; she had an incoming call from her best friend back in Washington. She clicked the button to accept the call, “Hey Roxie, isn’t it kind of early for you to be calling? Did something happen?”

“Nah, I just couldn’t sleep so I have been up rattling around and thought I would see if you were available. How is life in Afghanistan?”

“Oh it is lovely this time of year; the dust storms are minimal unless you have a chopper coming in. And the heat, well let’s just say it is just short of hell degrees.”

“Wow, that nice, eh? Maybe I need to plan a vacation.”

“I am in a remote area on a base that had no desire for me to be here, so yeah it is almost paradise.”

“How long are you going to be there?”

“Probably a few weeks, I am trying to get out of here as fast as I can, though.”

“You seem agitated, what is going on?”

“The Captain of this base does not want me here and is making things difficult. He is an ass, and I just had a confrontation with him before you called. I am still a little worked up, I am sorry.”

“Is it anyone we know?”

“No, don’t think you know him; his name is Evans. He just put together my connection to the General so now not only do I have to deal with him not wanting me around but he is a fanboy! He is infuriating Roxie, making it hard for me to do my job – he doesn’t want me here, and he keeps fighting me at every turn. I just want to punch him in that perfect smile.”

Roxie began laughing, “Is he hot? I mean if you are noticing his smile and how perfect it is you must have noticed if he is good looking.”

“Good looking? No, he isn’t good looking – he is fucking gorgeous, and it pisses me off even more!”

Roxie’s laugh was heartier, and she began to tear up. “Oh that is the root of this, Carter is in a remote area with a base full of men, and she is crushing on the Captain.”

“No, no that is not it! Carter is here to do a job, and she finds it hard to fight with the man who has control over whether this will be an easy task or hard one.” She took a sip of her water and then continued, “Damn Roxie you have me talking in the third person now…stop it! I am not crushing on him – he is an insufferable ass.”

“Yeah, and you think he is hot. So, what is his name?”

“I already told you, Evans. Were you not paying attention?”

“No silly, his first name? Are you on a first name basis yet?”

“I have no idea what his first name is, and I don’t care. He is Evans, and I am Gray, and that is how it will remain.”

“Oh, you made a rhyme aren’t you cute!”

“Shut up Roxie! So what is going on in DC?”

The two women had chatted for several minutes before they disconnected their call and Carter got back to her email. The sad thing is that Roxie got her thinking. This man was incredibly handsome, and it is hard to go in and talk to him because she couldn’t help but notice that. Now that Roxie had called attention to the fact that she was attracted to him, it would make this job even harder. She had to stay focused, stay on the job at hand and get the hell out of Dodge when she could.

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