The air was still and early in the morning, it was still unbearably hot. Head down and reviewing documents on the desk, the silence of the morning was pierced by the phone ringing; Evans answered after the 2nd ring.
“Morning Chris, are you approving the stuff that Gray sends out? I mean she is keeping you in the loop of what she is doing, right?”
“She is supposed to bring me stuff; she told me she would show me her reports. Why?”
“Man she just sent out her first report, and she is wicked smart about a few things, and I want to make sure you know what she has come up with. It will make you look really good if you are in lock step with what she is talking about.”
“What do you mean she sent out her first report? When did you get a report from her?”
“It was in my inbox this morning, I just finished reading it. So I would take it with the time difference and all, she sent it late last night. Are you saying you haven’t seen this yet?”
He slammed his fist down on the desk, “FUCK! Yes, that is exactly what I am saying Frank. She was in my office yesterday and got into a pissing contest with me and stormed out. I can only guess she was going to show me the report and then after our little tiff she forgot about it.”
“Chris you can’t fight with this woman; I know you have said you don’t want her there, but I’ve told you she is smart, and it would be in your best interest to get on board with this. She has said in this thing that she isn’t ready to implement changes until she can run impact scenarios but she has some strong points.” Frank stopped talking and could tell that Chris was trying to level his breathing and his emotions. “You haven’t slept with her, right? I mean that isn’t what the argument was about, was it?”
“Good grief, Frank! Hell no I haven’t slept with her – what kind of a guy do you think I am?”
“Well, you are a single good-looking man who has been in a desert way too long. You have a playboy personality and women generally throw themselves at you – I figure you would just do what comes naturally.” The humor was thick in his voice.
“Even if I was interested in her, and that is a huge if, do you know who her dad is? No, I guess you don’t so let me tell you, she is Brigadier General William Gray’s daughter?”
Frank sat up straight in his chair, “You are kidding? I mean I knew her name was Gray, but I didn’t know of the connection. Holy shit, no wonder she is so damn insightful and smart.”
“I don’t care how smart she is Frank, I don’t want her here! She makes me nervous. I am not sure what her end-game is and now that I know she turned in a report without me seeing it first; well it makes me even more resolved to get her off my base.” His voice rose with hostility towards Gray. He knew that it was not Frank’s fault, but he happened to catch the wrong end of it since he was on the other end of the line.
“Chris, take a deep breath and don’t do anything stupid. Give her a chance to explain; and if that doesn’t work, kiss her until she melts and then moves on.”
Evans hung up the phone with authority. Frank was right in one sense; he did not need to go see her when he was angry as it would not go well. He had to watch his step and did not want to get on the wrong side of her father even if was no longer active in the Corps. He began pacing back and forth behind his desk, trying to determine the best way to approach this when he finally decided to just take it head on.
He walked out of his office and walked with determination over to her work area. He pulled the door open and when the Marines in the area noticed it was him they stood to attention. Not Carter, she kept her head down reviewing the maps and documentation laid out across the table. She did not acknowledge his presence at all. Evans motioned for the door with his head, and all of the Marines quickly filed out of the room. Carter still did not acknowledge that he was there.
“Gray, we need to talk right now,” his voice was deep and commanding.
“Talk away, I am working,” she responded without looking up. She knew deep down why he was there, and she had no intention of giving in or making it easy on him.
“I just got a call from Quantico, one that I was not really anticipating.”
“Oh, and why is that?” Again, she gave no consideration to him and kept working.
“Cut the shit Gray, you know exactly what it was about.” He took a few steps toward her, maintaining a little distance but not much. He wanted to be in her space and increase the pressure. “I thought there was a protocol in providing updates?”
“There is, and I followed it,” Carter said defiantly.
“Like hell you did, if that was the case then how did Quantico get the report before I did? Explain yourself and this better be good.”
Carter let a sly smile begin to form on her lips before she put her pencil down and stood straight up to gaze into his eyes. She had to admit, the fire that danced in his eyes at the moment was erotic, and she wanted to just grab his face and kiss him. She quickly shook her head to remind herself to focus, “If you will recall Captain, I came into the office yesterday with the report in my hand prepared to talk to you about it before you turned into a fanboy for the General and accused me of getting my current position because of him.” She was starting to really enjoy this; he was starting to sweat with her standing so close. “I tossed it on your desk before I walked about but I guess you weren’t really paying attention. I went back to my barracks, took an incoming call and then sent an email to Quantico.”
“You are so smug right now; it really is not attractive on you.” He took a step closer, he wanted to get in her face, but the problem was he didn’t trust himself that close to her. Instead, he just turned and walked toward the door. With his back to her, he began to speak, “You know Gray, I am sure you are enjoying making me look bad. I have to admit, that is not the mark of a real Marine. Your ambition will bite you in the ass one day.” He waited for a moment, and when she did not respond, he turned the knob and walked out the door.
Once he left the room, Carter exhaled the breath that she didn’t realize she was holding. She had felt a spark when they were standing close, and she thought he must have felt it too. But when he started to walk away she thought she misread the signs. However, her heart stopped when he called her out – she didn’t want to make him look bad. None of what she did was to make the officers in the outposts looks bad. In fact, she wanted to shine the spotlight on what they were doing well and tweak minor items that would have a positive impact.
A few moments later the Marines that Evans had shuffled out of the room began coming back. They didn’t ask what happened, but they could tell after seeing Carter that something had definitely changed.
~ * ~
An hour or so had passed since Evans had left her workspace and Carter was still having trouble concentrating. She told Miller and her team that she was done for the day, and they could all leave; she told them she had a headache. It wasn’t a lie; her headache just happened to be six feet tall, handsome and the CO of the base. She walked back over to her barracks replaying their confrontation in her mind. He was right, she did not follow the rules the way they were intended, and she knew it was because they were too confrontational with one another.
She hated to admit that she was wrong, but she felt like she owed it to him. Her conscience was beginning to eat at her, and she figured she owed him an apology and should, at least, make an effort. She left her barracks and started walking across the camp towards his office. The MP on duty outside of his office informed her that he was at the gun range and would not be back in his office that afternoon. She decided that even though it could go terribly wrong to confront him when he has a gun in his hand, she had to at least try. Gray hoped if she walked slow and took her time, the possibility would be that he would be wrapped up, and she wouldn’t have to actually step foot in the range area; it was evidently not her lucky day.
Evans was the only one on the range at the time; he was dressed in camouflage pants and a tight green t-shirt that did a fantastic job of showing off his defined torso and amazing biceps. She had to be vigilant to keep from drooling over this man; he really was a specimen to behold. His stance was perfect, and he held his weapon with confidence and projected power and strength. She found herself daydreaming and wondering what it would be like to be in his arms and have him hold her with that same power and confidence. She was snapped back to reality when the pops from his gun began again.
Carter counted the shots and waited until the weapon had been fully discharged before she approached him. She reached out to touch his shoulder, knowing the ear protection that he wore would keep him from hearing her say his name. As she touched him, she felt a spark of electricity, she quickly pulled her hand back just as he turned and raised his weapon. Carter was not expecting to look down the barrel of his handgun; she jumped back and instinctively screamed.
“Jesus Gray, don’t you know you aren’t supposed to sneak up on someone on the firing range?” He slowly lowered his weapon and noticed the fear in her eyes. She was actually frozen in place, and he could tell that he had traumatized her. He took a step forward and reached for her hand, he gently squeezed in the hopes that it would shake her back into the moment. “Gray, I am sorry – when you are out here, and the fear of insurgents is all around, you take no chances when someone sneaks up on you. You could have gotten yourself killed.”
“Your gun wasn’t loaded, you had just emptied your clip which is why I decided to approach you. I just didn’t think you would hear me if I said your name.” The words were shaky, and she could not look him in the eye. “I, um…I am going to go…I….yeah sorry.” For once she was speechless and utterly terrified.
In Carter’s military career, she had fired a weapon only a handful of times. Those were all on the firing range for training and testing. She hated guns, despised them really, but they are obviously a necessity in the military. With her being in a non-combat role, she was able to get by without having a gun, and that was perfectly okay with her. She had never had a gun pointed at her head and even though she knew it was empty; well it was still too much to take. She was walking at a fast pace to get away from Captain Evans so he would not see how shaken she truly was.
As Carter took off, Evans put his sidearm in his holster and ran to catch up with her. She was walking very fast, and he had to reach out and grab her arm to stop her from continuing. “Gray, please stop and talk to me a minute.” As she turned, he could see the fear, mixed with what he expected was an embarrassment in her eyes. “How long had you been standing there if you knew I had unloaded my clip?”
“What? Oh, um…a few minutes. I had gone to your office to find you, and they said you were on the range. I saw that you had reloaded as I started walking up and I just didn’t want to startle you when you had a loaded weapon.”
“I am sorry – it was instinct when I turned around – I swear I didn’t mean to scare the hell out of you.” He released the grip on her arm, “Are you okay?”
“Um…yeah…it just rattled me,” Carter could feel the tears in her eyes, and she willed them not to fall. She was sure he could tell the glassy look in her eyes, and she did not want to seem vulnerable, but she was sure that ship had sailed. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to freak you out either; I just wanted to see if we could talk for a minute. It was nothing urgent.” She tried to turn and get out of his grip completely so she could continue to walk away.
He moved so that he was standing directly in front of her, never fully releasing her arm even though his grip was significantly loosened. He stared into her eyes for a moment, and the gravity of it hit him when a single tear rolled down her cheek. “I think the dust and heat have put something in your eye.” He decided to make light of the situation so that the tough-as-nails persona was not compromised by crying. “How about you walk back to the range with me for a minute so I can gather my things and then we can talk? I promise not to draw down again.”
Carter began to smile when she noticed the slight tilt of his head and the crooked smile that appeared on his face. It was a mischievous look, and she could tell he was trying to break the serious tension between them and to lighten the fear that he most certainly saw in her face. She nodded her head and fell into step with him as they walked back to the range.
~ * * * ~
The walk back to the range was quiet and long; she had not realized how far she had gotten before he caught up to her. For someone who tried to maintain a strong facade to the world around her, Carter was not comfortable with how vulnerable she looked at that moment. She had stood up to Evans and challenged him at every opportunity; now he would look at her as a weak woman.
As they entered the range, Evans picked up his ear protection and the box of ammunition that had been left behind. He walked to the end of the range and collected his target and placed it on the table while he went to lock up the ammunition. Carter could not help but notice that the target had a single hole in it; a cluster of shots that would have provided a fatal chest wound.
She felt his presence behind her, “Impressive shooting; obviously, you are a skilled marksman.”
“Thanks, I have had a lot of practice.”
“So, how long have you been in the Marines Evans?”
“Chris, my name is Chris – you don’t have to refer to me as Evans all the time.” He glanced over at her and again flashed that million dollar smile. “I’ve been in the Marines for 12 years, joined right out of college. How about you Gray?”
She paused for a moment before answering; she was trying to find her voice. “Carter, that’s my first name – so you don’t have to call me Gray all the time,” she flashed a smile of her own, but she was sure he could tell it was only on her face and had not made its way to her eyes. “I joined right out of college as well; I am in my last year of inactive reserves…so eight years.”
“Carter? Not the first name I expected; you look more like a Jennifer or a Rebecca.”
“Yeah well the General didn’t think it was possible to have a daughter so only boy names were at the ready. They figured out of their choices, Carter sounded more unisex than the others. Can’t say I like it but it is a hell of a lot better than being named Broderick or Harrison” She tried to quell the bitterness in her voice.
“Oh, sorry I didn’t mean to strike that nerve.” He actually felt guilty for making a crack about her name. “You didn’t want to take the full path into the family business I take it?”
“No, I had no desire to have a career in the military. Honestly, didn’t want to join but there are certain expectations when you are the only child of a respected Brigadier General.”
Chris noticed that the subject of her father was her least favorite. “I can’t imagine how hard it must be to live up to his expectations. I am sure he is proud of the path of your career, though. In all of my calls about your visit, it has been made clear that you are highly respected in your role.”
“Oh, I don’t think so; I believe that it will most likely be a cold day before he will admit that he is proud or respects me or my choices. I told you, I have been a disappointment from day one. A daughter won’t carry forth his name and lineage – all things that are important to him.” She let out a sigh, “Sorry, it is a sore subject. So, being in the service, does it run in your family?”
“No, not at all; my dad is a dentist and mom runs a youth theater, and I grew up to play GI Joe.” He turned to face her, “Guess we both took our own paths to get where we are. So, why don’t we head over to my office and we can have that talk.”
“Look I don’t want to be rude, we are making headway here in speaking to one another. I would really rather not go to your office; I think we need neutral territory. Would you be up for a cup of coffee in the mess tent? I mean if that is not out of line to ask, sir.” Carter put a bit of inflection on the ‘sir’, and Chris noticed. The life was coming back into her eyes and the terror from earlier was beginning to subside.
The two walked together, in perfect step and as close to one another as possible without touching. He noticed that she walked with an air of confidence and with her back straight and shoulders back. Even if she was not active military, she walked as if she was. He figured it was probably ingrained in her from a young age. He imagined she never had to be reminded to sit up straight and not to slouch or slump over. He also found it unnerving that he wondered what she was like as a child; she had an effect on him, and all he could hear in his head was Frank’s voice telling him not to fall in love with her.
Carter got a cup of coffee and parked herself at a table that was secluded from the Marines that were present in the mess tent. She watched as Chris got his own coffee and approached the table. She was beginning to soften to him, and that scared her. She always had a wall around her when she was in the presence of military personnel. She would have successfully evaded him if she had not been so stupid to tap him on the shoulder on the gun range. Now she was vulnerable, and he saw that she can be human and does have feelings.
“Carter, where are you?” He asked as he sat down across from her. She appeared to be a million miles away.
She jumped slightly, “Yeah, sorry, I guess I got caught up in the thoughts in my head.”
“I know this might not be any of my business, and I might be threatening the truce we seem to have at the moment; but I need to ask, why are you so jumpy around guns? I mean it is a tenant of being in the military – is there a story there?”
“The General made me learn how to fire a weapon when I was a child. I never liked the feel of them and never liked the smell after a gun has been fired.” She began staring off into the distance, breaking her eye contact with Chris. “My mom waved a gun at the General when she decided to leave – he tried stopping her and said she would rather kill herself than stay with him and be a mother. So, I just can’t stand to be around them.”
“Wow, ok that is not what I had expected. To be honest, I am not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t that.” Chris kept quiet for a moment; watching the emotions across Carter’s face. He wanted to give her a few minutes before he pushed forward in their conversation. “So, what exactly did you want to talk to me about?”
“I owe you an apology for the stunt with the report. I should have talked to you about it before emailing it out; unfortunately, I let my emotions get the best of me, and it was poor judgment on my part.” She kept her head down and fidgeted with the coffee cup in her hand.
Chris was surprised; he raised his eyebrows and show the shock on his face, “Well that could not have been easy?” She glanced up and gave him a glaring look. “Carter, I think we can both agree that we were trying to stand our ground, and we each could have handled the situation a little more professionally.”
She scoffed at his words; it was an understatement, to say the least. “Yeah well I am not proposing that either of us compromise who we are or what we stand for. I just think we are both guilty of letting our emotions get in the way.”
“That is fair enough. You want to give me the details of your report and the implications?”
“So you didn’t read it yet? Did you find it on your desk?”
“Yes, I found it after I left your office and you told me it was on my desk. No, I haven’t read it, but I heard from Quantico that it was quite insightful.”
Carter winced when he said the words. “I think you need to modify some of your patrols. Your own intelligence reports indicate that there has been an increase in traffic around the camp. I am afraid your camp might be compromised.”
“Well, with due respect Carter; we continually reach out to the nearby village so they are not afraid of us. We are hoping to get them to feed us Intel as well.”
“I get it, I do Chris…but your own information provides red flags. I suggest an increase in your patrols but also in your perimeter barricades. This area of the country has seen an increase in action and I think that what you have has served you well, but it doesn’t hurt to be more vigilant.” Carter watched his face carefully to see if her words were registering. “I want to be wrong; I want to think your camp is as safe as it can be. You have had very few casualties when you do your missions. Unfortunately, the numbers indicate that your luck will run out.”
“Ok, I will read your report and maybe you can go over what you are analyzing. I am open to what you are saying – I am responsible for the lives here so I can’t completely discount what you have to say.”
Carter finished her coffee and stood up from the table, “Come to see me tomorrow when you have a moment – I will go over everything with you, and you can see where I am heading.” She smiled and nodded her head at Chris and then moved towards the tent exit.