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Chapter 26: Flirts and Flirtations

“Echo 4 India, come in.”

“Over,” I said, uncomfortable with my walkie-talkie. I had handled a police radio before when teaching wannabe cops in my Criminal Justice classes, but I had never had a call sign until arriving in Kampong Cham. Waiting to hear mine had been like waiting for my lotto number to be called. Still, it felt strange to have one, especially knowing that everyone could tune into private conversations.

“Big bash tonight at the villa Raena and Sam share. You gals need to be there.” It was Téphanes.

Living away from Phnom Penh, we had fallen out of the nightly UN party scene, so we couldn’t pass up this invitation. Even Brielle was enthusiastic. She headed toward the scoop tub bathhouse that our landlord had built for us. As I put on my Ann Taylor black silk and black patent high heels, assuming that a refined mixer was in store, I had the gnawing feeling that I was joining a hunting party. Did I still need a man to welcome the morning? I hoped not.

I was dressed for a diplomatic cocktail party, but the Unmos wore sarongs and flip-flops. I have no idea why I dressed up, because the minute I walked into the villa I started perspiring and my hair went limp. Russ, a hyper-macho Brit and the chief naval Unmo, was there wearing short-shorts and a green headband. Without a hint of subtlety he made an all-out sales pitch, his hands circling my waist.

“You’re the number one woman in the province, which befits the number one sailor in the province,” he proclaimed, imitating Gaston in Beauty and the Beast.

I made a point at staring at his wedding ring. “And what will your wife think when you called out my name in the heat of passion?”

“What makes you think that I would call out your name?” he countered.

“Because I’m the number one woman in the province,” I said, pulling his hands off my waist and walking away. I felt his bright eyes follow me. His brashness made me nervous, uncomfortable; I felt like a woman sitting alone at a bar, looking at guys without wanting them to return her gaze. I didn’t like Russ. At least I didn’t like how I felt when he was close to me.

His Royal Air Force friend Aiden, however, was a thirty-something Scotsman with the roguish good looks of Errol Flynn. He enthralled his audience with outrageous tales of rowdy adventures. He swaggered; he crowed; he womanized and, as far as I could tell by the awe that he inspired in his friends, he got the military job done. Between beers, the men matched story for story, each making the most of the Untac mission, likely their last hurrah before retirement from active duty. One Unmo, a veteran of the Falkland War, showed off the scars across his back that he had earned escaping from a burning ship, while Aiden was celebrated with several toasts for winning the Distinguished Flying Cross for his part in Operation Black Buck—raids on the Falklands staged from the RAF base on Ascension Island.

The villa opened to the river and the roaring bonfire on the beach. Women, girls really, were dressed in halters and skimpy shorts—not quite as naked as the strippers in Bangkok’s Pitty Pat Street—and everyone was knocking down beers and shots at an alarming pace. If they weren’t attempting a clumsy game of volleyball, over-heated couples hooked up for the evening and wandered off to the far side of the bonfire for privacy.

A knot of men, including Aiden, moved outside to stand around a keg of beer, trading more war stories and abandoning themselves to whatever alcohol and food they could find.

As the bonfire died out and the ocean of booze dwindled, Aiden came and sat down next to me on my blanket. He smelled of beer and aftershave and his eyes had that thousand-yard stare, but he managed a crooked smile and a “Hi ya, Havra.” The first kiss was like a sneak attack, short with a quick retreat. When he kissed me a second time, he held my face and then embraced me. But when his hand began to slip town towards the hem of my dress, I became really uncomfortable because . . . Aiden wouldn’t remember his actions in the morning. When I moved his hand from my knee, he reached up to caress my breast. Gently but firmly, I pushed him away until he sprawled backwards on the blanket.

“I’m going for a beer. You want one?” I asked?

“Nah, I’m knackered. Gotta find my mate, Russ, and a bunk to sleep in.”

I watched him stagger back into the villa. A bad boy, a wrong man. Hell, most men are the wrong men. And Aiden wasn’t going to be my savior. I had forgotten the third rule of chemistry: focus only on the exciting and ignore all the bad. I hadn’t done this since my early twenties, but my job was clear. I needed to evolve. I was a long way from twenty and not accustomed to flying solo.

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