Red Flag

Chapter 13

Rachel leaned against the metal railing, staring out at the trail of waves the ship left behind. The sun had already set, and they were headed back south. She'd heard rumblings they were going to attempt to stop in Virginia or South Carolina, looking for easy-to-access Naval bases. Docking wasn't necessarily an option due to safety, but they could send a team in to assess the situation on land in those areas.

It had been a few days since Maine, a few days since her slightly disappointing conversation with the Captain on land. They'd shared coffee together the next morning, but her spirits were down. He'd apologized for kissing her; it was a small slap in the face. Then again, she hadn't meant to kiss him in the ward room that night, and was still consumed with guilt. But that didn't change the fact that she had enjoyed it, more than she could really admit to herself for fear of her feelings taking over. She was beginning to become a professional at keeping them at bay.

She thought back to their conversation while watching the beautiful sun rise over the desolate Maine island.

As she walked up behind him, she admired his Navy issued sweatpants, paired with sneakers, and his large Navy hoodie. He looked like he was headed for the gym. She walked up next to him, snuggled in her big gray sweater, long sleeve shirt underneath, and black cotton leggings. She had changed three times. Since when did she care what she wore?

He smiled down at her with his trademark smile and her heart skipped. Why did he have to be so handsome? He needed to tone it down, she laughed inwardly at her distractedness.

"I'm glad you came, I was starting to get worried," she wondered what he meant by that statement. Worried she wouldn't show? Worried about her?

"I'm sorry I'm late," was her only reply. If she hadn't changed, she would have been on time. She looked out over the horizon and took in the beauty. She could feel his eyes on her and when she chanced a glance, he looked away at the view. She couldn't read the man next to her this morning. Just when she had thought she was beginning to understand him, he turned the tables and she was back in the dark again. A large sigh escaped her lips.

She had enjoyed his company immensely, but when they'd parted ways, she hadn't realized it would be for the next few days. They'd passed here and there on the ship, but for the most part, they were both busy with their own duties.

She had heard from some sailors that his birthday was coming up. They were planning a small party, hoping to be able to bake a small cake. Something to celebrate, and show their captain their appreciation. She thought it was sweet, had asked to be informed of the plans.

She took a deep breath, inhaling the salty scent of the air. She heard footsteps behind her, and was surprised to find Jed stepping up beside her. She was disappointed it wasn't someone else.

"Good evening, Rachel," Jed greeted, handing her a cup of warm liquid. She smelled the chamomile tea and smiled in thanks. "Saw you standing out here and thought I'd bring you something warm. It's chilly out," he paused to take in the view. "Might help you sleep too. You leave something behind in Maine?" His words intrigued her, and somehow she knew she had been caught.

"Not anything I could carry," she replied just as cryptically, not meeting his eyes. He nodded knowingly.

"Tom met Darien when he was headed for Annapolis. He was eighteen, she was sixteen. They began a long distance relationship, that blossomed into a real love when he graduated. She was meant to be a military wife, embraced it. He was gone for months at a time, and she never complained. She worked as a teacher on base." Rachel listened to his words silently. She wasn't sure where he was going. "Ashley was born healthy. Tom lived to be a father, despite his time away. He came home just in time for Sam's birth, five weeks premature. I think the stress of Tom's seven month deployment, while Darien tried to raise a three year old alone had something to do with it. He's strong like his father though, came out all right," he paused to take a sip of his tea. "I see the way he looks at you, anyone would be blind not to. But he doesn't see it. He's only really been with Darien. If there's one thing my son is, it's loyal. To a fault."

Rachel hung off his every word, took it all in. She remained silent, unsure of how to proceed. Jed continued.

"They were together a long time, he's going to be forty-two years old. Give him some time, Rachel. This is all new ground for him," he squeezed her arm and gave her a small encouraging smile before heading back inside. She looked down at the water, then up at the stars. Jed had figured out her feelings for Tom, despite her denial of them to herself. And she took comfort in the fact that Jed seemed to suggest Tom felt something for her. The feelings she had gotten when they kissed, they couldn't have been nothing on his end, or he wouldn't have done it again. Maybe Jed was right, he was just confused. She closed her eyes, rubbed her forehead with her free hand. It was nothing she had to handle tonight, nothing she had to act on immediately. She could take it day by day. It's not as though they were really going anywhere.

"Tommy, if she'd thought you would have taught her, she would have asked," Jed eyed his son, raising an eyebrow as he watched Mike instruct Rachel on how to use the high-powered rifle. Tom stood quietly, observing. He didn't give much indication of his dismay, but then again, to his father, he didn't need to.

"Thanks for the pep talk, Pop, but I'm not fifteen," he snapped, immediately regretting his tone. Jed crossed his arms, standing shoulder to shoulder with his son.

"Could've fooled me," he chided with a chuckle, glancing sideways at Tom, who scowled. Rachel fired the gun, and the recoil sent her backwards into Mike, who was there to make sure she didn't fall. Rachel let out a shaky laugh that Tom could hear from where he was standing above, and Mike gently corrected her movements and encouraged her to try again. The way Mike touched her arm, her shoulder, made his blood pressure rise. He was frustrated by the sight and frustrated by his feelings about her. He'd been trying so hard to not let her get to him, but every time they so much as passed in the p-way, he couldn't stop the rush he felt.

Rachel winced, putting the bag of ice on her sore shoulder. Her adventures on deck had left her a nice bruise on the front of her shoulder, and she wished she'd had more muscle in that area to protect her. She stepped out of the crew lounge and bumped straight into Tom. She huffed at the pain and swore under her breath.

Tom reached to steady Rachel, noticed the way she help the ice pack to her shoulder. He tried to hide his knowing smile. When she looked up at him, he could tell she knew what he was thinking.

"Don't say anything. I don't want Commander Slattery to think I'm a wimp," she replied, a self-deprecating laugh escaping her lips.

She was embarrassed he was seeing her this way, and could feel the heat in her cheeks.

"I have something that will help. Follow me," he stepped ahead of her, and she followed dutifully. She noticed again how well he fit into his BDUs, and it was a comfortable sight. He looked so strong, so much the Captain. She followed him up to his cabin, and he opened the door for her, allowing her in. He shut it behind him. He opened a drawer in his desk and pulled out a roll-on tube of BioFreeze. She practically cried with joy. "This will help ease the pain," he handed it to her, "but go easy, it's all I have left," he teased.

"Thank you. I am so relieved you have some of this. The ice hasn't been helping much," she set down the bag of ice and Tom watched her strip off her sweater. The milliseconds it took made him question what she had on underneath, and he didn't respond for a moment, gathering himself at the sight of her in her tank top. "I'll put it on here, I just need a little bit," she replied, not noticing his gaze or lack of words.

"Here, let me help," the words were out before he could stop them, and he took the roller from her, moving to her shoulder.

She sucked in a breath, surprised by his offer. His large hand rested on the back of her sore shoulder, and the feeling sent chills down her spine. Her skin warmed under his touch, her stomach flip-flopped. This is why she avoided him, she turned to mush in his presence these days, especially under his touch.

He carefully rolled the pain reliever over her bruised shoulder, taking in the feeling of her skin under his finger tips, and the smell of her shampoo. Her hair was still wet from her shower, and he had to rid the thoughts from his mind before he got himself into trouble.

The cooling feeling immediately set it, but for the most part, all she could feel was his hand across the back of her shoulder, where his fingers barely touched her neck.

"Slattery should have started you on a smaller caliber. The gun you were using had too much kick." She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, wondering if he'd seen her practicing. She had asked Mike to show her how to use one in case she needed to know. He'd obliged, and she was grateful. But in retrospect, as she let the Captain roll the pain reliever over her shoulder, maybe he would have been a better choice. She hadn't thought he would have had the time to show her. "Don't worry, your muscles will get stronger and more used to it," he encouraged softly.

He brushed her skin as he removed his hand, running his fingers over the soft skin of her back. He wanted to pull her in, fought the desire to.

She didn't know what to do in that moment, she only knew she didn't want to leave his cabin just yet. "Thank you," she said again, the pain already easing. He capped it, and placed it back in the drawer.

"You know where it is now in case you need it," he grinned at her, his voice quiet, "it's our secret though, don't tell anyone," he practically whispered playfully. She laughed a little and put a finger to her lips.

"Promise," she responded, sliding her sweater back over her head. She pulled her ponytail loose of the collar of the cowl neck, shaking it out. When she looked back at Tom again, he had that same look he'd had the last time they were alone together in here, when she'd given him the vaccine. She felt warm under his gaze, felt that now familiar skip of her heart.

They locked their gaze, and they stood like that for a long moment. She didn't know what to say, couldn't break the spell he had her under, his ocean eyes pulling her in, even if his hands weren't. He took a step forward, and suddenly he was closer than she was ready for. She felt her breath hitch. Her heart raced.

Tom didn't know what he was doing, wasn't thinking consciously about his motions. He reached up, and pushed the few stray hairs she had behind her ear. He searched her eyes, searched her face for any hesitation or encouragement for him to stop what he was about to do. Who was he kidding, he wasn't sorry he had kissed her in Boston. He was only sorry he had kissed her in the heat of the moment, not soft and slow, the way she deserved to be kissed, the way he was dying to kiss her.

His knuckles ran down her cheek and she didn't move, didn't breath, afraid to break the moment. She didn't know where he was going with this, what he was doing, but she couldn't walk away now.

"Rachel," he whispered, licking his lips, "I don't know if I'm-"

The cabin door opened quickly, Ashley storming in angrily, "Dad! Sam took my book and hid it and won't tell me where it is!"

"Dad! Ashley pushed me!" Sam came rushing in after and the two adults were forced apart. Tom pursed his lips and closed his eyes in frustration, yet again their private moment interrupted. Rachel, however, immediately stepped into the parenting role, attempting to diffuse the situation.

When Tom had counted to ten, he opened his eyes to see her reasoning with both children, all three ignoring his standing motionless in the room. Each child stated its case, and Rachel encouraged a truce, as Ashley apologized and Sam went to retrieve the hidden book. He marveled in her handling of his children, her ease and patience.

She welcomed the distraction, finding herself not sure if she was ready for him to kiss her once more only to regret it after. She followed Ashley out of the room, flashing a soft smile, her hands on Ashley's shoulders. "We'll talk later," she mouthed, leaving him alone with his thoughts.

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