Red Flag

Chapter 14

Rachel could feel the boat come to a stop, the engine going still. She smiled to herself, finished up her work in the lab. They were anchoring right outside Charleston Harbor, off the coast of South Carolina, to get supplies from the area. They chose Charleston due to the lack of distress calls, hoping for an easy get in-get out situation. They were still trying to decide whether docking in Norfolk was a good idea, despite having the vaccine and their diligent work to mass produce it; they were still in dangerous territory. They had learned their lesson in Baltimore, and were taking any on-shore excursions very seriously.

Rachel was happy that today was one of those days however-the Captain would be going with them. And that pleased her because she and the children had a plan. Most of the crew was also in on their plan. Tom, however, had no idea.

As soon as the captain disembarked, she'd be heading to the galley with Sam and Ashley to make a cake for Tom. It was his birthday, and the kids had asked if they could make him a cake, which turned into an impromptu planning of a surprise party. As long as no one was injured on their mission, the party would go off as soon as they were back on board with their supplies. She was thrilled they had asked for her help.

The door to the lab opened causing her to jump from her thoughts. Tom stepped through the threshold, his decontamination suit tied around his waist, his broad upper body filling out his tee-shirt in a way she didn't think anyone else could. She grinned upon seeing him.

"Happy birthday, Captain," she greeted him, the first time she'd seen him this morning. She'd been up before sunrise, preparing vaccine injections for the sailors to take ashore with them. His eyes showed her his entertainment at her words.

"Don't remind me," he chuckled, "Forty-two sounds old. Let's pretend I'm thirty-nine," he kidded, crossing his arms easily, leaning against the side of the helicopter bay where she typed away on her computer. He admired how she was always casually and comfortably dressed, today no exception, her hair pulled up into a ponytail, her face practically void of any makeup. He admired her beauty for a quiet moment. She captivated him and his thoughts.

She stopped typing, looking up at his handsome face, resting her hands under her chin.

"I think the gray compliments your features," she spoke sincerely, with a playful smile. She meant every word, his gray hair suited him. She couldn't imagine him any younger; his full jawline and distinguished appearance was handsome.

His laugh was a full one, and she could feel her smile spread farther across her face. "I've been graying for years, I think the last six months definitely didn't slow the process," his laughter turned into a sigh, before he suddenly grew serious. Her smile dropped a bit, unsure of his sudden change in demeanor.

Tom felt torn between staying aboard with his kids, and leading the crew ashore. He had been riding the fence for two days, but now, as they dropped anchor, he knew he needed to leave Slattery aboard this time and head to land himself. It was only fair.

But the kids…the thought made him sick. What if something happened to him? And what about her? He'd been talking to his father, unwillingly, about her after the night in Maine. Jed knew something was up and had no problem voicing his thoughts to Tom. Tom, on the other hand, generally kept quiet when Jed shared his thoughts. He wasn't sure if he was ready to tell her anything yet. But the more he looked at her, as she smiled up at him, he found himself drawn into her, wishing he had more time.

"I appreciate you not fighting me when I asked you not to go ashore this time," his words were heartfelt, and he meant every one, "Your staying with the kids means a lot. My father needs a break, and I feel comfortable with them under your supervision," He couldn't find the right words, couldn't bring himself to say more.

His face was so serious, and suddenly it dawned on Rachel why. "Save your goodbyes, Tom. You'll be back aboard ship for dinner," she pushed away from the desk and stood up, avoiding the conversation. She couldn't bare to think he wouldn't return with the crew. She moved to the small case, flipping the lid open to pack the supplies they might need.

Tom watched her avoid the conversation, avoid his eye contact. He took a deep breath, pushing the thoughts from his mind. If she wasn't willing to talk about it, then he wouldn't push it. He trusted his instincts, trusted his training. He knew they would most likely return unscathed, but the prospect of danger worried him.

"Very well," he replied with a sigh, accepting that she wouldn't talk more. He walked around her desk to stand beside her.

She could feel the heat that radiated from him, felt her hairs stand on end. Her entire being turned into a ball of nerve endings. Being so close to him had that effect on her lately.

"Hey," he touched her elbow gently, and she looked up at him, turning a little toward him. She cocked her head to the side, taking in his expressive features. His eyes were soft as he gazed down at her, "Can we talk..later? When I get back?" his eyes were questioning her, and she felt worry rise in her chest.

"Of course," she replied quickly, forgetting about their celebration. "Is everything all right?"

"Yeah..yes, everything is fine," he was also quick to respond, to squash any worry she had. "I just…want to catch up with you," he again couldn't find the right words, but by the ease in her eyes, she seemed to accept his statement.

"Of course," she smiled warmly, a small bubble of butterflies building in her stomach. "You know where to find me," she held his gaze, his eyes a magnet for her.

He searched her face, couldn't pull his eyes away. Her beauty had him transfixed. It seemed she was able to distract him from everything these days, with just one look.

"Good. I'll see you later then," he stood awkwardly for a moment, and she wasn't sure if he was going to hug her or something else, before he stepped off with a smile, heading back through the hatch and out to catch the boats.

She watched him go and prayed he would safely return. The days that passed brought them closer together, professionally and otherwise. He occupied so much of her thoughts, she could sometimes barely sleep. If something happened to him...the devastation would be irreparable. It surprised her to realize that.

She chose not to think about what ifs, focused on the day ahead, and what their conversation would entail later that night.

"And that, my dears, is how you make a scone," she pulled the warm pastries from the oven to the sounds of joy from the kids. They'd been baking all afternoon. She had been surprised by the amount of baked goods the DDG actually had, and they had ended up making an assortment of treats. Rachel had been worried about the powdered eggs and powdered milk at first, but after their first attempt at a cake had turned out well, they had proceeded to make brownies and scones, along with two other cakes. There wasn't enough for everyone on board, but there would be plenty of food, she knew.

The kids were having a blast; this their first normal experience aboard the ship. They talked of baking with their mother, which Rachel found sweet. Even Ava had joined in on the fun; she and Ashley were becoming quite good friends. Rachel had let each child mix their own ingredients, teaching them about measuring and the care that went into each dessert.

She thoroughly enjoyed the kids, was beginning to get attached. She could feel it in her soul. She'd been spending more and more time with them over the days, getting to them individually. Ashley was interested in the lab, and how things worked, while Sam just needed motherly company. They both missed their mother more than they would say out loud to her, but when they would lean on her shoulder while they watched a movie, or ask her for help with something, she knew they wished she was someone else. But she understood their loss, and knew it was nothing personal. At least she could be there along the way to offer what comfort she could.

Ashley tasted a little of the butter cream frosting, and wide grin spreading across her face. "Daddy is going to love this," she exclaimed, proud of her achievement.

"Rachel, do you really think he's going to be surprised?" Sam asked, glancing up from his work frosting one of the cakes. Rachel smiled at him sweetly.

"Oh yes, Sam. I don't think he has any idea this is coming," Rachel replied excitedly, leaning her elbows on the counter, watching the kids.

"Thank you for helping us, Rachel," Ashley spoke sincerely, her brown eyes wide and innocent. Rachel's heart swelled at the words.

"It is my pleasure."

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