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Chapter 9

The knocking on the door startled her from her deep sleep and she had to question where she was. She blinked her eyes rapidly, begging them to adjust to her surroundings. As the knocking continued incessantly, she rolled off her bed, and made her way to the door, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. Glancing at the clock on small desk, she noticed it was the middle of the night. She flipped on the light and pulled open her stateroom door.

He felt bad waking her, but he was desperate. He hadn't seen her since the night in the ward room over a week ago. Somehow she'd managed to evade him on this enclosed ship. Honestly, now that he was back to full duty, and full single parenting, he hadn't had time to seek her out either. They were planning to drop anchor outside Boston to retrieve some supplies before they went farther north, however; he knew he'd see her eventually. But he wasn't prepared for her to answer the door in a small tank top, braless, in equally small shorts. His eyes scanned her body before he could stop them as she pulled open the door. He chose to focus on her eyes instead.

She hadn't expected to see Tom outside her stateroom, pacing frantically. Her eyes still adjusting, she caught his blue eyes with her darker ones, questioning him. She'd been avoiding him for days, since their kiss in the ward room. She was humiliated and distracted by it, and couldn't bring herself to face him. She'd managed to somehow stay off his radar as they floated in the Atlantic, trying to determine their next move. She figured between his family and his duties, he'd be too focused to find her. But as he paced before her, she learned she was wrong.

"Captain, is everything all right?" she leaned against the frame, using her free hand to push her long hair from her face. He stopped pacing and rubbed his face.

"I can't find her," he spoke through his palms. Rachel raised her eyebrows in questioning.

"Can't find who?" She repeated. The man before her looked exhausted, she decided, and stressed. Worry lines were evident across his forehead, and she worried about him for a moment in exchange.

"Ashley. She's gone," he began pacing again, and she stood straighter, immediately concerned, her earlier unsureness about seeing him again now forgotten.

He couldn't wrap his brain around it. His father had found him on the bridge an hour ago to tell him Ashley had told him she was going for a walk. There'd been no sign of her since, and he had looked practically everywhere on this ship. They were moving toward Boston at a good speed, if she'd somehow slipped and fell…his stomach knotted up at the thought. His heart raced.

"Gone where? It's a large ship, but she must be around here somewhere," her voice was calm, comforting, and he regretted not coming to ask for her help sooner. He should have known she'd put their awkwardness aside for the greater good. "Let me put some clothes on," she turned back toward the door and instinctively he followed, holding the door open, watching her. She had nice legs, he unconsciously decided, from her slim calves up her contoured hamstrings. She was a runner, he knew, but her tights did her no justice. She was petite through the waist, and as she bent over to pull pants out of the bottom drawer of her small dresser, he forced himself to tear his eyes away. He couldn't go there right now, not while his daughter was missing in action. She pulled on a pair of soft, grey sweatpants, socks and sneakers, throwing a thick black sweatshirt over her head. He turned his head back to look at her after a moment, and was appreciative and yet disappointed she was fully covered. He cleared his throat.

"She told my father she was going to take a walk, and I've been unable to find her," she could hear the frantic tone in his raspy voice. As she moved to him, she placed her hand on his shoulder, soothing him.

He felt her touch, reeled from it. He had tried to stop thinking about the kiss, forced himself to wish it away, but every once in a while, it found its way back. Between mourning Darien, and worrying about the kids, it would entwine itself in his thoughts; as if he needed more things to think about.

"We'll find her, Captain, don't worry," she moved past him through the door way onto the p-way. "I'll meet you in the lab in an hour," she gave him a reassuring smile, heading for a few spots she would go if she were looking to escape the constant watch of her father and grandfather.

Tom headed in the other direction, praying one of them found her.

XXXXXXX

Rachel had walked the large deck, checked the lab, the galley, the mess hall, and made her way up the p-way to the crew lounge. Beyond checking staterooms, it was the only place she could think the young girl was.

She pushed open the door, found the room to be dark, except the glow of the TV. Sure enough, to Rachel's relief, Ashley lay under a blanket on the couch, fast asleep. Peering at the TV, she recognized Gilligan's Island, but the sound was so low she could barely hear it. She turned on the lamp next to the couch, touched the little girl's hair, and noticed the tear-streaks down her cheeks. She didn't rustle from her sleep, Rachel suspected sleep didn't come easy to her these days. Getting used to sleeping while at sea was one thing, missing the person who tucked you in every night for your entire life was another. Rachel knew her pain, all too well. It had been several years since the loss of her mother-she'd been ten-but the pain was still very, very real.

She pulled the blanket up higher on the young girl, and kissed her forehead purely out of support, hoping the child could unconsciously take some comfort from the gesture. She knew Tom would be furious when she told him she'd found her, and no doubt Ashley would get a strict reprimand about running around the ship unaccounted for, but for now Rachel just wished the little girl peace. She stepped outside and asked one of the passing sailors to call up to the bridge and inform the captain she was in the crew lounge. He nodded, and she stepped back inside, sitting in the chair adjacent to the couch, watching over her.

Not shortly thereafter, Tom busted through the lounge door, and from his entrance Rachel could tell he was ready to yell. She raised her hand to silence him before he even began, and he stopped, himself realizing Ashley was asleep. Rachel stood slowly and walked to him, motioning for them to step outside. She could now see his red face, and while he paced, she stood still for once, admiring how roles had suddenly reversed.

"When she wakes up, I swear to God…," hands on his hips, he paced in the small area of the p-way, his words hushed but fierce. He had been beyond worried, and now he was beyond upset.

"Maybe she just needed a quiet place away from everyone to grieve and sleep for a while. Think about what she's been through, her mind must be a mess right now," Rachel spoke in comforting, soothing tones, trying to bring the frantic father back down. He stopped, pointing at the door.

"She could have been hurt or worse!"

Rachel tilted her head, gazing at him. She could tell by his demeanor he was not used to being the sole caregiver, she imagined Darien had been the ring leader around their house; he must have been busy advancing his career while she took care of their home. He now wore the sole responsibility of caring for their children. Jed was around, but he'd been making himself useful on board the ship, keeping himself busy. Kara and Alicia helped out watching the kids, but they had important jobs to do. Tom was all on his own here, in more uncharted waters. Rachel sympathized with him.

"First, you need to bring it down a notch. If you yell at her, you're only going to alienate her even more. Second, there are over 200 people on this ship who are very aware she is your daughter, their captain's child. No one is letting her get hurt," she spoke matter-of-factly, keeping her tone even, not wanting to upset him further. She tentatively stepped forward and placed a hand on either shoulder to stop him from pacing. "Third, you need to calm down. You being this upset is not going to do you, her, or Sam any good." She held onto his broad, strong shoulders, kept his eye contact.

He stared down at her, all her statements registering in his mind. He had no words for her. She could feel his muscles relax under her fingers, and she slowly released him. He brought his hands up, rubbing them over his face, a move he seemed to be doing more often. One of complete surrender. He dropped his hands, placed them on his hips, looking at her, studying her.

"Tom, she's fine. Your little girl is safe and sound behind this door, fast asleep. Leave her be. I'll stay here and bring her back to you when she wakes," her offer was followed by a small smirk, "As long as you promise not to lock her in a room like you did with Quincy," at that she watched him drop his head and laugh. It was a tired laugh, but she enjoyed the sound.

"All right, I promise," he raised his head with a small smile, "this time. If she does it again though…" he trailed off, his previous anger returning for a moment. Rachel gave him a reassuring smile.

"Talk to her. She won't do it again, I assure you," Rachel put her hand on the door handle, moving to open it. She felt his large hand on her forearm and stopped, looking at the way his fingers curled around her arm gently. He stepped closer to her, his masculine scent enveloping her. She dared to look up, knowing his ice blue eyes were waiting for her. As soon as her eyes reached his, she could feel that flutter in her stomach, the way her heart beat sped up.

"Thank you for helping me look for her," he spoke, his words heartfelt. As he looked down at her, he was overcome with the need to ask her about the kiss, about why she ran away. But her eyes were so wide, she looked so vulnerable, so unsure, he couldn't get the words out. "Admittedly, I'm struggling with being their only parent right now, I appreciate the fact I was able to come to you. Thank you," his words were soft, his voice raspy and he held her eyes with his own. He struggled with the urge he had to bend down and put him lips on hers, see if the feelings he got the other night were real.

"I'm here anytime, Captain," her voice was soft, she was officially lost in his ocean colored eyes. She leaned against the door, she needed to be held up at this point, his gaze was making her knees weak. Her face felt warm, she suddenly felt hot.

It wasn't lost on him the way she went back to his title, instead of using his name as she had only moment before. "Thank you," he whispered once more, before grazing his lips over her cheek.

It was chaste, and over before she could react. He was gone then, striding away from her before she could respond. She watched him go, her mind a mess of mush and confusion. She was a solid, professional scientist and this man could turn her into a weak disaster with one look. She dropped her head when he disappeared, pushing the door open and making her way to the chair by Ashley. She checked the young child on her way, making sure she was still sleeping soundly, and it didn't appear she'd moved. Rachel settled in, grabbing an extra blanket from the closet, and watched the TV show reruns in silent, her mind consumed with thoughts of the captain, and that their professional relationship had evolved into, and the mess they could potentially make, a mess, she barely admitted to herself, she was willing to make.


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