New York City – May 2012
Ciara Padgett picked up her watch, which she had set on the side of the tub, and sighed. The water shifted, mixing the cool layer on top with the warmer water underneath. It was time to get out, no matter how much she was enjoying just lying in the suds. She used her big toe to dislodge the plug, and felt her body get heavier as the water left the bath.
As the last of the water was draining, she stood and reached for the hotel towel. Getting ready for a night out on the town in New York City was going to take a while and she needed to get started. She was on a tight schedule and had to get going.
She had been in the city for four days, and she’d just about had enough. She couldn’t speak for the city itself, but she felt like she hadn’t slept since she had arrived. She was just one of more than six thousand military members who were visiting the city during Fleet Week, and she was being run ragged by the schedule she had to keep.
While most of the sailors, Marines and coast guardsmen were out enjoying their time off, she’d had no time for sightseeing. Those who work in the public affairs community, like she did, spent massive events like this working long hours and waiting impatiently for it all to end.
She had no complaints, though. Truth be told, she felt she had the best job in the Navy. She’d been saying so since she arrived at her first duty station, a base public affairs office in Key West, Florida, as a seaman in 1992. Now, as a senior chief petty officer twenty years later, Ciara wouldn’t trade the hectic pace, meeting the deadlines of pushy reporters, wheedling uncooperative superiors into actually giving the interviews the pushy reporters needed, and the handful of bobby pins poking her skull, for anything.
She glanced at the clock radio on the nightstand and gauged how much time she had to get ready. She was headed to a black tie event at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, which meant taking extra time to make sure her uniform was immaculate. She didn’t wear her formal dinner dress uniform often, even though it was one of her favorite uniforms to wear, so she wanted to make sure she didn’t rush through it.
When her body was dry, she wrapped her hair in a towel and went to check, for the third time, that her uniform had each of its components and that they were properly placed. Dress blue bolero jacket with miniature medals and warfare devices placed just so? Check. Gold cummerbund? Check. White shirt with gold cuff links? Check. Black necktie? Check. Dress blue floor-length skirt and patent leather black pumps? Check and check.
Confident that her uniform was good to go, she started her routine of getting ready. She pulled the towel off her head and draped it over the shower curtain rod. She took a moment to look over the blank canvas of her face in the mirror.
Both of her parents had come from a long line of Scots-Irish ancestors, and she had inherited their easy-to-burn pale skin and freckles. Her favorite feature was her eyes. Sometimes they were blue and sometimes they were gray. Tonight, after she applied her makeup, they would take on a shade of blue that reminded her of her favorite pair of jeans.
Her hair, on the other hand, was a color she could never quite identify, but she was too stubborn to change with hair dye. Her mother had called it “dirty blonde,” and her grandmother called it “dishwater blonde.” Her Alabama driver’s license said “brown.” Sure it was.
Tonight, she pinned her hair into a tight bun at the nape of her neck, somewhat masquerading its awkward shade. She then applied a substantial amount of makeup, unusual for what she would wear on a day-to-day basis, and carefully put on her uniform, ensuring none of the makeup transferred to the material in the process.
Once she was dressed, she glanced in the full-length mirror, taking in her completed look. With her two-inch pumps on, she was all of six feet tall. She’d been told she was intimidating in uniform, and she always took that as a compliment. After all, who would want someone in the armed forces to come across as fragile or meek? But in this uniform she felt elegant as well. It was a striking combination, if she did say so herself.
Ciara ran her hands over the bun in her hair checking for stray bobby pins and strands of hair that had gone rogue. Satisfied neither were going to come flying out unexpectedly, she moved on to the next item on her list. She put her personal and work cellphones into the side pockets of her already-full leather messenger bag and headed for the lobby. She was only there a few moments when the elevator door opened again and the two Naval officers she was waiting for stepped out.
One was the admiral from her command, Naval Air Forces, Atlantic, and the other was his personal assistant, who was also a lieutenant. The three of them would be riding to the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum together for the event being held in honor of various wounded warrior programs, and the members for whom they were created.
Several media outlets had been invited to cover the event, and that was where the admiral would need her by his side.
In her career, she’d had people get confused when she told them what she did for a living. She started by simply telling people she was in the Navy. Interestingly, she could tell they automatically assumed she was somehow involved with driving a ship. So she changed it to telling people that she was in public affairs; but that didn’t always help clear things up either. Every so often she would switch it up and say she was in public or media relations, so that people might be able to understand that she got to work with the civilian media. Lately, this was more to the point anyway.
Tonight, for example, her job was to stand beside her admiral while he fielded questions from local and national media. She was there to do three primary things: record the interview to ensure he wasn’t misquoted later; take down any questions he wasn’t able to answer immediately so that she could run down the responses to get to them later; and to provide them with any background information about the aircraft or ships that the admiral was responsible for. Inside her messenger bag she kept business cards, as well as several different photographs and fact sheets for the reporters, just for this purpose. She was nothing if not organized.
The ride to the maritime museum took about fifteen minutes from their hotel. Lieutenant Dylan Wolf, the admiral’s assistant, was behind the wheel and Ciara sat in the back seat. This was the last opportunity for her to go over any talking points or concerns that Rear Admiral Clark O’Donnell had. She had worked with the admiral for nearly a year and was confident with his abilities in front of the camera, more so than some of her previous bosses. Barring any unforeseen disasters, Ciara expected the evening to be pretty routine, much like the previous days.
Once they arrived, the questions the admiral received from the reporters inside the Intrepid were rather banal and there was nothing controversial she needed to worry about. The admiral had done a great job as usual. He enjoyed talking to the media. He liked talking about the men and women who served aboard the aircraft carriers, and about how hard they worked. These interviews weren’t always this easy, and there were still reporters out there who were looking to make their mark by getting anyone of any authority in the Department of Defense to say something provocative.
That was the other part of her job – getting reporters back on track when they had gotten off the scheduled subject. Tonight, though, everyone wanted to talk about the veterans and the programs designed to help them when they returned from the world’s battlefields.
Once the admiral was done speaking with each of the affiliates wanting an interview, it was time for the evening’s festivities to really begin. There was the keynote address, speeches from high-ranking members from each of the military branches, recognition for some of the returning veterans, and some live entertainment while the guests mingled. The admiral had given her the rest of the evening to enjoy the party, so she headed off toward the appetizer bar to grab some food.
Rather than mingle, something she had never been good at, she stood to the side and took in the party’s attendees. It was a who’s who of military brass, politicians, and even celebrities. Ciara recognized the city’s mayor from an event she and the admiral attended two days prior, five senators representing at least three different states, and several television and movie actors, and all of them were mingling with the invited military members.
She didn’t realize she had completely zoned out, staring at the light shining off the glass water goblets on the table, until she heard the soft “ahem” coming from beside her. She looked up and saw a face that, until that moment, she had only seen on movie, television and computer screens. And, of course, the advertising posters outside theaters. She was embarrassed to admit that there was that few weeks when he was the screensaver on her phone. It was also a face that launched many an off-color conversation among her friends, which usually ended in someone blushing or making a comment that couldn’t, or at least shouldn’t, be repeated in mixed company. He was just ridiculously good looking.
He also had a habit of playing roles that just made women fall in love with him. Of course these roles were never the hero. He seemed to prefer to play the character that said “Yes, I’m a bad guy, but you see the good in my soul and only you can save me.” Few could resist that.
He looked at her with a small smile on his lips. He had piercing blue eyes, and dark brown hair, nearly black really, that made his eyes seem like pools of lapis lazuli. He was also about six-foot-three, which made her tilt her head slightly to look at him in those beautiful blues.
“A penny for your thoughts,” he said in his refined British accent.
“Do people still say that?” she asked with a laugh.
“My mum does,” he said, with an amusing tone in his voice.
“In that case, I’ll let it slide. I’m Senior Chief Padgett, uh, Ciara,” she said and held out her hand.
“Ciara? That’s quite a unique name,” he said, and shook her offered hand.
“It’s Irish and it’s supposed to mean ‘dark,’” she said with a shrug. “I’m guessing that they chose the name before they realized that I was going to have blonde hair, blue eyes and be as pale as a ghost.”
“A little short-sighted, I believe. But it’s beautiful. I’m Lionel Prescott, by the way.”
“Yes, Mister Prescott, everyone here knows who you are. Unless, of course, they’ve spent the last few years in a war zone. Which I guess is technically possible with this crowd,” she said with a smile and a wiggle of her eyebrows.
“Oh, you’re a funny lady.”
“I thought so.”
He looked at her for a moment, smiled and said, “I hate to be the one to point this out to you, but there are, like, three other women wearing the same thing as you. How embarrassing.”
“You’d think so,” she said with a nod and a serious look on her face. “But I think we’re pulling it off. I hear patriotism is really in this year. Besides, I do my best to hypnotize those who notice with my medals.” She indicated the three rows of gold miniature medals that adorned the left side of her blue-black uniform jacket. “See, shiny.” She gave him her biggest smile.
His face went from a smirk to a big smile and then he laughed for a moment. Once he grew quiet she was at a loss, not knowing what to say to him next. Fortunately, he was the one who broke the awkward silence.
“So, where were you when you obviously weren’t actually here?” he asked as he sipped the drink in his hand.
“Truthfully,” she said, “I was wondering if there is a quiet corner around here where I can just sit and read until my boss is ready to go. He’s told me to go and enjoy the evening, but this isn’t exactly my idea of a good time.” He gave her a mock disbelieving look, so she pointed to the messenger bag on her shoulder and added, “I have a Nook in my bag and I would love to find a place to hide and wait it out.”
“Okay, fair enough. If you really must hide, I think there is a space right back there,” he said as he pointed to the back of the exhibition floor with a flick of his wrist. “I was scoping it out earlier myself. Just in case.”
She picked up a glass of water off the table. “Thank you for your support, Mister Prescott. Not just for coming here tonight, but for helping me to hide. It was very nice meeting you.”
“It was nice meeting you as well, Ciara,” he said as he shook her hand one more time.
She turned and walked away, glancing over her shoulder one last time to get a look at him. To her amazement, he was actually watching her leave. She couldn’t believe that she got to talk to Lionel Prescott. This was definitely something she was going to tell her sister about when she got a chance to call home.