Lieutenant Commander Chip Morton arrived at his office at the Nelson Institute of Marine Research earlier than usual that Monday morning. Composing his post-cruise report would most likely take the bulk of his day. He needed to make some sort of sense out of their just-ended cruise, one which had started out as a relatively simple mission to recover Captain Gantt’s high-explosive fuel from the crashed test sub and ended with first the Flying Sub, then Seaview being attacked by a giant marine spider, with several of the crew – including Admiral Nelson – being seriously injured in the process. Making this one sound even remotely plausible would take a lot of careful thought.
The halls of the Administration Building were deserted at this early hour, which suited Chip just fine. He wasn’t in the mood this morning to pass the time of day in polite conversation with any of the secretarial pool or other admin personnel. He had too much on his mind at the moment for idle chit-chat.
Entering the reception area of his office in the Command Suite, he found it empty, heaving a sigh of relief that his secretary, Marion Cooper, never showed up until the dot of nine. Dealing with the Dragon Lady was the last thing he wanted to do this morning.
Chip stowed his cover and uniform jacket in his closet, settled in at his desk, and reached for the phone. His first order of business was to place a call to the Infirmary for an update on the Admiral’s condition. Doctor Baines, the medical officer on duty, told him that Nelson’s concussion wasn’t as serious as feared, and that the Admiral was making excellent progress. He would be released to continue recuperating at home within a day or so, and would be allowed to return to duty the following week – if he followed instructions.
Buoyed by that morsel of good news, Chip got down to business. He pulled a fresh yellow legal pad and a mechanical pencil from the stationery supplies he kept in the walnut credenza that sat against the wall behind his desk. Relying on his own stock of stationery was much easier than asking his dragon of a secretary for any supplies. She always managed to make him feel like a misbehaving schoolboy whenever he did.
While his enthusiasm for computers knew no bounds, Chip always thought better with a pencil in his hand. He preferred to initially write his reports in longhand, then transfer them to the computer after he’d organized his thoughts on paper. It might have been archaic, but it was a process that worked well for him. He attributed it to the amount of time he spent hunched over Seaview’s plot table, plotting her course the old-fashioned way, with a pencil and slide rule. That had become rote yet comforting over the years, making pencils into old friends.
He had finished drafting the report’s outline and had moved on to composing the first section when there was a soft rapping at the doorframe. Chip looked up to see Commander Lee Crane standing in the doorway, holding out a cardboard tray with two large covered takeout cups of coffee in his right hand, and a square white box tied with bakery string dangling from the fingertips of his left. "Good morning," Crane said with a smile. "I come bearing caffeine and pastry."
Chip’s mouth started to water at the sight of the NIMR Commissary’s logo on the two tall cardboard cups. For whatever reason, the commissary, out of all of the Institute’s various dining venues, brewed the best coffee. No one, not even Cookie, could wrest the secret of the delicious brew from Carla VanDyke, who guarded it as jealously as any fictional dragon guarded its treasure hoard. She’d been working as a pastry chef at Villa D’Amici in Santa Barbara when Admiral Nelson stole her away – at a considerable bump in salary. She now ran the NIMR Commissary – as efficiently as Chip ran Seaview, if truth be told – and also supervised the creation of all of the bread, rolls, and desserts used in the dining room and snack bar, as well.
Chip gestured to Lee to come in, pointing the eraser end of his pencil at the visitor’s chair in front of his desk. Lee handed Chip his coffee, then dragged the chair around to the side of Chip’s desk before folding himself into it.
Chip removed the lid from the coffee, lifting the cup and closing his eyes in pleasure as he inhaled the rich aroma. He took a sip, then sent a beatific smile in Lee’s direction. "Thank you. I needed this more than you know."
Lee grinned. "I thought you would. I stopped in at the Infirmary first. The Admiral is doing well—much better than expected, in fact. I brought these to celebrate."
"I know," Chip said. "I called Baines as soon as I got in. His news made the day a little brighter."
"When did you get in?" Lee asked, opening the box to reveal half a dozen miniature Italian pastries before taking a sip of his own hot brew.
Chip pulled the cuff of his shirt back to check his watch. "About an hour ago," he said, smoothing the cuff back over the watch crystal. "It seems like I’ve been here a lot longer," he mused.
"Post-cruise reports tend to have that effect on normal people," Lee said dryly. "I wasn’t aware it extended to you, however."
Chip peered into the box, then took a sfogilatelle and bit into the small clam-shaped pastry. His taste buds came alive as the sweet ricotta filling spiked with candied citron landed on his tongue. He savored it for a moment before swallowing. "This one is rather problematic," he said, ignoring Lee’s jibe.
Lee chose a small cannoli. "I have the utmost faith in you, XO. You’ll make the events of this cruise sound plausible – just like you do the rest of the insanity we get into around here."
Chip inclined his head regally to acknowledge the compliment. "And Gantt?" he asked dryly.
Lee shrugged. "That’s for people far above our paygrade to decide."
"That suits me just fine." Done with his first pastry, Chip looked into the box, scanned the remaining pastries, and decided on a pastacciotti.
"Hey, I wanted that one," Lee protested.
"You snooze, you lose, Skipper," Chip said, and popped the small, custard-filled morsel into his mouth whole. "You should have bought more than one."
Lee shook his head in false sorrow. "That’s what I get for being a nice guy and treating you to some of Carla’s masterpieces. So…how was your weekend?"
"Very quiet," Chip said firmly, looking back to his yellow legal pad.
"And… how’s Lynn?"
"Doctor Murtagh is fine too, I would assume," Chip said in what he hoped was an offhand manner. "I wouldn’t know."
"Kids got in the way, did they?" Lee asked with a grin.
Hoping Lee didn’t see the slight flush rising in his cheeks, Chip shook his head and reached for the folder containing the duty rosters from the cruise. "No, they didn’t," he lied. "They’re nice kids. Cute, too."
"Cute…." Lee echoed. "Yeah, you like kids. And that little one – what was her name?"
"Bridey," Chip supplied shortly.
"Yeah, Bridey. Remind you of anyone?" Without waiting for an answer, he went on, "She reminds me an awful lot of Lynn – don’t you think so?"
Chip looked up and fixed him with a flat stare. "Your point, Lee?" he asked calmly, trying not to let on that Lee was starting to get to him. His friend was as relentless as a Jack Russell after a squirrel.
"Just making conversation," Lee said casually. "Did you get those twelve hours of sleep you were looking for?"
Chip looked back at his pad and made a notation. "Eventually."
"Eventually?" Lee repeated, his eyes lighting up at Chip’s statement. " Should I ask if you were alone?" he prodded.
Chip sent a withering glare in Lee’s direction, one that, whenever he employed it on them, had civilian contractors, enlisted men and senior non-coms as well as Seaview’s junior officers and department heads quaking where they stood. Unfortunately, it just bounced off his best friend and CO, who simply sat there with an annoying smile on his face.
Chip let out a frustrated breath. "Yes, Lee. I was alone."
"Struck out, did you?" Lee asked casually.
But Chip knew there was nothing casual about the intent behind the question. "I didn’t even get into the lineup," he said with a carefully bland expression.
"Ouch." Lee winced theatrically. "That bad, huh?"
"No. We had a nice time talking. That’s it. That’s what friends do. They make conversation. And to be honest, I prefer it to the third degree you’re giving me at the moment."
Lee ignored Chip’s final comment. "Yes – you two do tend to talk a lot whenever you’re together. You’re positively garrulous when Lynn is around. That’s not like you. Any other woman? You’d have taken her out on the town and been through her front door by now. I don’t know what you’re waiting for. Lynn obviously likes you – a lot. So what’s the problem?"
Chip shook his head in exasperation. "We’re friends, Lee – no more than that."
"Chip, you don’t have female friends," Lee pointed out. "Not unmarried female friends, at any rate."
"Captain Crane, you have a one-track mind," Chip said flatly.
Lee smiled in acknowledgement. "So do you, normally – but it seems to have been derailed this time."
Chip gave an impatient sigh. "I told you. We sat and talked. That’s all."
"That’s all?" Lee asked with an exaggerated wince.
"Sorry to disappoint," Chip said in an arid tone. "Now, if you don’t mind, I have work to do."
Lee craned his head to look at the legal pad in front of Chip. "Ah, yes, your post-cruise report. Nice outline you have there. It’s a very important document – but it’s not essential that you finish it right at this minute. It’ll keep while we chat."
"It’s more important than listening to you nag me about Doctor Murtagh again," Chip pointed out.
"You wound me, XO," Lee said lightly.
Chip glared at him. "You deserve it, Skipper."
"I’ve never seen you take so long to close a deal," Lee said, sounding perplexed.
"With all due respect, Captain – zip it."
"I’m just trying to open your eyes to what’s right in front of you," Lee said, his voice dripping innocence.
My eyes are already wide open, Chip thought to himself, but he kept his silence on the matter. "It’s not working."
"Do you think that will stop me?" Lee challenged him with a grin.
"What I think is that you’re seeing something that isn’t there," Chip said. "You’ve always had a very overactive imagination."
"Don’t change the subject. And I didn’t imagine the look on your face on Saturday – not when you saw Lynn in those shorts. Or the way you warned me off her immediately afterward," Lee said with a triumphant grin. "Very telling, that."
"Are you through?" Chip asked, his blue eyes staring a hole right through Lee.
Lee looked at him for a long moment, then smiled pleasantly. "For now. But I reserve the right to continue this at a later date."
Chip rolled his eyes. "Of course you do. Do me a favor and close the door on your way out," he said. "Some of us have actual work to do today."
"I’ll leave the rest of the pastry – you’ll need the sustenance for your report," Lee said with a knowing grin. Then he stood, replaced the chair where he had found it, and sauntered out of Chip’s office, raising his takeout cup in a final salute.
As Lee pulled the door shut behind him, Chip blew out a breath he hadn’t even realized he’d been holding. The post-cruise report forgotten, he tossed his pencil to the desk blotter, then swiveled his chair to look out the window toward the Pacific, his forehead creased into a frown.
Lee’s teasing about Lynn Murtagh had been relentless lately – he’d been worse than a dog with a nice, meaty bone. And the worrisome thing was that he was right. Chip had thought he’d been hiding his thoughts and feelings better than that, but if anyone could get past his mask, it was Lee.
Chip was legendary for his inscrutability, his ability to hide what he was thinking under a variety of conditions. He had learned to conceal his thoughts and emotions during Plebe Summer at Annapolis nearly twenty years earlier, and had honed the talent to an art in the intervening years. It had stood him in good stead in his career, both in the Navy and at the Nelson Institute.
It had also proved invaluable in his relationships with women – after losing two steady girlfriends a number of years earlier due to the demands of his career, he’d stopped involving his deeper emotions in any relationship, preferring to keep things light and uninvolved, as superficial as possible. As demanding as it was, his career had to come first, and he’d decided to seek out women who felt the same way about their own careers. They wanted no more than a good time, and he was happy to give it to them, no strings attached, with no hard feelings when the relationship ended. Up until this point, this procedure had proven successful.
And then Doctor Lynn Murtagh, PhD, had shown up – an all-grown-up tomboy who had stepped into his life and turned it upside down – and made him re-evaluate his prior choices. He’d never known a woman who was so easy to talk to, who listened to him like she really cared what he had to say, or one who didn’t seem to have a single ulterior motive. It was unusual, it was refreshing – and it was just plain nice.
Despite himself, despite all his carefully-erected barriers, he was starting to think he might have found a woman whom he wanted to get to know on a deeper level. With her warmth, her easy smile, her sparkling eyes, and her open-handed friendship, she had, all unknowing and completely unintentionally, demolished the walls he’d erected around his heart. She’d nearly died in front of him – twice – and that sort of thing had a way of establishing an emotional connection whether you wanted it to or not.
All weekend, he’d thought about their surprise encounter at NIMR on Saturday afternoon. It had been a pleasant couple of hours, just sitting and talking at the dolphin pool, relaxing and enjoying each other’s company while her two young nieces played with her dolphin charges. When he finally got home, he’d found it a lot easier to unwind after the mission than he usually did.
And afterward, Chip found he couldn’t get her out of his mind – and the surprising thing was he didn’t want to. They’d made a connection, and Chip was starting to think he’d like to expand upon it. And that was what was so surprising. The nascent emotional connection they were developing was the kind of thing that would normally cause him to head in the opposite direction at flank speed. So why was he even thinking about navigating toward her, instead?
At any rate, it was out of the question. She hadn’t given him any real sign she was interested in anything beyond friendship. She didn’t broadcast any of the subtle – or not-so-subtle – signals women tended to use when they were interested in a relationship.
Except… on Saturday at the dolphin pool, she had seemed receptive to the idea of a kiss. He hadn’t imagined the way she’d responded to his intent, leaning toward him, her eyes on his lips, or the cute little way the tip of her tongue had darted out to moisten her own, just before her niece had interrupted them.
And he hadn’t imagined the frustration on her face, or the apologetic way she’d looked at him then, or how she’d held on to his forearms just a moment longer than he’d held on to hers.
It was probably for the best that little Bridey had interrupted them at that point. Kissing Lynn at the dolphin pool, with her young nieces present – that would have been beyond stupid. But if the girls hadn’t been there….
He kept telling himself he was wrong for her. Lynn was the kind of woman who deserved someone who could be there for her whenever she needed him, someone who could offer her forever. And, with his uncertain lifestyle, forever had always been the very last thing on Chip’s mind where any woman was concerned.
But Lynn had gotten to him with her openness and sweetness. Those smiling green eyes of hers looked as if they could see right inside him, breaching all the protective walls he’d erected so long ago. And that was foreign to him. The kind of woman he usually dated was more outwardly sophisticated – even slightly calculating, if he was being brutally honest. Granted, that was the type of woman he’d had a habit of seeking out, for precisely those traits and tendencies – but Lynn Murtagh was their diametric opposite.
He looked into the distance, toward the Marine Mammal Building, as if thinking about her could magically conjure her into being. Then he shook his head and mentally berated himself for his folly. Wishing wouldn’t make it so, or create a living, breathing woman out of thin air.
With one last look toward the Marine Mammal Building, he turned back to his desk, picked up his pencil, and settled back in to work.