Early as I was, there were already four U.S. Army officers, two males and two females, poised in varying positions of tension about the elegant cherrywood table in the small corner conference room. When I paused in the doorway, resplendant in my best tailored walking-out greens, all four of them jumped erect; when they caught a glimpse of my lieutenant’s bars, they sat right back down and resumed their previous positions as if I weren’t even there.
The female captain near the top of the table slumped onto the polished surface until her nose almost touched its reflection. “Just how many people did this guy hire?” Her voice was an honest alto, deep and mellow, and despite her obvious tension sounded basically good-natured.
I’d caught only the briefest glimpse of her face, narrow and surrounded by tight blond curls, but the image that lodged in my mind was one of delicate beauty. I felt better already — the lovely, lovely AC was helping — and therefore didn’t hesitate, but selected the chair between her and the angular brunette second lieutenant, who gave me a tight little grin as I settled in.
“Hi,” she said, and extended a hand. “Kelly Bonham.”
Her grip was firm and uncallused, her nails unpainted, and her only makeup a touch of pinky-brown lipstick. Her thin face was dominated by lively blue eyes and a high forehead; perhaps a year my junior? She wore the straight skirt with her walking-out greens, but even that couldn’t turn her muscles into curves. While the overall impression was not the china-doll delicacy of the blond captain, I had to admit she wasn’t indulging in dramatics, either.
“Charles Ellandun,” I said. “How d’you do?”
The reaction to my voice was fairly typical: although my crisp clean accent had broadened since I’d crossed the Atlantic at the age of eleven, my home port, so to speak, was still evident in the overtones.
“A Brit in a colonial uniform?” This was from the beefy first lieutenant lounging, arms crossed, against the cherrywood paneling between the two green velvet draped windows. He appeared so much the stereotypical beach bum, from his tow hair to his cream-in-tea tan to his broad shoulders, that I was certain he’d never seen the ocean — any ocean — in his life. His uniform, tight across the chest and upper arms, loose in the legs, could have come off a sawhorse rather than a clothes horse. “Aren’t you a little far from home?”
I paused at the sneer in his tone and tried to keep my own as neutral as possible. “Home’s Boston.”
The captain, whose name plate read EVANS, glanced from one to the other of us, her clear blue eyes slightly narrowed when they returned to my face.
The pseudo-surfer scoffed. “Political posturing.”
“Pardon moi,” said the West Point grad. His average brown eyes glanced up at me for one second of tense and impudent eye contact; then he returned to drumming his fingers and watching his ring. “Believe it or not, we seem to have a reactionary amongst us.”
Kelly Bonham giggled, a sound laden with nerves. I wasn’t the only one, it seemed, uncertain of my position and curious as to the circumstances.
Mister would-be California pushed off the wall and took two swaggering steps toward the table, then froze. “Attention!”
Smooth sailing. Oh, yeah. Training together should be a breeze.
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