What if, instead of obeying President Davis and keeping his Army of Virginia poised to counterthrust against elements of the Union Army threatening the Shenandoah, Lee had instead rallied to the first battle of Bull Run, and having defeated those Northern invaders decisively, pursued them to capture Washington, a fair number of congressmen, and Abraham Lincoln himself?
What if, when the Yankee Congress passed its 1862 law outlawing polygamy, the Confederacy had passed its own law recognizing the right of the Mormons to control their own marriage customs without government interference in order to entice the Utah and Idaho territories to secede as well?
What if, having successfully formed a new nation, the CSA was persuaded by the court of world opinion to abolish slavery on its own timetable, and used the inducements of technological incentives and trade to build its own industrial nation?
What if, one looked at such a people after one hundred and forty years of building a modern polygamous industrial giant from sea to sea in competition to their brothers to the North?
Gary Jordan looks at possible answers to those questions, secure in the knowledge that even if he guesses wrong, the exercise might be entertaining.
Inspired by Stasya T. Canine's "Cosmic Orgasm Challenge", "Going Down" presents just such a society in short scenes on the theme.
Gary Jordan started sharing his adult writing in 2001 with First Impressions, an erotic science fiction story. He says that writing helps him deal with the loneliness of being a widower by incorporating the best aspects of a 25-year marriage into fiction. A confirmed chocoholic, he has a tendency to incorporate that taste into his stories as well. It generally results in a lighter, sweeter story -- or so he claims.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
First posting, 2003, 2004
Distributed by Gary Jordan
Waverly, VA 23890
Copyright © 2003, 2004 by Gary Jordan
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
Electronic formatting by Gary Jordan
- Thursday, May 3rd, 2001
- CSS Robert E. Lee, Norfolk, Virginia, 11:21
- Norfolk Naval Shipyard Pier 26, 12:44
- Navy Housing, 12:51
- Portsmouth Marine Terminal Offices, 13:15
- Wardroom, 13:16
- Base Exchange, 13:20
- University of Virginia, Norfolk Campus, 14:01
- Messdecks, 14:11
- Portsmouth Marine Terminal Offices, 14:45
- Engine Room, 16:15
- Somewhere in Portsmouth, VA, 16:32
- Wardroom, 18:15
- Mariners Seafood Restaurant, Norfolk, Virginia, 18:30
- Wardroom, 18:30
- Mariners Seafood Restaurant, Norfolk, Virginia, 18:30
- Topside, 18:58
- Elsewhere, 22:17
- Somewhere in Portsmouth, VA, 23:02
- Captain's Stateroom, CSS Robert E. Lee, 23:08
- Friday, May 4th, 2001
- Captain's Sea Cabin, CSS Robert E. Lee, 06:00
- Engineering, CSS Robert E. Lee, 06:00
- On the Norfolk-Newport News Ferry, 06:21
- Wardroom, 06:30
- Forward Berthing Compartment, CSS Robert E. Lee, Norfolk, Virginia, 07:30
- Topside, CSS Robert E. Lee, Norfolk, Virginia, 08:00
- The Stuart-Forrest Home, 10:07
- Harboard House, 12:00
- Arlington, Virginia, 16:33
- Mariners Seafood Restaurant, 19:05
- The Lee's Arlington Home, 20:44
- Harboard House, 22:00
- A Warehouse in Ocean View, Norfolk, 23:15
- Saturday, May 5th, 2001
- Navy Housing, Norfolk, Virginia, 06:17
- Arlington, Virginia, 09:30
- The COB's Home, Princess Anne, Virginia ,10:59
- Harboard House, 11:02
- The COB's Home, Princess Anne, Virginia ,11:15
- Offices of the Virginian Pilot, 13:08
- A Phoneline, 14:00
- Navy Housing, Norfolk, Virginia, 16:17
- The Stuart-Forrest Home, 18:33
- Mariners Seafood Restaurant, 19:19
- Harboard House, 20:20
- Arlington, Virginia, 21:25
- Sunday, May 6th, 2001
- Virginia Beach Oceanfront, 05:08
- Navy Housing, 06:30
- Harboard House, 07:49
- Navy Housing, 09:33
- Harboard House, 11:44
- Navy Housing, 12:10
- Harboard House, 13:00
- Grundy House,Portsmouth, Virginia, 15:55
- Harboard House, 16:15
- Harboard House, 16:51
- Arlington, Virginia, 21:38
- A Warehouse in Ocean View, Norfolk, 22:15
- Monday, May 7th, 2001
- The Stuart-Forrest Home, 05:07
- On the Road in Portsmouth, VA, 07:25
- Bachelor Officers' Quarters, 08:28
- Officer's Parking, 08:52
- Portsmouth Marine Terminal Offices, 10:15
- Submarine Cadre Detachment, Norfolk, 13:45
- McDonald-Thomas-Sanders Wedding, 15:00
- Officer's Club, Naval Station Norfolk, 19:22
- Navy Housing, 22:30
- Tuesday, May 8th, 2001
- Portsmouth Marine Terminal Offices, 07:55
- Harboard House, 08:15
- Submarine Cadre Detachment, Norfolk, 08:30
- En Route to Harboard House, 08:46
- En Route to Harboard House, 09:03
- Somewhere . . .
- Somewhere . . .
- Somewhere . . .
- Somewhere . . .
- Somewhere . . .
- Wednesday, May 9th, 2001
- Somewhere . . .
- Somewhere . . .
- Somewhere . . .
- Somewhere . . .
- Naval Base Chapel, Norfolk, 12:00
My nearly standard disclaimer:
If you aren't supposed to be reading this because of your age, or where you live, then I don't want you to read this, either. It isn't that I believe 'minors' don't have prurient thoughts or engage in 'adult' activities. I know damned well that they do. It IS that there are laws which could get both of us (but mainly ME) in trouble.
Now for my completely non-standard disclaimer:
If you are reading this story because you heard that it was an erotic alternate history story in which the Confederate States of America won the Civil War of 1861, so far, so good. If you expect depictions of slavery, bondage and discipline, sado-masochism, domination and submission, humiliation and interracial sex, then you haven't read anything I've ever written before. There's a saying, represented by an acronym: TNWWTKBINMK (or something like it), meaning: "There's Nothing Wrong With That Kink But It's Not My Kink."
I write romantic stories of consensual sex for the most part. The final codes on this story might stretch my writing muscles, but not very far in those directions.
That being said, I must admit to an ulterior motive in continuing to write this story. I'm trying to create an Alternate Universe, and also a Shared Universe in the story sense. What that means is that I intend to write other stories in this 21st Century polygamous country, but I also invite other authors to base stories here.
Every story has a real life backstory. This story is no exception. It was originally Inspired by Stasya T. Canine's "Cosmic Orgasm Challenge", in which Stasya called for alternate universes created by a single changed decision; some pivot point in history (preferably related to sex) which changed the world we live in in some way.
"Fine," I thought. "I can write that." In my senior year of high school (class of '69), I had read a book — more a long essay — entitled If The South Had Won The Civil War. Combine this with the fact that in several newsgroups, I occasionally posted, in a humorous fashion I hope, as though a Confederate Nuclear Submarine armed with "torpeanuts" was rising to "throw peanuts" at a particularly odious pun. I had a ready-made crew to base my story on.
If I had written that story, Captain John Carter, a clean-limbed fighting man of Virginia, would have ignored orders to stop pursuit after the battle of Manassas (Bull Run to damnyankees) because he had a "hot" letter from his lover in Washington (a Miss Thoris, of course, a visiting Mormon Patriarch's daughter), and was eager to see her. Other units, in hot blood, would have followed and Washington would be captured. The pivot point would have been the episode of lovemaking that inspired Miss T. to write a letter so hot that a rebel officer disobeyed orders and accidently won the war.
This isn't that story.
Historians are quite fond of pointing out, using the 20/20 hindsight of the microscope of time, the enormous number of pivotal points in battles, campaigns or wars. Civil War historians especially point at Manassas/Bull Run gleefully and highlight the many ways in which the outcome could have been quite different. The South had superior leadership, but it mostly reacted as independant commands on that day; communications and intelligence (of the information variety) were sorely lacking. Jefferson Davis, a jealous warrior, ordered Lee to stay away when he went himself to the battle.
Change a single decision for either side, and you can get a significantly different outcome. But none of that is important. This story takes place 140 years later. The Confederacy won that war. In enticing other states and territories to secede, they legalized polygamy. It brought in Utah and southern Idaho and changed the society in ways unanticipated by the framers of that law.
What's that? Farfetched, you say? So what? It's fun!
Another bit of fun is acknowledging some of the people who encouraged me to finish this story. They may not share the concept, but they encouraged the writing thereof. Desdmona encouraged me to write; she always has. Girl Friday did the same. I think she rolls her eyes at my polygamous society. Alexis has always been supportive. Denny, my editor, snorts a lot at the entire idea. But he proofs my most egregious errors anyway. And to all the fans who asked "When are you going to write more? I like it," I say "THANK YOU!"
As he accompanied the Executive Officer on this final pre-turnover inspection, the Captain's mind was not on finding fault or dirt. It rarely was on any inspection - the XO was too good at her job to let any remain hidden, and he'd already read the reports and approved and forwarded the final work package. Tomorrow, Friday morning, there would be a formal "Change of Command" and the CSS R.E.Lee would become the property of the yardmaster for four and a half weeks.
Instead, Commander Robert Edward Yarborough (Bobby) Lee reflected (not for the first time) that a whole slew of Public Affairs Officers and flacks in the War Department were still getting their jollies from having "Captain Robert E. Lee" commanding the "Robert E. Lee." And he wasn't a direct descendant - at best they were umpteenth cousins incredibly removed. Not that his branch of the Lees of Virginia wasn't prestigious in its own right... never mind. It was moot.
Bob did what good Captains do on inspections. He smiled, spoke familiarly to his crew, and let the XO steer him around. Everything that truly needed his attention, the XO had briefed him in private about. Some XOs might hide a thing or two, but he trusted Sam. Samantha Stuart-Forrest was the direct descendant of another hero, and married to yet another. She was driven by those expectations. She'd be a Commander and Captain of a ship younger than he had, and someday he'd be saluting her.
That was a primary reason he hadn't been tempted to break his policy of not dating within his command with Samantha. The fact that she had shown no interest in anything but a professional relationship was another.
Another reason snapped to attention to present the torpedo room as they entered. Lieutenant (lower grade) Deborah Harboard presented her domain ready for inspection. Bob only wanted to inspect Deborah. Crisp and starched in her dress grays, his acting Weapons Officer (Weps was on emergency leave to bury his husband and comfort their wives), she was still a very feminine woman. Deborah was the only woman for whom he had ever broken his policy.
That their date hadn't worked out had been neither of their faults. Deborah's wife had shown an instant dislike for Bob, and you don't date one wife without the other. To do so was tantamount to adultery, and Bob would never push a woman to that extreme.
Deborah was also Duty Officer today, and would not be relieved until the Change of Command ceremony. Bob had been planning to go ashore tonight, and spend the evening at the Bachelor Officer's Quarters working on his hobby. Maybe that would wait.
Caroline Stuart-Forrest waited on the pier with the other Navy Spouses, knowing that Samantha would be one of the last to disembark. She always was. Even money she'd wait until after the Captain had left. That trait was both a source of pride in her wife and an irritation, though the irritation never started until her fellow spouses dwindled down to the last few, and then it was just her and their daughter, Tiffany.
There she was, emerging from the torpedo loading hatch. She waved. Today, the Captain was on her heals. They did some sort of "after you" dance at the head of the brow, until Captain Bob folded his arms. Samantha evidently lost, and departed first, saluting the Officer of the Deck and then the ensign. As Bob performed the ritual, Caroline could hear the announcement, "Robert E. Lee, departing."
Caroline hugged and kissed her wife, who picked up their daughter. Turning to Bob, she said, "Need a ride, sailor?"
Bob laughed. "Could you drop me at the BOQ? It'd save me waiting on the shuttle or for the duty driver to return."
"Don't the Skippers rate their own cars and drivers?" Caroline wasn't well versed in nautical customs, but she recalled that Colonel Stuart, Sam's Uncle, had a car and a driver.
Bob shook his head. "A boat rates only one vehicle, and one duty driver. I could commandeer them, but I would never interfere with my ship's routine that way. She's on a guard mail run."
Bob forestalled another possible attempt at over-courtesy by walking straight to the back door of the car and climbing in. Tiffany joined him, and Sam sat with Caroline in the front. Caroline hid how pleased she was at this while catching up on three weeks worth of inconsequentials. Tiffany monopolized Bob's attention in the back with a barrage of chatter.
"Cap'n Bob, an' you know what?" she'd ask then proceed without waiting for an answer, "I get to go to kiddiegarter this year! An you know what?"
Bob would occasionally get in a few words, always with a delighted if tolerant smile. "No! What, Tiffy"
"Mommy Caroline says I'm gonna have a new brother or sister! An you know what?"
Caroline felt the blush on her cheeks. A glance told her that her wife was staring at her open-mouthed while "Cap'n Bob" looked at them both with one eyebrow raised, still smiling and answering Tiffany's prattle. This was not how she'd meant to make the announcement. Tonight at dinner with Nathan and Samantha both present... too late now. She nodded.
In the back, Bob said, "Pull in ahead at the Base Exchange, and I'll treat you all to ice cream. Would you like that, Tiffy?"
With Samantha's hand on her shoulder, she pulled off the road.
Chief Alberto Nunez had been home long enough for a very private welcome by his wives and husband. Now he was at the grill, guided flames to just the right height while his nine children cavorted about playing football. Jesus, the eldest, dribbled the ball with his foot in a nearly professional fashion. Alberto sighed for the many high school games his Naval career had caused him to miss.
Maria, his senior wife brought out a heaping platter of chicken parts slathered in marinade, accompanied now by Señiorita Kylia O'Reilly. Kylia had become something of a fixture at their house the last several months. Alberto wondered which of his wives would propose her for marriage. Perhaps she would be forward enough to propose to them? Modern women, Alberto grinned, shaking his head.
Kylia was eight years younger than Maria, five younger than Madonna, his junior wife. That she had never married before was a story of some embarrassment which she had haltingly shared with the Nunez family one night. Discussing it later, none of the Nunez's found it at all an impediment to continuing to see her.
Alberto was certain that Maria approved of Kylia, and that would make her inclusion certain. He fondly recalled the days when he was a young man of Guantanamo. He had met Maria in a trip to Havana, and courted her despite the long distance relationship. It was Maria who had convinced him to add his brother, Juan, to their marriage; it was she who introduced them to Madonna. He could not recall who invited Kylia to dinner the first time - she was, after all one of his husband's political volunteers.
And that was another thing. Juan was active in local politics wherever the Navy had stationed Alberto, had never complained about moving for Alberto's career. They had all decided together that with the chief's retirement, the family would return to Guantanamo, and Juan had renewed his contacts in the political parties there. He had ambitions to be one of the Representatives from Cuba. And who could tell? Senator Castro would someday retire, and someone must fill his seat in the Confederacy's Senate.
Such thoughts always brought a smile to Alberto's face. If Kylia thought the smile was for her, no harm was done, since he had such smiles as well.
Wives to love, children to cherish, and a future to plan and build. What more could a man desire? Life is good.
Nancy glanced at the clock, something she did not intend to allow to become a habit. Hours left to go, anyway, until her 15:00 quitting time. There were plenty of invoices to prepare, manifests to examine until then. She glanced again.
Damn it. She was normally more patient than this. If she and Deborah hadn't had that fight the night before Deborah went to sea, she'd be her usual patient self. But they had, and then Deborah was gone. Nancy had time to think, and much to think about.
It was all the Dick's fault. That's was how they'd taken to referring to Richard, their ex-husband. Not Richard, not Dick - "the" Dick. He had been, a real prick if anyone was. Abusive, domineering, critical of everything and everything. The Dick.
Deborah had always been strong enough to stand up to him, but Deborah's career meant that she wasn't always there. Nancy wasn't that strong, not then, and she was always there. She'd borne the brunt of the Dick's abuse, been his whipping post when he needed to take out his frustrations from work.
When Deborah was home, things were tolerable, occasionally even pleasant. Nancy loved Deborah for that, as much as she had when they'd married the Dick together after college. But Deborah had been in NROTC, and wanted a military career. Nancy became a shipping manager at the Marine Terminal. The Dick tried to start a business as Contractor.
The first few years were good, at least for Deborah and Nancy. The Dick's business had a rocky start, but he'd landed a military contract, something about producing desalting equipment or distilling units, something every ship needed. Nancy moved up. Deborah got her first promotion and assignment to submarines, which she loved. But the Dick's contract was in jeopardy, something about failure to perform to specifications, and he turned sour.
Never mind. The Dick was gone, and although the divorce could have severed all bonds, Nancy and Deborah had decided to remain wives together. Nancy had needed that, still needed it. She loved Deborah, and found in her the strength and courage to move on.
They'd dated men since the divorce. It was always someone Deborah suggested. They'd never dated anyone twice, and that was Nancy's fault. And it had come to a head, just before the deployment.
"Damn it, Nancy, you can't keep doing this."
"I don't mean to," she'd replied, knowing it was only half true. The incipient tears were real enough.
"This one was important to me. I really like him," Deborah said. "Even if it doesn't go anywhere, I can't afford to alienate him - we'll be seeing him socially from time to time, whether you like him or not!"
"I said I was sorry," she'd cried. She had been.
"Are you?" Deborah'd asked. "After last night, he might not ask again. And I want him to."
On that note, Deborah had gone to the ship, and the ship had gone to sea.
Three weeks was more than enough time for Nancy to regret her behavior. She'd looked at herself, and realized that she'd been possessive and jealous. Their dates brought out hostility toward any potential future husband with whom she's have to share Deborah.
But Deborah's happiness was as important to her as her own. If it would make Deborah happy, Nancy would learn to contain her fears, to deal with them without driving anyone away - especially Deborah.
She could call her on the phone to apologize. But no, that wasn't their way. They'd argued face to face; they'd make up that way as well.
Perhaps she'd go to the ship. Deborah didn't encourage visits when she had duty to perform, but knowing that she was home, but not home, was hard on Nancy.
She glanced at the clock.
Lieutenant(lg) Deborah Harboard thanked the duty Yeoman and perused the Guard Mail. She signed, dated and timed the receipt, and the Yeoman went about the business of logging and distributing the mail. None of it was of immediate concern to the duty section.
In fact, there was little to concern the duty section. In another twenty hours, the entire ship would be turned over to the Bureau of Shipbuilding. The ship was clean, defueled, and disarmed. As far as the War Department was concerned, The CSS R. E. Lee (Deborah was careful never to let the nickname "Areolee" escape her lips aloud) was no longer a combatant asset.
Duty required that she see to her vessel, regardless. As the Captain's representative, she was responsible for the ship and all government property therein. She would make routine rounds to verify the continued integrity (watertightness) of the ship, for fire and security, and to maintain good order and discipline. She would carry out the Captain's standing and supplementary night orders, which tonight said only, "Continue preparations for turnover per SubShips Inst. 4790.4."
The only item of concern this evening was the stream of crew members in varying states of inebriation to finish removing personal effects to their homes or temporary quarters on base. So far, there had been no incidents (or none had been reported); it was a quiet duty day.
With so little of military discipline to occupy her, Deborah could allow her personal thoughts to intrude. She was in port, less than thirty miles from her home and hearth. Her wife would be at work, but Deborah had little doubt that when that civilian workday ended, she would shortly afterwards receive a phone call. They had parted angry; neither would let that go on a moment longer than necessary.
For her part, the anger was gone but the cause still needed to be addressed. Deborah understood her wife's insecurities, worked hard to build her self-confidence back to its pre-marriage levels. She blamed herself for leading Nancy into marrying the Dick. Were her judgement, her character skills, always so poor? He had seemed so loving, kind, so chivalrous. Still, she had forgiven herself that mistake and corrected it. Why couldn't Nancy do the same?
Nancy hadn't forgiven herself, or hadn't forgiven Deborah, and that was a problem. Deborah loved Nancy, loved having her in her arms, loved waking up by her side, but... There's always a but. Deborah craved the kind of male companionship a husband could provide. Nancy had, too, and would again with the right man.
Nancy never actively objected to dating; she displayed her objections on the dates, with passive-aggressive behavior or overt hostility toward the gentleman caller. The overt behavior had all but subsided until Deborah had accepted a date with a man whom she truly liked and hoped to see more of. It didn't help that the man was her commanding officer.
Deborah had dreaded serving three weeks at sea with Captain Lee in the aftermath of that date. But he had continued to be the personable, professional officer he had been before the date, no more and no less cordial.
Her own embarrassment about the date might have abated had she not been approached by some of the other female officers. The Captain was discretion incarnate - the details of their date might as well have been stamped top-secret. Their inquisitiveness was how she had learned of the Captain's policy of not dating within his command - several had been politely turned down. They all wanted to know how she had changed his mind.
She honored his silence with her own, except to divulge that it was he who had asked her, and not the other way around. Even the Executive Officer had called Deborah to her stateroom to discuss it. As it turned out, the XO wanted no details, nor personal secrets. She only wanted to reiterate Naval policy regarding not letting personal relationships affect performance or preference. The XO said she agreed with the Skippers personal policy, but, "between us girls? He's one of the good ones. Sink your hooks in, and don't let go."
His behavior and attitude hadn't changed, but neither had he asked her and Nancy out again. When her leave started tomorrow, she planned to have a long talk with her wife. Then, perhaps, she could work up the nerve to ask him out herself.
None of which was pertinent to her duties of the moment, she reminded herself. She left the wardroom for a tour of the ship.
Bob was utterly fascinated at the way Tiffany ate her ice cream cone. So far, despite the warmth of the first week of May, not a single drop of the chocolaty confection had dripped below the rim of the cone. Tiffany was an expert, keeping the cone in motion, her tongue nearly always in contact. His own nephews would have been covered by now, hands and shirts, and likely knees or pants.
Minding Tiffany gave Samantha and Caroline time to hug, and cry, and do feminine things he'd long suspected his XO capable of (but never seen displayed.) She'd asked the due date and Bob could tell she was picturing their projected deployment schedule with concern.
Caroline went straight to the heart of the matter. "Will you be able to take leave when the time comes?"
Samantha hemmed and hawed, until Bob pointed out a quiet place by some trees and said "Go over there and talk quietly. The spouses grapevine knows our schedule as well as we do." Bob knew his exec would be reluctant to speak of specific dates. She's more security conscious than even he.
They did, and Bob could tell from the frustration and disappointment on Caroline's face what her answer was. Not that he'd expected anything else from his career-oriented First Officer. The due date would fall toward the end of a joint international exercise lasting eight weeks - far too long for Bob to excuse a crew member without replacement.
Caroline might argue that no one was indispensable, but Samantha would rightly argue that any replacement of a senior officer for that long a period would be permanent. After her absence, Samantha would be placed at another command, possibly still as an XO, but with an invisible mark next to her name. A command of her own would be much longer in arriving.
By the time they returned to the table, Tiffany's cone had accomplished what the scoop had not. Still without a drop on her sundress, Tiffany sported a chocolate smile twice as wide as her mouth, and sticky fingers held up and apart.
Caroline spat on a handkerchief and would have applied it had not Samantha harrumphed, and told Tiffany to go with her to the ladies'. Bob found himself alone with Caroline.
Bob watched them go. "She's a real cutie," he smiled.
"So's Tiffany," Caroline replied.
Bob turned to say he was talking about Tiffany, but the twinkling in Caroline's eyes told him he'd just been teased.
"I know all about your policy," she said. "For the record, Sam agrees with it and has embraced it as her own." Bob relaxed .
"Also for the record, Cap'n Bob," she continued, "I'm not a member of your crew, and I think you'd make a dandy addition to the family."
Startled only for a moment, Bob grinned back evilly. "Tell you what. I'll have Sam transferred so it won't be a problem, and we can see what develops."
Caroline blinked. "You wouldn't!" She watched Bob's face, concerned. Bob waggled his eyebrows. "You wouldn't," she laughed, reassured.
"Caroline, I'm not oblivious to Samantha's charms, Bob soothed. "Nor yours," he added, touching her hand lightly. "I'm also not unmindful of the pressure Samantha feels to live up to her family name." He looked in the general direction Sam and Tiffy had taken. "She's more aware of the pressure than you or I. She'll be the youngest Submarine Commander and one of the youngest admirals if she keeps her present pace."
"So? Is ambition necessarily a bad thing?"
Bob shook his head. "Not necessarily. But will she take the time to carry on the family name, or will you provide all the Stuart-Forrests?"
Caroline didn't answer, a frown creasing her forehead.
"Do you have any idea what kind of pressure the children of a Stuart-Forrest-Lee union would suffer?"
"We're not putting any pressure on our kids!" Caroline was defensive.
"Of course not. The pressure comes from the expectations of others. Sam actually handles it quite well."
"Nat opted out completely. Went into business instead." The Lion defended her cubs.
Bob sighed. "You don't think he's driven to succeed in business? Nathan Bedford Forrest was one of our most famous tacticians. Everyone expects Nat to be a brilliant businessman, just like his great to the nth grandfather. Anything less is failure. Keep that in mind when Nat has a bad day."
"Fine," Caroline relented. "You've made your point." Still, she took Bob's hand. "Don't you think there is anyone out there for you, Bob?"
Bob laughed. "Yes, I do. Look, I've seen the stats from the 2000 Census. Average family, 2.4 husbands, 3.1 wives, 7.7 kids, a kennel of dogs and a passel of cats. I know I'm an anomaly, not even one spouse. That's pressure, too. But I have hopes."
Caroline perked up. "Do tell!"
"Can't. Too soon. Besides, "I wouldn't want to cheat Sam out of a chance to play gossipy woman for a change."
"Ah, it's like that, is it?" Caroline said, laughing. "Policy made to be broken?"
"My lips are sealed."
"Let's resume our review for the finals with a comparison not of the religions within our own national boundaries, but between our own and those of our brethren to the north." Professor Warfield ignored the collective groan. Comparative Religion 101 was an elective. Nobody forced these students to choose his class, but he saw to it that it wasn't the skate class they'd all hoped for.
He picked one of the Latter Day Saints from his seating chart. "Mister Grace, explain the difference, if any, between religious tolerance in the Confederate States and in the United States."
"Sir, at the constitutional level, both nations guarantee freedom of religion, and separation of church and state. But as practical application, the United States are tolerant only of certain Christian Religions, while the Confederate states make no laws restricting religious freedoms and practices."
"True in the broad sense, Mr. Grace, if somewhat overstated. The Confederate States do restrict some areas of religion with regard to human or animal sacrifice, and also in the matter of hallucinogens."
Mr. Grace nodded. "True, sir. But they don't, in the case of hallucinogens, prevent their use; they merely require that such substances be used in a manner in accord with civil law."
"And that is?"
"Use of a hallucinogen shall not be deemed an excuse for civil disorder or criminal behaviour, since such use is at the discretion of the user. The United States prohibit any use of hallucinogens, euphoriants, or the like."
"Very good, Mister Grace. Strangely enough, you didn't point out one of the historical differences owed primarily to your own faith.
There was a chuckle throughout the class. "No sir," he said, smiling. "Polygamy hasn't been an issue in the Confederate States for nearly a hundred years, since the Southern Baptist Convention of 1903 voted to allow it. Even the pope in Rome decreed a dispensation for American Catholics earlier than that."
"A dispensation which our brothers in the United States avail themselves not of." Another group chuckle, no doubt for the professor's dangling participle. "The Confederate States were no more tolerant of 'aberrant' marriage laws at the time of the War of Seccession than the United States were, despite the presence of the Acadians in Louisiana. What we were more conscious of was the rights of states.
"The Law of Unforeseen Consequences was invoked. Having passed a law allowing polygamy—'the Confederate States shall make no law prohibiting polygamous marriage'—it should have been obvious that the practice would not be confined to the practicioners of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. There were a great many war widows who became brides of their husband's kin or their kin's husbands. Civil marriage stirred religious debate and found eventual acceptance."
Professor Warfield consulted his seating chart. "Miss Cushman, since Mister Grace mentioned the pope, can you elaborate on the differences between northern and southern American Catholics?"
"Sir, one of the differences is a matter of Orders. The vast majority of northern Catholics follow priests of one of the monastic orders that forbid marriage. They take vows of celibacy or chastity, and view plural marriage as a sinful state, even though the popes permit it. In my reading, I saw that the majority of priests in the north come from Irish or Northern European roots. They try to be more Catholic than the pope."
The professor joined in the laughter. Miss Cushman continued. "There were always some orders which permitted marriage, mostly in the eastern rite. The Greek Catholics had no problem with it, although plural marriage was less easily accepted. The great influx of Moslem and south-eastern European and Asian immigrants following the Great War felt quite at home."
"Quite true. As did a great many Jewish immigrants both from overseas and from the United States when they began to persecute their Jewish minorities. but we were speaking of Catholicism. Mister Schultz, please continue where Miss Cushman left off."
Professor Warfield glanced at the clock. Plenty of time left to get to the various Wiccan religions and the Tribal faiths of the American Aborigines. He returned his attention to Mister Schultz.
Deborah paused in the door to the crew's mess. One of her weaponeers was good-naturedly joking with one of the "nukes" from the engineering department. She listened and watched.
"Ever seen a Nuke wind-up toy, Roy?" asked TM1/SS (Torpedoman First-Class/Submarine Qualified) Douglas Whalen.
"No," replied MK2 (Mechanical Technician Second Class) Roy Ingalls. "I suppose you'll show me?"
Grinning, Doug extended his right hand, fingers together and thumb up, setting the edge on the table. He wrapped his left fist around the thumb and made "winding" motions clockwise, repeating six times. Then he used his left index finger to "push" the thumb down to meet the fingers.
Immediately, he flopped his right hand back and forth on the table top, palm down to palm up, beginning rapidly and then slowing down.
Laughter erupted all around Doug, including from Roy. Deborah smiled, knowing that the joke would be repeated all over the ship before the next duty section arrived. She hoped she could show it to the Chief Engineer and his assistants before they got it from someone else.
She resumed her tour of the ship.
Nancy glanced at the clock, thinking she might as well make a day of it. She wasn't getting anything productive done, anyway; hadn't the past hour.
Her intercom buzzed. She answered, "Yes Amy?"
"I have Robert E. Lee on line one, ma'am," her secretary said crisply. Will you take the call, or shall I give your regrets?"
Nancy's face lit up. "I've got it, Amy!" She depressed the numbered button on her phone. "Deborah, I'm so glad you called! I've wanted to apologize for screwing up the date with that guy you like so much for three weeks and I'm sorry and if he asks again you can say yes for us and I'm so sorry forgive me pl...
A masculine voice interrupted with, "Thank you, Nancy! Would you like the details of the date you just accepted?"
After an extended silence, Bob said, "Nancy? Are you still there?"
Nancy managed to squeak out, "My secretary said it was Robert E. Lee, and I thought... I thought..."
Bob's laughter was soft, somehow, rather than the nasty snickers she halfway expected. The Dick would have teased her unmercifully. He said, "It's my fault. I should have given my name as Bob Lee. Please don't be angry with your secretary."
He was apologizing? He was asking her not to blame Amy for her own error, and for making a fool of herself? He was apologizing? To her?
"Mrs. Harboard? Will you please forgive me?" His tone was almost pleading.
Nancy managed to find her voice, "Of course." She coughed. "Of course, no harm was meant, no need to apologize. It was my assumptions that caused the misunderstanding." She calmed down, though her heart was still pounding. "Why were you... How may I help you, C-Captain."
"Mrs. Harboard... may I call you Nancy?" She assented. "Nancy, would you do me the honor of dining with me aboard my ship this evening? I realize this is short notice, and despite your impassioned opening speech, you might wish more time to consider, but nothing would please me more than if you accept."
Nancy's mind was reeling. What had she said? Oh Lord, she had said it to him. She had said it to him. She tried to recover. "H-have you asked Deborah?"
"No, ma'am. I will if you wish, but given your opinion that I am 'that guy she likes so much', might we let that be a surprise?"
"Captain lee..." "Bob," he interrupted. "Bob... I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage. I can scarcely refuse at this point, having blurted out my acceptance unasked."
"Most gracious of you, Nancy. Shall I call upon you, or would you prefer to meet us at the ship? I confess I have several preparations to make, if dinner isn't to be unduly delayed."
"I would be happy to meet you at the ship," she replied, fearing to be in his presence without Deborah. Will 18:00 be suitable?"
"Quite. And Nancy?" he hesitated. "Might I further ask you to stay aboard as my guest overnight?"
"I... I... I..."
"I mean nothing untoward, Nancy. I know Deborah would not consider asking, but you would stay with her, as my guest, and attend the Change of Command ceremony tomorrow."
"Put that way, sir, how could I refuse? I'll plan accordingly."
"Nancy? Thank you for the honor of your company."
Nancy hung up the phone. What had she gotten herself into?
She glanced at the clock. It was after 15:00. She closed her office, dismissed Amy for the weekend, and went home to pack... to prepare for her date.
"Robert E. Lee, arriving," the Internal announcing system blared.
Deborah looked up from the seawater pump she was examining with the Engineering Duty Chief, frowning. She hadn't expected the Captain's return; he hadn't mentioned it in his night orders, nor to her personally. She excused herself. It might be important.
He wasn't in the control room when she reached it, the most logical place if there was an emergency regarding the ship. She tried the Captain's sea cabin, then his stateroom, unsuccessfully. She doubled back to the control room, and from there proceeded to the wardroom.
She made a cursory check of the wardroom, and was about to close the door when she heard his voice, coming from the pantry. He was apparently discussing something with the duty cook in there. She waited patiently, just out of earshot. He acknowledged her with a nod, and held up a single finger as if to say "Just a minute..."
Deborah saw the Captain clap the steward on his shoulder, grinning, before he turned to enter the wardroom.
"Good Afternoon, Lieutenant Deborah," he was smiling expansively. "How floats the boat?"
Deborah was more than a little startled by his informality, but began a formal report. He held up a hand. "Repeat after me: The boat's afloat."
"The boat's afloat," she said, confused. Given his behavior, Deborah wondered if he might be just a little bit inebriated. She stepped a little closer to try to detect alcohol on his breath.
He stepped closer as well, almost uncomfortably close. She was very, very aware of him. At this distance, he needn't speak in his normal voice; instead, he spoke in a lower, softer register. "I've taken the liberty of changing the time and menu for dinner this evening. hors-d'oeuvre will be served at 18:30, and dinner will begin shortly after evening colors. I shall be entertaining a date in the wardroom this evening. You will join me, won't you Lieutenant?"
Deborah was - devastated might not be too strong a word. Bad enough that he did not offer her a second chance, not that she could blame him, but to expect her to participate in entertaining his guest...
He wasn't quite done, though. "I've also asked the steward to make up my stateroom. Our guest will be spending the night."
Deborah felt the heat in her face. She didn't know if she was blushing or angry, or both. If he would just take a step backwards, she might slap his face. But if anything, he was even closer.
She fell back on Naval training. Stiffly, she asked, "May I inquire as to the name and description of our guest, so that she may be brought aboard without undue delay, sir?" And she did resent having her meal time pushed back. Deborah had eaten only a light lunch and had been looking forward to the evening meal.
"You may," he replied, grinning. "In fact, it might be nice, if the duty driver is otherwise unoccupied, to have her met in visitor parking and driven to the brow." Deborah was nearly at her boiling point. "Her name," he dragged the moment out interminably, "is Nancy Harboard. I believe you know her description."
Deborah found herself rendered speechless. Her mouth opened and closed repeatedly - nothing would come out.
Seeing her shock and incredulity, Bob feared he might have carried things too far. In his best command voice, he ordered, "Take... SEAT!"
As though back in "knife and fork" school, Deborah faced the table, withdrew a chair, stepped sideways in front of it and seated herself, moving the chair forward at the same time. She folded one hand over the other in her lap, back straight and eyes front.
Bob place a hand on the back of the chair. A fingertip just made contact with the short hairs on her neck, sending thrills up and down her spine.
From behind, Bob began again. "Lieutenant Harboard, may I call you Deborah?" She nodded. "Deborah, may I have the pleasure of your company, duty permitting, and that of your wife, for dinner as my guests this evening? I convey that your wife has conditionally accepted pending your approval; and that either way, I have invited her to spend the night in your company and to attend the change of command ceremony in the morning. To that end, I have made my stateroom available to you and your wife; I shall be sleeping in my sea cabin."
Deborah thought: the smug, conniving, insolent... "I would be honored, sir." I should marry him if for no other reason than to pay him back for the anguish he... "I accept on behalf of myself and my wife." ...put me through. "I thank you for the use of your cabin as well." You utterly sweet, thoughtful, rotten little boy. "You're a horrible tease." Was that last thought out loud? He was laughing! Oh, God, I said it aloud.
He moved away, rounding the table, to sit across from her. Should she be grateful that his finger no longer touched her hair?
"Yes," he said, his eyes meeting hers, "I am a horrible tease." She had said it aloud! "I have been in a teasing mood since I spoke to your wife. I'll let her relate the details of that conversation."
David was a first generation immigrant from Connecticut. Unlike a European immigrant, he already spoke the language, sort of. After ten years, his accent had softened and his speech slowed from what he'd spoken as a child, but it would still rate a second look from a stranger.
Home from another long day at the shipyard, he kissed his wife, Melody, and then kissed his other wife, Marla. He even hugged his husband, Arthur. All the while, David felt a delightful thrill of wickedness. Being married to more than one woman, having a husband for God's sake, was not how David was raised.
"Have I told you all lately how much I love you?" he asked. It was true. Arthur had been his best friend in high school, almost his only friend. Not many 'natives' wanted to get to know the new kid with the obvious Yankee accent and the embarrassing manners and weird beliefs. Arthur was the exception. Their friendship might have started from pure curiosity, but it had grown as they challenged each other, each learning to think beyond their boundaries.
At 13, David had no choice but to accompany his parents - and his father's mistress - when they left the narrow intolerant morality of United States for the equally narrow but completely different morality of the Confederacy. David had two mothers now, though it had taken until he had gotten engaged himself to reconcile with his father's second wife. He could even call her "Mom" now, without reservation. Throughout his teenaged years he had resented that other woman, whose presence had caused him to be uprooted from a known and comfortable existence.
Looking at his smiling spouses, he remembered his father's many attempts to explain that a person could love more than one other person. He understood that now, though his Roman Catholic roots still inspired a sense of thrilling wickedness in his current circumstance.
He followed his spouses to their bedroom. After a family council, Marla had thrown away her birth control and they were "all trying to become pregnant," as she put it. Dave had agreed that he and Arthur would do their best, and Melody would help, too.
Each of them carefully removed Marla's clothing, kissing and caressing the skin revealed. David reflected that this wasn't greatly different from any other night, except somehow slower - more deliberate. More emphasis on Marla. The rest would undress each other as usual, but Marla would be naked and waiting. Unlike other nights, Marla would be the depository of all sperm spent in their lovemaking.
Somehow David was the next to be nude. He decided to one-up his husband by preparing Marla for him, rather than taking that honor. He began to caress her, teasing her breasts and nuzzling the nape of her neck.
"Did he tell you how he tricked me into accepting this date?"
"I did not trick you..."
"With all due respect, Captain Lee, I was speaking to my wife."
"Pardon me, ma'am. By all means, proceed—but please... call me Bob."
"No, he said he would leave the explanation of this evening to you, and I can tell by your blush the story will be good."
"Yes, well, perhaps for some values of 'good.' It is certainly a tale of deceit and chicanery worthy of a cautionary fable."
"Do control yourself, sir. You shall have your own opportunity to explain your misdeeds. Where was I?"
"I believe it was, 'worthy of a cautionary fable.' Please continue. I've had my own dealings with the Captain's sense of propriety."
"Of that I have no doubt. First, he misrepresented himself in such a fashion that I thought I was receiving a call from you. As eager as I was to speak to you, I'm afraid I may have tendered an apology for... a disagreement we... we had before you left.
"Yes, well... The apology was intended for your ears alone. It may have alluded to a certain willingness to entertain the possibility of...
"She said we could date."
"Please, this is difficult enough!"
"Sorry. I'll try to be quiet."
"Did you really say that?"
"Much. Oh, wipe that silly grin from your face, sir!" "Bob." "Hush! This is difficult enough without your smirks and grimaces and boyish smiles."
"I'll try to contain myself."
"I'm sure. As I was saying, much worse. In addition to indicating my willingness to accommodate your... interest... in another date with Bob..."
"...I may have inadvertently indicated, or even exaggerated the level of interest you might have in pursuing a relationship with him."
"Am I blushing as hard as you are? What did you say?"
"Oh, go ahead, Bob. I can see you're fit to burst. Tell her what I said."
"It wasn't really that bad, Nancy, honestly. Deborah, she merely used the words, 'that guy you like so much.' Now both of you stop blushing! That's hardly a proposal of marriage!"
"I should think not!" "No, not at all."
"I'll wait to do that until after dinner, ladies."
"Nancy... Deborah... Nancy, at least finish your fable while Deborah catches her breath. I'm certain you weren't done with the cautionary parts."
<Ahem> "Yes, well." <Ahem> "Deborah, is he always like this?"
<cough> "Nancy, I'm seeing a side of my Captain I don't recall ever having seen before."
"Perhaps the rest of my tale is redundant?"
"No, please. Continue. Unless, of, course, you feel it will contribute to that smug look on his face."
"I doubt that anything I could say could remove it. Suffice to say that once I realized to whom I spoke, I was at a decided disadvantage. And advantage is what he took, pressing me to be here."
"Nancy. He forced you to come?"
"Deborah, don't be angry. It wasn't exactly that way. Oh, look! That's wiped the expression from his face."
"Oh, Deborah! No, I'm sorry I put it that way. He wasn't like the Dick at all, not at all! Please calm down."
"Perhaps you ladies need a moment alone. I'll just check on the hors douvres."
"Can he hear us?"
"Not if we keep our voices down. Now tell me - did he coerce you in any way to..."
"Nonono, nothing like that! In fact, he apologized! He was so... opposite of what The Dick would have been like that I was flustered. Oh, now you're going to wear the silly grin. Just don't tease. He does that more than enough."
"All right. But I did tell you I like him. Can you see why?"
"I suppose. He isn't what I expected."
"Just get to know him. That's all I ask."
"Was he serious about proposing, do you think?"
"Nancy, an hour ago I'd have said 'Don't be silly.' Now? Despite his teasing - and isn't he a tease? Despite that, I'm certain he's serious about courting us. Whether that'll lead to a proposal, I don't know."
"Deborah, I really am sorry for the way I've behaved. I love you. I need you. But I'm not ready for that."
"Don't worry, I'm not quite ready for that, either."
"That's such a relief. He's had you to himself for weeks. I was afraid..."
"He isn't like that. He was strictly professional... until today."
"He's been teasing you, too?"
"Yes, a lot! I thought for a moment he was drunk."
"I know how to get even."
"You do? How?"
"If the tease brings up marriage or a proposal again, we'll both say, "We accept.' That'll rock him back on his heels, and at least stop the teasing about that."
"Do you real—oh, he's coming back."
Brenda and Jean Clamarre, as most females seem to do at restaurants, went to the Ladies' room together. And, as most females seem to do, they began discussing their date as soon as the door swung closed.
"So, Jean, what do you think? Beaufort's been particularly sweet tonight."
"Bren, Boo is sweet all the time. I don't have any problem with him, it's Jamie I'm wondering about."
"I guess." They used adjacent stalls to continue the discussion. "I think Jaimie likes to ride on Beaufort's coattails. He doesn't make half the effort to be sweet because Boo's sweet enough for two."
Jean giggled. "I think you got him pegged. Trouble is, they're inseparable—like us."
"You mean you'd take Boo if he and Jamie weren't a package."
"In a heartbeat, Sis!" Jean was emphatic. "The question is, would Boo take us as a package deal? I mean, here we are comparing Beaufort and Jamie and toting up negatives on Jamie's side of the checklist. What says they're not doing the very same thing back at the table?"
Brenda rolled her eyes, though her twin couldn't see it through the partition. Of course they are, she thought. And I'm the one on the short end of that list. She said, "I'm sure they are, but they'd be more than willing to put up with me to have you."
An exasperated sigh accompanied the sounds of the flushing toilet. Brenda hurried to finish her business and join Jean at the sink. They spoke over the sound of the running water.
"You have to stop putting yourself down." Jean said that a lot.
"I know." But knowing and doing are two different things. She looked in the mirrored wall at their reflections. Jean is the pretty one. Hazel eyes, wavy chestnut hair, oval face, eyelashes to die for. She looked at herself critically. The best I can say for me is 'not ugly.' She'd never liked her brown eyes, dishwater hair, and square jaw. Fraternal twins. I look like her brother, not her sister.
Jean picked up on her thoughts. "I know you think of yourself as 'the plain one,' but it just isn't so. You have this thing where you can convey so much… I don't know, attitude, with your eyes and your shoulders and stuff. I've seen it. So have the boys." She captured Brenda's eyes in the mirror. "They may come over to talk to my chest, look at my face, but they end up paying more attention to you. Haven't you ever noticed that?"
"They're just being polite," Brenda scoffed. "They know they have to butter me up to get to you."
"Bullshit." Brenda was startled by Jean's vehemence. "I grant you it may start that way, but nobody we've ever dated more than twice did it just to try to get in my knickers. I'm just a bonus attached to you."
Now Brenda stared at Jean in the mirror. Did Jean really feel that way? She did-Brenda could see it in her eyes. She turned to face Jean directly. "How long have you felt that way?"
"Since the first time Dad let us date." Jean bowed her head and whispered, "I know it's true, too. I overheard Ben Kirkwood tell his brother 'Jean got the looks, but Brenda got the personality' after one of our dates."
"Benjamin Kirkwood was a troll, and his brother wasn't much better," Brenda said, pulling Jean into a hug. "I don't know why we went out with them in the first place."
"I do," jean replied in a small voice at Brenda's neck. "I accepted that date. Remember? Ever since then, when someone asks, I say 'Ask Jean.' Every date I ever accepted for us was a disaster, or at least a washout. Every date you ever agreed to was at the very least fun." She pulled back to look Jean in the eyes again. "I don't know how you do it. Maybe we haven't found our princes yet, but you never pick toads, either." She braved a smile.
"Even if you're right—and I'm not admitting that—why bring it up now? I mean, I'm very flattered you feel that way…"
"Because of the way you asked about Jamie, and what you said." She turned back to the mirror to repair her makeup, which had a hint of tear stains. "I might dismiss him, and write off this date—which I would have accepted because of Boo—but you see something about Jamie I don't. I only see that he's not sweet like Beaufort. But you see something else, don't you."
"I guess I do," Brenda said. "I think he's like the way you describe me, if you see what I'm saying. There's more to him than sweetness and good looks. If you give him a chance, get to know him, I think you'll like him as much as Boo." She smiled. "I'll give you long odds that this won't be our last date, and when the time comes, it'll be Jaimie asking us to go steady with them."
Jean smiled back. "I won't bet. But I will pay more attention to Jaimie. If he's hiding some sweetness, I'll drag it out of him. After all, they've got to court us both."
Brenda laughed. "True, Sis, very true." She took one last glance in the mirror. "Okay, you're gorgeous, and I'm me, so let's go show our date how lucky they are to know us."
Giggling like schoolgirls, they returned to their table.
Bob entered the wardroom again, greeted by sudden silence. Had Chief Ghiradeli not been on his heels with the canapés, he might have backed out again. Both Deborah and Nancy turned to face him, and he could tell from the set of their shoulders, their eyebrows, their lips, that he was in trouble.
He squared his own shoulders and returned to his seat. Whatever the situation, he'd handle it. That's why they payed him the big bucks.
Both pairs of eyes followed him to his seat. Looking into each pair in turn, Bob was uncertain what to say, and neither Nancy nor Deborah seemed inclined to start. Perhaps an apology was in order.
"Nancy, Deborah... about the proposal of marriage..."
"We accept," the ladies said, together.
Bob blinked, mouth agape, but only for a moment. His mouth snapped shut while his mind raced. His teasing had been thrown back in his face, but... he had only been half-teasing. He truly liked Deborah, liked Nancy as well, despite the defensive hostility she had projected on their first date. He didn't date casually - he was courting these women, whether they'd realized it or not. He smiled, shyly.
They'd accepted, and he'd hold them to it. But it wouldn't do to pounce on that fact just now. They thought they were teasing him back. He glanced at Chief Ghiradeli. He'd need to speak with him, privately. But that was later. For now...
Bob raised his hands. "I surrender." What he was surrendering, he wouldn't say.
Deborah's smile was a starburst. Nancy's grin was triumphant. He treasured both.
Jaime Lafitte and Beaufort Rosecranz rose as their date rejoined them at the table. They seated the ladies and signaled the waiter to bring desert.
NROTC Engineering students at William and Mary's Princess Anne Campus, they'd met the young ladies at a school-sponsored social. Jean and Brenda were nursing majors at the same campus. For Beaufort, it had been love at first sight-but it was always love at first sight for Boo.
Jaime appreciated a pretty face or an hourglass figure as much as the next man, but he was of an age where every date was a potential mate. He was more… discriminating. Maybe that was too harsh on Beaufort. After all, he'd noticed the same mysterious allure that Brenda carried, had commented on it in fact. That had been enough to let Jaime agree to ask them out.
If it weren't for his minor in Cultural Anthropology—and isn't that a strange interest for an Engineering major—he wouldn't have been cognizant of his relationship with Boo, and with the women who had agreed to dine with them tonight. The people immersed in a culture take it for granted. It just is. His courses taught him that there were reasons for everything, and that no one way was the right way.
The United States are a monogamous culture. The Confederate States are a polygamous culture. Jaime couldn't help but consider the differences, fresh in his mind from recent research. After all, the two cultures were once one. Without the course, Jaime would have taken for granted that male bonding such as enjoyed by him and Beaufort was the norm. Two or more compatible men associating with the intent to become co-husbands of two or more compatible women was, in fact, a minority culture in predominantly Judeo-Christian countries, he'd learned.
"Other countries, other mores;" that was the lesson. The polygamy laws enacted to entice Utah into the Confederacy during the War of Seccession had permitted, not required, plural spouses. It was the absorption of widows into other marriages following the war that had given the culture it's first momentum, it's foray into legitimacy. Faced with a fait accompli, the churches had sought grounds to justify the legitimacy of plural marriage rather than condemn it. Elsewhere, religion took a distinctly Pauline view, claiming "the Apostle Paul says God commands monogamy."
Southern scholars disputed that view, pointing out that Paul was enjoining the monogamists of that day to obey the secular laws of their culture, not establishing a rule for all the faithful. There were schisms in various liturgies. The Anglican Church and the Roman Catholics in particular split over the issue. But today, Catholic Priests in the Confederacy don't take vows of celibacy. By special dispensation, American Catholics observe the sacrament of marriage in its plural form.
The other factor that led to a predominantly polygamous Confederacy, his teachers claimed, was human nature. Crudely put, they said that men tend to want to impregnate as many women as possible, while women sought the best single specimen to mate with. Polygamy represented a compromise. Granted, the initial thrust was polygynous, or multiple wives for a single husband. Such had been the Mormon way. But population pressure and the way the law had been written had changed all that.
Jaime shook his head to clear it of these distractions. Jean had asked him something. Embarrassed, he was forced to ask her to repeat the question. He allowed his inner smile to reach the outside as he realized this beautiful sister was trying to ascertain if he were as charming as his future husband. No one was that charming, he thought, but allowed her to see that he was not without charms of his own. And it was clear as Brenda occupied Boo, that these sisters loved one another as much as he and Boo. He began to entertain the notion that he and Boo might have finally found women with whom they might share their love.
"Evening Colors" is a relatively simple ceremony. The Honor Guard is the topside watch and Duty Driver, supervised by the Duty Officer. Exactly at sunset, "Attention", "Retreat", and "Carry on" are played over the ship's announcing circuit, and the flag is lowered from the jack staff and folded, while the Duty Officer and any other person topside faces the flag and salutes. Civilians place their hand over their hearts.
At 19:00, Deborah and I snapped to attention and saluted the flag. Nancy placed her hand over her heart. The Color Guard lowered the flag six feet and unclipped it from lines. They stepped back one pace and saluted the empty staff. Fifteen seconds later, "Carry On" sounded and we all dropped our salutes.
A simple ceremony, but one that makes me proud to be an American. Just another military tradition, to some. I guess some traditions are more important than others.
Take the tradition of announcing the bans. It's considered customary to announce an engagement in a public newspaper, usually with a picture of the woman or women (and sometimes even the men) who've pledged their hands.
It had been a simple matter to have the ship's photographer, while briefly aboard moving her equipment, take several photos of my guests. She assured me she would deliver the photos and a hastily worded announcement to the Virginian Pilot and Daily Press offices immediately after change of command. She promised confidentiality as well, despite a burning desire to congratulate the ladies. She did congratulate me.
I escorted my fiancés below.
Jean moaned. There was no way she could contain the sound, nor did she want to. What Jaimie was doing with his tongue...
Near her on the bed, Brenda was starting to keen. Apparently, Boo was just as talented with his tongue as Jaimie, and not just with words. The sound of her sister in ecstasy pushed her closer, as did the sudden flurry of activity at her center. Another moan escaped as she writhed on the sheets.
God, what is he doing to me? she thought. He knows tricks Brenda never thought of! Fingers, tongue, lips, even his nose was involved, and what is he doing with that finger on my... Pleasure erupted, and Jean lost track of details. Distantly she heard wailing.
When next she could take stock of her surroundings, she found herself... surrounded. Wrapped in Jaimee's arms, a leg thrown over her own, his lips moving against her hair. She would have been quite comfortable and comforted, but for two things; the first was the aftershocks which made her shiver in his arms; the second, the sound of her sister grunting and rutting close by.
David awoke. The one thought on his mind was that he needed to take a piss. With that goal, he carefully and lovingly disengaged from the tangle that was Arthur, Marla, and Melody. He made it to the bathroom in time, but barely.
Returning to the bedroom, he gazed fondly at the sweaty tangle his spouses made on the bed. If mere volume could do it, he thought, Marla couldn't help but be pregnant. He still couldn't believe how many times he and Arthur had risen to the occasion. They'd never been that randy before, not even on their honeymoon.
He felt a tear on his cheek. It was hard to contain the joy his husband and wives stirred in him.
Someone else stirred. Melody asked softly, "David? Are you all right?"
He sniffled. "Yeah. I love you. I love you all so much."
"Melody smiled. "I love you, too, sweetheart. We all do. Are you coming back to bed?"
He nodded in the dark. "Of course. My mammas didn't raise no fools."
Nancy felt just a little uncomfortable. A strange bed, a strange "room," strange sounds and a current of air from a vent duct blowing past her head, and strangest of all, Deborah spooned behind her lying on their right sides. That was even stranger than the pajamas she wore to bed. They normally slept nude.
But Deborah was there, and it was enough. She'd missed the arm draped over her, missed the wife, friend, lover to whom the arm was attached. She was complete again.
She'd wanted to welcome Deborah home in the privacy of the Captain's cabin, but Deborah had refused, gently but too firmly to argue. "Whatever else happens, I'm still the Duty Officer. I might be needed on a moment's notice. We can go home after the change of command and take our time, without interruptions." Nancy could only agree.
She snuggled back, wanting at least make contact with as much of Deborah's skin as her pajamas and Deborah's panties and undershirt permitted. Deborah hugged her tightly, then relaxed.
She was almost asleep when the question popped into her head. Was Deborah asleep? She had to ask.
"We're going to marry him, aren't we?" she whispered.
There was no response, only steady breathing behind her for so long, she was sure Deborah was asleep. She didn't know whether to be relieved or not. She knew she'd have to ask the question again in the morning.
"Yes," Deborah whispered into her hair. Tickling, "I think we are."
Facing inward, she couldn't see the ship's clock above the Captains folded-up desk. So she could only judge by the many heartbeats that a long time had passed before she asked, "Will he be good to us?" to me?
"Yes, Deborah said. "Good to us and good for us." Nancy felt a hug, and hugged the arm in return.
She was asleep before that unseen clock's eight chimes told midnight.
Bob woke up smiling. Why shouldn't he? He had an excellent position as commander of the pride of the Confederate States Navy, excellent prospects for advancement, excellent health, and most excellently, two beautiful women had agreed to become his wives.
Well, they'd hash out the details. Bob had set himself to win them with his boyish charm, teased them into accepting a proposal that he hadn't actually reached the point of making; now he would have to woo them like any suitor. Backwards, as usual, Bob, he told himself. Just like your football style. See the goal, kick the ball through the goalee's legs, then charge the goal. Backwards.
He was in his tiny shower closet when his steward knocked.
"Begging the Captain's pardon, sir, but shall I remove the remaining clothing and linens to the BOQ, or has the Captain made other arrangements?"
Other arrangements? Great day, last night can't possibly be all over the ship already, can it? The Captain thought about everyone who had actually seen the arrival of Mrs. Harboard, who had seen them in the wardroom, who might have overheard any snatch of conversation. The Pantry cook and Chief Ghirardeli were sworn to secrecy. They'd not talk. So what...?
Bob realized he was overreacting. "No, no other arrangements. The BOQ will be fine."
"Yes, sir. I'll take care of it as soon as Mrs. Harboard's guest is done with your stateroom."
"That'll be fine."
He dressed in the uniform laid out for him, double-checked the locked safes and left them all open, empty. Time for breakfast. He left for the Wardroom.
Siobhan Dorchester scanned her control panel frequently, changing the order each time to prevent herself from becoming complacent with the readings. Even shut down, a reactor plant was never truly shut down. Once brought to initial criticality, the fuel would continue to fission at faster than isotopic decay rates, and each neutron released had at least the potential to cause more fissioning.
The rate was low enough now, with all control rods fully inserted, to be negligible, so long as the conditions of temperature and pressure stayed within their limits. Room-temperature water could reflect many more neutrons back into the fuel than the less-dense hot water could, so she was vigilant to avoid such conditions. Gotta keep the gamma rays outa the people tank, she thought to herself.
She smiled, thinking why that was even more important now. Military-issued birth control was first rate, but no birth control was infallible. This had been her last tour at sea for a few years. Of course, every silver lining had a dark cloud.
Siobhan contemplated clouds and linings while she made a log entry. It'll be wonderful to be at home full time, even with Roy and Cassandra still on the 'Areolee,' and I'll certainly see more of my other husband and wife, Darren and Libby, when the Jeff Davis is in port. She stood and turned to read through a bank of remote Resistance Temperature Detectors (RTDs). Jeff Davis is in port now. The whole family will be together tonight and tomorrow, before they pull out on Monday. She smiled a huge smile.
Her shadow watch showed up just then, and if she chose to believe that smile was for her, Siobhan didn't mind. She began a leisurely turnover with the shipyard Reactor Operator who would assume her duties upon change of command.
Captain John Carter was a clean-limbed fighting man of Virginia. At 25, already a Company Commander in the Confederate States Marine Corps (CSMC) and veteran of two campaigns, he was looking forward to his transfer to CASA, the Confederate Air and Space Administration. Between his Engineering Degree and combat experience, he'd won an appointment for consideration as crew of the manned Mars probe scheduled for 2006.
He knew he'd make the team. Young, exceptionally fit, outstanding coordination, keen eyesight, and an exceptional leader, he'd never failed at anything he'd set his mind to, and this would not be an exception. Not while he breathed and there was a God in heaven.
He planned to stop in Norfolk overnight to let his sister know. And her husband, Nat Forrest. He loved his sister and liked her husband, but there was just that tiny voice itching to tell Nat, "See? Naked Talent and pure ability are as good as a family name any day!"
Not that Nat had ever acted the Aristocrat, but still—he had That Name. John had always felt the need to 'live up' to his brother-in-law's family. This assignment could more than fulfill that need. Maybe if I became famous enough...
John squelched the thought in its tracks. Sisters could be wives. Brothers could be husbands. But Brother and sister could never be husband and wife. Not even if their family name was Ptolemy, not in this day and age. He'd just have to find a wife or wives he could love as much as his sister.
Bob happily joined Deborah and Nancy in the wardroom for breakfast. After he'd 'surrendered' last night, their conversation had turned to the sort of small talk dating people engaged in. Some light and inconsequential, some sniffing around the edges, some serious long-term thoughts. At no time had Nancy displayed the attitude that had spoiled their first date.
Nancy was speaking. "You must let us show our appreciation for last night by inviting you to dinner. A home cooked meal, that is. Are you available Saturday evening?"
Bob didn't waste an instant's thought on why he wasn't invited tonight—Deborah and Nancy's first night alone together in weeks. But, "I'm sorry, I'll be in Washington City tomorrow, at the War Department." He regretted turning down any invitation the Harboard women tendered, but especially one from Nancy. "Perhaps another time?"
Nancy and Deborah exchanged looks. Marital code flashed in head leans, eyebrow motions, and a nod. "Will you be back Sunday?"
"Certainly. I'd be pleased to take dinner with you Sunday, Nancy, Deborah. What time, and what can I bring?"
"Sunday Dinner is early, say 16:00?" Bob nodded. "Bring a hearty appetite."
Bob nodded again, grinning. He'd bring more than that—flowers, of a certainty, and perhaps wine, or sherry. An early dinner might mean, if he hadn't been thrown out, drinks or a snack later.
His lovely guest hadn't commented, but she must have noticed that breakfast was served on disposable plates, with disposable cutlery. Dinner last night would have been similar, had Bob not brought back his personal service, or at least part of it. His steward had already packed and removed that and his other personal items by now. Even the breakfast, tolerable as it was, was catered from the pier. By now the wardroom pantry and the galley were scrubbed down for turnover.
He glanced at the clock. Less than an hour until turnover.
As part of the working party that had off-loaded the last of the personal gear to a waiting shuttle-bus, Seaman Sizeman didn't have to attend the change of command ceremony. She did have to follow the Chief-of-the-Boat (COB) and his Yardbird counterpart as they inspected the berthing spaces to ensure nothing was left behind.
So far, the lucky-bag contained two sets of underwear, a bra, several toothbrushes, assorted combs, several shampoo bottles, about six dollars in loose change and a bible. Nothing anyone would claim, except for the bible, and that had a name in it. Petty Officer Whitehead would owe the COB an hour for that. The change would go into the crew's rec fund and the toothbrushes would end up applying polish to the COB's shoes. The rest was trash.
Susan was already looking eagerly ahead an hour to when the working party would be dismissed at the temporary off-ship crew's quarters. She had leave that started immediately after, and a noon flight out of Norfolk International, home to Salt Lake City. She was even looking forward to being greeted by her husband's silly ditty, the one that went, "Seaman Susie Sizeman sails subs by the sea shore." Her wives would help her tease him back. They always did.
Before they finished with the compartment, four paperback books—two romances and two mystery stories—had joined the bible in the lucky-bag, as well as a dozen magazines of a type that made Susan blush. Slavery had been abolished well over a hundred years ago—she couldn't understand why anyone would want to tie someone up that way and whip them. Especially naked. That would be so... well... humiliating.
And the woman tied up wasn't even dark skinned! Still, the expression on her face...
Susan began to suspect that her upbringing was even more sheltered than she'd realized.
The 1MC saved her from further embarrassment. "This is Lieutenant Commander Paul Darnick, Ship Superintendent, Norfolk Naval Shipyard. I will read my orders..."
Deborah stood at attention. Behind her, five of the crew in dress greys represented the rest for the brief ceremony. The rest of her duty section was below decks, waiting for the magic words that would start their R&R, almost a day behind the rest of the crew. From the corner of her eye, she could see Nancy, behind the Captain and the Ship Superintendent on the microphone. Several other guests attended as well, near Nancy.
But now she was watching the Captain... Bob. For thirty more seconds, he was The Captain. Commanding Officer of The CSS Robert E. Lee. Master before God of the finest warship in the Fleet of Virginia and the Confederate States Navy...
"From: Admiral Jonas S. Sampson, Commander, Submarine Forces Atlantic Fleet. To: Lieutenant Commander Paul Darnick, Ship Superintendent, Norfolk Naval Shipyard. You will proceed on or about 08:00, Four May, 2001 to assume Command of the Confederate States Ship Robert E. Lee on behalf of Norfolk Naval Shipyard for the purpose of overhaul, upgrade, and refurbishment." Lcdr Darnick handed the microphone to a yeoman, who kept the key depressed. He saluted Captain Lee. "Captain Lee, I relieve you."
"I stand relieved." Bob saluted back. The Yeoman unkeyed the microphone. The two officers shook hands, Bob saying, "Take good care of her for me."
The new master of the Areolee grinned back and nodded. He directed one of his personnel, "Strike the colors." All saluted as the flag was lowered. Then he took the mike again. "That is all. Carry on."
...and just like that, Bob was simply 'Officer in Charge, Submarine Cadre Detachment.' The CSS Robert E. Lee was officially 'Out of Commission.' Deborah watched his shoulders slump, slightly. Relief from the burdens of command, she wondered silently, or depression from the reduction in power? Will it change that cocky attitude?
The rest of the duty section poured from the torpedo loading hatch and exited the ship, many boarding the shuttle bus, but others being met by family. The COB was the last one up. "That's the lot, Skipper," he reported.
Deborah had Nancy precede her down the brow. It felt strange not to salute a Quarterdeck Watch or the flag. Looking over her shoulder, she saw Bob twitch when it was his turn. It also felt strange not to hear "Robert E. Lee, departing" announced.
Bob insisted that she and Nancy board the shuttle, and had the driver drop them at Nancy's car in the visitor's lot. There, he bade them goodbye, "...until Sunday."
As Deborah watched the shuttle pull away, Nancy placed an arm around her shoulder. "I felt it too. Almost wanted to take him in my arms and comfort him."
Deborah grinned at her wife. "Grows on you, doesn't he?"
"I guess. Let's go home."
They went home.
"They seemed quite attractive," Caroline said. "Especially your young Lieutenant. I can see why he might bend a rule or two." She and Samantha had watched the Change of Command from the pier, unnoticed, mostly so Sam could point out the woman Bob had turned Caroline down for. The gossip had been every bit as juicy as Bob had promised.
Samantha sighed. "I think I envy her a little." She looked askance at Caroline. "You should have given me more notice that you were going to put a move on Bob. I could have done a little groundwork. Not, in view of the circumstances, that it would have done any good, but I would have appreciated being in the loop."
Caroline tilted her head. "I didn't think that... look, I worried more that you'd be upset with the idea. You've expressed the same reservations about, you know, same-ship relationships."
"How can I put this," Samantha said. "Ah. Let me paraphrase. 'In her professional capacity, Samantha Stuart-Forrest must embrace policies which she abhors in her personal capacity.' How's that?"
"Sounds like delusions of godhood," Caroline said, laughing. "So what you're saying..."
"What I'm saying," Samantha interrupted, "is that I agree with that wise old bureaucrat in the early twentieth century who decided you couldn't legislate morality and got most of the fraternization directives expunged from military regulations. Deal with the problems you see, not the ones you think you see."
"Deal with the favoritism, not with the affair."
"Right. You can document instances of preferential treatment. You can't document the emotions or attitudes that caused them." Sam looked reflective. "When word of Bob's first date with Deborah and her wife reached me through the grapevine, I called her into my stateroom—I couldn't talk to Bob—and lectured her on not accepting any favoritism."
"For one thing, she had no idea about Bob's policy. It was so funny watching her realize that Bob had done something extraordinary with her. For another, she was holding details very close, giving up nothing, and I could see that preference was not an issue... militarily."
Samantha's face turned... apprehensive. "I know juggling a military career and a marriage means I'll be 'out of the loop' on domestic matters way too often, but...
"Damn it, Caroline! It was my turn!"
Caroline was startled by the vehemence, and lost as to what turn Sam was claiming. For a moment. Then, "Oh, sweetheart! I'm so sorry. But you need to know, it wasn't planned."
Samantha, holding back tears, sniffed. "It wasn't?"
"Remember back to the night of the alert? 'All military personnel report to your units by 20:00.' You pushed us all into the bedroom, saying you only had an hour before you had to leave for God knows how long. I didn't have time to insert my diaphragm, you were in such a rush. And I thought it was safe enough..."
"Oh my God! I got you pregnant?"
Caroline nodded. "And you were home by midnight anyway, but that's not important." They held one another, laughing and crying, for a long time.
After a while, they pulled apart, wiping cheeks and straightening themselves. "Well," said Caroline, "at least I don't feel quite so bad about being turned down by Bob, now."
"No. He isn't as perceptive as I thought he was."
"What makes you say that?"
"He said he thought you were too driven and career oriented to want babies. He even made me doubt it myself."
Sam looked into Caroline's eyes. "Have no doubts on that score. I love babies, and I want to make some with you and Nat. I just wanted to time them for shore duty. I love you."
"I love you, too. So you're okay with me being..." She waved a hand over her belly.
"I am now. Let's talk names."
"Yes! Yes! There! Ohgodohgodohgod!"
Collapsed on the bed afterward, Mrs. and Mrs. Harboard alternately panted and giggled. Hands intertwined between them squeezed often. Sweat and other moisture slowly dried in the breeze from a ceiling fan. Eventually, the room became quiet.
Nancy broke the silence. "Welcome home."
Deborah smiled. "It's good to be home."
If, in his temporarily reduced circumstance, Bob rated neither a driver nor a steward, the same did not apply to his cousin, Major General James Ezekiel Lee. The same cousin who, knowing that Bob would meet briefly with his superiors in the War Department on Saturday, sent driver and car to fetch Bob to the family estates in Arlington rather than allow him to use public transportation and military lodging.
Bob wasn't entirely certain the courtesy was worth it. An automobile ride from Norfolk to Washington City, no matter how luxurious the vehicle, was still three hours and more of automobile ride. The air packet from the Naval Air Station would have arrived much later, but with less than half an hour in air travel.
Bob reminded himself any time his legs cramped or his back protested, the cadet branches of the Lee family do not insult the main branch by refusing their hospitality.
He reminded himself again as the driver negotiated the traffic of Washington City. Even in Arlington, where the family still lived, traffic was intense. Bob was already adding an hour to his planned travel time to the inner city in the morning.
Donna Delvechio smiled at Jason LaPaz as his brother seated her. Jason was seating their wife, Belinda, across from her. She smiled at Belinda as well. She enjoyed dating the LaPazes, and not just for the newspaper contacts she'd made for when her enlistment was up in August. They were fun people, and Donna enjoyed their company.
Belinda spoke as the men seated themselves. "Jason tells us you brought him some excellent art from this last trip."
"I don't know that I'd call it art, but I took some photos I was quite pleased with. Sometimes, a photographer just needs to be in the right place with a camera."
"She's too modest," Jason said. "It isn't enough to be there, you also have to have the eye, and the presense of mind to make the right settings to capture what that eye sees. Donna has both."
"Trust his word," interjected Leo, his brother. "Jason is an expert on capturing what the eye sees." He let his gaze linger on Donna with a slight smile.
Donna blushed. What Leo had said was certainly true. She normally dated single men or women, avoiding married groups because such dates tended to become more serious too quickly. But the LaPazes had never proposed anything more serious, or even exclusive. Donna was free to play the fields, and did.
While Jason described some of her photographs, a waiter came and went. Drinks appeared and their orders were taken. Donna was fascinated by Jason's descriptions - he saw critical detail much better than she did herself. She usually took the pictures because they simply appealed to her, making decisions about aperature and exposure almost subliminally.
"So anyway," Jason was saying, "I showed the photographs to Willard in Society, particularly the engagement photos. He asked if you'd be interested in a job. Oh, and he'll insert the engagement announcement in Sunday's page; he had a cancellation."
"A job?" Donna asked. She knew she should be excited for the Captain — neither had expected the announcement to run until the following weekend — but the prospect of post-service employment crowded out the lesser excitement.
Jason nodded. "He liked all your work, but was particularly enamored with the engagement photos. He needs a better society photographer, wants me to set up an interview. If you're interested..."
"I'm interested, I'm interested!" Donna laughed. "I'm not at all sure what I'll be doing when my enlistment's up. I have applications at bunches of electronics firms, since that's what my rating mainly deals with. My hobby and collateral duty as a photographer gives me other options, and I had applications at various chain portrait studios as well. So far all I've received is acknowledgement of the resumes and aps. I'd love an actual interview."
They discussed it a little more before leaving for a dance club. Donna was floating on a cloud, and let it show through dancing. She accepted eagerly when the LaPazes invited her home. It was a wonderful cap to a wonderful date.
Jimmy Lee was laughing out loud. When, after dinner, his junior wife had turned the conversation from military shop talk to Bob's personal life, she'd managed to pry all the details of both dates with the ladies Harboard out of his cousin. The story of the second date, and the engagement—if it was an engaement—reminded him of a younger Bobby he remembered fondly.
But Priscilla was frowning. For that matter, so were Constance and Olivia if somewhat less so. Jimmy calmed himself and leaned back to listen to his wives' counsel on the matter. Donald, his husband smiled, but wryly.
"You do realize that they were only teasing back, don't you?" The doubtful tone in Priscilla's voice gave doubt that she believed any such thing.
"I know no such thing," Bob said, grinning. "They accepted, and I for one appreciate the brevity of the courtship. I've never been particularly good at the dating thing."
"I'd say that's a bit of an understatement," Conny said. Priscilla and Livvy both nodded.
"If you take for granted that this 'engagement' is a fait accompli, Priscilla added, "You're only setting yourself up for a rude awakening." She delivered this verdict in the same tone that she had once informed Jimmy that "Prissy" and "Silly" would not be regarded as terms of endearment.
Bob sat up straighter in his seat. "you really think so." It wasn't a question.
"I know how I would react in their position, and I doubt they'd react much differently. On the plus side, you've been invited to dinner at their home, so there is some interest in persuing a relationship. But if you even hint at taking that for granted..."
"Okay, I get it." Bob said. He seemed distracted. "I need to call the paper first thing Monday morning and pull an engagement announcement."
Jimmy laughed again. So did Don. Their wives were all but physically beating poor Bob about the head and shoulders for his "insensitivity" and "brashness," not to mention his complete and utter lack of any hint of romance or empathy. Strike that — now they were slapping him on top of his head, like some errant school-boy.
But Jimmy also appreciated Bob's gesture on some levels. His military acumen liked the decisiveness and the flanking maneuver. See the enemy, engage the enemy—and that thought brought fresh laughter burbling to the surface, which earned him a few "you aren't helping" stares of his own.
He managed to restrain himself to merely grinning, and sharing those grins with Don. Poor Bob would be grateful for the reprieve of a visit to the War Department in the morning.
Slap. "If they even hear a rumor that you placed an engagement announcement without their permission..." Slap.
Very, very grateful.
This was more like it, Nancy thought. Awash in the afterglow of making love — again — she felt very comfortable. Her familiar bed, her familiar room, no strange sounds and the currents of air from a ceiling fan, not some vent duct blowing past her head, and best of all, Deborah spooned behind her lying on their left sides. Nude.
Which made her say aloud, "I wonder what side of the bed Bob likes to sleep on."
Only another woman would find such a statement, made at the borders of sleep, completely normal. "He's not The Dick," Deborah pointed out. "Maybe he won't roll away on a side at all."
"You mean he might cuddle up behind you like you're behind me?" That appealed to Nancy. She felt Deborah's nod.
"He might. Or maybe he'll snuggle in between us, and this," she hugged Nancy, "would be his arm, and this," she bumped her pelvis forward, "would be his cock, nestling against your ass."
That image left Nancy… ambivalent. That mixture of feelings surprised her. The thought that Bob might come between her and Deborah, on any level… the thought that Bob might nestle his cock against her ass…. "You chose those words deliberately." Her nipples were hardening.
Giggling answered her, and soft whispering. "Cock. Ass." Deborah's arm left Nancy's ribs and reappeared between them. A thumb wiggled between Nancy's cheeks. "Cock. Ass."
Nancy groaned. Deborah knew all her secrets, all her weaknesses. She felt, despite her tiredness, a certain moisture forming. The thumb began to press gently on her sphincter, and fingers slid across her peritoneum to caress her lips. Her own hand slid up to fondle her tits. Boobs. Knockers.
Deborah slid the thumb past her sphincter, and began slowly sawing in and out. "Cock. Bugger. Assfuck. Cornhole." Her fingers continued to rub and spread Nancy's labia. "Pussy. Cunt. Twat."
Nancy was approaching orgasm rapidly, one hand on her melons—casabas—honkers, the other bracketing her clitoris—clit—girl-dick, vibrating furiously.
Deborah could tell when she arrived. "Come! Gush! Squirt, fucking squirt!"
Some minutes later, Nancy had calmed, her breathing almost normal. "Okay. Bob can sleep in the middle if he wants to."
Deborah just giggled.
If the Commonwealth of Virginia and the Confederate States of America had no law against the possession and use of what their neighbors and cousins to the north called narcotics, the abuse of euphoriants or analgesics or others of the Pharmacopoeia was strongly frowned on.
Richard "The Dick" Traylor might be such an abuser. Who could blame me, he thought to himself. The whole freakin' world is out to get me. A little problem with quality control, no big deal, and those fuckers in military procurement put a hold on all my contracts. Could've worked it all out if they'd given me time. Then those bitches deserted me. First sign of trouble, worse'n those supply pimps.
Richard laughed at his own play on words. Procurers. Pimps. And who does that make their whore? Better off without 'em, I don't fuckin' whore for nobody. Not like those bitches that ran off without givin' me time to fix things. Nobody ever gave me time. Fuckin' creditors pushed me into bankruptcy rather than gimme a chance to fix things. All I needed was a chance, a little more time.
He patted his shirt pocket. He had half a pack of marijuana cigarettes laced with a dusting of ecstasy. He wasn't supposed to smoke at work; had, in fact, received two warnings to that effect. He frowned, and left them in his pocket.
That's another thing. Assholes here act like they're doing me some big favor hirin' me for this shitty job. Like I don't have a college degree in business admin, good as any of 'em. He looked at the clock. S'pose I ought to make a round, check on those dickhead rent-a-cops they saddled me with. In fact, his job description implied continuous rounds under the theory that you got what you inspect, not what you expect, when it came to low-paying semi-skilled labor.
What Richard's subordinates had come to expect was a visit early on the 22:00 to 06:00 graveyard shift, and then maybe another just before the morning crew arrived. Richard didn't like to be caught in his office in the morning-that might imply sloth on his part-so he randomly visited one or two guards, to be found out and about at shift's end. The guards behaved in this vacuum of supervision as one might expect; most did their jobs, some slacked off or napped, a smaller fraction stole or dealt stolen merchandise from warehouse docks, as their natures decreed. They knew "the Dick" didn't care.
Richard was assigned a battery-operated cart to travel among the baker's dozen warehouses in his custody. Someone had thought it made sense to provide the security chief with a nearly silent vehicle. Naturally, Richard negated that advantage by radioing his subordinates to open doors ahead of him, so he could ride through the warehouses. It was another of his grievances. Cheap bastards won't shell out to provide me with a real car.
Not all of his employers were satisfied with "expecting" good performance. As it happened, Richard's near midnight ride between the warehouses was observed by the vice president for personnel, who believed in inspection. Though Richard didn't know it, his job was preserved for another week by that observation. The V.P. was pleased, but planned on a 04:00 inspection next week. Richard was, after all, on probation, and these warehouses suffered the highest rate of "shrinkage" in the company. Shrinkage was a polite euphemism for "loss due to employee theft."
Oblivious, Richard radioed the guard in Warehouse 3 to open the roll-up door on the south end. Ten minutes later, he and the like-minded guard were smoking laced hemp together.
The wonderful thing about Saturday, Alex Ghirardeli thought, is that you don't have to get out of bed until you're damn good and ready. The sad thing was, after twenty-eight years of getting up at 04:00 to start breakfast for hungry sailors, Lex was damn good and ready. He'd already slept in two hours later than usual.
Lex slipped from the covers, knowing that no matter how careful he was, the motion would wake DeeDee. She was a light sleeper—always had been. He watched her cat-like stretch as he walked to the head… the bathroom. Have to start thinking in Civilian terms again.
After he relieved his bladder, Lex decided to take a hot shower. A long, hot shower. Submarine showers is one thing I won't miss for a while. He adjusted the temperature and stood under the nozzle, letting the heat open his pores.
He heard the shower curtain drawn and smiled. After a few seconds, he felt a washcloth on his back. "Need your back scrubbed, sailor?" DeeDee asked.
"Okay," he replied, "but you'll have to hurry. My wife might come in any minute. She's a light sleeper."
DeeDee laughed, just as she always did. It was a familiar routine, one of the many that had survived twenty years of marriage. If her laugh was shorter, or less loud than in years past, it was so in honor of the memory of their other wives and husbands who'd shared the routines.
Lex turned around to rinse his back and begin soaping DeeDee's. She had her hair pinned up to keep it dry, and he lovingly scrubbed her back, just as she had his. When he made room for her to rinse, she did so, then turned with another cloth so they could wash each other.
Maybe they both sagged a bit, showing their ages, but DeeDee still looked damn good to Lex. As good a time as any, he thought, gently laving her breasts. "Dee, darlin', I've been thinking." He paused for the inevitable comeback.
"Shall I turn down the water temperature so you can cool your head?" Inevitable.
"Might not hurt, at that," Lex said. Routine. "Is that how you do it?" They smiled at each other. "Anyway, I think it's time we…."
"Please don't finish that thought." DeeDee's face had lost the smile.
Lex gathered her into his arms. It was awkward, turning off the shower without letting go, but he managed. Then he held her as she began to sob into his wet chest. He knew her tears were mixing with the wetness. "Okay, baby, not now. But soon."
Tragedy can strike anyone, anytime, anywhere. God knows we've seen enough for one lifetime. No one should have to bury two wives and two husbands. But if they must, they shouldn't have to bury them alone, or be alone afterwards. Lex did not intend to leave DeeDee alone. We're plenty young enough to marry again. It's time she faced that.
When she seemed calm enough, he hugged her one more time. Then they resumed the routine, as though nothing had happened. Dried. Dressed. DeeDee made the bed while Lex went to the kitchen.
She'll come around, he thought, while starting yet another breakfast. He snorted to himself. Don't know why I think she will, she hasn't so far. But she's got to. If we start living like some old couple or triple, waiting to die, we will. And we'll waste twenty or thirty of what's supposed to be our "Golden Years."
He had a thought. I'll take her out tonight. Chiefs' Club, or maybe the Mariner. Dancing after, she always liked that. Maybe we'll meet someone she takes a fancy to.
Hell, I know what'd put her in the mood. I wish I could tell her about the Skipper and his finance… feasance… "Fee on says," he finished aloud.
"Whose fiancées?" DeeDee asked, entering the kitchen.
Lex groaned. "I don't think I can tell you." …unless I want all of Norfolk to know about it. Telephone, telegraph, tell a Chief's wife, the three fastest ways to spread a message.
"There you go, thinking again. I thought that smell was bacon frying."
"Well, I can't tell you. The Captain swore me to…"
"The Captain proposed to Nancy and Debby Harboard and they accepted? That's wonderful!"
"…secrecy," he finished, mouth remaining open. "How in the hell did you figure that?"
"Obvious! Fiancées, Captain swore, and everyone knows about the date with the Harboards. Who else would it be? Oh, I gotta call Milly, she'll love this." And she was gone.
"Telephone, telegraph, tell a wife." I am so screwed when the Skipper finds out.
He turned back to the bacon.
Well, that was painless enough, Bob thought, as he relaxed in his cousin’s staff car. James had thoughtfully made both car and driver available for Bob’s trip to the War Department. The interview with the Commander of Submarine Forces (Atlantic) and Fleet Commander, Virginia, was more social call than anything else. Just another tradition, in a tradition-bound service.
The morning traffic hadn’t been nearly as bad as Bob had expected—it was, after all, Saturday—and the return traffic was even less so. So the debriefing over coffee and coffeecake was anticlimactic. A Captain of a decommissioned ship normally received his or her new orders at these debriefings, whether a new ship or some other assignment. Bob had been relieved to hear that he would resume the helm of CSS Robert E. Lee when she was recommissioned following overhaul.
I didn’t really expect anything different. Why was it such a relief to hear it confirmed? Am I that insecure? Bob knew he wasn’t, but… there were always possibilities. If they’d offered something newer, he pictured the Ballistic Missile submarine under construction at Pascagoula, would I have turned it down? Officers who turn down promotions or opportunities generally aren’t ‘bothered’ with any more of either.
He frowned. Would the idea of such an offer have bothered me at all, if I hadn’t just begun courting Nancy and Deborah? Never mind my Exec’s commitment to her career—what about mine? The unwritten rule was always, "Junior Officers should not marry—senior officers must." It’s never applied to female officers, either way—how fair is that—and the boundary between "junior" and "senior" was extremely flexible. Bob was certain that his position as a ship’s captain was on the senior side of that line.
Bob gazed out the car’s window, but his eyes focused on none of the landscape or building that rushed by. How much did that unwritten rule influence my decision to court the Harboards? He thought back to the day Deborah reported aboard, all starched and crisp… and smiled. He’d liked "the cut of her jib" even then. And at the Submarine Ball, Nancy seemed so shy, so fragile—and Deborah so fiercely protective, without being assertive. He’d danced with both, and with all his officers or their spouses, as custom demanded. But I enjoyed Deborah—and Nancy—in my arms more than any of the others.
No, he reassured himself, I didn’t start thinking about any silly unwritten rules until after I’d made the decision to ask them out. Just the head trying to provide justification for what the heart had already decided. And nothing in our two dates has changed the heart’s decision. If anything, the attraction is stronger. Now if I can just keep my too-clever head from screwing up what the heart needs…
The diorama beyond the windows slowed and stopped. Bob was startled to realize that they were once again at Lee House. He profusely thanked the General’s driver and proceeded into the house.
Priscilla and Conny were waiting for him in the family room. From the set of their jaws, they were ready to resume castigating him for the clumsy way in which he’d handled the courtship so far. Well, enough s enough. It’s my courtship, and clumsy or inept or not, it’s my affair to run or ruin. So, let’s set that record straight.
"Bob, we think you need to…"
"Good morning, ladies. Prissy, are you still beating that dead horse, or are you prepared to offer constructive criticism of my love life?"
Pricilla’s eyes darkened and her brows knit. Her face began to color ominously. Constance, on the other hand, took a step back, her eyes widening. A hand darted to her lips, and she appeared to be stifling herself. She looked at the back Priscilla’s head, darting glances at Bob. Priscilla began to inflate, preparatory to an explosion.
Get there firstest with the mostest. "Stop looking at me in that tone of voice, Prissy. If you don't like the nickname, don't act the part. Constructive criticism or silence. I've taken enough of the other.
If Pricilla had inflated before, now she positively swelled, her face a beet red…
…and then she let it all out, in one prolonged "Bronx cheer." Her shoulders didn't quite slump, but they were no longer pulled back. Her color returned to normal. She cocked her head to one side, and looked Bob in the eyes.
Priscilla nodded. "Engagement rings. If you're determined to aggressively pursue them, get the rings on your way home and carry them on you all the time. Be prepared to whip them out on a moment's notice."
Conny joined in. "Take a cab to this dinner tomorrow. Don't make it easy to get rid of you. Dismiss the cab immediately when you arrive."
"Don't push. Just be your sweet, boyish," Priscilla cocked her head the other way, "bedeviling, annoyingly charming self."
Bob laughed, and hugged his cousin's wives.
Pricilla said, "Just two more constructive criticisms, and I'm done criticizing for the rest of your visit."
Bob smiled wider. "Go ahead. What's the first?"
She nodded. "Whatever you're planning on spending on those engagement rings? Double it. At least."
Bob laughed again. "To make up for my 'annoying' charm? Fine. What's the second item?"
Priscilla swelled again, slightly, and in deadly earnest said, "Don't call me 'Prissy'."
Winnie Tanner-Bloom ran a tight ship. As senior wife to a pair of Chiefs-of-the-Boats, she had to. A COB's spouse is as close to an official position as any unofficial position can get. The spouse of the COB is at once a counselor, a confidant, a confessor, a crying post… the list goes on.
That list includes "town crier." If the ship had news, it was up to the COB's spouse to activate the phone tree and get it out there to everyone who had a need to know. So, as she set the telephone in its cradle, she wondered why she wasn't one of the first to know what she had just learned coming up the phone tree. But she knew who to ask.
"Ma'am?" The gruff, no-nonsence macho Chief-of-the-whole-damn-boat-and-don't-you-forget-it COB of the Robert E. Lee scrambled out of his recliner and left behind the sports page to stand in the door of Winnie's den.
Winnie cut straight to the chase. "What's going on between The Captain and Lieutenant Harboard and her wife?"
Luke swallowed. "Officially, I don't know. The Captain hasn't said anything to me, nor has the Lieutenant." He swallowed again. "I heard they had dinner together last night. Mrs. Harboard stayed aboard with the Lieutenant and was present at Change o' Command. That's all I know." He wanted to swallow again, but his mouth was suddenly dry.
"According to Georgia Carter, she heard from… well, never mind the chain, but it leads to a 'reliable source'—that The Captain proposed and the Harboards accepted. Now, I need to be able to confirm or deny. Get me proof one way or the other." Winnie went back to preparing the Spouses' Club Newsletter, trying to decide whether an announcement should be on the front or in the personal news section.
Luke had his marching orders. The simplest way to verify the story would be simply to ask the Captain. He even knew approximately where the Captain might be. But no way was he calling COMNAVSUBFOR(Atlantic), or even his office, to ask about a personal matter—not even for Winnie "Ironfist" Tanner-Bloom.
The next simplest was to ask the Lieutenant, if he could figure out a delicate way to phrase the question. He dug into his own phone list and looked them up. He reached for the phone.
Nancy and Deborah looked at what may well have been the entire contents of their walk-in closet, laid out on their bed, across their dressers, and on the backs of chairs. Then they looked at each other. "Road trip," they both said, and laughed.
Choosing clothes to shop in was a matter of grabbing slacks and a blouse, and in moments, both women were heading out the front door, purses in hand. Nancy had the keys; Deborah paused to lock and shut the door behind them.
As they pulled out of the driveway, their phone began to ring.
Luke set the phone down, mildly annoyed. Neither the Captain nor the Lieutenant are available for comment, not that I know exactly what to ask. "Good evening Lieutenant, sorry for calling you at home, but did you and your wife get engaged to the Skipper last night, and was it supposed to be a secret?" Oh yeah, that's a great way to start. So now what do I do?
He broke out the muster sheet he'd used the day before to ensure that the duty section was mustered off the ship. The Captain's steward… he cross-checked his leave and school schedule… on leave, home to Sonora. A General Delivery address and phone for contact. No help there.
Then there were the Wardroom pantry cook and Senior Chief Mess Specialist Ghirardeli, both on board last night. Luke's face broke into a grin considering Winnie's "reliable source." But he decided to call the pantry cook first. The phone rang twice before someone picked it up.
"Good morning, Mrs. Pufta. This is Master Chief Tanner, the Chief of the Boat. I'm trying to reach Stamos, is he in today?… Yes, ma'am, I'll hold… Oh, no ma'am, there's no emergency. He won't be called in, I just need some information… Thank you, Alicia, and you can call me Luke. Stamos has to call me 'COB', but you don't." Luke found himself laughing. "Alicia, I've heard the very same rumor. That's the reason I called, in fact… Yes, I'd have to agree it would be a good thing, if it turns out to be … Oh, he won't? Well, we'll see about… thank you, Alicia."
"Good morning to you, too… So you know why I call… Wait, I haven't asked you to confirm or deny any… Yes, I understand oaths… No, I… No, I… But, I…"
Enough is enough. "Petty Officer Pufta, shut up and let me explain why I'm on this phone. No. Shut up and listen." Luke took a deep breath and waited for silence on the line. "There is a rumor making the circuit—rapidly—that the Captain asked Lieutenant and Mrs. Harboard to marry him, and that they accepted. Shut up, I'm not done." Another deep breath.
"Sta, listen very carefully. If the rumor is true, but the Captain and the Mmes. Harboard do not want it public—yet—then the word must be put out to keep quiet, because those are their wishes. If he asked and they are thinking about it, a call for discretion is even more important, lest we screw it up for either side. If he asked and they said no, discretion is even more important, or a lot of people are going to be very embarrassed.
"The fourth case is that he never asked, in which case not only must the rumor be squelched, but I need to track down the rumor monger for counseling. All four cases require investigation. So, now I'm going to ask you just one question… no, wait for the question, damn it!"
Luke wondered how to phrase the question. He only had one shot, and he didn't want to waste it. Okay, here goes. "If my wife passes word on the phone tree that the Captain and the Mmes. Harboard do not want their relationship discussed until they discuss it publicly, will she be correct?"
There was a long pause on the other end of the phone while Sta Pufta reviewed the details of his promise.
"…nor deny that information. Yes, I understand. I don't have any other questions, Sta. Enjoy your weekend, and when it comes time, I'll personally inform the Skipper that you never broke your promise not to tell anyone about his engagement."
Luke smiled slyly at the response. "You're very welcome, Sta—it's the least I can do." After a few more pleasantries, he hung up.
Way to go, you crafty old bastard. The kid doesn't even realize his thanks gave away the whole show. He paused. Or maybe he does, and he just needed a discreet way to let it slip, without actually letting it slip. Either way, I've got confirmation. Now I just need to deal with the discretion issue. This phone number he knew from memory. No need to reach for the lists. But first he'd better give Winnie the poop.
Willard Schotz finished speed-reading the resume in his hands and turned his attention to the young woman who had brought it with her. He next asked for her portfolio, and thanked her for having it available on such short notice. "When Jason told me this morning that you'd agree to an interview, I couldn't wait to get you in here. Based on his recommendation and the photos I've already seen, I'm prepared to offer you a position."
Donna hesitated. "You understand that I'm not available full time until August first? My enlistment doesn't expire until then."
Willard nodded, thumbing through her portfolio. If anything, the photos there were even more impressive than what he'd seen before. "Since my previous photographer moved to Albuquerque last summer, I've been making do with interns from the art college at William and Mary's Norfolk campus. Some of them are very talented, but most want to be 'news' photographers, or photojournalists, or the like. They seem to think of the Society Section as practice—or purgatory."
He leaned back. "How do you feel about photographing for the Society pages? Please be candid."
"Truthfully, I just love to take pictures." They both laughed. "I'm a city girl. I can appreciate photos taken in a war zone, or by someone accompanying a trek through the wilds; I can admire the artistry of a given shot; but I've no wish to put up with the bugs or lack of toilet paper it took to get them." They both laughed again.
"All my other applications—for photo work, I mean—have been with portrait studios. I like working with people. Does that answer sufficiently?"
Willard smiled. He'd seen enough. "As I said, I'm prepared to offer you a position. Are you prepared to negotiate a salary, or am I wasting our time?"
"With the understanding that the Navy has first claim on my time…."
Willard waved that off. "Not a problem. We want to claim your free time—we'll work around military duty until your enlistment is up. If what Jase told me is correct, you're too 'short' to deploy with your current command, and you'll finish your hitch on temporary duty at the Naval Station here."
Donna nodded. "With that stipulation, then, yes. I'm prepared to discuss salary."
"Good. What would you say to…" he named a monthly figure, midrange on the scale he was authorized to offer.
Donna's brows knit.
Shit, he thought. I don't want to lose her. "…to start, of course. During the three month transition from Naval service to our service. After three months probation, I can offer…" he named a figure three quarters up the scale.
Donna's lips pursed.
"…with full dental and medical insurance, of course, and the usual stock options and retirement plan."
Donna's hand shot across the desk. "Deal. Where do I sign?"
Willard took her hand and shook it. He didn't learn until much, much later that in researching salaries for his negotiating position, he wasn't dealing with the equivalent of a Public Affairs Officer with less than six years of service, but a petty officer second class. Donna had been ready to leap across the desk and kiss him after the first offer—she thought she'd heard wrong.
By the time he learned his error, she'd been Chief Photographer for a year, and he consoled himself that it had still been a bargain.
While they were filling out forms in personnel, she remembered to thank him for getting the Captain's engagement announcement into tomorrow's paper.
"Claire? Hi, it's Winnie…"
"I'm not Claire, I'm Samantha. Hold on a second and I'll get her."
"Wait—if it wouldn't be too much trouble, Commander, could you stay on an extension? This concerns you, too."
"Certainly. Just a moment… Okay, she'll join us in a few seconds. Winnie? Winnefred Tanner-Bloom, the COB's wife, right?"
"Yes ma'am. Please call me Winnie. Everyone does."
"I will if you'll call me Sam."
"Thank you, Sam. I'll do that."
"Hi, Winnie. What's up?"
"Hi Claire. I don't know if it's reached the officer's wives yet, but there's a rumor going around about the Captain and Lieutenant and Nancy Harboard…"
"I haven't heard anything except from Sam. Sam?"
"They dated once before the last deployment. We saw them together after Change of Command, leaving the ship. What does the rumor say?"
"First, the facts. The Captain invited Nancy Harboard to dinner with Deborah and himself. He gave them the use of his stateroom—Nancy stayed aboard last night, with Deborah. The Captain slept in his sea cabin."
"Date number two." "Interesting. Go on."
"The rumor—and it's all but verified—is that Captain Lee proposed to them…
"Oh, my!" "Jesus!"
"…and they accepted."
"Sam, stop laughing. Winnie, why do you say 'all but verified'?"
"I'm sorry, but it's funny. You make a pass at him…
"…and later that night he proposes to someone else. That's so funny!"
"Winnie, that's for your ears only. Sam, it's not that funny."
"Yes it is. We never stood a chance."
"So I put a bug in his ear. Got him at least thinking about marriage. Nancy and Deb can thank me later. Claire?"
"Sam's right, it is funny."
"Winnie! Who's side are you on?"
"Do I have to take sides? Anyway, neither the Captain nor the Harboards have been available for comment. So I had Luke—COB—check for witnesses."
"His steward's on leave and hard to reach, but the wardroom cook and Chief Ghirardeli are both pleading the fifth. 'I can neither confirm nor deny' and 'don't ask me, I made a promise to the Captain not to say anything.' But DeeDee Ghirardeli says her husband mumbled about 'fiancés' and then started that 'promise' speach when she asked what he was talking about."
"So she started the rumor?"
"Right. She put one and one together and leapt straight to ten. Digital logic."
"In binary, one plus one equals one-zero. It equals two, but it's written like a ten."
"Oh." "I'll explain it later, Claire. Go on, Winnie."
"What it boils down to, is the Captain apparently asked, and they accepted, but they don't want it known right away. I'm guessing they plan a formal announcement, or…
"Or they're planning to sneak off and get married without telling anyone—until they get back."
"Sam? You know his schedule, right?"
"Right, Claire. Let me think… Okay. Of course, if they want, they can spend thirty minutes getting the license and taking the vows with any justice of the peace. No waiting period or blood tests in Virginia. But if they want a honeymoon, It has to be in the next two or three weeks. He's booked for witnessing acceptance tests and trials after that.
"Winnie, what have you done so far?"
"So far, I activated the enlisted call tree. I told everyone that yes, he asked. Yes, they said yes. But they want it a secret, so don't let on and act surprised when the time comes. I figure you'll handle the officers' spouses, Claire."
"Yep, and I'll tell them the same thing."
"I'm also taking up a collection for a wedding present from the crew."
"Good plan. I'll see if I can organize a secret wedding shower from the wardroom on short notice."
"What if they elope?"
"Winnie, we'll cross that bridge if we come to it."
"Thanks for calling, Winnie. Talk to you again soon."
"You too. Bye."
I said I was sorry. Why does he have to be so pigheaded about it? DeeDee asked herself for the tenth or eleventh time. So I'm good at puzzles. So I like to gossip a little. That just makes this silent treatment so much worse!
I said I was sorry!
Serve him right if I went out and found another husband or wife to talk to when he gets like this. She stopped meandering from shelf to end table, clutching her dustrag suddenly tighter. He tried to suggest that very thing, this morning, and I shut him out. Maybe I should have listened. She went to the kitchen, poured herself an iced tea, and sat at the table.
I'm only forty-five. How did I get to be such a gossipy old woman? I wasn't like this when Frank and Alice were alive. Well, maybe a bit, but only in the family. I didn't need to call everyone I know to prove… to prove… DeeDee started sobbing. I'm not dead. God took Frank and Charlie, Alice and Loretta, but not me and Alex. We still have each other.
Oh, God, I need Alex so much right now and I fucked up and got him in trouble and now he won't even speak to me and it's all my fault and... DeeDee began openly weeping.
And then she felt Alex's arms coming around her. She turned into him and bawled, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," over and over, even when she could feel his hand stroking her hair while the other hugged her close.
It was a struggle, but DeeDee managed to control her breathing. "I really am sorry, Alex. Are you going to be in very much trouble?" She sniffled into her dustrag, grimaced, and set it aside.
Alex turned her face up with a hand under her chin. Alex shook his head while keeping eye contact. "I don't think it'll be very much trouble."
DeeDee tried to grin. She wasn't sure she pulled it off. "There you go, thinking again."
Alex's grin was real. "I know. I can hear the rusty gears in my own head, squealing. Maybe we ought to go out tonight and get 'em really lubricated."
DeeDee shook her own head. "Maybe we ought to call out for delivery and just talk together, tonight. I think you were right this morning. It's time."
"There you go thinking. Let's follow the Skipper's example - less thinking, more action."
"Think you're up to it, old man?"
"Think you can handle it, old woman?"
"Enough thinking. More action."
"I still can't believe it—my baby brother, a spaceman."
"Well, let's not put the cart before the horse, Claire," John replied, laughing. "I'll be training for the Mars landing along with about a hundred other people, but most of us will end up being ground support."
"Nonsense," Nat put in. "I've been watching you ever since Claire and I first met. You're one of those people. The type that lead the charge, win the battle, get the job done."
"Thank you, Nat."
"It's not a compliment, just an observation."
"Nat, from you that makes it an even bigger compliment."
Nat shrugged, smiling. "I just call it the way I see it."
"He's right," Samantha interjected. "And you're cute, besides." They all laughed.
"So. Since May seems to be the month for romance," Claire said, "have you got any news for us on that front?"
"Romance? John scoffed. "Me? Not hardly! What makes May so special, anyway?"
"Have you met Samantha's Commanding Officer?" Claire asked.
"Certainly. At the Submarine Ball, remember? You ladies drug me along for a fourth." He remembered the ball very well. He'd danced with Samantha, whom he liked very much, as well as his sister.
"Right. Well, do you remember a brand-spanking new Lieutenant Lower Grade named Deborah Harboard and her wife, Nancy?"
John thought for a few seconds. "Yes, actually, I do. I remember her because she reminded me of you, Claire."
"Reminded you of me? Claire was startled. "In what way?"
"Poised. Confident. Very protective of her wife. Recently divorced, if memory serves, but determined to deal with it." He thought a little more. "Oh, and gorgeous. See? just like Claire—except for the divorce, of course."
Claire blushed. "Oh, you!"
"Can I take it that Sam's Commanding Officer also noted these qualities, and acted on them?"
"You may," said Sam.
"Damn. There goes the closest thing I've found to my big sister. Maybe they'd like another husband in the Marines?"
Everyone laughed. "I'll make sure you get another introduction," Claire promised. "After the wedding."
Once again in the lady's room, Jean and Brenda were hugging, tightly. When they finally separated, Jean was the first to speak.
"Oh God, sis, you were so right!"
"I'd say I told you so, but this is a shock, even for me!"
"I know! Three nights, three dates, and now they want to go steady? Nobody on the face of the earth moves this fast. At this rate, we'd be married in a month."
"But how do you feel about it?"
"If you hadn't grabbed my hand and told 'em we needed a minute alone, I was all set to accept."
Brenda grinned, hugely. "I know that. That's why I grabbed."
Jean looked puzzled for a moment. "Don't you want to accept? All you've talked about all weekend was how well-suited we are to each other, the four of us. I've agreed with every word. You were right about Jamie — Jaime — and there's so much more to Boo than just his charming smile."
Brenda couldn't help it. "Told you so." They giggled together. "But before we go back out there with our panties dripping and scream 'Yes!', you need to think about this; if we do that, there'll be no more 'Ask Brenda' when a guy hits on us… you. The boys are asking for exclusivity."
Jean dismissed it. "That won't be a problem."
"No?" Brenda asked. "Suppose, oh," she recalled someone Jean had drooled over, "Bradley O'Mara asks you for a date. What will you say to him?"
"I'll say, 'Ask our boyfriends.' How's that?"
Brenda laughed out loud. "Good answer." She was very happy to see that Jean understood what the boys wanted. Happier still that Jean wanted what she wanted herself. "Let's go let the boys know we reluctantly accept, despite the sacrifice to our busy social lives it entails."
Deborah silently agreed with her wife. Shopping could be exhausting—if you did it right. They were just finishing rearranging the closet, the new summer dresses on the back of the door for tomorrow.
She glanced at the packages on the bed. Finding just the right combination of demure and provacative in a summer dress had only occupied a couple of hours. The contents of those bags — well, Lady Victoria had many secrets, and the Harboards had been let in on a few. Quite a few, as a matter of fact.
It's not like Bob will get to see any of those things any time soon, she thought to herself. If ever, she added, but the thought lacked sincerity even in her mind. She looked at Nancy, stripping her shopping clothes directly into a wash basket. We never play "dress-up" for each other, either. So why did we blow so much of the clothing budget on these frilly wisps of not-much?
She closed her eyes and thought back to the store. There, a model had repeatedly changed and displayed outfits. The model was no singular beauty, just another average woman with the luck to have a job she seemed to enjoy - and she owned every outfit she modeled; Nancy had asked. They don't let you try on intimate apparel unless you buy. What had made Nancy and Deborah buy them?
Nancy was in the shower now. Deborah opened the packages. The first thing she withdrew was a sheer camisole and panty set in peach. Nancy had said, "Good Lord! If Bob sees you in that, he'll eat you up like French Vanilla ice cream." Well, that explains that purchase. Are they all like that? Nancy pulled out another item.
A black lace garter belt and sheer black nylons… "Oh, my! Bob sees those, Nancy, and he's all over your ass." Deborah giggled. I guess I take the blame for those. I pushed her buttons. She dumped the bags on the bed. Looking over their buys, she shook her head. She pushed mine, too. We egged each other on unmercifully.
Stepping over to the laundry basket, she undressed for her own shower. Then she stepped back to the bed, gathering the lingerie and setting it on the dresser. One item she didn't remember buying caught her attention. She tried it on. What in the world?
She moved to the mirror on the bathroom door. Deborah didn't consider herself "well endowed," but the push-up shelf bra took what she had and… presented it. Nothing covered her nipples, which the chill of the room caused to stand up. This is downright lewd. I'm certain I'd remember if this was modeled, and I don't.
The bathroom door opened suddenly; Deborah was face-to-face with Nancy, whose face was breaking into a huge grin. Deborah blushed.
"I see you found my present to myself."
"This was yours?" Deborah's blush deepened. "I'm sorry, I was trying to remember when we saw it, and I — I'll take it off."
"No, don't!" Nancy closed the gap. "I said it was a present for me." Dropping her towel, she raised her hands to Deborah's breasts. "I didn't say it was for me to wear."
The light went off in Deborah's head as Nancy bent to take a nipple in her mouth. "Why, you little minx! Oh!" Yes, do that. You aren't the only one with buttons, are you. And I love the way you suck on mine. "What… what else did you get that I don't know about?"
Nancy stood up, her twisting fingers taking the place of her tongue. "Did you know that Lady Victoria had a secret toy department?" Deborah shook her head.
Things got even more… playful… after that question.
Everyone stared at the open velvet box on the coffee table.
"They're really… big." Livvy hadn't accompanied Bob to the Jewelers. This was her first look at the engagement rings.
Priscilla nodded. She was staring, and she had accompanied Bob, but she hadn't seen his final selection. "I made the mistake of telling Bob to double whatever he'd planned to spend. I had no idea just how generous an amount he'd allotted."
Connie sighed as she stared. "They do catch the light, don't they?"
Livvy nodded, still staring. "They're really big."
"The real question," Bob asked, "is do they convey that I am serious in pledging my heart and my soul? I didn't believe a word the jeweler said; he sells dreams and diamonds, and both at a substantial profit."
James cleared his throat. He was staring, too. "Well, I think you managed to just avoid accusations of gaudiness, but not by much. Sparklers like those are impressive. I'm almost afraid you've given our wives some unreasonable expectations." He reached for Connie's hand, nearest his.
Priscilla moved over and took James' other hand. "You didn't answer his question," she chided. Turning to Bob, "Every woman knows it isn't the actual dollar value of the rings that's important. But it goes to symbolism. The engagement ring says something about how a man values the woman he gives it to, but only if he means it the same way. So the most important question is, what do the rings mean to you?"
Bob frowned. "I didn't really care about the stones in the rings. The fact that they are engagement rings is what makes them important to me. At the same time, I wanted something as beautiful as my fiancées. Anything less would be an insult, and even these are only a pale shadow to me."
There were smiles all around. Connie said, "I hope you can remember those words when the time comes." She turned to Livvy. "Isn't that about the sweetest thing you've ever heard?"
Livvy nodded. "They're really big."
Don groaned though he was still smiling. "Jim, where did he say this jeweler was? I think we're going to need to pay him a visit." The ladies laughed, but James only smiled, nodding.
Priscilla noticed, and squeezed James' hand again. "Now boys, you shouldn't feel under any pressure to compete with Bob." She held out her left hand, palm down. Her own engagement ring, welded to the wedding band, sparkled with three stones, one for each of the Lee wives in the room. If the individual stones were smaller, the total carat weight was definitely higher. Connie and Livvy extended their left hands as well, and displayed matching rings. "You've done fine by us."
Livvy swung her hand near the jewelry box. She held her fist with her own rings near the two in the case. "They're really big."
Don reached over and closed the case. He tossed it to Bob. "Guard that with your life."
After the laughter finally settled down, the Lees discussed Bob's travel plans for the morning. Once again, James insisted on providing car and driver after church.
"Doesn't your driver ever get weekends off?" Bob protested.
James laughed. "The drivers are all sergeants, and part of a pool. They get more time off than anyone else in the army, in exchange for working a few weekends a month. After tomorrow, I won't see that driver again for two weeks."
That settled, the ladies helped him refine his plans to get flowers and recommended a good after-dinner cordial.
Just before bedtime, Bob quietly pulled the ring box from his pocket again, and glanced inside. Behind him, he heard Livvy say quietly, "They are really big."
He hoped they were big enough.
Tommy Cornelson loved May. Actually, he loved all the months from May through October, but May was special. May marked the end of the Winter season and the beginning of the summer season, so business on his fishing pier picked up considerably, as it did on the entire oceanfront, but it was still early for most of the tourists, so the May business was mainly locals.
He almost regretted doubling his prices. Almost. But they'd double again in mid-June when the Canadians and damnyankees invaded the Oceanfront for the official tourist season. The tourist season was what he lived on the rest of the year round. May and October were buffer months to make up for bad tourist months or to buy luxuries.
He knew he'd feel the opposite regret come October, when he'd have to lower prices again to have any business at all. There were always fishermen willing to pay to fish from his pier, even when the weather turned cold and blustery. Serious fishermen, or subsistance families who relied on the crabs that fed on fishguts from the cleaning stations and whatever fish they could catch. Those months, he'd barely break even.
Those months Lilith and Maribeth would serve coffee and sandwiches, instead of all the deep-fried goodies the tourists loved so much. No clams, no oysters, not even hush puppies. They'd fire the grill for the lunch crowd, but not the friers, nor the ovens. Oil and electricity cost money, and the restaurant and bate and tackle shops had to be heated.
Just now, Tommy was enjoying a cup of coffee laced with chickory, listening to three of the die-hards discuss the catch of the day. They were expecting the usual spot and croaker, and Spanish Mackeral had been biting of late. One was the local skate expert, and he expected a good catch today.
Tommy listened with half an ear while he read the sunday paper. He started with the fishing reports from other locations. It wasn't enough to know the local conditions — he was the source of those for the paper, anyway — people expected you to be knowlegeable about what was biting and what was running for miles in either direction, clear down to North Carolina or up to the Eastern Shore.
Next he turned to sports, checking the injury reports for the various Atlantic Football Conference teams, including his own Portsmouth Mariners. Another nice thing about the "locals" season was when his customers talked football, they didn't confuse it with that damnyankee sport with the funny-shaped ball and leather armor and helmets. Some kind of rugby imitation.
Next he turned to the obits, wondering if he'd recognize anyone. At least once a month, he'd spy some old crony of his fathers' or grandfathers' in the notices. Weddings and engagements were after that, looking for his own friends and acquaintences. Once you took the plunge yourself, you kind of expected the rest of your peers to do the same.
He recognized five names in that section, but nobody who'd send him or his husband Vinnie an invitation. Maybe Lilith or Mar would, and one or the other would attend, business permitting. Winston-LaMar-Goudy… nobody he knew. Phillips-Cross-Magnuson-Sharone… nope. Harboard-Lee… one of the names looked familiar. Where did he know the Harboards from? The ladies were married, maybe he'd read the announcement of their previous wedding? No matter.
As he finished each section, he traded or passed it on to his wives. They all read quickly, since the paper would be wrapping bait before too long, except for the coupons. The last section he looked at was the travel section. Someday, maybe they'd have enough set aside to take a vacation of their own, when the kids were old enough to stay home and mind the shops. Someplace quiet and secluded, not some tourist Mecca.
For sure he wasn't going to visit the United States, nothing up north that interested him. If he went to a foreign country, he thought he'd stick to the English Commonwealth. Horrible accents, but they did speak the same language. Yep. Someplace like Hawaii. Nobody went there.
Maria enjoyed mornings, although she enjoyed them more once the children were all roused and fed and off to school. Sundays were different, though. "Day of Rest," pfah! Rest for men and children, perhaps, but not for wives or women. Six days each week, her time came when the niños and niñas were fed and sent to school, when the husbands were fed and sent to work, when the beds were made and the clothing and linens laundered.
On Sundays she must take her time from the beginning, while the others slept. Soon enough, they would be feeding them all a Sunday "brunch" — such a lovely word — and engrossed in making them all ready for church. Then there would be the vigilance, the looks, the pinches to keep them all attentive to Jesus and Father Navarone instead of sleeping or fidgeting. Once home, there would be the gathering of the Sunday clothing to launder, and beds to make, and finally dinner to prepare while her husbands monopolized the televideo with their sports.
Madonna joined her at the table with two cups of good Cuban coffee, the kind of dark brew that opens eyes. "I see that Señora Ghiradeli's news has proven true," she said, pointing at the newspaper open to that page.
"Si. Eh-Yes, El Capitan has finally been snared. I had not heard that he chased them long before they caught him. Delilah might not have been surprised, but I was." Maria never referred to DeeDee by that diminutive. It seemed somehow disrespectful, whatever the customs.
Madonna was amused. "You think perhaps they should have run from him harder, if no faster?"
Maria shrugged. "A man values most what he must work to acquire, and least what he obtains without effort. Since I know nothing of his efforts in the matter, it is not for me to judge."
"You sound just like Señora Navarone."
"Our good priest's esposa… er, wife is a wise woman. As befits the wife of a priest, eh-yes?"
"You need not work so hard to correct your language with me, querida. Be comfortable with yourself. I will always love you."
The wifes… wives of a Senator should be cultured, educated women, mi esposa acariciada. Able to converse in several languages, no? I practice always."
Madonna laughed softly. "Senator's wives? You dream el sueño grande. ¿El hombre expresa este sueño grande?"
"En Inglés, por favor." Maria replied. "No, Juan has not dreamt so big a dream, not that he has shared. But Alberto, that one thinks Juan has the heart, the fire to go so far. He told me so last night, before we slept."
"Our eldest husband may be right. He often is."
"Then we must learn to be senator's wives."
"Come on, Deb! Shake a tail feather, or we'll never make the oh-eight hundred service!"
"I can't find my earrings!"
"Wear some of mine. The pearls would look good with that dress."
Deborah didn't answer, which Nancy interpreted as, "Fine." Not "fine" as in "that's a great idea," but "fine" as in "have it your way, but Things Will Be Said Later." Every spouse knows that "fine," even when unspoken.
But Deborah was heading for the door moments later, both hands fumbling with her left ear. Nancy could see the pearl stud, and grinned. She checked herself. Purse, check. Keys? Right here. What am I forgetting? She crossed the room to the telephone, and switched on the answering machine. Forgot that yesterday. I hope nobody called. Oh, well. If it was important, they'll call again.
Deborah was waiting by the driver-side door. "My turn to drive," she said, fumbling now with her right ear.
Nancy shook her head. "No way. You drive like an old lady, and we're already going to be late."
Deborah stood her ground. "Come on, cough up the keys. You drive like a maniac. Late or not, we'll get there faster if we don't have to stop for a speeding ticket, or to help someone out of a ditch your lane-changing forced them into."
"I haven't gotten a ticket in years, and I've never forced anyone into a ditch," Nancy retorted.
"That's 'year,' singular, and the latter says more for their driving skills than yours." Deborah now stood with her hand out for the keys.
"Two out of three?"
The two shook their right fists at each other once, twice, a third time. On the third, Nancy extended two fingers; Deborah kept her fist closed. They repeated the ritual, this time with both palms out. Yet again they shook their fists. Nancy ended with her palm out, Deborah with two fingers. Nancy groaned, but handed Deborah the keys. They got into the car.
Before Deborah could close her door, she heard the sound of the telephone. She bit her lip. Turning to Nancy, she said, "Phone's ringing. Should I answer it."
And she's the confident one! "No. Let's go. If we're not there by quarter after, we'll have to go to the 09:30 service, and we'll miss brunch at the International House. Let the answering machine do its job."
Deborah closed her door and started the car. As she pulled away, she grinned. "The truth comes out. You aren't worried about the church service; you're afraid they'll stop serving crêpes before you get your fill."
Like that's a big revelation. She knows me so well. "You know me too well. So get a move on, will you?"
Deborah eased up to the posted speed limit, no higher. "You know, International House serves breakfast with crêpes, too. We could have a nice, leisurely meal before services, instead of all this rushing about."
Now, why didn't I think of that? It's still a late breakfast, and not too long til our early dinner. Am I so constrained by habit? "I like the way you think. Let's do that."
Deborah smiled and drove.
DeeDee hung up the phone and turned to Alex. "That was the girls, Lex," she said, excitedly. "They want to come to lunch, and they want to bring their new boyfriends."
"New boyfriends?" Alex asked, crossing the parlor to his favorite chair. A plethora of mixed feelings chased briefly across his face. "And they want to bring them home to meet the parents?"
DeeDee laughed. "You should see your face. You can't decide whether to be happy or sad, proud or protective, nervous or relieved, can you."
For now, Alex settled for chagrined. "Hey, it's only, what, the second time since high school they've brought someone home for parental review. How should I feel?
"I know. The twins have always been so picky about boys. Or Brenda has," she amended, "which is the same thing."
Alex agreed, nodding. "Nothing wrong with that." In fact, secretly he was just a hair prouder of the twins than of their other six kids. Not that he'd ever let any of them know that.
The phone rang again, and DeeDee answered, giving Alex time to turn reflective. I guess I am prouder of the twins, not that there's any rational reason. All our kids have turned out just fine. Renée is on the partnership track with a law firm in Austin; William and Emíle are working the off-shore oil rigs and coining money; Michelle is happy with her husbands in New Mexico, and she was the first and most recent to make me a grandpa. A soft smile lit his face. Danielle has been accepted to medical school in New Orleans. Always so busy, too busy to write often enough. Douglas rarely wrote either, but he had an excuse, serving in the army with the Columbian Peace-keeping expedition.
DeeDee squealed something into the phone. No matter, he'd find out soon enough. It isn't that the twins are the youngest. Or even that they haven't moved far away. It's just... Alex couldn't articulate, even to himself, that he was fairly certain the girls were the fruit of his loins, his and Alice's. Good parents don't keep score that way. The children of a polygamous marriage were all the parents' children.
DeeDee hung up again. She was practically bubbling as she skipped — She's actually skipping! — over to Alex's chair. She plopped into his lap, and put her arms around his neck.
"It just keeps getting better!"
"More good news, I take it?" Alex was amused.
DeeDee nodded rapidly. "You are off the hook!" she burbled.
His eyebrows rose. "You mean…"
She interrupted him with a short kiss. Pressing her forehead to his, she said, "That was Winnie. Guess whose engagement got announced in today's paper?"
Her forehead nodding made his nod as well. "You got it! Winnie can't understand what the big deal was about 'secrecy' considering they broke it themselves before the weekend was up." She kissed him again. "Winnie said to tell you the COB says 'don't sweat it, and be prepared to cater a bachelor party,' so everything's okay."
Alex snorted. DeeDee leaned back to look at his face, wondering why.
"There'll be no bachelor party," he told her. "You didn't watch this boy at work. They'll be married long before anyone can get a party organized." He made motions to shoo DeeDee off his lap. "Speaking of short notice for parties, what do you suppose the girls' boyfriends would enjoy for lunch?"
Deborah and Nancy came home laden with brown shopping bags from the grocery store. After she tossed the keys on a convenient end-table, Deborah removed a bag from her teeth. That allowed her to say, "'I just need a couple of things for dinner,' yeah, sure." She kicked the door closed with a heel.
"Well, all I needed were a couple of things, but, you know..."
"Yes, I know..."
"Well you're not any better!" They carried the bags to the kitchen. "At least a third of this stuff you picked out," she said as she placed her bags on a counter.
Deborah grinned, unrepentant. "True, but that means you picked the other two thirds." She set her own bags down.
Nancy grinned too. "Any time you want to take over cooking, y—
"I give! I give! So, what's on the menu tonight?"
Nancy gave Deborah a very spousal look, one that said, "You never listen to me, do you." in lieu of answering, she pulled a recipe from under a refrigerator magnet and proffered it.
Deborah took it and read:
Blackened Prime Rib
Serves 8 - (16 ounce portions)
1 - 16 lb. oven ready Rib Roast
Pull back fat cap and liberally sprinkle Blackening Seasoning (recipe to follow) on rib roast. Replace fat cap and netting. Place onto a preheated 350º oven for 4 hours until you have an internal temperature of 145º. Remove and allow to rest for 15 minutes, slice in between each rib and serve with 2 oz. of sauce (Tabasco Horseradish Sauce recipe to follow).
4 tbsp. Garlic Powder
4 tbsp. Onion Powder
3 tbsp. Lemon Pepper
3 tbsp. Black Pepper
4 tbsp. Dry Rosemary
4 tbsp. Dry Thyme
4 tbsp. Dry Parsley
8 tbsp. Paprika
1 tsp. Cayenne
Mix together and coat prime rib.
Tabasco Horseradish Sauce
Serves 8 - (2 ounce portions)
16 oz. Heavy Cream
4 tbsp. grated Fresh Horseradish
1 tbsp. minced Garlic
1 tbsp. minced Onion
2 tbsp. minced Basil
3 tbsp. Unsalted butter
1/4 cup Marsala Wine
4 tbsp. Tabasco
Salt & Pepper to taste
1 tsp. Olive Oil
Heat a saute pan over medium high heat. Add oil, then add onions, garlic and basil. Saute until onions are translucent. Add wine to pan and allow to reduce by 3/4. Add heavy cream and reduce by 1/4. Pull off of heat, add tabasco, horseradish, salt, pepper and butter then serve 2 oz. over prime rib portion.
Deborah's eyes opened wide. She glanced at the kitchen clock as Nancy moved a slab of beef from the refrigerator to the counter. "Four hours? Isn't it a little late to start…"
"The recipe scales down around fifteen, maybe twenty minutes per pound. This is a ten pound rib roast. We have plenty of time."
"Are you sure?" Deborah asked, doubtfully.
"Positive. Now, we were having this anyway. With Bob coming, I think I need something more substantial than salad and broccoli as sides. Any ideas?"
Judging from eating habits in the wardroom…, "Men like starches. Mashed potatoes, corn, peas, that sort of thing." She sort-of remembered something about men's tastes. "No asparagus." Then she remembered what she'd heard, and blushed. Not men's tastes—men's taste. Fortunately, Nancy didn't notice.
"Okay, mashed potatoes and gravy, peas, green beans I think." Nancy was looking in the freezer.
"I'm going to check our messages," Deborah said. I can't stop blushing. I've got to get out of the kitchen before she notices, and asks why. "I'll help you peel the spuds after." After I get control of my mental images, that is.
The message light was blinking. She pushed rewind.
"Sir, you set a magnificent table."
Despite the grin, Alex's response was almost automatic. "Don't call me 'sir'; I work for a living." He enjoyed the compliment, though. And lunch was really nothing much. Fruit-filled pita sandwiches with his own special sauce, rumake, vegetable sticks and dip, and dark beer. "I realize you salute Chiefs in 'enrotsie,' but that's just for practice." He paused. "In the real Navy, we salute you."
Young Mister Rosecranz glanced at his friend, the equally young Mister Lafitte, and both seemed to relax a little.
"Brenda, Jean, help your mother with the dishes." The two had been as nervous as their young men, hovering protectively the entire meal. "Boys, join me on the patio. Bring your beer." They got up and went through the sliding glass doors to the outside.
Once outside, the young men appeared nervous again. "Relax, boys, relax. I'm not going to start an Inquisition. I don't need to know your 'intentions toward my daughters'; they brought you home, that's all I need to know."
The boys tried to relax, and Alex waved them to the patio furniture, aluminum chairs with nylon webbing.
It seemed they weren't going to initiate the conversation, though. "How's the beer?" Alex noticed that Beaufort's glass was nearly full.
Jaime sipped. Beaufort replied, "To tell the truth, sir, I'm not much of a beer drinker."
Alex laughed. "You'll get over that, or turn tea-total in the Navy. Unless you prefer rum?" Beaufort shook his head. "Only the really large ships, battle cruisers or dreadnoughts, carry anything else, and only for special occasions." He shrugged. "It's an acquired taste."
Beaufort sipped, and made a face. "Not one I'm likely to acquire soon, I think."
Positioned as he was, Alex could see that one or the other of the twins had hovered at the sliding glass door while he was chatting with their beaus. He waved Jean out.
"Yes, Daddy?" she inquired, stepping through onto the patio.
"Take Beaufort's beer and bring him a glass of…" he raised an eyebrow at Beaufort, who tried to sputter that nothing special was needed.
"I know what Boo likes. I'll take care of it," Jean said, taking away his beer.
"Jaime?" Alex asked.
Jaimie raised his stein. "I'm good. I'll just finish this; I have to drive, later."
Jean was back in just moments, with a glass of wine. Beaufort smiled embarrassed thanks at her as he took it. Jean seemed inclined to stay. "Perhaps your mother needs help with the leftovers…"
"What leftovers?" In truth, there weren't many. Jean came over to her father, leaned down and placed a kiss on his bald spot. "Never mind, I can take a hint." As she left she told the boys, "Don't let him fuss you. He's just an old sweety."
Alex watched two pairs of eyes follow Jean back into the house. Eyes filled with affection and maybe a touch of possessiveness? He cleared his throat. "And she can cook, too."
Alex ignored the honorific this time. "If you have no plans for next Sunday, let me take you to a local fishing pier. One of DeeDee's cousins runs it - I can get a discount. Can either of you fish?" Eyes lit up and heads nodded. Excellent! "You catch a few Spanish Mackerel or flounder, and we'll let the girls show you what they learned from the old man. You won't be disappointed." And it'll be nice to be able to spend time with… my future sons-in-law. I wonder if they know how obvious their fate is?
Nancy entered the parlor still drying her hands with a dish towel. The ribs are coated and in the oven. The sauces are ready to simmer. But if Deb thinks she's getting out of peeling potatoes, she'd better think again. "Deb?"
Deborah was on the sofa by the telephone, her face pale. She was surrounded by scattered sections of the Sunday paper. Nancy suppressed a flash of annoyance for the mess. The expression on Deborah's face concerned her more. "What's wrong?"
Deborah didn't answer right away, and the look on her face was… unfathomable. Finally, "Perhaps you'd better hear this yourself." She rewound the answering machine. Nancy seated herself by Deborah, gathering some of the newspaper into a neat pile; one section was still clutched in Deborah's fist, wrinkled where she held it. She pushed "play."
Deborah, Nancy, hi. This is Samantha Stuart-Forrest"—"and Caroline!"—"calling to congratulate you. We were thrilled to see the announcement in today's paper!"
"If I were speaking as your XO, I'd have to warn you again about favoritism, but this is a day for just us girls, so I'm glad you took my advice there, too."
"If Sam told you to grab him, it was good advice. I should know, I tried it myself. Now I know why I got shot down. Congratulations again."
"If you-all can put off the wedding for at least a few days, the ladies of the wardroom"—"and their wives and the men's wives"—"want to throw you a shower. Anyway, congratulations."—"and good luck!" "Call us!"
There was a click, and a beep, and then another message started.
"Nancy Virginia! We hardly ever hear from you as it is, but to have to read something like this in the newspaper? You don't tell your own mothers? I hardly think that's the way we..."
Nancy's finger was firmly on the stop button. She couldn't remember reaching for it.
"There are seven more after that one. Here. Read." Deborah thrust the newspaper section she was clutching at Nancy. Her voice was shaky, and so was the hand. She seemed to have difficulty unclenching her fist.
But she managed. Nancy took the paper and scanned, as she half-expected, the Engagement Announcements. She saw the picture first. She and Deborah, shoulder to shoulder and holding hands; Bob leaning in close behind, his hands on the backs of their chairs; all smiling, all happy. She read the paragraph below:
|Cmdr (SS) Robert Edward Yarbough Lee, CSN, of Alexandria, Virginia takes great pleasure and pride in announcing that Lt(lg) (SS) Deborah Anne Harboard, CSN and Nancy Virginia [Cummings] Harboard of Portsmouth, Virginia, have agreed to join him in the bonds of holy matrimony. No wedding date has been set.|
Nancy's head reeled. I told her I wasn't ready! How could she— her thoughts broke off, looking at Deborah's ashen face. She couldn't. She didn't. She had no idea… She set the paper aside. We might want that, later. She held out her arms.
Deborah flowed in and hugged her tightly. "I didn't… I don't… I thought he…" Deborah hiccuped. Then she hiccuped again.
When did I get to be the strong one? Nancy patted Deborah's back as her clinging wife continued to hiccup. And I was the one who urged us to say "we accept," so I can't even pass any blame. How were we to know he was serious?
How do I feel about this? I honestly think Deb loves the big tease. And I've been fairly mellow towards him since Thursday. She searched her feelings. Mellow? I've been anticipating the wedding. Eager, even. I should let her know that. She… they have been seducing me from the first! She murmured, "I did ask if we were going to marry him, and you said yes. I'm beginning to like the idea." Deborah just hiccuped.
Okay, enough. She tried to disengage from Deborah's embrace. "Come on, come on, let's get you a glass of water before you hiccup to death."
Deborah reluctantly let go. Nancy stood, then knelt to gather and stack the rest of the newspaper neatly.
"Oh, Nanchic Nancy, sometimes you're just so hic so anal."
Nancy shook her butt. "Honey, I'm anal all the time, and you know it." They grinned at one another, Deborah's grin spoiled by another hiccup. They went to the kitchen, where Nancy drew a glass of tap water for her wife.
Deborah drank the entire glass before setting it down. She waited a bit. Then she started to smile. hic!
I know just how to cure this. "Deb, have you given any thought at all to, you know, if he likes anal sex, he might want your ass, too?"
Deborah looked stricken. "Don't you give him any ideas!"
Nancy just grinned. "How are your hiccups?"
Deborah now looked puzzled for a moment, then broke out in a grin. She punched Nancy in the arm. "Oh, you!"
Still grinning, Nancy drew her wife to the counter. "You peel potatoes, and we'll figure out whether we're going to let him in to eat any. And what we'll do to him if we do."
Salome Grundy rocked in her rocker by the window, as she often did of a Sunday afternoon. The videotape machine played a family movie, one of her favorites. Rocking back and forth, she smiled a distracted smile. Had her hearing been more acute, she might have heard her granddaughter and one of her wives in the kitchen starting dinner. But it wasn't and she didn't. Salome was seventy-eight years old.
A flash at the window caught her attention. Sunlight glinting off the windows or maybe the chrome of a taxi pulling to a halt across the street. That was chance; the sky was darkening for an afternoon rain. A young man got out and retrieved flowers and... a bag. From the shape, it probably contained a bottle. Salome looked back at the screen with a fond smile, but pushed the "pause" botton on the remote in her wrinkled hands. She turned back to the window as the cab pulled away.
Despite her advanced years, her failing hearing, there was nothing wrong with her eyesight. She liked the handsome face she'd seen briefly, before it turned to face away, and something of the confident stride as he approached the porch across the street stirred pleasant memories. She rocked a little faster.
Her neighbors both came out to greet their visitor, keeping him on the porch. Such lovely little things. Too bad they had saddled a horse's ass for their first ride, Mrs. Grundy thought, but things are looking up, hey? She dipped into her crowded memories for their names. Harbor? Hardboard? No matter, Nancy was the one holding the flowers. The other… Debra?… took the bag inside. Her rocking was much faster. Am I about to witness someone "getting lucky?"
I wish I could hear, Salome thought. She considered briefly turning her hearing aid all the way up — she'd be able to hear a mouse fart — but anything from across the street would be drowned out by the creaking of the rocker, and she didn't want to stop rocking, now. Something's going on over there. I wish I knew what. That girl's smile is… off, somehow.
The other young woman returned, carrying a large vase with water. Oh, I just know what happens next, Mrs. Grundy thought to herself, rocking and rocking. I would bet on it!
Sure enough, the one she was pretty sure was called Debra upended the vase over their young man's head. Salome cackled gleefully. The other young woman thrust the flowers back at him, causing him to backstep. Fists on hips, both young women took turns berating him. Even without knowing the words, Mrs. Grundy could tell from their bodies that much. Then they went inside and closed the door on their suitor.
The young man stood facing the door for a bit, then turned around and sat on the step. He put his elbows on his knees and lowered his face to his hands, remembering to set aside the flowers, but not before getting a face full of roses. The afternoon shower chose that moment to start, compounding the foolish young man's misery.
Foolish young man, what have you done? Salome grinned widely. You're all so foolish at your age. Something brash, I bet. Something bold. Too brash, too bold, I'm certain of that, too. She rocked, remembering her own husbands at that age. You men are so alike. Salome Grundy was fond of bold, brash young men. She glanced back at the television, but returned to the window.
Are you bold enough? Will you give up, wandering over here to beg the use of a phone to summon another cab? Or…
The door opened again. Salome watched the Nancy girl take her suitor's ear and pull him up off the steps, and, stooped over, into the house. The child named Debra came out and fetched the flowers
So delightful a scene! And we won't see him again tonight, will we? Her rocking sped up. She stiffened suddenly, one hand grasping her chest, the other a claw on the rocker's arm.
Salome Grundy slumped in her rocker, a gentle smile sketched on her features. Perhaps a minute later, her granddaughter gently shook her shoulder. "Gramma? It's time for dinner."
Salome smiled hazily at her granddaughter. "Do help me up, Gizelle, my legs are a little shaky right now."
Gizelle looked at the paused image on the television screen. Younger versions of her grandparents frozen in the acts of love in front of a camera were displayed. Granda Joe's stout member half-in, half-out of Grandma Salome as she rode, reverse-cowgirl style; Granda Bruce and Gramma Rachael in a sixty-nine.
"Rocking with the Ben-Wa balls again, gramma? I only hope I'm so lusty when I'm your age." She sounded distinctly envious.
Salome Grundy cackled again. "You will be, child, you will be. All it takes is good memories and the right stimulation." She pushed the stop button on the tape player's remote, and rose with a little help. Good memories, stimulation, and a good imagination. She glanced out the window. Good luck, young man.
I never noticed how tastefully manicured Nancy's fingernails were until one of them was digging into my ear.
Oh, I'd noticed that she had lovely hands, don't get me wrong. Long, slender fingers. Longer than Deborah's. I knew her fingernails were longer than Deborah's, too. Women in the Navy tend to keep their fingernails trimmed much shorter than civilians, for any number of reasons, and I don't recall Deborah wearing any enamel except clear, or perhaps a pale pink.
Inside the door, stooped over, I was directed to remove my jacket and hang it on a peg to dry. When I tried to speak, I was told to shut up — they didn't want to hear a thing from me just then except maybe "Yes Ma'am" or "No Ma'am", and then only if asked a question.
Nancy started to relax her grip on my ear, but it was only to get a better purchase. Next I was led down a hallway to a bathroom, where Deborah met us with a blue terrycloth robe. I was directed to go into the bathroom and strip, even my wet socks, and come out with the robe on, clothes in my hands. I could leave my shoes on the hamper.
So I did. I took care of some basic needs, washed my hands, and put the toilet seat back down. Deborah snatched my clothes away - I presume they went to a dryer. I noticed that Nancy glanced past me to the toilet seat, and chocked up a point in my favor.
My conditions for staying for dinner were these. They wanted my parole. No talking, except as noted. No pleading looks or gestures. No funny faces of any kind, that could be interpreted as an attempt to communicate. The Mmes. Harboard were Very Annoyed With Me Right Now, and I would be here on their sufferance. Violation of my parole would see me thrown out on the porch, and my clothes thrown out a window afterward. Did I accept the terms of my parole?
I was seated at the head of the Dining Room table. The ladies busied themselves briefly, ferrying platters and bowls from the kitchen. Deborah half-filled three wine glasses from a carafe. At last both women sat down. Nancy bowed her head while Deborah said a simple grace; I bowed mine as well. I almost added an "amen" before I remembered my parole.
Food was placed in my plate. I wasn't offered a choice, although there was nothing there I would have turned down. I waited until the ladies started to eat, and then I dug in. Ignoring me, for the most part, the ladies held a light dinner conversation.
"What's the phone call tally up to?"
"Eighteen messages of congratulations; three calls from your mothers. Six life insurance salesmen. Three realtors wondering if we'll be in the market for a larger home. Five photographers, but one of the congratulations was from Petty Officer Delvechio — she shot the 'engagement' photo — and she said she'd shoot the wedding for free if she could cover it for the Virginia Pilot.
"One crank call from some religious nut claiming polygamy was blasphemy. Two caterers. Four bridal shops and one maternity shop; that one was jumping to conclusions, weren't they? Seven hotels and motels pitching honeymoon packages; one calling all the way from Baja California."
"How in the world could they know?"
Deborah shrugged, prettily, I thought. "Robert Lee of Virginia gets engaged? I imagine some national stringer picked up on it and put it on the wire." Inwardly I groaned, while struggling to maintain my composure. I hadn't thought of that angle. I wondered how many messages were awaiting me at the BOQ desk?
"How in the world are we going to handle this?" Nancy asked. She was barely touching her own dinner. Deborah was pecking, as well.
"I think…" She turned to stare at me. "I think we need to call in sick tomorrow, and leave the answering machine on. We'll let someone else handle this mess."
I took a deep breath; let it out slowly. Nodded to myself, since I was forbidden to nod to them. Eyes down, looking only at the plate, I began eating in earnest. I needed to finish and get out of there, start damage control. Pricilla had been right, more right than she knew.
I couldn't eat swiftly. The food was just too damn good. It screamed, "Savor me!" and I had no choice but to listen to it, to taste it.
Deborah and Nancy continued in subdued tones, mostly trivia, with an occassional dig about "the insensitivity of some males." Nancy did allow, after one such, that at least some males knew proper toilet seat courtesy, whatever their other failings.
Twice I was admonished to "wipe that silly smile off your face." After the second such, Deborah defended me. "Nancy, he smiles like that every time he chews a bite of the prime rib. I don't think he can help it, he just loves your cooking."
If I hadn't given my parole, I'd have been nodding agreement and grinning like an idiot. Fortunately, Nancy asked directly, "Is that right, Bob?"
"Yes, Ma'am!" No more was said about my expressions as I enjoyed the dinner, still with my head bowed.
Finally, I was done. Concurrently, a buzzer announced my dry clothes, which were fetched. I changed again in the bathroom while Nancy called a cab.
At the door, the ladies almost seemed tearful. My heart was breaking, could I imagine theirs were, too? Deborah said, "Oh, Bob! If only you could have asked properly, instead of tricking us…"
Thank you, Jesus!
God, I felt terrible, and Nancy didn't look like she felt any better. While Bob was putting his clothes back on, we exchanged a hug and a sniffle we didn't want him to see. We'd been so bubbly while discussing how to get even with Bob at dinner — and then the phone rang again. And again. And again.
Our mood turned angry. Yes, we agreed, we wanted to marry him. But it couldn't start this way, not with what amounted to some schoolboy prank. Who the hell did he think we were?
Watching him sitting on our step, we almost relented. Almost, until one of us glanced at the answering machine, its little red light blinking the number of messages we'd listened to as we made dinner.
"I did invite him for dinner," Nancy said. "And he needs to get out of those wet clothes," I replied. "But that's it! No more than that," we agreed.
So we brought him in, but on a short leash. We offered him a parole, and he accepted. Then we began his punishment. We punished him with details of our day, the things that had made us angry. The things we found wrong with the entire male gender.
There were moments, like when Nancy mentioned the toilet seat, or I pointed out his enjoyment of Nancy's cooking that our hearts might have thawed a smidgen. But we were still Very Annoyed With Him Right Now.
And then it was over. He was dressed, a cab was on the way, he put on his coat and had a hand on the knob of the front door.
I felt like my heart couldn't take any more. "Oh, Bob!" I cried. "If only you could have asked properly, instead of tricking us…"
He fell to his knees, fumbling in a pocket. Then he whipped up and open a small jewel box. Inside…
"Are those engagement rings?" Nancy asked, a small catch in her voice.
"Yes'm." Bob met her eyes, a pleading look on his face.
"Are those for us?" I asked. The damn rocks on the rings were… really big!
"Yes'm" Now his eyes met mine, no less pleading
Nancy and I looked at each other. I raised an eyebrow. What do you think? She furrowed her forehead. I don't know. What do you think? I winked the eye Bob couldn't see. Let's go for it! She pursed her lips slightly, then smoothed them and cocked her head slightly, then frowned. Well, okay I suppose, and it will solve the engagement announcement problem, but let's not let him off too lightly.
Okay, I may have exagerated a bit on just what got communicated. But not much. We both nodded, and began speaking aloud.
"Maybe we should take him off parole, so he can speak."
"I don't know, I'm not in the mood to be teased right now."
"You don't think he's learned not to tease?"
"Him? Puh-lease! At best, we've taught him that when you tease a dog, you get bitten."
"Ooh, Nancy, you can be such a bitch!"
She grimaced ever so slightly; Hey, don't get my motors started until this is sorted out!
Damn it! My emotions had been charged for hours, and had just changed polarities. I needed a kiss, at the very least! First things first, though. "Bob, if you have something to say, you may say it now."
"DeborahAnneNancyVirginia, I'vefalleninlovewithyouboth." Deep breath; he must have been afraid we'd interrupt. "I beg you to join me in marriage. I can't promise that I will never tease you again; but I will try to make the teasing as pleasant as possible. I… You…" he trailed off, bowing his head. He ran out of words.
Nancy and I exchanged looks again. Smile That was a lot better. Grin Yeah, so let's do it! Upper canine on corner of lower lip; weight shifted to left leg, pelvis tilted out slightly…
Jaw dropped. mouth open, eyes wide, shifting to big grin and tongue touching upper lip. Nancy, you slut you! Of course we can take him for a test drive! Nod and inclination of head. You start and I'll back you up.
Nancy said, "I'm inclined to say yes…" Bob's head came up like a shot, his eyes wide, waiting for the inevitable "but" that her pause and tone implied. Instead, she looked at me, passing off.
"Oh, I know what you mean," I took it and ran. "I'm hesitant to buy a pig without a poke, too." Oops. I don't think that came out quite right. Bob's head whipped over to me, as if he wasn't sure, either.
Nancy grabbed his other ear while I had his attention. "Oh, nicely put, dear, nicely put!" She giggled. Bob winced. At least he'd have the same mark on both ears. She made him levitate to his feet.
She was leading him toward the back of the house. I sighed, "I suppose we'll have release him from parole." Nancy made an inquiring noise; Bob followed docily. "I, for one, will want his mouth open some of the time."
Nancy laughed. Bob groaned theatrically. I turned off the parlor lights.
"Yes operator, I'll accept the charges… Bob!! What's wrong?"
"Then why are you… Okay, hold on a moment."
"Pricilla! Livvy! Come quickly! Bob, I'm putting you on speaker."
"…fine with me, I guess, Connie. What I have to say is to all three of you."
"I'm here, Bob." "Me, too— what's the matter?"
Hi, Pricilla; hi, Livvy. Like I was telling Connie, nothing is wrong. I just had to call to make an apology and say thank you while I was in the right frame of mind for both."
"Yes, both. It seems my 'engagement announcement' made it into this Sunday's paper instead of next—"
"Oh no!" "Oh my God!"
—with exactly the results you predicted, all of you."
"Bob, come back to bed!"
"Ummmm…" "Who was that?" "Where are you?"
"Be right there, Nancy honey! Anyway, I wanted to apologize for doubting you, especially you, Pricilla. I never should have used those 'Prissy' remarks."
"I never will again. In my defense, it felt like I was trapped between Pricilla and Charybdis, and I wanted out of that. But the thanks Pricilla, dear, is for the advice about the rings."
"Bob, you did it again! Pricilla's mouth is opening and closing, but nothing is coming out."
"Bob! Nancy says the astroglide is warmed up, but if you don't get in here, there's some question about who'll need it!
"Coming, Deb! LoveyouallGottagonowBye!" Click!
"If either of you ever use 'Pricilla and Charybdis' I'll… I'll…
"I thought it was hilarious!"
"Oh really, Connie? Or should I say, 'Charybdis'?"
"Hey! That's right! He got us both.
"Well I think it was funny.
"Yes? Take her left side, Connie. Now, Livvy, remind us: which wife is the most ticklish? Keep in mind whom you're between…"
Richard didn’t normally buy newspapers. His coworkers brought them to work to read at lunch or on breaks and they were generally available in still-readable condition when he arrived. He did usually wait until the last of them had left the building before he gathered their cast-offs. That wasn’t very long; the second shift was eager to get home.
Richard had a precise reading order; headlines, to see if there was anything interesting to read more of, then sports, then comics and finally, the editorial page. The idiotic opinions (or so he labeled them) in that last section usually left him properly primed to mutter darkly and grumble angrily the rest of the shift, though he scarcely needed the incentive. On nights where the entire front section was missing, he managed to complain and grouse quite adequately after finishing the comics alone.
The difference, of course, was the direction of his ire. Op-Ed pieces left him angry with loons and imbeciles with moronic (different from his own) positions on matters of local or sometimes regional, or more rarely national or international importance. “Who gives a flyin’ fig about Bolivians or Krauts,” he’d say before reading anyway, belittling the correspondants.
Before he could begin his nightly routine, of course, he had to find and assemble those parts of the paper he desired to read. The rest, he could just toss.
It was in the act of tossing that he thought just for a moment that he’d seen the likenesses of his former wives. He snatched at the section as it sailed into the trash with various not-quite-empty coffee cups, but didn’t succeed in preventing their arrival in the can together.
Richard looked in the can, but didn’t dig. That was beneath him. He calmly noticed the section—D, Lifestyles—and found another copy in the lunchroom.
|Cmdr (SS) Robert Edward Yarbough Lee, CSN, of Alexandria, Virginia takes great pleasure and pride in announcing that Lt(lg) (SS) Deborah Anne Harboard, CSN and Nancy Virginia [Cummings] Harboard of Portsmouth, Virginia, have agreed to join him in the bonds of holy matrimony. No wedding date has been set.|
The Dick uttered an inarticulate growl. He wanted to yell, “Who the fuck does this prick think he is?” but the name answered that question all too well. Not just an old Commonwealth name, but one of the names—his mother was probably an executive of the Daughters of the American Revolutions, his father on the Joint Chiefs or something. Okay, Navy was odd, given the name, but another pampered rich kid whatever branch, guaranteed promotions and power and money.
Another growl, almost a howl. He wanted to yell again, something like “That fucker wants to steal my bitches! No way! They’re mine and I’m not done with them yet,” but he knew that they thought they were done with him. Divorce and a court order. Stay away.
No. He probably couldn’t get to that son-of-a-bitch through his family connections, but he could talk to his women, make them see that divorce or no, they were still his. This job was just temporary, he could do better, much better. They’d see. He’d show them.
He didn’t notice that he’d just lit his third “cigarette” of the night while slowly combusting over the Lifestyles section. He never even made it to comics before morning.
My eyes popped open and I listened to determine what had awakened me from a sound sleep. On the other side of Nat, Caroline was sliding out from underneath the covers.
I lifted covers and rolled right. I had my feet on the floor first. I hoped we didn't wake Nat up, too, but our baby needed her mommies. Priorities.
Rounding the foot of the bed, Caroline held out my robe. We dressed on the way to Tiffany's room, turning on the hallway's fifteen-watt bulb. Even its dim glow, muted behind a hand-painted bowl, made us squint.
The night-light in Tiffany's room was much dimmer, and easier on the eyes. We could see Tiffany sitting up, clutching Mr. Raggedycoon, her other arm twisting a fist into one eye. Tiffy's expression wasn't so much woebegone as annoyed, until Caroline lay down beside her. Her free hand shot around Caroline's neck, her face butted itself in Momma's robe.
"Bad dream, sweetheart?" A solemn headshake, up and down. "All gone now?" Same headshake. "Want me to stay here until you fall asleep?" A third rendition. "Okay, roll over." Tiffany let go Caroline's neck and settled in. Caroline snuggled down beside her.
I whispered to Caroline, "You just sleep in with her. I'll get the menfolk moving this morning." I leaned past her to kiss Tiffany's cheek, which she promptly rubbed off—scamp—and kissed Caroline, too. She turned her head enough to catch it nearly on the lips. We squeezed hands and I left them, pulling the door loosely closed.
I noticed the light come on under the guest room door. John had to leave early, to catch the ferry to the peninsula. His orders called for him to report to CASA by noon. I figured I'd send the latest family hero off with at least a decent breakfast, so I went to the kitchen.
I'm not a bad cook, but I never get much practice, not with Caroline around. Both our families had the tradition of one stay-at-home mom, though her mothers had rotated that enormous responsibility; in my family, Mama Celeste was eternal mistress of the hearth. But Mama insisted that all her daughters and sons know how.
Scrambled eggs are a snap. Chop a small onion, a mushroom or two, saute in butter and dump in a bowl of eggs, then keep it all moving over low heat until it reached the right firmness. Slabs of bacon under the broiler take no time at all. Slice up some of Caroline's fresh bread from yesterday, butter it, and broil that for a minute or two — voila!
John came into the kitchen as I was setting plates in the breakfast nook. "You shouldn't have gone to all this bother," he said, but he wore a happy grin. He glanced down the hallway. "Will Caroline be getting up before I have to leave?" He seemed wistful, almost hopeful.
I shook my head, but he wasn't looking. "No. Tiffy had a nightmare. Caroline is keeping her company; they'll both sleep in today."
John almost managed to hide his disappointment. I thought I understood. Caroline had confided to me that she and her younger brother had enjoyed some… youthful experimentation, as she put it. She was concerned that John had come away from it with an unrealistic infatuation. One she tried to discourage.
From my vantage, it was more a case of "tried not to encourage." I don't think the feelings were entirely one-sided. It was just that Caroline wasn't willing to violate marital taboo, whatever she might have done as an adolescent. Society frowns on that sort of behavior.
For my part, I think John Carter is excellent husband material. Handsome, trim but well muscled, polite, even-tempered. I could see that if I'd met him before Caroline, a choice would have been difficult. But for the fact of his brotherhood, Nat Caroline and I would by now have held a family council over whether or not to pop the question.
I wonder… Caroline told me that she and John have different biological mothers but the same father. How could they be certain? There are tests, these days, but how did one go about arranging for them? Paternity in a polygamous society isn't usually a matter for concern, babies are the children of all the mothers and fathers.
But if it would make John and Caroline happy, I figured I would have to find out. Quietly. I wouldn't want to raise any false hopes.
I began to consider John from a different perspective. Okay, I'd need to find out quickly and quietly.
David hugged Marla goodbye while Arthur kissed Melody, then they swapped. Their wives stayed in the open door, smiling and waving until they were in the car and out of the driveway. Even with their hair sleep-tussled, their figures hidden in bulky robes, David thought his wives heartrendingly gorgeous.
"Dave," Art said, breaking into his pleasant thoughts, "do you feel like going to work this morning is like taking a vacation?"
Dave laughed. "Feeling a little worn out, Art?"
Art nodded. "Getting pregnant is hard work!"
"Maybe," David agreed, still laughing, "but you have to admit the wages are great."
"You think so?" Art groaned through a grin. "I guess maybe you're right. I'm gonna miss all this overtime when they cut us back to regular hours."
"Your problem is, you're putting it in terms of a job. Making a baby isn't a job, it's an adventure!"
"Dave, ol' husband, ol' pal, you ought to go into advertising. That'd make a great slogan for some company. Maybe even the military."
"Oh, sure, I can see it on the recruiting posters. 'The Army: It's not a job, it's an adventure.'" They both laughed. "So, anyway, what's your 'vacation' schedule this week? How's the Birmingham coming?"
"I'm done with Birmingham until trials. This week we're doing the same mods on Chattanooga, upgrading launch systems and fire control. Piece of cake. Then, if all goes well, I get a shot at the upgrades on that new sub, the Areolee."
"The 'Areolee?' They named a sub after anatomy?"
"Nah. It's the Robert E. Lee. Areolee—R. E. Lee, get it?—is just a very unofficial nickname." Arthur snickered. "I hear the skipper of that boat has a conniption every time he hears it. Seems his name is R. E. Lee, too." They laughed again.
Things were quiet for a few minutes as David negotiated his way into the inbound shipyard traffic queue. David had been thinking. "Are you going to ride that sub for recommissioning trials?"
"Probably, if I get to do the upgrades. Why?"
"Well, you know the tradition about tee-shirts?"
"Sure." At this shipyard, civilian riders on Navy vessels generally had a clever message printed on tee-shirts worn for the ride. It was a long-standing tradition. The leading contender for the next ship due out of the yards was "There ain't no fat on a Birming Ham."
"How about, 'I love to go down on your Areolee'?"
Arthur burst into laughter. When he had it under control, he said, "Like I said. Advertising. Make us a fortune."
"Ouch! Damn it"
Some other day, I might have taken myself to task for muttering a curse aloud over a little shaving cut. Strange, I suppose, given the reputation for "swearing like a sailor" that all members of the Navy have. But Mama Willow insisted that all her children learn to express themselves without resort to mere profanity. "If you want to make your strong emotions and intense feelings understood under stressful conditions, learn to master the language arts. A well formed sarcastic remark, or a timely rhetorical question, delivered in a quiet tone can be far more effective than swearing."
She was wonderful.
She followed her own precept. Mama Willow could tan your hide with words alone, and leave you stinging with out ever raising her voice once, or allowing a single obscenity to touch her lips. Except of course when she said, "Follow these rules, and you will be known as a person who can keep their head in a crisis, remain rational despite severe provocation. And besides," she'd finished, "when you do say 'Shit!', the object of your anger will know they are well and truly fucked."
"Ouch! Da… Bless me, I'm clumsy this morning." I moved the razor away from my face and took a deep breath. Yes, I was keeping my future wife waiting, but I'd be ready no faster by committing sepaku one tiny nick at a time. Calmer, I finished removing my overnight stubble.
That was the wording I stumbled over: "Well and truly fucked." Last night had been quite an eye opener. Coached by the demure, proper fiancée waiting in the lounge downstairs, I had uttered phrases and euphemisms I hadn't used since junior high school, sniggering with other boys behind the gymnasium. With every obscenity that passed my lips, my other fiancée became more aroused, more passionate. more consumed with lust.
She was wonderful.
While Nancy recovered, Deborah demonstrated that grammar and rhetoric were not the oral skills she most prized in the bedroom, either. When Nancy regained her wits, she, too, became a coach. I discovered that a skill I thought mastered could be honed and improved. The art of the tongue-lashing without profanities; lessons that Mama Willow never taught her children.
She was wonderful, too.
We still had a lot of things to work out, but all three of us were… satisfied… that the bedroom would be the least of our problems.
The bathroom, on the other hand, would take some careful negotiation. Being relegated to the guest bathroom this morning, after what we'd shared the night before, was a bit of a surprise. Another surprise, given what I'd explored, was the total lack of shaving equipment. None at all.
Well, I hadn't been prepared to spend a night. I suspect that wasn't in their original plans, either. Likely there were feminine beauty secrets to which I'd be exposed slowly, in order to avoid destroying my illusions.
Or maybe it was a pig-stye. By their own estimation, I mean, not mine nor anyone else's. There had been some preparation before the night's festivities commenced. No doubt they'd been embarrassed.
I checked my own appearance, dressed now in freshly pressed dress grays. The tiny bits of toilet paper stuck on my face did not enhance my image of authority, but I was otherwise ready to perform my duties. I glanced at my sink. I grimaced. Then I spent a few minutes rinsing hair and shaving soap from the bowl. I wouldn't have wanted Deborah or Nancy to see my mess, either.
Out the door and down the stairs to the lobby. Deborah stood when she saw me, one hand clutching an impressive sheath of messages. At a guess, the engagement announcement had generated even more messages for me than for them. After a chaste kiss, Deborah confirmed the guess.
"I've organized your 'congratulations' messages as best I could. Family first, then crew, then other military, mostly Ships' Captains. After that, the advertisements for wedding services. There's one I'm not sure which category to put in. Perhaps 'old girlfriends'?"
I winced. That certainly seemed unlikely. "Who does it say it's from?"
"I'm guessing they are female," she said. "Who are 'Cilla' and 'Charybdis'?" Was there a touch of jealousy in her tone?
If so, it didn't stop me from laughing. "Family, definitely family." A raised eyebrow told me I'd better explain. "Pricilla and Constance Lee, two out of three of my romance advisors."
That lovely eyebrow arched even higher. "Did they advise you to place that engagement announcement?"
I barely stifled a snort. "Quite the opposite. They physically assaulted me for having the temerity to even consider such a thing. At the time, I'd thought to have a week before it would appear, and had to promise to cancel it first thing this morning. Only that promise saved my scalp."
Deborah considered a moment. "I think I'm going to like your family."
What could I do but smile?
It had the potential to turn into a party. One of those outdoor "block parties" you may have attended at one time or another. I kept trying to herd the Captain and his fiancée into the building, but it was slow going.
Every couple of steps, the skipper had to salute and shake hands with another round of congratulations, as did the Assistant Weapons Officer. Handshakes and hugs abounded for both. Crewmember were being very demonstrative, and so were many of their spouses. I don't think the Captain realized just how much his crew liked him.
I noticed various faces at the windows of the Squadron Headquarters building, including Rear Admiral Shingleton himself. Squadron HQ was where the offices of Submarine Cadre Units were located. No telling what impression this was having on the HQ Staff. I spied the COB in the crowd, and waved him over.
He saluted. "Yes ma'am?"
I returned the salute. "COB, we've got to get this mob into the offices and under control before our boss," I indicated with a thumb over my shoulder in the direction of the Admiral's office, "takes a notion to get involved."
The COB grinned. "Yes ma'am." He spun around, producing a shiny whistle which he proceeded to blow, quite shrilly. "Cadre Unit, Atten-HUT!" Quiet descended over the parking lot, even among the dependants. "Three cheers for the Captain and his intended! Hip-hip—"
"Now fall out and muster by divisions in the Cadre main office!" That broke up the party atmosphere, at least enough to get things moving in a more organized, proficient, military manner.
I clapped the Chief of the Boat on the shoulder. "Thanks, COB. You're a lifesaver."
He grinned. "All part of the job, XO."
"Do you carry that whistle all the time?" I was curious.
He nodded. Then he leaned in closer, his voice much quieter. "Do you think anyone missed the fact that the Skipper arrived in Lt. Harboard's car?"
"Just giving the Captain a ride, COB."
"Yes ma'am. And then providing transportation the next morning." He waggled his eyebrows.
When I stopped laughing, I gestured for the COB to lead the way inside. "You're a dirty-minded old sea-dog, COB."
"Yes ma'am." He grinned again, unrepentant.
"But you're probably right."
Okay, so taking Friday off wasn't the smartest thing to do, Nancy told herself. Still, if I had to do it over, I wouldn't change a thing. She wasn't aware that she was humming to herself as she processed her backlog of paperwork. She'd even smiled at Amy when she'd delivered another stack. Smiles being contageous, Amy was now infecting everyone who passed her desk.
I can't believe I've got a fiancé. It seems like only yesterday I was a quivering blob of insecurity over even dating Bob. Now I'm ready to go down the aisle on roller skates. She hummed a snatch of a wedding march, and smiled even more.
She pressed her intercom. "Amy? I've got the first batch done, can you pick them up and send them on their merry way?"
Amy entered, still smiling from previous visit, to be greeted by another incandescent smile. Emboldened by that smile, Amy asked, "Good weekend, Mrs. Harboard?"
You wouldn't believe how good! "Great weekend, Amy! And you can call me Nancy when it's just us girls."
Amy beamed. "Really? Gosh, Mrs... Nancy, that must have been some hot date." She retrieved the outgoing files.
Thinking about last night, Nancy blushed. "I guess you could say that." She held up her left hand.
Amy's eyes grew huge. "Oh, wow!" She moved closer and leaned down to look. "Who're the lucky guys? I mean, if you don't mind my asking."
"I don't mind. Remember that phone call on Thursday from Robert E. Lee?"
"That's him." Nancy's smile outshone the rock on her finger.
Amy squealed her congratulations and wished her and her wife happiness, then retreated smiling again from the office to her own desk. Nancy returned to her work with a smile and a song on the tip of her tongue.
Their smiles persisted until nearly lunchtime. That's when Amy informed Nancy that there was a Mrs. Cummings on line two.
Nancy's smile disappeared. No sense putting it off. It'll just get worse. She picked up the phone and stabbed the blinking button. "Hello, Mother."
"No, Mother, I—" No, Mother, you didn't raise a daughter to be rude to her parents, and I would have called if I had known the announcement was going to be in yesterday's paper. If I had known I was engaged, even.
"No, Mother, I—" No, Mother, you didn't raise your daughters to not to answer your every phone call promptly. We learned that on our own.
"Yes, Mother." Yes, I understand a daughter has a duty to her parents. But what about the parents' duty to be supportive to their children? I'd be happy to explain everything if you'd just give me a chance, just listen for once!
"Yes, Mother, but—" Sure a young bride's prospective husband should have the approval of the brides' parents. But I'm not a young bride, I'm a grown women and a wife already. Why can't you see that?
"No, Mother, he—" No, Mother, he certainly isn't trying to marry into the Cummings name. How can you even think such a ridiculous thing? For God's sake, he's a Lee of Virginia!
Mother! How can you—" Pregnant? I wish! But nothing we've done so far could make me pregnant, even if I wanted to be. So, no, I don't have to marry Bob. I want to.
"Yes Mother." Why am I even listening to this? You made me the compliant, obedient, dutiful wife that The Dick loved to vent his spleen on, just like you're doing now. Bob likes me to be feisty—he told me so. He said it was one of the things that attracted him to me.
"Yes Mother." Whatever. I'll certainly take precautions. I'll take the precaution of not raising my own children to be doorstops or whipping posts. God, enough is enough!
"Shut up, Mother!" Did you even hear what I said? Can't you stop talking long enough for me to say anything? Ah, it's sinking in.
"Yes Mother, I said shut up. Deborah is my wife. Bob will be our husband. Deal with that any way you wish, but deal with it, or don't call again. Goodbye, Mother." Trembling, Nancy disconnected and set the phone in its receiver.
Nancy sat looking at the phone, her hands not quite steady. Damn, that felt good. I think I really needed that. Feisty. I'll have to thank Bob when I see him
Amy announced via the intercom that Mrs Cummings was on line two again. She picked it up. "Hello?" She pulled the phone away from her ear as a burst of invective screeched at her. She hung up again.
"Amy? I'm not taking any more calls from Mrs. Cummings today, thank you." she released the intercom button. She looked at her ring finger for perhaps the fiftieth time today, and began smiling again. She returned to her work. Before too long she resumed humming.
"Submarine Cadre Detachment Six-Oh-Seven, Petty Officer Dorchester speaking, may I help you?" Siobhan has spoken the standard telephone greeting fifty times since the office opened at 08:00.
"No, sir, the Captain is in a meeting with SubRon Two until 14:00. May I take a message?" She filled out a salmon-colored message blank with the twenty-first message of congratulations so far today, smiling as she did so. She repeated the message back to verify accuracy, and promised that it would be delivered when the Captain returned. She disconnected with the usual phone courtesies.
The Cadre Detachment Office was nothing more than a long room with two small offices and a conference room at one end, and cubical dividers throughout the rest for the various departments. Only two of the current occupants were actually on duty; herself as "Duty PO" (Phone Watch) and Radioman Chief "Sparky" Schulz as "Duty Officer." Siobhan walked to the cubicle in front of the two offices shared by the Captain's Yeoman and Ship's Personnelman.
"Got another one for the Skipper," she said. The Captain's Yeoman smiled and added the latest message to the stack before turning back to his typing. Siobhan returned to her desk.
Between the liberal leave and liberty policy, taking advantage of schools, and short workday (09:00 to 12:00) of the first two weeks, the Cadre Office was nearly empty. Siobhan and the Duty Officer had opened the office at 08:00 and would stay until 16:00, but the rest of the crew not on leave or in school had come and gone for the day. The Captain was still in the building, and the XO was in her office. The Admin Department (that yeoman and personnelman) were actually busier now than aboard ship, processing records. Even they would leave by 15:00, unless the Skipper or Exec stayed later.
Siobhan had volunteered for duty the first day. There were enough Petty Officers in the crew so that none would have to stand duty more than twice over the next nine weeks. She wanted to get hers out of the way early. Besides, two of her spouses had gotten underway very early this morning, and she was already up.
Her only concern with her duties was actually for her brief bouts of "morning sickness." So far, the only episodes had been immediately after waking, and mercifully short. But, as the oldest of nine, she could remember her mothers' pregnancies. Cassiopeia, her youngest mother, had suffered from nausea several times a day through eight months. She'd actually lost weight during her term. Momma Cass never had gotten fat.
"Urp." Damn. Shouldn't have conjured up those images. She stood and looked around. She waved wildly at the Duty Officer, then dashed out of the office and down the hall to the nearest ladies room.
She barely made it, but barely was good enough. She managed to call for Ralph O'Rourke on the big porcelain phone.
She was still waiting for his answer when she heard the door open and close. A hand squeezed her shoulder. "Feel better now?" She nodded, spat once more and reached for the flush mechanism again. The hand patted her shoulder and left.
Water ran. That helpful hand appeared in front of her, holding a paper cup. "Here. Rinse and spit." She took the cup gratefully and did just that, several times. She flushed again.
"Can you stand?" Siobhan nodded. The hands helped, lifting under her armpits, and steered her to the sofa in the ladies room. She sat, eyes closed, gathering herself. Water ran again. Then she felt a cool, damp handerchief pressed to her forehead. "Want to lay down a minute?" She tried to shake her head "no" but realized that was a mistake. She moaned instead.
She felt her legs being lifted and turned onto the sofa. Then her head and shoulders were supported as she was eased into a horizontal position.
Her angel of mercy sat on the edge of the sofa and held her hand. Siobhan squeezed her gratitude. The hand squeezed back. "You just rest here as long as you need to. I'll let the Duty Officer know you're okay. Don't worry about the phones." The door opened and closed again.
After a while, Siobhan felt strong enough to rise. She did so, slowly, then went to the sink. She brushed her teeth as best she could with a finger, wishing for mouthwash or at least a breath mint. She checked and straightened her uniform. At least she hadn't gotten any on herself. Then, her legs still just the least bit wobbly, she returned to the office.
She arrived just in time to hear, "Submarine Cadre Detachment Six-Oh-Seven, Lieutenant Harboard speaking, may I help you?" Oh, good grief, the Captain's fiancée was filling in for her? Could this get more embarrassing? She glanced at the handkerchief in her hand. The monogram in the corner was "DH." Yes, apparently it could.
The Lieutenant was smiling and thanking someone while she stood and waved Siobhan to the seat. Another call of congratulations, she guessed. She watched as the call was transferred to the Captain, and the Lieutenant hung up.
"Sit! Sit!" the Lieutenant urged her. She did. She looked at a clock; 14:45. She'd been out of it for nearly an hour. She started to express her profuse thanks to Lt. Harboard, but the officer waved it off. "Shipmates look out for shipmates," she said. "And besides, I'm not the only woman in the crew that deserves congratulations, am I. You take good care of yourself and your baby, and that will be thanks enough."
The Captain swept out of his office. "Ready?" The Lieutenant nodded, and they left.
Siobhan decided she was going to miss this crew, a lot.
Hog heaven, Donna thought, might very aptly describe where I am right now. She snapped off three quick pictures of the brides and groom cutting the cake. She chose an entirely different angle than their "professional" photographer, a much better one, she thought.
The reception was lavishly catered. I feel like I'm gaining weight just being around the buffet. She saw an angle that emphasized the oppulance of the feast and snapped three more pictures. Capturing the guests, the brides and groom, and their families had used up four rolls of film. Of course, if I were shooting the wedding for the brides, four rolls wouldn't even be a start. The paper was unlikely to use more than a few photos, even for a feature. Donna was ready to leave.
Unfortunately, the Society Reporter was not. She seemed to feel that grazing rights at the post nuptual banquet were perks of the job. She looks like she's covered an awful lot of weddings. Next time, I'll take a cab. I can afford it, now.
In fact, "Do you need me for any other pictures?" She had to wait until the reporter chewed and swallowed for her answer. It wasn't long.
"What's the rush, deary? Got a date later? Need a fourth?"
As if! I certainly wouldn't ask— Donna shook her head. Let's not go there. Despite first impressions, you might have a heart of gold and the loyalty of a cocker spaniel. "No, I just wanted to see that new exhibit at the Mariner's Museum, and they close early on Mondays."
The reporter waved her away with a "Suit yourself" and returned to her grazing. Despite herself, Donna snatched up a piece of baklava and a napkin on her way out. Better watch yourself, "deary," or you'll have no room to talk, she thought to herself.
Catching a cab in front of the Princesse Anne Hotel was no problem; there were always a line of cabs waiting. Donna gave her destination and settled back to savor the sweet treat she'd grabbed.
Shortly, she was wondering the hallways of the Mariner's Museum. The theme of the new exhibit was Life on the Waters of the Chesapeake. It featured the paintings of three artists, two in oils and one in oils, watercolors, and charcoal.
The subjects of the various paintings varied wildly, from sailboats and yachts to families of clammers in the tidal flats. One of the artists specialized in people. The oil of the clammers was signed EKG. Donna especially liked those. I'd have taken that picture, If I'd been there. Exactly like that. Exactly.
There were signs in the museum discouraging photography, but Donna had shown her press credentials, and the museum staff ignored her. She used up several rolls, and found herself returning to the painting of the clammers. Nibbling a corner of her lip, she stood on a bench to snap several pictures of the painting, using varied settings and filters.
When she moved to descend from the bench, a young man extended a hand to assist. She smiled her gratitude and accepted the hand. "You like that one?" he asked.
"Very much," she replied. "I think it's my favorite of the exposition."
"Really?" He glanced at the picture and frowned. "It's just some people digging clams," he said dismissively.
Donna almost bristled. Do you have no soul? "Look at it again. Look at the faces of the people in the painting. Do you see how the artist manages to capture both their weariness and a sense of satisfaction? Can you see the little details, the wrinkles and the smile lines and the patches on their clothes, the swirl of mud there, the..."
The young man wasn't looking at the painting. He was looking at Donna. Smiling. Donna blushed. "You seem very passionate about art."
Blushing deeper, Donna held up her camera. "A kindred spirit."
The young man smiled. "That wasn't a criticism." He extended his hand again. "Edgar Galloway. Call me Ed. And you are?"
Still feeling the heat on her face, Donna took his hand and shook it. "Donna Delvechio" Making a guess, she asked, "What's the 'K' stand for?"
He laughed. "Kenton. Will you join me—and my wife—for dinner?"
"I'd love..." Donna broke off, and groaned. "I'm afraid I can't, tonight. I need to spend the evening in a darkroom." Damn! Kindred spirit, and cute, too. Damn.
"Oh, I'm sure my wife would love to join us in a dark room somewhere." Donna giggled. "Perhaps another time?" He smiled as Donna nodded, still giggling.
They exchanged cards and numbers.
"Thank you, Bob. Dinner was excellent."
"It couldn't hold a candle to yours, Nancy, but you're welcome anyway."
"Thanks again! You're too sweet." Nancy was smiling warmly. After-dinner coffee was fresh in their cups, and Bob was being his sweet, charming self.
Deborah couldn't help but smile. Nancy seemed to be blossoming around Bob. Bubbling. Percolating, even.
There'd been no time since last night's unexpected ending for Deborah to talk seriously with her wife, and they really needed to. Where did they go from here? Dropping Nancy at work and taking Bob to the office via the BOQ had left no time. Staying there until Bob could get away, even though she herself was on leave; dropping him at the BOQ before getting Nancy and returning for dinner; the only time for talk had been in the car, and Nancy's reaction to her mothers' calls had consumed most of that.
Where do we go from here? Deborah asked herself. What comes next? She glanced at her ring finger. We're engaged, yes. Does he want a long engagement? Do I? Does Nancy? We've had a big wedding. I don't think I want another. But does he? The smile didn't entirely fade from her lips, but it was tempered by her thoughts.
"So, anyway... Bob, I've been thinking, all day as a matter of fact..." Nancy paused. She turned her head to Deborah. "Deb and I haven't had a chance to talk since yesterday," she turned back to Bob, "but what I'm thinking is that your staying in the BOQ is very inconvenient for all of us and I'd like you to move out. Tonight," she hurriedly finished, looking back and forth between Bob and Deborah.
There was a lot of three cornered glancing. Nancy looked at Bob with embarrassed adoration, Deborah could see, and at her with hopeful appeal. Bob looked back with some surprise and much affection, and at Deborah with much the same, plus a tinge of worry. Deborah had no idea what her own face showed beyond shock.
She forced herself to look only at Nancy. "What happened to my wife? You know, the uncertain woman who barely tolerated the thought of dating, much less marriage."
Nancy's face turned serious. "I know what you mean. But I had three weeks to face myself alone. I think I'd already turned a corner. And then there was Bob." She faced him, now. "I know you love Deborah. I see it in your eyes. What shocks me is that I see some of that for me, too."
"Never doubt that," Bob answered her softly. "I saw something in you even on the first date. I love you both."
Nancy turned back to Deborah. "You see? And he gives me strength. I never could have faced down my mothers, even over a phone, without thinking about Bob."
By now, each had taken the hands of the other, and squeezes were circulating. Deborah inhaled, and fixed her eyes on Bob. "How long will it take you to pack?"
Bob's eyes gleamed and Nancy squeezed Deborah's hand hard enough to hurt. But just as suddenly, bob looked away. When he looked back, his expression was guarded. "Before I answer, we need to discuss a few things."
"Like what?" Nancy had lost a little of the bubbliness at Bob's hesitation. Deborah just raised her eyebrows, and leaned a little closer.
"Well, for one, just how long would we be cohabitating sans marriage? Put another way," he added hastily, "how long an engagement were my ladies anticipating?"
Nancy turned to Deborah. Her hand squeezed once, very briefly. Short, Deborah interpreted. She nodded slightly. She squeezed back, twice. Two days? Nancy frowned, then nodded. They turned to Bob as one and said, together, "Wednesday."
Bob leaned back and laughed, loudly enough to draw the attention of other diners. Realizing he'd done so, he announced loudly, "The wedding is on Wednesday!" There was a smattering of applause and a few cheers, and the other diners returned to their own affairs.
Bob lifted each of their hands to his lips in turn for a kiss. "Finish your coffee, Darlings. We've packing to do.
Nancy was beaming again. "You had other questions?"
Bob smiled wickedly at Deborah's wife and his fiancée. "Time enough for the deep, probing questions when I've unpacked."
Nancy flushed prettily as she dropped her eyes to her coffee. Bob raised a hand to signal their waitress. "Check, please."
The Lees and Harboards did not have a monopoly on celebrating betrothals. In fact, as engagement parties go, the Nunez family all agreed this one was a success. The adult members of the family, lead by Alberto, had proposed to Kylia and been acceptedas expected. Then the young ones had been allowed to come in and express their welcome. Many tears were shed.
The party was finally over. Alberto and Juan read bedtime stories to the youngest while the "womenfolk" cleaned up. Just now Kylia. washing, and Maria, drying, were discussing a popular old ballad called Danny Boy.
"I have heard many interpretations of the song," said Maria. "It seems quite lovely."
"Oh, no! I think it is terrible as a love song," Kylia said. Especially if you look at it a certain way. Some woman is laying a horrible guilt trip on her lover. 'okay, fine, you go ahead without me,' she's saying. 'You have to go. I have to stay. I'll be here whenever you get back, summer or winter. But I'll probably be dead when you get home, having to live without you, all alone. Just say a prayer over my rotting corpse. I'll be fine, don't worry about me.'" She made shooing motions with the hand bearing her new engagement ring.
Maria and Madonna both laughed. Madonna, pausing from containerizing leftovers, said, "Many times I have listened to that song, and every time I assumed that it was a young woman pledging her undying and everlasting love to this young man, Danny."
"Si," Maria agreed. "Although I had heard that it might be a grand-mama sending her grandson off to war, expecting to die before his return. And yet, some of the words implied that might be a curious relationship . . ." She snapped her dishtowel.
The ladies all laughed again.
"You seriously believe this woman is playing on the man's feelings of guilt over leaving?" Madonna bent to slide a covered platter onto a refrigerator shelf.
"Absolutely! Noone knows guilt better than Irish Catholic women, except maybe Jewish mothers. Listen!" She began to sing. "'And when ye come, and all the flowers are dying, and I am dead, as dead I well may be . . .' Nowhere in the song does she say whether he'll be gone for a week or a month or a year, but here she is saying 'dead I well may be'. Don't you think she is trying to make him feel as bad as she does that he's not taking her with him?
"As bad as I'd have felt when you all returned to Cuba if you weren't taking me with you?"
"Oh, Ky! Never think it!" said Maria.
"You accepted our proposal; you're one of us," agreed Madonna. "We are very much a 'wither thou goest' family. We would never leave you behind."
"I know, I know," said Kylia, crying. "It's just that awful song that makes me cry." They let that reason stand, and comforted one another.
Sometimes, Nancy thought, the last thing you want to see when you arrived wherever it was you were going, was a flock of relatives. And yet here I am, arriving at my office—at work, at my job, at my place of business—and my poor secretary is surrounded by my mothers. All four of them.
“Good morning, Penny?. Good morning, Mothers. What brings you to the Marine Terminal this morning?” As if she didn’t know. “Arranging to ship something overseas, are we?”
“Nancy Virginia! Aren't you going to invite us into your office?” asked Mother Lois.
Nancy returned Mother Lois's stare with a considering look. One week earlier, that question in that tone would have had me scurrying to open the door, apologizing as I scurried. Now . . . . “I suppose, out of consideration for Amy, that might be best.” She turned to Amy, smiling, as her mothers' jaws dropped, some of them at least. “I'm sorry about this invasion, Amy. I'll have them out from underfoot as quickly as I can so we can get back to work.” She opened her door and waved a casual hand to usher her mothers inside.
“Should I hold your calls?” asked Amy.
“No reason to-this won't take long at all.” Behind her she heard a mew from more than one of her mothers at that calm observation. She entered her office, closing the door, and took her seat.
Folding her hands on her desk, she addressed herself to Mother Lois. “I see no reason to go into this extremely personal matter while I am at work.” As her mothers tried to speak, she raised her voice a little. “You made your disapproval quite clear on the phone. That's fine-your approval is no longer my top priority, my future husband's approval is, and he approves of me as I am, thank you very much.
“Now if there is nothing further . . . .” she started to rise.
There evidently was. Four middle aged women began speaking at once, without regard to age or precedence. Nancy had never seen her mothers at such a loss. Even if Nancy had wanted to listen carefully to their “reasoned discourse” she could have never separated their words. Without words, Nancy relied on facial expressions to “get the gist.”
Mother Lois and Mother Kelsey were angry or at least very cross. She moved her gaze to Mother Lena; passionately concerned? Shifted again to Mother Marianna. Ouch! Momma Mar was not angry, or cross, or merely concerned-she was about to burst into tears! Holding up a hand to the others, Nancy rose from her desk to kneel in front of her most needy mother.
“Momma Mar, are you alright?”
“No!” she said, followed by a sob. “My daughter is getting married, and I want to be there.” The sob was followed by others as Nancy took her hands, which morphed into a full-fledged hug in seconds.
After that exchange of comfort against a background of murmuring, Nancy leaned back and raised her mother's chin to look in her eyes. “I'd love to have you there, Momma Mar, but would you feel comfortable coming to my wedding without your wives? I wouldn't feel as comfortable only inviting some of my-”
If the previous cacophony was indecipherable in four voices, the protests raised now were equally so in but three. It was Mother Lena's hand that stifled the angrier voices this time to allow her to say, “Nancy, I want to be there, too! Forgive us this display of badly expressed concern. After all, you gave us no warning, not a hint that another marriage was in the offing.”
“That's true and I'm sorry, but I was still fighting myself on this until just this weekend.”
Mother Lena still hand her hand up, and Mothers Lois and Kelsey were nearly silent, if champing at the bit. Nancy recognized a long-standing tradition of her parents that meant “I have the floor” and realized that she had invoked it herself-and it had been honored-when she went to Momma Mar. As Mother Lena dropped her hand, Nancy raised hers again.
“Here it is, all laid out. Captain Robert E. Lee of Virginia will marry my wife Deborah and me in the Norfolk Naval Base Chapel tomorrow at noon.” Strangled protests didn't quite violate the invoked rule, and Nancy continued. “There will be no fancy wedding dresses, no fancy flowers, no bridesmaids in taffeta, no groomsmen in tuxedos, no music that I know of, no huge guest list and no reception afterwards. I'd love to have you all and my fathers if they can take time off. There will be no discussion of the agenda or the timing. This is simply the way it will be.”
Before she lowered her hand, she repeated, “No discussion. And now I need to get to work. She untangled herself from Momma Mar's embrace, thinking, If I had realized that I could have an uninterrupted say just by raising a hand . . . But then she remembered doing so when younger and being treated like a schoolgirl with a question. She swelled with emotion realizing that somehow, sometime her mothers had begun to think of her as an adult, even if they'd never admit it.
Another proof of that status was Mother Lena shepherding Mothers Lois and Kelsey out of her office. They still didn't look happy, but they had actually accepted that there would be no more arguments. At least, not here and now. Family dinners and reunions might be different.
Nancy would have followed them to the elevator had not Amy's voice on the intercom said, “Mrs. Harboard, Receiving on line one.”
Sometimes, Deborah thought, the last thing you want to see when you arrived wherever it was you were going, was an ex-husband. And yet here he was, the Dick, sitting on her front porch, hers and Nancy’s, as though there wasn’t a one-hundred yard restraining order to prevent that very thing.
“Hello… Dick. What brings you to within a hundred meters of either me or Nancy this morning?” As if she didn’t know. “Arranging to spend time at the county farm, are we?”
“You’re not getting married tomorrow.” The Dick delivered that statement… command… threat in an absolutely dead-cold voice, like nothing Deborah could remember hearing when they were married. Deborah felt cold pricklies racing up and down her spine and she took a step back away from her own porch. The Dick stood up. Deborah stepped back again.
Then just as she always had, she stood her ground. Naval training, natural stubbornness, whatever, Deborah faced her problem head on. “Whether we marry tomorrow or not is no longer any concern of yours. A judge has long since decreed your interest in our affairs at an end, and more important, Nancy and I have decreed we don’t want you in our lives.”
While she spoke her defiance, the Dick had closed the distance between them to less than an arm’s length—her arm’s length. His arms were longer and he reached out to grab her wrist with his left hand. Deborah reacted as she’d been trained, and occasionally practiced. There are simple maneuvers that turn the arm in such a way that pressure is placed on the thumb, the weakest point of a simple grip, allowing the hold to be broken. At the same time, Deborah made a grab of her own then applied pressure to the Dick’s elbow to make him stumble past her and fall to his knees.
She released immediately and ran up the porch steps, intending to put a stout oak door between herself and Richard. The door shook from his shoulder, but not until she’d thrown the deadbolt. Deborah breathed a sigh of relief.
Then the frame around the door split away from the wall and Deborah realized that the Dick had become, since she last saw him, much more violent than she’d ever seen him. The door wouldn’t last more than seconds against him. She looked at the telephone in the parlor and thought, no time, and the bedroom doors won’t last any longer than… She ran to the kitchen and the door smashed open behind her.
She realized her keys were still in hand and thought, Back door! Around the house, in the car, get away!
But the Dick caught her in the kitchen, struck her from behind on her shoulder which spun her back-first into the refrigerator, her shoulder striking it in agony. This time the Dick grabbed her left wrist in his tightly squeezing right. Those moves for freeing one’s self from a hold don’t work quite as well when a prepared individual is grating one’s radius and ulna against each other, when that person’s fingers and thumb circled one’s wrist enough that fingers alone maintained a grasp and the thumb was a lock on it.
The Dick was thundering about “listening” and “teaching” and “lessons” but Deborah wasn’t listening or learning whatever his lessons were. She was all about “surviving” and “escaping” with no attention left for anything else.
The Dick yanked her away from the refrigerator and she found herself almost bent over the counter. As he used his, and Deborah must be forgiven for thinking it, “vise-like grip” to spin her back around, she managed to grab one of Nancy’s most cherished kitchen tools and swing with all her power and the momentum of the spin Dick had started..
After the first contact, his grip was much looser and his thundering had stopped, so Deborah applied it a second time, with nearly as much force as the first, again to the side of the head. The Dick hadn’t fallen nor had he released her, though she was certain she could break his grip now. Instead, she applied the tool a third time in a fine overhand swing.
The Dick let go. The Dick fell down. The Dick was very, very quiet. Deborah ran out of the house through the shattered front door into the arms of a police officer, causing her to drop Nancy’s marble rolling pin. She hoped it wasn’t chipped.
It took nearly two minutes to explain and absorb the explanation that Mrs. Grundy across the street had called the police the moment that Deborah had gotten out of her car instead of driving away. She’d given the emergency dispatcher a running account of the assault in front of the house and the breaking and entering that had expedited response. Deborah added the details of the restraining order.
As a second unit pulled up, the officer’s partner reported that there was nobody, conscious or otherwise, in the kitchen. While the details were radioed in, the second unit did a careful room-to-room search of the house.
I’ve got to call Nancy and warn her. That son-of-a-bitch may go there, next.
Sometimes, Bob thought, the last thing you want to see when you arrived wherever it was you were going, was someone to whom you were deeply in debt, the kind of debt that defies repayment. And yet here I am, arriving at my ship’s office, and there he is, he finished aloud, “bigger than life and twice as ugly!”
“Like you’re any great prize! Still, I hear conga-rats are in order. Find a couple of blind women to walk the aisle with you, did you?”
“Blind women! Who was it that always said, ‘there’s someone for everyone’ and ‘beauty’s only skin deep’ and “ain’t no ugly folks, just some’s less beautiful than others’ and so on?”
“That was me. But it’d take women with a particular appreciation for the absurd to consider getting’ hitched to you!”
“I’ll have you know that many women consider me a fine catch.”
“Yeah, but they all ‘catch-and-release.’ Who’d want to keep a scaly runt like you?”
Bob couldn’t help it. He started laughing. “One of these days, you’re going to chase a posse of women until they catch you, and then we’ll see who laughs last.”
“The only reason you’ll ever laugh last is because it takes you longer to catch the joke.”
The Cadre Office was not particularly crowded. The crew had earlier mustered, gotten their assignments, those who were here, and been dispersed. The few who remained, however, were looking sorely perplexed by this byplay. Bob placed a hand in front of his mouth and said as an aside, “Old friend. Got me through the academy. Hoping he’ll stand up for me at the base chapel, tomorrow.”
Frowns turning upside down, he faced his visitor again. “So, old friend. Going to stand up for me at the wedding tomorrow?”
Bob watched as his “old friend’s” face fell. “Lord, Bob, I’m sorry but I can’t. I’m on a flight out this morning for the west coast to join my new command as Exec.”
“Congratulations!” Bob replied. “Those conga-rats are flying every which-way today.” He punched his friend lightly on the arm. He kept a smile on his face to hide the disappointment he felt.
“True, but rotten timing anyway. I wish I could stay the extra day, but ‘them’s the breaks of Naval Air,’ as they say.”
“I remember—‘air brakes’.”
“Right. So, the base chapel… religious ceremony?”
“I think Nancy is Catholic, Deborah is Presbytarian, and I’m Episcopalian. No, the Baptist Chaplain is just going to bless our union after a civil ceremony, which he’ll officiate. I don’t think the ladies were planning on bridesmaids or anything, so springing a groom’s man on them might not have been the way to go, anyway.”
“You are getting brighter in your dotage, Bob.”
“Not so’s you’d notice, but thanks anyway.”
“I’ve got to go, or I’d at least stick around to meet the brides. I’ll give you a call when I’m settled in.”
“Wait a few minutes and I’ll go with you. We haven’t had a chance to catch up, you blowing through like this, and I should think you’d like to hear about my ‘fy-yancies’.”
“You don’t have work to do?”
“I just arranged leave with my boss upstairs, and as of now I’m free as a bird.” He turned to the Duty Officer, Lt. Watkins. “Glen, I’ll see you in a week or ten days.” He shook hands.
“Oh, you’ll see me sooner than that, Skipper. I know where the chapel is.”
He made his good-byes to the crewmembers present and started to accompany his good friend out the door, asking the name f his new command.
Petty Officer Dorchester, standing duty again per her plan to get them out of the way early, was answering the phone. “Excuse, me, Captain? It’s Lt. Harboard, sir. She sounds upset.”
Good, make that best friend or not, Bob abandoned him at the door to take the phone, concern all over his face. An upset fiancé on the day before the wedding commands one’s full attention. Siobhan looked a sheepish apology to the big officer leaning on the door frame, and he grinned and shrugged back.
The Captain’s face turned white. “I’ll be right there.”
Lena could always tell when the rest of the family regarded transportation as an emergency. The key words were very simple: “Let Lena drive.” That was the only time she ever heard those words. A paranoid person might infer that the rest of her family did not trust her driving, but Lena chose to interpret it as good healthy fear and self-preservation because high speeds and two-wheel cornering frightened the bejeezus out of them.
Well, it should!
Besides, her maiden name was Foyt, and she learned to drive before she learned to walk. All of her poppa’s family learned to avoid revenuers back in the day, running illegal moonshine north into the then “dry” United States. They regarded it like any other skill, something you learned and used.
A glance in the rear-view mirror over the top of Mariana’s head reminded her that her wives didn’t need to be along for this drive, though she was glad they were. Solidarity, showing Nancy that they were all behind her a hundred percent even when it meant white knuckles and mumbled prayers and “that lunatic’s driving.” Lena giggled, which caused moans in the back seat and for Nancy in the front to look across at her.
Did they think she was losing it? She giggled again and drew more moans from behind. Now Nancy had a suspicious look on her face. Lena looked a ways ahead and noted a jam forming, so she decided to switch streets, leaving rubber behind as she braked, cut ninety degrees to the right and accelerated. She didn’t have to see the knuckles to know how white they were. “Everyone lean left,” she announced as the neared the end of the block.
As she squeeled through the left turn, back into the right direction for Nancy’s house, there was a squeak behind her as well as more moans. That meant Lois had opened her eyes, the big sissy. The others were afraid to close theirs, but Lois rode with her eyes shut.
Glancing left, she noted that Nancy had a hand on the overhead strap, but her left was just loose in her lap, not braced or clutching anything. Relaxed. Enjoying the ride. All Nancy’s tension and attention was focused forward, to the end of the trip.
They were halfway there when Nancy asked, “Did I say thank you, Mother Lena?”
“Yes you did, sweetie, you surely did,” Lena replied. “Don’t worry, we’ll have you there in a few more minutes.”
“I know, and I’m grateful, but I wish I could relax more and enjoy this. It takes me back to when you used to drive carpool to school. Of course, back then you used to caution us all to keep the details of the carpool from all the other parents or we’d all have to ride with,” she lowered her voice, “Momma Lois.”
Not low enough. “I heard that!”
“Sorry, Mother Lois.”
“Yes, well, we all knew Lena would be more exciting to ride with, but we trusted she wouldn’t do anything too wild.”
Lena looked at her daughter. Nancy looked at her mother. Both giggled. The back seat moaned as one, and Lena changed lanes three times in rapid succession to keep the moan going. (She could have stayed in the felt lane after passing the first car.)
When Bob had begged a ride to his fiancės’ house, Rick had been only too happy to oblige. He was certain he could deliver the Groom and still make his flight with time to spare. Friends since the Naval Academy, they so rarely got to visit, and anything that would prolong the visit was fine by him.
But Bob had ridden with him on occasions too numerous to recall. He knew the kind of driver Rick was – why this pale-faced cold-sweating passenger now? Rick almost said it aloud—“Wuss!”—but held it in while he thought about it.
Damn, this boy must be really gone about his wives-to-be. He wasn’t acting like he was scared about the road. He must be scared for his ladies.
He turned onto a boulevard closing in on the home stretch per Bob’s navigating, when some maniac in an overpowered sedan fishtailed in from the other direction. Figuring he’d be best to leave that fool behind, he accelerated. The road was clear ahead.
To his surprise—no, surprise is much to mild—shock, that’s the word, the sedan pulled even then slightly ahead and looking to pass! He glanced left and saw an attractive young woman sitting by the driver… a “little old lady.” A huge set of eyes in another face looked at him from the back seat, almost even with him.
Bob was laughing in his seat, color returning to his face.
Rick tried to get a little more out of the rental car, but it didn’t have any more to give. He shook his head in disgust. Got his doors blown off by a bunch of woman in a damned sedan, for gosh sake.
And Bob, laughing his butt off, witness to this travesty! If only he’d had his own car…
His navigator gave him a “two blocks” warning and he took his foot off the acelerator. The other car began to slow as well, though not quite as much. At one block, Bob pointed unnecesarily to a house on the left with a pair of police cars in the driveway. Rick rested a foot on the brake.
Ahead, the sedan did a panic-stop and reverse, pretty as you please, and came to a complete stop near the curb in front of the house. A couple of policeman were moved to grant the sedan lots of extra space, dashing from the sidewalk onto the grass of the front yard.
He turned to Bob, who was unfastening his seatbelt. “Okay, chuckles, what’s so bleeding funny?”
“Did you see the woman in the passenger seat?”
“Yes, I did. You know her?”
“Oh yeah! That was my fiancé, Nancy. You’re lucky she was a passenger.”
“Oh, really? Whoever was driving is a bigger maniac than I am.”
“Yeah, but still. That was one of her mothers. They won’t let Nancy drive. They consider her too reckless, or not wreckless enough.”
While Rick tried to decipher that, he got out of the coupe. Looking at his watch, he figured he had just enough time to meet Bob’s new family if he turned responsibility for the rental over to Bob and got Nancy or her mother to drop him at the airport.
Two young women met and hugged on the yard and Bob went to hug them both, while three older women were insisting on custody of car keys from a fourth. That made the fourth the driver he wanted to ride with. They looked like his kind of family.
Bob was waving him over. “Darlings, I want you to meet my best friend, Rick Rudd. His tutoring got me through the Academy, and Nancy, he drives just like you.” Handshakes led to kisses on his cheek, to mild blushing. He felt welcome, especially when Nancy ribbed him about his second place finish to a “guurl.”
He wished them all his best, sincerely, before he took his leave… with Nancy’s mother behind the wheel.
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. . .
“Dearly Beloved of God, we are gathered here today, in the presence of the Almighty, for truly is it written, ‘wherever two or more shall gather in his name, there is love,’
. . .
“Marriage is ordained by God for the union between men and women. The primary purpose of this union is to glorify God by demonstrating his love to the world.”
. . .
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. Jesus, the founder of Christianity, proclaimed, ‘So, they are no longer two, but one flesh’.”
. . .
“Do you, Robert Edward Yarborough Lee, take these woman, Deborah Anne Harboard and Nancy Virginia Cummings Harboard, to be your lawfully wedded wives; to have and to hold, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, for as long as you all shall live?”
“Do you, Deborah Anne Harboard, and you, Nancy Virginia Cummings Harboard, take this man, Robert Edward Yarborough Lee, to be your lawfully wedded husband; to have and to hold, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, for as long as you all shall live?”
. . .
All of the people in this story are in some way related, either professionally or socially (or by blood - but that's social, too.) The relationships may not be close, but they are there. I pondered whether to list the characters alphabetically by name, or in order of introduction, but settled loosely on family groupings.
"Maiden" names are shown as [Maiden].
Nicknames and diminutives are shown as ("Nickname")