Okay, it's going to take me a while to set up my new website, so I won't leave you hanging!
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Thanks! (Again I apologize for the formatting but I can't figure out another way for now..)
Luke paced the small square kitchen in his apartment and swore. Had he really been reduced to accosting young women and pushing helpless kids around? He raked his fingers through his hair and shuddered. Oh, God, what’s wrong with me?
He glanced at his watch. Jonno would be back in about twenty minutes. Just enough time…Luke marched to the kitchen and foraged through the cupboards. Where was it? Months earlier, when he’d vowed to change his ways and stay sober, he’d thrown everything out. Later, he found a small bottle tucked behind the pots and decided to keep it. For emergencies.
His hands shook as he pushed aside a box of saltine crackers. Kristin Taylor was possibly the most aggravating woman he’d ever met. The way she’d matched his stare, unflinching. She must have been terrified when she’d come face-to-face with his gun, but hid it well. Those blue-gray eyes had pinned him from the get go. It was almost as though she saw right through him.
Luke shuddered again, wincing at the memory of how close he’d come to actually shooting her. And then Jonno had gone and opened his big mouth, offering to help her out. Now he’d be stuck with her.
He’d apologized. Couldn’t that be it?
Ah, there you are…Luke’s hand closed around the glass bottle and pulled it off the shelf. Set it down on the scratched Formica countertop and backed off. The light brown liquid inside the bottle swirled and settled, beckoning to him like an old friend he hadn’t seen in a while. He folded his arms and set his jaw. One foot tapped out a steady beat on the linoleum floor.
It would certainly make the rest of the day more bearable. Then again, if he went out blitzed and she opened that smart mouth of hers, he just might shoot her.
For real this time.
It was a rather attractive mouth. A grin slid across his face. The rest of her wasn’t too difficult to look at either.
Forget it, Maddox. You don’t need that kind of trouble. And she would definitely be trouble. Every nerve in his body hummed the warning.
Luke grabbed the neck of the bottle, unscrewed the cap and brought it about a half inch away from his lips. Temptation singed his nostrils. His heart pounded against his chest. He could almost taste it…almost remember what it was like to forget…to feel nothing, to sink into a haze of mind-numbing intoxication.
But the pain always returned. No matter what he did, it came back. And it was twice as bad. No substance was strong enough to erase the memories he carried and the ache they created inside of him.
He deserved every bit of it.
Luke lowered the bottle, closed his eyes and sucked in a long breath.
Jesus, help me. If You’re still listening to me after everything I’ve done, just…give me a little more strength. Please.
He moved toward the sink, tipped the bottle upside down and watched the brown liquid slowly disappear down the drain.
Kristin stepped out onto the pavement an hour later and spied the dark green dirt-splattered Jeep parked against the curb. Luke and Jonno sat up front, drinking from bottles of Coca-Cola. Kristin held back a jubilant smile. She’d expected them to abandon her.
Jonno glanced her way as she approached, his eyes widening under the brim of his cap as he let out a wolf whistle. “Looking sharp there, Miss Taylor.”
Kristin noted the scowl garnered from Luke at the comment. She gave Jonno a mock salute, then heaved her pack over the side of the Jeep, and climbed in after it. The olive-colored army pants and lightweight cotton shirt she’d just purchased were far more breathable than anything she’d brought with her. Plus she wouldn’t stand out in the field. Assuming she made it that far.
Luke turned her way. “The roads outside the city are not safe. It’ll be better for you to hitch a ride on a Huey or some other bird next time you go out to a base camp. But since you’re riding with us this time, you follow my instructions. If I say get down, you get down. Understand?”
“Why are you driving if it’s so dangerous?” She adjusted the leather strap of her camera around her neck and shifted on the hot vinyl seat. Her heart picked up speed, but her mind raced even faster. He didn’t scare her. Much.
“Do you want to ride with us or not?”
“Sure. But, what if…”
Luke shook his head, grunted, and faced forward, starting the engine. “Do as I say and ask questions later. Got it?”
Kristin stifled her curiosity, and nodded. “Got it. I appreciate the ride, thanks.” Disgruntled as she was, at least she would make an attempt to be civil. Her hands tightened around the helmet on her lap as they bounced along. “Where are we going?”
“North.” Luke veered past cars, then stopped in the never-ending line of traffic. He soon changed lanes to pass a truck. He gunned the engine, flinging Kristin back against the seat. She grunted in annoyance and settled in, rubbing the back of her neck. If she endured many rides with this man, she’d soon have a severe case of whiplash.
“Long Binh.” Jonno answered, handing her a dog-eared map and pointing to a spot on it. “24th Surgical Hospital, and base camp for my company. You’re gonna love it. It’s right on the ocean. We’re about an hour or two away, depending on traffic, and, well, other delays.”
Other delays? Like getting blown up?
Kristin tried to picture their destination as they bounced along the road—an army camp on the beach? She wasn’t too sure about loving it, but the image intrigued her nonetheless.
As they drove along Highway 1, she snapped pictures whenever Luke slowed to a suitable speed. Vietnamese men, women and children walked or cycled along the side of the road. Some of the children waved and shouted at them in Vietnamese. Kristin waved back, but felt very much like the foreigner she was.
Endless strips of green rice paddies stretched out beside them. Farmers wearing conical shaped hats worked the fields, driving water buffalo. Mountains rose up to her left, high and lush, bare patches of burnt ground—remnants of war—just visible. Tiny wisps of smoke could be seen here and there, filtering through the trees. To the right, an ocean of deepest blue came into view. Kristin inhaled. Salty air mingled with the slight smell of smoke residue.
For all outward appearances, the countryside looked beautiful—a place of peace and harmony. But up in those mountains, the battle raged. Intermittent explosions could just be heard over the sound of the Jeep’s engine. Another loud boom shook the road and Kristin inched down in her seat.
After a few hours of driving without a break, the camp came in to view. Barbed wire fencing surrounded by sand bags stretched out along the road. The broad loops of sharp metal seemed to run for miles. A couple of watchtowers could just be seen, with a landing strip set at the far end of the camp closest to the base of the mountain. Luke turned into the gates at breakneck speed. A large hand-painted wooden sign welcomed them to the 24th Surgical Hospital. Two GIs at the gates nodded acknowledgement as they sped through. At last the Jeep slowed, along with Kristin’s heart rate.
Kristin took in her surroundings, scribbling on her notepad as they went. The size of the camp surprised her. There were more buildings than she’d expected, and she noted the overhead power wires. Long wooden structures with tin roofs were positioned along the roads, sand bags piled high around them too. Vietnamese women hurried by, carrying armfuls of clothes.
Kristin raised an eyebrow. “What are they doing?” She directed the question to Jonno. Luke wouldn’t answer her anyway. He didn’t seem the talkative type.
“Laundry,” Jonno told her. “They work in the camp, cleaning, keeping house for the officers. We call them Mama-sans.”
“Interesting. And they don’t mind working for us?” She wondered about welcoming in the enemy, but filed away the thought for future discussion.
Jonno shrugged. “Gotta make a buck. It’s better than being kicked out of your hut and having nowhere to go.”
GIs strolled along the side of the paved road, some greeted Luke and Jonno by name. They came to a row of several semi-circular buildings, constructed of corrugated sheet metal, each one with a large red cross painted on it. Luke brought the Jeep to a shuddering halt in front of it. Another hand-painted sign overhead declared their destination to be “The Army’s Best Hospital”.
Luke disappeared without a word. Jonno helped her down and grabbed her bag. “I can introduce you to the Colonel if you want. Doesn’t look like Luke will.” He adjusted his cap and gave his Cheshire cat grin.
Kristin shrugged and took her pack from him. “Sure. That would be great.”
She followed Jonno into the medical building, taking mental notes as they walked down a well-lit hall. The strong scent of antiseptic accosted her. She peered into a couple of rooms as she passed. Most of the cots lay empty. Jonno rapped on a door at the end of the hall before pushing it open. He entered and she heard a few words being exchanged, then he reappeared, beckoning her in.
“Sir, Kristin Taylor, a journalist from Boston.” Jonno held the door open for her. “Miss Taylor, this is Colonel Maddox.”
“Maddox?” Kristin whispered, confusion rising.
Jonno nodded, his grin appearing for a moment. “Luke and Caroline’s dad. They didn’t tell you?”
Inside the small room, a man in green surgical scrubs looked up from his position behind the desk. He stood as she entered and she saw the resemblance at once. Tall and lean, his silver streaked hair was the only indication of his age. She’d put him in his late fifties, early sixties at most. Like Luke, he was handsome, but held himself in a more dignified manner. Kristin hoped his personality did not match his son’s.
“Miss Taylor, welcome. I’m Douglas Maddox.” He extended a hand. Kristin shook it. His glanced at Jonno, who still stood in the doorway. “Where’s Luke?”
“Probably getting something to eat, Sir.”
The colonel chuckled and took his seat again. “Why don’t you go join him, then? Dismissed, Private.” He indicated the empty chair across from him. “Sit down, Miss Taylor.”
Jonno sauntered off and Kristin positioned herself on the metal chair. Not quite at ease, she ran her tongue over her lips and tasted dirt and sweat.
“So, you’re sharing a flat with Caroline?”
“Yes, sir. She was kind enough to offer. I’ve just arrived here and I really…well, I didn’t have a plan.”
“What paper are you working for?” His smile put her at ease, but the question didn’t.
“Well, I’m sort of…on my own at the moment.” She balked at her attempt to sound professional.
“I see. So you’re hoping to write a few stories and get picked up?” He raised an eyebrow. Kristin nodded, waiting for him to throw her out.
“Well, good luck to you. I hope you get to stay in-country a while.”
“Thank you, Colonel Maddox. I really appreciate your willingness to let me come here, and I promise I won’t be a bother.”
The Colonel held up a hand. “It’s not a problem. Just as long as you stay out of the way when necessary, and do as you’re told, we won’t mind you being here. But you’ll need to get your press credentials if you want to stay on in Vietnam. You know that?”
“Have you talked to my son? He might be able to be of assistance.”
Kristin stifled a laugh and tried to show enthusiasm. “I’ll do that, sir.”
“Good. But I warn you, if you can’t respect orders or I get complaints about you, I’ll kick you out. My personnel and the boys we’re taking care of here, have to come first. Understand?”
“Yes, sir. Of course.” Kristin nodded. Okay, down to business. “How many doctors do you have here?”
The Colonel leaned back in his chair, pride shining from his eyes. “We’re a smaller unit. I’ve got twenty docs and fifty nurses here at the moment, some of the best in the medical field in my opinion. I’m honored to be working with this bunch.”
“And are you pretty busy all the time?”
“Usually. It’s worse at night. Not much going on today, but that’ll change.”
Kristin fired off a few more questions and jotted notes as he talked.
After a while the colonel rounded the desk. “Let me show you around. Did my son and Private Hicks take care of you in the city? Got you everything you needed?”
She felt a smile pulling up the corners of her mouth. If he considered being held at gunpoint being taken care of…“They did, thank you.”
“Excellent. We’ll start in Recovery. I’ve got six men in there today. One head injury, shrapnel burns, nothing major. As I’m sure you know, there’s no censorship here. You can write whatever they will publish. But, another warning—some of the men may not want to talk to you. You need to understand that. What they’ve seen and heard…well, you’ll get an idea soon enough.”
Kristin grunted agreement, but a knot formed in her stomach. “Yes, sir.” And just how was she supposed to get a story if nobody talked?
A few hours later, Kristin filled half her notepad and had taken photographs around the camp. Colonel Maddox left her outside the mess hall, instructing her to get something to eat.
Kristin entered the busy room and looked around. Soldiers, nurses and doctors mingled together, eating and chatting. Nobody looked her way. She nodded in greeting when she saw Jonno, and he made his way over to her. “Are you hungry? Food’s not great, but it ain’t bad.”
Kristin followed him around and took the food doled out to her. Greasy ham, glue-like potatoes, peas, some bread and a Coke to drink. Jonno laughed as she screwed up her nose. But hunger overrode uncertainty and she filled her plate.
Laughter and loud conversation rang through the long Quonset hut, making it difficult to talk. They sat at a long wooden table surrounded by soldiers. Most were happy, if not eager to chat with her. The ones she spoke with ranged in age from nineteen to twenty-nine. She learned a few had been drafted, but most enlisted on their own. Some were serving a second tour. Not one of them seemed to discount their presence in Vietnam. And every one of them had a story. Within an hour, she’d filled the other half her notebook.
A few of the men had run into Teddy’s company, but none knew him. Kristin scanned the room. As people sauntered in and out of the mess hall, the solitary figure in the corner of the room caught her eye.
He leaned against the table, his boots resting on the bench in front of him. His gaze seemed fixed on the blank wall across the room. A tray of food sat on the table, untouched. Kristin hated to stare, but couldn’t help it. Something about him nudged her curiosity.
“What’s his story?”
Jonno’s soft chuckle beside her indicated she’d spoken out loud. “Luke?”
Kristin looked over at him and saw clear sadness in his eyes. She nodded, wiping her brow with the back of her hand. Jonno’s eyes narrowed. For a moment she thought he might give an answer, but he shrugged, getting to his feet. “We don’t talk about it. And don’t you go asking him nothing.”
A prickling sensation inched down her spine. Okay…
Jonno let out a noisy yawn. Then he fished in his pockets and held a small object toward her. “Oh, here. This is for you. I gotta go.” He hurried off and she examined her gift. The wooden carving he’d given her mirrored her own image with startling accuracy. He’d even painted on brown hair, a pretty close match to hers. The poor thing’s mouth was a wide blotch of red—no doubt exactly how she’d looked when Luke Maddox pulled that gun on her.
She placed her new prized possession into her bag and zipped it up again.
Now what? It was going on seven o’clock. Kristin rose and walked over to where Luke sat. She dropped her pack on the ground and sat on the far end of the bench. He didn’t move. “So. Your father is the Colonel here. Funny how you didn’t mention that.”
“Must’ve slipped my mind.”
“I’m sure. Are we going back to Saigon tonight?” Kristin asked, forcing a pleasant tone.
“I’m not.” He swiveled on the bench, maneuvered his long legs under the table and began to turn the pages of a newspaper. She let out a breath. How did he manage to make her feel like an idiot so easily?
“So, I’m staying here tonight?”
He turned another page and she followed his eyes. The paper was about a week old.
“Unless you want to walk back. It’s not a bad jaunt, but in the dark I wouldn’t recommend it. VC might getcha.”
Kristin’s chest tightened. “Very funny. Where am I supposed to sleep?”
He folded the newspaper and pushed it her way. His eyes roamed over her as he raked long fingers through his mess of straggly blond hair. “In with the grunts. They won’t mind sharing.”
Kristin attempted speech but failed. Was he serious? No way would she share sleeping quarters with these love hungry young soldiers.
Luke’s mouth lifted in a grin, a hint of mischief playing in his eyes.
Relief rushed through her. “Ah. So you do have a sense of humor.”
The sparkle faded as quickly as it appeared, and his scowl returned. “Nurses’ quarters are out back. They’ll put you up. Jonno can drive you back tomorrow.”
She watched him get up and sling his pack over a broad shoulder. “What are you going to do?”
“Work. Probably hitch a ride up to a firebase.”
That was interesting. “A firebase? I’d like to go along. When are—”
His laugh cut her off and she scowled at the finger he wagged in her direction.
“Oh, no. No, way. You’ll find plenty of stories right here. With any luck, there’ll be a dustoff full of wounded soldiers before morning. You can talk to them all you like. The ones who can still talk, that is. Besides,” his grin widened. “It’s dangerous out in the field.”
Kristin’s cheeks prickled. This man would be the death of her. “I came here to do a job, Mr. Maddox. I’m more than capable of—”
“Save it.” He turned on his heel and strode toward the doors. Kristin slumped back against the table and glowered. He was the most arrogant, chauvinistic man she’d ever met. One who clearly thought she had no business being in Vietnam. Typical. Well, she’d just have to prove him wrong.