Duty Is an Icy Shadow

 

by Helen H.  

 

 

Admiral Harriman Nelson strode out of the state courthouse in San Francisco, threading his way through a group of reporters and photographers gathering in front of the McAllister Street entrance.  The grilling by a throng of sanctimonious lawyers all morning had been tiresome, and all he was interested in now was getting the hell out of there as quickly as possible.  That he was at the courthouse at all only increased the frustration of coming out and finding the sidewalk filled with people.  His old friend Sheldon Greer was one of the most meticulous researchers he’d ever known, all his findings backed up with concrete data and solid proof.  He should know; he’d taught the man himself.  That a rival research corporation had even thought of bringing a lawsuit against him was an outrage, and Nelson had delighted in providing evidence that he had begun the project, only turning it over to Dr. Greer when business on the Seaview, the submarine owned by the admiral’s own marine research institute had become too pressing.  If the dour looks of the attorneys on the other side of the aisle were any indication, he knew his testimony had demolished their case.  They’d be no reason to stay for the verdict.  He'd return to the hotel and wait for the call from Lee.  He wanted back on the boat, back where greedy, unethical scientists weren’t lurking around every corner, eager to grab unearned credit for themselves. 

Something was happening in front of the courthouse, something that was keeping the crowd rooted in their places.  The onlookers surged toward him as courthouse marshals began controlling their movement, and Nelson found himself trapped against the building's exterior.  Armed with a few choice words, he thrust himself forward and bumped hard into someone walking hurriedly past.  Nelson glanced up into the man’s face, seeing blue eyes narrowed against his own and a bushy gray mustache that contrasted sharply with the mop of black hair.  The mustache almost but didn’t quite cover the luxuriously lipped mouth. 

“Sorry,” the man mumbled, moving away.

His suspicious nature stirred, Nelson followed the stranger with his eyes as the man maneuvered himself in amongst the reporters and stood quietly with his hands in his pockets, looking back at the admiral a couple of times.  No longer impatient to leave, Nelson made to work forward just as two men and a woman emerged from the building's interior and took up position on the short flight of steps. 

The older man adjusted his necktie.  “Ladies and gentlemen, I will begin by saying that my client was perfectly willing and indeed, looking forward to testifying today.  That he was not able to do so due to the stalling tactics of Standford Enterprises only emphasizes how corrupt his former employer is proving to be.  I’ll take a few questions.”  

Nelson watched the lawyer field questions, while thinking the other, younger man's face was familiar.  It came to him that he was looking at Mark Giacomo, a whistle-blower who had accused his company, a large military contractor, of selling defective equipment.  The investigation was fast becoming the lead story on every network news show.  Despite his attorney’s glib words Giacomo didn't look happy, and the admiral reflected that here was someone unsure of what he was doing, afraid of the future.  The woman may have sensed it too, because she took Giacomo's shoulders and slowly turned him to face her, speaking quietly to him. 

Thinking about it later, Nelson couldn’t say what caused him to focus at that moment on the man he'd run into.  Perhaps it was the slow, sure movement, then the shock and recognition of what the stranger was pulling from an interior pocket.  Whatever the reason, he had time to do only one thing.

“Get down!  He's got a gun!”

To their credit, the marshals reacted instinctively, scrambling for their weapons.  The problem was that the crowd reacted too, running in all directions, forcing the Admiral backward as he struggled to get closer to the shooter.  The gunman never hesitated.  Pointing his weapon at the trio frozen on the steps, he squeezed off one round just as the woman pushed Mark Giacomo away from her.  She fell backward, a red stain already blossoming on her chest.  The assassin cursed loudly and turning, caught sight of the admiral.  The gun came up again.  

Nelson threw himself down as two shots ricocheted off the marble façade.  Cursing again, the assassin ran to the curb and dived into a waiting car.  Tires squealing, the car leapt forward and merged into traffic, disappearing down the street.

The admiral rose slowly from the ground, brushing marble dust from the sleeve of his uniform.  One of the courthouse marshals rushed forward and asked him how he was, and he answered curtly that he was okay.  Someone was screaming.  Nelson looked over and saw the bottom of the shoes of the young woman who had saved Mark Giacomo’s life.  And saw Mark Giacomo, and the look on his face said that the girl, whoever she was, was dead.


CHAPTER TWO

 

“Man, I am so ready for this break.”

“You’re telling me, Chip.”

Lee Crane and Chip Morton, C.O. and X.O. respectively of the Seaview, stood together on the sub’s home dock in Santa Barbara watching the last boxes with new computer parts being manhandled into the interior of the boat.  Both men were tall, both in their early thirties, but the resemblance ended there.  Commander Lee Crane was dark-haired and dark-eyed, overly slender perhaps, his appearance belied by a muscular structure that was a key ingredient of a successful boxing career during his Naval Academy days.  His Academy roommate Lieutenant Commander Charles Philip “Chip” Morton was also of slim build, but solid where it counted.  His blond hair and blue eyes were a sharp contrast to Lee.  Female heads turned when either man was around.  They were a formidable team, in every sense. 

Chip glanced at his captain.  Lee looked as squared away as ever in his crisp khaki uniform, but there were tension lines around his eyes that Chip knew meant a change would be welcome.  Admiral Nelson had been pushing the boat and her crew hard lately.  The plan was for a quick cruise up to Hunters Point to pick up their boss, an even quicker trip home, and then a new computer system was going in.  The crew was getting leave, and the anticipation amongst the enlisted men and officers of the Seaview was palpable.  Everyone was eagerly awaiting the time off.

“You really think the contractors will be ready to start on the new system when I get back?”  Chip asked.  He rubbed his chin and grinned.  “Surfing, sun, a beautiful girl… relaxing in Waikiki… I might not want to leave.”

Lee flashed a toothy grin of his own.  “You wish.  You know those guys don’t want Admiral Nelson breathing down their necks.  They’ll be ready.” 

Down on the Seaview's deck the Chief of the Boat, Curly Jones, signed off on the manifest handed him and said, “Cap’n, she’s all loaded up and ready to go.”

With two quick strides Lee was aboard the gangway.  “Thank you, Chief.  Mr. Morton, make all preparations to get underway.”  Without turning around he said, “I’ll send O’Brien up.  He needs the practice.”

Chip grimaced, snapping off a quick “Aye, sir!”  The last time the young lieutenant had taken the boat out he'd almost run over two harbor buoys and the mayor of Santa Barbara's yacht.  The mayor had demanded a personal apology from Admiral Nelson, and Chip didn't want to go through the repercussions of that ever again.  Climbing up the sail, preparing himself for O'Brien's appearance, he hoped they wouldn’t crash into anything today.   

* * * * *

Lee was digging into a new crop of paperwork when the knock sounded on the cabin door.  “Come in!”

Sparks stuck his head in first and then his clipboard.  “Message from Admiral Nelson, Captain.  Top priority.”

Lee looked perplexed as he held his hand out.  “Top priority?  What kind of trouble is he in now?”  He would remember those prophetic words in the days that followed, but for now, an unexpected communication was only a slight irritation.  He scanned the message quickly, initialed it and then looked up at the radio operator.  “’Make all possible speed… imperative you get to pick-up point as quickly as possible.’  Nothing else?”

“No sir.”

Lee stood up from behind the desk.  “Guess we'll get a move on, then.” 

The order was given the moment he arrived on the bridge, and the submarine seemed to leap forward as the engines were brought to flank speed.  Seeing his X.O.'s raised eyebrows, Lee said, “Something’s up with the admiral.  Estimated time of arrival, Mr. Morton.”

Chip's hands flew as he bent over the charting table and made some swift calculations.  “At this speed we'll be there in two hours.”

“Push her along if you have to.  Maybe he just wants to hit the beach sooner than we thought.”

“Admiral Nelson never wants to just do anything, Lee,” a grim-faced Chip said.

Lee’s expression tightened.  “I know.  I guess we’ll found out what’s going on in about two hours.”

* * * * *

Lee set the maneuvering watch as the Seaview transited uneventfully under the Golden Gate Bridge, deftly avoiding the harbor cruise boats whose public address systems were busy announcing to their passengers the unusual appearance of the famous submarine.  It was a glorious summer's day, and even with the uncertainty behind their accelerated voyage he never tired of seeing the San Francisco skyline get larger and larger.  He loved coming to this city, loved the feeling of life and energy that emanated from the streets.  Maybe the admiral wasn’t caught up in something, maybe there’d be a chance for a whirlwind visit with a girl he’d met that worked at one of the downtown hotels.  He could cross his fingers and hope he’d have a chance to call her.  The thought made him smile; time to call Kramer to the bridge.  The Engineering Officer was the OOD today, and Lee was going to let him take her in.  The Seaview could turn on a dime and give you nine cents change; he'd lean back and enjoy the view.   

That wasn’t to be, apparently.  The radioed message from Hunter's Point that Kramer brought with him, the one ordering them to take the boat down to the furthest possible pier was a further clue that something wasn't right.  That was confirmed as they approached the dock.  They could see the admiral surrounded by a phalanx of MPs.  Lee paid little attention to the woman in a naval uniform that was standing nearby, hands on hips, watching the Seaview come in.   

Kramer would be disappointed, but it couldn't be helped; the look on Admiral Nelson's face said no delays would be tolerated.  Lee took command of the boat back from the lieutenant and took the Seaview in himself.  He was a superb ship handler and in a matter of minutes the monkey line went over and was retrieved, the rest of the lines were secured, and the Seaview was alongside the out of the way pier.  

The second the gangway was in place Nelson came hustling aboard, the flush on his face almost matching his hair.  “Don't bother to double up the lines!  I want us out of here immediately, Captain Crane!”    

Chip and Lee had moved to the deck to greet their returning boss, and both now threw themselves out of Nelson's way as he made for the hatch.  Lee looked at Chip with chagrin.  “Well, I guess we won't have to set out the rat guards.  Better go see if there’s anything you can do, Chip.”

“Oh, great, save it for the X.O.”

“Well, you don’t think I’m gonna follow after that, do you?  Anyway, I need to speak to our visitor.” 

The female officer from the dock was making her way along the gangway, trailed by an MP carrying the admiral's overnight bag and a small suitcase.  Lee walked forward to greet her.  He immediately liked what he saw; big grey eyes that looked straight at him, a thin nose over a nice mouth crinkled up in a smile.  Jacket stripes identified her as a Lieutenant.  There was only a peek of hair visible under her combination cap, but Lee made out that it was a sunny blonde.  Slowing down, she allowed the MP to go ahead of her and then stopped in front of Lee, making a point of checking to see that the enlisted man carrying the luggage had disappeared through the hatch.  She looked down at the deck and then back up at Lee.    

His mouth dropping open, Lee almost took a step back.  He knew her by her eyes; he knew those piercing, white blue eyes, the steel blue pupils that followed you with an intense gaze.  So unnerved was Lee to see her standing in front of him he missed the introduction and she had to repeat the name to him, in a southern drawl that was totally alien from the accents he remembered.

“Lieutenant Victoria Wynn, 12th Naval District Office of Public Affairs.  Vicky to her friends.  Even though your admiral might not agree, I'll be countin' on your cooperation to help me out while I’m aboard, Captain.”

Lieutenant Wynn?  What happened to Ellen Westerman?” Lee shot back.  "What's up with Admiral Nelson?  What's going on?”

She held up a gloved hand.  “Lordy, not here.  All in good time, Captain.  Follow me to the Observation Nose.”

“Fine.  Mr. Kramer!”  The lieutenant leaned over from his perch in the sail.  “Let's do what the admiral wanted.  You've got the deck!”  Ignoring the lieutenant's big grin Lee turned back, pointed at the hatch and said, “Welcome aboard” -- he almost said ‘again’ -- “Lieutenant Wynn.”

“Thank you, sir.”  She walked forward, her jacket blowing up behind her like a balloon.  Lee took a few seconds to make sure his orders were being carried out and then followed her inside. 

He couldn’t believe it.  It had been over six months since the late Admiral Benjamin Westerman and his niece Ellen had spent the night on the Seaview being ferried to San Diego for a party.  That same night he had been shocked to the core when “Ellen” revealed not only that she wasn’t Ellen Westerman but that she was in reality a Nereid, the goddess Galené to be precise.  What he had always thought was only an element of ancient Greek mythology was soon explaining to him that the Seaview and its men were now under her protection.  The next big surprise was being told to keep her true identity a secret from everyone, Nelson included.  Lee had done that even at Admiral Westerman's funeral two months later, which he had attended with the admiral, where she had presented herself as the grieving niece.  Now she was back, with Admiral Nelson, and not as Ellen.  Life was getting interesting again.

Following behind her, observing the attention she was getting from the crew, Lee compared the two women.  Ellen had been short and dark haired.  Victoria Wynn was about 5'-7,” and her heels added a couple of inches.  The blond hair that appeared when she took off her cap was set in a French roll on the back of her head.  Bright pink cheeks surrounded the shapely nose.  Lee estimated her age at about 25.  While Ellen had been dressed in casual clothing, Lieutenant Wynn looked like she'd just stepped off the cover of a recruiting brochure.  Her service dress whites were crisp and unwrinkled, the regulation length skirt showing off a pair of shapely legs.  The jacket seemed a size too large, which only emphasized the slim lines of the rest of her body.  Lee figured that her looks and that drawling, lyrical voice got her into places that she wouldn't ordinarily have been able to access, and the sharp intelligence he knew the goddess possessed did the rest.  Funny how Ellen and Vicky shared the same shaped mouth, red, full, sensuous… damn.  He'd been at sea way too long.  But all thoughts of the girl at the downtown hotel slipped out of his mind.

She went straight to the windows and turned to face him, presenting the clear gray eyes to him once again.  Seeing his surprised look, she said, “Gracious, I can't go around with eyes that color all the time.  Don't ya think somebody'd notice?  Your X.O. certainly would.  He didn't like me before, I doubt if his opinion has changed.  And here I thought y'all be glad to see me.”  She set her mouth in a tiny little pout.  “It has been four months.”

Looking behind him, Lee made sure they were alone in the space.  “Maybe, if you’d shown up as Ellen Westerman, and maybe, if I wasn’t worried about what you’re going to tell me, I would be.”  He leaned back against the console and planted his hands on the top.  “At Admiral Westerman’s funeral you, or should I say Ellen, said that she was going off on a long vacation.  So you dumped her and found another body?  I expect this Victoria Wynn is dead, too?”

Vicky’s mouth pursed in irritation.  When she replied, it was in an accent he hadn’t heard before, clipped British tones that matched the formality of what she was saying.  “How crudely you speak, Captain.  I do not discard these identities as the mood suits me, as you seem to be implying.  Ellen's fatal car accident was an opportunity for me to assume her identity and save her grandfather from dying before his time, which the United States Government should be grateful for, I might add; without his efforts your officials would not have that treaty.  Yes, she has gone off on a vacation from which she'll never return.  But she really died in peace a year ago.  I borrowed her body then for what I needed to do, which was to keep someone alive for as long as possible.  Just as,” she passed her hand down over herself, “I’m doing the same with this one.”

Her calm demeanor made Lee uncomfortable.  There was something wrong about all this, talking so matter-of-factly about a dead girl.  “What, did you decide that it was easier to be a southern belle?” he blurted out, then instantly regretted the words as her expression grew stonefaced.

She straightened up, and the challenge in her eyes was unmistakable.  “It might be well for you to take care, Captain Crane.  It's not a good idea to get sarcastic around a goddess,” she said irritably, her eyes snapping and the clipped voice strident.  “Men greater than you have been struck down for such insolence.  Whatever you may think, I am not responsible for the deaths of the people I impersonate.  They offer their bodies to me, and I accept them gratefully, invoking ancient rituals that a mortal” - she spat the word out - “can't be privy to.  I have been in this body for nearly four months, ensuring the safety of several high-ranking members of Naval Intelligence in San Francisco.  With these disguises I am able to be close to those that I protect without suspicion.  Be glad that this is the way it is.  Your admiral's life depends on it.” 

He stared long and hard at her, irritation being replaced by what she’d said about Admiral Nelson.  “I apologize.  It's just a shock, seeing you again... and in a different body.  What's this about the admiral's life?  What happened?”

As Vicky explained about the incident at the courthouse, the death of the woman, who had been Mark Giacomo's fiancé, and the near shooting of Admiral Nelson, Lee's expression got progressively darker.  There was something tough and hard there at the moment, the jaw line rigid, the finely shaped cheekbones taut under the tanned skin.  He lightened up a bit when she described, in her animated fashion, how the admiral had pitched a fit when he'd been refused permission to just leave, had complained more when she'd met him at the local precinct, and had absolutely refused to accept the protection she'd told him he was getting.  It had taken a call from his old friend Admiral Starke followed by a few words from the Secretary of the Navy to get him to understand she wasn't going away.  

It was a grim face he presented when she'd finished, hazel eyes menacing.  Running a hand over his hair, allowing himself some time to come to grips with her story, Lee said,  “I guess I had better get used to calling you Lieutenant Wynn, then.  If this is what it takes to protect him, then I'm all for it.  So, tell me, who was... is… Vicky Wynn?” 

“Quite the adventurer.  Unfortunately, when you go slidin' down a rainforest cliff, things happen.  Luckily there were no family complications; Vicky was an only child, her parents are dead, no kids, no husband.  Her job made it easy too, public relations folks can pretty much go anywhere they want.  The Intelligence boys I wuz keepin’ an eye on are all back at the Pentagon, so when the First Lady came to town I decided to take a look-see.  I was attendin’ her fancy ladies’ luncheon when Admiral Nelson got shot at, curse the luck.”  She was back to using Vicky’s voice, the accent a real attention-getter.  “Things had to happen fast, so I told Miz McNeil who I was and what I needed to do and she pulled the strings that needed pullin’.  We made up a great cover story 'bout me having prior security experience and I got over to the police station and picked up the admiral before they could wonder what the heck I was doin' there.  Those boys from the FBI and ONI never knew what hit 'em.”

From his own Office of Naval Intelligence days, Lee was used to operating on a “need to know” basis, and he was surprised to hear that she'd revealed her true identity, even if it was to the First Lady.  “You actually told her who you really are?”

“Had to.  I needed to move fast, and boy howdy, that lady sure gets what she wants.  But she won’t remember a bit of it.  A little trick I’m privileged to use on special ‘ccasions.”  Vicky shifted around and stared out the windows, face sliding into a frown again.  “Course, if I hadn't been with her at that silly ol' luncheon I'd'a been outside that courthouse and the admiral wouldn't be mad enough to spit nails.”  She looked down and shook her head, and tilted her eyes back up at him.  “Does he always get this angry?  He took the call from SecNav as if his momma had told him to kiss his ol' stinky granny, and he never said two words to me while we were comin' over here.  And lord knows I tried, sir.” 

“If he saw that woman murdered he would think that somehow, it was his fault.”

She nodded decisively.  “Which is why I’ll be needing to keep him out of harm's way.  He'll be wantin' to go after the guy himself.”  She moved toward him, wincing a little, and put a hand on his arm.  Lee was surprised first at the painful look on her face and then by the perfume she was wearing, not the familiar scent of saltwater he remembered from their last time together, when he’d seen the real goddess. 

Vicky searched his eyes for a moment, and slid back into the goddess's voice.  “It is my job to ensure he is kept safe.  We know the identity of the assassin, and we also know that he'll stop at nothing to kill the admiral.  He finds it a game to track down and kill witnesses to his crimes.” 

“What's his name?”

“Alex Dunning.  Uses disguises that people concentrate on, instead of his overall face.  Admiral Nelson saw past that, luckily enough.  His description was spot on.”

“Are they going to find him?”

“I understand the FBI has some good leads.”  She did not sound confident. 

“What I don't understand is why don't you just find him?  Can't you just wave a hand and uh, see things?  Stop this all from happening?”

“No.  That would be going against the Moirae, the Fates, Captain.  Those who control man's destiny.” 

“Are you trying to tell me there's nothing anyone can do to stop this madman?”

“Not at all.  I am here, am I not?”  Almost in the same breath but with a startling change in intensity, she added, “The Moirae can be influenced.”  She said it defiantly, as if she intended it for more than just his ears. 

“What are you going to tell the admiral?”

“That I'm gonna stick to him like a bug on flypaper.”  Vicky's accent was back.  “And because I don't want him hatin' every minute of it, Admiral Nelson also gets to know who I really am.  It’s not a secret that I planned to keep from him for much longer, anyway.  Maybe it will keep him from bein' such a big ol' grump.”

Lee laughed out loud.  “Are you going to tell him that?” 

“Depends on how nice he is to me.”  Straightening up, she pulled at the bottom of her jacket, smoothed her hair and said in the accent that Lee was realizing was her normal voice, “Might as well get it over with.”  Then she bent her head and spoke under her breath.  Noticing Lee's enquiring look, she said, “A prayer to my sister Eukranté.  I can use all the help I can get.”

* * * * *

Lee's first knock on the door met with silence and the second a barked “Come in!”  Lee looked at the girl, who squared her shoulders and nodded.  He opened the door and let her go in ahead of him.

Admiral Nelson was seated at his desk.  He looked up quickly and then went back to whatever he was writing.  When he spoke his voice was icy cold.

“I see you've met my new guardian.  You'll forgive me if I am not very happy about this.  I'm back on the Seaview, we're heading out to sea -- we are heading out to sea, yes, Captain?”  Lee nodded, and Nelson went on.  “So there's nothing that anyone need do.  Especially not a wet behind the ears girl.”

“With all due respect, Admiral, arrogant fools get themselves killed a lot quicker than ordinary fools,” Vicky said quietly, her voice menacing in its softness.

That got a response from both men.  Lee went rigid while the admiral flushed to the roots of his hair and started to open his mouth.  If he noticed that her southern accent had disappeared, he made no sign.  She quickly held up a hand.

“There’s no need to comment, sir.  Go back to the way you were while I was flirting with you in the car.”

“You are being insubordinate, Lieutenant!  I won't be talked to in this manner!”

Vicky grabbed a corner of her jacket and pulled back, and Lee knew why the fit was big and shapeless:  it had to fit over the .45 in her shoulder holster.  “You will do as I say or I'll shoot you myself!  Got it?”  Admiral Nelson, mouth set in a thin line, slowly sat back.  But the look in his eyes and his posture communicated his extreme displeasure, in ways that made words unnecessary.

Vicky settled her jacket back and waited until he'd stopped moving.  With an impatient wave she indicated that Lee should sit down, too, and he hustled himself into the second office chair. 

Taking and releasing a deep breath, she said, “Sir, when someone’s life is at stake, it’s best to come right to the point.  Admiral Nelson, I am Galené, the Goddess of Calm Seas.  In simpler terms, I am a Nereid.  My sisters and I are protectors of the ships and their sailors who ply the waters of this world. To accomplish this goal, I have the ability to take over a human body and make it my own when necessary.  That is what I’ve done with Lieutenant Wynn.”  She leaned over the desk until she was inches from his face.  “Protecting this ship and her crew is my special charge.  That crew includes you.  I'm not going away, so your complaining is rather useless.”

Lee's face went white again.  Goddess or not, no one, absolutely no one, talked to Harriman Nelson this way.  

Eyes narrowed and jaw tight, Nelson looked back and forth between his two visitors, rubbing his ear in a characteristic gesture that Lee knew well.  The admiral was furious.  Barking a short laugh, he said, “Young lady, I don’t know what you’ve said to Captain Crane, but in the meantime... I’m supposed to believe you’re Callimachus' bright goddess?  Oh, yes, I know my Greek mythology.  And that's all it is.  Mythology.  You actually expect me to accept that you’re an immortal being who can command the behavior of the oceans, that you’ve decided to take up residence on the Seaview, and further that you can change sha...”  His voice trailed off as she slapped the desk with both hands, threw an exasperated look at Lee and shimmered into the form of the goddess. 

“Here’s proof for you, then.  I'm a firm believer in showing, not telling, sir!”

The admiral looked stunned.  Lee remembered how he had felt the first time he’d seen this beautiful woman, and understand the emotion.  A sea goddess she had to be; how else to explain the pale green skin, the long limbs, the webbed fingers?  Not to mention those up-tilted, steel blue eyes.  She was wearing a simple silver chiton that emphasized the lines of her slim body.  That was another surprise; from experience, Lee knew that the huge mass of gray-green hair wafting around her was usually her only garment.  He wondered if this was what all Nereids looked like; young, fresh, and full of purpose.  No wonder mortals fell head over heels for them.  Yet -- immortality aside, in ways he would be hard-pressed to articulate, he felt she was the oldest person in the room. 

Floating over to Nelson's desk she asked, “Believe me now, do you?”

Nelson wiped a hand over his face.  “I'd say I'd have to.  Either that, or I'm going crazy.”

Galené's eyes danced at Lee.  “Funny, that's just what your Captain said to me six months ago.”

Nelson whipped around and glowered at the young officer.  “You knew about this six months ago?  And didn't tell me?” 

“I--”

“--He was sworn to secrecy, Admiral,” Galené broke in. “I don't reveal who I am until it's absolutely necessary.  It's obviously not something that most people need to know.”

The admiral rose from his seat.  “I can certainly appreciate that.  I’ve seen some incredible things in my time, but this tops that all.  Please, sit down.”  He pulled his chair out for her and Galené, with a delighted smile, changed back into Vicky and settled into his place.  The admiral then looked pointedly at Lee, who looked back blankly, and then recognition sunk in.  He shot up and offered the empty space to Nelson.  A sheepish Lee took position on the edge of the bunk.

“I’m glad you’re seein’ it my way now, Admiral.  Makes all the arrangements a heck of a lot easier,” Vicky said with a smile.  Now that all the meetin' and greetin' is out of the way, we need to discuss your security arrangements while the FBI is searchin' for Mr. Dunning.” 

“Well, that will be easy,” Lee said.  “He can stay on the Seaview.” 

Nelson shook his head violently.  “Much as I love Seaview, I won't be a prisoner on her!  I have a perfectly good apartment at the Institute.  And I need to be able to move back and forth while the new computer system gets installed.”

Making a face, Vicky turned to Lee.  “How long was this computer thing goin' to take?”

“The crew's expecting two weeks of leave.”

“That's fine, we'll go ahead.  It'll be better with the crew off the boat.  Fewer targets.  Dunning isn't above shootin' anyone who gets in his way.  Did you get a look at the gun, Admiral Nelson?  Was he using the Astra?” 

“What?”

“His gun, Admiral, his gun.  He has a real special likin' for a Spanish Astra.”

“I saw him pull a gun out of his pocket and that's when I yelled.  He had his back to me when he shot that young woman.  I didn't wait around to identify it when he was pointing it at me, either.” 

“It would be interestin' to know if he is still carrying this particular handgun.  It's one he uses in close quarters.  An attractive weapon.”

“Which he carries to assassinate people.  The ugliness of that should be apparent,” Admiral Nelson replied, the heat rising in his voice.

Vicky had been looking at the papers he'd left on his desk.  The silence in the room grew longer as she rearranged a couple of pages, then lifted her head and met his eyes.  Vicky’s cheery expression was gone, and the goddess’ scornful look was in its place.  “Deadly weapons can be elegant and beautiful, Admiral.  I believe we're sitting in one right now, are we not?”

Lee sat back and began twisting his class ring.

Nelson looked away, mouth working.  “I don't use the Seaview to murder innocent people.  I fail to see how you can equate the deterrent capabilities of this submarine with the ability to kill your fellow human beings for personal gain.  Your attitude obviously comes from studying your own mythology, with gods who thought nothing of destroying lives and causing suffering to all who stood in their way.”

Vicky opened her mouth for a retort, and stopped, then started again.  “You are absolutely correct.  The frailties of humans are as nothing to the frailties of gods.”  She slapped the sides of the chair and stood up.  “A harbinger of death and destruction I am not.  Perhaps you will learn nothing from me that will make your life better, Admiral Nelson.  But what you will learn is that I will stop at nothing to keep you safe.”

“And if I choose to decline your services, and order you off this boat?”

“Please, Admiral.  Did I forget to mention I can also become invisible?”  She looked at Lee and rolled her eyes.  “When we get closer to Santa Barbara I'll decide what we're going to do.”

Admiral Nelson's eyebrows shot up.  You'll decide?” 

“Oh, don't tell me we're getting started on this again!  I don't usually work by committee, sir!”  Frowning, she stood up and started for the door, flinging it open.  “Fine.  Your input and that of the captain's will be considered.  Admiral, Captain Crane can fill you in on my curriculum vitae, if he is so inclined and you are interested.  Right now I think I’ll just go for a short swim.  I presume the cabin that Ellen used is where you had my luggage placed, Captain Crane?” 

Lee nodded and jumped up from the bunk.  “Galené--”

“--Try again, Captain!”

Grinning, he shook his head and said, “Sorry.  Lieutenant.  There's something else.  As X.O. of the Seaview, Chip deserves to know who you are.  Otherwise, it could get awkward.  It's less of a problem to keep it from the crew, but as my second in command....”

She nodded her head curtly.  “You're right.  Mr. Morton deserves to be told, too.”

“Told what?”  Chip stood at the doorway, frowning back and forth at the two of them.  “Lee, I've brought those requisitions.  Did I come at a bad time?”

The captain and the goddess glanced at each other, unspoken assent passing between them, and Victoria disappeared and Galené took her place.  With a sad smile, she reached up and touched Chip on the cheek.  “Nice to see you again, Mr. Morton.  I thought the first time I saw you that you were something special, and I was right.  I'm always right about these things.  Can't have you wondering what I'm about every minute of the day.  I suspect that someone else will take over that duty.  Captain, I'll let you know when I'm back.  Then, please come and see me in my cabin.”  She faded through the bulkhead and disappeared.

Chip Morton was a very experienced naval officer.  He’d been all over the world, made port in dozens of countries and survived dangerous encounters both aboard and ashore.  There wasn't much he hadn't seen, done or planned to do.  So to watch a female officer who hadn't been on the boat five minutes change herself into something... green and then disappear, well, hell!  He couldn't wait for this explanation.

“Never a dull moment aboard Seaview, is there?”  Chip blew out a bemused breath and stepped into the cabin.  “What have you gotten us into now, Lee?”

“Me?”  Lee turned accusingly toward Admiral Nelson, and Chip followed suit.

Nelson noticed the silence and looked up.  “This is not my doing!”

Both men said simultaneously, “No sir, of course not!”

The admiral had resumed his customary seat so Lee let Chip take the empty second chair.  “Where would you like to begin, sir?”  Lee asked gamely, and got a baleful stare in return.

“So, Lee, you’ve known about this woman – this goddess for six months?  That wasn’t really Ellen Westerman I met at the party?”

Chip’s head jerked up at that.   

“No sir, not really.  Ellen was actually fatally wounded in that accident in Virginia.  Galené took over her body and saved her uncle, and saw to it he survived long enough to push through that new NATO treaty.  As Lieutenant Victoria Wynn she was in San Francisco when this assassin took a shot at you, and she hustled you out of there as soon as she could.”  The scowl on Nelson’s face increased.  No doubt he was remembering the little dust-up at police headquarters.  “I guess you could say we’ve got a guardian angel, Admiral.”

“I wouldn’t make up my mind as to whether that’s a blessing or a curse just yet, Lee,” Admiral Nelson said dryly.

“No, sir.”

“I told you, Lee.  I told you there was something about her,” Chip said.  “It was those eyes.  But a goddess... you’re sure about that?”

Both men nodded solemnly.

“What’s this all about, anyway?”

Chip's face went from sheer amazement to calm resolve as Lee spent the next few minutes explaining what little he did know about the goddess and how she had appeared on the boat.  He filled in both men on the biographical information Galené had provided about Vicky, and emphasized that she was there as a bodyguard for the admiral.  He left unspoken Admiral Nelson’s lack of enthusiasm for that role.

 “We can raise a security detail from the men, there certainly wouldn't be a lack of volunteers,” Chip offered. 

Nelson's head went forcibly from side to side.  “I've had enough of a crowd of MPs to last me for a very long while.  Since I seem to be stuck with this... girl, I neither want nor require any extra attention.”

“Chip, I think 'business as usual' is our best course of action aboard,” Lee said.  “We three are the only ones that know Lieutenant Wynn's true status.  No reason to alarm anyone else.” 

“Yeah, we get enough of that on a regular basis,” Chip said, and immediately realized his error as the admiral's eyes narrowed and Lee turned away to hide his smile.  “I mean, it's one less thing to worry about, with this killer running around loose.”  He quickly changed the subject.  “Like I said, Lee, I've got those requisitions for you to take a look at for the final computer replacement.”  He stood up and started for the door.  “Thanks for the information.  See you in the control room.”   

Lee shut the door after Chip and said, “Admiral, we've got to face the facts.  You're the only witness to the murder of Mark Giacomo's fiancé.  If they catch this guy you're probably the only living witness to any of his crimes.  If I was an assassin, if I wanted to continue in that line of work, I'd get rid of any complications.”

Nelson scowled.  “I think I've proven I'm capable of taking care of myself.”

“Of course, sir.  But I don't think you should discount any help - especially the kind that she can provide.  You might be surprised.”

Nelson rubbed the top of his ear.  “Not going to happen, Captain.”

 Lee walked over and grasped the door handle.  “Whatever you say, sir.  But I think you'll find she can be anything you want her to be.” 

 

CHAPTER THREE  

Lee and Chip were busy double-checking the engineering charts when Lee felt a tap on his shoulder.  His automatic reaction was to turn around, to realize there wasn't anyone standing within five feet of him.  “Chip, you've got the conn.  I'll be back in a few minutes.”

“Aye, sir.” 

Lee went up a deck and knocked on the door of the guest cabin.  The doorknob turned slowly and the door opened to reveal Vicky standing in the middle of the space.  She had changed into civilian dress, a brightly patterned shift that came to her knees.  He shut the door softly behind him and watched as she brushed her long hair, legs slightly apart and bare feet braced on the deck.  The overheads were off, and the diffused light from the desk lamp softened the maturing lines of her face.  Gone were the frown lines playing around the mouth, the hardness in the eyes as she'd been arguing with Admiral Nelson.  He caught a whiff of her sweet and sensual perfume, knew the scent but couldn't place it.  The fragrance reinforced her attractiveness.  Suddenly she bent over and flung her hair forward and then back, and Lee's heart went thump.  He thought to himself that no matter what the admiral might think, he could get used to being around Victoria Wynn.  Whether that was wrong or not, he'd think about that later.  

“How does anybody get any work done around you?”

“I let 'em think they're in charge.  The job gets done, and that's all that matters.  I don't have the Sight, some of my sisters do, and they tell me that things are changin'.  I'll be glad to see it.”  She had a pretty voice, very clear, the drawl pronounced but unpretentious, a part of her that was as real and alive as the rest.

Just then the Seaview gave a slight lurch and as Vicky stepped toward the cabin's sink her left leg collapsed.  Lee caught her under the arms before she could slip any further.  He could feel her trembling as he lifted her up and helped her towards the bunk, filling his nostrils with her perfume.  He also became aware of the deep gouges above both knees, the reddened spiders' webs of scars disappearing under the edge of her dress.  His startled look brought forth an explanation.

“Vicky isn't in the best of shape.  Guess I don't have my sea legs yet.”  She laughed a half-hearted giggle, quickly replaced by a muffled groan as she shifted around on the bunk.  “You think this is bad, you should see the scars on my, I mean, her back.  This poor ol' body aches somethin' fierce, all the time.”  She took in another shuddering breath. 

Lee stepped back, not too far in case she'd need help getting up.  “You can't stop that from happening?”

“We take 'em as we get 'em, Captain.”  She described, in graphic detail, all the injuries Vicky had sustained.  “The body still functions, just barely, but enough for me to get by.  I don't shut off anything.  It gives me a greater appreciation of what you humans go through.  What I have replaced is her brain and her heart and her will.”  She stared up at him, her round eyes serious.  “Tell me about the new computer system installation, Captain.”

Lee would have persisted, but the look on her face put paid to that idea.  He spent the next few minutes explaining that all the parts were on board, that all they had to do when they got back to Santa Barbara was to dismiss the crew and wait for the contractor to show up.

“Everyone was goin' to be gone?”

“Mostly.  Chip is taking off for the first few days.  The other officers are gone for the first week and on standby for the second week.  Most of the rest of the men get the whole two weeks off.  It was just going to be the admiral and I on board, getting everything organized.  The computer techs weren't even supposed to be here right away, we're supposed to call them when we're ready.”

“I think we should let Mr. Morton go on his vacation for longer than a few days, sir.  He needs to be off the boat, away from here.  Far away from here.” 

It dawned on Lee what she was saying.  “Dangerous or not, Chip won't like it.  This computer system is his baby.”

“Would he rather be dead?  As I said, Dunning doesn't have a problem with killin' people around his targets.  I'm afraid you'll jest have to pull a little rank, Captain.”  She regarded him thoughtfully for a few seconds, mock irritation on her face.  “It'll be easier for me, too.  It's bad enough that I know you have no intention of makin' yourself scarce, sir.”

“I can handle myself.  You can't be everywhere.”

“Rather eat dirt than call those fair haired galumphs in San Francisco for help, but they'd be there if needed.  Especially if I need 'em,” she said, laughing with a self-depreciatory grace.  “There's always… relatives.”

Lee let a mock scowl settle on his face.  “And you'd be able to explain the presence of Grecian sea nymphs aboard a nuclear submarine.”

Vicky laughed.  “You'd be surprised how imaginative I can be.” 

He didn't think he would be surprised at anything she did.

Her expression softened, and he watched her relax as she flipped some spare strands of hair over her shoulders.  It came to him that she was holding on to Victoria Wynn, could tell that this was something special to her in the way she stayed in Vicky's wounded body even in the privacy of the cabin, in the care she was taking to use Vicky’s accent.  Most of all he thought it was true because she was using perfume.  Nereids wouldn't bother with perfume.

“You like Vicky, don't you?”

“Yep.  She's a little banged up, is all.  Most of the time I can control it, it's jest that it's been a long day.  Workin' with the First Lady has been the most fun, I got to say.  I'll be sorry to see this one end.”

“Why should it need to?”

“The Moirae can be placated only so far, Captain.”  It was the goddess that answered, the tone gently chiding.  “It is Dunning's fate to try to kill Admiral Nelson.  It is my fate to be the instrument that stops him.  When Dunning makes his appearance, as he is sure to do, I will not survive that little go-round.”

What she said at first hadn't sunk in.  The statement, said in a matter of fact fashion, stunned him.  “But -- you’re immortal!”

“Of course, but Vicky isn't,” she said quietly.  She brushed her fingers over her temples, appearing to sooth away an ache.  “I've grown comfortable in her life, even though it's only been a few months.  When I speak, it is in this accent that men find pleasing.  They follow me with their eyes, and I enjoy it.  I've gotten to rub shoulders with the First Lady, attend fabulous parties and do wonderful things.  When you assume someone else's life, the high points of that life become yours.  And the low points.”  Her voice dropped, and Lee looked at her sharply, surprised to see her eyes clouding with sorrow.  “It is difficult when the person has family, or other... connections.  We cannot always avoid that.  I retain their memories, their feelings and emotions.  Sometimes it comes in handy.  Other times....  When these people die Captain, they leave people behind, people that love and are loved in return.  And the survivors can never be told the truth.”

Lee stared, dumbstruck.  Now that he had time to think about it for a moment, impersonating someone meant keeping those closest to you from ever becoming suspicious.  He flashed back to the first time he'd seen Vicky coming aboard the boat, immediately attracted to her smile and vivacious personality, the vitality she personified.  Saw her now, the little shift exposing her tanned legs and trim arms and shoulders, her hair a shining halo around her face.  Smelled that wonderful perfume, intoxicating and exciting.  He understood suddenly and with infinite sadness that someone, many someones perhaps, would miss Victoria Wynn greatly.

“I'm sorry.”

She smiled, her eyes coming back from being far away.  “I don't usually confess so much.  You make it easy to talk to you, Commander.” 

“I just want to help in any way I can,” he said.  I want to help you, if you'll let me.

Rising awkwardly to her feet, she said briskly, “Have a car waiting on the dock.  I'll ride home with Admiral Nelson.”

Lee allowed her to re-direct his thoughts.  “He won't like it.”

“Too bad.”  She bit off the words.  “It'll just give him somethin' else to be crotchety about.  I’ll see you later, sir.”

He’d been dismissed.  Lee stood up and made for the door as she began combing her hair again, ignoring his quiet leave-taking.  He had his hand on the knob when she spoke again.

“And, uh, Captain?”  She leaned over conspiratorially.  “It’s called Shalimar.” 

His brow furrowed and then recognition set in like a light bulb going on.  His smile matched her own.  “I’ll remember that for future reference.”

* * * * *

Lee used the time left before docking to arrange for the admiral’s ride and finish his interrupted paperwork.  Then he placed a call to the computer contractor's office.  He stressed the need to make sure that they knew all their workers; he didn't want any unfamiliar faces amongst the group swarming over the Seaview. 

While Chip was taking the boat in Lee made a quick visit to Admiral Nelson, using a few seconds along the way to steel himself for the inevitable explosion.  He got the gruff welcome and entered the cabin… accompanied by a soft breeze wafting past his ear.  At least he would have backup.

Nelson was standing at his desk putting some papers into his briefcase.

“Sir, I've made the arrangements for the contractors and they okayed the Saturday start date.  They'll be at the Institute at 0900 tomorrow.  We'll keep the watch on the boat tonight, but I've passed the word to the division officers to let the rest of the men start their leave as soon as we tie up.”  Taking a deep breath, Lee added, “Lieutenant Wynn will be accompanying you to the apartment.  I've got a car standing by.”

The hand putting the papers into the briefcase stilled.  “It appears you've thought of everything, Captain Crane.”

Lee ignored the sarcastic tone of voice.  “I do my best, Admiral.  You expect no less.”

A reluctant smile appeared on Nelson's face.  “I suppose not.  However, I do not need that girl… whatever she is… following me everywhere I go!  I won't have it, I…”  Nelson's voice stilled as a hand appeared out of the air and settled itself on his wrist, and the soft southern voice filled the room. 

“No arguin', Admiral.”  Shimmering out of the air Vicky became fully visible.  “Captain, I'll make some phone calls while I'm at the admiral's place, check in with San Francisco, and rest up a bit.  Tired ain't the word for it.  Heck, maybe they caught up with him already.  Wouldn't that be a hoot?  All this trouble for nothin'.”  She smiled weakly at Nelson, at the same time pressing a shaking hand to her forehead.  “Bet that would make you real happy, Admiral.”  

Lee's heart took a tumble again.  What he wanted to do was to take her back into his arms and let her rest against him, holding her tight while she regained some of her strength.  The rest of the world be damned.  But he didn't think the admiral would like that much.  Especially when Nelson said crossly, “If you're not feeling well perhaps you should stand down, Lieutenant Wynn.  Or whatever you like to call yourself.”

She met his eyes levelly, the fatigue still there but faded.  “Your manners are not currently those of a gentleman, sir.”

Nelson flushed a little.  “I apologize.  But my objections still stand.”

“Duly noted.  Captain Crane, Admiral Nelson, from this moment on, please remember who I am -- Lieutenant Victoria Wynn.  I am relyin' on both of you to see that my secret is kept.”

“You have my word, Lieutenant,” Lee answered.  Nelson merely nodded curtly.

“All I can ask.  I'll see you on deck, Captain.  Once again, it was a mighty fine trip aboard the Seaview.  With you.”

While she disappeared into the air Lee was out the door and gone before Admiral Nelson could comment.  Chip's voice calling “Surface, Surface, Surface” over the 'com system hastened his pace towards the control room.  Chip was not going to like it, being told to leave the boat.  Lee would have to explain that if somehow this assassin got past all their defenses, one of the boat's senior officers needed to be kept safe.  A sense of duty was one of his X.O.'s strongest traits.  Lee would appeal to that.      

 

CHAPTER FOUR

“Driver, our first stop will be Roosevelt School.”

It was a moment before her brain registered his words.  Wait a minute, who said anything about a detour, sir?” 

Nelson had chosen to sit in front with the driver.  With a great exaggerated sigh he turned around and looked at Vicky over the back of the seat.  “I just did, I believe.  I have several scholarship applications to review.  I told the principal, Mrs. Johnson that I'd pick them up when I returned from San Francisco.  I called her and she graciously agreed to come back to the office.  She's made a special trip for me.  I have to get them.”  His thin mouth and the determined set to his eyes brooked no argument.

“Alright,” Vicky said wearily, “whatever you want.  But I'm stickin' with you.”  As he made to protest she added quickly in a lowered voice, “Dunning's had plenty of time to hoof it down here.  Believe me, he knows who you are by now.  It's his business to know.”

“That determined?”

“That determined, Admiral.  You know his face, sir, and he can’t let that stand.”  Raising her voice, she said, “Driver, just do as the Admiral says.”

“Yes, ma'am!” 

They quickly left the main gate behind and drove towards the heart of Santa Barbara.  Every vehicle coming up alongside drew her scrutiny.  She would assume that the assassin already knew who his target was.  Dunning was successful because of his resources and talents and an efficient network of evil.  Her reach would just have to be longer. 

A few cars behind them, a battered old truck pulled out onto the coast highway and headed south in the same direction as the admiral's vehicle.  The light traffic made keeping the sedan in sight easy.  

The open highway soon gave way to a residential area, and Nelson gave quiet instructions to his driver, who pulled to a stop opposite a building that could be clearly identified as a school even without the letters on the sign outside spelling out its name.  Classrooms flanked either side of the whitewashed office while an expanse of lawn fanned out to a red-painted sidewalk that was marked for buses only.  Streetlights fought against the darkness, creating circles of light on the empty pavement. 

Following the vehicle into the residential area, the truck's driver slowed and then drove past as the car pulled over.  The truck made a left turn at the next corner and then a neat u-turn, and sat idling at the curb. 

Vicky had her door open before the car stopped moving, flinging herself out as soon as it was safe.  With a flourish, she opened Nelson's door.  “After you, Admiral.”  His eyebrows lifted as she checked her shoulder holster, but he said nothing.  Nelson wasted no time in getting across the street, ignoring her grimaces as she hobbled along behind, her wounded legs showing their stiffness. 

There were lights on in the office building.  Nelson knocked once and walked in, first saying to Vicky, “Wait here.”  He made that official by letting the door shut in her face.

She stared at the door, a slow burn making its way up inside her.  Patience, Galené, patience.  Keep him safe now, kill him yourself later. 

He was back in just a couple of minutes, waving a manila envelope.  “All taken care of, Lieutenant.  Nothing for you to worry about.”

She pressed her lips together.  So far, he had been right.  That didn’t make it enough. 

Her back had started aching again and she was thinking about that as they turned to go back to the car.  An old truck was lumbering toward them, and Vicky picked up her pace.  Bending down to speak to their driver she didn't notice that Admiral Nelson, who was a few steps behind, had paused in the center of the road to allow the vehicle to pass.

The truck's sullen rumble changed pitch.  She looked up to see it take a sudden, drunken swerve toward Nelson. 

“Admiral, look out!”  She flung herself towards him.

Nelson's backward leap saved his life, and her shoulder tackle sent them both to the pavement.  The truck straightened out and kept going, the driver making no attempt to stop.

“Well should I be sacrificed to Momus, to put an end to my stupidity!”  Vicky raised herself slowly on her elbows as the admiral sat up.  “Are you alright, Admiral?”

“That's twice today I've hit the deck.  I'm getting rather tired of it,” Nelson said dourly as their driver helped him to his feet.  He extricated himself from the man's grasp and together, they raised Vicky up.  “Other than an extreme loss of dignity I'd say I'm fine.  Why is your hand bleeding?”

Startled, she raised one and then the other out in front of her.  Several of the beautiful nails on her right hand were gone, the skin around them torn, the blood already running down her fingers.  “I guess I didn't judge jumpin' through that truck quite right.  Damn, that was some fine manicuring work.  And double damn if I didn't ruin a nice pair of silk stockings!  By the Chimera's black bones, Dunning will pay for that!”

Nelson produced a handkerchief.  “I can't help you with the stockings, but at least I can put something on your hand until we can get to a first aid cabinet.”    

Vicky accepted the handkerchief with a wry smile.  “Many thanks, Admiral, but let's get out of here first!”  She opened the rear door of their vehicle and practically pushed him inside, and then followed herself.  The driver jumped in, started up the car and pulled away.

Nelson gently bound the hand up.  “Thank you for the warning, Lieutenant Wynn.”  

“Y'all are welcome, Admiral Nelson.  I hope this means you believe me now.”  She looked down at the remains of her stockings.  “If it only takes one pair of hose to accomplish a feat like that, it was worth it!”

* * * * *

The driver wasted no time in getting back to the Institute grounds.  They were soon in front of a nondescript building on one of the Institute's steep side streets. 

Vicky stepped gingerly out of the car -- her tumble in the street had taken its toll -- and faced a large two-story building that apparently served as the admiral's current address.  It looked forlorn, with its dun-colored stucco walls, blank facade and roll-up door.  Upstairs, large windows broke up the exterior she was facing. 

“Was this somebody's garage at one time?”

“As a matter of fact, yes, one of the original buildings on the site.  I've got plans to build something down on the beach, just haven't gotten around to it yet.”

As Nelson pulled out his key, she waited for the driver to bring the luggage up.  Vicky spoke quietly to him, laying a hand on the back of his neck.  He shuddered as if a shock of electricity had struck him, deposited the bags inside the doorway and departed without saying a word. 

“Can't have him rememberin' what he saw, me disappearin' through that truck instead of around it,” she said as she limped into the building.  “Oh!  This is jest beautiful!”

The outside might have been plain, but the inside was anything but.  Two side walls, each broken by a single door ran the length of the interior, painted in a cream color that set off the magnificent artwork hung on their surfaces.  What she was sure was an original Stickley sideboard held up an assortment of pictures and memorabilia.  Another door faced her on the far wall behind a spiral staircase.  A Persian rug, a blue Kirman of magnificent size and immense value, centered the granite floor.

“Kitchen and dining area on the left, com center and conference room on the right,” Nelson said, pointing at each in turn.  “Upstairs, personal quarters and my office.”

Her aches and pains were forgotten as she followed him up the staircase, running a hand along the polished teak.  The lower floor was beautiful enough, but it was definitely a space for formal occasions; upstairs, this was a sailor's home.  Heavy throw rugs covered the hardwood floor, and bookcases lined the walls interspersed with paintings of maritime scenes.  Alcoves held the admiral's retirement flag and other souvenirs of his naval service.  She knew without needing to look out that there would be an ocean view. 

“The cleaning service's been through, so everything's reasonably shipshape.  I've got work to do in my office, so if you don't mind,” he moved over to the room on the left and flipped on a light, “I'll put your luggage in here and get to it.”

“Admiral, you don't have to give up your bedroom to me.”

“My decision.  You've earned a rest.  When I get sleepy I'll use the couch in the office.”

He stood aside so she could enter.  The room was painted a dark blue, and the white coverlet of the king-sized bed and the rich red upholstered chairs and deep red curtains that covered the windows formed a charming contrast.  It was dark and homey and tidy, too tidy for the man standing next to her.  He'd have it lived in again before the cleaning service came back.

“I expect you can see to China through those windows.”

“Not quite, but I do have a nice little view of the coastline.”  Taking off his jacket, Nelson flung it onto one of the chairs.  I suppose I should apologize, Lieutenant Wynn, for doubting your ability to protect me.  It seems I was a little hasty.  Your qualifications would appear to be more than adequate,” Nelson stated formally.  He picked up her injured hand and gently pulled the handkerchief away, careful not to look at her, clearing his throat in a way that brought the ghost of a smile to her lips.  “Thankfully, that doesn't look too bad.  You'll find a first aid kit in the bathroom.  A hot bath will probably help more than anything,” he said, laying his hands down by his side again.  “If you need anything else, I'm just across the hall.”  He gave her a little nod and shut the door firmly.

“Apology accepted, Admiral Nelson.” 

She smiled softly, then gave a little gasp as a painful spasm arced across her back.  A hot bath was going to feel very, very good.

* * * * *  

The bathroom was another surprise.  It was rather utilitarian, the entire room painted white, with white tiles on the floor.  The only touches of color were the fluffy blue towels piled high on a rattan cabinet and blue curtains on two small side windows cracked open for fresh air.  Everything else was tucked away, from the Admiral's shaving kit to the small first aid kit.  She would use that after the bath.  “Grab and go,” the room seemed to say.  Except that she had actually come across some bubble bath.  The most interesting find had been the female-sized bathrobe that was hanging from a hook on the door.  She knew he had a sister; somehow, she didn't think this was Edith's.

Well.   Maybe her admiral was human, after all.  Then another emotion hit, a twinge that brought her up short, eyes going wide.  Jealous?  Was she feeling just a bit peeved at the thought that another woman had been in this house?  Impossible!  She would never feel any sort of emotion other than a commitment to duty to this man, a curmudgeon that didn't want her around.  Which was fine with her.  She tossed her head, and yelped as the pain shot up her back.  Enough!  She needed a bath, not a psychological session with herself.  She had been amongst humans for far too long.  She was starting to think and act like them far too much.

The claw foot tub was decadently large, and next to it was a vanity where she'd discovered the bubble bath crystals.  Inside was another surprise -- a telephone, and she busied herself calling San Francisco and then the Santa Barbara Police, giving them a description of the truck.  Her suspicions that it was no accident were confirmed when the detective she spoke to had already gotten a report of an old truck found engulfed in flames at the local airport.  Dunning had taken no chances.  There'd be nothing left. 

The boys in San Francisco had had nothing new to offer either.  At least she could tell them they could stop looking up there and start looking further south.  As usual, it had taken some persuading, but Vicky had gotten good at persuading. 

By then the tub had filled with water, hot enough to turn her skin deep pink, but that was nothing compared to how her muscles were relaxing.  Even the deep scars on her back and the barely closed wound underneath her rib cage, where the tree branch that had stopped her from falling further had penetrated, had stopped aching.  She used her webbed fingers to pick up cascades of bubbles and blew them into the air, laughing as they popped against the water's surface.  The bubbles were followed by little waterspouts followed by miniature tsunamis as Vicky ordered her inland ocean to rise and fall at her command.  When the last tidal wave produced a splash that emptied itself onto the tiles she reluctantly got out.

Resisting the temptation to put on the bathrobe Vicky slipped on the long and luxurious garment she'd “borrowed” from the First Lady's hotel suite.  She liked the way that her hair stood out against the purple satin kimono, liked the way her skin looked fresh and new, and pinched her cheeks to make them pinker.  She got out her bottle of perfume and sprayed a little down the opening of the robe.  Satisfied, she'd go and tell the ol' curmudgeon about the police report.  Looking like this, maybe he wouldn't bite her head off.

The door to the office was half-open, so she knocked once and walked in, expecting to say, “Truck was found near the airport blazin' away, won't be enough evidence to sweep into an envelope.”  But there was no need. 

Admiral Nelson had fallen asleep at his desk, face cradled in his arms, sprawled out over a table-full of papers.  She knew he wouldn't like knowing that anyone was watching him, least of all her.  It was such a simple thing, watching him sleep, that she couldn't turn away.  So intimately simple.  She studied him now; the frown lines smoothed away, the lashes that matched his red hair lying soft against his cheeks.  And were those freckles?  Smiling, she counted a few scattered across his nose and disappearing into his hairline.  The color of that hair matched his temper; she could well imagine junior officers quailing as Commander, then Captain, then Admiral Nelson took them to task for a job not up to his rigorous standards.  Right now, listening to his gentle breathing, he was anything but a severe taskmaster.  She wanted to reach out and stroke the circle of skin on his cheeks, touch that little cleft in his chin that made his face so distinctive.  But that would mean he might awaken.

Smiling, she snapped her fingers.  The air in the center of the room was suddenly disturbed, and out of the haze materialized a burly Cyclops, already bent on one knee. 

“Goddess, I am at your service.”

“As well you should be, doulos.  What is your name, slave?”

“Theron, goddess.”

She pointed at Nelson and then at the couch.  “Move him, Theron.  Your death if he wakes.”

With a surprising gentleness the giant lifted the admiral up and deposited him on the couch, made a deep bow and vanished.  Vicky covered Nelson with an afghan that had been thrown on the floor and took off his shoes, then stepped back to admire her handiwork.  Impulsively she reached down and stroked his cheek, watching him sleep on.

“Eukranté, you had best be listening to me.  I will not lose another.”

I am listening, sister.  You are playing a dangerous game, Galené.

“Oh, so the wise one deigns to make an appearance!”  She stepped out of the office, closing the door quietly.  “And you would be -- where?”

In answer, another female shimmered out of the air.  This one was not an exact copy; her hair was colored a softer silver, bound up with cockleshell combs.  She was tinted a darker green, and deep green dots formed a mesmerizing mosaic across her cheeks and temples. 

Eukranté's emerald eyes swept her sister up and down.  “Look at you, staying in this body!  You've always had a softer spot in your heart for these humans than I, Galené.  But this one -- this one is special to you.”

“The Seaview and her men are special, Eukranté.  Alright, perhaps it goes a little deeper than that,” she said in response to her sister's scoffing look.  “You use your head to keep your charges safe, sister, while I use my head and my heart.  The end result is the same; they do not die before their time.  What kind of god am I if I cannot do that?  So when I make a mistake, it's a big mistake.”

“You have always done the best you could.”

Vicky folded her arms and leaned against the door.  “Oh, have I.  The death of Admiral Callahan and all those men on the bridge of the San Francisco works against that.”  She shook her head.  “It should never have happened.”

“That was war, sister.  You saved so many in those years.  The body you were in was gravely wounded himself.  A lapse in judgment is understandable, even permissible.  Such things can be forgiven.”

“You talk big for someone who is worshipped by fisherman looking for larger catches!”

The green eyes went black.  “You flaunt your high standing with Zeus.  The Moraie will not be the only ones you cross.” 

The goddess took her sister by the arms.  “Forgive me, 'ranté.  I am sorry I said that, truly.  You are only looking out for my best interests, I know.”

Eukranté threw up her hands in obvious disgust.  “You cannot protect everyone, sister.  Do not get too close to this one, Galené.  If you go beyond the limits foretold to you, not even I will be able to protect you.  What the Fates portend--”

“--Harriman Nelson is not going to die, no matter what you or anyone else believes the augurs portend!”  Galene cried.  “Don't you see why?  Others may have no problem with a good man going to his death, but Victoria Wynn would.”

Shaking her head,  Eukranté slowly began to fade.  “A human emotion.  Just remember my words, sister.  We must all choose our battles.  Perhaps this one is meant to be lost.” 

Vicky reached out and touched the spot in the air where the other goddess had been.  “You mean well, 'ranté, but this is a battle I will win.  You’ll see.”

It would not do to get complacent.  Saving Admiral Nelson’s life was all that mattered.  She had been given the Seaview and her crew to protect.  That seeing him again sent a little frisson of excitement up and down her spine just meant that her task was as important as she had originally thought.  That was all.  She had a job to do.

 

* * * * *

To her surprise, she had actually curled up in the big bed and fallen promptly asleep.  The sound of a foghorn brought her to full awareness.  Vicky stretched her muscles and pronounced them fit for duty.  The upstairs was quiet; the admiral slept on.  The bedside clock said 0658.  Time to start the day.

A little magic and her uniform was restored to its immaculate condition from its pavement encounter.  Dressing quickly, she went to the kitchen.  As soon as she heard the water running upstairs she put the coffee on.  When he walked in she had just placed the morning's newspaper across his plate and filled a juice glass.

“Well, this is a pleasant surprise.”

“I'll have the bacon and toast ready in a minute. Best to start your day off with a good breakfast.  Didn't your mamma tell you that, Admiral?”

“I do believe she did,” Nelson said, seating himself.  “But I don't believe she said anything about rating such good service.” 

“Don't tell me you don't have stewards aboard the Seaview, Admiral.”

“We do.  But they're not usually s-so.…” he stammered slightly as she leaned over his shoulder and poured coffee into his cup, first pulling her .45 out of the shoulder holster and laying it on the table.  “Resourceful.”

Her eyes smiled innocently as she spoke.  “I s'pose you could call it that.”

He took a sip of coffee, and his eyes were just as innocent as he asked, “I'm pretty sure the last thing I remember is sitting at my desk.  Care to tell me how I ended up on the couch?”

“Cyclops.  They come in mighty handy.”

“A Cyclops.”  He regarded her dubiously. 

“The last thing I want to do is break another nail.  Jest fixed these up again.”  She held up her hands for inspection. 

“I see.”  He looked down into the coffee cup.  “Well, it's nice to know that Cyclops wear perfume, too.”

She blushed like a young girl, and quickly put both hands to her cheeks, eyes wide.  “You could not have been awake!  I watched you, you were sleeping soundly....”  She stopped talking as his shoulders went up and down in silent laughter.  “How do you know?”

“I noticed the scent when I woke up.  I smell it now.  But somehow, I don't think it's a Cyclops that wears it.”

She covered her embarrassment by pointing at the paper.  “Never mind that.  Read.”

Nelson picked it up and scanned the headline.  “Where'd the paper come from?”

“There are a lot of nice driveways close to here which happen to have newspapers on them.”

“What?  You stole a newspaper from one of our neighbors?”

“Stole?  What is this stealing?  There was no one home!”

“How do you know that?”

Her eyebrows knit together.  “I can tell.” 

“You sure you didn't steal it?”

She shook her head, her frown getting larger, and then she caught the twinkle in the admiral's eye.  “No sir, the house is empty.  Papers pilin' up, that looks bad.  I took 'em all.” 

“Good thinking.  Still, I don't want to upset our neighbors.”

She allowed a little grin to show.  “It won't happen again.”

“See that it doesn't,” he said, the corners of his mouth turning up.

“Aye aye, sir.”

* * * * *

She was just finishing the dishes when there was a knock from the front of the apartment.  Nelson started to rise from the chair but Vicky laid a hand on his shoulder, picked up her gun and slipped through the kitchen door.  A few seconds went by and she was back, with Lee Crane following her in.

“Morning, Admiral!”

“Good morning, Lee,” Nelson said, turning from a smiling captain to a smiling lieutenant, who stood at the sink with a coffee pot in one hand and a gun in the other.  “Coffee?”

“None for me, thanks.  I've got our ride -- figured I'd give everyone a lift down to the dock.”

“Excellent, let me get my briefcase.”

While Admiral Nelson walked upstairs, Lee asked quickly, “How's everything going?”

“Fine, a quiet night was spent by all.  He's not so bad -- when he's asleep.  Quite charming, actually.”  She felt a little warm flush stain her cheeks as she recalled the scene in the admiral’s office and his comments on the lingering perfume.  She saw the captain’s speculative gaze on her and hurriedly sought to divert him as she proceeded to clear the table.  “Did you get Mr. Morton away?”

Lee recognized the tactic immediately but allowed her strategy to work.  “Yes, kicking and screaming.  But like you said, fewer targets.”  He sighed silently to himself as he watched her move around the kitchen, refusing to meet his eyes.  Well, you can't blame a guy for hoping.  “I'll see you two at the car.”

“Thanks, Commander.”

The Admiral stepped out into the foyer as she was grabbing her cap from the sideboard.  “It's probably a good thing we're not walking down the hill.  It, uh, might be somewhat difficult in those.”  He pointed down at her high heels, a little smile forming on his face.

“Oh, I'd just float down if it came to that.”  Deliberately, she reached down and hiked her skirt above her knees, careful to keep the scars covered.  “Like my legs, do you?”

He colored right up to his sandy eyebrows.  “I would be lying if I said I hadn't noticed.”

“Keep the compliments coming, Admiral.  It isn't just goddesses that love to be worshipped.  And adored.” 

Nelson settled his cover on his head and straightened the brim.  “We'll see about that.”  He opened the door and held it open.  “By the way, I've been meaning to ask:  Aren't you a little far from the Mediterranean?”

She dismissed that with a wave of her hand.  “There's more to do these days, sir.  When Greece ruled the oceans it was easy to stay in the Aegean, doing what was needed.  Our charges now sail the seven seas.  We Nereids must needs bend with the times.”  She grinned broadly.  “I'm not complainin'.”

“Neither am I.”  His grin almost matched her own.

 


CHAPTER FIVE

 

Thus began a quiet workweek, a time of watching out for a man who didn't seem to be around.  Vicky’s contacts had reported that Dunning had been spotted in Rio de Janeiro.  Vicky did not believe it.  As she put it, in the colorful accent that everyone was rapidly coming to enjoy, “Dunning wouldn’t miss a chance to put anotha notch on his six gun.” 

The computer installation was going well, thanks to the contractors being putty in her hands.  Just when the last straw had been reached, when Nelson had complained one too many times Vicky would step in and sooth their ruffled feelings with a polite turn of phrase and a big smile.  The work would begin again.     

The admiral and lieutenant began to form a familiar partnership as they went about their daily routine.  The crisp white uniform that never looked wrinkled could be seen anywhere Nelson went, whether down at the dock, at the Institute's offices or even at the gym.  He had firmly insisted she stay outside for that.  That battle had been won at least. 

Occasionally scuttlebutt would be overheard that their relationship was more than a working one.  When that happened, the gossiper would be quietly taken aside and told in no uncertain terms what he could do with his opinion.  Even Angie, the admiral's secretary had come around.  The word had gotten out why Vicky was there. 

The only hitch was that Dr. Greer had called and said his trial had been continued due to a death in one of the lawyer's families.  It meant a few more days of waiting, but he was still confident of the outcome.

Friday finally arrived.  Lee had left with the contractors, headed to a shindig that would keep him partying long into the night.  It was just the two of them now in the nose, double-checking service requests when Nelson put down the report he was reading and cleared his throat.

“Something wrong, sir?”

“You know, you’ve been a tremendous help.  This computer job has gone smoothly, thanks to you.  Could I interest you in dinner this evening?  The Biltmore has a terrific dining room.  I've been there, uh, many times.”

Her first thought was to turn him down flat, say it was far too dangerous.  But goddesses have resources beyond the ken of mere mortals.  She would call in a few favors.  And tell herself that he had been working too hard and needed a diversion, that the delight she'd immediately felt was just a chance to do something different.  “I'd be happy to.”

“Splendid.  I'll call and make the reservation, and then we’ll head back to the apartment.  Be ready by 1930.”

“Ummm, Admiral?  Don't put the reservation in your name.”

He looked surprised for a moment, and then nodded.  “Do you ever stop protecting me, Lieutenant?”

“Never, Admiral.”

* * * * *

By 1915 her resources were in place.  Eukranté was fuming, angry at being asked to be at the hotel when she had better things to do, but little Sao was eager to help.  They would be her advance warning if anything was amiss.  Best of all, the goddess had requested and been granted a respite from the pain.  That had used up the rest of her favors but it would be worth it.

Vicky was still deciding whether she wanted to switch out her diamond studs for dangling emerald earrings when the admiral knocked on the bedroom door.  “You’re early!  Five minutes!”  She left the studs in. 

She would not tell the admiral about the crush of attendants who had assisted her.  Her sisters had fussed and scurried about, fixing her hair, twisting it into a simple chignon at the nape of her neck, adding two large white orchids for dramatic effect.  Others had applied her makeup.  And Sao had been the one to appear with the dress, whereby Vicky had clapped her hands and pronounced perfect.  The little black dress skimmed her hips, had short-capped sleeves and a square neckline cut low enough to show cleavage.  The dress came to the center of her knees.  Black stockings and black stiletto heels finished the look.  The paleness of her skin and hair created the illusion that she was a column of light in the darkness.  The sparkle from the diamonds did the rest.

A little color on her cheeks and lips, a splash of Shalimar, and she was ready -- and uncharacteristically nervous.  She had firmly told herself that this was not a date; she of all people knew what her true role was.  But she was looking forward to this, to the opportunity of being seen and admired.  What was the point being a goddess if you couldn’t be desired occasionally?

Picking up her purse -- nothing in it but a compact and lipstick, no weapon tonight -- she took a deep breath and opened the door.  Watching him step back, his eyes widening, she automatically asked, “What's wrong?”

“Absolutely nothing.  You look beautiful.  You are beautiful,” he replied proudly, the light coming up in his eyes.  Gone was the lieutenant in her stern white uniform.  For the lack of a better word, he was looking at a goddess.  She was his for the evening.  His face reflected his pleasure.

She did a little twirl, the dress flaring out slightly, and saw his eyes glide up and down, taking in every detail.  The unbidden thought I wore this for you swooped into her mind.  To hide the flush spreading on her checks she turned swiftly and closed the door.

“Th-thanks, Admiral.  You look pretty good yourself!”

Nelson was dressed in a superbly tailored charcoal-colored suit, pristine white shirt and black and silver striped silk tie.  Every inch of him screamed rugged strength, authority and protection.  A woman would feel safe in those arms.  A happy woman would know what he was saying with those eyes.     

Once down the staircase, he offered her his arm and said, “Shall we?”

“We shall.”

She talked animatedly as they were driven to the hotel, but he was only halfheartedly listening.  After his delight at her appearance, reality and his ordered sense of the universe started to sink in.  The realization that this was all play-acting, that the person sitting next to him in the back of the Institute’s sedan was a facade, was slowly coming into focus.  He had accepted that she was there to protect him, even accepted that she was a goddess, he had seen it with his own eyes.  Obviously, then, her interest in him was purely professional.  Just as his interest in her was of course the same!  That went without saying… didn’t it? 

“What's the matter, Admiral?" 

Nelson started slightly as she touched his arm.  “Nothing, nothing at all.  It's just been a while since I've had such a stunning dinner companion.”

“Gettin' out of that uniform is always a special treat, I'll tell ya.  By the way, just in case you're thinkin' I've fallen down on the job,” she whispered, leaning over so the driver wouldn't hear, “there are two, count 'em, two, Nereids helpin' out tonight.”

He didn't answer right away, lost as he was in the creamy smoothness of her neck and the swelling bodice of her dress.  Never mind that her perfume was like a time bomb ticking away at his brain. 

“Hidden away, I presume,” he answered huskily.

“But of course.  Otherwise little green girls take a hell of a lot of explainin'.”

They were still laughing when they got out of the car.  He would enjoy himself tonight.  There would be no harm in that.

He felt the excitement the moment they entered the dining room, saw the envy in the eyes of the male diners as the maitre'd led them to their table.  That she was with him gave him a flush of pleasure that he hadn't experienced in a long time.   

She took charge of ordering for both of them, to Nelson’s begrudging assent and the obvious delight of their waiter, who exclaimed rapturously over every choice.  As each dish came out her praise was effusive, and eventually the head chef appeared, to be fussed over extravagantly and kissed several times.  Soon every waiter in the place had been by the table at least once to make sure their every need was seen to.  Her enthusiasm soon carried over to the other tables and the atmosphere in the room became electric.   

Dinner was followed by coffee and brandy, and finally, when he didn't think he had an ounce of strength left in him, she led him to the dance floor.  What he lacked in experience he made up with enthusiasm, soon settling into a rhythm that surprised and delighted his partner.  When the music stopped everyone in the room applauded. 

They returned to the table and collapsed, both spent. 

“Havin' a good time, Admiral?”  The question wasn’t necessary.  It was evident by the lack of tension in his eyes and his body language.  

“My God, I can't remember when I've had a better time.  I can't believe you got me out there.  If you ever tell Lee about this, I'll deny it entirely...you've got blackmail enough to last for years, young lady.”

“Then you best keep doin' what I say, or else.”

She said that with her back to him, scanning the room -- she hadn't done a security sweep in a while -- so when she turned around again she was only inches away from his face.

Desire filled his eyes as he slowly leaned forward and cupped her chin, the other hand caressing her wrist.  “You're beautiful, Miss Wynn.  Have I told you that this evening?” 

She would have answered him but for the sharp breeze that wafted suddenly past his fingers.  Without thinking she broke free, and saw the hurt and embarrassment replace the other look. 

“What is it, Eukranté?”

We think there is someone here who should not be, sister.

“You think?  Don't you know?”  She was carrying on a conversation with herself, but her warning finger told him all he needed to know.

Ah.  It is nothing after all.  Sao is inexperienced at these things.  A mistake. 

“You did that deliberately!”

I am only saving you from making a bigger mistake, sister.

Vicky sat there fuming for a few moments while Nelson watched in confusion.  “Jest one of my sisters tryin' to be funny.  And failin'.”  The mood had definitely been broken.  “I'm sorry.  Admiral, time to leave, I guess.  We need to get the bill....” 

He waved a hand impatiently.  "It's already been taken care of, put to my personal account.” 

“That's a handy little arrangement.  We'll have to do this again sometime.”

“If you'd like.”  He did not sound happy at the thought.

They sat in silence, neither looking at the other.  She was angry with her sister, but especially angry with herself.  She had been on the edge of surrendering to him, already imagining the pleasure that would give her.  She needed to believe she wasn't playing with emotions, both hers and his.  Then why did the whole evening feel like a lie, all of a sudden? 

Vicky rose from the table.  “I'll get our car, sir.”  She was out of reach before he could say anything. 

Nelson pushed back his chair and followed her out.

Once inside the vehicle Nelson turned away from her and stared out the window.  He knew that what he had done was inexcusable.  But holding her close while they were dancing, seeing the fire in her eyes, knowing what was reflected in his own... he was coming close to crossing a line, a line that when broken he wouldn't, couldn't step back from.  But she isn’t real!

Thoughts churning, he stole a sidelong glance at Vicky.  She was sitting very straight, hands clasped together in her lap, her face turned towards the floor.  As the lights of another car flashed through the window, her head flew up and she pressed a palm against his shoulder.  The headlights faded, and the hand went back to her lap.  He realized she was getting ready to push him down into the seat, if necessary.  He didn't believe she'd even known she'd done it.  What was it that Lee had said?  She can be anything you want her to be.  He didn't want a bodyguard, didn't think he wanted a goddess.  He wanted her.  But just who was that?

While she dismissed the driver Nelson went upstairs and waited, pacing a little, the words of his apology forming.  He found himself at the head of the stairway as she came up.  God forgive him, he wanted to touch her, knew he needed to, wanted to tear that little dress off her shoulders and explore every inch of that exquisite skin, every last inch.  Wanted badly to take her to bed, the beautiful hair tangled in his fingers, feel her tremble to his touch as he ran his hands along her body.  Ashamed at himself for even considering such actions he went to the door of the bedroom and flipped it open for her to enter.

“I want to apologize, Lieutenant.  The wine must have gone to my head.  That, and your perfume.  Thank you for a wonderful evening.”  When he leant forward to kiss her on the cheek she shifted her face and caught his lips.  Her hand snaked around his head and she pressed her mouth to his again, closing her eyes.  His were wide open as his hands wandered up to settle on the curves of her face.  The world went quiet and still.  Murmuring sensuously, he said her name.  “Vicky....”

She shuddered and pulled back, her eyes open wide.  He isn't kissing me.  He's kissing a dead girl. 

“Forgive me, Admiral.  The goddess has made a grave tactical error.  A stupid mistake.  My fault entirely, sir.  Please excuse me.”

“Vicky, wait!” 

She flew back down the staircase, changing into the goddess even before she reached the floor below.  Nelson heard one heel ring out against the bottom step, and then silence.  She was gone, out of the house.  The quiet settled again.  He could hear the faint roar of the sea even over the roar of his heartbeat.  She had surprised him, and he had responded.  The act had been rash, the blame his.  But she was so beautiful... His thoughts flashed back to the exquisite softness of her lips, how she had felt, melted into his arms.

And then it came to him, what he had done and she had meant.  And as he had done too many times to count, his heart hardened a little.  An impossible situation, to get involved with a -- ghost.  I'll apologize, of course.  He turned away from the bedroom and made for the office. 

Outside, Galené kept watch until the lights had all gone out.  Even then, she did not return until the sun began its slow creep over the foothills.  Somewhere, she knew Eukranté was laughing.

* * * * *

Nelson had spent a restless night, impatient to make amends for forgetting himself in the heat of the moment.  He had kept his life purposely empty, to keep himself and those around him from being hurt.  The threat of someone like Dunning was evidence enough that he could ill afford to get close to anyone, lest they become a target.  This one, though -- this one was different.  She didn’t need his protection.  He realized he was thinking now of the goddess, and not the human.  When had that happened?  Which one was his concern for?  He had to find a way to separate the two himself before he could even think of approaching her again.

He knew her sense of responsibility was strong enough that she would not disappear forever, and he was right; when he came into the kitchen Vicky was there, his coffee cup filled, paper on the table (from the main gate, she’d kept her promise, she had told him). 

Nelson didn't know how the sink had gotten so dirty, but she was scrubbing every inch of it.  She was in a pair of hip hugging blue jeans, and he found himself wanting to grab that little waist and... stop it, Harry! 

“Vic-- Galené -- I'd like to make something clear.  I think we're both sorry for what happened last night.  You were stunning, the moon and the stars were properly aligned, the dinner was superb and I got carried away.  A lot's happened lately that… well, I let my enjoyment get out of hand, and forgot myself.  It won't happen again.”

She turned round.  He was standing apart from her, discomfiture in his eyes; Admiral Harriman Nelson was not used to apologizing.  In an instant, she replayed the events of last night.  There had been his spicy aftershave that filled her senses every time he'd leaned close.  That sexy cleft she couldn't tear her eyes away from.  The way he'd looked in that wonderful suit, carefully groomed, his blue eyes bright and clear.  What woman wouldn't have been glad to be seen with him?  He was magnificent.  She had been the one to forget herself and steal the kiss, leaning into him, wanting more - until the moment had been broken.  It had been Vicky that he was kissing; she could not fault him for that.  It had taken the long hours outside to remind her that no matter what the goddess wanted, right now she was Vicky.  The vision faded into contemplation of the one fact that would soon put an end to everything.  There won't be time to talk, when Dunning kills me.  Better to end all this now, before he gets in too deep.  Or was it herself she was talking about? 

Steeling her nerves, she turned and regarded him gravely.  “Thank you, sir, but that was all my fault last night.  You are one handsome devil, Admiral, and it turned my head.  Please believe me when I say I had a wonderful time.  I’m sorry that I led you to think there could be more, but there can’t.  There's a good reason that we need to leave it at that, and I’d appreciate it if you did.”  She blew the air out of her cheeks, turned back to the sink and threw down the scrub pad.  “Lee called and wants you down on the boat.  Phil's there and he has some readouts he'd like you to look at.  The car's outside waitin' to go.  I'll meet you there.”    

The silence stretched a fraction too long.

Nelson took a quick, controlling breath.  “If that's what you want,” he said woodenly.

It isn't, it isn't!  What she wanted was to run into his arms and forget about everything except how his lips felt against hers, how his hands brought the heat up inside her trembling body.  But that was what somebody else wanted.  The lieutenant merely said, “It is, sir.”

* * * * *

It took only a few minutes to get down to the boat, the way he was driving.  As the admiral went through the hatch she appeared beside him, startling him, but he said nothing.  The expression on his face said something else. 

Lee was in the nose, looking at a bunch of computer printouts.  Standing next to him was the contractor's chief computer technician, Phil Simpson, when they walked in.

“I've brought down the read-outs from yesterday, Admiral,” Simpson said.  “Take a gander at this while I tweak a couple more things.  Be right back.”  With a grin at Vicky, he disappeared into the control room.

Lee looked up from the printouts, a big smile on his face.  “This is going along great, just a few more tests, and….”  Lee's eyes traveled from the admiral to her, the questions forming, and the smile faded.  “Is everything OK?”

“Everythin''s fine, sir,” Vicky replied formally.

“Actually, Lee, I think we're done here.  Lieutenant Wynn, if you have anything on the Seaview, I suggest you get it now.”

“Excuse me?”  The confusion on her face was evident.

“I've decided that I'm done with a babysitter.  Your services are no longer required.  Lee, I'd appreciate it if you'd make arrangements to take the Lieutenant wherever she wants to go.”

“That will be impossible, Admiral, and you damn well know it!”  Vicky said coldly, a silent fury building up inside. 

“No, it is not impossible.  I suggest you do as I say, Lieutenant, or I will make sure that the whole world knows who you are and more precisely, what you are.”

“You wouldn't dare.”

“Wouldn't I?”  Nelson answered ruthlessly.

Lee slowly lowered the printout he was holding.  The admiral's face was flushed and angry, but it also bore a look of sad resignation, as if he realized that what he was saying would put an end to everything.  Already Lee could tell that he regretted the harsh words.  But Lee always knew that stubbornness was a trait that Harriman Nelson had been born with.  His eyes turned toward Vicky.  She looked equally livid, her eyes narrowing and her hands turning white as she fisted them at her sides.  Neither, apparently, was in a mood to back down.

Lee sighed heavily.  How often had he been in a scenario like this, playing the mediator?  That it involved the emotions of people he cared about rather than cold facts made the stakes even higher.  He tried to calm both adversaries.  “Admiral, I think that you should rethink your position--”

“Captain, your have your orders.”  Nelson stood up and started for the spiral stairway. 

Vicky stepped in front of him, blocking his way.  “For what I said, you can punish me with your silence and your contempt, if it makes you feel better, sir."  She had kept Vicky’s form but it was Galené that was speaking now.  "But don't even think of threatening me with a foolish attempt to make me give up my responsibilities!  I am a goddess, Admiral.  We don’t respond well to threats.”  

“Be that as it may, I've made my decision.  I do not need your help.  Consider yourself relieved.”

The lieutenant locked eyes with him for one second, her color coming up as she searched his face.  Even though she wasn't in uniform, just a simple shirt and jeans, she went to full attention, fingers placed precisely along the centerline of her pants, feet together, eyes staring at a place far over his head.

“Is that an order, Admiral Nelson?” 

Lee thought if they had been under the Polar icecap, her voice couldn't have been colder.

“Roger that, Lieutenant Wynn.”  His feet drummed an angry beat as he went swiftly up the spiral staircase, the sound soon fading away.

“Vicky, what happened between you two last night to cause this rift?”  When she didn’t answer Lee tried again.  “Try to be patient with him, he’s not used to needing care, he doesn't understand--”

She whirled on Lee.  “He doesn’t understand plenty, Captain!”  Turning, Vicky beat savagely with her fists on the top of the console chair.  Just as quickly as the attack had begun she released an agonized breath and gripped the chair, her energy spent.  “But maybe, that’s my fault,” she said quietly.

Lee's voice was also quiet.  “What are you going to do?” 

“Well, I'm not leavin’, that's for damn sure!  For all his power and influence, the last thing Harriman Nelson can do is get rid of me!”

Phil Simpson chose that moment to reappear.  “Hey, where's the Admiral going?  I wanted to show him these readouts!”

“What!  The stubborn, pigheaded ol' so and so, I’m gonna kill 'im!”  Vicky brushed past Phil and disappeared through the hatch.

The computer tech looked dumbfounded at Lee.  “What was that all about?  Am I missing something here?”

Lee clapped him on the shoulder.  “You have no idea, Phil.”

* * * * *

This is ridiculous.  I'm sneaking around on my own property.

Nelson had jumped in the car and immediately headed for the beach road.  A hidden elevator had been installed years ago into the cliff to give easy access to the shore.  The elevator could be opened only by those with a special code, and it took only a few seconds to tap in the combination and start the short descent to the ground.  Here, where the elevator opened onto the sands of the Institute's private beach he could calm down and let his thoughts return to normal.  And end this, so he could go back to the perfect world he’d created for himself.

He was gazing out to sea when the voice came from behind him. 

“I turn my back for five minutes and you take the opportunity to escape!” 

He threw up his hands and said, “Did I not tell you that I no longer needed a bodyguard?”

She reached out and pulled him back towards the elevator.  He shrugged off her hand.  Infuriated, she became the goddess.  Nelson's eyes met hers briefly, then flickered as he glanced away.   

“Right, if that's the way you want it,” she said with great vehemence.  “Admiral, I can't be the person you want me to be.  I can only be myself.”

“I think you've made that quite clear.  Let me make this clear -- I am no longer interested in your services!  The Institute is one of the safest places on earth.  Our security is second to none!”

“Oh, as good as when Captain Crane snuck in and showed up aboard the Seaview?  Yes, that's real good.”

Nelson dismissed that with an impatient wave of his hand.  “We've made changes since that happened.  Cameras, patrols, the works.”

She held up a finger.  “One man, Admiral.  One man determined to get in here and kill you.  It's a piece of cake for someone like Dunning.”  She looked up at the cliff face and then surveyed their surroundings, looking down the empty beach.

“As you can tell yourself, this spot is virtually inaccessible.  Our property is triple-fenced on both sides, the elevator is monitored, and you can see anyone approaching from the water.  One would have to be invisible to surprise anyone here.  I come as often as I can.  It's where I do my best thinking.  I merely felt the need to get away and think over some upcoming projects that require my attention.  My solitary attention!  So if you don't mind….”

Galené shot him a mutinous glare.  “You can't get rid of me so easily, Admiral.  And please, sir, we both know why you’re here.  You didn't come here today just to get away.  You know he's nearby, don't you?  I know it too.  Putting yourself in harm's way deliberately is foolhardy!”

“Well, you did say I was an arrogant fool.  I will not hide in my cabin or my home, jumping at shadows.  By exposing myself won't it get this Dunning to come out?  Risking my life, my life and nobody else's is a small price to pay to bring the murderer of that young woman to justice!”

“So getting yourself killed is a fair exchange?  Your martyr complex is quite intact, isn’t it, Admiral?  What do you think you're trying to prove?”  she demanded angrily.

“No one else should be in danger because of me!”

“Which is where I come in!  Your dying is not happening on my watch!  Look at me!” 

He had turned away from her, and in an instant she had grabbed his shoulders and spun him around, the fury on her face matching his.  Nelson reached up to push her off and winced as the pressure of her fingers increased.  She was in full Galené persona, hair forming a cloud around her body, silver eyes flashing. 

He was immediately equally determined, mouth set in a thin line and his eyes narrowed and glaring.  Her hair was writhing around her, and in an imperious act he grabbed a handful of curls and pulled her towards him, pinning her arms to her side.  “We'll see how you like it.”

Hissing, she said, “You can't possible think you can hold me!” 

“I think I'm doing a pretty good job,” he growled breathlessly.

She was in his arms, where she wanted to be.  The need to be desired, to be loved for the woman she was and not someone else arose, and there would be no tamping it down this time.  Staring into his eyes, her lips parting, she whispered, “If you'd have wanted to get this close, you should have just told me.”

Warily, Nelson asked, “Would it have worked?”

“Yes,” she whispered as she kissed him, forcing him against the elevator door.  Nelson looked shocked and then eager as he kissed her back, drawing her into a tight embrace. 

Even through the khaki shirt she could feel the warmth of his skin, his arms strong and firm as they tensed against her back and neck.  His heart was beating rapidly and Galené reveled in the furious life of it, pulling him closer to her, a moan escaping her lips.  His desire was radiating from him and she wanted to take that strength and add it to her own.  She wanted this man, wanted to know him, wanted him to know her completely.  She leaned into the kiss this time, her fingers skimming through his hair.

He drew back slightly and his fingers settled on her jaw.  Slow, even breathing whispered over her lips.  Unhurriedly, deliberately, while she shivered in anticipation, he touched her with tiny kisses, on her eyes, her cheeks, finding her lips for a moment and then moving to her neck.  He laid a kiss of utter tenderness in the hollow of her throat and her legs buckled as desire robbed her body of strength.  They stared at each other, the need in her eyes matching his own.  His body was hot against hers.  Tendrils of her hair began working at the buttons of his shirt.  

His hands came up and began slowly traveling down her arms, trapping her hands in his, bending her arms behind her back.  Releasing one hand, slowly, sensuously he slipped the chiton off one shoulder, teasingly leaving the other alone while his mouth began a slow exploration of her skin.  The world was spell-cast, all reason gone, both of them being pulled to a destination from which there was no escape. 

You know that we are still deciding his fate, goddess.  This conquest is ill advised.  

A familiar warning, one she had heard before.  To disobey would mean only one thing. 

Closing her eyes, she pushed him violently away, her heart crumbling, turning over in her chest.  “How dare you!  No one touches a goddess without her permission!”

“What are you talking about?”  Anger was mounting on his features.  “Seems to me it was you that--”

“Silence!  Nereids belong to the sea, Admiral.  We are not playthings of mortal men.”

“Never would I ever consider you a plaything!”

“Oh, how easy it is to say that now!  Were you kissing the goddess just then, or was it Victoria Wynn?”

"Just you!"

"Who?  Just who would that be?"  Her face grew stony.  “Admiral Nelson, return to the boat.  And if you think you don't have to obey, you would be very wrong.  I'll be along shortly.”

The curt dismissal hit home.  Nelson whirled and stabbed the call button and the elevator door opened immediately.  Once inside he turned and met her eyes.  She almost stepped back at the cold fury she saw in them.

“You've done this twice.  There won't be a third time,” he said grimly.

“Duly noted.”

He stabbed at the button inside and the door slid closed.

Groaning, Galené rolled over and pressed her back to the door, and closed her eyes.  Perhaps, if she’d made it plainer that it was as the goddess, and not the human... stop it, Galene, you’re getting as bad as he is!  She deeply regretted her part in his frustration.  But how to tell someone that whether they lived or died was being debated, that capricious gods had decided it would be amusing to argue that a man such as he was not important enough to be saved.  What good was her protection, then?  What good was she to anyone?   

There was a small splash from the sea.

“You know better than this, Galené.”

“Spare me the lectures, sister.”

Eukranté shimmered upwards until she was towering over her sister goddess.  It made Galené look very small, and the downward tilting of her head made her appear even smaller, no strength in her limbs.  She did not look up even when Eukranté burst out, “You cannot allow yourself to have feelings for this human, Galené!  Your only obligation is to save his life, if the fates decree.  If not--”

“--I have told him, and I will tell you -- he is not dying on my watch.  Anything else I feel... well, as you can see, I think we will all be spared any continuation of that scenario.” 

They disappeared together.

* * * * *

Vicky knocked on the admiral’s cabin door and announced her name.  Lee opened the door.

“Glad to see you again, Lieutenant,” Crane said, glancing apprehensively at the admiral, who was seated at the desk writing.  The pen stilled for a second, and then the scratching resumed.  Lee’s eyebrows went up in a silent questioning stare at her, and he put his hand on her wrist.  She covered it with her own hand, grateful for his support. 

The phone on the desk rang.  Automatically she took two quick steps and reached for it at the same time as the admiral, and their hands met.  He pulled back as if he’d been stung and Vicky picked up the receiver, her chin coming up.  “Your bad manners are showing again, Admiral,” she scolded.  “Yes?”  She listened for a few seconds and held the phone out towards Nelson.  “For you, sir.  Dr. Greer.”

He took it without looking at her and said, “Sheldon!  I hope that ridiculous trial is over at last.”  A smile began forming on his lips as he listened to the voice coming from the phone.  “Wonderful news!  What's that?  William Cavendish is sponsoring a reception for you?  Will he be there?  Splendid.  Yes, yes, put my name down on the guest list.  Yes, I know how to get to his estate.  Tomorrow at 4:00 PM.  Fine, Sheldon, and congratulations again.  No, no, you're welcome.  Glad to help.” 

Vicky and Lee exchanged looks.  Vicky said flatly, “You can't go.”

“Of course I'm going!  The judge threw the case out of court.  I need to congratulate Sheldon in person.  And I've been trying to interest William Cavendish in one of my research projects for ages.  The attempt to mine the seas must be thoroughly researched and all the facts made known before any work begins.  The Cavendish Company can fund that, and more.  He's throwing a party for Sheldon.  I may not have another chance to talk to him for months.”

“Dunning will find out about this.  He'll be waiting.”

“Protect me, then.  You're a goddess, right?  Prove it,” he bit out harshly.

“Admiral…”  Lee began, haltingly, ready to step in again to settle another argument.    

Nelson held up a hand.  “No, Lee, all she's done since she's been here is inform us about her supreme ability to protect me.  Now’s the time to prove it.”

No longer bothering to sound like Vicky, she said, “Oh, I shall.  No doubt tomorrow.”  She motioned at Lee.  “Captain Crane, outside, please.”  Throwing a smirk back at Nelson she went straight through the door.  Lee opened it and confronted her outside. 

“Vicky, what can I do--”

“I'm done with talking, Captain.  I’ll meet you two at the party.  Dunning will be there, never doubt that.  This little game will soon be over.”

There was nothing he could say to that.    

Calm certainty came over her features.  “Trust me, Captain, it’s the choice Vicky would make, too.  We've all got choices, and I've made the right one.  That's all anyone can ask, of a god or a man.  See you tomorrow.” 


CHAPTER SIX

 

Too bad about this guy being his size; he needed the uniform.

Dunning pulled the dead waiter into a storage closet and shut the door.  He wouldn't be found for hours.  He was not pleased that this new piece of information about Nelson's whereabouts had cost him his whole advance from the Giacomo hit, but since that hadn't gone off too well, it didn't matter.  He'd kill Nelson, then go and find Giacomo again.  It was only a matter of time, for both of them.

* * * * *

The valet getting ready to open the car door jumped a little when the female voice sounded in his ear.  “Next one’s mine, if ya please.” 

Where had she come from?  He stepped aside, his face a study in bewilderment, the look quickly fading as he re-focused on the need to keep the line of vehicles entering the Cavendish event moving along quickly.  “Sure, lady, whatever you say.”

Vicky smiled at him and waited for the Institute’s car to roll to a stop.  The passenger doors opened, and it was Lee who got out on the side she was facing.   

Lee's eyes warmed at her outfit, a light summer dress of white silk covered by a jacket of sapphire blue.  Her hair was pulled tight into a ponytail that hung far down her back.

“You look wonderful, Vicky.”

“Thank you, Commander.  It's nice to see y'all out of uniform.  That includes you, too, Admiral.  That's a very pretty jacket.“  Both men were dressed casually in slacks and blazers.  Nelson stood out especially in an expensive camel's-hair blazer that complemented his cream-colored shirt and tan slacks.  Lee had chosen a combination of navy blue slacks and jacket, and grey shirt.  “You've got that stinky granny look on your face, though.  I'd suggest dealin' with that before you get inside.  Nobody will want to talk to you.”

“What?”  Nelson looked from her to Lee, who was staring up into space and clenching his jaw to keep from laughing.  “What did you just say?”

“Nothin', Admiral.  Jest having a little fun.  It's a party, ain't it?  Fight’s over and we’ve fought to a draw, seems to me.  I know you didn't mean all those nasty things you said.  I accept your apology,” she said innocently. 

No words, just noises came from the admiral.

“Jest as I thought.”  She took Lee by the arm and smiled at both of them.  “It's a beautiful Santa Barbara day.  No place I'd rather be then with two such handsome gentleman.  No place,” she said, her voice softening, knowing the truth of her statement. 

The huge Montecito estate owned by the wealthy industrialist and entrepreneur William Cavendish was filled with partygoers.  They had just walked into the expanse of the gardens when a tall, overly suntanned man strode up, hand outstretched and too white teeth flashing.

“Admiral Nelson!  I'm William Cavendish,” he roared, shaking hands.

“Nice to meet you at last.  Thanks for the invitation.”

“Not at all, not at all.”  The words were directed at Nelson, but it was Vicky he was looking at.  “Well, you've certainly brought along a beautiful addition to our little party.  And just who might you be, my dear?”

Vicky's lip curled.  “My name is Victoria Wynn.  I'm a Lieutenant in the United States Navy.  And Admiral Nelson's bodyguard.”

“Well, well, feisty aren't we.  My congratulations, Admiral on your good fortune to have such a delightful companion.  Have a nice time, you two.”  He chuckled and turned to greet more guests.

Vicky's eyes bored into his back as he walked away.  “Sure you can't find your funding some other way?” 

Nelson began looking for Dr. Greer.  There would be no ruminating about the assassin.  Too many people here, too much security; Dunning would never take the chance.  Speaking of security….  He looked down at Vicky, watching her, her head turning from side to side.  He'd regretted the words said in anger at their last meeting the moment he'd said them.  She wasn't dying on his watch, either.  If Dunning needed a target, Harry would make sure he'd find this one alone.

“There's Sheldon.  If you don't mind, I'd like to speak to him in private!”  It came out gruffer than he intended, and he saw the flash of anger appear in her eyes, followed by grim determination. 

“Be my guest, Admiral.  You jest go along.  I'll visit here with Commander Crane.”

 

* * * * *

“Was it crazy, coming to this party?”

Vicky stopped a waiter walking by and lifted two glasses of champagne off his tray, passing one to Lee.  “Yep, but he's not interested in being told not to do somethin' at the moment.”  She raised her glass in a salute.  “Sir, I want to tell yah, it was a pleasure workin' with you this past week.”

“Must you make it sound so final?”  He said the words so quietly they seemed to disappear into the air.

“It is final.  Dunning didn't know what he was gettin' into, when he messed with Admiral Nelson.  He needs to be stopped.  I'm glad it's worked out this way.  And it's time to let go of Vicky, and be myself again.”  She took a sip of champagne and added quickly, “Listen to me, soundin' all sappy.  This whole business has brought out the worst in me, I swear.”  She set her glass down and then his and took his hands, squeezing them tight. “Captain Crane, you're a fine officer, a gentleman, and the best captain Seaview will ever have.  I asked you before to keep her safe, and you're doing a fine job.  Just continue taking care of her, her crew and the ol' grump, when he'll let you.”  Her hands moved to his face and rested there for a moment.  “A different time, a different place, perhaps,” she said softly.  “Now, please excuse me.  There was something about that waiter... it's time to go to work.”

She turned and quickly walked off before Lee could say anything else.  He watched her move directly to Nelson's side, greet Dr. Greer and then say something into the admiral's ear, at the same time drawing him away into a corner of the grounds.  Lee realized Vicky was setting the two of them up for a confrontation.  He touched his cheek where her hand had rested.  There had to be something he could do. 

The gardens were very crowded, and Lee began circling in the opposite direction, searching for the man who had offered them champagne.

* * * * *

She looked up into Nelson's eyes, sensing his concern for her safety.  Her hand clamped down on his wrist and held on tight, and it was in Galené's voice that she spoke.  ““Please don't do anything to put yourself in danger.   You're safe, you'll always be safe when I'm around.  No, don't say anything.  Just listen.”  She reached up and put her free hand around his neck and drew him closer to her, her lips next to his ear.  “I never want you to go away angry from me, ever.  “You mean too much to me, I--”   She stopped and gently placed a kiss on his cheek, and whispered softly, “He's here.”

The waiter at his side said, “A glass of the bubbly, sir?” 

Vicky heard the abrupt intake of breath from the man she had sworn to protect.  Her hand started to creep toward her jacket as Nelson spoke.  

“No mustache and wig today?”

“Not today, Admiral.  No, lady, don’t even think about going for yours.  There’s a small but very deadly weapon pointing at your gut right underneath this tray.”  Dunning glanced about quickly, then shifted his stance until he was standing in front of them, looking at Galené as she glared at him.  “My, my, you have managed to pick up a pretty bodyguard.  Just put your sweet little hands into your pockets, honey, and you'll be fine.”

Vicky did as the assassin instructed her.  “Mr. Dunning, you've just made your last mistake.”  His arrogance would be her ally.  She needed to keep him talking, needed him to stand there for a few moments more. 

Have you decided?  You must decide!

Not yet, goddess.  There is time.

You're wrong.

“You know my name,” Dunning said, his eyes narrowing.  “How inconvenient for you.  Now, we're all going to walk over to that gate over there, and go to the parking lot.”

“No,” Nelson stated flatly.  “If you want to kill me, you'll have to do it in front of all these witnesses.”

Damn!   Of course he wouldn't cooperate.  She could see Lee a dozen yards or so away take notice.  She utilized one of her powers to keep him where he was.

“I'm not averse to shooting a whole lot of people at this party.  And I'm quite capable of disappearing in a big hurry.  It's one of my most amazing traits.  But a little privacy is never amiss.”  Dunning shifted the tray slightly.  “You don't come along, I'll kill her first.”

Nelson didn't hesitate.  “Lead the way, Dunning.”  He put a hand on Vicky's shoulder and made to push her away. 

She made a scoffing noise.  “Oh, I don't think so.  That dog won't hunt, Dunning.”  She moved forward and stood an inch from the tray, forcing Nelson to step back.  “So you jest go ahead and shoot me, 'cause I'm sure as hell gonna shoot you.”  Her right hand rose up in her pocket.

They both fired at the same time.   

Vicky's body slammed back into the admiral's, and as Nelson went down with her he saw the utter shock on the assassin's face as he folded at the knees, tray flying and the gun falling from his hand.  Freed from his immobility, Lee raced to Dunning's side and kicked the weapon away. 

Chaos erupted all around him, but the admiral wasn't hearing it or seeing it.  All he was aware of was the girl he was clutching who was holding her hands to her chest, taking short breaths.  He pulled out from underneath her and bent forward, eyes searching her face.  She looked up and smiled.

“I was right; the Astra it was.  Fool figgered I was stupid, wouldn't have 'nother gun.  Is he dead?”

“I, I think so.”  Nelson looked over at Lee, who nodded.  On his knees himself now, Lee scrambled over and pressed down on the girl's hands.

“God, I couldn't move!   Damn, why did you do that?”  Lee asked urgently.

“Don't think your admiral would 'preciate your gettin' killed, Captain.”  Blood began to trickle from her mouth, and her eyes bored into Nelson's.  “Tell 'em, in the desk at my 'partment, letters.  Y'all take--”  One more breath, and she was gone.  

Lee stopped pressing and sat back, shoulders falling.  Admiral Nelson looked up, into a cloudless blue sky, and then back down.  Without a sound, he gathered the crumpled body into his arms.

 


CHAPTER SEVEN

 

Both men were exhausted when they returned to the boat.  The Santa Barbara PD interview had seemed to take forever, and then they'd had to deal with both the FBI and Naval Intelligence.  Dunning was dead.  So was Lieutenant Victoria Wynn.  Lee had heard that the news had been broken to the First Lady, who had taken it very hard. 

Lee looked down at his hands.  “If I hadn't had to wash the blood off, I'd say this was all a bad dream.”  He rubbed his face, stubble catching on his palm. 

The admiral sat slumped over his desk, his face grey, his eyes lifeless.  The dried blood on his shirt was a livid reminder of her death.  No, not her death.  Vicky’s maybe, not Galené’s.  Even as he had sat there holding Vicky’s lifeless body in his arms, he had reminded himself that she wasn’t dead, couldn’t be.  She was a goddess, for Christ’s sake!  Thus they had expected to see her any second, expected to see a sign that she was alive, but there had been nothing.  Not a whisper, not a sound. 

“I can't believe she lied to us.  Why?  I'll never understand it.”  Nelson ran a hand through his hair, and with the same hand began an angry movement toward his desk.  “Damn it, Lee, where is she?”

He never made it.  A thick swatch of gray-green hair appeared out of the air and clasped his hand, and Galené giggled as they looked up at her in astonishment, surprise and joy flashing over their features.  She was floating gently above the floor, her thick curls spiraling around her in undulating waves. 

“You know, you two really shouldn't look so gloomy.  I'm immortal, how many times do I have to say that?”

Lee found his voice first.  “But it's been hours!”

“It might have seemed that way to you, but it's been but a few moments for me.” 

She would not tell them that the Moraie were very angry that she had acted to save Nelson's life without their consent.  The summons to Olympus to address her indiscretion had taken her away far longer than anticipated.  Zeus had made gruff noises about a punishment, but he had liked Vicky.  Galené had escaped with one of his patented scoldings.  “I had to make sure they got into her apartment and found everything.  There were little notes, notes that Vicky was planning to send when she got back from her trip.  Those will be read now.”  Her wise eyes became introspective as she tilted her head up and sighed heavily.  Contemplation faded into amusement as she said, “I also like to take souvenirs with me.  Vicky had some beautiful jewelry.”  Then she looked over at the Admiral, and smiled a tiny smile.  “Give us a few minutes, won't you, Captain?”

Lee saw the look that passed between them, nodded and stood up.  “Thank you, Galené.”  Glancing significantly at the admiral, he added, “for everything.” 

She waited until he had closed the door softly after him before turning back.  “I'm sorry I couldn't come to you right away.  Sometimes things can't be helped.  Are you alright?”

Nelson rose to his feet.  “I am now.” 

Her feet settled on the floor and she went into his arms, sighing, her body curving into his.  The tenseness in her body and eyes left her as he went over every detail of her face.  Up close, the subtle green coloring of her skin softened the starkness of her steel blue eyes.  Her hair was almost still, tiny ringlets moving delicately to a dance of their own.  He raised a hand and passed it over her cheek, and felt her quiver.  He was going to miss Vicky, miss hearing that happy voice.  He had come too close to falling in love with her.  But she had been a façade; the real woman was here.  He put Vicky away from him forever, and concentrated on the woman he had in his arms.  Hugging her tight, he planted a kiss on her forehead and said, “You gave us quite a scare, lass.”

“Lass!  I'm no lass!  I am Galené, daughter of Nerus, the goddess of calm seas!  A girl I certainly am not!”

“No.  A woman, to whom I owe my life.”

“I believe I told you, Admiral.  No one dies on my watch.”

“You did tell me that.  It's a responsibility I find hard to accept.  And would it be too much to ask you to call me Harry?  Admiral Nelson is much too formal.  I'd like to think we've gone beyond formal.”

She laughed at him gently, nodding her head up and down.  You are my sworn charge, Harry.  A task I accepted gladly.  There is nothing more important than to see that you, the Seaview, and her men are kept safe.  And since that's been taken care of for a while, I'll be going.”

“What?  But--”

“--Do you really want me underfoot?  That would take a lot of explaining.”

“Why not?” 

She disentangled herself and stood out of arm's length, frowning, not meeting his eyes.  “Who do you see, Harry?  Who are you looking at?”

“I see a beautiful woman that I care for deeply.”

Her heart soared, but she answered calmly.  “I wish with all my heart that that was all I was.  But this goddess has responsibilities and demands that cannot be overlooked.  When I am called by others, I must answer.  Of all people, you should understand that.” 

He took her hands and pulled her to him.  “I do.  Doing my duty has cost me a lot.  Is it going to cost me you, too?”

“'Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind; and therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.'   When you need me again, I'll come.”  It was not what she wanted, but he would be safe.  She could not run the risk of the gods toying with him.  Wait for a while, wait until their attention was drawn to something else.  Then... she would follow her heart, and never mind the consequences.

“But--”  Her chin came up in the way that he was rapidly coming to know, and he cast any further argument aside.  “I'll accept this.  For now.  That quote...Shakespeare got it right, didn't he?”

“Every time.”  She pulled his head down and pressed her lips upon his, blotting out all light and all thought.  Then she was out of his arms, floating backwards until she was far enough away to do a swan dive and disappear through the deck.

Nelson returned to his desk, staring straight ahead for a long moment.  He slowly realized his hand was resting on the scholarship applications he'd picked up over a week ago now, paperwork that had been too long neglected.  This was work to be done, duty to be attended to.  Smoothing his hair back and straightening his tie, Admiral Nelson picked up his pen.

 

 

“”Oh!  Duty is an icy shadow. It cannot fill the heart’s sanctuary.”

Augusta Evans, Beulah, ch. 13.

 

 

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