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He was much too young for her. Eight years too young, according to his military record.
Off-limits for her.
And there was the fact that he worked for her. This was the U.S. Navy, not a daytime soap opera, so rank was huge.
And she, a Naval Academy grad, knew better than to entertain such thoughts as her and him getting way cozier than regulations allowed. Especially given their current circumstances. The tragedy, the trauma, the grief she was supposed to be focusing on.
But grief, so foreign to her relatively calm life, did strange things to her. Such as lust after inappropriate men.
It wouldn't have been quite so disturbing if she'd kept the fantasies on a purely sexual level. That would have been normal given that she was a woman with a healthy libido and he was nearly six feet of golden-haired, bronze-skinned, blue-eyed perfection.
But no, when she let her mind wander into forbidden territory, the images were often cozy, domestic vignettes of her and Ensign Drew MacLeod frolicking on a beach or playing around while cooking, acting like a couple in a clichéd romantic comedy. Her fantasies were dangerously close to the kind that meant she was falling into something more than lust with the oblivious younger man. Because he'd never shown a sign of being aware of her as anything more than his boss. He'd always behaved respectfully and properly. As had she in real life, if not in her mind.
Lieutenant Commander Kylie Thomas tore her gaze from the man she'd been daydreaming about regularly for the past year since he'd been transferred to her officeand dreaming of almost nonstop since theirordeal a week agothen forced herself to focus on the therapist, Judith, who was leading their group counseling session.
"I'd like all of you to close your eyes and visualize yourselves in a peaceful place," Judith said. "Perhaps in a field of flowers, or on a mountaintop or in a comfortable chair by a fireplace. Find an image that soothes you, and go there . Breathe deeply, in and out in and out "
Kylie had never been in therapy before, and already, five minutes into her first session, she hated it. How the hell would flowers or fireplaces help her accept her failure to perform in a critical moment? It couldn't. Nothing could except working her ass off to regain the confidence of her superiors.
Stifling a sigh, she closed her eyes. The first image that came to mind was that old bumper sticker that read Visualize Whirled Peas.
A giggle erupted from her throat, and she fought to prevent any more from escaping. She had a problem with inappropriate laughter, as well as inappropriate fantasies, apparently. Inexplicable laughter had bubbled out on several inopportune occasions since the shooting.
The other three people in the session glanced at her, perplexed, and she covered her mouth.
"I'm sorry," she whispered when she'd regained control. "I've been doing that a lot lately. The laughing, I mean. I was just thinking of that bumper sticker Visualize Whirled Peas. I guess when you said visualize it triggered the memory and, you know, peas are so far from mountains I just found it funny."
Oh dear God, she was rambling now, making no sense.
Judith nodded and saved Kylie from herself as everyone else in the group stared at her as if she'd lost her mind.
"Stress and grief can evoke highly emotional responses that may not seem appropriate to us. It's often our body's way of releasing the stress in a way that feels most natural, safe. Laughter, as a physical response, really isn't so different from crying."
Judith made a point of looking at each person in the circle of chairs, bestowing her gaze on them in soothing little dosesfirst Ensign MacLeod, then Chief Jones, then Lieutenant Humphrey, then Kylie. This all seemed so contrived to Kylie, so let's-holdhands-and-sing-"Kumbaya." This touchy-feely stuff was so unlike the rule and regulation-loving Navy that it surprised her the survivors of the shooting had been ordered into this mandatory counseling. Leave it to the military to micromanage the grief process.
Still, mandatory counseling was at least more appropriate than nursing a crush on her subordinate, the one who'd been involved in the most horrific event of her life.
Tomorrow, she'd be here again for an individual therapy session, and she wondered if she'd have the courage to admit her crush. Would she be able to confess she'd been unable to stop imagining them as a couple after those moments alone in that office. There probably was some psychological explanation for the fantasies, but she wasn't sure she wanted to hear it.
In spite of the counselor's soothing words, everyone seemed to be a little ill at ease after Kylie's giggling outburst, so Judith guided them toward talking.
"Has anyone else experienced what seems like an inappropriate response to the trauma you've experienced?" She looked slowly around the room again, waiting for responses.
Chief Jones cleared his throat, but said nothing.
Okay, so Kylie was the only nut job in the room.
Or perhaps she was the one with the most incentive to avoid facing her grief, since she'd been responsible for those who'd died. Four of her subordinates. One civilian and three sailors. She'd stood by and watched them die. She'd been powerless to stop it.
Four funerals attended. Six children now grieving the loss of parents. Countless people's lives affected.
When she wasn't engaging in shameful escapist fantasies or laughing at inopportune moments, she was seized by a pain so intense it was beyond her ability to cope.
"Let's start by going around the room and taking turns talking for a few minutes about whatever is on your mind. If you've got a question or issue you'd like to ask the group, you may do that, as well."
Everyone murmured assent.
"We'll start with you, Drew. What's been going on with you since the shooting?"
Kylie watched as he shifted in his hard, green plastic seat. He glanced down at his lap and smoothed his faded jeans along his thighs.
"I've been having trouble sleeping," he said. "I close my eyes and see the shooting happening all over again. I keep thinking how I could have done things differently and maybe saved someone."
"Those are common symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder," Judith said. "It sounds as if you felt powerless during the attack."
Drew's expression turned dark. "Yeah, I guess I did."
"Hey, man, if it wasn't for you, we might have all been dead," Lieutenant Humphrey said.
Drew shook his head.
"Hard as it may be to do, it's important to hang on to positive thoughts during this time." Judith spoke directly to Drew before including the other group members. "When you feel your thoughts going in a negative direction, when you begin to berate yourself for what you could have done differentlytry to think of something you have control over or something you did that you can feel proud of instead."
Everyone was silent, and Kylie imagined they were all resisting the encouragement to feel proud about anything in the face of their coworkers'deaths. Clearly Judith had not been there.
Kylie squeezed her eyes shut tight and bit her lip, another wave of giggles threatening to burst out of her at how ridiculous the therapist sounded. Feel proud? Yeah, right. But even mentally mocking Judith didn't ease Kylie's urge to laugh. If she didn't laugh, she'd cry. And if she started crying, she was afraid she wouldn't be able to stop.
And female Navy lieutenant commanders did not ever, ever, ever cry in front of their people.
"Kylie, would you like to take a turn now at talking a bit about what you've been going through?"
Kylie's gaze connected with Judith's, and the sudden pressure to participate without unleashing her inner grief and while showing the leadership and control demanded of her rank effectively eliminated her laughter.
"Okay," Kylie said. "I guess I've been having the opposite problem of Ensign MacLeod. I avoid thinking about what happened, and I find myself daydreaming too much. Thinking about things I shouldn't, just to keep from having to dwell on the shooting."
"What sorts of things do you daydream about?"
Kylie felt herself blush. She hadn't intended to confess to the fantasizing right here and now, but the words had escaped anyway.
"You know, it's sort of like how you were telling us to imagine ourselves in a calm, peaceful place. Like in a field of flowers or something. I keep imagining myself content and living out normal domestic scenes. Only happier. Like I'm starring in a movie about my life."
"And does this bother you?"
"Well, yeah. I should be thinking about what happened. They were good people and they deserve my attention my respect all the time. It was so tragic, it feels wrong to think about anything else. And that's all I dothink about other stuff."
"It's natural to avoid thinking about things our emotional self has trouble processing."
Kylie avoided Judith's gaze. "Yeah, I guess so."
"Isn't it interesting that you're naturally doing what I've advised Drew to doto think positive thoughts? It's a self-preservation mechanism."
"But isn't it just avoidance?"
"I suggest you allow yourself to think about what happened only as much as you feel you can handle at any given time. Perhaps in individual therapy sessions with me to support you and no audience will be a safer environment for you."
Kylie nodded, though her insides seized at the thought of breaking down and letting out what was building up inside her. Shame, terror, griefall of it too big and loud to let out in front of anyone.
Four funerals and one memorial service attended, her eyes had remained dry through each one. She was a coward in ways she'd never imagined, because she couldn't face the demons inside herself any more than she could face the challenge of the demons walking around in the world.
Lieutenant Humphrey was talking now, and she owed him her focus. He was talking about things he'd seen, feelings he'd had that day . He could have been talking for her, their experiences had been so similar.
But her mind refused to cooperate. She pretended to pay attention, while in her mind, the movie began to play again.
A sunny beach. A warm, tropical breeze. Skin bare in the sun. Flesh cooled while sinking into the water, waves lapping at her belly Drew's hands on her, teasing her, pleasing her, arousing her, pulling her farther toward the surf. His mouth, gentle and demanding at the same time, kissing her, then finding all the places that ached for his attention .
"C'mon man, keep going. Don't be a quitter."
The cruel hand pressing down against the middle of Drew's back disappeared, and his muscles screamed for him to stop. Pain gave way to intense burning, and sweat dripped from his brow onto the wood floor beneath him.
Ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred. After the last push-up, he collapsed onto his stomach, his arms jelly after having done all but the last five reps with his buddy Justin pressing extra weight on his back.
Now one hundred sit-ups and he'd be done with his warm-up and ready for his ten mile run. Channeling his energy into training for the S.E.A.L. test was all that kept him sane lately.
"On your back," Justin ordered, and Drew forced himself over and into the sit-up position. Justin planted himself on Drew's feet to hold them still.
"When you make the S.E.A.L. team, I expect you to repay me with many beers, man."
Drew ignored him and began the exercise while Justin counted reps. Justin was a S.E.A.L., and he'd been acting as Drew's coach for the past three months. And since the shooting, he'd been at Drew's side every day, urging him to stay busy. To keep his mind off what it worked over endlessly whenever he was alone or idle. Hell, he'd owe Justin a hell of a lot more than alcohol if he made the team.