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By Lindsay McKenna
Wheeler PublishingCopyright © 2006 Lindsay McKenna
All right reserved.
AGENT ELLEN TANNER HOPED she didn't throw up. A licensed psychotherapist, she realized yet again that she didn't always have neat, tidy emotions. This was disconcerting to her, but reality.
As she almost ran down the white-tiled hall, Ellen juggled her black briefcase and her bulky knapsack. She ignored the California palm trees outside the window. She was going to be late!
It was the first day on her new job — her new life. Commander Dornier, the commanding officer of JAG in the area, had kept her a little too long on the first floor of the building, regaling her with stories. She'd been assigned to the office of the Judge Advocate General at the San Diego Naval Station. She was to go to a second-floor office in Building 56 and introduce herself to her new JAG cohort, Lieutenant Jim Cochrane.
Ellen discovered the naval station sat on some of Southern California's most valuable real estate. Too bad Building 56 didn't afford a view of San Diego Bay, or the fourteen piers that housed every variety of modern naval ship, from Spruance class destroyers, Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyers, to state-of-the-art killing machines known as Aegis class cruisers. Aircraft carriers also used the busy facility, which employed forty-five thousand navaland civilian personnel. A two-star admiral was in command of this military beehive of perpetual activity. How would Lieutenant Cochrane react to her? Breathless, Ellen searched for office 204 and tried to control her frazzled emotions. At thirty-two, she realized she had to make the most of this unexpected opportunity. After a hellish and bleak two years, she couldn't stand the thought of not succeeding at this new job. Gulping, she skidded to a halt in front of room 204. Lifting her hand, her anxiety mingled with hope and dread, Ellen knocked.
At the polite knock at the door, Cochrane snarled across his shoulder, "I'm taking no prisoners today." Without looking up, he spread open the first file's contents. He leaned back in the protesting chair until it struck the reference table, wobbled slightly and then stabilized to bear his weight. He had no appointments until this afternoon, and with the mood he was in, maybe the person on the other side of his door would get the message to leave him the hell alone.
But then Cochrane heard the door open. Frowning, he let the chair thunk down. It creaked in protest as he turned to see who had come in without invitation. His eyes widened. A petite woman in her early thirties, with curly red hair framing her face, stared back at him. Her eyes were a willow-green color, reminding him of the soft spring leaves on the huge old willow near his family's homestead in Possum Holler. He felt a tug in his heart — a strange reaction to have to a stranger, he figured. He was two years into a nasty divorce that had left him raw and swearing he would never look at another woman again, or even begin to entertain the idea of a second marriage.
The woman was obviously a civilian, since everyone in his world wore a standard Navy-issue uniform. This woman's narrow denim skirt outlined her slender hips and extended to just above her thin ankles. Her Birkenstock sandals wouldn't qualify as proper foot gear in the U.S. Navy, much less the Chinese Navy.
His gaze ranged upward. She wore a loose white lacy blouse and long, beaded ear bobs, both of which underscored her femininity. Cochrane mentally corrected himself; his Missouri Ozarks upbringing was showing again. They were called earrings, not ear bobs. A very old, brown leather knapsack hung across her right shoulder. The words rainbow child and hippie crossed his mind.
"Yes?" he barked, knowing it wasn't very polite, but not caring.
"Lieutenant Jim Cochrane?" Ellen's heart banged away in her chest. The man did not look happy to see her. Despite his scowl, Ellen admitted he was very handsome. Probably in his thirties, if she was any judge. "Reckon you've got him. What do you want?" Jim tried to ignore the warmth in her eyes — and the way his heart thudded once in reaction to her. Maybe he shouldn't sound so darn hard and crusty. She seemed like an innocent sheep wandering into a wolf's lair.
Ellen smiled nervously and placed her briefcase on his cluttered reference table. She shrugged out of the knapsack and set it down on the floor next to her. Fingers trembling, she began to rummage around in the briefcase. The officer's glare unnerved her. She hadn't expected this kind of a welcome.
"I'm Agent Ellen Tanner. I'm from Washington, D.C. I work for the Office of Inspector General, Department of Defense. I'll be your new partner." As she handed him her credentials, their fingers met accidentally. His were warm; she knew hers were icy with anxiety.
Cochrane had the urge to laugh hysterically, because someone had to be playing a joke on him. He bet this was the work of Lieutenant Eric Hillyer, another legal eagle in the JAG office. That little road apple was always rigging up some type of practical gag. Hillyer assumed Jim was lonely and pining for a woman and a relationship. This was probably his meddling, an effort to fix him up. No way.
Cochrane decided to play along, and took the identification case from her long, delicate fingers. He tried to ignore the way his fingertips brushed hers, and how he enjoyed the sensation a little too much. The photo ID of Ellen Tanner repeated all the official information she'd just imparted. Looking up at her slightly flushed face, he handed it back to her. She seemed friendly and was obviously trying to put him at ease.
"Now, Miss OIG, what's this all about? You must be a joke. What could the DOD possibly want with the likes of poor ole me?"
"I've been accused of being a joker from time to time, Lieutenant, but not a joke. Certainly someone told you I was coming?" Ellen dropped the badge case back into her briefcase. What was wrong with this guy?
"Coming? No, they didn't," Jim answered tightly. Her briefcase slid to one side before she caught it and proceeded to snap it closed. He had to stop himself from reaching out and helping her. It was a natural reaction in him to help a woman, but the divorce had left him jaded and hard. Or so he'd thought — until now. With her. This hapless redhead. Jim was stymied by his powerful emotional response to Ellen Tanner. It left him feeling dazed. No woman had ever snagged his attention like this. What the hell was wrong with him?
Shifting the strap of the knapsack back onto her left shoulder, Ellen said, "I can show you my travel orders, Lieutenant." Maybe he was one of them: a bean counter, someone who dotted every last i and crossed every last t. Ellen didn't think that was a bad thing except if carried too far. She saw Cochrane give her a wary look, his intense gray gaze assessing her with a careful scrutiny he probably used in his courtroom trials. His hair was black, cut military short and emphasizing his pallor. Obviously, he didn't see much of the sun. A real indoor desk jockey, perhaps.
"That's not necessary, Ms. Tanner."
Casting a look around, Ellen said, "Didn't your C.O., Commander Dornier, notify you of my arrival? JAG caseloads need outside support due to the increased number of staff being assigned to Iraq and Afghanistan." Tilting her head, she gazed into his face. "I'm here to be of help to you, Lieutenant." She saw his eyes widen in shock. Wide-set, intelligent gray eyes that would just as soon turn her to stone. Great... Her heart sank. He was not pleased at all.
Jim sat rigidly in the chair, afraid to believe his ears. He couldn't speak. Frowning, he rubbed his chest where his heart thudded. Hard. And not from any joyous revelation. Well...maybe it was. What on earth was going on? He shouldn't be drawn to her.
Ellen nervously touched a few errant strands of her crinkly red hair. "Lieutenant? Did you hear me?"
"I heard you." He saw her face go soft with pity — for him. Oh, balls of fire! Every time she looked at him, his heart lurched as if he were a lovesick teenager. Jim felt as if someone had just slugged him and he was reeling from the blow.
"You've seen the newspapers," she reminded him.
"There's been a lot of good reservist people leaving the service."
Grimly, he nodded. No kidding, he wanted to say. But he didn't trust himself to speak. In fact, he hadn't trusted anyone for the past two years. His career had gone from brilliant to shit, and he was still struggling to get out of the tub of the latter and back into the good graces of his superior.
"I think you've got me mixed up with someone else, Agent Tanner. I reckon I am plowed under, but..." He swept his hand toward his messy desk, piled high with the files of legal cases begging for his attention. "As you can see, I'm up to my rear end in jaw-snapping alligators right now. But it's nothing I can't handle on my own." Liar, liar, pants on fire. He tried to give her his best dour look to convey that he knew what the hell he was talking about. Did it work?
The nerve of this dude! Ellen bit down on her lower lip and counted to five before she spoke. "I see you've got a lot of work, Lieutenant Cochrane. My orders clearly state I'm to work with you. Perhaps you should talk to your immediate superior and get this confusion straightened out so we're both on the same page?"
Her voice was firm and pleasant, but it grated across his raw, exposed nerves. Unwinding his long, lean frame from the creaky chair, Jim muttered, "Stay put. I'll try to find out who you're to work with." Gulping hard, he stood there battling the shock over her arrival.
"Sure..." Ellen supposed she should take his attitude personally, but she refused to do that. Mr. Cochrane had problems and they weren't hers. He was going to try and get rid of her before she was even on board! Well, shoot! And here she'd thought a change of location would help her savaged emotional state.
Jim moved down the passageway — as far away as he could from this greenhorn who was supposed to be an OIG agent. She didn't look businesslike at all, much less capable. Now, if he'd met her at a bar or something, he'd be interested. But here? No way. As Cochrane strode along the highly polished tiled corridor, he passed the legal offices on his left. To his right were the yeomen and personnel clerks, all busy at their gray metal, standard-issue desks.
He tried to get a handle on his emotions. Was Tanner right? He was going to get civilian help? That would add insult to injury. He fervently hoped not. Commander Leo Dornier, his commanding officer, had a large, windowed office at the end of the second floor. Built like a bulldog, Dornier was in his early fifties. His face was a series of circles: apple dumpling cheeks that were always flushed a dull red, a round chin, and a mouth that turned downward toward the sides of his jaw.
Excerpted from Silent Witness by Lindsay McKenna Copyright © 2006 by Lindsay McKenna. Excerpted by permission.
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