“War seems like a fine adventure, the greatest most will ever know. Then they get a taste of battle. And one day they look around and realize all their friends are gone, that they are fighting beside strangers beneath a banner that they hardly recognize. And the knights come down on them, faceless men clad in all steel, and the iron thunder of their charge seems to fill the world.” ― George R.R. Martin, A Feast for Crows
She felt the undulations in the captain’s bed. It was delicious revelry in between sleep and awake as the ship rose and fell like a galloping mare underneath her. Gloria looked out the portal into the waning day reflected on the broken surface of the sea. There was comfort in the isolation of seeing nothing but water as it stretched out toward the horizon. There was security in not knowing what lurked beneath or above.
The smell of coffee and bread warming in the galley roused her. Gloria stretched, inhaled the enticing aromas, and rose from the bed. The captain’s T-shirt caught in the curve of her back revealing her backside to the light that filtered through the portal. She made her way to the galley to find the captain of the ship and master of her sequestered heart.
“Ah, I see you are awake. Come on in and have the last dinner with an old sailor.”
Gloria slid across the cushion of the bench seat at the table as Raul lifted two loaves of bread from the oven and set the pan on top of the stove. He went back to fiddle with a glass globe and a bunsen burner under it.
“You certainly don’t act old in bed,” Gloria mused.
“Oh, that. The seas were a little rough last night. I was just trying to hold on and not get thrown onto the floor.”
Gloria laughed at Raul’s mischievous grin. His playfulness seemed out of place with his rugged features and usual scowl.
“What is that contraption you’re showing so much love to? I think I’m jealous of it.”
“The finest coffee maker the world has seen fit to provide,” Raul replied like a magician showing off his magic box.
“Oh, stop trying to woo me with all your sexy talk and pour me a cup,” Gloria scolded.
Gloria feigned irritation in her voice, but her eyes glistened as she watched her lover attend his coffee maker like a mad scientist. She carefully considered asking him to join her on the mission. A twinge of regret went through her at the thought of leaving him again. His strength and cunning made him a valuable ally and kept her nights from being so lonely. Convincing Raul to leave his beloved ship would pit him against his love for her, the ship, and his desire for open water away from the confines of civilization.
Raul poured two cups of coffee and gave one to Gloria then cut the loaves of bread and added the ingredients for a sandwich. He placed the sandwiches on the table and sat across from Gloria, who was busy savoring the warmth and smell of the coffee.
“We should hit the coast in about three hours. Do you have a contact?” Raul asked.
Gloria nodded and washed down her food with more coffee.
“Tamari is meeting me just inside the treeline if we manage to make landfall in the right spot.”
“Have no fear, my love. The nav-system takes its job seriously. It will deliver you right where you ask it to.” Raul winked and took another bite of his sandwich.
“Raul, what will you do after you drop me off?”
Raul looked for a long moment at the woman across the table. The look in her eyes questioned him with their pain and the quiet suffering on her face was not the Dragon Warrior he knew. He had never known Gloria to show such unease before.
“I’ll go back to Romania. Constanta has a small harbor north of the port. I love the Old Town and all its decay. The Hotel Ibis is nearby overlooking the beach area. I’ll wait there for the signal to pick you up.”
Gloria looked down at her coffee, lifted the cup to her lips and looked over the top of her cup at the only man she could trust. She took a long sip letting the warm liquid sooth her throat giving her a moment to find her voice.
“I want you to come with me. I need you.”
“I’m not the gladiator I used to be. Hell, my knees hurt just climbing the stairs to the pilothouse.”
“We won’t be doing much stair climbing.” Gloria coaxed with pleading eyes.
“What about the ship?” Raul’s concern was evident.
“You can send it to a spot outside the shipping lanes and have it wait until we call it back.”
“Very well. Tell me about what you’d have me do on this vacation. You can start by telling me where we’re going.” Raul did not sound at all like he was ready to leave his solitary life behind for a trip across hundreds of miles of rugged territory.
“We’re headed to Astana in Kazakhstan to meet a contact. The connection will give us a dossier on our target.” Gloria’s demeanor switched instantly to the cold professional she always was when she focused on her job. It was time for business, and all her vulnerabilities were suddenly tucked away behind a facade of confidence.
Raul’s jovial nature evaporated. His penetrating stare fixed Gloria in place as he leaned closer. Gloria felt his intensity on her skin and paused to let the sensation pass before she continued.
“Tamari will escort us through Georgia and Azerbaijan to Baku. We’ll catch another vessel to cross the Caspian Sea to Aktau on the coast of Kazakhstan, pick up another escort team and make a series of hops across the open steppes to Astana. We’ll avoid alerting the Cybrids by staying away from the main routes.”
“What will the dossier do for us.” Raul’s questions sounded like an interrogation. Gloria felt the deep rumble of his voice in the pit of her stomach. The rawness of her captain made her desire him even more.
“We’ll get all the intel on our target. Routes in, routes out and action in the areas of ingress and egress. Also, the dossier will have a list of safe houses, secondary roads, contacts and steps to take if compromised. We won’t know much until we get there. That keeps us from giving up too much information if we’re caught and tortured.”
“I don’t hold up well under torture anymore, my love. As soon as they ask, I’m giving up your bra size, so they don’t beat me.”
“Then I’ll beat you.” Gloria mused.
“On second thought, I’ll just take it as the good sea captain I am and stay quiet.
“That’s a good boy. I’ve trained you well.”
Raul laughed as Gloria sipped her coffee and smirked at him with wet lips.
“So, are we going after a single decapitation or a group?” Raul was serious again.
“The primary is the Cybrid leader of the rebel group that organized most of the resistance in the area. Kazakhstan has a limited number of Dragons, so they called me to do the hit to keep the focus off of them.”
“Who’s the secondary?”
“Members of the primary’s staff and support personnel.”
Satisfied he knew enough for the moment he offered his hand. Gloria held his hand as he helped her up from the bench.
“Come, my love. Let us watch the sunset from the flying bridge before we prepare for landfall.”
Gloria looked at Raul and saw the yearning in his eyes. She felt drawn to his lips as his hands cupped her bare bottom and pressed her tight against him. She couldn’t think of attack angles and weapon choices with Raul’s hands sending hot flashes through her skin forcing her to inhale as her heart thumped against his chest. Gloria closed her eyes and let him have his way. She knew there were too few of these moments left in what remained of their lives.
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