First to Burn

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Join my heroine Theresa, an Army doctor, for dinner after a frustrating encounter in the gym with the Special Forces detachment at Camp Cadwalader, Afghanistan:


After six months in-country, Theresa ranked the lavish mess hall food provided by Black and Swan contractors on par with cold med school pizza. Crispy shrimp, loaded burgers, and surf-n-turf were better than the chicken breasts she cooked, but she missed her empty apartment fridge in Texas. At least when she opened it after a night on call, the half-and-half carton and jar of olives were hers.

While she stopped at the dining hall entrance for the mandatory weapon safety check, a soldier exited and the cold burst of air-conditioning brought the promise of dinner. Tuesday’s meal rotation included the one item she still desired: deep-fried chicken cordon bleu. She usually substituted salad for fries, but no monthly weigh-in could make her give up cordon bleu.

Inside the metal building, she headed for the hot line as the server slipped the last golden mound to the private in front of her. She hadn’t run four miles on a treadmill for iceberg lettuce. “Excuse me, are there more?”

“Two minutes, ma’am.”                                                                                        

A green tray slid behind hers on the line. “Are they bringing another pan?”

Theresa glanced at the speaker and froze. This close, his eyes were as compelling as they had been across the gym, but now she could see brown and amber flecks around the iris—a rare combination that gave depth to the blue—and a star-shaped scar on his left temple that she hadn’t catalogued earlier. She imagined he’d hit a corner of a board or rock and left it unstitched.

She broke the stare and read his name tape. Wardsen.

“You!” She studied his body. Feet planted firmly on the floor, weight distributed evenly without favoring a leg. His uniform pants stretched across his thighs and tapered down his calves to tuck into tan boots. Nothing in his posture hinted at a concealed injury. She raised her eyes to his chest, and he obligingly took a deep breath. The line of his shirt across his shoulders didn’t appear to hide evidence of bandaging. When he’d been wearing less clothing in the gym, she hadn’t seen bulky wrappings, but then she hadn’t known he was the elusive Staff Sergeant Wulf Wardsen.

“Would you like to check my teeth?”

She snapped her gaze to his face and collided with his smile. It transformed him from a carving of a thunder god into a heartthrob.

“You give a thorough exam, Doc.”

“You weren’t shot!” Her heart rate notched up as she prepared for a second confrontation.

“Good to know.” He lifted an eyebrow, its toffee color darker than his hair.

Her eyes narrowed. “Why did medevac report you?”

“I didn’t realize they had.”

“Then what are you hiding?” He must have overheard her exchange with Chris, but he wasn’t making it easy to argue with him.

“Nothing.” His smile didn’t budge, his eyes didn’t shift, his expression didn’t flicker.

“I will find out what’s going on.” She focused on the small, steady beat at his neck. His skin didn’t have the ruddy tone of most fair-colored people, as if the stones of Afghanistan had scoured away any hint of pink long ago. Blond hairs showed above the neck of his T-shirt. Unlike the rest of him, they looked silky soft. “The flight medic got reamed by my commander. Whatever you’re up to, other people are paying for it, so knock it off.”

“Understood.” He nudged his tray until it touched hers. “Are you going to keep holding up the line?”

She turned her shoulder to cover her embarrassment. First she’d stared at him like he was a particularly succulent entrée, then she’d chewed him out. “I’m waiting for cordon bleu.”

“That one?” He nodded at a plate sitting on the serving hood.

Grabbing it, she turned to the salad bar. As she piled lettuce and cherry tomatoes on her plate, the hair on her arms stood up, letting her know he’d lingered.

“Captain Chiesa.” He put the correct Italian spin on her name, pronouncing the first sound like “key” instead of “chee.”

She concentrated to avoid spilling salad dressing. Having him watch her made her hands not work the way she intended.

“About that misunderstanding in the gym.”

“What misunderstanding?” She set the vinaigrette next to the other bottles. Her palms were slippery, but she didn’t want to wipe her hands on her pants in front of him, so she gripped her tray and hoped it wouldn’t drop.

“Captain Deavers came down a little hard.” He looked at the floor as if struggling with how much to say. “I’m sorry. The team’s sorry.”

It sounded like a genuine I’m sorry, and her stomach muscles unclenched, the tension replaced by a feeling almost like the euphoria that came from eating dinner after having missed lunch. Sergeant Wardsen had apologized for the humiliation she’d felt talking to a bunch of men’s rears.

“He’s receiving rough email from his wife. She’s not coping well alone with their new baby. He’s worried she has…post-partum depression?” He said the words as if using a foreign language guidebook.

“Thank you for telling me.” The awareness that Chris had bigger problems, and yet she’d hounded him about medical records, embarrassed her enough that she wanted to slink into a hole darker than Tora Bora. To be successful in private medical practice next year, she’d have to clue in better to patients’ unspoken needs. “Maybe I can help?”