12. A Little R & R

(A UFO Story)

written by Denise Felt

copyright 2001

ACT I

Lt. Dave Johnson walked into the reception sphere on Moonbase and said over his shoulder, "So the second alien answers and says, Whatever he's having."

There came a deep chuckle behind him, and Michael Sarek entered the room. Tall and muscular, the Solarian stood out in the small sphere and dwarfed the thin blonde man in front of him. Gay thought for a moment as she stood by the other doorway that Michael's long auburn hair and close beard made him seem like a pirate on the open seas. It was enough to make a woman catch her breath. She came forward to shake his hand. "Lt. Sarek, welcome to Moonbase," she said.

He held her hand gently but firmly, while his hazel eyes gazed intently at her face. "You're Lt. Ellis," he said in a deep, velvety voice.

"Yes," she said, feeling oddly breathless at meeting his eyes.

"I have seen you," he told her quietly, "on the monitors in SHADO Control. They do not do you justice."

She felt herself blushing. "Thank you," she said and realized her hand was still resting in his. She snatched it away quickly, then felt stupid for being so gauche. God, what was wrong with her?

Lt. Johnson came over and clapped the Solarian on the back. "Come on, Mike," he said. "I'll show you where you're quartered."

Gay released the breath she'd been holding only after they'd left the room. Commander Straker had urged her to make the lieutenant feel a part of the Moonbase team, and she had been certain that such a request would not be a problem. From the report on him that she had read, Lt. Sarek seemed to be very easy-going. And even though he was from a technologically advanced race, he had experienced no difficulty adjusting to SHADO's equipment and procedures in the past seven months. In fact, the commander had said that he seemed determined to fit in. So she had not anticipated any problems when he came to Moonbase.

But she hadn't expected to act like a tongue-tied schoolgirl around him either. She was definitely going to have to get a handle on that. What an idiot he must think her!

* * *

Straker touched the tiny petals of one of the miniature roses in the small vase on his HQ desk, smiling softly as he remembered yesterday in the garden. He'd been in his study going through scripts when he had looked up and seen his wife through the window sitting on the garden seat. She had been asleep, her head resting against the trellis of climbing roses. He'd gotten up from his desk and gone to her, unbearably aroused by the sight of her among the delicate roses. He'd awakened her with kisses...

He was still smiling when his office door opened and the Carlins came in.

"Good morning, you two," he said, waving them into the chairs in front of the desk. "How was your trip?"

Peter smiled as he seated his wife, then took the other chair. "Great, sir. The king and queen send you their best."

"And how are Cedric and Lotsen?"

Callista answered. "They are in health, Straker. My mother wanted me to let you know that the seeds Sheila brought her have produced some lovely flowers. She has been very excited by them."

The commander said, "I'm glad. If they grow as well as the seeds the queen gave us, she'll need another arboretum. I can't figure out whether it's the soil or Sheila's green thumb, but they're taking over our greenhouse."

Peter grinned. "Like triffids, sir?"

Straker sent him a wry glance. "Let's hope not." He sat forward in his chair. "Well, Colonel? Anything to report?"

Peter nodded. "Quite a bit, sir. Do you remember Morita?"

The commander frowned in thought. "I think so. Wasn't she the communications officer who helped us set up the radio link?"

"Yes. She has formally requested that she and a few of her colleagues be allowed the opportunity to work at SHADO." At Straker's raised brows, he handed over a videotape. "We taped her request for you, so that you could judge for yourself. And Cedric says that he'll go along with whatever decision you make."

"I'm amazed," Straker murmured. And he was. What could have brought about such a change of attitude in the xenophobic Malorans?

Col. Carlin explained, "I think our going there nearly two years ago started something, sir. Cedric says that several citizens have desired to know more about what's happening on the surface ever since that time. And a few of them have even wanted to pay us a visit. He discouraged them as much as possible, knowing that our culture isn't really prepared for the concept of aliens. But the requests continue. It wasn't until Morita suggested working at SHADO, however, that he felt it necessary to tell us about it."

Straker held the tape in his hands, eager to view its contents. "Well, it certainly will make things interesting," he said. "Do you think they're ready for a change, Callista?"

She smiled. "Yes, I do. Your father told me that the original group of Malorans that came here were explorers. Maybe the trip took it all out of their systems, or maybe when they got here, they couldn't take that last step. I do not know, and our records do not say. But they didn't explore any further than the ocean floor. It may have taken several centuries, but that explorer's trait seems to be returning now that we've made contact with the surface. I think it's wonderful."

"I agree. How soon is your father expecting an answer?"

Callista said, "Whenever you are ready to give him one. There's no rush. He said to tell you that he understands the need to proceed with caution."

Straker grinned. "Good. Well, you've certainly given me a lot to think about. Peter, I look forward to reading your full report."

"Yes, sir," the colonel grinned in return.

Callista stayed her husband as he went to get up, and he settled back into his chair. "Straker," she said diffidently, "I too am interested in working at SHADO."

"Oh?" he replied, intrigued.

She nodded. "The childcare center has asked if I would be willing to work there part time."

He sat forward. "I remember Miss Francis saying how much the children enjoyed your stories. I think it's a fine idea, Callista. That is, as long as Peter doesn't mind."

Col. Carlin shook his head. "I don't have a problem with it, sir. And with our second one on the way, it'll actually make things easier for us."

Straker smiled. "Congratulations. On the job and the baby."

"Thank you, Straker," she said.

* * *

When Sheila walked into her office, Delores Freeman got up from behind her computer terminal and took her arm, steering her back out again. "Let's take a walk," she suggested.

Her superior grimaced and said, "Do I look that bad?"

Dee chuckled. "Worse!"

Sheila sighed, but accompanied her up the elevator to the surface without argument. They walked past the studio buildings in companionable silence, heading toward the back lot. They'd traveled this road many times in the past few months, and Dee knew where to go. She glanced at her friend closely as they went; she was a little worried about her. "Sheila, are you sure Dr. Jackson isn't pushing you too hard?"

Sheila met her concerned gaze for a moment. "No, I don't think so. It has to be dealt with, Dee." She shrugged. "Actually, I think we made a breakthrough today. He told me we could go to once a month sessions from now on."

Dee Freeman grinned in relief. "That's great! Did he say why?"

They had reached the park by this time. Sheila thought for a while, leaning against the railing of the small bridge. Finally she said, "I think he was looking for something, and today he realized he wasn't going to find it."

Delores was confused. "What?"

"Well, with rape and torture there's always so much rage and anger to deal with. And he's been pretty hard on me there, trying I think to see what lies beneath it."

"Ah!" Dee said. "The core."

Sheila met her eyes and smiled. "Yes. And the thing is, I don't even have a lot of surface hostility to work out, because I exorcised that by first killing Ming, then organizing the resistance movement. So, I guess the doctor felt that I must be holding it all inside."

"When in fact, it wasn't that bad."

"Yeah."

Dee said, "I know what you mean. I was very angry until I pushed my old boyfriend's sports car into the ravine. After that, I was just fine." They grinned at each other.

"Justice is so sweet," Sheila murmured.

"You got it!" Dee sighed. "But it still took a lot of counseling to get past the core of the pain."

Sheila nodded. "I think that's what he was expecting. Only there's nothing there, Dee."

Delores was surprised. "Nothing?"

"It's weird," her friend said. "But I suppose it's because of Eddie. I could never really hate Ming completely, you see, because of Eddie. If I hadn't gone through what I did, he never would have been born. And I can't regret that; I can't be sorry it happened. No matter what I had to go through to get him."

"No, I guess you couldn't," Dee said with a small smile as she rubbed her rounded stomach. "Babies do have a way of changing the way we think." After a few minutes, she asked tentatively, "How does Ed feel about all of it?"

Sheila smiled softly. "He's been so wonderful. And he's really opened up about things now that I know the truth. I think he's just so relieved that I didn't have to be put away!"

"There was never a question of that, was there?" Dee asked, startled.

"I don't know," Sheila answered. "I have a feeling that Ed thought it could happen. And I suppose it wasn't completely out of the question." She looked out over the trees for a moment. "But he says that he can't be sorry that I had Eddie either. He just wishes he could have met him."

"What a neat thing to say!"

Sheila nodded, clearing her throat before she could continue. "Yeah. He's like that." She turned to her friend at the railing. "Did you ever tell Alec about your old boyfriend?"

Dee said, "You mean, about Todd raping me? Yeah. Actually, we had a long talk after you had your first session with Dr. Jackson. Alec was worried about you, and somehow we got to talking about what happened to me, as well."

"How did he take it?"

Delores laughed. "He was furious! It was so hard on him to not be able to do anything about it. He wanted to find Todd and beat the hell out of him." They grinned at each other. "Anyway, he's such a dragonslayer, it unnerved him that he couldn't rescue me from the dragons of my past. You know?"

Sheila murmured, "I think dragonslayer is a good term. It describes both Ed and Alec rather well, doesn't it?"

Dee sighed. "Our white knights." Then she added, "Although I'd say Alec's armor is a little grayer than Ed's." She chuckled. "Anyway, it has helped me to be able to talk to you about it, Sheila. Somehow, helping you deal with your trauma has made mine easier, as well."

"I'm glad." Sheila stared into the stream for a while, considering. Eventually she said, "I suppose the biggest proof we ever get in life that there's a God is when everything goes bad."

Delores thought about that for a moment. "I would think it would be just the opposite."

"No. It's too easy to discount when everything's peachy, Dee. We can say it's coincidence, a run of luck, or something stupid like that. But when everything goes wrong and we still come out of it okay, even stronger than before sometimes, how can we possibly doubt that we had some help to get through?"

Dee grinned. "You're right. I like it. The gospel according to Sheila."

Sheila laughed.

* * *

"I wonder why he picked the name Michael?" Nina asked as she waited for the download to finish at her terminal.

Gay shook her head, leaning against the center console. "I don't know. But it suits him somehow."

"Is he handsome?" Nina wanted to know.

Gay sighed. "I don't think handsome quite describes him."

"Really?"

Lt. Ellis remained thoughtful. "Col. Foster is what I would consider handsome. And Lt. Sarek isn't like that."

Nina Rogers rested her chin on her hand, gazing intently at her friend. "Okay. Does he strike you as similar to anyone else?"

Gay said, "Not really. Col. Freeman is dashing, and Col. Carlin is sexy in a serious sort of way. Michael's not like either of them."

Nina grinned. "What about the commander?"

Gay met her eyes and grimaced. "Commander Straker is gorgeous. Just being in the same room with him makes you go all fluttery inside. But Michael isn't like that either. He's sort of... I don't know. It's like I can hardly catch my breath when I look at him. And his voice...!"

Lt. Rogers laughed. "You're hooked!"

"No, I'm not," Gay frowned. "It's just... hormones, I guess. Nothing serious."

"Oh," Nina said, hiding a smile. "I see."





ACT II

"You know I hate these things," he said, taking the hairbrush from her hands and brushing her long hair for her as she sat before the mirror.

Sheila closed her eyes, enjoying the sensuous feel of the brush through her hair. "I know," she murmured. "You're not a social animal."

"That's right. So, why are we going?"

She opened her eyes and looked at her husband in the mirror. "Because I am a social animal, Ed. Besides, you always have a good time once you're there."

"I suppose."

She tilted her head slightly to the side. "Then what's the problem?"

He leaned in close and whispered into her ear. "I'm not ready to share you."

Sheila shivered at his words and met his deep blue eyes in the mirror. "We're already dressed," she said weakly.

He took her hands and led her toward the bed. "And? We can get dressed again. You know how much I enjoy watching you dress."

She sighed. "We'll be late."

He sat on the side of the bed and brought her close, beginning to unbutton her blouse. "And?"

Sheila gave up and ran her hands through his beautiful hair. "And everyone will know why."

"Hmmm," he murmured, kissing her flat stomach. "That's too bad."

She gave the soft gurgle of laughter that made his heart ache with pure joy. "Oh, Ed!"

* * *

Dave Johnson moved his knight. "So, how is chess played on Solaria?" he asked.

"On a globe," Michael answered absently, frowning at the board for a moment before making his move.

"No kidding? That sounds intense."

The Solarian looked up at his friend with a grin. "It can be. Especially if you're playing against a sagamore."

"What's that?" Dave said as he picked up his queen.

"It's a who, not a what," Michael explained. "A sagamore is an undefeated champion of chess. They don't take too kindly to losing."

Dave chuckled. "So you just let them win?"

Lt. Sarek shrugged. "It depends."

"On what?"

"On whether you think you can beat them in hand to hand combat."

Lt. Johnson shook his head. "You guys take your games seriously."

Michael grinned as he moved his bishop. "Well, you're lucky. I don't consider chess anything more than just a game."

Dave looked at the board after his friend's move and sighed. "It wouldn't matter. You still always end up winning. I concede. You'll have me checkmated in three more moves."

Michael's grin widened. "Actually, in two. But who's counting?" He looked up as Lt. Ellis entered Central Park. His voice deepened. "Hello."

She tried not to blush as she responded. "Hello, Lt. Sarek. David."

Dave was putting the chess pieces back in their box. "Hello, Gay. Is the crew done with the foundation for the other base yet? I thought I'd take Mike over to the site and show him around."

"That's fine. And no, they're not done yet. But it's getting pretty close. It has really helped speed things up to already have this base here. Moonbase 2 is going up a lot faster than this one did. Commander Straker hopes to be able to start operations there by the end of next year."

"That soon?" he answered. "That's great. Are you heading off your shift?"

She nodded. "Yes. It's been a long day." She stopped at the doorway to the sleep sphere and turned to look at them. "Oh, and David? Take Lunar Mobile 2, will you? We've been having trouble with the radio in Number 1."

"Right."

She left the room, realizing as she went down the corridor that she'd been holding her breath again. She had felt Michael's eyes on her the entire time she'd been talking to David. What was it about the man that made her feel so edgy? Nervy? Giddy?

* * *

"Excited?"

"Oh, yeah," Paul answered, wiggling a finger in front of Kathy as she lay quietly in her father's arms. "I never thought I'd want kids, but now that we've got one on the way, I can't wait."

Straker smiled as his daughter grabbed Paul's finger with a firm grip and tried to stuff it into her mouth. "Your wife seems to be pleased about it."

"She is." Paul smiled over at the women who were laughing while clearing up the table. There was just something about seeing the three of them together that made his heart feel full. There was his wife, his wild and surprisingly gentle Jolena. Then there was Sheila, so gorgeous and so sweet. She would always be his image of the ideal woman. And then there was Ginny, his very best female friend. She knew him almost as well as Jo did. How had he been lucky enough to have such wonderful women in his life? He glanced at the man next to him and decided that the time had come to try to explain a few things. "I never hated you, you know," he said quietly.

Straker met his eyes for a moment. "No?"

Paul reclaimed his finger from Kathy and picked up his drink. "I knew you and Sheila belonged together from the very beginning. I just had some trouble accepting it. She seemed to be everything I'd ever wanted."

Straker adjusted his hold on Kathy, laying her over his shoulder so that she could look around. "And you don't think so any more?"

Paul shrugged. "Jo's more of what I need. And I know I'm what she needs. With Sheila... I don't know. I was never sure I had her full attention."

"With Sheila," Straker explained, "you have to find ways to attract her interest. She's got a brilliant mind and it's difficult sometimes to get it to focus on anything less fascinating than quantum physics."

Paul grinned as he noticed Sheila giving her husband a smile from across the yard. "You don't seem to have any problem."

Straker sent a soft smile back to his wife and replied, "I try." He looked at Foster for a moment, then said, "I do understand how you feel about her, Paul."

"Oh?"

"You and she are a lot alike."

Paul looked at him. "What do you mean?"

"You're both outgoing, friendly. You have similar interests; flying, music. You like excitement, being around people, dancing; that sort of thing."

"I suppose." Paul wondered where he was going with this.

Straker said, "Most men can consider themselves fortunate to even meet their mate, Paul. You've met not only your mate, but your feminine equal as well."

Paul thought about it for a few minutes. Finally he said, "So, I'm extra blessed. Is that it?"

"That's one way of looking at it."

"Does it bother you?"

Straker sighed. "Sometimes. Not as much as it used to."

Paul glanced at him from under his brows. "We were never lovers, you know."

Those piercing blue eyes met his. "I know. But it's not really that."

"What is it then?"

Straker frowned, trying to put it into words. "She's different around you. It's as though you bring out a side of her that I don't get to see. And it worries me at times."

Paul grinned. "Well, you and I have very different personalities. So that's bound to affect the way she responds to each of us. But you shouldn't worry about it. She's obviously very happy with you."

"Thank you, Paul."

Chris joined them, bouncing his son up and down on his arm. "Megan's down. Now if I can just convince Matt that he'd like a nap."

Straker gazed into Matthew's alert blue eyes for a moment. "Good luck," he told his brother.

Chris grimaced. "You know, I was so excited about twins. The whole idea sounded like a win-win situation. Now I know better. It just means that you get to be inundated with babies 24 hours a day. Because they never sleep at the same time. I wonder how many years it'll be before I catch up on my rest?"

Paul laughed. "About eighteen, Chris."

"Yeah, that's what I'm afraid of."

* * *

"So, have you told him yet?"

Sheila looked at her sister-in-law. "No. I'm saving it for our vacation to Boston. There are a few things we need to discuss, and I want his undivided attention when we do."

Jo put the lid on the salad and said, "That sounds ominous. What has he done now?"

"Oh, nothing new," Sheila said. "It's just that I've put a few things together, and I want to let him know that I know what he's been up to."

Ginny laughed. "God, it must be a real trip being married to him! I mean, that devious mind of his has got to just make you want to strangle him at times."

"Often," Sheila agreed with a grin. "But there are compensations. I mean, just look at him."

The three women admired the sight of their formidable commander holding his baby daughter while he talked with the men across the yard. Jo said, "He is dreamy, all right."

Sheila laughed as she scooped up dishes. "Yes. And a wonderful father. I'm glad we work different shifts or I'd never get to hold her."

Ginny said, "Chris and I don't have that problem. You should have had twins, Sheila."

"Are you kidding? He'd be holding both of them. Ed loves children."

Ginny shook her head. "It's a side of him I never knew existed," she admitted.

"Frankly, he's full of surprises," Jo said with a naughty grin. "I mean, who would ever imagine a stickler like him arriving late for get- togethers?"

The other two laughed. Sheila said, "He only does that because Paul's here."

"Oh?" Jo asked with raised brows.

Ginny gave a short laugh. "My God, Sheila! You're right! You guys are always on time whenever you come over for dinner. It's just when Paul and Jo are invited too that you end up coming late. What's the deal?"

"It's all a part of that devious mind you mentioned," Sheila answered. "Ed never has only one reason for doing things."

"Even making love?" Jo asked incredulously.

Sheila grinned wickedly. "Well, I have been known to catch him off guard once or twice. But usually, no. He always has a plan in mind."

Ginny asked curiously, "What plan?"

"Well, it's sort of built up in layers," his wife explained. "His uppermost reason for making us late tonight was the one he told me, that he didn't want to share me with anyone else."

"That's so sweet," Ginny said with a sigh.

"Right," Sheila said dryly. "But under that reason was his territorialism where Paul is concerned. He wants to make sure that Paul knows that I am kept too busy to be interested in him."

Jo gave a crack of laughter. "Sheila, has it occurred to your crazy husband that Paul is happily married?"

"I don't think he considers that an ample deterrent, Jo."

"Good God!"

Sheila gave her a quick hug. "One of these days, he's bound to get over his jealousy, Jo. But for now he's rather like a starved dog with a bone. He's extremely territorial about it."

Jo shook her head. "How do you stand it?"

Sheila shrugged. "Because I know it has nothing to do with my faithfulness. Or even Paul's. It's just something Ed hasn't gotten over yet. And it'll take time."

"So, okay," Ginny said. "Was there another reason for you being late tonight?"

"Oh, sure," Sheila answered. "Several more."

"I can't believe this," her sister-in-law murmured. "He's really that devious?"

Sheila cocked her head to the side, giving Ginny a look. "You've worked for him how long?"

Virginia laughed. "Okay! You're right. So what are some of the other reasons?"

"Well, there's his need for physical contact."

Jo frowned. "You mean desire?"

"Yes," Sheila said. "But it's more than just that. Ed doesn't go for grand declarations or displays of passion like some guys do. He conveys what he's feeling by the way he touches. And touching is very important to him."

"Who'd have guessed?" Ginny asked, amazed at this glimpse of their commanding officer.

Sheila grinned. "Well, Ginny. It shouldn't have been hard. Quiet men have a tendency to find other ways to communicate." She shrugged. "Ed's just really good at nonverbal communication."

Ginny nearly lost her grip on the plates as she laughed. She waited until everything was safely loaded into the dish washer before saying, "Does he really consider all these things when making love to you?"

"Absolutely," Sheila replied. "But don't get me wrong. He's not cold- blooded about it. He's just working on several levels at once, is all."

"And that doesn't bother you?" Jo asked curiously, unable to imagine Paul plotting more than their mutual pleasure during sex.

"Normally, no. It's exciting to know that he devotes so much thought to our lovemaking. I appreciate how thorough he is. How could I complain about that?"

Ginny grinned. "You've got a point. It must be a Straker family trait or something. Chris is always very serious about sex. And he's never serious about anything!"

Jo tried to see Paul making love without his usual crooked grin. "You mean, he doesn't laugh or crack a smile?"

"Oh, no. He smiles," Ginny said. "It's just that you can tell that he wouldn't dream of not giving it his full attention. Complete satisfaction is his code." She gave a wicked grin. "And I'm not complaining either!"

"Actually, Ginny," Sheila said, "It's not just a Straker thing. It's a Maloran thing. Ed told me that they take sex very seriously in their culture."

"No kidding? I like that idea."

"So how many levels is Ed working on when you have sex, Sheila?" Jo asked.

"I'd have to say at least six or so. I don't have him pegged completely by any means. But I learn a bit more about him every day."

"Six?" Virginia asked incredulously. "What are the other reasons?"

Sheila smiled softly. "There's his very real love and affection for me. That falls in there somewhere."

Jo said, "Well, I knew it had to be in there sooner or later, Sheila. It's the one thing that he never even tries to hide. He adores you, girl."

"Yeah."

Virginia and Jo exchanged grins at Sheila's faraway look. Ginny said, "So what's reason number five?"

Sheila looked over at her as they headed back outside. "His desire for more children. Ed's one of a very few men I've met that actually wants a large family. He's such a sucker for kids. It blows me away, because you'd never think it to look at him."

"Then he'll be happy with your news then," Virginia said.

Sheila nodded in agreement. "At least, until I corner him on what he's been up to."

"And what's that?" Jo asked.

Sheila looked a bit grimly at her husband as they crossed the lawn. "That's reason number six, and I just figured it out today."

"Well, what is it?" Jo asked impatiently.

Sheila only shook her head.

Ginny lifted a brow. "You're not going to tell us?"

Sheila's smile was still a bit grim as they joined the men. "I'll keep you posted."



ACT III

"You'll be glad to know, Eddie, that Carl approves of your new wife," Sandy told him as she pulled the cookies out of the oven. In fact, she remembered that he had spoken of little else on the flight back after the wedding.

"Oh?" Straker reached for a macaroon off the pan, uncaring that he burnt his fingers. Sandy tsked at him, but he just smiled and popped it into his mouth. There was nothing so delectable as hot cookies.

The housekeeper nodded. "He says that Sheila was made for you." She seemed disappointed when he did nothing more than nod in agreement. "Well?"

He lifted a brow at her. "Well, what?"

She looked exasperated. "Is she?"

He grinned. "In every way, Sandy. Tell Carl that he's right again."

She gave a sigh. "I wonder what it must be like to know everything?"

Straker laughed. "I wouldn't know. Do you think Carl will tell us?"

Sandy chuckled. "Of course not. He enjoys being mysterious too much." She swatted halfheartedly at him as he reached for another macaroon. "You'll spoil your dinner!"

"Sandy, will you always see me as a five year old?"

"Of course, Eddie," she answered with a wink. "When you start acting like a man, I promise to treat you as one."

He shook his head at her. "Five year olds aren't fathers."

"Oh, Eddie!" she said as she loaded up the cookie jar on the counter. "Your little girl is so adorable!"

He grabbed another cookie before she emptied the pan. "I think so too. She looks just like her mother."

"She's got your eyes, though," the housekeeper corrected.

"Which made Sheila happy," he replied. "Personally, I think brown eyes are prettier."

"That's as it should be," Sandy said. "But she'll have all the boys chasing after her one of these days, blue eyes or not."

Straker gave a mock shudder. "Not yet, Sandy. Please! She's only a few months old. I can't be worrying about dating and boyfriends while we're still concerned with diaper rash and night feedings."

She grinned. "It'll be here sooner than you think, Eddie. Then what will you do?"

"I have no idea."

The housekeeper handed him one last cookie before closing the jar. "Well, I'll let you in on a little secret. Your father admitted once how thankful he was that you were both boys. I don't think he knew what to do with teenage girls either."

Straker chewed thoughtfully on the cookie. "Maybe we should ask Carl."

* * *

"You've made him very happy."

Sheila smiled at him as he held his granddaughter. "I like to think so, Andrew," she said. "It's a personal goal of mine to ensure that he laughs at least once a day."

He chuckled. "Well, that's a worthy goal, my dear. But I wasn't talking about humor."

"I know." She drew up her knees onto the chair and put her arms around them. "But it's important just the same. His work takes so much out of him. And life hasn't treated him too kindly either. It means a lot to me when I can get him to relax." She took a breath. "He deserves all the happiness I can give him."

He met her eyes and frowned slightly at her tone. "It's not your job, Sheila, to make up that bad marriage to him. Ed made his own choices, and he's accepted the consequences of them."

She sighed. "I met her, you know." At his lifted brow, she continued. "I'm glad I did, really. I wondered often if I was anything like her. If he found me similar to her in any way. You know what I mean."

"And?"

She rested her chin on her knees. "And it eased my mind a lot to realize that we're nothing alike."

"Good." Andrew tickled Kathy's tummy and watched her smile at him. Then he looked back at Sheila. "I'm so thankful that he finally met his mate. He didn't believe me when I tried to tell him that he would someday. But then, he was always so certain that he had things all figured out."

"Well, I can see why he might think that," she mused. "He's not often wrong. Andrew," she asked after a few minutes, "was Katherine your mate?"

He shook his head. "No, my dear. Lenore was."

"It must have been so difficult for you to leave her."

He met her eyes and nodded tightly at the compassion he saw there. "It was. If it hadn't been for my boys, I don't know if I would have survived the trip. It felt as though my heart had been ripped out of my chest."

She gazed at him quietly for a while as he played with the baby. Then she said softly, "Then what was Katherine to you? It's obvious that you loved her very much."

Andrew sighed. "Yes. She was so special. When we came up out of the bay and saw her standing there, I knew everything would be all right. We were on an alien planet with an alien culture and no way to go home. But suddenly I knew we'd be fine."

"It was love at first sight?"

He frowned. "In a way. Not like it was with Lenore, of course. But it was as though we knew each other, understood each other from the very beginning. Kathy often said that when she looked in my eyes, she saw a reflection of herself. It was like that with us."

"That's so beautiful."

"I've always felt so fortunate to have known her. She had such a great influence on my life. We had so few years together, less than ten in all, but I was closer to her in ways that I never was with my first wife."

Sheila frowned in thought. "So, being a mate doesn't necessarily guarantee that you're perfect for each other."

"Oh, yes," he answered. "Your mate is the perfect one for you. But I think fate sometimes sends you a second chance--- an almost-mate, if you will--- when your mate is dead."

"But you said that Katherine was actually better for you than Lenore."

"Yes, but that had nothing to do with being or not being my mate. It had to do with time. Lenore and I had even fewer years together than Kathy and I did. And although Lenore was their mother, Kathy was the one who helped me raise the boys. So our experiences bound us together in ways that Lenore and I never got to enjoy. And in the end, I loved Kathy more because our love had those years to grow. Even though she wasn't my mate."

Sheila was silent for a long time. Then she looked over at her father-in- law and asked, "So in theory, Ed has someone out there who would be a possible replacement for me, if I should die."

"In theory, yes," he agreed, bouncing Kathy gently. "And you do, as well. If something happened to him ."

"Plan B," she murmured.

Andrew chuckled. "Exactly, my dear."

* * *

Nina looked up from her food tray when Lt. Sarek entered the sphere. "Hello, Lieutenant."

He favored her with a smile. "Hello. Lt. Rogers, isn't it?" He came over to where they sat and shook her hand. "I met your husband about a month ago on the set of Encounters. He's a fine man."

"Thank you," she replied. "He thought you were an interesting fellow."

His smile widened. "It's a shame he'll never know how interesting I really am." He turned to Gay sitting across the table from Nina. "Hello, Lt. Ellis. Since you're nearly finished with your meal, perhaps you can recommend one for me to try. Dave told me to definitely check out the Cajun meal, which tells me that I want to stay well away from that one."

Gay got up and went to the display wall, needing to get some distance from him. He was simply too close next to the table. She pointed to the Oriental meal. "This one is my favorite. It's not too spicy, like the Cajun meal is, but also not as bland as the English meal. You might like it."

He came over to her and punched the button for the Oriental meal. "Thank you," he said, looking down at her with a slight smile.

She almost backed up, but caught herself in time. He was so close! "Don't thank me yet," she said. "Wait until after you've tasted it."

His hazel eyes glittered as his gaze dropped to her mouth. He started to say something, but just then the meal popped out on its tray. He took it and sat at one of the nearby tables. Gay took a deep breath and went back to her seat. When she met Nina's eyes, her friend was grinning at her.

Nina turned to Lt. Sarek. "What do you think of Moonbase so far, Lieutenant?"

He looked up from his food. "I like it. It's compact and functional, yet manages to also be aesthetically pleasing. Beats the hell out of the Altairan base I worked at before coming here."

"You weren't on Solaria then?"

He shook his head. "On and off for the past twenty years or so," he admitted. "But most of my work has taken me off-planet. Altair was the last in a long line of planets I was stationed on."

Gay sat forward. "What type of work did you do, Lieutenant?"

"Please," he said. "Call me Michael. I'm an explorer, but that covers a wide area of duties. I did a bit of everything. Construction, electronics, laser repair; whatever was needed. I was what Dave says you would call a jack of all trades."

Nina grinned at him. "What did you call it?"

His teeth showed between his short red beard and his mustache when he grinned back. "Work."

They laughed. Then Nina asked, "Why Michael?"

He sat back, pushing the empty tray to the side. "I found the name in a book. He was a warrior, strong and powerful, and I thought that suited me, as well."

Gay was intrigued. "What book was it?"

Michael shook his head. "I don't remember. But he was a special type of man. The story called him an angel."

Gay and Nina exchanged grins. Gay said, "Oh, that book! Don't you know what an angel is?"

"No. Tell me."

"It's a man with wings."

"Really?" Michael seemed amused. "Well, then I qualify. I had a personal flyer back home."

Nina's brows raised. "What is a personal flyer? Wings?"

He said, "Yes. It's made of a lightweight polymer. And it runs on a small motor. But it's the best way to get from one end of the city to another. And a lot more fun than ground transportation."

"I can imagine."

Gay said, "You must miss Solaria and its advanced technology very much. Especially here."

But Michael shook his head. "Not really. I've worked in a lot of different kinds of cultures, and I don't usually have a problem with it. And Altair was much more primitive than Earth. So I actually feel as though I've had an upgrade."

Nina asked, "What do you think of the people on Earth? Are they like Altairans?"

"No. And yes. One thing I've learned over the years is that people are the same everywhere. Some bad, some good. And some that absolutely amaze you."

Gay smiled. "Has anyone amazed you here yet, Michael?"

His eyes lit up when she said his name. "Oh, yes. I find the people at SHADO quite extraordinary. Not your average zuda by any means."

"We're just people," Nina said. "More or less like everyone else."

"Perhaps that is how you view yourselves," Michael said. "But Commander Straker has gathered around him some of the bravest, most valiant people I have ever seen. On any planet."

"What do you think of the commander?" Gay asked him quietly.

He shook his head. "There are some places I have been that would revere him as a god. And they wouldn't be far wrong to do so. I have made a study of him over the past several months. And I still have not quite figured out how he does it. He is not friendly; in fact, he can be very aloof. He is not gracious; quite the opposite if you've stepped out of line. And he rarely explains himself. These are all things that are necessary to be a good leader. And he possesses none of them. Yet I would follow him into the jungles of Djinn. And I have noticed that there are many at SHADO that feel the same as I do. He has managed to gain great loyalty from those who work under him, in spite of the fact that he would fail every leadership test on Solaria. I do not understand it."

There was a short silence. Then Nina said slowly, "I suppose it's because he cares. Keeping Earth safe means everything to him, and you only need to work with him for five minutes to see it. And although he is a hard man, he considers everyone who works for him his personal responsibility. And that's obvious too."

Michael nodded. "I see. Then he is like the ancient Solarian god, Kamar, who wears both a frown and a smile. Two sides of the same face."

Gay smiled at the analogy. "That sounds like him."

* * *

The t-shirt showed Marvin the Martian with his finger on the button of his intergalactic cannon, which was aimed at Earth. The caption read, Just Do It. When Ginny saw it, she almost chuckled. But rules were rules. "Emily," she scolded. "Where's your uniform?"

Emily gave her a cheeky grin. "Not on Mondays, Col. Straker. Ed promised me. I can handle wearing them as long as he doesn't make me start out my week in them. So we made a deal. I wear what I want on Mondays."

Virginia sighed. Commander Straker let Emily Williams get away with far too much, in her opinion. But she was an invaluable help to SHADO. So perhaps he was justified. "You didn't wear a t-shirt last Monday."

"I wasn't here on Monday. Remember? This is my first week at full time. My doctoral thesis got accepted. I'm a full-fledged Ph.D. now."

"Oh," Ginny said. "So that's why the commander and Sheila took you out to dinner last week. Congratulations."

"Thanks." As the colonel went to leave the SHADO Library off the control room, Emily said, "Colonel? May I ask you a question?"

"Sure, Emily. What is it?"

Emily sat back in her chair at the computer terminal. "I understand the need to have two versions of the database for the Library because of clearance issues. That way, only high ranking officers have access to the entire database of information. Everyone else just gets the basic stuff. But why this third version that includes only ship designations? It's already a subgrouping of the overall program, so why do it separate as well?"

Virginia leaned against the doorjamb. "It's for the interceptor pilots to train with, Emily."

"Oh," Emily said with a frown. "But why don't they just feed the information into the onboard computers and let them identify the ships for them? It would eliminate pilot error that way."

Ginny laughed. "Sure. It sounds like a great idea. Do you by any chance know how to do that?"

Emily looked startled for a moment, then turned thoughtful. When she had joined SHADO a few months ago, General Shaw had talked to her about the necessity of letting Earth develop at its own technological rate without any interference from advanced races. She had agreed with him to an extent, but felt that circumstances might occur that made such noninterference dangerous, if not impossible to maintain. He had told her that if such an occasion developed, he would trust her to deal with it correctly. She wished she felt as confident as he did about it. But she knew that this instance was not such an occasion, so she smiled sheepishly and said, "It sure would be a neat idea, wouldn't it?"

Virginia Straker shook her head at her. "Your Ph.D. is in military history, isn't it? That's too bad. We could use you in our research and development department."

Emily ran a hand through her spiky hair and tried to look bemused.

* * *

When Straker emerged from the shower that evening, the bedroom was empty. He found his wife on the balcony outside the bedroom overlooking his father's garden. He belted the sash of his robe and joined her at the railing. She gave him a quiet look, but said nothing, returning her gaze after a moment to the distant line of shadowy trees that bordered the estate. He studied her profile, wondering what had brought on the somber mood. When Sheila became quiet, he knew enough to begin worrying. He went into the bedroom for a minute and returned to hand her something.

She looked at it. "What is this for?"

He smiled softly. "A penny for your thoughts."

Her hand tightened around the small coin. "Be careful what you ask for. You may not like what your penny buys you."

"I'll take my chances," he said, willing to take the risk to get her to tell him about whatever was troubling her.

She looked at him in the moonlight. He appeared so sure of himself, his beautiful eyes direct and steady. But she knew that he was braced for anything at that moment. Which was good. She didn't know how to begin to tell him how angry she was. And how hurt. But she had never been one to hold things inside for long, and she needed to get it out in the open. "I have news."

He blinked. "I take it that it's not good news."

She sighed. "Yes. It's very good news." He waited her out in silence, and eventually she met his eyes. "I'm pregnant."

His heart leapt, but he saw no delight in her eyes. "And you're not happy about it?"

Her dark eyes glistened with unshed tears as she looked away. "I think it's wonderful."

Straker laid a tentative hand on her arm. "Then what's wrong?" he asked softly.

"I know what you're trying to do," she said.

He frowned. "I don't understand, Sheila. Surely you know that I want this child?"

"Yes. It's not that, Ed."

"Then what is it?"

Her eyes only met his for a moment. "Moonbase."

Straker looked at her profile in the moonlight. He couldn't remember when he had seen her so grim. "Now you've lost me. What does Moonbase have to do with you being pregnant?"

"Actually, it's Moonbase 2," she said quietly, gazing at the moon overhead. "It's been very exciting to work on the systems that will be going up there, planning them out, making sure that everything's covered. That sort of thing. I've really appreciated you letting me be such a big part of it."

"You're doing a great job," he said with a small frown. "And I knew you would."

"Thank you," she replied formally. "But I had hoped..." She broke off to swallow painfully. "I guess I thought I'd get to be there, you know, to put it all together on the base itself. See it through. I thought perhaps you'd begun to trust me a bit, even if it was only long enough to install everything. But I realized when Dr. Shroeder told me the news that you never intended to let me go at all. You were determined to make certain that I was grounded when the time came."

He ran his fingertips down the sleeve of her robe. "Sheila..."

She gave him a grim look. "Weren't you? Are you going to deny that was your plan, Ed? As if we lived back in early times when men kept their wives barefoot and pregnant! Only you don't mind the barefoot part. You just want to keep me pregnant and grounded!"

Straker tried to take her into his arms, but she shook him off and went to the far end of the balcony, standing with her back to him. "Sheila..."

When she turned to look at him, tears were running down her cheeks. "Tell me!" she demanded.

He sighed deeply. "Yes. But I had hoped that you would be happy about it, Sheila. Not upset like this."

"Happy? How could I be happy, Ed?"

"Because you're pregnant. Because we're going to have another child."

She swiped angrily at her tears. "God! You don't even see anything wrong with it, do you? You're afraid something might happen to me if I go to Moonbase, but you won't trust me enough to ask me to stay here. Instead, you plot to make certain that I can't go and take the decision completely out of my hands. And that's supposed to please me?"

His lips tightened. "What good would it have done if I'd asked you to stay, Sheila? How could I possibly trust you to make the correct decision? You just said yourself how much you were wanting to go when the equipment is installed on Moonbase 2. You'd throw your life away for another chance to be up there! Am I supposed to stand by and let you?"

She came up to him, glaring into his eyes. "You're supposed to trust me, Ed. Yes, I wanted to go with the equipment and watch it being installed. But that doesn't mean I'd actually go. When the time came, I'd probably decide it would be best for me to handle things from this end. But you'll never know that now, will you? Because you wouldn't even trust me enough to let me make the decision for myself! You think I'm too reckless. Too impulsive. Well, you don't know me at all, Ed Straker! You're still blaming me for going to Moonbase and getting captured all those years ago. As if I did that on a whim! You know why I did it! I did it because I preferred death to destroying you!" She whirled away from him and went into the bedroom.

Straker took several deep gulps of the night air, trying to quiet the pounding of his heart. My God, he thought, had she really seen it that way back then? After a few minutes, he followed her back into the room. She was sitting on the far side of the bed, staring numbly at the door to the adjoining room where Kathy slept. He wasn't sure if he should go to her; if she would even let him. So he stayed where he was by the balcony doors. "Sheila, I'm sorry."

She didn't turn to where he stood. "For what, Ed? That you didn't trust me? Or that I confronted you about it?"

He sighed. "For all of it."

"It's easy to apologize when it's too late to change anything, isn't it?"

"What will you do?" he asked quietly.

She looked blankly at him. "What do you mean?"

He flicked a hand nervously. "About this situation."

She recoiled. "You think... you think I'd get an abortion? Is that it?"

"No!" he said, shocked at the very thought. "I didn't think that at all. I meant..." He ran a shaky hand through his hair. "Will you leave?"

She saw the despair in his eyes and wanted to cry again. "No, Ed," she whispered. "I have no intention of leaving you." She slid into her slippers and got up from the bed. "I just need a little time alone right now. I'll be back." And she left the room, closing the door quietly behind her.

He stood where he was for a long time.

* * *

Sheila wandered the garden, letting the cool night breeze and the scent of the flowers soothe her. In spite of everything, she had hoped that she was wrong. That he would deny her accusation and show her that he wasn't, that he couldn't be, that ruthless. And she had not realized how much it would hurt to hear him admit it.

Her friends had often told her that the first year of marriage was always the worst. That if a couple could survive the ups and downs of learning to live together those first rough months, it got easier from there on out. She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. The trick was surviving those months.

She knew he loved her. And she loved him as well. It was a shame that things between them couldn't remain that simple. How foolish of her to hope that once they were together, their troubles would be over! They were just beginning, and it was about time she admitted it. She knew he was a hard man. That his work often required him to make decisions that would have sent a lesser man quietly insane. She had reveled in his strength, excited to at last be allowed to be a part of his life. And he had unlocked a few of those doors in his heart and let her in. Let her see him in ways that no one else ever had.

And it had lulled her into a false sense of security. Into the belief that he saw her as clearly as she saw him. That he trusted her as she trusted him. Well, she'd been wrong on both counts. Not only hadn't he trusted her, but she'd been wrong to trust him. At least in that area. It was just that he'd never pulled the Almighty Straker routine on her before. Not since that one time so many years ago when he'd forbidden her to go to Moonbase. And even then, he'd let her get away with going over his head. So she had felt immune. Exempt from what Jo always called his highhandedness. And it hurt like hell to find out that she wasn't exempt at all.

The question was; did she want him to change? To stop being the man he was so that she wouldn't have to deal with the ruthless side of his nature? Was that what she wanted? She looked around the garden, unsure of her answer. Then she caught sight of him. He was on the balcony to their room, standing back in the shadows. Watching her.

Her heart turned over painfully, and she suddenly knew the answer as she met his eyes across the distance. No. She didn't want him to ever change. He had appointed himself as her protector way back when he had been protecting her from not only aliens, but from himself as well. He had always been her man in the shadows, quietly keeping an eye on her, protecting her even when she didn't want to be protected, making her feel a little bit safer and very much loved.

She sighed and headed back indoors.

* * *

He sat in the armchair and toyed with the sash of his robe. He didn't say a word when she came back into the bedroom, but she felt his eyes follow her about the room. When she got into bed, she turned to him and asked softly, "Are you coming to bed?"

He was surprised and almost blurted, You mean, you want me to? But he caught himself in time and said instead, "Yes." He disrobed and slid beneath the sheets, keeping well to his side of the bed. She flicked off the bedside lamp, and he gazed for a time at her back as she lay turned away from him. He wondered what it would take to make things right with her. And what it would require of him. He was ready to do almost anything to earn her forgiveness. Almost.

Then she turned and cuddled closer to him on the bed, resting her cheek on his chest. His heart stopped, then beat painfully hard. His arm went around her and held her close. His voice was almost completely suspended, but he managed to say, "Sheila, I'm sorry."

She lifted her head and met his eyes. Hers were dark and clear as they gazed at him. She didn't seem angry at all. "I know," she said softly. "It's all right."

All right? If only he could believe it! "Will you ever forgive me?"

She sighed, running a slender hand through his chest hairs. "I already have."

He caught his breath. "But I was wrong."

"Yes." She looked over at him with a rueful smile. "But you were also right." At his obvious confusion, she explained. "I think I need your steadying influence, Ed. If only to make me think twice before doing things. I really do enjoy adventure, you know. But I don't mean to worry you, and I'm sorry if I do."

He shook his head. "It isn't you, Sheila. You haven't done anything wrong. I like that wild streak in you. And I don't want to squelch it. Sometimes I feel like I've taken a wonderful, exotic bird and put her in a cage. And I don't like that analogy very much."

She said, "You shouldn't. Because it's not accurate. Ed, you haven't put me in a cage. I'm right where I want to be. With you. Did you honestly think you came second to Moonbase?"

He searched her eyes carefully. "I know how much you loved it."

Her brow lifted. "And you think I love you less?"

He shrugged and ran his fingers through her hair. "I didn't want to put it to the test."

Sheila sighed. "Obviously, I haven't been doing my job very well." He looked at her, surprised by the dry comment. She gave him a rueful grin and slid her arms around his neck. "Maybe I need to show you more often."

His relief was so great that he almost grinned in return. But he had to be sure. "Sheila, you were very angry."

She nodded. "And I still am. I don't like to be manipulated, Ed. But I'll get over it. And eventually you'll learn to trust me a bit more. I'm just asking for too much too soon. And I know it."

He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You're not going to yell at me?"

She grinned at him. "Did you want me to? It would take an effort, but I could probably oblige you, if you want."

He sighed. "Sometimes I don't understand you."

Her grin became a chuckle. "I'll take that as a compliment. Especially since I know who you're comparing me to. Ed, I don't do scenes or guilt trips or ultimatums. One of these days you'll figure that out and stop looking for them. But until then, I'll just enjoy keeping you baffled." And she leaned down to give him a long kiss.



ACT IV

"Checkmate."

Dave Johnson slumped in his chair. "Damn! Don't you ever lose? I'll bet you're one of those... whatever-you-call-its you told me about. Aren't you?"

Michael grinned at him. "You mean, a sagamore? Not hardly. I've been beaten many times."

Johnson raised his brows skeptically. "By who?"

"Recently? I got beat by Alec Freeman just last week. And by the commander a few days before that."

Dave relented. "Oh. Well, I've never dared play against Commander Straker, but I have lost to Alec. Lots of times. He's tough."

Michael nodded. "His strategy is very hard to pin down. That's what makes him so difficult to win against. Commander Straker told me that he plays chess with Col. Freeman often, just to keep his wits sharpened. I understood what he meant once I'd played Alec for myself. The colonel's moves are very devious."

Dave noticed Lt. Ellis sitting in a nearby chair, seemingly deeply involved in a book. But he'd been watching these two make sparks every time they met for the past few days, and he had a feeling that she was listening to every word they were saying. So he said, "If you want to play against someone who's hard to beat, you should try against Gay. She's the reigning queen of chess on Moonbase. Even Alec won't challenge her anymore."

Gay looked up when she heard her name and met David's twinkle. She'd been lost in the realm of isotopes and halflives, and if it had taken her several minutes after they'd entered the sphere to get back into what she was reading, she knew exactly where to place the blame. On a deep voiced pirate who wouldn't stay out of her head. She looked over at him now and saw his raised brow. "What?"

Michael grinned at her. "Dave says that you're the champ at chess here on Moonbase. May I challenge you to a game?"

She knew better than to respond to that gleam in his beautiful hazel eyes. She also knew that her concentration would be zilch sitting across from him to play the game. But she heard herself say yes anyway. And wasn't very surprised. He was just too compelling.

Lt. Johnson got up to give her his seat and retired to a chair farther away to enjoy the match.

* * *

Straker had just changed his daughter's outfit when he heard Sheila's laughter. Drawn to it as though to a siren's song, he picked Kathy up and headed out of the nursery. When he got to the top of the stairs, he saw his wife in the main hall below, talking and laughing with someone on the phone. His lips tightened slightly. Only one person seemed to make her laugh in just that way. Paul Foster.

* * *

Michael met those gorgeous eyes for a moment and lost track of his strategy. He would have sighed, but he'd been getting used to it throughout the game. Every time he figured out how to get past her guard, he felt her eyes on him and his plans scattered. He frowned at the board, trying to concentrate. It was no wonder that she won so often, he realized, if all she had to do was flash those beautiful eyes at her opponent to make him mess up. Wasn't there a story he'd read about a woman who could turn a man to stone with her eyes? Well, he didn't feel like stone. More like a column of fire. But the analogy worked for him. If he remembered correctly, the woman was supposed to have been hideously ugly, but he had read one account that put her as deliriously beautiful instead. And he had to agree that the latter description seemed the more likely one. Hideous women did not turn a seasoned warrior to mush. He moved his bishop, hoping that he wasn't walking into a trap.

Gay frowned at his move, trying to figure out his reasoning. She had caught bits of his game with David and had a fair idea of his methods. But he didn't seem to be following the same strategy with her. What was he up to? It was hard enough to concentrate with him so close. It was funny, but she'd never felt claustrophobic on Moonbase before. But ever since his arrival, she seemed to always be short of breath. Perhaps she should discuss it with Dr. Fraser in the MedLab. She wasn't usually prone to anxiety attacks. She moved her queen into position.

* * *

"So, did you kill him?"

Sheila chuckled. "Of course not! It wasn't that bad. Really!"

The colonel sighed. "Jo said you looked rather pissed off when you mentioned it the other night. She figured you'd serve Straker his head."

She laughed outright at the thought. "No way!"

"You weren't pissed off?"

"Well..."

He chuckled. "I thought so. Jo's always right. So what did he do to make you mad, Sheila?"

"It doesn't matter. It's blown over now. And we both survived it. That's all you need to know."

"Did you slap him?"

Sheila gasped. "What? No, of course not. Why would I?"

Paul laughed. "Because the highlight of my life was seeing you slap him that day at the studio. I was just wondering if you'd been mad enough to do it again."

"Oh, my God!" Sheila doubled over in laughter. "Paul! I'd completely forgotten I ever did that! How mean of you to remind me of it!"

"Are you kidding? It was priceless! How could you forget? I'll bet your husband has not forgotten it."

Sheila sobered. "No. I'll bet he hasn't. Oh, Paul! I told him I don't make scenes. No wonder he looked skeptical. But I really don't. I don't think I've lost my temper more than four times in my entire life. I've found that it's always so mortifying to have to live down later."

"Why did you lose your temper that day, Sheila?" he asked.

She shrugged. "Sexual frustration mostly, I guess."

He laughed. "All that passion had to go somewhere, huh? Well, you were incredible. I was honored to have witnessed it."

She laughed. "Oh, shut up, Paul!"

"Hey, I just got your new album, One Step Closer," he said. "It's great. And I have to thank you for giving Chris a copy of your first CD. I didn't think I was ever going to get mine back."

"Why did he have yours, Paul?"

"It's a long story. But I was wondering if you would autograph my CDs for me? You know I'm your most devoted fan."

Sheila giggled. "That's because you're convinced I wrote Man on a Mission about you."

"Well, didn't you?"

"You're incorrigible!" She choked on a laugh and saw Ed coming down the stairs. "Here's Ed, Paul. I'll let you harass him for a while, okay? Bye!" She handed the phone to her husband and took the baby in return. "He's all yours, dear," she told him. "Don't be kind to him." Her dark eyes twinkled merrily as she headed for the patio doors.

* * *

"Checkmate."

Michael frowned at the board. How had that happened? He hadn't even seen it coming. He looked at the positions of the pieces and realized that he should have noticed her strategy a while ago. Garn! He met her eyes, his own a bit rueful. "You're good, Gay. But I'm afraid you haven't caught me at my best. Perhaps we could try again sometime?"

"Certainly, Michael," she answered. "Whenever you like."

Before he could make it a date, the alarm went off. Soon Nina's voice came over the speaker. "Interceptors, immediate launch!"

Lt. Bradley and Lt. Adams entered the leisure sphere and joined Dave in putting on their helmets. Before getting into the chute that would take him to the interceptor, Dave turned and gave Michael a cheeky salute. His friend saluted back with a grin.

* * *

After Straker finished checking with Paul about things back at HQ, he headed out to the deck. At the patio doors, he paused. His wife was playing with their daughter on one of the loungers, her lovely face lit with laughter. He smiled softly, thinking that moments like these were what he would remember most over the years. He came out and crossed to where they were, taking a seat on a nearby lounger.

Sheila looked at him. "Everything okay?"

"Yes. Things have been fairly quiet since we've been gone. I hope it's a good sign."

She shook her head. "It's so hard to be sure, isn't it?"

He nodded. "What did you talk to Paul about?"

His wife shrugged. "Oh, this and that. He was picking on me. And then he had the nerve to ask for my autograph! He's such a case!"

Straker's gaze was solemn. "He means a great deal to you."

Sheila frowned. "Paul? Yes, I suppose so. He's a good friend."

"Do you love him?"

She met his eyes and sighed. "For God's sake, Ed! Of course not! I love you. Remember? I wish I understood why you're so jealous of him. What will it take to prove to you that we're just friends?"

"That's not the problem."

"Then what is?"

Straker took a deep breath. "Sometimes I think you would prefer to be with him rather than me."

Sheila was completely bewildered. "Why on Earth would you think that?"

He leaned over and touched one of his daughter's dark curls. "Come on, Sheila. He makes you laugh. And I don't." I make you cry, he thought, remembering the night before.

"That's not true!" she denied hotly. "I love your sense of humor."

"Maybe. But you don't respond to me the same way that you do to him."

She cocked her head thoughtfully. "Should I?"

He ran a hand over his face. "I don't know."

"Ed, I didn't marry Paul Foster. I married you. Doesn't that count for anything? You're my mate."

"Yes, but he's..." Straker glanced quickly at her and changed what he had been about to say. "He's handsome, charming, and funny. And I'm none of those things. I guess I just wonder sometimes why you married me instead of him."

She gazed at him for a long time, and he wished he knew what she was thinking. Finally, she said, "Yes, he is handsome. But you're so much more than merely handsome, Ed. And I know that you never believe me when I tell you that. How can I ever hope to convince you? Maybe..." She sat back in the lounger, keeping a hand on Kathy as she looked at her husband. "When an actress makes a pass at you, Ed, why do you think she does it?"

He frowned at the apparent change of subject. "Are you referring to what happened with Michele? I meant to tell you about that, but with packing and everything, it slipped my mind."

"No, Ed. I didn't mean specific cases. And I'm sure you handled the situation with your usual effectiveness. I was talking about in general."

"Oh. Well, it's expected, Sheila, for the leads to have a romance during shooting. It's all a part of the industry hype. You know that."

"So, they come onto you because it's expected of them."

"Yes. And also because I'm the producer. And it's so hard for women to find good roles, you can hardly blame them for wanting to stack the deck in their favor."

She sighed. "I see. It's just business. Is that right?"

"Yes. Why do you ask?"

"Never mind. Let's try something else. What about when one of your studio staff makes a play for you? Why would you say they do that?"

Straker looked at her, unsure what she was trying to say. "Are you referring to what happened with Miss Wilcox? I told you about that."

"Yes, Ed. But I wasn't speaking of specifics."

"In general?"

"Yes."

He ran a finger down his daughter's cheek as he considered. "Well, I guess it's because I'm the producer. Filmmaking is a very cutthroat business, Sheila. Everyone's out for himself."

"So, you're saying that they go for you because they hope to get a raise or a promotion?"

"Yes. Why is this important?"

She shook her head, closing her eyes as she laid her head against the back of the lounger. "I guess it's not. You seem to have it all worked out for yourself. Who am I to try to explain things differently?"

"Sheila, I'll listen," he said earnestly.

"I know, Ed." She turned to him with a wry look. "But will you hear? Okay. Why don't we leave that one for a moment. Suffice it to say that I find you much more handsome than Paul Foster could ever hope to be. And maybe if I tell you that for the next fifty years or so, you'll begin to believe me. But let's move on to charming. You said that you're not charming."

"Well, I'm not."

He looked so disgruntled that she grinned. "I don't know. I think you have a lot of charm. When you choose to use it."

He waved an impatient hand. "It's not the same."

"No. Maybe not. You're irritating, domineering, and as stubborn as hell. There. Does that sum you up correctly?"

He swallowed. "You would know."

She laughed. "Have you ever considered, Ed, that I might just like you that way?"

He thought about the night before, and how upset she'd been. "No."

"Well, it's true. Your charm means so much more to me, because I don't see it all the time. Therefore, when I do get to experience it, I'm overwhelmed by it."

"Surely you'd prefer to have someone around who was charming more of the time?"

She shook her head, a small smile lurking about her mouth. "I think I'd be beating them off with a stick if you were always charming, Ed."

He met her eyes in shock. Then he smiled slightly. "I'm trying to be serious here."

Sheila sighed. "So am I. But I don't seem to be getting anywhere. Okay. How about funny? You said that you're not funny."

"I know. I know," he said in disgust. "You think I'm funny. But it's not the same, Sheila. I don't know how I can explain it better than that."

"I understand, Ed. Paul's a clown. You're not. Naturally I'm not going to respond to his brand of humor the same way I respond to yours. You crack me up in an entirely different way."

He nodded, brooding for a while. "So, why would you prefer me?"

Sheila looked out over the bay for a minute, wondering how to get through to him. Then she met his somber gaze squarely. "Because you're something better than funny, Ed. You're exciting. And Paul isn't."

He stared into her dark eyes, astonished at what he saw there. She meant it. He stood up and drew her to her feet. His hand cupped the back of her neck, and he brought her closer for a deep kiss. When he drew back and looked at her again, he was breathing hard. "You love me," he said in awe.

Sheila gave him a brilliant, if somewhat dazed, smile. "Yes, Ed."

More than Paul. He kissed her again, holding her as close as he could, the passion that always flared between them making him tremble.

"Ed," she murmured breathlessly. "We're not at home."

He pressed her even closer, trailing kisses down her neckline. "So?"

Her eyes went unfocused, but she held on to her last thread of sanity. "We have to make it up the stairs."

After a moment, he seemed to grasp what she was saying. He released her with a groan. He went shakily to the lounger and picked up Kathy. Then he escorted them both into the house.

* * *

"Would you like to see an operation in action?" Gay asked him after the pilots had left. She hated it when a UFO showed up on her off-shift. She liked to be at the center of the action.

Michael nodded. "Thanks. I would like that." He accompanied her out of the sphere and through the corridors into the command sphere.

Nina Rogers was speaking into the microphone as they entered. "Yes, Col. Foster. The trajectory is coming in now. Australia."

"I wonder what they want there?" the colonel mused aloud on the screen. Then he said, "Well, let's make sure we don't have to find out. Right?"

"Yes, sir." She noticed Gay and Michael standing near the doorway, but did no more than acknowledge them with a nod before contacting the interceptors. Her voice was cool and precise as she relayed the missile firing information for their onboard computers.

Michael's brows lifted a little when he realized how dependent the pilots were on Control for their information. Surely that was a dangerous luxury? He looked around the sphere at the equipment. Of course, their technology was still at a bulky stage, where mainframes were not yet handheld. Well, they had apparently done all right in the past utilizing what resources they possessed. If there was one word he could use to describe Earthlings, it would have to be resourceful.

Joan turned toward the center computer console. "The UFO is changing course, Lieutenant."

Nina frowned. ""What is its new heading?"

Lt. Harrington checked her instruments. "It's heading toward the North Atlantic. Possibly the Eastern Seaboard of the United States."

"This is Moonbase to SHADO Control," Nina said into the microphone. "The UFO has altered course. Heading is now the North Atlantic. More specifically, the US Eastern Seaboard."

"Damn it!" Paul Foster's agitation came over the speakers quite clearly. "And Straker's in Boston. I just got off the phone with him. Lieutenant, will the interceptors still make contact?"

"Checking now, sir." Nina gave Joan a look that spoke volumes. She wanted to hear good news.

Lt. Harrington's lips tightened when she saw the figures. "Only Interceptor 1 will get anywhere close, Lieutenant."

Nina flicked a glance toward Gay, but did not bother to make a comment. She turned to the microphone. "Interceptor 1, this is Moonbase Control."

Dave's voice came over the speaker. "Reading you, Moonbase."

"Change heading to 470.531. Repeat. 470.531."

"Roger, Moonbase. Changing course to new heading now."

"It's up to you, Lieutenant," Nina told him.

"Right. No problem," he answered.

She recalled the other two interceptors, since they would no longer be anywhere near the UFO's path. Her lovely face was very grim as she turned to Joan. "Any change?"

Joan shook her head. "No. Its heading remains the same."

The silence in the sphere was almost a visible presence as they waited to see how Interceptor 1 would make out. Then Lt. Johnson's voice was heard once more. "Moonbase, this is Interceptor 1. I am coming into visual range of the UFO. Setting firing sequence. Firing missile."

A moment later, he said, "Detonation positive."

"And the UFO?" Nina asked.

"Still there," he answered after a moment, sounding disgusted. "It may be damaged, however. Am coming in for another try. Setting firing---" An explosive detonation was heard over the speakers, and the ensuing silence in the sphere was even louder than before.

Joan looked up from the radar, shaking her head numbly. "Contact with Interceptor 1 has been lost. UFO continuing on course."

Nina grimly pulled the microphone closer. "Interceptor 1, this is Moonbase Control. Come in, Interceptor 1." There was no answer. She looked up at Gay beseechingly, as if her friend might somehow make Lt. Johnson respond. "Interceptor 1, please come in!"

Gay glanced at Michael, who seemed frozen to the spot. She laid a small hand on his arm. He seemed to notice it after a moment and met her eyes. His shock was quickly wearing off, to be replaced by a fierce anger. She squeezed his arm in sympathy, then went over to the center console to quietly tell Nina to inform HQ that Skydiver would be needed. Nina nodded and switched on the screen. When Gay looked back toward the doorway, Lt. Sarek was no longer there.





ACT V

Gay sat by herself, toying with the chess pieces laid out on the board. Around her, the other operatives stood talking quietly, a few of them chuckling now and then as they related stories about David to each other. As memorials went, it was a pretty nice gathering. Subdued perhaps, but he had been well liked, and therefore the mood was lighter than it might have been otherwise. She looked up as Nina Rogers sat down next to her. "Hi, Nina."

Nina had been crying, but seemed to have gotten past that now. "How are you doing?" she asked Gay.

"I'm okay. And you?"

Nina closed her eyes for a moment. "I just wish..."

Gay leaned forward to pat her hand. "I know, Nina. But there was nothing that you could have done differently. Really."

Her friend took a breath. "Maybe after I've replayed it a thousand times in my head, I'll be able to believe that. For right now, it still feels possible to change it somehow."

Lt. Ellis nodded. "It's the shock. That's the worst of it, you know. The fact that it was so sudden. He'd just been playing chess with Michael. And then he was gone. It's so hard when you don't even get to say goodbye."

Nina glanced around the room. "Where is Michael?"

"I don't know." Gay looked around as well, frowning when she realized that she hadn't seen him since he'd left the command sphere earlier. "Surely he was told about it?"

"Yes." Lt. Rogers shrugged. "Maybe he doesn't handle this sort of thing well. Some men don't, you know. Commander Straker never comes to these types of things."

"I know."

Nina gave her friend a long look, then sat back in her chair. "What do you think of Michael?"

Gay met her eyes for a moment, then sighed. "I wish I knew. Nina, Sheila told me I'd meet someone one day who I couldn't get out of my head. And that's how I'd know he was the man for me. Is that how it was with you and Mark?"

Nina smiled slightly. "Oh, yeah. He was so overwhelming. I couldn't stop thinking about him. He's such a big man, but so gentle. He constantly amazes me."

"Michael's just too..." Gay trailed off with a frown.

"Too what?"

"Too everything!" The lieutenant threw up her hands. "I can't even put two thoughts together whenever he's around. And I get these odd urges."

"Oh?" Nina hid a smile.

Gay nodded seriously. "Like I want to touch him. Or something. It's so weird."

Nina chuckled. "I'm so glad!"

"What do you mean?"

Her friend reached over to pat her arm. "I always wondered when you would leave that fantasy world of yours behind and find a real man."

Lt. Ellis frowned. "I don't live in a fantasy world."

"Don't you?" Nina asked. "Every relationship that's begun you've stopped almost before it got started, Gay. You keep trying to find a man who can measure up to your ideal. And you don't understand why you keep getting disappointed."

Gay met her eyes, her own rather bewildered. "I didn't know I had an ideal."

Nina raised her brows. "Really?" she said dryly.

Her friend blushed. "Okay. Maybe I did. But you have to admit, he is as close to perfect as they come."

Lt. Rogers grinned. "I'm not going to argue that point. But he also has one trait that suited you just fine, Gay."

"What?"

"He's untouchable. Out of reach. And you preferred things that way. He was safe to love, because he'd never make you have to wake up and deal with the real world. You were safe in your ivory tower."

Gay sighed. "But not anymore."

"No. And it's a good thing."

"But, Nina. I don't know how to deal with Michael! He makes me feel so much, and I just want to run and hide until I've gotten it all sorted out."

Nina chuckled. "Welcome to reality. Look, Gay. You're not going to be able to sort it all out. At least not now. Maybe over time. My advice is to just go with the flow. Relax, and let the relationship develop as it will."

Gay frowned. "It sounds risky."

"It is," Nina agreed with a grin. "But it's also worth it."

"I won't know what to do."

"I think you can leave that up to him. I think Michael knows how to get you both where you need to go. Do you trust him?"

Her friend nodded. "I won't know what to say."

"Just be yourself."

* * *

When she found him, it was easy to know what to say. "What are you doing?" she asked in surprise.

He glanced up from the floor of the interceptor and met her eyes. "Gay."

She saw how grim he looked and came closer across the bay. She could see into the cockpit now and realized that he had the circuitry exposed. "Michael, what are you doing?"

He sighed. "Getting into trouble." He gave her a hard look. "But I don't care. If that damn interceptor had been equipped with a decent tracking system, he would have gotten the Thoelian ship on the first attempt. And he'd still be alive." He went back to work on the circuitry.

Her heart turned over as she heard the pain in his voice and saw it in his beautiful eyes. "So you're improving the interceptors' firing systems."

He nodded. "I was told to leave Earth's technology alone when I joined SHADO. And I agreed with the reasoning behind it. But I can't let this go, Gay. I just can't."

"I understand." She wondered who had told him not to share Solarian technology with them. She didn't think it had been the commander. "We all have our own ways of dealing with David's death. I came down here to invite you to join us at the memorial gathering we're having in his honor. But I can see that you're handling it in your own way." She turned to leave.

"Gay?" he said softly. "You don't have to go."

She met his eyes and suddenly understood what Nina had been trying to tell her. Reality was better than any dream, no matter how sweet. Gay gave him a tentative smile and said, "May I help?"

Michael grinned. "Of course. Let me show you what I'm doing."

* * *

Something was different.

He stroked her dark hair, studying her features as she slept. She wasn't a beautiful woman. He knew that. He worked with too many beautiful women on a daily basis at the studio to be unaware of what constituted beauty. He looked at her face objectively, trying to figure out why she always seemed so beautiful to him. Her eyes were closed now, but he often thought of them as her best feature. They were so expressive, usually with an ornery twinkle in them. And sometimes they were fierce, as he had seen them last night when she'd been so angry with him. But always they were full of life. And full of the love of life that she had to such a great degree. She had lost it once, after her son had died, and he'd been afraid that if she ever remembered the past, she'd lose it again. But somehow she hadn't. And he would be eternally grateful for that miracle.

He traced her nose with a gentle finger. She had the most delicate nose. Small and easily missed when those gorgeous eyes of hers were open. But so pretty. He leaned down and lightly kissed the tip of it.

Then there was her mouth. Too wide for the rest of her face, it remained eminently kissable even so. And how easily affected he was by every smile or frown that shaped it. His finger traced the full bottom lip lightly. He wanted suddenly to kiss her, right there on that wonderful mouth. But she hadn't gotten much sleep last night. And in her condition, she would need all of it she could get. And he knew if he kissed her, he wouldn't be able to keep from waking her.

He drew back a little and surveyed her face dispassionately. No, she wasn't beautiful in the classical sense.

Then why was she?

He finally gave it up, unable to pinpoint how she managed it. Instead, he considered what it was that was different.

They'd spent a glorious afternoon in bed together, ignoring the fact that they were his father's guests. They had eventually returned downstairs late in the afternoon and had made up for their desertion by playing cards with his father in the study all evening. Sheila had related several amusing incidents that had occurred while they'd been honeymooning in New Malora and had even charmed his father into telling her a little about his own city, Tripura. Straker had been amazed to see his taciturn father talking animatedly about the highlights and pitfalls of running an underwater city.

Later, Straker had kept her up when she had wanted to fall asleep after nursing Kathy, needing to feel again the cascading joy he'd experienced that afternoon. He frowned now, remembering. Something had been very different about their lovemaking. And he couldn't put his finger on it. It was as though they had crossed some barrier and reached another level of loving. He wondered if Sheila had noticed it. And if she knew what it was. He thought of the distinctly feminine smile she had worn before drifting off to sleep and decided that she probably did.

He would have to ask her about it.

* * *

"Thank you, Gay," Michael said quietly as he put the tools away.

She smiled. "I'm glad I could help. And I find Solarian methods very interesting. We could learn a lot from you."

He frowned. "I know. And that's not how it's supposed to be. I made a promise." He looked over at the two interceptors as they sat in their bays and sighed. "But I can't be sorry for breaking it."

"Of course not."

He turned to her. "I won't make mention of your presence when I file my report, Gay. No one will know that you helped me. All right?"

She shook her head. "I was happy to help you, Michael. And I don't care who knows it. You may as well mention me in your report, because I will certainly mention you in mine."

Michael stepped closer to her and touched her cheek with one gentle finger. "I do not wish for you to share in the blame. The decision was mine."

She swallowed, unnerved as much by his nearness as she was by his solicitude. "But I agree with your decision, Michael. I'm proud of you for what you did. You've helped SHADO a lot. And I think David would be proud of you, as well."

His large hand trembled as it settled on her shoulder. He drew her slowly closer, making her breath shorten into tiny gasps as she stared into his luminous eyes.

Then she couldn't breathe at all.

Michael kissed her fiercely, lifting her off her tiny feet as he pressed her ever closer. He knew he was being too rough; that she was delicate woman. But she seemed to come alive in his arms, kneading his shoulders with her small hands and making soft noises in her throat. He was quickly losing whatever control he still possessed. He needed to get her to his quarters, but he had no intention of letting her go in order to get there. So he picked her up into his arms and carried her in the direction of the elevator, still kissing her.

* * *

"Sandy says you approve of Sheila, Carl." Straker walked with the gardener through the flowers, watching as he expertly snipped off the dead buds.

The elderly man cackled. "I'd have to be six feet underground not to approve, Master Edward."

Straker grinned. "I meant, as a wife for me."

The gardener nodded, pouring the dead buds from his wrinkled hands into the bag Straker carried. "Don't you think she's perfect, boy?"

"Yes. I do. I just wondered how you knew?"

Carl shook his head. "You always were the one with all the questions. Badgering me and keeping me from my work."

Straker grinned. "If I remember correctly, you answered quite a few of them for me, Carl." He wondered suddenly how he had gotten by without this old man to turn to with his questions over the years. The hard ones, especially. Sometimes they had loomed over him like nightmarish monsters. How easy it had been as a boy to share them with someone else. Someone who cared. Who could take those monsters of the id and reduce them to a manageable size. He realized with a small shock that Sheila had begun to take that place in his life. But then, she was so adept at handling monsters.

The older man grunted, hiding a smile. "Well, I can't say that it did you any good. You still managed to get it wrong often enough. But I'd have to say that you've learned a few things over time."

"I sincerely hope so," Straker said ruefully.

Carl nodded, giving him a look. "You take care of your lady now, Master Edward. Women in her condition need a little extra coddling."

The commander sighed. "And who told you she was pregnant?"

Carl's dark eyes laughed at him. "Now, Master Edward. I didn't need anyone to tell me what my eyes could see on their own."

"It's a shame that Salem's given up the practice of burning people like you, Carl."

A cackle and a headshake were the old man's only response.

Straker followed him down the next row. "So, I suppose you could tell me whether we're having a boy or a girl, couldn't you, Carl?"

The elderly man gave him a straight look. "Why would I need to do that when you can tell for yourself?" He glanced back at the house and said, "Your father's looking for you. You'd best see what he wants."

Straker noticed his father standing on the front steps and frowned. He wanted to ask Carl what he had meant by that last statement, but he knew the gardener would tell him nothing else while his father needed him. He handed the bag to Carl, saying firmly, "Okay, Carl. But this conversation isn't finished."

Carl's cackle followed Straker as he left the garden.

"Good morning, Dad," Straker said as he approached the steps.

"Good morning, son. I just heard the news from Sheila about your friend. I'm sorry."

Straker's lips compressed slightly as he nodded. "Thank you." He didn't bother to mention that the UFO had been headed for Boston. Sky 3 had destroyed it practically over their heads.

His father looked at his son closely, seeing the control that only became obvious when he felt something deeply. He sighed. "Will you be heading back today then?"

"No." Straker shook his head. "The funeral won't be until after we get back anyway, so there's no rush to return to England. Alec can handle everything else."

His father said, "You knew him well?"

"No." Straker ran a hand over his face. "Not very well. He was a good man, Dad. Dedicated. Loyal. He'd worked for me almost since the beginning. We'll feel his loss."

Andrew nodded, understanding that his son would personally feel the loss even more because he hadn't known the man as well as he might have. It was difficult to be the one responsible for so many. How did you tell a man once it was too late that you wished you'd known him better? And how did you thank him for giving his life in the line of duty? "Sheila also told me some good news."

Straker's grim expression lightened. "Yes. You'll be a grandfather again before Christmas."

His father laid a hand on his shoulder. Unable to find the right words to help his son deal with his grief, he was relieved to be able to share in his joy. "Scared, son?" he asked with a grin.

Straker shook his head. "Not as much as last time. It would be nice if this one would arrive in the daytime, though. It's very unnerving to wake up in the middle of the night to a wife whose water has just broken."

Andrew chuckled. "Yes. I remember experiencing something similar once." And he glanced meaningfully at his son. Straker's grin was rueful.

* * *

"Michael?"

He opened his eyes and grinned at the sight of her lying next to him. He leaned over and kissed those luscious lips. Hmmm. They really did taste as wonderful as he'd thought they did last night. He had a feeling he'd be craving their flavor for a long time to come.

When he released her, she blinked once or twice, trying to remember what she'd wanted to ask him. Oh, yes. "Michael? How did we get here?"

His deep laugh rumbled out of his chest. "I carried you, my sweet. Weren't you paying attention?"

Gay shook her head, completely bemused. "You carried me? How? I'm not exactly a lightweight."

Michael's red brows rose. "Aren't you now? You seem so to me."

She blushed at his admiring gaze. He was so... so... overwhelming. Nina had told her that she would sort things out eventually, but Gay didn't think it would be any time soon. Her brain was still scrambled from the events of last night. And the only thing she could remember clearly was the thrill of being in his arms. She stroked his arm softly, marveling at the strength of it. Her sigh was heartfelt.

Michael watched the expressions move across her delicate face, mesmerized by the depth of her sweetness. She was so utterly feminine. And it awed him as nothing else he had ever seen. "Gay," he said, compelled to ask her for the assurance his heart needed. "I am yours now, for good or for ill. Will you be mine, as well?"

She met his eyes, unsure what he was asking. "What does it mean to be yours, Michael?"

He laid his hand over hers on his arm. "I want to be your mate, your always one. Your only one. And I wish for you to be mine also."

Her breath backed up in her throat. "You...? Are you asking me to marry you?"

"When you are certain," he replied.

She searched those beautiful hazel eyes, seeing his love and care so clearly shining in them that it made it difficult to breathe. She wondered vaguely how long she would have to know him before he no longer made her breathless. She hoped it was a good long time. "I'm certain now, Michael," she said.





EPILOGUE

"Ready?"

Sheila nodded and accepted his hand. Together they left the back deck and headed across the lawn. She glanced at him often as they walked, desperately in love with his beloved face. It was a mask of a face really, she thought, that hid so much strength and courage behind it. And love. His heart was so huge. No wonder he kept such a guard on it. How easily and carelessly it had been wounded over the years!

Even by her.

It hadn't mattered that she had never meant to hurt him. Would have done anything to keep from causing him pain. In the end, she had hurt him more than perhaps even Mary had. He never spoke of the years he had believed her dead. But all she had to do was imagine how she would feel if something happened to him to know what he must have gone through. How did she make up to him all the pain she'd caused him over the years? She didn't know. But she would do everything in her power to heal those wounds. And any others he possessed, as well. It was her most secret goal to someday see those beautiful blue eyes without any shadows in them at all.

He picked a daisy as they passed through the field and put it in her hair. She smiled and kissed him, running her hands through his sun warmed hair. "I love you, Ed Straker," she said fervently.

He grinned, his hands molding her closer for an exquisite moment. "I love you too, Sheila Straker."

She laughed, and he kissed her, tasting her joy. His heart overflowed. He wanted to lay her down among the daisies and be a part of the heaven they created in each others' arms again. But they had come out here for a purpose. He released her slowly, and they walked on, hand in hand.

When they reached the gate, he opened it for her and drew her closer as they entered the shaded grove. They were silent as they passed the markers of those who had gone before, but his arm tightened around her as they headed toward the new gravestone near a large oak tree. They stood in front of it for a long moment, and he didn't realize how tightly he had been clinging to her until she released him from her own deathgrip.

Unheeded tears streamed down her face as she sat on the grass and ran her fingers over the letters on the headstone. Edward Straker, Jr., it read. Born 1977. Died 1982. Beloved Son. Her husband sank down onto the grass next to her, laying a shaking hand along the side of the stone. His other hand sought hers, and she clasped his warmly. They sat for some time, silently sharing their grief. And their strength.