8

Bombardier Walker gently braked to a stop and regarded the scene ahead of him with cynical amusement, "They've got RPs doing traffic control, ma'am." he called back over his shoulder to Gill, "and they're making a right pig's ear of it!" he added in an undertone for Julia's benefit.

There was some justification for his amusement. The gravelled drive in front of the Officers' Mess was grid-locked by staff cars, jeeps and Landrovers of a dozen different NATO allies, the drivers of most having no, or very little grasp of English, and the perspiring Provost Bombardier and his half-dozen Gunners were just about ready to tear their hair out from sheer frustration at the drivers' collective inability to follow instructions.

Gill craned forward and peered over the top of the radio sets. The Landrover was about twenty yards short of the main entrance and it was, she decided, going to be much quicker to walk the last sixty or so feet than to wait while the motley assemblage ahead shook themselves down into some sort of order. "Do you fancy a stroll, sir?" she asked Harm, "It's only a few yards, and it'll be quicker..."

"I am at your disposal!" he told her gravely, but she thought she caught a flash of amusement in his eyes.

"Very well, sir. I say we walk! Pull over Bom!"

"Yes, ma'am!" Johnny steered the vehicle to the edge of the gravelled drive and stopped. Gill scrambled out of the back of the vehicle while Harm carefully unhooked their suit bags from the superstructure and their overnight kit from where Johnny had wedged it between the radios and the side of the vehicle.

"Stay put," Johnny told Julia as he too dismounted and made his way to the back of the vehicle, "I'll take your kit, ma'am!" he said to Gill, "That is if you don't mind carrying your own gear, sir?" he added for Harm's benefit.

"No, you carry on Bombardier, I think I can manage this!" Harm smiled, as he looked around at his surroundings. The Mess was a mellow, red brick, three storey, slate roofed building, in the Georgian style with casemate windows on the ground floor and sash windows on the second and third storeys. Five shallow stone steps led up to a neo-classical pillared marble portico with a balcony above it, and which was flanked by a pair of 25-pounder field guns, of World War Two vintage, their gloss paint highly polished and their breech blocks and muzzle brakes chromed. Similar attention had been paid to the various gun stores: picks, shovels, drag ropes, et cetera, which were highly polished, burnished or whitened as their various natures dictated. Harm had a shrewd idea of how minor offenders were kept busy during their term of punishment

"Yes, sir!" Johnny replied and hefting Gill's baggage he waited for her to take the lead.

He was relieved of his load at the main doors by a member of the mess staff, who then stood politely to one side as Gill gave her driver his instructions, "Pick up at zero seven thirty, please Bom, then straight to the Bombard Shelter. No need for packed lunches, with any luck we'll be back at Tidworth for lunch..."

"And if we're not ma'am?" Not that Johnny was too bothered, he often went for a run instead of lunch, but he couldn't miss the chance of gently teasing his officer.

Gill knew exactly what he was doing, however and with admirable sang-froid, she smiled, "If we're too late for lunch, Bom, then I'll let you buy me a sandwich at that awful greasy spoon in the village!"

Realising that he just been hoist by his own petard, Johnny could only grin, shrug his shoulders and say "OK, ma'am. Love – fifteen!"

Gill nodded, "Good! Oh, and Bom, make sure that the Petty Officer is OK, if she needs to see the MO, then make sure she goes sick!"

"Will do ma'am," he replied soberly, "but we're both pretty sure it was a combination of car-sickness and maybe made a little worse by the heat, she recovered soon enough once I got her into the fresh air and into the shade!"

"Yes... she did, didn't she...?" Gill smiled, and then lowered the boom, "Of course it might have had something to do with the fact that she seemed to find your shoulder a comfortable substitute for a pillow!"

"Ma'am! Yes, ma'am!" Johnny said, incapable of further speech for a moment as the blood rushed to his cheeks. He took refuge in the only way he could by slamming to attention and then bringing his hand up in a tautly quivering salute that would have the RSM nodding in approbation. "Good afternoon, ma'am!" he said bringing his hand back down to his side.

Gill, perforce had to return his salute, and once she had, Johnny muttered a further, stiff, "Ma'am!" before about turning and heading for the Landrover with a definite scowl on his face.

Gill on the other hand, watched him go, a beatific smile on her face, "Oh that feels so good..." she sighed.

"What does?" Harm asked. He had been an interested observer of the conversation between Captain and Bombardier.

"Getting the verbal better of Bombardier Walker," Gill confessed. "Yes, I know it was wicked of me to tease him like that, but I so rarely get a chance to beat him at his own game!"

Johnny stalked back towards the Landrover silently fuming. Damned officers! He was still annoyed as he climbed back behind the wheel and slammed the Landrover's door shut.

Julia looked at him in surprise, "What's up?" she asked.

"Who said anything was up?" Johnny demanded, making a major effort to control both his voice and his temper. It wasn't Julia's fault that Captain Shephard had wound him up, so he wouldn't take his temper out on the Petty Officer.

"Well, nobody ain't said nothin'" Julia quipped, broadening her accent into a parody of a West Virginia drawl, "but you was OK when you left here, but now you've come a-harin' back like you had gotten a bug up your ass!"

Johnny drew a breath to answer her, if there was one thing he didn't need was some smart mouth Yank telling him how to behave, but he closed his mouth without speaking and twisting in his seat he looked consideringly at Julia. She was right, Captain Shephard had only commented on finding the two NCOs dozing in the shade; OK, so she had been a little bit unfair teasing him about it, but he had completely overreacted, and now that he'd taken a couple of seconds to actually think, it hadn't been so bad. She could, if she'd felt like it, cut up really rough, and he supposed that Captain Rabb could have been pretty unpleasant about it too.

"Nah, nothing's really the matter," he grinned at Julia, "Just me being more than ordinarily thin-skinned. You'd think that with my years in the mob, I'd have learned not to let what officers say bother me! But there you are!" He turned back to face front and turned the key in the ignition, selected first gear and pulled away from the Mess, carefully negotiating the snarl of vehicles in front of him, and with a casual wave to the unhappy looking Regimental Police who were still trying to untangle the vehicular snarl-up drove slowly along the gravel drive until he came to the exit and turned onto the tarmac.

Once clear of the Garrison and heading back towards Tidworth along the Droveway, Johnny turned to Julia and asked, "What would you like to do this evening?"

"Oh... I don't know that I want to do anything..." Julia replied.

"Oh." For a moment or two Johnny was silenced, but then, mentally girding his loins, continued, "Well, I was thinking that you wouldn't want to stay in your room on your own all evening, no TV, no nothing... and then you've only had a packed lunch, and..." he checked his watch, "We won't make it back before the cook-house closes... so I was wondering, if maybe you'd like to go out for dinner?"

Julia was taken aback, yeah, Johnny was kind of attractive, he was pleasant, polite, funny, and he had taken good care of her today... but she hadn't expected this... whatever this was, "Do you mean, like out on a date?" she asked cautiously.

"Well, yeah, kind of," Johnny replied.

"Oh," Julia replied, asking herself why she had ever thought the British were reserved and cautious. "Um... yeah, OK. Yeah, I'd like that!" she answered.

"OK, I'll drop you off at the female barracks, then I have to put this thing to bed, so if I was to pick you up at about eight, can you be ready?"

"Eight o'clock is good for me," Julia agreed with a smile.

Johnny just smiled and concentrated on his driving.

xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx

Gill was just about to shrug into her Mess Dress Jacket when the knock came at her door, checking her watch,. She smiled, Harm – Captain Rabb, rather – had told her that his besetting sin was unpunctuality, yet here he was, not just right on the button, but a couple of minutes early.

A couple of minutes early he might be, but he was also, for the moment lost for words, Gill's Mess Dress consisted of a full-length, long sleeved, dark blue taffeta dress, with a high round neckline and a sewn-in scarlet sash. Seeing the jacket in her hand, he smiled and said, "Allow me?" and helped her into it. It matched the blue of the dress in colour and had scarlet, notched lapels to match the sash. Her hair was worn in a French plait, a more elaborate dressing than the bun she had worn it in ever since he had met her.

For her part, Gill was pleasantly surprised at Harm's appearance. She had guessed that as he was Navy his Mess dress would be a dark blue, very similar to that worn by the RA Male officers. But she hadn't reckoned on the US Navy having a Summer White Mess Dress Jacket in addition the Blue Winter Mess Dress. He wore his four rings marking him as a Captain on navy blue shoulder boards, his gold wings and medals, of course, and the chain closing on his jacket, a bum-freezer style like her own, revealed his shirt front and gold cummerbund.

Both became aware at almost the same instant, that the other was giving them an appreciative visual inspection. Gill blushed slightly and lowered her eyes, while Harm cleared his throat, and said, "If you are ready, Captain, it would afford me great pleasure to escort you down to dinner."

"Thank you, Captain. Yes, I would like that.

xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx

"Hi there," Julia smiled as she left the female accommodation, "Right on time – for around eight!" she grinned.

Johnny smiled back, "Well, I didn't want to appear too eager, but I didn't want to be late either, so the only option left was to be on time!"

"OK, Mister Smart Guy," Julia chuckled, "where are we going to eat round here at this time of night? Didn't you say last night that the NAAFI Bar only serves chips and nuts, oh, I mean crisps and nuts," she corrected herself.

"I did, and I do know what you meant, but Lord, how you people have slaughtered the language..." he paused to observe while Julia drew a deep breath before she replied, but Johnny had been waiting and sprung his trap with impeccable timing, "That is, the English language," he grinned.

"Ouch!" Julia said, "OK... you got me! But where are we going to eat?"

"There's a pub, The George, at Thruxton, that does good meals and serves a decent pint, it's about a ten minute drive... if that's alright with you?"

"Sounds good to me, but how do we get there?"

"In my car," he said in a surprised tone.

"Oh..." Julia looked even more doubtful, "What about drink driving?"

Johnny shook his head, "I don't," he said simply, "If I'm driving. I'm quite happy with a couple of pints of lemonade and soda water. Besides, tonight isn't about drinking, it's about having dinner and a quiet chat..." he ended hopefully.

"OK, I can live with that," Julia smiled.

"Good, and now Miss Martinez, your carriage awaits!"

xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx

Gill and Harm walked into the ante-room, her hand resting lightly on his arm and a smile on her face as she listened to what seemed to her an improbably far-fetched story which he protested with a wounded expression on his face, was the absolute truth, "So... after it was all over, I asked her if she'd learned that trick at the Combat Development Centre at Quantico. She just smiled, and said nope, she'd seen it used in a movie once! I swear those few words nearly succeeded where the mine had failed!"

"If all that is true..."

"It is! I swear on a six foot stack of bibles!"

"If it is true," Gill continued in severe tones, "Then it sounds as if your partner and you saved each other's lives more than once!"

"Yeah... well, we had our moments..." Harm grinned as he steered her through the gathering crowd in the direction of the bar.

"So where is she now?" Gill asked casually.

"Uh... she got orders to take over a new command in San Diego – that's in Southern California – at the same time I got my orders to take over as Navy FJA Europe."

"But you said you were partners for what, nine years? It must have been difficult being posted so far away from each other..."

"Yeah, yeah, it was." Harm's voice suddenly became flat, and Gill could almost see the barricades going up. Realising that she had trespassed onto sacred ground, Gill swiftly changed the subject, allowing Harm time to recover his equilibrium, "So, just a few pointers about tonight. This is a much more formal affair than last night's mess dinner. But the main point to remember is that no-one, no-one is allowed to leave the table, for any reason at all, until the guest of honour does. He will be sitting next to the School Commandant, a Brigadier, at the centre of the cross table."

Harm quirked an eyebrow, "Not even to go to the bathroom?"

"Especially not that! So, limit your pre-dinner drinks to one short, and watch your wine intake at dinner. I know we both said we'd kill for a long cold drink, but if you take my advice, you'll not have it!"

Harm half suspected that he was being made the butt of some typically British humour but a look into Gill's eyes convinced him that she wasn't trying to set him up for a fall.

"Thank you," he acknowledged her advice with a smile. "What's the penalty for leaving the table?"

"Probably a lengthy spell in the Tower!" Gill chuckled, and then seeing his puzzled expression, "Sorry, 'The Tower' is always the Tower of London, where they used lock up state prisoners. You know, the Princes in the Tower or Anne Boleyn?"

"Didn't they all come to a sticky end?"

"Yes, the Princes in the Tower just vanished, murdered by their uncle, Richard III, according to Shakespeare, and Anne Boleyn was beheaded on a charge of High Treason."

"And I get that just for taking a bathroom break?"

"Probably not," Gill admitted, but your Naval Attached would probably receive a letter of complaint!"

"Ouch! I think I'd rather go to The Tower!" Harm said with a grin.

"Anyway, now that I've briefed you, I'm sure it won't be an issue!" Gill smiled back, and as they at last managed to find an opening in the press around the bar, Gill caught the barman's eye, "A vodka tonic ice and a slice, please," and turned to Harm, "Captain?"

"Oh, a single malt whisky, for me, please," Harm said.

Gill nodded confirmation to the barman and said to him, "Captain Gill Shephard, Three Eight Regiment, please."

"Yes, ma'am!" the white shirted barman replied, serving the drinks and making a note in the bar chit book.

"What was all that about? With the regiment?"

"Oh... that's so the drinks can be added to mess bill from here when they send it on to the regiment."

Harm frowned, "And what about the dinner? And the wine, and everything else?"

Gill sighed, "Yes that all goes on my mess bill too."

"So... looking after me is proving to be quite expensive?" Harm queried a frown lining his forehead.

"Not in the long run... Once I've paid the bill and got a receipt for it, then I can claim your expenses back through the Imprest account, and have it credited to my bank account."

"But in the meantime, you have to bear the cost, right?"

"Yes... but it's one of the ways the army has to make you pay your bills on time. The sooner you pay the bill the sooner you get your receipt and the sooner you can claim!"

Harm shook his head, "I don't like it, I don't like the idea I'm beholden to a junior officer, and a lady at that!"

Gill very nearly pouted at that. "Look, sir, I don't object to you being put out because I'm junior to you, but I am less than thrilled that you object to me paying for you just because I'm a woman! This is the twenty-first century now, and I do believe we even have the right to vote these days!"

Harm stepped back, an amused gleam in his eye and an apology in his mouth, "Yeah, that was dumb of me... but early conditioning is difficult to cast off, and despite all the politically correct rhetoric which our servicemen are force-fed, I can't help but feel that ladies should be treated in a different manner to men. It's a little hard to explain, and while I have some highly valued female friends flying combat aircraft, and I value their skills at least as highly as I do those of their male counterparts, there is still a difference. We – that is my squadron – have lost planes with their pilots and RIOs over the years, some due to accidents, some due to enemy action. It's a risk we all take every time we're fired off a carrier. When an aircraft goes missing, there's sadness in the squadron, but when that aircraft has a female pilot or RIO on board, or worse, both are female, then that sadness is deeper and longer lasting, even amongst the hot-shot jet jockeys who like to pretend that there is no difference between them and the ladies." Harm shrugged, and concluded, "if that makes me a dinosaur, just call me Barney!"

"No, I don't think that makes you a dinosaur," Gill said, inexplicably touched by a hint of sadness in his voice, and unconsciously laying a hand on his arm, "I think that makes you a caring, compassionate man." Realisation flooded over her as soon as she'd said those words and she drew herself up, almost into the position of attention, "Sir!" she gasped, "I'm so sorry! I had no right to say those things! I overstepped the mark, and I am sorry, sir!"

"No apologies needed, Captain!" Harm hastened to reassure her, "It's a refreshing change from what Trouble and Strife call me!"

"Trouble and Strife, sir?" Gill asked, intrigued despite her embarrassment. As far as she knew 'trouble and strife' was rhyming slang for 'wife'.

"Yes, two of my junior attorneys, I think they're half in love with each other and also in denial about that, but they're also highly competitive, and at times let their sense of competition get the better of them. The fact that they've both got hot tempers doesn't help either!"

Gill nearly choked on her drink, "I... ah... take it that they are of two different genders?"

"Lord yes!" Harm exploded. "We may have a don't ask, don't tell policy, but we're not quite so liberated as to tolerate openly gay or lesbian relationships!"

"No... I don't supposed you are..." Gill murmured. She took a hold of herself and said, "We might want to continue this conversation at a later date, but I think we might profit ourselves by having a look at the seating plan?"

Casting an eye around at he rapidly growing number of officers crowding into the ante room and bar Harm silently agreed with her. He estimated there were now upwards of three hundred officers in the two rooms. "Lay on MacDuff!" he conceded and as Gill started to move towards the lectern at the entrance to the dining room, he unconsciously laid his hand on the small of her back as if to guide her through the throng of Mess Dress and Service Dress uniforms from at least half a dozen different countries, The prevalent uniform however was that of the Navy Blue and Scarlet of the Royal Artillery, the male of officers of which he noted with a half smile wore spurs screwed into the heels of their boots. Gill felt the pressure of his hand and although she knew she ought to have taken exception to his action, she found it oddly comforting and comfortable.

It took them a few minutes to locate their names on the seating plan, which resembled a capital E with its open ends facing the dining room doors, and fortunately for Harm and Gill they found themselves positioned on the outer side of what would be the upper horizontal stroke of the 'E'

Gill raised her eyebrows at the sight of the name of the guest of honour and whispered in a slightly ironic manner, "We are among the mighty tonight!"

"How so?" Harm asked.

Gill indicated the name to the right of the name of the Commandant of the Royal School of Artillery, "Look, General Sir Alexander Harley, KBE, CB," she said with a slight quiver of irreverent laughter. "He's the Master Gunner Saint James' Park, the ceremonial head of the Royal Regiment, and our direct link to our Captain General, the Queen. Who knows, he might have been having lunch with her at Buck House – Buckingham Palace, I should say, yesterday, and now he's honouring us with his presence!"

"Taking a bit of a chance, aren't you?" Harm asked, "Aren't you worried that I might carelessly let slip that you were mocking your seniors?"

Gill looked at him thoughtfully, "No... That thought never even crossed my mind! Besides, he's not a bad old boy, he calls all the female officers 'm'dear', claims he can never remember their names. I think," she added conspiratorially "that it's just that he can't be bothered to learn the names in the first place!"

Harm just shook his head, "I don't understand the British at all," he complained, "On the one hand, you're surrounded by all the pomp and circumstance and formality. And you do it very well, I mean, I watched the Guards close order drill display a couple of weeks back, Far more precise than anything our forces could do, well with the possible exception of the Marines Ceremonial Drill Company, but your guys did it without any flash, or extravagant movements, and in those red uniforms and busbies!"

"Bearskins, Captain," Gill gently corrected him, "Busbies are worn by the King's Troop."

"The King's Troop?" Harm queried.

"Yes, King's Troop, Royal Horse Artillery. If you're referring to the Queen's Birthday Parade at Horse Guards, then they were there too. Six horse teams, pulling world war one vintage limbers and guns!"

"Yeah, I saw them too... but Horse Artillery?"

"A ceremonial unit, sir. The three regiments of Horse Artillery are all modern operational units, two of them have got the AS Nineties like ourselves, but Seventh is a Parachute Artillery regiment and they have the Light Guns that we saw in action this morning!"

"Yeah, right... but... but... what I was going to say, was despite all this formality, the way you and you soldiers act around each other... I was expecting yes sir, no sir, three bags full, sir, and yet today, I'm almost sure that your driver was teasing you at one point, and then I know you were teasing him about Martinez falling asleep on his shoulder. And that's another thing, do you always address them by rank?"

"Well, Gunners we generally address by their surname, or if they're long service or are regimental characters, occasionally we call them by a nicknames, but NCOs, yes, we always address NCOs by their rank. If we, the officers, don't respect that rank, then how can we expect the Gunners to respect it either? It strikes me just as odd when you just call you driver by her name, when by anybody's standards, she is an NCO."

"Right... well... I did follow your example and call your driver bombardier, although I nearly called him corporal at one time..."

Gill winced, "That would have been a black mark against you in his book! Our bombardiers are very proud of that distinction!"

"I see, and are there any other shibboleths I mustn't contravene tonight?"

"Well... I've told you about not leaving the table, the only other thing I can think of is that you mustn't talk across the table to the people opposite. You can talk to me and to whoever is on your right hand side. I think that's about it!"

"There are rules about whom you can talk with?"

"Well, yes... oh, and of course, at the end of dinner, there will be speeches, but I don't know if there will be a loyal toast... given the number of foreign officers who might find their republican sensitivities offended by toasting the Queen." Gill added, just a touch too innocently.

Harm looked at her sideways; however all that he said was "H'mm..."

"But if there is to be a loyal toast, then the mess waiters will come around and remove all the glasses except for the Port glass to be used for the toast."

"Why do they do that?" Harm asked, a look of interest on his face.

"Oh, it goes right back to the earliest days of the Royal Regiment in the early eighteenth century. The House of Hannover had replaced the House of Stuart as as the ruling dynasty. There had just been the 1714 rebellion in Scotland, and the Stuart pretender to the throne, the Old Pretender, James Stuart had taken refuge on the continent - Europe - and a favourite toast of his adherents here in Britain was to 'The King over the Water'. When it became dangerous to actually propose the toast in words, it became their custom while drinking to the King to pass their full glass over a finger bowl or other glass on the table, signifying that they were still drinking the toast 'over the water'. So it became the rule, that all other glasses, finger bowls, etcetera, would be removed from the table prior to the loyal toast being proposed."

Harm shook his head in disbelief, "And you still hold to that custom even after nearly three hundred years?"

"Of course, we do," Gill couldn't resist the temptation, "After all, where would be without these new traditions to take the place of old, forgotten customs? And speaking of which, there's one other tradition attached to the Loyal Toast. The President of the Mess, in this case the Commandant of the School, will call for attention, probably by means of a small silver bell, if my memory serves. Then he will say 'Mister Vice, the Queen'. The junior member of the mess is always nominated the Vice President, and he will stand and wait until everyone has stood, and say, 'Ladies and Gentlemen, the Queen'. Everyone else responds 'The Queen', and drains their glass. That marks the official end of the dinner, except that still no-one can leave until the Guest of Honour does, and in the interval, decanters of port will be passed around the table, and always in clockwise direction!"

"And of course, unfinished bar drinks are not to be bought to the table!" Harm added.

"Of course!" Gill replied with a chuckle.

xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx

Johnny gently applied the brakes and brought his five year old Astra to a gentle stop in the pub's car park. "We're here, and to prove it we've arrived!" he grinned.

Julia groaned, "Are you going to be making jokes like that all night?"

"Uh... not if they're going to make you pull a face like that!" Johnny said hastily, "The idea is to make you laugh, not cry!"

"I'll try to remember that, then," Julia said gravely but with a smile.

"Shall we go in then?" he asked.

"We shall!" Julia responded.

Johnny held the door open for her and Julia walked into what she'd always imagined a traditional English pub should look like, a long bar ran almost the full length of the back wall while high-backed bench seats ran the length of the other walls, pierced in a couple of places by doors and fronted by solid looking dark wooden tables. The walls were painted in a very light ochre yellow and immense, solid, dark, hammer beams ran the width of the ceiling.

Johnny led Julia to the bar and leaned on as he looked at her, "What would you like?"

Julia looked at the unfamiliar array of spirits behind the bar and at the beer engines mounted on it. "I'm not sure... what's an appropriate drink?"

"Well, what we call lager is probably the most like American beers, but I always reckon it's pretty poor stuff, unless you go for the high octane stuff, but it is definitely not my plan for you to get drunk tonight. So how about a half of bitter?"

"A half of what?" Julia sked.

"A half pint of bitter beer. It's traditional English beer, and this a pub that serves it in traditional beer engines, so there's no gas in it. Try it, if you don't like it, then there's no harm done, and I'll get you something else."

"OK, I'll give her a whirl," Julia surrendered, "but if it kills me, I'm coming back to haunt you!"

Johnny grinned, and turned to the barman, "Half of Three B's and a pint of soda and lemonade, please. And we'd like a restaurant table for two please."

xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx

It was just gone 2330 hours when Johnny pulled the Astra over to the side of the road outside the female soldiers' accommodation. "Here we be, back at home, or what passes for it, safe and sound!"

"Thank you, Johnny, for the meal, the introduction to English beer - which wasn't as bad as I'd been told - for your company, for looking after me, in fact for the whole evening."

"It was entirely my pleasure, Julia, I have thoroughly enjoyed these last two evenings!" He unbuckled his seat-belt and leaned towards her.

Julia stopped him by placing two fingers on his lips, "Johnny... I'm not interested in one night stands... or short term flings that go nowhere, so I need to be very, very sure..."

Johnny sat back, and nodded, "Yeah, I understand."

"Don't be mad at me, please?"

"Oh, I'm not mad, just trying to work up enough nerve to ask if you'd consider either me coming up to London to see you next weekend, or maybe tempting you to come back down to this neck of the woods."

"Oh..." Julia dropped her eyes and smiled shyly, "I think I'd like that... which way round, I'm not sure... But why don't you give me a call at the office next week, I'm sure we'll be able to sort something out?"

"Yes, I'm sure we will!" Johnny agreed, and leaning in towards her again he adjusted his aim and kissed her gently on the cheek. "Next time, that will be a target round!" he warned her with a grin.

"H'mm... maybe next time, the target won't be moving!" she answered, and then opening the car door, she slipped out into the night, turning to say "Goodnight, Johnny!" before crossing the few yards of walkway to the accommodation door. Johnny watched until she was safely inside, and with a not unsatisfied smile, he engaged first gear and drew away from the kerb.

Julia watched the tail lights disappear and with a cat that ate the canary smile, she headed for her room.

xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxx

"Well, that was interesting!" Harm observed with a wry grin as he and Gill made their way back through the maze of corridors and staircases that led to her room."

"Captain Rabb, why do I get the feeling that you are not being entirely truthful?" Gill asked.

"I haven't got the faintest idea what you're talking about!" Harm declared virtuously.

"Bullshit! Gill declared roundly, "Come on, be honest enough to admit it, that dinner was one of the worst experiences you've ever suffered through!"

"Not at all," Harm disagreed airily, "The Waldorf Salad was a very good example of its kind, and is widely accepted throughout the civilised world as an entirely unexceptional first course. The garlic mushrooms, I admit, were a tad unusual as a substitute for the fish course, but were very tasty, and the butter sauce was actually superb! And although it's been a long time since nut cutlets were served in DC restaurants, the ones tonight were full of flavour, well cooked and well presented. The wines served with each course were well chosen to complement the food, and the port at the end of the evening, although I'm no expert, was quite acceptable."

"Oh, it was a good enough dinner, I'll grant you," Gill conceded, "but it was hardly good enough to invite a man to!"

"You're being a bit harsh, by my reckoning there were four hundred at dinner tonight, and I reckon the chefs did damn well!"

"Maybe from your point of view, but the Beef Wellington was sadly overcooked and as tough as old boots!" Gill complained, "And anyway, you can hardly have enjoyed being button-holed by that Dutch brigadier and being blamed for everything that's gone wrong in the world since the Second World War!"

"Aw shucks, ma'am. Iffen the Good Lord hadn't a wanted us to tek the blame for all of th' ills of the world, then I reck'n he wouldn't a given us sich broad shoulders!"

"That is absolutely absurd!" Gill scolded him, through her chuckles, "and where is that terrible accent from?"

"It's not that absurd," Harm disagreed, "We have made some terrible misjudgements in our foreign policy, and that accent is purest Alabamie!"

Gill gave him a look worthy of a basilisk, but which bounced harmlessly off him, "Ah, we're here!" she said, noticing the number on the door, and torn between relief and regret that the evening, and their conversation was over. "Captain, sir. Thank you for your escort tonight. I hope you sleep well, and I'll see you at breakfast at oh seven hundred!"

"You will, that, Captain. You will that!" Harm smiled, and waiting until she had entered her room and he had heard the lock snick behind her, he wandered off in search of his own room, a thoughtful smile on his face.