FOB Atlantis Military Hospital, Paktika Province, Afghanistan
The phone ringing was a welcome distraction, dragging my thoughts away from my failure and the fact two members of the unit were going home early from deployment. I snatched up the handset and forced cheer I didn’t feel into my, “LTC Rebecca Keane.”
The quiet buzzing static and few seconds of delay indicated the call originated from the States, rather than another forward operating base. Finally, a familiar male voice came through. “Rebecca, Bill Linkfield. How are you?”
My forced cheer turned unforced. “Bill,” I said warmly. “Good to hear from you. I’m doing well. They finally fixed the heating in my office, so things are looking up.” January in Afghanistan—we were lucky to hit the midthirties during the day, and I’d been shivering through paperwork for the past week.
“Lucky you. Took them almost three weeks to fix my air-conditioning last time I was over there.”
“I think I’d rather have no heat than no cooling.”
“Same,” he agreed. “Now I’m just calling with some good news. I have replacement surgeons for you, should be there late tomorrow.”
I leaned into my chair, arching my back for a satisfying stretch. “Wonderful, thank you. What can you tell me about them?”
“Both general surgeons, trauma subspecialty.” Bill paused, and his next words were steeped in apology. “And I’m sorry, but they’re also fresh out of commissioned officer training. Yours is their first unit assignment. They’ll stay with you and rotate out in July, then continue on as fully integrated members.”
A shortened first deployment. Lucky people. I smiled at Bill’s apologetic tone. “You should know by now that fresh is my favorite.” I found genuine joy in teaching newly commissioned officers the ins and outs of how the Army operated in-theater overseas. “Thanks for getting me replacements so quickly.”
“My pleasure. Hell of a thing to happen during your first deployment as an LTC.”
“You’re telling me.” There was no malice or accusation in Bill’s statement, so I had no anxiety about my relatively new promotion to lieutenant colonel. I glanced at the papers on my desk which would send two good and capable surgeons home. Adultery and pregnancy. A double whammy. “Here’s hoping it never happens again.”
“You had The Talk with the rest of them yet?” There was laughter in the question.
“I have. After we already had it before we left for this deployment. And again, it was like giving a sex talk to a group of middle-schoolers instead of a group of educated adults. A little snickering, lots of squirming and avoiding eye contact. I’m pretty sure they realized ‘Please remember you’re not supposed to be having sex with other people while you’re on deployment’ was related to Riley and Evans and their impending bundle of joy.”
Bill grunted. “No matter how much you tell ’em, some of ’em can’t be helped. Now their careers will suffer. Damned fools.”
“I know, but I still think it’s horrible. She seemed overjoyed to be pregnant and I’m happy for her in that regard. And not to mention she had no idea he’s married. But the fact is he committed adultery, so he has to go, and she’s pregnant, so she has to go. And even if I could overlook the fact she’s not due to give birth for another five months, they still engaged in a handful of prohibited activities under General Order Number One and leaving them in the unit could be bad for morale. So now I have to integrate new members into an established team.” I still wasn’t sure that was any better for morale.
“If anyone can do it, Rebecca, you can,” he said. There was a hint of cheerleader in his voice.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“My pleasure. The helo is due at Atlantis around fourteen-hundred tomorrow, assuming there’s no holdups.”
There usually were holdups organizing a huge planeload of cargo and people to travel from the USA to Afghanistan. “Understood. And thanks again for getting me replacements so fast.”
His laugh sounded almost devious. “Don’t thank me yet. I have a feeling one of them is gonna grind your gears.”
I’d yet to meet a subordinate that annoyed me to the point of frustration, and the thought that I’d have one now made me smile. “Oh? Which one?”
“Name’s Fleischer. If type A, obsessive-compulsive perfectionists had an overlord, she’d be it.”
I laughed at the visual. The unit was full of perfectionists—not a bad trait to have in Med Corps personnel. “Surely she can’t be that bad.”
“I don’t think bad is the right adjective,” he mused. “She’s good, almost too good. I read her file from Officer Candidate School and she did everything perfectly. Everything. The OCS trainers said she made them feel like they were recruits who couldn’t perform the most basic tasks.”
My mirth melted away. “Is she insubordinate?” Perfectionism was fine, insubordination was not.
He hastened to backtrack. “Oh no, not at all. Model soldier and model surgeon too, according to everyone who’s worked with her. Model everything. You might have to squash her down a little, put her in her place before she starts pushing against the way things are done.”
I bristled at the insinuation that putting subordinates down “in their place” was the best way to make them realize how the Army worked. That didn’t breed good leaders. It only bred contempt for the chain of command. I moderated my response. “I try not to squash anyone. But thanks for the heads-up.”
“You’re welcome. Their electronic files will be through soon and you can see for yourself.” The sound of his hand slapping the desk carried through the line. “Right, I have a meeting to sleep through. I think you’ve got all you need. Let me know how they get on.”
“Will do. And thanks again for your efficiency. It’ll give me time to integrate them before things get busy.”
Bill snorted a laugh. “Don’t thank me yet, Rebecca. Stay in touch.”
I returned to my paperwork and my feeling of having failed the team. Neither was pleasant. I rolled my shoulders, trying to push the unhelpful sensations aside. What had happened was over and done. I couldn’t babysit the unit 24/7, and Riley and Evans were adults capable of making their own decisions, even if they were stupid ones. I’d just signed the forms authorizing their departure when an email pinged cheerfully into my inbox. Time to turn my focus from the old to the new.
I skimmed the body of the email and noted the names of my new team members. Captain Mitchell Boyd and Captain Sabine Fleischer, both thirty-three. Young, but their medical education and training were top-notch. As I read their files I noted not a single black mark. Not even a gray mark. They looked fit and healthy, and also like they’d been ripped from an Army recruitment brochure. Mitchell Boyd was All-American handsome—tanned, with a square jaw, piercing bright blue eyes and a nose that looked like it’d been broken in the past, but which only seemed to add to his rugged masculinity.
And then there was Sabine Fleischer… I stared for far longer than necessary. Her face was angular without being harsh, olive skin darkened by a tan, dark hair and eyes, cheekbones for days, and a laughing, sensual mouth that looked like it’d barely kept itself from smiling in her ID photograph. The longer I studied her, the more I became aware of a sensation I hadn’t felt for well over a decade. A sensation I didn’t want to feel.
Goddammit. I couldn’t afford to feel that for anyone, especially not a fellow service member and especially not someone under my command. I could only hope her personality was as unappealing as her exterior was appealing. Maybe Bill would be right, and she’d grind my gears. I stared at the photograph again. There was something in that face that made me certain she wouldn’t. Seriousness layered over the top of amusement layered over the top of an almost earnest, puppy-like expression. Sabine Fleischer looked like she’d turn herself inside out to perform a task perfectly and in exactly the way you wanted it done. Then ask you if she could do anything else for you. And smile the whole time.
I sighed and closed the email. She would do the opposite of grind my gears. I just knew it.
* * *
A little before 1500 the next day, the deep rotor sound of a Black Hawk announced the imminent arrival of my new team members. Though I’d assigned Amy Peterson and Bobby Rodriguez—the two most outgoing, friendly personalities in the unit—to show Boyd and Fleischer around, they were nowhere in sight when I went to meet the transport.
The base was fairly quiet—or boring, depending on how you chose to look at it—and a helo that wasn’t one of the Pave Hawks used by Pararescue who delivered our casualties had drawn the attention of half the FOB. People milled about, trying to seem like they just happened to be outside, moving from Point A to B, not like they wanted to catch a glimpse of the new arrivals. Welcome to Forward Operating Base Atlantis, Captains Boyd and Fleischer.
I strolled briskly through the cold, rotor-noisy air, noting they had already dragged their bags from the helo and set them down on the dusty, rocky ground away from the aircraft. Both looked as if they were waiting for someone to tell them what to do and where to go. As I walked closer, I sized them up. Mitchell Boyd would be easily six-one, if not more, and Sabine Fleischer looked to be a few inches taller than my five-five.
At my approach, they moved beside their bags and stood to attention. Almost in unison, they saluted and the moment I’d returned it, I smiled and raised my voice over the declining rotor noise. “At ease.” I took my time to study them and tried not to let my gaze linger on Sabine Fleischer, whose dark eyes studied me with curious intensity. Her eye contact was unwavering, even as she blinked away the cold wind.
“Captain Boyd, Captain Fleischer. I’m Lieutenant Colonel Rebecca Keane, your new CO. Welcome to FOB Atlantis.” I indicated the space with a sweeping arm. “We even turned on some balmy weather for your arrival.”
That dragged smiles from them, though Sabine Fleischer immediately bit down on hers. As their ruddy cheeks attested, it was thirty-one degrees with a miserable wind whipping over from the west. After a quick glance to Boyd, she said, “Thank you, Colonel Keane. I think I speak for both of us when I say we’re thrilled to be here. And the weather is…delightful,” she added dryly. Her voice was unexpectedly deep and husky. It was also sensual, and sexy as hell. Of course it was, because why not throw everything at me at once?
Mitchell Boyd’s Texan drawl agreed, “Sure is. Better than the freezin’ rain at Bagram, ma’am.”
I turned a genuinely amused smile on both of them. “Glad to oblige. Grab your kit and get inside out of the cold.” I glanced at Peterson and Rodriguez who’d just arrived with apologies for being late, citing a post-op check and paperwork. “Amy, show Fleischer around. Bobby, give Boyd the grand tour.”
Bobby nodded, while Amy’s answer was a cheerful, “Yes, ma’am.” Then to Sabine, “Let me show you all the cool shit we have here, Bunkie.” She lowered her voice but I still caught her murmured, “We are going to have some fucking fun together.”
A flash of panic crossed Sabine’s face before her mouth turned upward in an automatic smile. She nodded and turned that intense eye contact to Peterson. “Sure. Great.”
I thought I understood her panic. Amy Peterson was…odd. Parisian-runway-model gorgeous, she could barely get a sentence out without an expletive and was one of those eternally fun-loving and cheerful optimists. Having that put in your face minutes after you’d arrived in a war-torn country for your first deployment would be a lot to take in. But Peterson was the perfect person to help someone acclimate, and being an equal-ranking surgeon should help foster a sense of camaraderie between the two women.
Mitchell tossed an easy smile at Sabine—interesting, and so noted—before he sauntered off with Bobby. According to their files they’d attended college and med school together, and followed the same basic Army career paths. It was logical they’d be friendly, but I’d need to keep an eye on things to make sure I didn’t have another “Goodbye, two great surgeons” situation on my hands.
She straightened immediately, arms rigid at her sides. But her voice was anything but rigid when she queried, “Yes, ma’am?”
“Come to my office once you’re settled. Amy will show you where it is.”
Another slightly alarmed look passed over her face before her expression slid back to neutrality, a hint of a smile playing about her mouth again. “Of course, ma’am.”
“Very good.” I turned and left first so I wouldn’t be tempted to check her out as she walked away.
I’d expected Sabine to take a while to unpack, but within thirty minutes of her arrival I had a knock on my partially closed office door. “Yes?” I called.
The door opened slowly and Sabine appeared, throwing another salute which I quickly stood to return. Her smile was friendly, if a little uncertain. “Colonel Keane? Do you have time for me now?”
I gave her my friendly boss smile. “Fleischer, of course. Come on in and close the door behind you, please.”
Without the cold wind stinging my eyes I could see her properly, and realized my previous two views of her—ID photo, and just before out on the landing pad—hadn’t given me a real sense of her. Aside from her obvious attractiveness, everything screamed perfectionist, from her Army Combat Uniform, which despite the trip from D.C. was without a single wrinkle, to her hair in a neat bun, to the way she stood perfectly at attention. Sans her ACU cold-weather jacket, I noted she was lean and lithe like a gymnast.
I sat, moving my chair back slightly so I wouldn’t appear quite so in-her-face when she was on the other side of my desk. “At ease, Sabine. Take a seat.”
She wavered for a moment as if not sure of protocol, then lifted the chair so it wouldn’t scrape and lowered herself gracefully. Still ramrod straight, she sat with her hands clasped together in her lap, everything except her eyes totally still. After a quick sweep of the room, those eyes strayed to my hands which rested on top of the desk. Specifically, she looked to my left hand and my grandmother’s wedding band on my ring finger. The intensity of her gaze made me want to fidget and I laced my fingers together, moving one to cover the ring. “Are you settled in already?”
Her eyes widened. “Almost, ma’am. I’ve seen the barracks, rec space, and hospital facilities, but I decided to see you before I looked at the rest of the base. But…Peterson gives great tours,” she added, almost earnestly, as if Amy had a promotion riding on how well she’d shown Sabine around, and Sabine wanted to be sure I knew she’d done a good job.
“Ah, that’s good to know. I might have to promote her to official Welcome Wagon status. Though we don’t get too many new kids on the block.”
My banter seemed to have the intended effect, and she relaxed slightly. Slightly for Sabine Fleischer was a shoulder drop of a few millimeters. I watched her carefully, noting she didn’t seem uptight so much as conscious of how she might appear to her new CO. There was something simmering under the surface and as I recalled her dry joke about the delightful weather, I wondered if the thing she was trying to hide was a ridiculous sense of humor. I pulled my hands from the table, and her occasional glances, and rested them on the arms of my chair. “What do you think of Atlantis so far?”
Sabine gestured at the vague space around us. “It’s bigger than I imagined, and the facilities far nicer than I’d hoped for. I was worried we’d be sent to a tent town, and I’d have no idea of how things worked.” From her expression it was clear that Sabine Fleischer didn’t like not knowing how to do something. The smile fell away. “I apologize, ma’am. I didn’t mean to imply those combat support hospitals, or the people working there, were somehow inferior, or…” The look she gave me was pure helplessness.
Though I would have loved to tease her, I decided instead to move right past it. There was time to ease her into team-teasing later. I smiled reassuringly. “I’m absolutely certain you would have risen to the occasion.” The facilities at Atlantis weren’t exactly five-star, but they were a little more stable and permanent than the tents and ISO containers that made up other FOBs. As well as our state-of-the art hospital facilities, we had private—albeit shared for lower ranks—rooms in the barracks instead of cots laid out in rows in a huge tent or building, a chow hall that churned out decent food, a recreation room large enough to accommodate the full off-shift, rudimentary sportsball facilities, our relaxation-time bonfire pit which was thankfully nowhere near the revolting waste burn pits, and then a whole lot of dirt enclosed by an eight-foot-tall razor-wire-topped chain-link fence. “Things will be different here than back home. I’m here to help you in any way you might need, and at any time.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” She leaned forward, almost as if she was about to share a confidence with me. “Do you have any tips for a deployment newbie? Peterson passed along a few helpful things but I feel like her perspective might be a little different to yours.”
God, her voice. A ripple of excitement spread down my spine and I inhaled deeply before answering, “Sleep as much as you can, eat as much as you can, and try to remember that you can’t control everything.”
It was as if I’d just told her she wasn’t allowed to breathe. Her jaw flexed, the side of her cheek sucking in and out like she was chewing the inside of it. So she was a control freak and a perfectionist, and both of those traits seemed to outshine any arrogance or ego, which was strange. In the course of my military career, I’d become very good at reading people, and it seemed arrogance and ego didn’t burn at the forefront of Sabine Fleischer’s personality. That, or she’d become adept at hiding those parts of herself.
“Thank you for that, Colonel Keane.”
Satisfied she seemed to have taken what I’d said on board, I pulled out one of my pep talks. “Your team is your lifeline. Deployment can be difficult, especially your first when you’re trying to learn the ropes and do your job. Lean on your team, let them lean on you. And you can all lean on me. My door is always open if you have any concerns.”
“I appreciate that, ma’am. And I’ll certainly come to you if I need anything.”
“Good. I really do mean it.” I paused to see if there was anything else, and when there wasn’t, I offered her another smile and a, “Dismissed, Sabine. Can you please find Captain Boyd and ask him to come see me ASAP?”
Sabine rocketed to her feet, standing again with that perfect attention posture. I held back my smile, and added intriguing to my list, right underneath gorgeous. I could not wait to work a surgical case with her and see where she put all that perfectionism when things went south. She nodded. “Yes, ma’am. Thank you again for your advice.”
When she turned around to leave, I dropped my eyes to my desk. Free of her intense gaze, I eased a little of the tight grip I’d been keeping on myself. A series of slow, deep breaths helped bring me back under control but lingering unease left me feeling on edge. Racing pulse, flutter of excitement in my stomach, undeniable interest in her? Check, check, check. The only rationalization for these reactions was desire, attraction. Unwanted at the best of times, but here and now and with…her? It was unacceptable.
Mitchell Boyd arrived in a flurry of charm, and by the time I’d finished with Mitch—as he’d asked to be called—it was time for afternoon rounds. I made myself coffee from the Keurig I kept hidden in my office and gathered my stethoscope and notebooks.
The meetings with the new team members suggested they’d both integrate well, and I allowed myself to set that concern aside to focus on what felt like an over-the-top worry. My “came out of nowhere to smack me in the face” attraction to Sabine Fleischer. What the heck was I supposed to do with that?
In my seventeen-year Army career I’d honed my poker face to the point that I even wore it in public outside my workplace, as had been pointed out to me numerous times by women I dated casually. It was such a habit that I never feared I’d slip up and reveal my most private thoughts. But despite my confidence in maintaining a neutral façade, this attraction to someone in the unit, to whom I would be close every single day, worried me. I was treading water in uncharted seas. If I allowed myself private thoughts about her, was it possible I’d slip up and give myself away out of mental familiarity? If I did, it would be disastrous.
I almost scoffed at myself. I was forty-one for Christ’s sake, not some teenager mooning over a girl on the basketball team who I wanted to meet behind the bleachers for a make-out session. An attraction to a woman wasn’t a new concept and I’d never had any problem ignoring such things before, so why should Sabine Fleischer be any different? I’d just do what I always did—put it in The Forgetting Place and move on with my life. For the first time in a very long time, that was the last thing I wanted to do.
Loved the books in this series and I was sooo excited to know that there would be a story from Rebecca’s perspective. I preordered and just finished reading the book and WOW. This book did not disappoint. I love Sabine and Rebecca and have to agree with the previous reviews. This book brings so much clarity while beautifully reeling us in to Rebecca’s obstacles to be with the woman she loves. I would recommend anyone who has read the 3 books to also read this one. To Ms. Noyes, Ask, Tell was the first book of yours, and everyone after, has been truly a joy. Thank you for bringing this and hopefully, if you can, this won’t be the last we see of Sabine and Rebecca. Maybe a where are they now years later 🤔 😉
E. J. Noyes is an insta-buy author for me. This book gives us Ask, Tell from Rebecca’s perspective, and it doesn’t disappoint. We get the story from the start when they first meet, and it carries on up until the events in Ask, Tell. The Ask, Tell parts are fresh and don’t suffer from repetition. At. All.
Wonderful storytelling as ever, from my favourite wlw author.
kendra h. –
We need more! I could read book after book of these characters! If only Ask, Tell and If I Don’t Ask could be combined and made into a movie. I will be rereading these stories forever. E. J. Noyes, well done.
laurie s. –
I just finished reading “If I Don’t Ask”. I’m in a bit of a book hangover. The scenes play on random repeat through my head, fill my heart with emotions, and I know I will need to wait a bit before I can start another book. I’m not ready to say goodbye to this one just yet. I love this story. My only complaint is that E. J. Noyes picks names that could have a few different pronunciations and only shares the correct one in a future book, not when the character is introduced. I found this author by following a different author on Twitter. When Karin Kallmaker mentions and retweets an author, I take it as a warm introduction.