Free Fiction on the 14th: Storm’s Gift

M L Buchman military romantic suspense story

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M L Buchman military romantic suspense story

Storm’s Gift
by M.L. Buchman
-a Night Stalkers CSAR romance story-

Combat Medic Arin Amin  will forever disappoint his family. Medic rather than MD. And no “nice Indian wife and many babies” in his foreseeable future.

When a super-cyclone casts him up on a Bengali shore, his path crosses with Dr. Datta Jhanvi. Her vacation? Now a nightmare,  treating the wounded and helpless in the storm’s aftermath. Until she finds a helping hand she never expected.

1

“No way can I tell Mom about this mission.” Sergeant Arin Amin couldn’t tell his family about most of his missions as a combat search-and-rescue medic flying with the Night Stalkers.

But that was for security.

The 160th SOAR specialized in black ops missions, their 5th Battalion D Company more than most.

“Why not? This is humanitarian aide, not some secret shit.” Captain Trisha O’Malley leaned against the stern railing of the USS Peleliu’s hangar deck as if it was a lounge chair. The old helicopter carrier wasn’t throwing a rooster tail, but it was racing ahead hard despite the brutally rough seas.

He’d come up at dawn for fresh air, only to bump into O’Malley enjoying the rough ride.

Arin mimicked the sing-song tone of his mother’s voice, “Go to India. Find yourself a nice respectable girl to marry.”

She laughed, “Sounds like good advice. I found my boy-o in Somalia, even if he was from Vermont.” Another story he hadn’t heard about “Fireball” O’Malley—an irrepressible redhead who stood all of five-foot-two. She’d married six-two of one of the silent warriors of Delta Force.

The Peleliu itself had a lot of stories that couldn’t be told. After the US Marines had finished with the ship, the 5th Battalion D Company of the Night Stalkers had taken her over as a clandestine floating military base. Their highest security missions made even being seen at a particular military base inadvisable.

“This isn’t the 1900s for crying out loud,” he skipped over asking about her story that she probably wasn’t allowed to tell him about anyway. “At least she’s stopped trying to arrange a marriage for me, like it was still the 1800s.”

For a lifetime he’d refused to go visit the “homeland.” As teenagers, his grandparents had left along with the British Raj in 1947. As for his parents, it was unclear if either of them had ever actually visited India. Yet Mom had some fixation in her head that her only son must marry a good Indian girl and make good Indian babies. Maybe if his sister hadn’t married a Wyoming rancher…

Suddenly he was here. India was just fifty kilometers away and he could feel its looming presence.

His mother would be far too happy, for all the wrong reasons.

Finding a “nice respectable girl” hadn’t brought him to India.

Instead, it was Super Cyclone Devesh (another name for Lord Shiva “The Destroyer”), and the storm had certainly lived up to his name. It had striven to achieve a more destructive status, even though there was no rating for an Indian Ocean storm worse than “super.” A super began at the same level as a mid-sized Category 4 hurricane in the Atlantic Basin. There was no nastier word for the strong Category 5 Devesh had unleashed upon the Indian Coast.

The Peleliu hadn’t even hesitated when Devesh exceeded “extremely severe cyclonic storm” status. The ship’s Delta Force and Ranger teams had been nearby, very quietly working the never-ending problem of opium production in the Golden Triangle of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. At the storm’s call, they’d extracted all of their teams and steamed north at full speed—close on Devesh’s coattails.

From Puri (the Hindu center where some branches of his family probably still existed) in the west, clear through West Bengal, and all of the way across Bangladesh had been inundated—in some places up to a hundred klicks inland. Eight hundred kilometers of coast, the distance from the Tex-Mex border to New Orleans, was hammered. Twenty-five million people lived in the two main cities Kolkata and Dhaka, less than nine meters and four meters above mean sea level respectively, despite being fifty and a hundred kilometers inland. Millions would be homeless or at least without safe food and water.

The 1970 Bhola cyclone had killed well over half-a-million people here—in a single storm.

But the Peleliu wasn’t headed up into the throat of the damage path.

He crossed his arms on the aft rail and rested his forehead against them.

“Hey, you okay? Should I call a doctor? No, wait, you are a doctor. Should I call you? Hey, Arin! Quick! You need a doc!” Trisha was clearly enjoying herself too much, never happier than when she was teasing someone.

“I’m a medic, not a doctor. Just ask my mom.”

Army medic. One doing combat search-and-rescue for the Night Stalkers. Bet you do shit that no doc at Mass General ever had to deal with. Let’s fire an RPG—” she pronounced to Ah-P-G with her heavy Boston accent “—in his operating room and see how he does next time he’s chopping on someone’s hemorrhoids.”

“Still just a medic.”

She nudged his arm with a sharp elbow, unerringly nailing the long head of the biceps brachii a hand’s breadth below his shoulder.

“Ow, shit!”

“Simple solution. Do it. Just to spite her. Find a beautiful local girl and marry the crap out of her.”

“You’re a big help. Besides, we’re headed to the wrong kind of place.”

“What do you mean?”

He nodded toward the bow behind him. “Don’t you understand where we’re going?”

Trisha shrugged. “Find out when I get there.” They-ah.

“Ever hear of Cox’s Bazar? Kutupalong? The Rohingya?”

At the last one, she finally nodded. “They’re the folks that Myanmar were trying to kill off a couple years back. Right?”

Arin didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Instead he turned to stare back off the stern and wish that was the way they were headed, even if it would be India rather than their mission in Bangladesh. If Trisha took even just one step forward, he could be the last person to arrive.

“You ever been to a refugee camp, Trisha?”

Her shrug was uncomfortable enough to say that she had.

He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “Cox’s Bazar is a smallish city of a quarter million, if you don’t count the million Rohingya in the two big refugee camps plus those that can’t even get into the camps. Guess what major city is the most densely populated on Earth.”

“I dunno. One of the Indian places. Kolkata, right? That’s just over there somewhere.” She waved a hand to port.

“Wrong by a factor of two. New York too.” He turned to lean back against the rail and stare up the length of the shadowed hangar deck. Devesh’s trailing clouds still cast a heavy gloom over the turbulent sea. The rows of the 5th Battalion D Company’s helicopters were lost in those hangar’s shadows. A maintenance shop near the bow was in full swing, but at eight hundred feet away, he could barely hear it over the deep roar of the ship’s big engines, racing near their limits.

“The main camp is called Kutupalong, and it’s the most populous refugee camp in the world. Over six hundred thousand Rohingya, effectively incarcerated in a fenced prison with too few hospitals and inadequate everything else. Over a hundred thousand people per square mile. The only place close in density is Manila in the Philippines, but they’ve got lots of high rises. This place is filled with overcrowded, one-story barracks and thatch huts. The storm will have collapsed buildings, created mudslides, killed hundreds, maybe thousands. That’s where we’re going.”

Trisha was actually silent for a while.

It was so unusual for her not to have a quick comeback, that he glanced over at her.

At his notice, she shook herself as if shedding any deep thoughts.

“See? A Mass General doc doesn’t have a patch on you. Besides…” and her grin went sideways, “…maybe there’s a seriously cute woman there looking for Mr. Medic Boy. That should make your Mom happy.”

“You’re a lunatic, Trisha.”

“Ha! Been told that a few times.”

 

2

As she emerged, Dr. Datta Jhanvi blinked at even the pale light of the storm’s aftermath.

Where could she possibly begin?

Cox’s Bazar lay at the head of the world’s longest sand beach. It had become a resort town in the 1800s and mostly thrived ever since. Luxury hotels lined its shore.

Or they had when she’d arrived a week ago.

Datta had cowered through the two days of the storm along with everyone else, crowded into windowless service spaces in the Le Grand Bazar Hôtel de Luxe. Which was a ridiculous name as the French had never occupied this area and their menu was a strange mash-up of Bengali traditional and American wood-fired pizza. At least it wasn’t Le Grand Cox. Captain Hiram Cox was a Brit who had rehabilitated the area as a refugee center in the 1700s for an earlier wave of displaced Arakan—predecessors of the Rohingya.

Now, there was only shattered glass on the hotel’s seaward side. Entire seaside stretches of bamboo and date palm—and more than a few beach chairs and the like—had been uprooted and shot through the hotel’s lower stories like great spears. The crashing seas had inundated the first two floors and the spray had soaked all six stories of the upper floors.

The city of Cox’s Bazar itself lay mostly in the flood zone. While the inland areas had been protected from much of the wind, the water had not been stopped until the wooded ridge behind the city.

When Datta finally reached her aunt’s home, she was glad that they’d been renovating during her visit. She’d missed the hominess due to them all staying in the hotel but riding out Devesh in the house would have been too dangerous. Now the long-planned “renovation” would be started with a bulldozer.

Along with everyone else who was ambulatory, she pitched in wherever need was the most desperate. The first day and night, while the storm still lashed them, was mostly about following the cries for help through the blinding rain and gusts that could still heave dangerous projectiles.

Her skills as a doctor had come in extremely useful. Even with minimal supplies, she made bandages from sheets and found a supply of threads and needles in a shattered tailor’s shop.

The second day was grimmer. Triage was rapidly shifting from those needing help to those needing a fully equipped emergency room.

By the third day, when helicopters began racing ashore to deliver aide, she was barely coherent enough to notice.

 

3

Arin felt like some sort of sniffer dog.

The trail had been barely a suggestion at first, but once he noticed it, the pattern became clearer and clearer.

The town had been so badly hit, that the Night Stalkers set up first at the airport that ran close along the back side of the beach. At just twelve feet above mean sea level, any planes that had remained were destroyed, as was the terminal building. An engineering team focused on getting the runway serviceable for more than helicopters. As the Peleliu’s crew assembled and manned a full-medical tent clinic, he noticed a pattern.

The majority of the people who came for help were typically the more lightly wounded, those who wouldn’t have been swept up and treated by the first tier of normal triage. There was some setting of bones, sewing gashes, and applying lots and lots of antiseptic. But for many, it was about checking them over, handing them a fresh water bottle, and giving out instructions to come back for antibiotics if infection set in.

In among, there were a few people who had gone through the first round of triage somewhere else—and had been expertly treated. A bandage so deftly wrapped that it had survived days of abuse. A broken arm reset cleanly and in a proper sling. A major wound stitched more neatly than one of his sister’s quilts. What first caught his attention was that the stitching came in a wide variety of bright colors. None of them were surgical thread.

Most Bangladeshi were Muslim, but some were Hindi like his own family. When he asked those who’d been specially treated, the Muslims spoke of a “Miracle Doctor.” But from the Hindi he began to hear stories of Dhanvantari Jhanvi—the god of healing come to Earth. Though he’d never heard the second part of the name before, Jhanvi meant the sacred Ganges River.

Based on the multi-colored thread of the stitches and the wide variety of bandages, in brilliant florals and paisleys that were once bedsheets, he knew that whoever was out there was running close to the ground. And by the patients’ descriptions, the Miracle Doctor was working without drugs of any kind.

By mid-afternoon, he was sure enough to act.

He grabbed his standard medic’s field pack, signed out an extra “emergency medications” satchel, and went looking.

Not at the waterfront.

Whoever it was had clearly been at a couple of the big beach hotels but moved along. His progress was slow as he treated more of the second tier of injuries without sending them along to the clinic. There were also the fresh injuries of those doing rescue work among the shattered ruins of some building or other.

Not long before sunset, Dhanvantari Jhanvi’s trail disappeared just south of town.

Arin was torn. Ahead lay more people in desperate need, but the trail he’d followed all afternoon had abruptly gone cold.

Behind him lay known territory leading back to the Night Stalkers clinic.

To his right the sea and the setting sun. The sky was mostly clear now and the waves were calming, though the surf still slammed loudly against the hard sand. A kilometer offshore, like a big gray lump, the Peleliu rode at anchor.

As he watched, a Little Bird lifted off the deck and came racing toward the shore. It swerved like a race car, carving each turn hard. Trisha O’Malley.

She was angling southeast rather than northeast to the city.

“Hey, O’Malley,” he called on his radio, following her track until he was left facing the only possibility. Dhanvantari Jhanvi had turned in inland.

“Hey, yourself! Did you find her yet?”

“Who?”

Who? The love of your life, doofus. I thought that’s why we were here. Get on it. Command wants me to go check out that camp you were talking about.” She continued out of sight.

Kutupalong Camp lay in that direction about five kilometers out of town.

He hadn’t thought about that all day, though of course he’d been busy.

“Keep me posted,” he called after her.

“You, too, buddy,” and she was gone.

So he turned inland. There was only one road to Kutupalong.

He hadn’t gone a hundred meters past the edge of the city, before he knew he was on the right track.

A small girl limped along the road, herding a cluster of six goats, most as tall as she was. Her leg was fully encased in a brilliant blue-and-yellow patterned lotus flower cloth.

 

4

Datta didn’t remember stopping.

She didn’t remember lying down on the rough dirt beyond the muddy ditch.

Nor, in the backwash of his headlamp, did she know the man kneeling over her. But it had been days since she’d seen anyone so clean.

“Do you speak English?” His voice seemed kind rather than ready to attack her.

She nodded and ignored the slight sense of vertigo.

“Thank God. My Hindi sucks.”

“Bengalis speak Bengali, not Hindi. How long was I asleep?”

“Oh, right. Sorry. And since I don’t know when you went to sleep, makes that kind of hard to answer.” He offered her a good smile.

“I don’t know either.” She wasn’t even sure if it had still been light or not.

“Are you hurt?”

“No. I don’t think so.” She was still unsure quite where she was. The darkness didn’t give her any cues.

He was looking her over by the light of a bright headlamp that almost made him look alien. What she wouldn’t have given to have one, these last two nights. Or was it three?

She could see that he wore a black t-shirt and camo pants. Indian military? But if so, why would his Hindi suck? Perhaps deployed from some far state.

“You chose a curious place to sleep. But if you’re comfortable, I can leave you here.”

“No. No.” For one thing, whether she had slept or fainted, the sandy mud was caked in her hair and all down her side. “I have to keep going,” her voice cracked.

Before she could even ask if he had any water, he slipped a bottle into her hand. It was clean. She cracked the seal. And it was safe. It was perhaps the first truly safe water she’d had in days.

“Small sips,” he advised even though she wanted to guzzle it back.

“Right,” she knew that. It was simply hard to remember.

He held out an energy bar.

“I think I’m in love,” she took it with a nod of thanks. If she’d eaten anything since the storm, she couldn’t recall it.

The storm!

“I have to get moving.”

“Me, too,” and he turned to look up the road in the direction of Kutupalong.

That’s when she saw the red cross on his pack.

“A doctor?” she whispered.

“A medic,” his voice sounded chagrined as he looked down at the ditch he’d been standing in. It had placed his height close to her own sitting beside it.

She started to cry. She couldn’t help herself.

“I’m sorry. Did you need a doctor?”

Datta could only shake her head. That big beautiful pack would be filled with medical supplies. Good, clean medical supplies that she’d been missing so desperately these last days.

“Are you sure that you’re okay?”

She could only nod her head. For three days she’d been immersed in a hell she’d never imagined. To have a handsome, military medic, carrying a large pack of essential supplies, and speaking American English was just too much. She simply couldn’t speak, or stop the tears running down her cheeks.

“I—”

“Hey, Medic Boy!” His radio squawked loudly enough to make her jump.

“What’s up, Trisha?”

“I need your ass and I need it bad. Where are you?”

He did something to his radio.

“Got you. Be there in two. Trisha out.”

 

5

Arin wasn’t quite sure how the woman had come along. The moment Trisha had said they were headed to Kutupalong, she’d simply clambered onto the helo seat beside him.

The back seat of Trisha’s Little Bird fit two, barely. He tried to give the woman some space, but there wasn’t any way to do it. Instead, they were pressed together from shoulder to hip. Trisha’s standard maneuvering didn’t help any; they took turns trying not to land in each other’s laps.

“Bengali army dudes said we can’t enter the camp. Boss Lady told them to go suck an egg. I get the feeling that they’ve never seen as many guns in one place as Lola hangs on her DAP Hawk. Let’s just say that they’re feeling more cooperative. Dumping you directly at the central hospital, such as it is.”

“Oh joy.”

In moments, they’d overflown the scattered scrub of bamboo and rattan tucked among farmers’ fields.

“Nyah! Nyah! Nyah!” Trisha yelled out as they overflew the front gate guards.

“You’re so mature, Trisha.”

“That’s why you love me so much.”

“Yeah, right.”

The camp was a miserable patchwork. Not a single green thing growing. The rolling slopes were “planted” with bank upon bank of thatch huts separated by twisting narrow lanes that were probably mud most of the time. Low points were still lakes, thick with sewage.

“Cholera city,” the woman spoke for the first time since she’d climbed aboard.

She was right. It was going to be.

“One crisis at a time,” he informed her, and she nodded sadly.

Trisha somehow managed to squeeze in between the power lines and the one tin-roofed building in the area to set them down on a short stretch of cross-hatched brick roadway. People huddled all around, doing their best to cover themselves from the down-blast and debris kicked up by the helo. The ones that worried him were the ones who didn’t even try to protect themselves—too far gone to care.

“This is your stop, lover boy.”

He helped the woman out, then climbed out himself before turning to thank Trisha.

“Is that her?” she asked before he could speak.

“Her who?”

Trisha looked up at the sky. “Dear Lord, I really do try to help the poor soul, but couldn’t you send me someone even a little less dense?”

“What are you going on about, Trisha?”

“Her!” she nodded toward the woman now squatting beside one of the people lying by the curb.

Nice of her to try to help. Who knew what she’d lost today, but she’d stepped forward.

Trisha was still on a roll, “She’s at least as Indian as you are, and a major looker. Normally I’d say out of your league, but hey, maybe there’s hope for you. You should marry her.”

“You’re insane. Get out of here.”

“Go ahead, tell me she isn’t beautiful?”

“I didn’t notice. I don’t even know her name.”

Trisha groaned, begged the Lord’s pardon for fools, then eased up on the collective and was gone.

The hospital had some power. Perhaps a diesel generator. The woman was kneeling under the one outdoor light close by the steel gate. Other than the mud caked all down her side, Trisha was right.

Her thick black hair hung well down her shoulders in soft waves. She wore slacks and a blouse, both of which had seen some hard days. Her hot-pink Converse sneakers were more the color of mud, but he liked them. And her face really was lovely.

“Sorry,” he covered as well as he could for staring. “I didn’t even ask your name.”

“No, you didn’t. But then I didn’t ask for yours either. I’m Datta.”

“Arin.”

“Okay, now that we got that over with, can we go see if they need help?”

The lines of people waiting to pass through the gate made the answer to that all too clear.

“Could you go inside and ask where they most need me? I’ll start right here. I’ve given them hope by just showing up, I don’t want to take that away.”

Datta rested a hand on his shoulder as he squatted in her place beside the injured woman. Perhaps she needed to steady herself. Maybe it was to squeeze his shoulder in thanks. He hoped it was the latter.

 

6

Datta had watched a lot of hospital shows, but she’d never expected to end up in a scene from M*A*S*H. The hospital had an operating theater, but certainly not a western one. And it needed far more than the one it had.

Inside, there were three tables set up in a space that wouldn’t fit one in America. All three were in use. And with her arrival, there were now two surgeons. Within seconds of arriving, she was table hopping crisis to crisis. There was no question of changing gowns or gloves. Datta scrubbed the gloves with a hard lye soap as she left one patient for a nurse to finish closing as well as she could, while she herself moved on to the next crisis.

Scalpels and instruments weren’t autoclaved. Between patients they were briefly plunged into a pot of water boiling on a stand-alone propane burner.

Finally coming fully conscious in the middle of repairing a man’s biceps muscle where a snapped humerus bone had sliced partly through it, she remembered Arin.

She sent one of the nurses to find him.

It had been hours, and she was running desperately low on several items. If he didn’t have them, maybe he’d be able to get them from wherever that helicopter had come from.

Datta turned her attention back to her patient. Somewhere between that thought and the next, the torn biceps patient was sewn up and gone. Now she was helping a woman terrified of losing her baby.

It took less than a minute to determine that her next procedure was going to be an emergency C-section.

Thankfully, there had been little call for a spinal block, so she still had the meds. Better not to knock the woman out, as general anesthesia was going to be in short supply soon.

To keep the woman calm, Datta asked her about her husband.

Not a good choice.

They’d gotten separated by the storm. He was somewhere out there.

Then the woman asked about her own husband. She didn’t understand Datta’s attempts to explain that she’d been too busy becoming a doctor. Somehow, she was less of a doctor for not having a man. A song Datta’s own mother still sang on occasion.

Instead, she focused on delivering the child rather than wonder at the prospects of ever finding time to have one of her own.

 

7

Arin followed the nurse toward the operating theater just as dawn was breaking. He’d lost count of how many people he’d helped over twenty people ago. Or perhaps over fifty ago.

He hadn’t slept well last night and had been on the go for over twenty-four hours since. But their needs weren’t easing.

Trisha checked in occasionally as she overflew him, even resupplying him once. They were using her Little Bird to do some of the heavy lifting of collapsed structures. There were few structures here big enough to need a stronger helo. A pair of bad landslides to the south had probably killed several hundred, but that count might never be accurately known.

Most of the rest of the camp was coming under control.

“I’m not a surgeon,” he told the nurse. But she didn’t appear to speak English and kept indicating that he should follow her. He tried not to look at the amount of blood caked on her gown.

He arrived in the OR, pulled on a mask, and waited by the door. One doctor was wrist deep inside someone’s chest. Arin decided that was probably not a good sign.

Another had a woman on the table and her belly was a great mound of pregnancy.

Even as he watched, the surgeon reached two hands in through a slice across her lower abdomen. Then ever so slowly, she extracted a child covered in a bloody birth caul. It was wiped clean, tipped head down to clear its lungs, and gave out shrill caterwaul of complaint.

He knew it was totally cliché, but he loved the new-life moment amidst so much pain and destruction. The mother wept against the dark fuzz on the little girl’s head even as the doctor sewed her back together.

Seeing the tiny stack of bandages the doctor was reaching for, he pulled a large bandage out of his pack. It had built-in antiseptic and enough coagulant to halt surface bleeding.

“Thank you,” the doctor looked near collapse and sounded grateful enough to cry.

He almost dropped the bandage to the bloody floor when he recognized her voice.

“Datta?”

“Yes,” she peeled the bandage and smoothed it into place.

He couldn’t put the next two thoughts together, even if there was no doubting they belonged there.

His woman sleeping on the roadside was…the doctor he was looking to help. No wonder she’d wanted to reach the camp.

The Rohingya refugee woman and her newborn were rolled out from between them.

A man with a simple broken arm was rolled into her place.

Arin pulled on a pair of gloves and tugged out a SAM Splint.

“Oh my God, I can’t tell you how beautiful that is at this moment,” Datta made a quick adjustment to the man’s arm, earning her a brief yelp from the patient, then held it stiff while Arin wrapped the flexible splint around the arm and secured it with gauze. The nurses knew their role and whisked him away within seconds of the last knot.

There was a low curse.

Arin look up in time to see the nurses rolling out a body whose face was covered with a bloody shirt. It was the other doctor who had sworn.

“You know there was no chance for him, Dr. Banerjee. No hospital could have helped him better.”

“I know, but I had to try, Dr. Jhanvi.”

When no other patient was rolled in, there was an odd silence in the room.

Again, Arin was left feeling slow on the uptake.

“Dr. Datta. Jhanvi.”

She nodded wearily.

“Dhanvantari Jhanvi.”

“What? I don’t speak Hindi.”

“It’s not a word; it’s a name. Dhanvantari is the Hindu god of healing. I left the camp looking for Dhanvantari Jhanvi to see if I could help him. Her. You.”

“You’re not making any sense, Arin.”

No, he didn’t suppose that he was.

But Trisha O’Malley was going to laugh her ass off.

 

8

The evening gathering on the USS Peleliu’s aft deck was an amazing luxury. For three weeks, Datta had chased crises up and down the Bengali coast.

Arin had rarely left her side.

Instead of resenting it, she’d come to rely on his steadfast nature.

His triage was flawless, always feeding her the cases in the most life-critical order. Many of the lesser injuries which would have been brought to her in any US hospital, he patched or fixed himself.

With the resources of the Night Stalkers and the Peleliu behind him, he’d given her an unprecedented scope to help these people.

“Have fun?” Trisha asked her. She’d become Datta’s and Arin’s lifeline for transport and supply.

“You’re twisted.”

“Duh!” Trisha just grinned back.

But it wasn’t an invalid question. For three weeks she’d done what she’d been dreaming of doing for her whole life. A trauma surgeon’s job was to save lives that shouldn’t be savable. Not due to disease or old age, but from accidents.

And she supposed, though she’d never given it much thought, from battle. It was impossible to not think about it aboard this ship. It was a ship of war. Datta had never heard of the Night Stalkers, but even the quickest online search had revealed what she’d already learned for herself—they were exceptional. That their ship, according to everything she could find, had been retired from service several years ago, only made them all the more interesting.

Released from their final call less than two hours ago, the crew were now lounging about the deck, knowing they’d done well.

The chef had set up big grills and was cooking up long skewers of beef and vegetables. A couple of fierce badminton games were being fought nearby, occasionally interrupted by a Frisbee winging through the game. They hadn’t lost one over the side of the hundred-foot wide deck yet.

Had she had “fun”?

In a strange way, for a surgeon, she had. More…fulfillment. She’d done more operations in three weeks than many surgeons did in a year, a very busy year. There was no education like the one learned cutting into a human body and putting it back together.

“Where are you headed next?” Arin asked so softly, she almost missed it despite his chair being close to hers. Would have, if she hadn’t become so attuned to his voice.

Arin had done so much more than help her with patients.

He’d also taken care of her, making sure she ate and slept, without being overprotective. So many men assumed that she didn’t know her own limits, that somehow, they knew better because of having a Y chromosome. All that Arin assumed was that when she finally did hit her limits, a little caregiving might be in order.

“I don’t know really.”

“Why not?” Lola Maloney, the team’s commander handed her a plate piled high from a skewer.

“Well, I just finished my residency in trauma surgery. I have offers from several places.”

Lola had been turning back for the grill. Instead, she pulled up an empty chair, spun it around backwards, and straddled it before asking, “Where are the offers from?”

“Harborview in Seattle, Northwestern in Chicago, and Mass General in Boston.”

Trisha choked in the middle of a swallow of Coke and ended up spewing some out her nose.

“Ignore her,” Lola leaned in intently. “Doc Evans is transferring out soon.”

Datta had met him. He was a damn fine cutter.

“We’re looking for a replacement.”

Datta could only stare at Lola wide-eyed. “But you’d need a Navy surgeon.”

Lola’s shrug was rather expressive on that point. How many rules were bent to have a secretly un-retired ship, filled with Night Stalkers, Delta Force, and Army Rangers, cruising the seven seas?

Then Lola smiled brilliantly and pushed to her feet. She was up to something, and Datta wasn’t sure what. But she strode toward the command superstructure without turning back.

Trisha had finally recovered.

“What was that about?” Datta asked.

“Lola? Oh, she already had you all checked out. Security clearance, all that. She’s probably informing command that they’ll be writing up a formal offer within the hour.”

“No, I meant you trying to snort an entire can of Coke.”

Actually, Lola’s action was exactly what she’d been questioning, but she wasn’t about to tell Trisha that. To stay on the Peleliu? Events like the aftermath of Super Cyclone Devesh were rare, thank Allah, but she’d guess that this ship’s team was probably in harm’s way enough to need a top surgeon on short notice.

Trisha laughed at her response, not the least bit fooled, but took the topic change anyway.

“I was just thinking that they don’t have RPGs shooting through their operating rooms at places like Mass General.” She was winking at Arin, who blushed for some reason.

“What?” she turned on Arin.

He just shook his head and blushed brighter.

“What is it with you two?” She’d thought they might be a couple at first, until she’d met Trisha’s husband, the head of the ship’s Delta Force team.

“Oh, just something we were having a fine time talking about not long ago,” Trisha’s grin wasn’t easing up. “Let’s just say, I was trying to help Mr. Medic Boy—”

“Don’t!” Arin shouted out.

“—get his life on track.”

“Please don’t,” Arin mumbled.

“Missed your chance, buddy. If you’re going to marry the crap out of an Indian woman, I’d say that the prime candidate is sitting right beside you.”

Datta opened her mouth to protest, but nothing came out. Because the statement worked both ways. She couldn’t imagine finding a finer man than the one beside her, no matter how novel the idea might be.

It was much later that night when the two of them were the only ones left on the main deck. The stars shown clear as if there’d never been a storm. The ship and its people were quiescent, taking a night’s rest on the quiet sea before setting off in a new direction in the morning.

“Arin?” She knew what she was asking but didn’t know how to ask it. “Arin Amin. Your last name means trustworthy in Arabic. What about your first name?”

“Mountain of Strength, if you can believe it. I know your last name is for the river Ganges.”

“Gift. Datta means gift in Bengali.”

“Gift,” he said it softly as if she truly was one.

Then in the dark of the empty flight deck, with only the stars above them, he reached out to brush her cheek with his thumb. She had slept against him in exhaustion before, both stained with other people’s blood and the mud that Devesh had seemingly left on every surface.

But this was the first time he’d really touched her since he’d first woken her on the roadside.

His kiss was as gentle as the night—and as welcome.

Would she be happier on the Peleliu where the injuries would be from acts of God or from well-fought battles? Or would it be better to work in some surgical center where she’d be struggling to repair the travesties of car accidents, knife fights, and gang gun battles?

That choice was certainly easy.

Would she be as happy with any man other than the one currently snugging their bodies more tightly together?

That too had an easy answer. She knew more about Arin Amin from three weeks of working side by side than she knew about men she’d dated for an entire year.

When Arin finished the kiss, which was beyond lovely, he didn’t step away. Instead he rested his forehead against hers and sighed resignedly.

“What?”

“Well, I’m not the only one who will think that you’re a true gift. My mother always wanted a doctor in the family.”

Datta giggled. She couldn’t help herself, it just slipped out. “Afraid that she’ll like me more than her son?”

“The thought crossed my mind.”

“Do we care?”

She could feel his smile as he kissed her again.

As long as they had each other, nothing else mattered.

Copyright © 2020 by M.L. Buchman (all rights reserved)
Published by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.
Cover and Layout copyright © 2020 by Buchman Bookworks, Inc.

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Author: Matt

writer, project manic, world cyclist

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