DISCLAIMER: Although they might physically resemble two women we know and love, the characters are all mine.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story has no rating but it is a lesbian storyline. If that is offensive then it sucks to be you. To Brenda, My Valentine. A special thanks to Marie Logan. J
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
FEEDBACK: To Cheyne255[at]gmail.com
The soldier took a deep breath before she grasped the solid brass handle of the dark, walnut door. She entered the impressive lobby of the refurbished, old Spanish-style, office building in the heart of downtown and quietly crossed the floor of terra-cotta Mexican pavers to the half moon-shaped desk that sat between two banks of elevators. The rubber soles of her military-issued mountain combat boots muffled the sound of her walking toward the receptionist. She held a bouquet of flowers and a box of candy and prayed that she wasn't being foolish or hadn't, worse yet, made a mistake. She found the name and floor she was looking for on the directory, bypassing the woman seated under the 'Information' sign.
U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Megan Valentine removed her patrol cap and nodded, shyly, to the people who passed her and either gave her a 'thumbs up' or thanked her for her service. She was proud of her commitment to her country but wished she had changed into civilian clothes to avoid the attention of her being dressed in her Army Combat Uniform. Her flight landed that morning and she had assisted in dismissing her three platoons of troops at the airport so that they could spend the next 24-hours with their families. At 0800 tomorrow morning, the company that had just returned from seven months in Afghanistan would muster for a general debriefing and then they'd be released for ten days of leave. Some for longer, depending how much vacation time they had accrued. SFC Valentine had agreed to share light duty with the training officer, a young second lieutenant, to be in charge of the company and unit headquarters while everyone else was enjoying a well-deserved R & R. She and Lieutenant Popovich would take their individual leaves after everyone else got back.
Megan had no family to greet her upon landing and no one to 'go home to' so it only made sense to her that she should volunteer for the responsibility of ensuring the company area remain squared away and functioning for the next week and a half. Lt Popovich was low man on the chain of command officer totem pole so he didn't have a choice. The few enlisted soldiers who also remained behind, either did so through selflessness of not having anywhere to go, either, or were ordered to. That ensured that the company area was attended at all times by either the training officer, the Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge (NCOIC) or the Charge of Quarters (CQ) who rotated shifts so that someone was always available to answer phones and make notifications, if necessary.
As soon as the command of 'Fall Out' was given, Megan hung around in case there were any last minute questions or instructions then boarded one of the many shuttles provided by the government to take her and others back to her assigned military installation. She stopped by her single room in the barracks, dropped off her rucksack and equipment, checked in at the HQ office and signed out for the rest of the day. She visited the PX, bought the flowers and candy, and then drove her older, in-dire-need-of-a-bath car nearly forty miles into the city, to an address in which she hoped her surprise arrival would be greeted with the same enthusiasm as she brought with her.
She exited the elevator on the second floor and approached the secretary at the desk. Megan's heart felt as though it was stuck in her throat. Behind those doors was the woman who had made her most recent deployment bearable, an angel with whom she had secretly fallen in love and, hopefully, would return the sentiment once they actually met in person.
Megan, again, looked down at her multi-cam ACU, checked that all her rank, insignia and nametags were neat and properly placed and that any identifying velcro patches not authorized off-post had been left in the barracks. She stopped at the neat, glass-top workstation and waited until the woman at the filing cabinets had stopped searching long enough to notice her. When an acknowledgement didn't seem to be forthcoming, Megan looked down and read the nameplate on the desk, looked back on at the woman and cleared her throat.
"Excuse me, Miss Whitney?"
The woman looked over at her, distracted at first, and then with what appeared to be more than a mild interest. "Yes? Can I help you?"
Megan was startled by the beauty of the woman, who plucked a file out of the drawer, closed it and stepped up to the desk. She was tall, at least five or six inches over Megan's height. She had a smooth, tanned complexion, full, sensuous coral colored lips that parted in a semi-smile to reveal even, white teeth. Her light blue eyes were highlighted by just the right tones and amount of eye makeup to enhance their uniqueness. Her hair was dark brown with auburn highlights that hung, feathered and stylishly just below her shoulders. The woman's exquisite eyes performed a slow once-over of Megan's frame, taking in the uniform, the flowers, the candy and stopped at Megan's face.
Caught up in the seductive expression, not having been that openly appraised (and mentally undressed) in what felt like forever, it took Megan a few seconds to find her voice. "I'm I'm here to see Amber Flannigan. Is she in?"
"I'm afraid that Ms. Flannigan is out of her office at the moment. Is there anything I can do for you?"
Megan blinked away the erotic visual that accompanied the question from the silky smooth voice of the enchanting Miss Whitney. She pulled her focus back to her mission. "Do you know when she'll be back?"
"Not exactly. She has an important lunch meeting to attend, it could be hours."
"Oh." Megan couldn't hide her disappointment.
"Was she expecting you? I've never known her to leave and not cancel plans -"
"No. No, she wasn't. My company just got back from Afghanistan and I wanted to surprise her." Her head bowed in mild disappointment.
"Ah you're the soldier she's been emailing," Miss Whitney's face lit up with a dazzling smile.
Megan looked up at the gorgeous woman. "You know about me?"
"Oh, yes. She talks about you all the time. She refers to you as 'my soldier'."
"She does?" Megan asked, with a pleased grin suddenly plastered on her face.
"All the time. Can you stay until she gets back? She'll never forgive herself if she misses you."
Megan looked at her watch. Then wondered why, it wasn't like she had anywhere specific to go. "Um...sure." She set the box of candy down on the desk and extended her free hand. "Megan Valentine."
The woman accepted her handshake with a firm grip, then let go. "Adrienne Whitney." She reached for the bouquet. "Let me get these in some water and I will put them on Ms. Flannigan's desk in her office." When Megan handed her the flowers, Adrienne smiled. "Carnations. Her favorite."
"I know. And the box of candy is dark chocolate covered toffee."
"Oh my God, Sergeant, she will be won over just by the fact you obviously pay attention to detail."
Megan smiled. "Well, that is my job."
Adrienne excused herself and walked to a small break room that looked like a kitchenette with a stove, microwave, refrigerator, sink and cupboards that held mugs and glasses, in addition to other items utilized for eating and drinking. She reached up to a shelf and pulled down a vase. When she came back past Megan, the multicolored carnations were soaking up water in an earth-toned, ceramic urn she carried into Amber Flannigan's office. Adrienne also picked up the red box of candy in the shape of a heart on her way in, left that on Amber's desk, too, and returned to the reception area, shutting her boss' door behind her.
"How much kidding do you get with having the last name of Valentine, especially today?" Adrienne asked.
"It's not just today; I get kidded all the time. Although, when I show ID, I sometimes get free drinks on Valentine's Day."
Adrienne stopped in front of Megan. "Listen since I'm not sure when Ms. Flannigan will be back, would you do me the honor of letting me buy you lunch? I think it's the least I can do to say thank you for your service to our country."
Megan could think of a dozen reasons not to go anywhere with this woman, yet she could vocalize none. "Um sure. You don't have to buy me lunch, though."
"Please, I insist. I'll have you back here in plenty of time to spend time with Ms. Flannigan." Adrienne could sense Megan's hesitation. "A cup of coffee then. Come on. I'm fascinated by the military. You can tell me all about what you do once we get to the Java Jive Café, across the street. It faces the entrance to our office building. That way, when you see Ms. Flannigan come back, you can leave meet her back here."
"Well, actually, we've never personally met."
"What do you mean? I thought -"
"No, I mean, we've met online. Never in person."
"But, surely, you know what she looks like "
"No," Megan answered, hesitantly. "I don't. She's never sent me a photograph of herself. And, you know, it didn't matter, because our thoughts and feelings just seemed so in tune with each other that what she looks like doesn't factor into our friendship."
"Friendship? She certainly made it sound like it was much more than that."
Megan shrugged and smiled, shyly. "I don't want to get my hopes up."
Adrienne linked arms with Megan and escorted her toward the elevator. "You must let me take you to lunch and tell me all about yourself. I'm intrigued."
"Well okay, but don't expect me to tell you anything I feel is too private. That would be disrespecting your boss and I won't do that."
Adrienne held up one hand in a gesture of concession. "You don't have to answer anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. I just have the feeling we're going to be seeing a lot of you around here and we're very protective of our Ms. Flannigan. Not that it would matter to her whether we approved or not." The elevator doors opened and the two women stepped in. "Although we would be out of our cotton-picking minds not to approve of you."
When the elevator door closed, both women looked straight ahead with content smiles on their faces.
Java Jive Café, an old train car transformed into a small diner, was not as crowded as Megan felt it should have been at an hour usually appropriate for a regular lunch crowd. She and Adrienne found a table for two by the window and, as Adrienne had promised, the view showed the main street entrance to the office building. She figured if Adrienne happened to see Amber Flannigan, she could point her out so that Megan would know whom she would be chasing across the street.
It was unusually balmy for February 14th, even for the comparatively mild California desert winter days. Neither woman wore a jacket or coat as their seasonal attire kept them as warm as they needed to be. The patrons all seemed to notice Megan and she nodded a noncommittal greeting to everyone who reacted to her presence. A uniformed soldier in a town located relatively close to a military base was not that rare of a sight so Megan guessed that the attention was probably due to knowing a good portion of the battalion had just returned from deployment.
"Welcome home, Sergeant. Thank you for your service," the male server said to Megan.
"Thank you," Megan said, graciously.
"What can I get you both to drink to start?" He stood, his pen poised to write down their order and looked at Adrienne. "Your usual?"
"Yes," Adrienne said. She glanced up from her menu at Megan. "Their peach iced tea is wonderful."
"Right. Amber raved about their delicious peach iced tea. I think I will try that."
"Appetizers?" The waiter asked. "Our pomegranate-lime guacamole is to die for."
"Sure, an order of that with your blue corn chips works for me." Adrienne looked to Megan, who nodded her approval.
"I'll get that right out for you," their server said and left for the kitchen.
"How long have you been stationed at the Fort?" Adrienne asked.
"Two years but fifteen months have been spent away from there on two deployments. I'm familiar with the town but I really haven't spent a lot of time here."
"How long have you been in the Army?"
"Ah. You've made it a career."
Adrienne's chin was resting on her folded hands. She was once again openly appraising Megan. It was flattering but unsettling and Adrienne only stopped assessing when the waiter brought their drinks, chips and guacamole to their table.
"Ready to order, ladies?" He looked at Megan.
"Your Santa Fe salad looks good," she said, closing the menu and handing it to him. "I'll have the chipotle honey vinaigrette dressing."
"Excellent." He turned faced Adrienne. "Your usual? Pumpkin chorizo soup with a small requesón quesadilla?" At her nod, he finished writing and said, "Excellent. I'll get those orders right in for you." He took Adrienne's menu and left the table.
"I guess you come here a lot," Megan said.
"Enough," Adrienne said and smiled. "It's convenient and the food is good." She went picked up a tortilla chip and dipped it into the guacamole. "Does Ms. Flannigan know how attractive you are?"
Megan stopped in mid-sip of her iced tea. Was Adrienne flirting? Megan was never good at reading when someone was teasing or serious, especially in any situation that brought Megan's appearance into question. "She's seen pictures of me. I can only hope that she was, well, pleasantly satisfied with what she saw. It never seemed to be an issue what either of us looked like."
"But you've never seen Ms. Flannigan. She could look like Medusa, for all you know."
"No, but -"
"Really it doesn't matter. And besides, Medusa was very mistreated and misunderstood." Megan's tone remained cordial but there was a slight edge that revealed she was not comfortable with this subject.
"How do you like the iced tea?" Adrienne asked, deciding to go with another topic.
"Very good. As is this guacamole. Who'd have ever thought avocados would mix with pomegranates?"
"What is it you do in the Army, Sergeant Valentine?"
"Please call me Megan. And I'm a 35 Golf. That's my MOS Military Occupation Specialty."
"What does a 35 Golf do? I'm assuming it's nothing to do with greens and fairways and little dimpled balls." Adrienne grinned.
Megan's heart skipped a few beats at the absolute radiance of Adrienne's smile. The secretary had to be one of the most beautiful women Megan had ever seen. Since Amber had told Adrienne all about her, Adrienne had to know and be okay with the fact that Amber was a lesbian. Not only that but the looks Adrienne was bestowing on her made Megan believe that Adrienne was also gay. She wondered why Amber and Adrienne weren't together. Of course, with their entire relationship starting on the internet, for all Megan knew, maybe they were ex-lovers or, God forbid, current lovers since Amber had never mentioned anything about having a drop-dead gorgeous assistant.
Megan's heart sank at the thought that she might have been played but just as soon as the notion entered her head, it was knocked away by the inherent understanding that Amber just didn't seem like the type of person who would hide things. She hoped she wasn't being foolish in believing that.
Snapping out of her introspection, Megan said, "No, no, a 35 G is an Geospatial Intelligence Imagery Analyst. Okay, it's a little confusing. Analyzing images, intelligence and data is what I am trained in but as an E-7, a sergeant-first-class, I do more supervising at this point. I am responsible for the training, discipline and welfare of a company of about three hundred soldiers. I supervise my troops in collective and individual tasks that keeps them drilled and prepared for their effectiveness in their missions."
"So, like Ms. Flannigan, you're the boss," Adrienne said, intrigued.
"To an extent. Lower enlisted personnel, sergeants and staff sergeants answer to me. I answer to my First Sergeant, my company training officer, who is a lieutenant and my captain, who is the company commander. But, yeah, I guess you could say I'm getting up there in rank." Megan grinned, proudly.
"Is it difficult for women to make rank? I mean, compared to the men?"
The server placed their orders before them, asked if they needed anything else and left when they both said they did not.
"That depends on their MOS. It's always been easier for men to make rank more quickly when they have combat experience. Since - officially women have not been allowed in combat until now, it might even out with females moving higher and faster up the ladder."
"What do you think about the new rule?"
"Women have been in combat for years. We've received the same training for years and we've been going to Iraq and Afghanistan and engaging in firefights with the enemy right along with our male counterparts for years. Some other MOS' with females have been in combat long before that. Female MPs for example: in 1989, Operation Just Cause, when we invaded Panama, it was female MPs fighting right beside their brothers, on those front lines. It made news. Women in combat isn't a new issue. The legal acknowledgement of women in combat is, though. Nearly 400 women have been injured or died in combat since the beginning of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. So what do I think? I think it's my job and what I trained for. Anytime anyone joins a branch of the military, even in peace time, they do it with the knowledge that a war can break out at any time, anywhere and it's up to us to do our jobs. I don't think anyone, male or female, wants to go to war or die in combat. But for those people who believe that women in the military do not have the same mindset or training or proficiency as men? They're clueless and delusional. Women don't join the military to learn how to cook and clean, barefoot and pregnant in some man's kitchen."
"Down, girl," Adrienne said and chuckled at the passion with which Megan had delivered her narrative.
Megan hadn't realized she had sounded so fervent in her articulation. She blushed and dug into her salad with her fork. "I tend to get a little sensitive about it."
"And rightly so, from how it sounds." She watched Megan take a mouthful of salad and saw her eyes close in appreciation of the flavor.
"Oh, my God, this is unbelievably good."
Adrienne smiled and nodded. "I haven't had anything yet that has not been delicious. Would you like to try my soup?"
Megan crinkled her nose. "I'm not a fan of pumpkin but thanks."
"Did you see any combat while you were deployed? Any time?"
"We came close one or two times. We were ready, just in case. We are not a front line team. One of our responsibilities is to conduct an assessment of the damage after a battle, so while we were not right in the thick of the fighting, we were near enough to hear it, feel it and see the aftermath, up close and personal."
"I don't know why but when you first said what your MOS was, I got the impression that you did your job from behind a computer screen. You know, analyzing maps and charts and photos. That if your life were in danger of anything, it would be dying of boredom."
"Death by Power Point?" Megan said and chuckled. "No, we were much more hands on than that. It is our job to provide personnel with critical data regarding the location and set up of enemy forces and potential battle areas. And because internet connectivity can be sketchy in a war zone, we have to be able to deliver the correct data to our pursuing and support battalions, by hand, if necessary. It's also one of our jobs to recommend and implement the use of imaging sensors for reconnaissance and surveillance missions."
Adrienne comically crossed her eyes.
"I know it must sound completely mundane to you," Megan said, between bites of her salad, "but it's really an interesting job. Keeps you on your toes."
"I'm not bored at all. It actually sounds fascinating, I've just never come close to being in that kind of danger so it's hard to wrap my head around."
The server returned to their table and refilled their glasses, asked them how their meals were and then left them alone again.
"And," Adrienne continued, "since I don't have a clear picture in my mind of what your job entails even with that lovely description it sounds very brave and way out of my league." Adrienne wiped the corners of her mouth with the napkin, a gesture that Megan found ridiculously erotic. When she realized she was staring, she returned her focus to her plate but not before she recognized a mischievous sparkle in her tablemate's pastel blue eyes.
"So you're Amber's, I mean, Ms. Flannigan's assistant. How long have you worked for her?"
"About three years now. I used to work for head of the bureau of desert land management and trust me, having Ms. Flannigan for a boss is so much easier."
"Do you like her? I mean, as a boss and as a person?"
"I do. She's extremely fair. I may not agree with some of her decisions but she's equitable. She's a good boss. She has unfailing dedication, something I can see you being very attracted to."
"I guess it's no secret that Ms. Flanagan is, um, a lesbian, then."
"No. She is a private person but she isn't doesn't stand on pretense. She said if it was all out in the open, it isn't anything anyone could use against her," Adrienne said and studied Megan. "And you it must be such a relief for you to no longer have to hide who you are while serving our country."
"A relief, yes, but we still have a ways to go." She finished her salad and pushed the bowl aside. "I'm going out on a short limb here and guess that you are also 'family'."
"Have you and Amb- Ms. Flannigan ever dated?"
"If we had, I doubt sincerely I would still be calling her Ms. Flannigan." Adrienne's smile was coquettish.
"So, no chemistry? No fraternization?" Megan leaned back in her chair. "Why haven't you two hooked up?"
"She's my boss. I like my job. If it ended badly, I would probably be the one who would have to leave."
"I see. Tell me about her."
"What would you like to know? From what she's said, you both seemed to cover just about everything in your emails. I'm just shocked that you've never met her in person or even seen a photograph yet it sounds, to me, as though you are both committed to each other."
"I don't need to see her face to know that she's a good person with a good heart."
"How did you two meet?"
Megan checked the time on her wristwatch. "Shouldn't we be getting back?"
Adrienne shook her head. "She won't be back yet. These lunch meetings she goes to are notorious for being excruciatingly long."
It wasn't that she wanted to be away from this woman's company, it was more that she wanted to stay in Adrienne's proximity and just that thought made her feel as though she was betraying Amber. She attempted to relax. "How did we meet It was a chat room online just before I was deployed. I was only there because I was invited by a friend to join the discussion on gays serving in the military. She was of the opinion that why would anyone want to belong to an organization that expects them to make the ultimate sacrifice yet refuses to treat them as equals with equal rights."
"That sounds like her," Adrienne said and smirked. "And you set her straight so to speak?"
"I told her why I do what I do and that, yes, it was hard to have to hide and deny my sexuality. In order to do the job I do and to keep it, I have to maintain a Top Secret security clearance and to have my lesbianism discovered would have lost me my clearance and got me kicked out. It's an unfair and unbalanced trade-off. But it's a trade-off I agreed to participate in with my eyes wide open. I love what I do and, for me, the opportunity to serve my country and get the training and experience I have far outweighed my desire to be able to defy rules by living openly with a lover."
"But didn't it ever anger you that you weren't allowed to have the same, open personal interactions with a partner or girlfriend that your heterosexual co-workers had?"
"Anger me? Sometimes. I mean, it would have been nice to have someone to see me off and welcome me home at my deployments or to escort me to company functions or to just be able to come home to and tell about my day, about my frustrations, about my joys. Trust me, I have not lived a celibate life but I have, for the most part, played by the rules. And even if the military hadn't repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, in four more years, I can retire if I want. Starting to live openly as a lesbian at forty isn't unusual and, for me, it would have been worth the sacrifice. I realize a lot of people don't agree with me and I respect their stance on that. Anyway, Amber and I continued the discussion away from the chat room and it developed into so much more. She was literally my lifeline while I was over there this last time. This was my fifth deployment. Three in Iraq and two in Afghanistan."
"Why didn't she meet your flight today?"
"That's my fault. I didn't tell her exactly when we were returning. I wanted to surprise her."
Adrienne nodded and pursed her lips. "And what a nice surprise it is."
There was that smoldering look again, Megan thought, the expression that made flames of desire race under her skin. Good Lord, this woman was too hot for words. She needed to get back across the street to hopefully find Amber in her office before she did something she was sure she would regret. Well maybe not regret, per se, but certainly ruin whatever she expected to have with Amber.
"So no one steady because the Army wouldn't allow it. How come no one snatched you up after the law was repealed?"
Megan shrugged. "With the rotating deployments because our skills are high in demand, it seemed silly to me to start something with someone just to have it interrupted every six months. I didn't expect things with Amber to become so special so quickly. But I'm glad they did."
"Can I ask you something really personal?" Adrienne was suddenly solemn.
"Sure. I guess. Can't guarantee I'll answer." Megan was curious as to what could be more personal than everything they had already discussed.
"We hear a lot about PTSD, especially with multiple deployments. What about you?"
Megan took a long drink of her iced tea and contemplated her answer before she spoke, her voice now quiet. "I have had some flashbacks. I have jumped out of my skin when a car backfires. I have had nightmares. I don't think that will stop any time soon. I'm seeing a counselor. I also help counsel troops in my company who have seen and experienced a lot worse than I have. I'm not in denial about the effects of PTSD but I'm a lot better off than most. Are you worried I might be a danger to your boss?"
"No," Adrienne answered, softly. "My concern was for you. Not her." She reached across the table and tenderly squeezed Megan's hand. They exchanged a meaningful look and Megan gently withdrew her hand from Adrienne's grasp.
"Um, thanks. Listen, I've really enjoyed lunch and your lovely company but could we get back to the office? I really would hate to miss Amber."
"Sure. Let me take care of the check and I'll walk you back."
"Are you sure you still want to pay for lunch?" After I can't make it any clearer that I'm rebuffing your advances? Megan thought.
"Absolutely," Adrienne said. She smiled, somewhat reserved with a hint of sadness, and stood up. "I invited you."
Megan released a breath she didn't even realize she was holding. She'd never met anyone who'd had such an instant sexual impact on her before. She felt tingly in all the right places (or the wrong places, depending on how one looked at it) and was startled at the 'awakening' Adrienne had provoked within her. She scrubbed her face with her hands and shook her head as if to rid herself of thoughts that had nothing to do with Amber. Adrienne certainly was a pleasant distraction but before Megan could be tempted anymore than what she already was, she needed to get back on track with her mission.
This was the first Valentine's Day in her life that she had ever done anything spontaneous or romantic and she wasn't going to vary from her course. She'd been waiting months for this meeting with Amber and she wasn't going to mess it up. Megan reached in her pocket and pulled out enough to leave a 20% tip and joined Adrienne at the door.
"I'm sure she's back by now." There was a distinct change in the gorgeous woman's demeanor.
"Great." Megan's face lit up in a mixture of anticipation and relief. She was quite sure women who looked like Adrienne weren't used to being rebuffed. Megan was flattered by Adrienne's attention but she really wasn't interested. She thought of how close she was to meeting her dream woman and her insides began to tremble, briefly, but then she drew a deep breath and calmed herself.
"Are you okay?" Adrienne asked.
"Oh, I'm fine. Just, you know, a little nervous." Megan put her hat on the second they stepped outside of the café.
Adrienne placed a hand on Megan's shoulder as they waited for the light to change so they could cross the street. "Don't be. I think everything will be fine. And may I add that Ms. Flannigan is very lucky." She took her hand away from Megan's shoulder when the 'walk' sign lit up.
They crossed the ground floor lobby and entered the elevators. From her peripheral vision, Megan could see Adrienne studying her again and feel the intensity of her gaze. Under other circumstances, it would have not been so uncomfortable.
Megan was grateful for the short elevator ride. The doors opened to the second floor and they exited, walking back toward Adrienne's desk. They both saw that the office door was open. Suddenly her heart really started to pound. "I can't believe this. I've been in situations where I could have lost my life but I don't think I've ever been as terrified as I am right now."
"Amazing how giving your heart to someone is scarier than giving your life." Adrienne said, wistfully. She had a strange, melancholy look on her face as she placed her hand gently on Megan's arm. "We need to talk before you go in there..."
"I'm sure it can wait," Megan said, politely, trying to keep the mild annoyance out of her tone.
Adrienne dropped her hand and gestured for Megan to go ahead of her as they both walked to the entrance to the big office.
Megan's next five steps felt like fifty. Adrienne leaned against the door with her arms folded. Megan focused on a woman wearing a huge grin and a look of unbridled delight. She opened her arms, stepped up to Megan and enfolded her into a tight embrace. Megan returned the hug and relaxed.
"Oh, my God, Megan, this is such a wonderful surprise. I can't believe you're here!"
Megan took a step back and saw Amber's eyes clouded with tears. She pulled Amber back into her arms and squeezed her securely.
Okay, so Amber wasn't Adrienne but then Megan didn't think there were too many women like Adrienne out there. Amber was older, with short, graying hair, warm brown eyes and a lightly freckled face. She had a slight overbite and a nose a little too slender for her face. She was pleasingly plump in an ill-fitting pantsuit and she wore sensible shoes.
And Megan thought she was the most beautiful person she had ever met. She silently admonished herself for any hint of initial disappointment. Amber's emails and care packages had kept her spirits high when the world seemed to be falling down around her. Amber's words of love and encouragement had helped her through her worst days and nights. Amber was like a flourishing seed in her barren heart. Nothing else mattered.
"It is so great to meet you," Megan said. "I'm sorry I didn't let anyone know I was coming today. Happy Valentine's Day."
"I saw the flowers and the candy. So romantic," Amber said, breaking the embrace. They stood inches apart and just looked at each other, both boasting silly smiles.
Megan hugged her again, delighted with Amber's reaction to her surprise. She took a step back and looked into the twinkling eyes of her savior and couldn't keep the grin off her face. "Listen, I know you didn't expect me and I'm sure you have work to do but I wondered if I could take you out to dinner later."
"You're so sweet but why would you want to take me out to dinner? I would think you'd want to spend your first dinner together by yourselves." Amber looked over Megan's shoulder to Adrienne. "I'm sure Ms. Flannigan would like you all to herself. I'll be outside at my desk, if either of you need anything." The woman left the office, winking at 'Adrienne' as she exited.
Megan stood there, agape, then turned and looked at 'Adrienne,' who leaned against the closed door.
"What -? I don't understand " Megan stammered.
Amber Flannigan, bowed her head and chewed on her bottom lip and then looked directly into Megan's shocked face. "That's why I wanted to talk to you before we walked in."
"Wait you're Amber Flannigan?" Megan's eyes narrowed. "What the hell is going on here?"
"Hear me out, please?" Amber supplicated. When Megan folded her arms and glared at her, she repeated, more softly, "Please?"
"This better be good because right now I am confused and I'm hurt and I'm about 5 seconds from walking out that door." Megan felt a lump in her throat.
Amber remained leaning against the door. She was chagrined but tried to hold on to whatever dignity she had remaining. "All my life, I've been told how beautiful I am. It's not conceit when I say I know that I am. You can only be told so many times before you believe it to be true. And every woman and even the few men I have been with have never loved me or wanted me for me. They wanted me as arm candy, a trophy they could all show off.
"When I met you online, the last thing I was looking for was another relationship. But you had such fire and passion and such soul. You are so noble and decent and real that I lost my heart to you that first month after we began emailing. When you sent me your picture, I fell in love even more not because you're pretty but because you have such an open, honest, 'I don't take any crap off anyone' look about you. You made me feel hope for the first time in so long that I'd be, I don't know safe with you and loved for who I am, not what I look like.
"When you showed up today and I saw your reaction when you saw me, I just had to be sure that your feelings were true, no matter what. So, yes. I tricked you. It was a test. Because everything else about you was all I ever wanted in a partner. If you were as shallow as the others, I needed to know now before I invested any more of my heart."
"So you pretended to be your secretary to see what? If I recoiled, repulsed because she's she's not you? And you were afraid I'd be shallow?" Megan exhaled a sigh of disgust, looked toward the ceiling, gathering her thoughts and then focused back on Amber. "How dare you lump me in with your former suitors after everything I've told you, everything you know about me! I was up front with you about everything. I thought you were, too. I fell in love with what's on the inside of you, Amber, not what's on the outside. And now, because of this little stunt, I'm not even sure I know what's on the inside of you. Not after this. What was all that interest and flirting at the café?"
"I needed to know if you were the type of person who would have dumped someone who looked like Adrienne for someone who looked like me."
"I wouldn't have."
"I know that now. And I'm sorry that I flirted but when you showed up with flowers that I adore and my favorite type of chocolates, I found you so romantic and charming that I couldn't help myself. Being with you online was a safe place for me; I could tell you anything and not fear rejection. But now you're really here, in person, and that leaves me feeling so very vulnerable. It was wrong and petty and uncalled for but it truly was a self-defense mechanism." She took a breath. "Look, it's the internet. I appreciate that you sent me a photograph of yourself but, in reality, you could have been anybody. Look at that football player who was fooled for years by an online fiancé who never existed." Amber shook her head and folded under the disappointment of Megan's stare. Her voice was a whisper. "I'm sorry. It's my biggest insecurity but I had to know."
"I understand insecurity; what I don't understand is outright deception. We had such an honest, open dialogue online, if you had sent me your picture, we could have had that discussion then instead of now where it is beyond awkward and upsetting. Unlike your past relationships, I knew you and wanted to be with you before I saw you." Megan flopped down in the chair in front of Amber's desk. "When my shift was over in Afghanistan, when I would get back to my quarters, dirty and discouraged and dehumanized, your upbeat, encouraging and loving emails were the only things that kept me afloat in the oceans of Suck, that is the war. Your words actually made my life bearable.
"What I loved most about you, Amber, is that I believed our communications to be truthful and candid and you never seemed to pull any punches with what you said or how you felt. That's the woman I fell for not this person I met today who apparently has no faith in me at all. I am not happy with how our first meeting has transpired but I am a soldier and I have seen too many times that tomorrow may never get here so finding someone like you like what we had online is a miracle to me. And knowing life is so precious, I want to hang on to this possibility for all I'm worth.
"I almost walked out of here, Amber. But leaving things unfinished is not who I am. If we have any chance of maintaining the relationship I thought we had developed online and hopefully nurture it to become anything more, we have to be able to trust each other to be honest and to not fall victim to deep-seated insecurities." Megan stopped and revealed a slight smirk. "I know I have some." She watched as Amber wiped away tears. "Despite what happened today, I am still crazy about the Amber Flannigan I met online. If you aren't that person, you need to let me know now." She let her words sink in and saw the genuine regret in Amber's expression and bearing. Both of their hearts seemed to be breaking at Amber's foolish indiscretion. She couldn't just walk away; if they could get beyond this, they had too much going for them. "How about we start over."
Amber covered her mouth to keep from openly sobbing at the fact that she was going to get a second chance, after all. Without hesitation, she stepped closer to Megan and extended her trembling hand. "Hi. I'm Amber Flannigan and I would really like to show you that I am the Amber you met online and not the horse's ass you've just spent the last hour and a half with."
Megan stood up and accepted Amber's handshake. "Hi. I'm Megan Valentine. It's lovely to finally meet you. Would you like to go get a drink with me? I usually get free ones on Valentine's Day."
Amber sniffed and wiped her eyes with her hand. "I'd love to." She attempted to let go but was, instead, was pulled into Megan's arms.
"Now that we've gotten our first fight over with, I expect you to spend the rest of the evening making it up to me," Megan said into Amber's shoulder.
"You just try and stop me, Sergeant Valentine." She leaned down and gave her a grateful kiss on the cheek. "You just try and stop me."
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