Chapter 10


It became an almost nightly ritual for them: Carina would bring him dinner, either from a local restaurant or from her own kitchen; if the weather was good they would walk outside, or if not, they would stay in his room and play backgammon.  The intense emotion that had been so prevalent during the first weeks of their acquaintance had dissipated, and they got to know each other on another level.  They talked about their lives and their families, their likes and their dislikes.  He told her stories of life on the Argo, and she told him stories of life on Earth when the Star Force was away.  And more and more frequently, they discussed the development of Earth Defense’s new automated fleet.  Carina’s team was developing the interface for the fleet, and Mark’s suggestions and help in understanding the requirements were invaluable to her.  At the end of the night, she would help him to bed, and they would have a few minutes of more serious conversation behind his closed door before she went home, kissing him on the cheek or the forehead as she left.


A side effect of their time together becoming less emotional was that it was much easier for them to maintain their resolve to keep a distance from each other physically.  They hadn’t entered the Danger Zone since that night when their pictures had been in the paper, when they had come close to losing control.  Carina knew it was healthier for both of them to pull back from each other, and at least he wasn’t using her as a substitute for Trelaina, but when she was being honest with herself she admitted that she missed being close enough to him to worry about it.  She found herself thinking of him at night, wishing she could feel his arms around her again.


At the same time, she was glad to find that they continued to enjoy each other’s company without that tension.  The longer she knew Mark, the more she liked him, and it felt more like a genuine friendship now that they weren’t always at maximum intensity.  Although she hated to admit it, she had been a little worried that their friendship hinged on the drama.  She still wondered whether it had fueled his attraction to her.  These days she might catch him looking at her speculatively from time to time, but he had stopped flirting with her almost entirely and was careful not to touch her or look into her eyes for too long.


Mark’s legs continued to improve quickly.  He had traded his wheelchair for a walker, and then for a cane, and would be walking freely soon.  Before Carina knew it, it was Christmas Eve and she was swamped with things to do.  She was handling the music at the 1000 services in the hospital chapel in the morning, after which the nursing staff from each floor had special dinners planned for their patients, so she had to do some baking.  She also had a few presents to wrap: a new pair of gloves for Stephen, whom she felt had enough electronic gadgets; a scarf for Homer; a bridal planning guide for Nova, although she was still avoiding the question of when she and Derek were going to be married; and a small photo album for Mark.


It was this last gift that Carina was nervous about.  She knew it would please him, but she wasn’t sure what his initial reaction would be.  When he told her he was having trouble remembering what Trelaina looked like, Carina had the idea to check with IQ-9 to see whether he retained any images of their stop on Telezart in his data banks.  The robot had provided her with a data tape, which she had reviewed to find images of Trelaina.  She had printed the best ones and put together an album for him, with a lovely picture of Mark and Trelaina smiling at each other on the cover.


Trelaina.  Mark had told Carina a great deal about her and had talked about her beauty more than once, but Carina hadn’t been prepared for just how stunning Trelaina was.  Everything about her was perfect – her thick blonde hair, her porcelain skin and sea-green eyes, her slender figure…  Seeing the pictures made Carina feel like a monster, with her unruly hair, her unfortunate tendency to blush at the slightest provocation, and her wide hips.  It was no wonder Mark wasn’t interested in her, if this was what he’d lost.  Not that they were in competition.  AT ALL, she reminded herself with a sigh as she wrapped the book for the party tomorrow.  It would still be unethical for her to date him, even if he did want her.  Which he clearly did not.


Oh, lighten up, she chided herself as she put the wrapped presents by the door.  You’re just lonely because it’s Christmas Eve.  She turned on some Christmas music and sang along as she baked: apple pie, rum cake, tea cookies and sugar cookies, with extra batches to go in a basket for the Ventures, along with jars of local preserves, maple syrup and nuts she had brought from the US.  Mrs. Venture and Jordy still came to visit Mark every day, and they had been so kind to her.  She thought they would enjoy a reminder of home.


By the time the last batch of cookies came out of the oven, her mood had improved.  She wondered whether she would see Mark at Mass.  He had never heard her play and sing, and she had told him she was scheduled for the morning service.  She knew that his family had brought him to the chapel the last few Sundays, and that he’d even attended daily Mass by himself once or twice.  They had the same religious beliefs… another reason for her to crush on him, she thought ruefully.  Well, in just over a week he’d be leaving for a couple of months – maybe then she would get back to her normal self.


After relaxing with a book for a couple of hours, she decided to call the family, since she couldn’t be sure what time she would be home from the hospital party the next day.  She punched in the code and the call was immediately answered by her sister, who was dressed for the holiday in a bright green dress with a shiny red garland draped around her neck.  “Merry Christmas, Kate!  You’re looking festive,” she smiled.


“Thank you Cricket,” Kate said with a grin, pirouetting around the room so that both her skirt and her dark hair fanned out around her.  “Do you like it?”


“The garland is tres elegante,” Carina said.  “What are you guys doing tonight?”


At that moment, their father entered the room, looking haggard.  He smiled when he saw his older daughter and greeted her as Katie continued, excited.  “We’re going over to Eddie’s for supper after church, and tomorrow the boys are coming over for brunch.  Dad let me help make the food!”


“That’s great,” Carina enthused.  She turned to her father, concerned.  “Are you okay, Dad?  You look a little tired.”


“Oh, I’m all right,” he said dismissively.  “You know, planning for Christmas wears an old man out.  How are things with you?”


She was a little worried, but smiled for his sake.  “Great.  I wanted to call and wish you all a merry Christmas tonight, since we’re throwing a dinner for the patients on the floor tomorrow and I’m not sure what time I’ll be home.  Sounds like you’ll be busy, too.”


Katie made a goofy face at her.  “Will Maaaaark be at the dinner?”


Yikes.  Carina was trying not to talk about Mark too much, but apparently she wasn’t succeeding.  She tried to downplay her Kate’s question.  “Yes he will, since he’s a patient on the floor.  Stephen and Homer will be there as well.  And Jooooordy will be there, too,” she added, mimicking her sister’s doe-eyes.


The little girl squealed.  “Cricket, I don’t even know him!”  Carina loved seeing her happy and excited, as she was tonight.  Kate was a bit of a misfit in school, as she herself had been, and sometimes it brought her down.  She had talked Jordy up to the girl as someone she would click with when she came to visit.  It was funny to see Kate’s reaction.


“I keep telling you, he’s going to be your new best friend.”  Carina winked at her sister and turned to their father.  “What time are the boys coming over tomorrow?”  Dad grew more alert as they talked, chatting about family news.  When they finally said good night, Carina fell into bed and slept almost immediately, happy and relaxed.




Christmas morning was a bit of a blur.  Carina dressed with extra care, telling herself she was doing so because it was a special holiday and not because she hoped to catch Mark’s eye.  She had bought a new dress for the hospital party, with a bodice of fitted green fabric and a full skirt of shimmery material in the same shade.  It was modest enough to wear to church but festive enough to celebrate Christmas, and she knew it complemented her skin tone and flattered her figure.  She dried her hair carefully so that it fell in soft waves and curls over her shoulders and took time applying her makeup.  It wasn’t a sin to have a crush on someone and try to look nice for him...  As long as she focused on the Mass while it was going on and didn’t spend the time “making eyes” at him, she figured she was okay.


By the time she dressed, she had to rush to deliver her gifts and food to the ICU before going to the chapel and checking in with the priest.  As the worshipers began filtering in, she sat down at the organ and played traditional Christmas hymns softly.  She recognized several of the doctors and nurses from the hospital among the congregants, and had seen a number of the patients and their families in the halls.  Finally, about ten minutes before the service started, she spotted not only Mark but the entire Venture family, and her heart leapt.  Mark genuflected awkwardly with his cane, and when he stood to enter the pew his eyes sought Carina.  A strange expression passed over his face when he looked at her; he gave her a smile and a nod and knelt beside Jordy with his head bowed.


Carina focused on playing but couldn’t help but glance at him from time to time – he looked quite handsome in his dress blues.  She was gratified to see that, as often as not, his eyes were on her as well.


Father Dave was young and vibrant with a good sense of humor, and made the service interesting and relevant.  His homily spoke to both the military and civilian worshipers, and Carina was able to keep her mind focused.  During the offertory, however, she allowed herself to run on autopilot while her eyes drifted back to the pew where the Ventures were seated.  Yes, Mark was definitely watching her, but also, his mother seemed to be aware that he was watching her.  Carina saw her give him a sidelong glance, a smile on her lips.  Great.


She refocused on the service and managed to keep her mind on it until the meditation after communion.  When she finished performing “O Holy Night,” she glanced at Mark and saw him looking at her with open admiration.  His expression made her insides get squishy (she thought that was the technical term for it,) and she couldn’t help but smile at him.  She knew she must look smitten, but she wouldn’t worry about that now.


The next thing she knew the congregation was joining her in singing “Joy to the World,” signaling the end of the service.  When the pews were empty, Carina collected her things and joined the Ventures.  Jordy ran to her, saluting.  “Hi Carina!”  She smiled and saluted back.  This kid really needed to meet her sister, although their combined enthusiasm might cause an explosion.  “Merry Christmas, young Mister Venture!  Are you excited?”


The boy nodded.  “Yeah!  And we’re coming back here this afternoon to have Christmas dinner!  Are you going to be here?”


“You bet,” she replied, and turned to his parents.  “Merry Christmas.  How are you?”


“Fine, thank you dear,” Mrs. Venture said.  “You did a beautiful job today.  You have a lovely voice – the music was wonderful.”


Carina had never quite gotten used to people complimenting her.  “Oh, thank you,” she said, blushing and ducking her head.


Mr. Venture stood by his wife, nodding.  “Very nice.  Do you sing here often?  We haven’t heard you before.”


“I usually do the evening Mass on Sundays,” she told them.  “I believe you’ve been attending in the morning.  Anyway, it was a lovely service, wasn’t it?  Father Dave is great.  We’re lucky to have him here.”


Mark appeared with his cane and put his arm around her shoulders.  “You told me that you sang, but I didn’t know you were a professional,” he said with a smile.  “That was amazing.  Merry Christmas. 


“Thank you,” she said again, red-faced but pleased.  “I can’t wait for you to hear the band next week.”


At his parents’ questioning looks, Mark explained, “They’re throwing a farewell dinner party for us on New Year’s Eve.  The hospital thinks it will be good PR.”


Carina nodded.  “The next week is going to be crazy around here.”  A week.  They were releasing Homer, Stephen and Mark from the hospital on January 2 (strictly a publicity move – the three men were ready to go home now,) and the Argo was launching on her training mission after the installation ceremony for the cadets on January 3.  Earth Defense had decided it would be good press to throw a party in honor of the survivors of the Comet Empire War, and since several of the heroes were still recuperating, what better time and place than New Year’s Eve in the formal function room at Central Hospital?  The jazz group was performing during the cocktail hour – it would be a fun evening.  But a week.  She glanced at Mark, who returned the look and squeezed her shoulder.  It didn’t seem like enough time, and yet it had somehow only been a few weeks since they’d met.  Carina felt as though she’d known him her entire life.


Mark let go of her shoulder as they started up the aisle but kept his hand on her back, guiding her.  It was a gentlemanly, almost proprietary gesture that made Carina flush with warmth.  She knew she should step away, but it wasn’t hurting anyone, and after next week it wouldn’t matter anyway.  She wanted to build memories of him while she could.


Father Dave was greeting parishioners at the doors.  Carina and Mark let the Ventures step ahead of them, Mrs. Venture giving them a satisfied smile as she passed.  They glanced at each other, amused, and finally Mark let her go as he reached to shake the priest’s hand.  “Thank you, Father.  It was a beautiful service.  Another fine homily.”


“Thanks, Commander.”  The young priest gave him a wide, toothy grin.  “And our girl here did a good job, didn’t she?  I didn’t realize you two knew each other.”  He turned toward Carina.


Mark agreed that the music had been wonderful as Carina stepped in to hug the priest.  “Merry Christmas, Father,” she said with a smile.  “Any big plans?”


He shook his head.  “I’m going to my sister’s, then hopefully relaxing.”


“Well, if you’re looking for something to do later in the day, come on up to the Christmas party in ICU.  I hear there may be adult beverages involved,” she added in a stage whisper.


His laugh was loud and hearty.  “Thank you – I may need some after this week.  I said three Masses yesterday and my third one this morning is coming up.  But I’ll be with my family.  Enjoy the party, both of you.”


“See you Sunday, Father.”  She hugged him again and kissed his cheek, and she and Mark entered the hallway where the others were waiting.


After the Ventures said good bye, Carina and Mark rode the elevator to the top floor.  He put his arm around her again as they exited onto the floor and raised his eyebrows at her.  “My mouth is watering already.  Is there anything a wounded soldier can do to get a sneak preview of dinner?”


She pushed him away playfully.  “That would be against regulations, Commander,” she said with mock scandal.  But at his pathetic expression, she caved.  “OK.  Be a good boy and go to your room and I’ll see what I can do.”


“Thank you, Lieutenant.”  He grinned and kissed the top of her head, and she watched him return to his room.  She wasn’t sure what to make of his flirtatious attitude this morning.  He must be in a playful mood because of the holiday.  Well, she’d take what she could get.


The walls of the lounge were hung with pine and holly garlands; there were brightly decorated wreaths on the windows.  A menorah stood on the hearth, and a table had been brought in and covered with a gold cloth and set with formal china and silverware.  The tree in the corner was surrounded by colorfully wrapped gifts, and the nurses on the early shift had put a ham and a turkey breast in the oven, causing wonderful aromas to waft in from the staff kitchen off the lounge.  Carina smiled.  The cadets had done a good job decorating.


Nova was coming in at 1200 to help prepare the lunch, but there was no one in the kitchen now.  Carina put together a plate of fruit, cheese and crackers for Mark.  She looked again at the tree in the lounge, thought for a moment, and picked up her gift to him.


The door to his room was open.  He had draped his dress coat over the back of a chair and seemed to be waiting for her, so she knocked on the doorjamb and stepped in.  “Here you go,” she said as she handed him the plate.


He looked at it doubtfully.  “Really?  This is the best you could do?”


“Come on!  I risked life and limb, not to mention my career, smuggling these goods all the way down the hall for you.  Besides, you need to save your appetite.”


“Right.”  He sighed hungrily.  “Thank you.”


“I think you’ll survive another couple of hours,” she assured him as she put the wrapped photo album on the desk between them.  “And to help tide you over, I brought you a present.”


“What’s this?” he gave her a questioning look.  “I thought we were exchanging gifts after dinner.”


“Yes, but this one…  I’m not sure you should open it in front of everybody.”  Now that she was presenting it to him, she questioned whether it was as good an idea as she originally thought.  What if it made him sink back into his depression, or, perhaps worse from her perspective, what if it made him fall freshly in love with Trelaina again?  She smiled at him nervously as he picked up the package, curious.


“Thank you…  Should I open it now?”  When she nodded, he tore at the paper.  It took a few seconds for what he was seeing to register on his face, but when it did, she knew she had done the right thing.  His eyes shone with emotion.


“Carina, what… how…” he stammered as he opened the book and looked at each of the pictures.  He looked at her, stunned.  “I don’t know what to say.  How did you do this?”


“Remember when I had ‘business’ with IQ-9 a couple of weeks ago?  This is what it was.  When you told me you were having a hard time remembering what she looked like, I had the idea.”  She fidgeted with her hair.  “Is it OK?”


“Oh, yes!  It’s amazing.”  He put the book down and took her hands, nodding at her, his eyes overflowing, then pulled her into his arms.  He whispered in her ear.  You’re amazing.  I have no idea what I would have done without you this month.  How can I thank you?”  The sensation of his breath in her ear sent a thrill down her spine.  The neck of her dress dipped down in the back, and his hand traveled to the spot where the cloth met her skin, his thumb tracing circles on her bare back.  She felt her own hand slide up to his neck and heard his breathing deepen as her fingers played with his hair.  They stood that way for several long seconds before his arms tightened around her and she took a deep, shaky breath, pressing her face to his, his sideburns tickling her cheek.  The spell was broken in the next moment, however, by a shriek of laughter from down the hall.  The cadets were on their way to the lounge to finish setting up for dinner.  Mark and Carina startled and jumped back from each other.  His eyes were smoldering, making her feel weak in the knees, but the sounds from the hallway helped her to come to her senses and she realized she needed to put a stop to what was happening.  Regretfully she loosened her grip and slid her hands down his chest.


“You can thank me by being happy,” she whispered, her voice unsteady.  “Don’t forget Trelaina, but learn to be happy without her.  You deserve happiness, Mark.”


He stroked her cheek with the back of his fingers.  “Carina, I haven’t…”  But he was interrupted by Nova’s voice, greeting Stephen brightly across the hall.  Carina glanced toward the door, smiled sadly and took a step back.  “I think I’d better go.  I have to help the other nurses.  I’ll see you at dinner, OK?”  He nodded and she walked away, feeling his eyes on her as she left the room.  She stopped at the nurses’ station for a long, cold drink, steadying herself before joining the others in the lounge.



The nurses had appetizers and drinks available by the time the patients and their guests arrived at 1300.  Homer walked in with his mother on his arm, followed by Mark and the Ventures, accompanied by Derek Wildstar, and finally Stephen and his parents.  Carina smiled to see Homer with his mother.  The two were obviously very close – the elderly woman was doting on the young man, who smiled from ear to ear.  Stephen Sandor, she knew, did not have the same relationship with his parents.  After the accident that had claimed his arms and legs and taken his sister’s life, his parents had become cold and distant.  Still, they were here now with him and they seemed to be getting along.


As the guests relaxed, Carina sat at the piano to play background music.  Mark came by several times, bringing her a drink and asking whether she needed anything, but she was just as happy not to have to mingle.  After about half an hour, Nova waved her into the kitchen.  The cadets and other nurses were beginning to bring out the side dishes for dinner, and she and Nova were to carve the meat.


They set up next to each other on the small counter, and when they were alone Nova gave her a sly look.  “Mark can’t keep his eyes off you.”


She couldn’t help smiling, but deflected the comment.  “Come on, Nova.  He’s just being friendly.”


“I don’t think so.  He talks about you all the time, you know.  Even Derek has noticed it.  There’s nothing wrong with that, Carina – you two are good together.”


“Maybe, but I was his caregiver.  It’s only natural for him to project those feelings on me.”  Carina looked at her friend.  “Nova, there are certain things I never want to be.  One is a nurse who takes advantage of her patient’s emotional vulnerability.  One is a woman who gets caught up with an emotionally vulnerable man and ends up with her heart broken.  And one is the consolation prize.  If I allow anything to happen between Mark and me right now, I’ll be all three of those things.”


Nova brandished her carving knife at Carina.  “OK, first of all, nobody thinks you’re taking advantage of anybody.  I don’t think even O’Malley would accuse you of that at this point.  And you may be right that Mark is emotionally vulnerable right now, but I know him pretty well, and I don’t think whatever is going on between you two has anything to do with that.  You’re certainly not his consolation prize.  I don’t mean to denigrate Mark’s feelings for Trelaina, but he spent more time with you in the first week after he woke up than he did with her in the entire time he knew her.  I don’t believe for a second that he’s comparing you to her.”


“You might be right, but he hasn’t let go of her yet.  And I am still his nurse.”  She sighed.  “I really don’t know what’s going on between us, Nova, but I know it would be a huge mistake for me to let anything happen.  You all are going away next week – maybe things will be different when you come back.”


“All right.”  Nova looked like she wanted to say more, but she held back.  “Promise me you’ll keep an open mind?”


“My mind is open, believe me.  It’s just that now’s not the time.”


Nova gave her a measuring look, then grinned.  “You’ve got it bad for him.”


Carina groaned.  “Nova…”


“You have!  Come on – I think it’s great.”


Before Carina could respond, they were interrupted.  “Hey, you two, are you almost ready?  The boys are hungry.”


“We’re coming right now, Cindy.”  Carina picked up the plate of ham and extricated herself from her conversation with Nova.


“Here you go, everybody,” she said as she deposited the plate on the table.  Nova followed, putting the turkey down with a hearty “Enjoy!”


Jordy was fidgeting and tapped the chair beside him.  “Carina, come sit next to me!”


“Sure, buddy,” she said, but Mark put his hand on his brother’s head.


“Jordy, scoot down a seat.  Carina can sit between us.”  Carina smiled at him and kicked Nova’s leg discreetly to keep her from commenting before taking her place between the two Venture men.  After Homer Glitchman’s mother said a blessing over the food, the party began.  The families mingled happily with each other over the feast.  Carina’s desserts were served with coffee at the end of the meal, after which it was time to exchange presents.


The Ventures appreciated the basket of American foods that Carina put together for them, and Jordy especially enjoyed the freezer container of snow that she had brought him.  It didn’t last long, but he and Mark built a mini-snowman before it melted, decorating it with left-over vegetables.  Carina was touched when Mrs. Venture presented her with a hand-knitted hat, scarf and mitten set, in the same shade of green as her dress – her best color.


During the confusion of cleaning up after the families left, Mark pulled her to a quiet corner of the room.  “I couldn’t get out to shop for you, obviously, but I described what I wanted to my mother and she picked it up for me.  I hope you like it.”  He handed her a box awkwardly.


Inside was an elegant gold cross on a delicate chain.  It was simple but beautiful, and Carina was stunned.  “Mark, I…  Wow.  Thank you.  Thank you so much.”  She kissed his cheek and asked him to help her put it on, turning around and lifting her hair.  He clasped the necklace for her, his hands lingering, massaging her shoulders.  Carina leaned into them for a few seconds but stepped away when she noticed that Nova was watching them.  “Come on, help me find the sake set in the kitchen.”


The cadets and most of the nurses had gone home and Homer went off with his mother; the others stayed behind to celebrate the holiday with their friends.  Carina hadn’t planned to stay, but the combined pressure of Stephen, Mark and Nova made her change her mind.


It was an enjoyable evening.  Carina was quiet early on, a little shy about spending time with this group of old friends, but after several rounds of toasts she was completely relaxed.  When the conversation turned to the automated fleet and Stephen asked her for an update on how the design plans were coming, she found her mind was a little fuzzy.


“It’s going pretty well, I guess, but we’re having trouble with the…”  She couldn’t come up with the word she was looking for and waved her hands in front of her.  Mark interrupted.


“No, no, I thought you had decided to…”  He waved his own hands, in a higher position than she had done, and she nodded.


“Oh, yeah.  You’re right.”


Stephen looked confused, and Wildstar laughed.  “Sandor, you created a monster when you introduced these two.  They can read each other’s minds.”


“I can see that,” Stephen chuckled.  “Maybe I’ll be able to get a straighter answer about the defense fleet when the sake hasn’t been flowing so freely.”


Carina had had much less to drink than the men, but she didn’t have a very high tolerance level and she shrugged.  “Yeah, ask me next week.  And Wildstar, we don’t read each other’s minds.  We share one brain.”


“Well, whatever it is, we’re all grateful that you brought Venture back to us.”  Wildstar raised his glass to her.  It was embarrassing.


“He would have been fine without me,” she said.


“Maybe,” Mark put his hand on her arm, “but it would have taken me a lot longer to recover.”


“You’d have been fine.”  She patted his knee and changed the subject.  “Captain Wildstar, have you had a chance to review the computerized upgrades being done on the Argo?”


“Not yet.  I’m a little nervous about them, to be honest, the Council seems so determined to automate every detail.  Can you give me any inside information?”  He seemed satisfied by her reassurances that the Argo wasn’t being made into another Andromeda, and that the human factor would still be her strongest asset.  Earth Defense was happy enough with the new toys it was creating in its automated fleet that the Argo would be left in peace, at least for now.  She had worked with Stephen to ensure that.


“Thank you for helping us,” Wildstar said.  “Have you ever considered joining the Star Force?”


Mark poked her in the arm.  “That’s what I keep saying, isn’t it?  Sandor’s lost a lot of good men.  He needs a giant brain like yours on his team.”


She rolled her eyes at him.  “The next time you all go on a peaceful mission, when you’re actually going to allow females other than Nova on board, you let me know and I’ll get fitted for one of those sharp white-and-blue uniforms, okay?”


“That’s an official enrollment,” Nova smiled.  “I’m going to hold you to it.  It would be nice to have a little more estrogen on the ship.”  At the men’s protests, she smoothed Wildstar’s unruly hair.  “You know I love you all,” she said, “but sometimes I crave a little girl talk.”


“Yeah,” Carina added, “I don’t hear you EDF boys talking much about lipstick and cramps…”


As they laughed, Mark finished his drink and put his arm around her.  “You see why I love this girl so much?”


She blushed.  “OK, I think it’s time to shut you off.  Are you ready to go back to your room?”


Wildstar stood.  “Yes, it’s getting late.  Come on, Nova, we’ll catch a cab.”


Carina walked Stephen and Mark down the hall with some difficulty.  Her head might be spinning a little, but they were both noticeably unsteady.  Cindy was the duty nurse tonight and brought Stephen into his room while she put the gifts she and Mark had received under his tree.  She didn’t want to drive home, and he had agreed to let her leave them there until the next day.  She turned around to find him looking again at the book of photos she had given him, and approached him to say good bye.


“Merry Christmas, sweetie.  Thank you for everything.  And thank your parents again.”


“Thank you, love,” he replied, glancing once more at the book before putting it on his bedside table.  “Merry Christmas.”  He stepped forward and wrapped her in a bear hug, picking her up off the floor.  She yelped and wrapped her arms around his shoulders for balance, laughing.  He chuckled and released her slowly so she slid down his chest.  Feet on the floor, she rested her head against his chest and closed her eyes, and he leaned his cheek on her forehead.  She felt so warm in his arms, so safe and secure, and she didn’t want to let go.  Heat began to spread through her body and for a moment she considered giving in to her desires, but she was sober enough to know she shouldn’t do that.


Letting go of his neck, she rested her hands on his shoulders, trying to step back.  He kept his arms around her waist, however, and leaned back only enough to look her in the eye.  “Carina…”


The intensity of the look, combined with the hoarse, slightly breathless sound of his voice, made her tingle.  She had to stop this now.  “Mark, don’t.”  Her own voice was shaky, and she could feel herself trembling.  She dropped her head, unable to look at him, unable to believe the words that were coming from her mouth.  “Whatever you were going to say, please don’t say it.”


“But why not?”  He sounded frustrated as he tipped her chin up so they were face-to-face.  “I’ll be out of the hospital soon, and –“ a thought occurred to him.  “And nobody needs to know!  We can wait until I come back from my mission to tell anyone.”  He spoke in hushed tones, and his voice had become so eager, so hopeful, that she again considered giving in.  He had a point, and she wanted him so badly that she couldn’t think clearly.  It would be so easy – all she had to do was lean into him, and there would be no more time for misgivings.  But when she looked into his eyes, she could see that they were unfocused, and she realized that, as wonderful and warm as his breath felt on her face, she could smell the sake on it.  Trying to clear her head, she took a deep breath and looked away from him.  Her eyes landed on the cover of the book she had given him, the picture of Mark and Trelaina smiling shyly but happily at each other.


Consolation prize, she thought wretchedly, and reset her resolve.  When she turned back to him, her voice was stronger.  “Mark, you’re not thinking about me right now.  You’re thinking about her,” she began haltingly, reaching behind her back to take the hand which still rested on her waist.  When he protested, she put her free hand on his mouth.  “You are.  And that’s fine – that’s the way it should be.  It’s why I put those pictures together for you.  I just…  We’ve both been drinking, and I don’t want either of us to have regrets in the morning.”


He slouched and backed off, resigned.  “I’m not drunk,” he protested, although he swayed as he said it.  She smiled sadly and steered him toward the bed, her caretaker instinct taking over.


“We’ll talk about it in the morning, all right?” she said.  “I’ll bring you some breakfast and we’ll go for a walk.”


The depressant effects of the alcohol were hitting him.  He sighed heavily.  “All right.  Are you mad?”


“Don’t be ridiculous.”  She paused, smoothing the hair on his forehead.  “Are you?”


“Of course not.  I just…  I don’t…  What’s wrong with me?”


It took her a moment to understand what he meant, but when he looked up at her, she saw rejection written all over his face.  Against her better judgment, she sat down beside him, kissing his forehead and putting her hand on his cheek.  “There’s nothing wrong with you, sweetheart,” she said tenderly.  “Nothing at all.  You’re an amazing, incredibly attractive man.  It’s the timing that’s wrong.”  Belatedly she thought maybe she shouldn’t have said that, but she doubted he would remember much of what happened tonight anyway, so it was probably all right.  “We’ll talk tomorrow, okay?”  He nodded and put his hand on her cheek as well.  Much as she hated to leave him, she needed to do so before her resolve faltered again.  She briefly considered his lips, but settled instead for kissing his cheek as she rose.


As she left the department, Carina stopped at the nurses’ station to tell the nurse that she’d bring Mark his breakfast in the morning.  Cindy looked at her closely.  “You aren’t driving home tonight, are you, Lieutenant?”


Maybe she didn’t look as sober as she felt.  “No, Cindy.  I’m leaving my stuff here and walking home. I’m fine.”


“Are you sure you don’t want a security guard to take you home, ma’am?”


“No, no.  It’s only a couple of blocks, and there are plenty of people out tonight.  Thanks, Cindy.”


“Okay, if you say so.  Merry Christmas, Lieutenant.”


She walked home, confused.  Part of her couldn’t believe she’d turned him down, but she knew if she had kissed him tonight and tomorrow he tried to back away, it would kill her.  At least he still found her attractive, she reflected as she crawled into bed, noting that the room was spinning slightly.  She closed her eyes and put her hands on her head, and soon fell asleep.