Bits and Pieces

When are we accountable for our actions? When we know the difference between right and wrong? When we are free enough to act upon that knowledge?
Bit struggles when she faces her first chance to decide for herself between what is right and what she wants. At the same time, Jack fights to unify the old crew of the Lenore with the new men and women of the Caprice all while under the looming deadline of a population growing without a place to settle.
If Bit can stay out of trouble, and if Jack can build a team, they will soon race toward distant stars in search of a new home for the ever-growing human race.

amazongoogle-play-logo11barnes and nobel 

 

Synopsis

Chapter One
Bit watched as the last passenger exited the transport. She had to get up now. If she didn’t the flight attendant would ask her what was wrong, and she wasn’t sure she could answer that question.
She wanted to stay with Jack and the crew. She just wasn’t sure she wanted to leave her solar system, not to return until everyone she knew was long dead.
Bit let out the breath she had unconsciously been holding, grabbed the back of the seat in front of hers, and pulled herself to her feet. The flight attendant watched as she dragged her duffel out of the compartment and slung it over her back.
Truth was, Bit didn’t have anyone to leave behind. She had Cila, a friend from her earlier years, and she had just spent her two-month leave with her. Bit didn’t mind leaving her friend behind, now that she knew her new life was all that she wanted. Still, something about knowing that time would be different in Sol than where she was going set her on edge.
She passed the flight attendant—who looked ready to drop kick her out of the transport vessel if Bit didn’t hurry up—and stepped into Ward Port. It was just as crazy as the first time she’d wandered its corridors. She weaved in and out of the crowd, heading towards the line of shuttle hoppers. The very idea of shuttle hoppers was a new, but necessary, concept since two new structures had gone into orbit around Mars. Transports from the surface only landed at the port, meaning hoppers were the only transportation between the various structures orbiting Mars.
A pilot waited outside his tiny hopper. She waved him down and handed over the fare before stepping into the tiny ship. Greene had generously paid, not only her debt but the cost of her trip back to Johannesburg. Of course, her trip wasn’t even a drop in the bucket to his wealth.
The hopper reached Greene’s private shipyard, the comm. crackling. “Hopper 1965 to Ethos. Requesting clearance to dock.”
“Passenger’s name?”
The pilot glanced back at her.
“Larissa Bit Earnest.”
Though the pilot gave her a look for her middle name, he repeated it back into the comm.
“Clearance granted for port 3a.”
“Must be someone important to get that spot,” the pilot mumbled, glancing back at her in the hopes of an answer.
“Not really.”
Another minute and the hopper was sealed to the shipyard. Bit nodded to the pilot and stepped into the shipyard’s airlock. The door closed behind her and the little room pressurized. Beyond it, one of Greene’s employees waited.
“Miss Earnest. Mr. Greene and Captain Macleef have been notified of your arrival. They ask you meet them in the Caprice. Shall I guide you to the nearest airwalk?”
Bit motioned for the employee to lead the way. At the door to the airwalk—a corridor that could be folded back when no longer in use—her guide left her. Bit entered the airwalk and tried not to think about the thin plastic separating her from the vacuum of space. Still, the airwalk did allow for a great view.
In the two months, she had spent on Earth, the ship had been transformed. All but one of the outer panels were in place. In fact, she spotted crews touching up the paint. It wouldn’t be long before they would be clear to set off. She wondered if their crew had changed as much as their ship.
No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t find any similarities between the Lenore and the Caprice. One was a sleek cheetah, the other a hippopotamus. Finally, Bit stepped into the Caprice, her new home. Except it didn’t feel like home.
Nothing felt right in her life. Nothing had since…
Bit pushed the thought aside. It was time to look toward the future.
With her duffle still over her shoulder, she made her way towards the lifts. She knew the layout of the ship from blueprints, though this was the first time she had set foot on it. Part of her wanted to wander, checking out all its nooks and crannies, but there would be plenty of time for that later.
She reached the lift and took it up to Deck 1. The lift door swished open to reveal the bridge. Instead of the captain and Mr. Greene, she found the bridge deserted except for a pair of boots sticking out from under the pilot’s console.
“Calen?” she asked as she stepped onto the bridge.
“Sorry to disappoint, sweetheart,” a man said as he sat up, ducking his head to avoid hitting the console. Short brown hair stuck out in all directions along with a few day’s stubble, framing an oval face. Bright brown eyes looked up at her.
“Who the hell are you?” Biting down on her tongue, Bit grimaced at her sudden exclamation.
He smiled, laugh lines appearing with the expression. “The pilot.”
“I know the pilot. You’re not him.”
The man sighed. “Fine. I’m a pilot, but give me six months and I guarantee I’ll outrank Calen.”
Bit glared at him. “Somehow, I doubt that.”
The man tossed his tool aside and climbed to his feet, his arms rippling with more muscle than needed to control a ship. He stepped up onto the portion of the bridge where she stood beside the captain’s chair. He was a good foot taller than her.
Looking down at her, he whispered, “I’ve got moves you’ve never seen.”
Bit scanned the man from head to toe, taking her time as she did. “Doesn’t mean I want to see them.”
He leaned in a little closer. “Oh, you do. I can see it in your eyes.”
She stared up at him, a tingle traveling up her spine. With the tingle came a heavy dose of guilt. “Nope. I’m good.”
It was his turn to scan her body from head to toe. “Yes… yes, you are.”
“You wouldn’t know. Nor will you ever get the chance to find out.”
His smile returned, and so did her tingle. “I’ll gladly accept that challenge.”
“Best of luck to you,” she said, rolling her eyes to keep from smiling; his grin was infectious.
“I don’t need luck.” He leaned in to whisper. “I have skills.”
Bit snorted through her nose. “And in those skills, do you have the ability to tell me where Jack and Greene are? Or is that too advanced for you?”
The man stepped back. “They’re in the conference room.” He looked at her as if expecting her to step toward him and close the gap. Instead, Bit did an about-face, tagging him with her duffel, and walked back into the waiting lift. She heard him chuckle to himself as the door swished shut behind her.
A second later, the door slid open. Voices met her before she even stepped out of the lift.
A female voice spoke. “Look, all I’m saying is Tau Ceti has seven exoplanets as opposed to Proxima Centauri, which only has one confirmed exoplanet.”
“Hear, hear!” agreed a young male voice.
Another male voice Bit didn’t recognize jumped in. “Yeah, but when you include the other two systems, the two options have eleven and twelve planets in total—close enough not to matter.”
Greene’s voice came next. “I think we can all agree that in the area of exoplanets and distance, the two proposed routes are, for all intents and purposes, identical.”
“Tau Ceti is a near perfect match to Earth in its orbit and saturation,” countered the young man who had encouraged his comrade on.
“And Tau Ceti is a relatively inactive star, especially compared to Proxima Centauri,” added a new voice.
“What do you think, Jack?” Greene asked.
Bit smiled when she heard her captain’s bored-sounding tones. “I think we need to look at more than just the two closest systems. Each route has two other planets in them too.”
“Okay, well, how about this,” one of the male voices; there were enough that Bit was starting to mix them up in her head. “Kapteyn’s Star is moving away from our galaxy. By the time we get all this data back to Earth…” He trailed off, letting the implication lie.
The group paused until Jack piped in. “Remind me, which grouping is Kapteyn’s star in?”
“It’s in Tau Ceti’s route.”
Bit scratched the back of her head, figuring it was time she made her presence known. She took the next step and entered the swath of light pouring out of the room. Those facing the door looked up at her appearance, the rest turning in their swivel chairs to see what the others were looking at. Two women sat amidst seven or so men—Jack and Greene the only two Bit recognized.
“Bit!” Jack said, jumping to his feet. He crossed the room and embraced her, ignoring the large duffel bag still hung over her shoulder. Clearing his throat, he took a step back and presented her to the room.
“Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce Bit to you. She’s the crew member who was on Earth for leave.”
“Jack,” Greene called, his tone sounding like a warning.
“Oh, ah, yes. Bit, why don’t we go dump your stuff and chat, then you can come back and meet everyone properly. You guys don’t need me for this conversation.”
Jack steered her back toward the lift. Inside, he hit the button for Deck 3. They both lapsed into awkward silence until the lift doors opened. They stepped out into the main living deck. According to the blueprints, it contained a large galley, mess hall, reading room, crew and officers lounge, crew and officers gym, and cabins for thirty-some-odd crew members. Bit cringed at the idea of thirty-five people all packed into the ship.
The captain guided her down the wide main corridor that cut the deck in half. Near the prow of the ship, he turned left into a narrow hallway, stopping at the second to last door. He hit the release pad and stepped into the cabin, followed by Bit. The cabin was small, with just enough room to walk from the bed—with storage above and below—to a small desk. A narrow door was open to reveal her own bathroom, also small.
Jack turned to look at her as she pushed her duffel up onto the bed. “How are you, Bit?”
She looked up at him, trying to think of something to say—something neutral. “Fine. Kinda tired. But fine.”
Jack frowned at her as he closed the gap between them. “We’ve missed you. I’ve missed you.”
She looked up at him again, catching his eyes flicking toward her lips, causing her to look down again. “Thanks. It was a long trip. Glad to be back.”
Jack cleared his throat. “Yeah. Two months.”
Silence. Bit’s chest tightened at the awkwardness.
“Look, I need a formal response from you.”
“A what?”
“I need it in writing that you agree to go on this trip. Greene insists. He says if you don’t want to he will get you a job in one of his companies.”
Bit nodded. She hadn’t even thought about what she would do if she didn’t go with this new crew. It was comforting to know she would be provided for if she made that choice. And a little piece of her wanted to, but before she could think it all through, she heard her own voice saying, “Sure. Of course, I’m going. Where do I sign?”
Jack quickly pulled out his pad and presented her with his stylus. Before she could think about it anymore, she signed her name on the line. The pad dinged and the document disappeared. As Jack slipped his pad into his coat pocket, his other hand came down on her shoulder. “I’m glad you’re going.”
Bit nodded. “‘Course. You’d all be dead inside a week if I wasn’t there…”
Jack smiled, but she could see the sadness still glazing his eyes. He moved his hand from her shoulder to her cheek, leaning toward her. Bit tensed, and Jack altered his course. He pecked a kiss on her cheek. “You need anything, I’m here for you.”
Bit nodded again, shoving her hands deep into her trouser pockets. “I know.”
“Now, you need some time or do you want to meet the team upstairs?”
“They our new crew?”
Jack chuckled. “They’re just the science team. Remember, this ship is equipped for a crew of around sixty.”
Bit glanced at her bunk, suddenly realizing one of the storage compartments above it was actually another bunk, sans the mattress. “How big is the new crew?”
“Right now, twenty-nine, but it keeps growing.”
“Oh.” Bit felt her chest tighten at the thought. “Yeah, let’s get this over with.”
They returned to the conference room where the scientists were still arguing, using words Bit had never even heard before. Greene looked pale as he tried to keep up with their discussion. They stopped upon Jack and Bit’s entrance.
“She’s coming!” Jack announced with enthusiasm.
Greene cheered while the scientists nodded, some grinning at the eccentric billionaire. He grabbed her up in a hug. Bit patted him on the back, trying to match his enthusiasm, but the truth was, she didn’t have much to give him in return.
When Greene settled down, Jack began the introductions. “Bit is in our security team.” At the scientists’ various expressions, Jack added, “And don’t let her size fool you. She’s as deadly as any of them. If you will each introduce yourselves, I’d appreciate it. I’d never get all your specialties right if I tried to do it.”
A middle-aged man stepped forward, his balding head shining in the artificial light. A thatch of salt and pepper hair ringed his head. He wore glasses and a day of growth on his face. “Lead researcher, Dr. Emerick Irwin. Gravitational wave astronomy.”
Bit shook his hand, having no idea what he had just said.
Next to him a young woman, with flaming red hair, stood holding an oversized pad. “Dr. Jenny Keller. Magnetohydrodynamics.”
Bit nodded to her, unable to reach her to shake her hand.
A man with long brown hair and matching beard came next. “Thatcher Hull. Astrophysics.”
Standing with his back to her and his eyes on the enormous map being projected onto the wall, a man called, “Dr. Crim Cooper. Exochemistry.”
Bit tried not to smile at the scientist’s unusual behavior. She suspected she was going to like Crim. Next to him stood a young man who couldn’t have been much older than herself. He grinned at her, making him look even younger. “Atlas Sandt. Planetology.”
The only other woman lifted her chin, ignoring Atlas’ grin. “Dr. Cienn Guyadon. Exocology and Exobiology.”
Finally, the last scientist stepped forward. Like so many of them, he looked far too young to be a doctor of anything. “Dr. Holton Campbell. Astrocomputer engineering.”
Bit grimaced, feeling extremely under-qualified to even be in the same room as them. She raised a hand at the mob of geniuses. “Larissa Earnest… First-grade dropout,” she added, mimicking their tones. “But you can call me Bit.”

Chapter Two
In typical Bit fashion, she managed to make the room full of off-the-chart geniuses feel like schmucks. Jack smiled at the floor, waiting for one of the scientists to say something about her joke. Before anyone could, Dr. Cooper—still facing the map—spoke up.
“I really think it’s a fool’s errand to go to Proxima Centauri. It’s just too volatile.”
Everyone turned back to the giant star map glowing on the wall. Specific stars appeared to be highlighted, with little boxes displaying numbers of some sort. Jack didn’t understand any of it, and based on the confused look on Bit’s face, she didn’t either.
“Well, guys, you guys keep talking in circles, saying the same stuff over and over again,” complained Greene. “But we have to choose a route.”
Jack watched as Bit wandered up to the map. Six stars had a red line around their box of information, as though chosen out of many others for comparison. Bit focused on three clustered close together below one of the possible routes. “What about these three?” she asked, cutting into their heated debate.
“Those other two are nearly fifty light years away. We are looking at systems within twenty light years away. I’m sure you can understand why.”
“Not this one,” countered Bit, ignoring the disdain in the scientist’s voice. “This… Gliese 180 is thirty-eight light years away.”
“She might have a point,” Holton said, stepping up to her side. “We could travel to Kapteyn, circle out to HD 40307, and continue on to Gliese 163. Then, if all goes well, it wouldn’t be difficult to take Gliese 180 and Tau Ceti in on the return trip.”
“That isn’t one of the options,” Cienn replied as if that settled it.
Atlas, the young lad Jack suspected to be a troublemaker, jumped in. “40307 has a super-Earth in its system.”
“They all have potential planets for life,” countered Cienn.
Dr. Irwin finally stepped in. “But, if our primary function is to help the human race choose a system to colonize, size of planet is important. There is a difference between finding a super-earth and finding a few Pluto-sized planets. Our population is growing exponentially.”
“But at even current rates, forty light years away is hardly within reach of our race. Not for colonization. If we end up having to terraform a planet, that will take millennia to accomplish if it’s that far away. The crisis of the human population is more urgent than that.”
Bit held up her hand. “I get I’m not as smart as your small toenail, but I am a fresh pair of eyes. Why don’t you walk me through your two routes and I’ll see if I can come up with some questions that you haven’t thought of yet.”
“Great idea,” Greene said, clapping his hands together. The scientists didn’t seem to share his enthusiasm. Jack guided Bit to a chair and sat in the one next to her. He didn’t mind listening to the same information all over again if he got to watch Bit while the scientists talked.
She looked thinner than when she had left if that were even possible. There were dark circles under her eyes and a tightness about her lips that she hadn’t had before. Whatever had happened while visiting Johannesburg, it hadn’t helped her heal from the past. He wondered if she was really well enough to go on a multi-year mission with a bunch of strangers. Then again, he couldn’t bear the thought of leaving her behind, never to see her again.
The scientists began to delve into their presentation. Jack didn’t pay them much heed. He had heard it numerous times already. His focus was on Bit. She had suffered a severe blow with Oden’s sudden death… No, she was suffering. She wasn’t over him and wouldn’t be for a long time. He doubted she would be open to any intimacy for at least another year. But he would wait. She was worth the wait.
The presentation ended, and Jack blinked, realizing he had stared at her through the entire thing. He feared any one of the geniuses in the room might have noticed his distraction. At the end of their spiel, Bit just stared at them in silence for a long time. The team of scientists glanced at each other, giving looks that suggested they thought she hadn’t understood any of it.
Finally, her features crumpled into a frown. “Do you believe in aliens?”
The various doctors exchanged more looks, a few even snickering.
“It’s a serious question,” Bit added when they didn’t say anything.
Finally, the leader spoke. “Uh… While there are some scientists who think it is likely we will find aliens, that is not the purpose of this journey.”
Jack glanced at Greene, who was grinning from ear to ear, his eyes also on Bit.
“But there… might… be.”
Crim cleared his throat. “Yes. We might encounter… life not found in the Sol System.”
“So you’re saying there is a huge factor involved in our journey that we have no control over and no way to predict, and you want to make a plan?”
The scientists didn’t reply.
“Go to the closest one in your big list and see what happens. Once we actually see what it’s like to fly out beyond our own galaxy—something that’s never been done before—then make your decision on where to go next. If I remember right, Proxima Centauri is the closest star by eight-to-ten light years.”
The various scientists all nodded. “That’s a pretty big difference from your secondary route. We’d have to travel a lot longer before even reaching a habitable planet.”
They were all silent.
Bit shrugged. “It seems obvious to me, but it’s up to you smart people.”
With that, Bit climbed to her feet and looked at Jack. He gave her a smile. “Thank you, Bit. Randal and the security team are in the gym. Why don’t you go check in with him?”
Bit gave him a formal nod and exited the conference room—she wasn’t herself.

Bit hit the button on the lift, her stomach bouncing with the sudden drop, or was it from her own nerves? It was clear the scientists didn’t think much of her. Would the new security team feel the same way? Reese and Nathyn would still be there, but so would any number of new faces. Bit felt drained—like she had been beaten against a rock and left out to dry.
The lift opened to reveal Vance and June standing in the corridor. Bit felt her stomach clench. You’re such a dick, the voice in her head chided. June should have been the first person I went to see.
The tiny nine-year-old spotted her aunt and flung herself into Bit’s arms. “You’re back!”
Bit squeezed her tightly. “Hey, kiddo.”
“When did you get back?” Vance asked.
“Maybe an hour ago. I would have come to see you sooner, but Jack needed me.”
Vance shrugged. “‘Course. Where you off to now?”
“I need to check in with Randal,” Bit said, still holding her niece to her chest.
“Right. C’mon munchkin,” Vance said, tugging on June. “You two can catch up at dinner.”
June released her, giving her a bright smile that hurt Bit to see. “I have so much to tell you.”
Bit forced a smile to her lips. “I can’t wait. We’ll sit together for dinner.”
“Sweet!”
Bit traded places with June and Vance, a little piece of her wondering where the duo was going. Bit turned to the left and entered the first door, only to find herself in one of the lounges. It took her a second to realize she had turned the wrong direction.
Three men sat around a table playing Man of War. Beyond them sat three younger men—teenagers really. The man facing the door jumped up. “Bit!” Calen exclaimed.
Before she could reply, he had grabbed her up in a hug and spun her around until she was dizzy. When he finally set her down, he kept hold of her shoulder to give her a chance to establish her equilibrium. “Jack said you were due home any day now.”
“Hey, Calen. Just got back about an hour ago.”
“Come meet the new pilots.” They crossed to the gaming table. “This is Evan Duke.”
“We’ve met,” Bit said, her tone low.
Evan rose to his feet, far too graceful for his size. “She fell instantly in love with me.”
Bit glanced up at Calen. “He means I didn’t punch him in the nuts.”
“Hey, for Bit that’s practically a proposal of marriage.” Calen turned to the third man, still lounging in his seat.
He was long and slim, with night-black hair slicked up into a carefully arranged style. Though his clothing was simple, it suggested money in crisp lines, sleek seams, and not a hint of wear-and-tear. He smiled at her before giving her a wink.
“And this handsome fool is Oliver,” Calen said, patting him on the shoulder. “Oliver Atwood.” Calen swept his hand to take in the younger men. “And those three are our apprentices—Peter, Charlie, and Layth.”
Bit forgot their names as soon as they were spoken. “I need to check in with Randal. Nice to meet you.”
“See ya later, Sweetheart,” Evan called.
Bit lifted a hand over her shoulder and flipped him off without looking back just as the door slid open. She disappeared into the corridor, leaving the men with their game. At the other end of the hallway, she hit the release pad. A wall of moist air slapped her in the face. She wrinkled her nose at the smell, and yet, at the same time, her chest released its tension. The aroma of sweating men was like coming home. It was her normal.
Before she could take more than a step into the ship’s well-equipped gym, two sweaty bodies slammed into her from either side. A smile lit up her face before she even realized she had responded.
“Bit!” her attackers called as they squished her between their chests.
A cry of laughter escaped, and she bit down on her lips. It was the first time she had laughed since… The others didn’t realize it, but she was heartily aware of it. She forced her face back into the neutral look that was her mask. She would think about her laughter later when she was alone.
Reese and Nathyn released her, clapping her on the back. The others had stopped their efforts on various forms of equipment to watch the scene playing out beside the door. Randal pushed himself off the wall where he had been watching two men spar and crossed the room.
“‘Bout time you got back,” Randal said; to a stranger, it might have sounded like he was mad, but Bit knew him and saw the smile in his eyes.
They shook hands before he dragged her up against his chest, hugging her tight. He whispered in her ear, “Missed ya, Little Bit.”
Bit felt her throat tighten with emotion. “Missed you too.” It came out in a squeak.
He released her and presented her to their watching audience. “Guys, this is the last member of our team, Larissa Earnest. We all call her Bit.”
A few of them laughed, and one snorted. Bit stared at them. Even with Reese’s scars, they made the original security team look like a bunch of soft, loveable puppies—Pomeranian puppies.
The new members consisted of three men and three women. Though all were dressed in shorts and covered in sweat, only one man stood out due to the myriad of tattoos across his chest. Other than his bright coloring, the three men were similar in their muscular build, olive skin tone, and brown hair.
Like the men, only one of the three women stood out. Over the centuries, the human race had sort of melded into a single, olive-tinged skin tone. To see someone extremely pale or extremely dark was unusual, and yet so beautiful. The third woman had a darker skin tone with black curly hair. Bit doubted she had ever seen any woman more exquisite.
Randal rattled off their names, but Bit forgot most of them as soon as he said them. She caught the black woman’s name—Lazena—and the tattooed man’s name—Israel—but that was it.
“Let’s get back to work. Bit, have you seen the captain?”
Bit nodded. “Met with Jack and the scientists before I came here.”
“Back to work you slobs,” Randal yelled when he caught them still staring at her. “I’ll walk you to your cabin. We’re almost done here. You can join in in the morning.”
The team scurried back to work as Randal led her out of the gym. When the door slid shut, he continued. “We’re trying to keep things a little more formal now that the crew is so big, so we need to be calling him Captain or Sir… you know the drill. Plus there is a catalog on your pad in your cabin that goes over each crew member and their rank, how to address them, and so on.”
Bit swallowed the lump in her throat. “Yeah, ‘course. Sorry.” Pressure began to build behind her eyes. “I know my way. Ja—Captain showed me the way before. I’ll see you at dinner.”
She caught Randal frowning. Thankfully, he gave her a nod and turned away. Bit made tracks down the hall, praying she wouldn’t stumble upon anyone else. Other than Forrest and Jeremiah, she had spoken with all the original crew. The rest of the introductions could wait.
Bit hurried down the central corridor to the far end of the ship and turned down the hall lined with cabins—a matching one heading off in the opposite direction. She had just entered the narrow hallway when a door opened, revealing Evan. He quickly stepped out to block her path.
“You just can’t get enough of me.”
If she didn’t get to her cabin soon she was going to break down crying, or… Before she could stop herself, she grabbed his testicles and rammed him against his own door. Without saying a word, she slid through the available space. She couldn’t help but feel his hand grazing her hip.
Once past him, she released him, turned away, and continued down the hall. She could feel his eyes on her as she hit the release pad and stepped into her tiny cabin.
“Dinner’s in twenty, Sweetheart,” she heard him call as the door slid shut.

Reese dabbed at his face with the towel, the nape of the fabric catching on a scar. He ignored it. Ignoring seemed to be all he ever did lately. Surrounded by so many new faces—new people who needed time to adjust to his unusual appearance. He pushed the depressing thoughts out of his mind as he exited the gym.
The halls were teeming with bodies as various departments descended on the mess hall for dinner. If he didn’t hurry, he’d be late for Jack’s crew-building pep talk. Reese rolled his eyes.
The lift beside him opened, pouring out a flood of scientists. Reese spotted the shy redhead in the rear of the crowd and slowed his steps.
Ever since he first caught sight of her unusual hair, he had felt a need that had been missing since he’d received his scars. It wasn’t his looks that kept the passions away. He wasn’t that self-absorbed—he hoped. Any time he felt something stirring in his pants he remembered the attack and the blade pressed against his wedding vegetable. And well, let’s just say, nothing was rising to the challenge.
He’d struggled with the idea that it was gone forever. He even considered talking to someone about it. Nathyn would have mocked him mercilessly. Randal—well, he doubted Randal ever had a problem with his masculinity. There was the new doctor, but he wasn’t ready to talk to a stranger. And then there was Bit.
She was someone he could pour out all of his problems to, but she had been gone. He had decided to just wait for her return when he spotted the cute redhead and everything changed. Now he had trouble keeping the damn thing down.
Reese frowned, finally taking in the woman’s facial expression. He waited for the crowd to pass, thankful that she was putting distance between herself and her coworkers. He waited where he was until she caught up with him, then casually fell into step with her.
“You okay?”
She glanced up at him, forcing a smile. “That obvious?”
Reese shrugged. “Guess you just looked down. I’m sorry, but remind me of your name.” A blush burned against his scars.
“Dr. Keller.” She shook her head. “Jenny.”
“Reese.”
“You’re in security, right?”
Reese nodded. “That’s me. Lieutenant Lowe, if you prefer. So, what’s got you down?”
“Umm…”
He sensed her closing up as they neared the door to the mess hall. “You don’t have to tell me, but talk to someone.”
“You also the camp counselor?” she asked with a half-giggle before clearing her throat.
“Ha! No. I’m the one who needs a camp counselor.” He patted her on the shoulder. “I gotta shower before dinner. I’ll catch up with you.”
She smiled and disappeared into the mess hall. Reese watched her for a second, struggling to move on down the hallway. Jenny Keller, doctor of… something he didn’t understand. He hoped she didn’t mind dating someone dumber than her. Whatever she thought of him, he had every intention of winning her heart.

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