TWENTY-EIGHT

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Claire Wilson straightened from her hunch over the suitcase and did a quick scan of its contents. There wasn't much color besides khaki, but the clothes were neatly folded and organized. After years of practice, she had the art of packing down to a science.

Footsteps sounded down the hall and stopped at her door. "Claire . . ."

Recognizing the tone in her mother's voice, Claire sighed, knowing she was in for a long one—a long lecture that is.

Her mother approached, her brow wrinkled. "You know how I hate you going over there. I worry so much when you're gone."

Claire looked down at the tiny woman in front of her. She had passed her mother in height by the time she'd turned twelve, thanks to the genes inherited from her six-feet-two-inch father. Age had rounded Marie Wilson out and it hadn't taken many extra pounds, given the short stature, to make the curves of a once voluptuous figure become more of a straight line. Yet time had done nothing to quell the youthful exuberance her mother went through life with.

"I'll be fine, Mom."

"You can't guarantee that."

"Most of my time is spent in the lab. It's not like I'm out there fighting."

"Sometimes the bases are targets. I read the newspapers."

Claire took her mother's hands into hers, feeling the slight shake in them. This was the same conversation they had every time she packed a suitcase. "It's my job."

"Do you have to go? Was it orders or . . ." Suspicion played across her mother's cherub-like features. "Did you volunteer again?"

"Orders." Claire turned back to her packing, averting her eyes, telling herself it wasn't really a lie. Other opportunities had been offered, but she wasn't about to discuss those with her mother. Another doctor had been scheduled to go overseas, but with his wife about to have a baby, Claire had stepped in. Besides, she outranked him, and with the way this one was panning out, perhaps experience was a good thing.

Her mother sat down on the bed next to the suitcase, her feet dangling above the floor. "With all this travelling, when will you ever have a chance to settle down?"

Here we go, Claire said to herself. Marie's view of a perfect life was what she herself had experienced: marriage, kids, mortgage, cooking, and undying love. Oh, and add grandchildren to the list, a recent amendment. That one was going to be a bit of a problem, though, considering the fact that Claire was an only child and still lived with her parents at the age of thirty. "I would have thought you'd be happy with my going over there. I'll be surrounded by men after all."

Marie made a small grunt while she played with the hem of her apron. "That doctor/patient wall you put up is too large for any man to climb."

Claire smiled. "If they're not willing to do a little work, are they really worth it?"

"Someday, Claire, a man's going to sweep you off your feet."

"Already happened, remember? And it was a total disaster."

Her mother stiffened. "Not all men are like him. Look at your father."

"I know." Claire knelt in front of her mother, taking her hand again. "Daddy is a wonderful man. Maybe he's the problem." With her mother's confused look, she added, "Nobody measures up."

Realizing she was never going to get out of the house on time the way this conversation was going, Claire tried to change the subject. Standing, she closed the suitcase and pulled at the zippers. "I'm travelling with an assistant this time."

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