TWENTY-NINE

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Important: Please do not go back and post spoilers in the comment sections of previous chapters, in either book. I read every one of them and have had to delete a few. Kindly respect those readers coming after you and allow them to enjoy every cliffhanger and plot twist as they unfold. Thank you.

"So, are you going to tell me?"

Bruce looked up from the computer, surprised that Claire was talking to him. During the long, miserable flight that included what seemed like a never-ending layover in Germany, she had barely spoken a word. Arriving on base in the middle of the night had been a disorganized shuffling of paperwork, supplies, and bed assignments. The following day they had spent apart, catching up on some sleep and getting a private tour of the base, which consisted of a cluster of prefab one-story buildings surrounded by hundreds of twenty-man tents, lots of dust, and a sea of sand as far as the eye could see. At least it wasn't summer when the heat became unbearable.

This was their first day in the clinic, and she had kept herself occupied for most of the morning unpacking the supplies that had been shipped with them. He had kept his head down, looking over the new software he had been assigned to install on base.

He frowned at the question, having no idea what she was referring to. "What?"

Her hands came up to her hips. "Why are you here? No medical training, no active duty in years . . . and all of a sudden I'm assigned an assistant that I don't need and told not to ask questions."

He hated having to explain himself, hated that he was unworthy, but he put on a show of naivety by giving her a shrug. "I'm good with computers. We'll have to run this software parallel with the old stuff until we are certain it's working right. Should make your inventory easier to track, and it gives you information on what the other bases have in stock too. No more unexpected shortages or long delivery times from home."

There was a drawn out "hmmm" before she returned to the unpacking.

Since she had opened the lines of communication, Bruce found himself wanting to keep the connection going. "Is this your first deployment over here?"

"Third. The first two were at the hospital over at Darlington." Her gaze swung around the interior of the clinic. "This is a much sweeter gig."

Damn. He had to respect her for that. From what he had heard, Darlington offered very little in amenities to its troops, but the hospital was extensive and always busy-stressfully so. In contrast, the clinic was designed to treat the base's population only. There was no medevac ferrying injured troops from the field.

The main room, where they had set themselves up at opposite ends of the center-island workstation, was a small lab equipped to run standard blood and urine tests. It reminded him of a school's portable classrooms with its modular design, linoleum floors, and abundance of concrete. A supply room was in the back, stocked with the basics: antibiotics, pain killers, allergy meds, IV and orthopedic supplies. Running down one side, three curtained-off stalls stood side-by-side like large dressing rooms in a fancy boutique. The two outer ones each had a bed and acted as exam rooms, able to hold people overnight if necessary. A shared toilet and shower occupied the one in between. On the other side of the lab, a door led to the doctor's quarters which consisted of little more than an average sized bedroom outfitted with a cot and small dresser—by no means was it luxury accommodations.

She had it way better than his digs, though. He was sharing a small space with three other officers, right beside the base's HVAC control units—loud as hell.

After a short silence, Bruce had the sense it was politeness rather than interest that had her continuing with, "How about you? Have you been to Afghanistan before?"

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