Petronella Glover is a multi-genre author whose work has been translated into a dozen languages, including the Catalonian Romance language, where she has won two awards for Best Translated Story. A little quirky, very geeky, and unabashedly romantic, she hopes to one day visit the City of Love, find a bustling café where she can sample their hot chocolate and write her first New York Times Bestseller. This is her second appearance in Heart’s Kiss, continuing an exciting new series of stories about astronauts of the near future.
THE SPACE BETWEEN US
by Petronella Glover
Nine and a half weeks of Naval boot camp, ten years of working on the various combat rescue helicopters to keep them viable in and around war zones, and the eventual extra training in Iraq to become a Hospital Corpsman, second class, for a further three years, didn’t prepare me for ferocity of the nasty flu my body had just conquered—or the sudden loss of breath I suffered when I first sighted astronaut Babirye Rodriguez Fumnaya. She walked into the Avenue Bed & Breakfast with the same sense of purpose and spunk visible in the press conference NASA had held while she and her colleagues were still in orbit around Earth following the…incident, on the International Space Station.
Nestled in the old historic part of Manitou Springs, at the foothill of Colorado’s Pike’s Peak, I could see how the historic B&B would be a welcome hideaway for the newly earthbound beauty. Too many people were still asking what happened during the Station’s mysterious blackout, and this location was all-but-deserted in the middle of winter, even if the mountains were at their most scenic. She would be assured a certain level of privacy.
I watched her move with a sense of fascination, seeing the effects of gravity on her form for the first time. I had always found genetics interesting, but Babirye was a particularly stunning example of human. While her skin was the darkest shade of ebony, reflecting her mother’s African heritage, her striking hazel-colored eyes and the larger, looser curls of her dark brown hair were inherited from her Mexican father. Thick and braided down her back, I wondered how hard her mane had been to manage on the International Space Station. Most women lopped their locks off before their stint off-world, but the astronaut had assured reporters that her hair already defied gravity when on solid ground; it needed to be long enough so she could restrain it in a zero-gravity environment.
Unbidden, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to unravel the braid and run my fingers through—
I shook my head, as if to push away my thoughts. Behave.
Stamping her boots on the welcome mat to shake off the snow, Babirye smiled in pleasant inquiry when she saw me in the foyer—initially mistaking me for staff—and did a visible double take at my appearance. I knew my size and scars could be quite intimidating, but she recovered well and nodded politely when she saw I had a bag of my own, and continued on to the main desk.
Suddenly, she whirled and looked at me again. “Am I jumping in front of you?”
“No, ma’am,” I said. “My room isn’t quite ready, so the manager was taking care of it.”
“Ah.” Babirye turned back to the desk, her cell starting to ring. She dismissed the call—once, then twice.
The owner came out and was starting the process of checking her in when her phone rang again, for the third time. She looked down at it, frowning. “Sorry, I will have to take this.”
The astronaut stepped aside and picked up the call, her smile instantly disappearing as she listened intently to the person on the other end.
The owner gestured for me to come over, taking advantage of the interruption, and handed me a key. “Your room is now ready, sir.”
I nodded, taking it. The B&B owner muttered something else inconsequential, then repaired to another room to give Babirye privacy during her call. I focused my attention back on the astronaut.
“—were attacked? Elanora, you need to slow down. I am having trouble understanding you.”
I turned around to look at her, no longer caring to mask my interest in her call.
“Someone ran you off the road?! Wait…you mean…deliberately?” Her eyes widened. “You are not making sense. What is this about a Russian spy? Am I being punk’d?”
I almost snorted at her incredulous tone as she uttered the last statement, but then her next few lines chilled me to the bone:
“You mean someone actually tried to kill you? Because of what we…found?” Her voice quavered. “Wait…you think they want to kill me too?”
I bristled at the thought, unconsciously stepping closer.
“No, I do not want your rescuer, whomever-his-name-is—Oh, okay, Dimitry—sending one of his ‘men’ to look after me. I’ll go to the local police here and get them to—”
I could hear the higher pitched tone on the other end of the phone being interrupted by a deeper, calmer, more masculine voice.
“Oh…someone is already watching me for NASA?” She looked around, as if expecting someone to be hiding behind the nearest grandfather clock, and her eyes settled back onto me, studying me more closely.
I could see the alarm in her face increasing as she evaluated my bearing, perhaps noticing my clenched fists.
She looked ready to bolt.
I knew I couldn’t reach into my back pocket to show her my veteran’s card, as it could very well appear like I was reaching for a weapon, so in a calm, measured voice I simply said “I’m a veteran, ma’am.”
She relaxed, barely perceptively, and continued her conversation, eyes still warily fixed on me. “You mean the guard person won’t arrive until tomorrow? What am I meant to do until then?”
Waiting patiently while she got her instructions, I spent that time calming myself down. I had known I had some kind of celebrity crush on her for some time now, watching the various news updates about her latest mission, but the fierce protectiveness I felt towards her was something unexpected.
Eventually, she hung up the phone, continuing to evaluate me.
When it appeared clear I was not going to make any move to harm her—she seemed well aware that, with my physical stature, I could dispatch her with relative ease—I held out my hand to introduce myself. “Retired Hospital Corpsman Clayton Douglas Roberts, second class.” At your service, I added, the instinctive thought coming unbidden.
“Babirye Rodriguez Fumnaya. Astronaut, on leave from NASA.” She took my hand in hers. “But everyone calls me Baby, for short.”
I nodded. “Clay.”
We stood there for a long awkward minute, then let go of each other’s hands, reluctantly on my part.
“Do you have…experience in these matters?” she eventually asked, well aware I had listened to her conversation.
“Not particularly, ma’am,” I answered. “But—how should I put it? I make good brawn.”
I thought I saw a twinkle appear in her still overly wide, stressed gaze. Her eyes moved to focus on my well-defined biceps, then the vast expanse of a well-built torso, and I couldn’t help but feel a visceral tug at her appreciative appraisal.
“Could you come with me to the police station, as, ah…brawn support, so I can make them aware of my situation?”
I nodded. “I can do better than that. I offer my services for the next 24 hours, until your—NASA’s—security personal arrive.”
Clayton’s words echoed in my head: “I offer my services…”
I was having trouble focusing. It is not every day I get a phone call where my work colleague—a person I would trust with my life after 118 days in space together—tells me that someone, or several someones, were wanting to kill me.
I tried to collect my thoughts and studied the veteran. At first his bristling anger had put me on edge…made me question whether he was the one that was after me. I mean, who the hell did he think he was, looking at me like that?
Then I realized his reaction was to my phone call, not me, and that while I couldn’t quite put my finger on the emotions he was expressing, I could now tell they were felt on my behalf, which somehow made me feel safer—comforted, even.
I knew I was quite rattled, because I never would have asked a complete stranger for what amounted to protection if I had have taken a few minutes to parse the situation I was in. Especially not a stranger that looked like—well, that.
It was not that he was physically intimidating—that was a positive quality in any prospective bodyguard—but his scars told me he had already been through too much shit to have to deal with mine. The marks of his service showed he had more than earned his veteran status.
I couldn’t help but focus my gaze on one particularly vicious scar that run jaggedly down one cheek, to disappear under the collar of his shirt. I was interested as to how far down it went, an unexpected surge of empathy making me wish I could reach out and soothe the harsh lines that still showed signs of the extensive stitching needed to hold the flesh together.
“The scar is a sign of how ruthless the other person was, not me,” he said eventually, quietly.
Startled, I looked up to meet his steely blue gaze, realizing that he must be used to reactions of fear. There was nothing about his haircut or clothing that told others about his military background, so he was probably judged by the danger the vicious marks implied.
“The scars, themselves, do not bother me,” I told him, truthfully. “It was the, ah, realization of how much pain you must have experienced that stopped me short.”
He blinked, clearly startled. “They remind me that I still have a life to live,” he replied, gruffly.
Indeed. And so do I. “Did you mean what you said? That you would help me until my…official protection arrived?”
“Yes, ma’am.” He picked up his duffel bag and slung it over his shoulder, then strode over to ring the bell.
The owner scurried in, finalizing my check-in, displaying no signs of having heard my distressing phone conversation. “Breakfast and WiFi service are complimentary, of course, as is around the clock access to tea and coffee, but feel free to contact me for anything you might nee—”
“We’ll be fine, sir,” Clayton cut in, surprising the owner.
“Oh, I wasn’t aware you both knew each other.”
“Getting to know each other, er, better, is the aim of our stay here.” He threw me a grin that was suitably devilish and I managed to smile in return.
My wide-eyed confused state must have appeared suitably doe-eyed or doting, for the owner simply shrugged and informed us that they offered champagne packages and couple massages, too.
Clayton waited for the room key to be handed to me and then reached for my bag. I snatched it up before his hand could grasp the handle, ignoring his protests. I might have a target on my back, but that doesn’t make me an invalid.
He followed me up to my room, clearly having no intentions of exploring his own first. Before I could open the door, he took the key off me and unlocked it, telling me to wait outside while he “cleared” the room first.
I had to remind myself that he wasn’t meaning to be domineering, just protective. It still rankled.
I followed him in, after his “All Clear,” to see him unpacking his bag.
“Wait! You don’t expect to stay in here with me, do you? Because there is only one bed, and even bodyguards need boundaries.”
He turned away from his belongings. “Of course not, ma’am. That would be too dangerous.”
What in the hell did he mean? That he was too dangerous to be in the same room with?
He must have sensed a change in my demeanor because he raised his hands in entreaty. “Sorry. I have not”—he grimaced, his scar puckering—“socialized well after my injury. I’m not good at using all the words I should. I merely meant it’s too dangerous for you to be in this room, period.”
“But…where would I stay?”
He turned back to his clothes. “In my room.”
I studied his back, understanding dawning. “So we are swapping rooms, on the belief the possible attacker will come to the room registered in my name?”
“Where I will be waiting. Yes.”
“It’s not fair to let you face that risk alone. It’s because of me, not you, that someone is—”
“I have made my decision.”
My pride bristled. “Wait, you are my bodyguard, not my boss. I do not authorize you to—”
Clayton turned around, and advanced on me in a few large strides.
Unconsciously I backed up, until my butt hit the wall. Our eyes met, his icy blues clashing with the fire in mine.
“It just took me a couple of seconds to corner you—possibly endanger you. If I am fighting what is presumably a well-trained assailant, I do not need you underfoot. I won’t be able to focus on my wellbeing if I am defending yours.”
Some bodyguard you are, I thought wryly, my annoyance dissipating. I realized he meant well; it was his delivery that needed more work. “Did it occur to you that I could actually help, not hinder?” I asked.
“Not if we haven’t trained together before, gotten used to each others…techniques.”
We studied each other for another long minute.
“I will stay in your room,” I said, eventually.
His whole bearing relaxed and he inclined his head. “Thank you.”
He backed away from me, and I again felt that urge to reach out and smooth out that scar of his, which had turned an angrier red while our voices had been raised. It’s not that I wanted to get rid of his rough edges—even his gruffness was a form of protection, if for himself, not me—but I couldn’t help but feel like….
Oh, hell. I had no idea what I was feeling. Everything was happening so damned fast.
I watched him finish unpacking and then he escorted me to my room—or rather, his room, officially.
There was a luxurious spa in the corner that I was dying to hop into. I had dreamed of taking a long soak while I was still orbiting Earth, but unless the threat was—how do the military term it? Ah, yes—neutralized, I suspected I wouldn’t have the opportunity now.
I sighed and unpacked my belongings, such as they were; I didn’t bring much.
“You pack like a Marine,” came the compliment from behind me. At least, I think it was a compliment.
“I’m used to living in tight quarters.” I closed the empty bag and popped it in the closet. “Shall we find out what the police have to say?”
I glanced down at my phone, which had an open skype connection into my room—now Babirye’s room—and I watched the astronaut sleep on the small cell screen, feeling every inch the stalker. Despite the relative peace she exuded as she snored quietly, I knew she had gone to bed fully dressed, belying her anxiety. She didn’t want to be caught in a vulnerable position—or maybe she just didn’t want me to see her that way, knowing that I would be watching her.
If I had been in bed, I would have tossed and turned all night. Instead I quietly paced the confines of the room, second-guessing myself. It was almost 4 A.M. and no one had tried to break into the room registered under the astronaut’s name. Babirye had told me Elanora’s attacker had first tried to kill her in what would “appear” to be a car accident during a blizzard, so the local police seemed dubious that someone would be so brazen as to attack a second astronaut in the historic town’s most famous B&B, right on the Main Street. Maybe I had been wrong about a nighttime visit.
I moved stealthily back to the bathroom, which gave me a small level of protection (it had no window to worry about someone gaining access that way) and surveyed the main room, the bed made up to look like someone was sleeping in it.
I held the phone up again and studied the video feed, reassuring myself the astronaut was still safe. Still slumbering.
We had decided to set up a skype session as an added level of security, not realizing how incredibly awkward it would become. It took her quite some time to fall asleep, knowing someone was watching her, even benignly, and I couldn’t help but feel an urge to go to her when I first saw her settle into the overlarge king bed; she looked so damn inviting.
She had done nothing to encourage my reaction, but I couldn’t ignore the way my body reacted to seeing her. Even now, when I saw her stir in her sleep, my body stirred.
Maybe when all of this was over, I could ask—
The unmistakable sound of a door creaking open stopped me short. From my vantage point, I could see the main door slowly swing inwards and the silhouette of a man slink into the room, glancing around briefly before making his way to the bed.
I didn’t have much time to consider my options. I saw the metallic glint in his hand and didn’t wait for him to discover the bed was empty, opting to attack while he was oblivious to my deception. Sliding my phone into my pocket, I grabbed the vase I had moved into the bathroom for easy access and ran into the main room, slamming it into his head before he could turn around to fight me.
He collapsed before uttering a word, the vase shattering on his skull.
I reached into my pocket for the zipties—nudging his body, hard, with my foot to assure myself he was unconscious—only to feel a fist slamming into my kidneys. “Fuck!”
I spun with enough time to see a fist—the same fist?—slam into my face. I fell on top of the first assailant, shocked.
Within seconds I was fighting back, rolling away from the steel-tipped boot that was aiming for my ribs, swinging around to deliver a kick of my own to the back of the second assailant’s knees, to sweep him off his feet.
He landed heavily on the ground with an expletive of his own, and we started wrestling for dominance, our fists flying everywhere. One second he was on top of me, the next second I was on top of him, with the upper hand. It appeared I had the superior combat experience, but he had more brute strength. The only thing I could be grateful for was that his role had obviously been that of spotter—he had not been prepared to fight a naval veteran that night.
Suddenly he punched me in my left shoulder, into my biggest knot of scars, taking the breath out of me as pain seared through the nerves running down my arm. Taking advantage of the shock flaring through my body, he flipped us over, pinning me, and reached for the shiny object the first assailant had dropped.
I tried to push it away, but failed.
Within seconds the cold metal blade of a knife was pressed up against my carotid artery.
Babirye did not. I saw her fly into the room with a calm energy, slamming an ornate metal tea kettle into the back of the assailant’s head.
He did not collapse, but twisted around to slash her with the knife, freeing my neck. I reached up for his own, squeezing hard enough for him to drop the knife, and looked up to watch the most magnificent woman I had ever seen smash the dinted kettle into the side of the attacker’s head.
I slid into the hot tub with a satisfied sigh, and turned around to watch Clay slide into the water, the ecstasy on his face echoing my thoughts.
The hot water was heavenly on my sore muscles—muscles that had tightened up and bruised during the three hours of police reports and obligatory hospital visit to record all our injuries for the eventual court case to follow.
I had been so worried those oafs had done some serious damage to Clay. When I had awoken to hearing swearing through our skype connection, and then the audible sounds of a vicious fight, I couldn’t stay put, even though I had told him I would. I grabbed the hardest object I could find and ran in his room, grateful the door had still been open.
The bruises he suffered during the encounter stood out more harshly on his fairer skin, yet I studied the veteran’s body with appreciation—and more than a little shock—as he ducked his head under the water to wet his hair. For the first time the extent of his scarring was apparent, and it was heart-wrenching. Someone, in the not-too-distant-past, had sliced him from cheek to navel and then again, from his neck into his shoulder, where the scarring and reconstruction surgery was much more extensive. It was amazing he had survived.
He watched me as my gaze travelled all over his body and waited.
“Does it hurt?” I asked, finally.
“Not to touch…but inside? Yes.”
That made sense. The shoulder reconstruction alone would have involved sewing ligaments, tendons and bones….
I slid forward in the water, and looked up at him. “May I?”
He hesitated, then nodded.
I reached my arm up out of the water and traced my finger lightly over the scars bunching across his shoulder, tracing it up to his neck to feel his pulse, steady and fast. “How did you survive,” I asked quietly.
“I followed my training. During my last few years in the Navy I was a medic—or rather, a Hospital Corpsman. I was sent to combat Lifesaver School in Iraq, where I started off by learning CPR, then EMT basic—including how to deliver babies. We were trained to immobilize spine and neck injuries and how to treat gunshot wounds, blast injuries, eviscerations, broken bones, burns, sucking chest wounds, simple abrasions, and arterial bleeds caused from wounds such as these.” He gestured towards his chest.
I traced his second scar up to his face, and he closed his eyes, continuing quietly: “After corpsman fundamentals we learned nursing fundamentals: giving bed baths, administering intravenous medication, giving immunizations.”
“You said you only did this for your last few years of service?”
His eyebrows raised, as if surprised by my curiosity, although he kept his eyes closed as I explored the scar on his face. “Before I was in Iraq, I was an aviation electronics technician who fixed the systems on the Sikorsky SH-60B Seahawk—a Navy helicopter based on the Army’s Blackhawk. On my first tour I worked on a counter rocket, artillery mortar C-RAM gun system to protect the sleep areas and combat support hospitals on my base.”
I nodded, impressed, and started to trace my hand down his largest scar, following it down his chest. When my fingers were nearing his navel his arm shot out and he grabbed my hand.
Startled, I looked up at him to see him now looking at me. “Did I hurt you?”
His steely blue eyes glinted. “Not particularly. But if you keep going, another part of me is going to start throbbing.”
I flushed, thankful it was not noticeable with my dark-pigmented skin, and would have snatched my arm back if he hadn’t have tugged me forward, instead.
He smiled, and it kind of felt like I was in zero-gravity again.
“Now it’s my turn,” he murmured, raising his hand up to my braid. Sliding the elastic band off the end with gentle, wet fingers he slowly unraveled the plait restraining my wild curls.
He lent back when he was done, sliding one hand through my locks to rest at the base of my back, his other hand playing with a particularly errant curl that had fallen onto my face.
“My hair was much talked about, before I left Earth,” I said, somewhat lamely, unsure of what to do—
of what he was going to do.
He nodded, and tugged the curl playfully, watching it bounce up. “It definitely does defy gravity,” he pointed out, and before I could think of a witty reply he bent down, his lips capturing mine in a searing embrace.
I leant into him, dazed, as his hand speared into my hair, his other hand sliding tighter around my back until he had pulled me flush up against his chest. While we were still wearing swimsuits, the space between us had disappeared, melted away as the kiss deepened.
I was soon gasping for breath, and was happy to notice he was too. He laughed and kissed me again, his hand tightening in my hair as his tongue danced upon my lips until I opened them to invite him in. His tongue surged in and I gasped again, this time in pure pleasure. Kissing him felt so natural—and yet, so out of this world. I wanted to do it forever.
He pulled back to look at me, cupping my face as his thumb traced my full lips in wonder. “Your name is beautiful, like the rest of you.”
Surprised, I blinked. “Thank you. Babirye means ‘First of twins’ in Luganda, the Bantu language of the Baganda people in Uganda.”
His eyes widened. “There are two of you?”
I laughed. “Don’t get any ideas. She’s happily married with two children on the other side of the globe. She doesn’t have time for a sexy veteran to swan into her life and turn it completely upside down.”
He sat down in the tub and pulled me around to sit on his lap. “Do you know why these men are after you?” he asked me gently, his hand rubbing up and down my arm as if to sooth me for the harsh return to reality.
I nodded, but didn’t answer.
“Are you allowed to tell me why these men are after you? About what happened up on the International Space Station?”
I twisted around to look him in the eyes. “No. Or, at least—not yet.”
He grimaced, clenching his teeth, a glimmer of his former military bearing visible in his formal response. “Understood.”
He wrapped his arms around me, his eyes distant, perhaps recalling times he was unable to talk about his missions. If there was anyone who could understand my current predicament, it was him.
I reached my hand out to touch his face again, to trace that scar of his while he remembered.
He looked up at me and smiled, and I lowered my head to kiss him, this time slow and sensual.
Eventually, we pulled back, stopped for air, but there was never space between us again.
Copyright © 2017 by Petronella Glover.
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright © 2017 Arc Manor