Lavinia Cole plastered a smile on her face as she looked out at the sea of soldiers awaiting her performance. She was dog tired, having found it impossible to sleep in a place others were bombing. Even under the shade of the canopy covering the stage, the heat was like an overcoat she couldn't take off. If there were any justice in the universe, her intestines would recover from the incredible inedibles that passed for food here, but only time would tell. All in all, she was glad this was the last stop on the tour. She'd done her part and was ready to go home.
For now, she had one more performance to complete. Hers was the opening for someone supposedly more famous but she'd never heard of the woman before they loaded the pair of them into one of those ubiquitous helicopters.
At home in New York, Vinnie played piano and belted out standards for the denizens of the Starlight Room of the New Regis hotel in her hometown, New York City. As much as she could she recreated that act for the troops, given that she wore combat boots and fatigues rather than sequins and heels. Her audience in attendance didn't seem to mind, since applause and catcalls greeted her walk toward center stage where a microphone in a stand awaited.
When the noise died down, Vinnie leaned into the mike. "How are you all doing?"
The applause rose again along with a few shouts and whistles. Vinnie smiled. She knew her reputation probably preceded her. At 42 she was no spring chicken, but she had a decent body and a sultry way of belting out a torch song most of the soldiers were too young to remember. She didn't mind pouring on the sultry for the benefit of them, for in her short stint touring she knew that whatever Iraq had been before the war had turned the country into a hellhole neither side deserved to live in.
A few more innocuous comments, a remark about the weather and then she launched into a rendition of Fever. She usually sang the first song alone, but for other numbers she invited soldiers onstage, letting them sing with her or talk about themselves or their experiences here. It was all light and flirty and fun--what they told her they needed. Everything upbeat, despite the fact fire play could be heard over the band.
Today was different. It was some captain's birthday. She'd been asked to sing him happy birthday and cut a cake that would be served later in the mess. No one had pointed that soldier out to her, but she assumed it was one of the older guys who would prefer to have her rather than the younger woman singing to him.
It didn't matter. She'd do her best to make the soldier feel as special on his big day. She wrapped up her next two songs, The Way You Look Tonight, which became a tribute to the troops in uniform the way she did it; followed by a bawdy rendition of I've Got You Under My Skin, which was all about the places she now had an overabundance of sand.
As the applause died down, she waved for quiet. "I have a special request for a Captain Daniel Reid. Captain Reid are you here?" Vinnie shaded her eyes and looked out into the audience.
The men down in front shifted. One man was more pushed to his feet than rose to them on his own steam. He was dressed, like the others, in camouflage utilities, but even from that distance she could tell he was an officer. Even if she hadn't learned the markings that distinguished an enlisted from the upper ranks, she would have noticed it in his posture and the deference the other men showed him, even as they were pushing him toward the stage.
Well, she knew one thing now--it hadn't been his idea to have his birthday celebrated in this way. Was it his superior's way of embarrassing him or his men's way of honoring him? Neither was her business. For her part, she'd rather get the spectacle over as painlessly as possible. But first she needed to get him on the stage.
"Come on, captain," she urged. "I'm not going to bite you. Not yet, anyway."
The crowd responded with a smattering of laughter. But it didn't speed the birthday boy toward her. He took his time ascending the stairs and walking across the stage. With every step closer he came into sharper focus. She catalogued his attributes: broad shoulders that tapered into trim waist and muscular thighs. His skin was bronzed to a deep brown, accentuating a handsome face with full lips and smoky brown eyes. Vinnie exhaled. "Damn."
He was gorgeous all right, but he wasn't one of the older officers as she'd supposed. He was a baby, at least what she considered to be a baby. He couldn't be older than his mid thirties.
Vinnie tried to get herself together. She was a mature woman who'd been married to a man twenty years her senior. Until Carl's death last year, she'd been a devoted wife helping him battle cancer. She didn't drool over younguns, no matter how biteable they might be.
Biteable. That word sprang into Vinnie's mind, but it was one of her cousin Alberta's sayings. Al wouldn't have a qualm about pouncing on a man she wanted. It wasn't that Al slept around, but once her gonads found someone that excited them she didn't pussyfoot around. If Al were here, she'd say that's what Vinnie's problem was: she'd spent so much of her life caring for someone else that she no longer knew how to care for her own needs. Maybe Al had the right of it, but Vinnie also knew the last thing Vinnie needed was to be having an existential crisis in a war zone.
That thought made Vinnie smile, for real this time. She'd definitely have to wait until she got home to have her breakdown. For now, she had a gorgeous soldier staring at her. "I hear congratulations are in order, Captain. They tell me it's your birthday today."
He nodded, even though she held the microphone in his direction. It wasn't a curt nod or one of irritation, but one that said that if anyone were seeking an afternoon's entertainment they wouldn't be getting it from him. He put up with it because he felt obligated.
Vinnie could appreciate his position. She didn't care to be made a spectacle either. Despite her status as a performer, she only did that on her terms. Early on in her career there had been a promoter who'd tried to convince her to take her music more R&B or more whatever. She knew where her talent and her heart lay. Changing to please someone else would have been a mistake.
So she'd cut poor young Captain Reid some slack and get this over with quickly. But there was one question she couldn't get out of asking him. "And how old are you?"
"Thirty three?" Damn. Even younger than she'd thought, but it figured. Any older and he'd have probably made it higher up the marine food chain already. "I have underwear older than you." The crowd laughed and applauded, but the birthday boy didn't crack a smile.
She motioned two enlisted men in the wings to bring out the cake. "Then there's only one thing left." Once the men had positioned the cake in front of them she burst into her best Marilyn Monroe rendition of Happy Birthday, inserting Captain where Mr. President would have been.
He bent and blew out the candles. As expected, she braced a hand on his shoulder, leaned in and kissed his cheek. His hand rose to rest on her back. Before pulling away she whispered, "That wasn't so bad, was it?"
His hand had risen to rest on her back. He said nothing, but his fingers on her back flexed.
She pulled away. Had the gesture been an attempt to flirt with her? Was she reading more into it? Had he noticed the tremor that had shivered through her at his touch? Had he felt it, too? If he felt any attraction toward her, it didn't show on his face, though there was a smile on his lips that hadn't been there before. Maybe he sensed her attraction and was amused by it. The old lady has the hots for you. Big yucks.
No matter. Vinnie took a step back as the enlisted men removed the cake. She turned to the man beside her. "Thanks for being a good sport." To the audience she said, "Let's have a hand for Captain Reid." They clapped as the he left the stage. But rather than retaking his seat, he headed off in the direction of the mess hall. Whatever. Her job was almost done. One more song and she made her exit to be replaced by her younger, perkier counterpart.
She went back to her room, combed her hair into a ponytail and removed most of her make-up. What she wore onstage was way too much for ordinary consumption, and it would be dinnertime soon.
Usually she'd rather skip a meal than indulge in the unpalatable. But tonight she was looking forward to it. She tried to tell herself that anticipation had nothing to do with seeing the captain again. She wasn't quite buying it though. The hunger she wasn't for food but for the sort of carnal pleasure she hadn't known in quite some time.
That was shocking. She'd sleepwalked through the past year grieving for Carl. Without him she felt unanchored. He'd been her rock, even though she'd spent the last few years helping him battle cancer. She couldn't remember the last time the sight of a handsome man had stirred her. If nothing else, her encounter with the marine proved the old Vinnie was still in there somewhere. She wasn't dead inside.
Vinnie walked across the compound with a smile on her face, but when she got to the mess, the captain wasn't there. Just as well. One of the older officers invited her to sit with him. She went along gladly; she didn't need to be reminded of what she couldn't have.