Khe Sanh Marine Base, February, 1968
Adam jerked awake. Soaked in sweat after another night of tossing and turning, he felt like it’d been weeks since he’d really slept. When he did sleep, it was in short snatches. He was rigid, afraid if he really slept he wouldn’t wake up, blown to bits by a well-placed mortar. He waited for the end. The end of the shelling—or the end of his life.
The distant sky exploded with artillery fire. Today the bombs lit the skies over Lang Vei, a camp six miles southwest of Khe Sanh.
Adam joined the hushed crowd of men listening to the disembodied voice crackling out of the radio, relating details of the bombardment of Lang Vei. The North Vietnamese Army was overrunning the base.
His skin crawled. In days, or even hours, it could be their base teeming with thousands of slant-eyed, two-legged ants racing through camp, killing, maiming, and destroying everything in their path.
But the hours passed. So did the days, along with the daily shelling. By February 23rd the siege had been constant. Adam and the other men existed in dreamlike states, hoping for rescue—waiting for the end. If help did come, would it be too late? Adam drifted in and out of reality as artillery and mortar rounds pounded the base. He yearned only for silence. Scanning the sandbag bunker surrounding him, his only protection from the bombs, he felt the sharp stab of fear.
How long had he been holed up? He couldn’t remember. The days ran one into another. The lunacy of the situation attacked his senses. How long had the shelling been going on? Was it twenty-four minutes, twenty-four hours, twenty-four days? Twenty-four years? How much longer could it go on? How much more could they—he, endure?
In the short silences between barrages, Adam stared into space and let his mind wander. He longed for the whir of the chopper blades of the C-130 Hercules, affectionately known as Herks, and the C-123 Providers that dropped provisions to the base then quickly air-lifted the wounded to safety. But sniper fire had gotten too hot and forced them to abandon their re-supply efforts and evacuation of the wounded.
The green fields and hillsides of the once lush coffee plantations around the base were now burned out, black and dead. And while the countryside around Khe Sanh burned and smoldered, the constant bombing made it impossible to mount a rescue for the men trapped inside the walls of the base. So they waited, fought an invisible enemy, hoped, and prayed.
Adam tried to stay in touch with the reality of a world that no longer seemed to exist as the bombings continued. A world thousands of miles away. Belinda’s world. A place he feared he’d never see again. His mind wandered. He stared off into the smoke-blackened sky, tried to get a breath through the acrid, heavy smoke that hung around him. Tried to see a trace of blue in the sky. He imagined himself and Belinda running hand in hand along the beach, the sun low over their shoulders. They fell to their knees and kissed as the sun set behind them, an orange, flaming ball. He curled up tight as another mortar exploded close by. Dirt and metal sprayed through the air around him.
"Damn it!" he yelled. "Why don’t they stop? Why don’t the bastards stop?" He covered his ears against the next explosion. He stayed with his ears covered, his eyes closed, curled in a ball, trying to shut out the horror of everything around him.
He heard shouting. It was muffled and indistinct through his hands still tight against his ears. It was distant and faint. There was always yelling and screaming, though, all day every day.
Pulling his hands from his ears he forced his eyes open into little slits to see what was happening.
The world exploded. The ground was torn out from under him, from beside him and in front of him. A crushing blow drove the breath out of his chest, searing his lungs as he gasped for breath. He was thrown up, suspended in mid-air, before he crashed to the ground.
He tried to fill his empty lungs with huge, chest-shattering gulps and gagged. Another mortar, just like the one when Ham had been hit, he realized through the haze. He felt as though his body was being crushed between the front bumpers of two colliding cars. The earth spiraled around him and every part of his body hurt, even his toes. He was dazed; he tried to focus, heard muffled voices coming closer, but the blackness was coming too. He remembered this feeling all too well. It meant the mortar had hit close. Too close.
He couldn’t think about that any more. Darkness was coming and this time he surrendered happily to the black unknown beckoning him.
"I assure you, Miss Hawthorne, it will be a cold day in hell before I allow my son to become involved with someone of your social stature." Alice Weber, in her mid to late forties, trim, attractive, and well manicured, spoke the words softly, but with unmistakable authority.
Belinda Hawthorne stepped away from the woman who stood with her back against the rail of the terrace overlooking the gardens and swimming pool of the Weber estate. Her dark, shoulder-length hair swirled in the slight breeze and she knew her green eyes were clouded with anger. Below in the garden, the rose bushes swayed in the slight evening breeze and ripples chased each other in the moonlight reflecting on the pool.
Belinda’s heart pounded. Blood rushed through her ears, the sound like a freight train rumbling in her head. She tried to calm down, held her hands together to keep them from shaking. Why couldn’t she make this woman realize what she and Adam had? What they could accomplish together?
They loved each other.
They were happy.
"Mrs. Weber," Belinda began. She was cut off as though she hadn’t spoken.
"What do you want from my son?" the Weber matriarch asked, the hard edge still in her voice. "He has been groomed to play a prominent role in his society, our society. One, I will point out, to which you do not belong."
She paused, smoothed her hair and checked her nails as though to gather her thoughts for the next flurry of verbal abuse. "I intend for him to continue on the path chosen for him, Miss Hawthorne."
Belinda’s name issued from her mouth like a dirty word. She analyzed Belinda from head to toe. "When Adam finishes school he will become an integral part of the Redding Company, my family’s company for the past fifty years." She stopped, raised her head and looked deeply into Belinda’s eyes. "An affair with an improperly educated, poorly-bred young lady of your stature is not in my plans for him."
Belinda felt as though she had been sucker-punched. She knew her blood was soaring. Her heart was pounding. She was shaking like she was outside in the dead of winter without a coat.
Steeling herself against Alice Weber’s words, for Adam’s sake, Belinda would try to reason with her. Prove to this shrew she was worthy of her son. They loved each other and were good for each other, regardless of Belinda’s "station" in life.
She took a deep breath and looked the older woman straight in the eye. "Mrs. Weber, I realize you’re concerned for Adam, but I assure you we are not having some illicit affair. I love your son and he loves me. We..."
The matriarch waved her hand as though batting a gnat. "I don’t give a damn about any of that. My son holds a position in society of which you have no comprehension. You could be nothing but an albatross about his neck. He needs a woman reared at the same social level who understands the support he needs to achieve his goals."
Belinda couldn’t grasp the words coming from this woman’s mouth. She’d heard about people like this, the so-called cream of society, the upper crust, the gentry. The ones who made the rules, then broke them in the same breath; those who kept to themselves, never allowing others into their realm of power and influence. She felt like she was stuck in a bad romance novel or a nightmare she couldn’t escape from. What right did Adam’s mother have to treat her like this? Belinda was a good girl from a good family. And she loved Adam more than she’d ever loved anyone in her life, except her family.
Belinda tried to reason with her again. "Mrs. Weber, Adam is a grown man with a mind of his own. Don’t you think he is intelligent enough to make a good choice for himself?"
The woman snorted inelegantly, extremely out of character for her "station." "Good choice?" she snarled. "Look at you. Your clothing must be yesterday’s K Mart special, your coiffure is, well, beyond mention, and what of your education?" Her voice was cold and condescending. "Have you even seen the inner halls of an institution of higher education?"
Belinda’s temper began to slip. She loved Adam, but did she owe it to him to take this abuse from his mother?
Mrs. Weber waved her hand again, this time as though bored. "Of course you have not. What is it you do? For a living, I mean?" Condescension dripped in her voice. "Type? File? Whatever you do, you work for someone. We own those same people and tell them what to do. We don’t marry them!"
Belinda went cold with rage. "How dare you. Who and what gives you the right to talk to me like this? Just because you have enough money to buy and sell half this state, you have no right to speak to me this way. I’m not uneducated and just because I don’t buy my clothes at Bloomingdales is irrelevant! You have no right to judge my life. I don’t care who you are!" Belinda was shaking. Tears threatened, but she forced them back. She would not allow herself to show weakness to this woman. Not one bit.
Belinda stepped to the railing and looked over. Adam and Owen, his father, were running toward the house. Adam was way ahead of the older man. Frowns creased both their faces when they glanced up at the terrace.
Alice continued her tirade as though Belinda had never spoken.
"We have allowed Adam to attend the school of his choice, although we would have preferred Harvard or Princeton, but the boy was adamant. We encouraged him to test his wings this summer and allowed him to move out, although we paid his rent and gave him a generous allowance for food and entertainment..." Her voice trailed off and, as an afterthought she added, "I see how his money was spent."
"You don’t know anything about me, or Adam and me. And certainly nothing about what we feel!" Belinda cried.
"Be silent." Alice’s command was spoken as though to an insolent child. "Adam has been groomed since birth to fulfill his position in the Redding Company and I will not have him throw it away on a gold-digger such as yourself!"
Alice strode past Belinda as though she were invisible, through the elegant French doors and back into the library, leaving Belinda shaking in disbelief on the terrace.
Adam crashed into the library. "What the hell is going on?" His breath was ragged from his run from the lower level. He glanced out to the terrace where Belinda stood wringing her hands, her face white as a sheet. "What have you done, Mother?"
"Done? I’ve told her the truth," she answered, her voice as innocent as a child’s. She sat down on the overstuffed leather couch as though nothing of importance had transpired and examined her manicure again.
With long, angry strides, Adam went to the terrace. Belinda couldn’t hide the unshed tears in her sea-green eyes as he scooped her into his arms.
After calming slightly, he pushed her away and smoothed her dark hair off her face. "What did she say?"
"What didn’t she say?"
"The basics are that one, I’m not socially acceptable to the Weber standards, you in particular, and two, I’m a gold-digger of all things." Her voice broke and a half sob escaped.
Adam looked into her pleading eyes. "I’ll take care of this, Belinda. Don’t worry. This is one time she won’t get her way. I promise you."
Adam walked back into the room as Owen entered. "What in blazes is going on here?" he shouted.
"Ask her." Adam slung his hand toward his mother, sitting quietly on the couch.
She looked up, all innocence. "I enlightened the girl that Adam has certain—commitments to this family."
"And in what way, exactly, did you explain that, Mother?" Adam shouted.
Alice shrugged her shoulders noncommittally and looked away. "The truth."
"That she is below your station and not worthy to be your…" she stumbled on the proper word, "partner."
"Damn it, Mother. You have no right! You don’t know a damn thing about Belinda, or about me when it comes right down to it."
Alice looked up, no remorse in her eyes. Instead they held a trace of humor. Like this was a game and she was just shy of the winning stroke. Adam’s temper exploded.
"You’ve gone too far this time, Mother. I’m going to tell you a little about my life, and you’re damn-well going to listen."
"If you insist." She sighed, seemingly bored with the game now that she had to listen.
Adam looked to his father for help. Owen looked away, offering no assistance, then walked to another overstuffed chair and sat down.
Adam turned back to his mother.
"Mother, this is Belinda Hawthorne, the woman I love with all my heart." Adam beckoned Belinda and she stepped beneath his outstretched arm. Adam watched Alice’s spine stiffen. Her fingers curled in her lap, but she remained silent. "She’s the best thing that has ever happened to me. She’s real, not some fake debutante programmed by Mummy and Daddy to do everything socially acceptable. This woman has a mind of her own. She thinks and she feels. On her own, Mother. Without someone telling her what and how. I love her and she loves me." He looked down and smiled at Belinda who managed a shaky smile back. "I’ve asked her to marry me. And she’s accepted."
Adam turned back in time to watch his mother spring to her feet, her face a mask of fury.
"Under no circumstances will I allow it!" Alice cried.
"You won’t allow it?" he parroted. "This is not one of your damned business deals, Mother. This is my life and Belinda’s life. I love her and you will not interfere."
"Love? What can either of you possibly know about love?" She nearly snorted again before she whirled on Belinda. "What have you done to bewitch him?" she accused. "Used that body of yours to keep him with you? I bet you know how to use it very well," she spat.
"Alice!" Owen interceded for the first time. "That’s enough."
Alice whirled on her husband. "Well, then, what do you intend to do about this?"
Adam watched his father shrivel before his eyes. This woman dominated him like a puppet. What she said was law. The man had no backbone, he thought with disgust.
"We should discuss it further, Alice," Owen managed, "but we should discuss it like adults."
"There is nothing to discuss. I will not allow Adam to marry this, this common tramp!"
Adam charged his mother. He stopped only inches from her face and grabbed her shoulders. "Apologize, Mother. She’s no tramp and nothing you ever say or do could convince me otherwise. She’s a fine, decent, caring person and I will marry her!" Adam shouted.
"Apologize? To her?" She shook her head then brought her bright red fingernails to her face, inspecting them before she sighed. "I think not."
"Very well, Mother, if that’s the way you want it. We’re leaving. I’m going to take Belinda home, but I’ll be back and we’re going to finish this. For good. And another thing, Belinda and I will be married with or without your blessing or approval. I am of legal age and you can’t do a damn thing to stop me."
Adam turned and stalked back to Belinda. He grabbed her hand and hurried her out of the room. But as he passed through the ornate, cherry wood, double library doors, his mother’s voice nearly stopped him cold.
"Don’t bet on it."