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CHAPTER ONE

 

Lieutenant Commander and Navy SEAL Jonathan O’Halleran leaned over the territory map in his tent. He tilted his head at the faint yet distinctive sound of a helicopter approaching from the other side of the ridge.

Communications were BFU right now … beyond fucked up. Instead of receiving an advanced transmission with details, the incoming chopper’s movements had been relayed from one forward operating base, or FOB, to the next as it progressed across the miles-long ridgeline. No one could tell him the purpose for this unexpected visit, but he’d find out soon enough. Only thing he did know—it was a “friendly,” meaning it wasn’t coming in to blow them to smithereens. So that was a bonus.

His second-in-command, Senior Chief Tyrone Jefferson, aka Sherm, straightened and moved to the opening in the tent. Powerfully built like a Sherman tank, he’d been tagged with the nickname during BUD/S, Basic Underwater Demolition/Seal training. The six-month SEAL training course was brutal, and only the toughest survived.

He was a big, bald badass with skin the color of deep umber and unrivaled levels of patience, and Jonathan trusted him with his life. Having been around awhile and seen things others couldn’t begin to imagine, Sherm liked to think he was in charge. There was a string of truth to it. He seemed to know what Jonathan wanted or needed before he ever said a word. Not that he’d ever tell the big guy that. No sense stroking his already polished ego.

“Sounds like our company’s arriving, Homer,” his senior chief said over his shoulder.

In the field, his guys all called Jonathan Homer. His roommate at the Naval Academy stuck him with it when he noticed his tattered, dog-eared copy of Homer’s Odyssey sitting on his desk. Could’ve been worse. One guy, who was pretty much bald by the age of eighteen, got stuck with being called Gramps.

Jonathan tucked his pencil behind his ear and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Sherm as they watched the chopper swoop down into the valley. The skill of the guys who managed to maneuver those beasts always impressed the hell out of him.

Three Seabees, Navy guys who managed all the inbound logistics for the FOB, and some men from the Afghan National Police kicked up dust as they rushed to take up defensive positions outward from the landing zone or LZ, as it was called in the field. On this FOB, the LZ was a generous term for a rough-hewn circle of rocks on the craggy valley floor between the Hindu Kush and Safed Kuh mountains in Afghanistan—the far-from-glamorous location of FOB Nugent and SEAL TEAM Seven’s current home.

Most times, when a helo came in, it never even powered down. They just swooped in, hovered over the pad with their load, dropped it, then hauled ass. Not this time.

Cloying dust, dirt and gravel kicked up by the powerful MH-60R helicopter temporarily obscured the large emblem on its side as it settled gracefully. Before the long blades came to a stop, the side door rolled open, and two men in desert camouflage hopped out. Jonathan squinted. Even from two hundred yards away, the Red Cross armbands with their stark white backgrounds stood out against the bland landscape.

Shit. The International Red Cross had many responsibilities in areas of armed conflict, only one of which was tracking down and notifying deployed personnel if a family member became seriously ill or died. Surprise visits from them were never a good thing, and everyone knew it.

Marilyn flickered through his mind and, just as quickly, he shoved his concern aside. She’d said her last checkup went “spectacularly great” … her exact words. That left Denny, his petty officer. His dad had been battling cancer for several months.

The guys on his team abandoned their intensely physical game of touch football to form a shirtless wall of testosterone and heightened awareness in front of the newcomers.

Jonathan turned back to the table. He had an op to plan and very little time to pull it together.

“Looks like the boys are giving them a good vetting.” Sherm dropped the tent flap and went back to reviewing the map with Jonathan.

The guys on his team weren’t being dickheads, they were being vigilant. People operating in this part of the world learned the hard way to distrust strangers. Even those wearing the Red Cross insignia.

A knock rattled the brace post. Powder-fine, yellowish-beige sand drifted down through several small holes. The shit was everywhere. Seriously. Everywhere.

“Enter.” Jonathan kept his voice low yet forceful. He’d learned at the Academy that volume and intensity were not the same thing.

The flap lifted, and their two visitors stepped inside. The men’s eyes widened as they looked up at Jonathan and Sherm.

Jonathan was six four and Sherm was about six five and a half. Both had to hunch over to keep their heads from brushing the top of the tent. Experienced warriors, they quickly took in every detail, every nuance of the newcomers and scanned them for any possible threat.

The dark-haired guy spoke first.

“I am Tomas Rickard and this”—he indicated to the man at his right—“is Renaugh Boivin. We are with the International Committee of the Red Cross. We are here to see Lieutenant O’Halleran.”

His smooth French accent seemed out of place in such an unrefined, uncivilized environment. Almost as much as their pristine, perfectly starched battledress.

Rickard stiffened his spine as if mustering his courage and made a move to step around Sherm.

The big man flattened his hand against the visitor’s chest. His dark, war-battered skin was a striking contrast against the clean uniform shirt.

“That’s far enough, fellas.” The senior chief crossed his arms over his chest, dominating the space around him. “Let’s see some ID.”

Rickard shook his head and muttered something in French to his partner. Boivin, proving he was the smarter man, had already pulled his identification from his pocket and was handing it to Sherm.

Jonathan stepped up next to Sherm and glared down at Rickard.

“Bitch all you want, Rickard, but it’s standard operating procedure to produce your identification when arriving at any outpost. Even if you are wearing that armband.” That’s right, I understood every word you said. You arrogant little ass. “But of course, you already knew that, didn’t you?”

Rickard hesitated then mumbled an insincere apology before quickly regaining his haughtiness.

“Are you Lieutenant Jonathan O’Halleran?” Even though he was about a whole foot shorter, the guy still somehow managed to look down his nose at Jonathan.

“I am.” He crossed his arms and lifted a brow. “Why the hell did they send you two out here?”

Red Cross messages were delivered to the FOB commander electronically. Since theirs was currently making a goodwill visit to the local village, Jonathan was left in charge.

“Yes, well, you see … ” Rickard swallowed hard. A bead of sweat snaked down the side of his face. “We have been having, um … technical issues with our electronics.”

Ah. No wonder. If it wasn’t for shitty, outdated equipment, this snotty prick and his seemingly mute buddy wouldn’t be anywhere near a dangerous outlying base like this one.

Rickard’s hand trembled as he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket. He swiped it across his face, over the back of his neck, then stuffed it out of sight.

“Who’d you boys piss off?” Sherm asked.

“Excuse me?” Rickard’s brows drew together.

“Never mind.” Jonathan waved it off. “Tell the senior chief who your message is for, and he’ll go grab him.”

Jonathan turned his back to them and yanked the pencil from behind his ear. The makeshift table groaned when he spread his hands atop it, then resumed making notes on the map spread out before him.

Rickard’s eyes darted from Sherm then back to him. “The message is for you, Lieutenant O’Halleran.”

Jonathan straightened, tossed his pencil down, then slowly turned back to the smaller man. He tilted his chin at Sherm, who stepped over and closed the tent flap, leaving a group of curious SEALS standing on the other side.

Rickard stepped forward and held out a large manila envelope. Jonathan took it from him, then moved to the far side of the tent, the closest he would get to having any privacy. He flipped open his knife and sliced it across the top of the envelope, then pulled out an official-looking document. After plowing through a bunch of formal military and introductory language, he got to the meat of the letter.

August Ten: Thirteen Seventeen hours, Marilyn O’Halleran arrived at

Skagit Bay Memorial Hospital via ambulance. 

August Ten: Thirteen Thirty-Two hours, Marilyn O’Halleran underwent

an emergency caesarean section, performed by Dr. Stephen Barrister, OB/GYN. 

August Ten: Fourteen Thirteen hours, a female infant was airlifted

to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Seattle Children’s Hospital.

August Ten: Fourteen Sixteen hours, as a result of severe hemorrhaging,

Marilyn O’Halleran did not survive the rigors of birth. 

Official TOD: 1416 HRS PST

Sounds of life on the FOB ceased. Colors faded to varying shades of gray. The ever-present smells of military life—sweat, spent brass, musty canvas, dust and dirt—ceased to exist.

A gaping chasm tore open inside his gut and threatened to double him over. All his hopes, dreams, and plans for a life with the woman he’d known since childhood were sucked into its cold, dark abyss. Marilyn, his Marilyn, was gone. Forever.

His mind dragged him back to the last time he saw her. It was a month … no, two months ago during a staticky video call. She was so happy and excited about him coming home soon. Her blue eyes twinkled the way they always did, and she was positively glowing. It almost hurt to look at her.

Marilyn’s bright light had been extinguished, and he hadn’t been there for her. She’d always been there for him, always been a big part of his life. How the hell was he supposed to move forward without her in it?

Jonathan forced a deep, silent breath and shoved his emotions to the far, darkest corners of his soul. Locked them down tight until he felt nothing.

He slogged through the rest of the letter. Logistical details, travel schedules, even condolences. Training and experience kicked in, and he fell into take-care-of-business mode. He handed Sherm the letter on his way to his rack, grabbed his duffle, dropped it on the old cot and stuffed his few belongings inside.

His friend’s eyes skimmed across the pages. The hand holding the letter fell to his side.

“What can we do, Homer? Anything, just name it.” He meant it, too. No matter what Jonathan asked of him, he would make it happen. Problem was, even Sherm couldn’t bring Marilyn back.

Words were impossible. A riot of emotions—jammed up like a fist in his throat—choked him as they tried to hammer their way through. He couldn’t let that happen. His senior chief knew the protocol and would step up to command the team until Jonathan’s replacement arrived.

Voice subdued, Sherm glanced at the letter, then back at him. “Says here you have a baby girl.”

Jonathan faltered midway through pulling on his tactical vest. He waited for the words to flip some sort of internal switch that would kick-start his emotions. It never happened. They pinged off him like a bullet ricocheting off a cliff face, leaving behind nothing but a superficial scar.

He turned to Sherm, held his hand out, palm up.

His friend hesitated, looked like he wanted to say something else. Finally, he handed over the letter and quietly turned to step out of the tent. The flap lifted, and questioning murmurs from the group congregated outside snuck through before it dropped back into place.

Jonathan looked at the paperwork one more time, then carefully slid it back into the envelope and tucked it into the side pocket of his bag. By rote, he finished strapping on his vest, yanked the zipper on his duffle and threw it over his shoulder. He grabbed the rest of his gear, took a last look around his quarters—knowing nothing would ever be the same again—and jammed on his helmet, careful not to look at the picture of Marilyn tucked inside the lining. He threw open the tent flap and, out of habit, slipped on his wraparound sunglasses. It wasn’t as if the bright August sun had even registered.

Having conveyed the news, Sherm waited with the rest of the team just outside the tent. Their faces held varying degrees of anguish, pity and even frustration. These were men used to being in control. In this, like him, they had none. A few of them murmured words of condolence and apologies for his loss. Others stood in stunned silence. At one time or another, most of them had met Marilyn. Everyone loved her. Why the hell wouldn’t they? She embodied everything good and pure about the world.

“Back it up, guys.” Voice somber, Sherm walked ahead of him. A sort of human plow clearing everyone in their path.

Eyes fixed on the horizon, Jonathan put one foot in front of the other. The crunching of rocks beneath their boots was drowned out by his heartbeat pounding between his ears. Surprising, since he was certain his heart had just been ripped from his chest. There was no high-pitched whine from the helicopter engine. No whop whop whop from the long, spinning rotor blades. Gone was the oppressive heat, the parched landscape, the concern about imminent threats.

He navigated the small incline to the helipad.

Rickard and Boivin were already seated inside the helo. Having dropped their bomb, they’d hightailed it back to the relative safety of the helicopter. He had no right to hate these men, to blame them. After all, they were only the harbingers of doom, not the creators.

Knowing he couldn’t leave without saying … something, Jonathan rolled his shoulders, then turned to his team.

“Senior Chief’s in charge. He’ll fill you in on what you need to know.”

As one, they straightened and snapped a salute.

He clenched his jaw, returned their salute, then, with a last nod to his men, he turned, hunched over and walked to the helo, oblivious to the sand pelting his face as dust and debris whipped around him. After he climbed in next to Rickard, the door rattled shut, the blades sped up, and the chopper lifted.

The ground fell away below him, and his team disappeared from sight. Jonathan’s head thumped back against the equipment panel. As they flew low over the snow-dusted jagged peaks, he closed his eyes and tried to conjure up Marilyn’s smiling face. Instead, only three little words pounded around inside him like a wrecking ball, destroying everything in its path.

“Did not survive."