Authors: Alexis Morgan
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary
A Snowberry Creek Novella
Published by the Penguin Group
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Published by New American Library,
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Copyright © Patricia L. Pritchard, 2013
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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“Corporal Lang, do you need me to move in and take the shot?”
Spence kept his focus on the target, calculating both the distance and the angle. “Nope, I’ve got it covered, Sergeant.”
Corporal Leif Brevik joined the whispered conversation. “Come on, Wheels, let Nick take over. Your aim’s been off all week. Blow this one and we’re all screwed.”
Did they think he didn’t know that? “Shut the hell up.”
Spence put enough growl in the words to make sure the rest of the squad backed off. It was bad enough that both the sergeant and his best friend had questioned Spence’s ability in front of the others. He sure as heck didn’t need the rest of them chiming in.
Sweat stung his eyes, but all he could do was blink until his vision cleared. A lot was riding on the next few seconds, and the shot needed a delicate touch. Just as he’d been taught back in training, Spence took a step back inside his head, distancing himself from everything around him but the objective.
The whole world narrowed down to a single target.
Nick butted in again. “Spence, take the damn shot or stand down.”
Enough was enough. “If I didn’t need both my hands to do the job right, Sarge, I would be giving you a one-fingered salute right about now.”
One more slow breath in. One more slow breath out. Target acquired. Spence pulled the trigger and let go. The noise of the world came rushing back as the ball sailed through the air, arcing high against the stark blue of the Afghan sky. The shot took forever, and yet was over in seconds.
Nothing but net! Game over. Game won. Objective achieved.
Spence’s friends erupted in a raucous chorus of hoots and hollers and good-natured insults about their vanquished enemy. In this case, it was a bunch of Marines who had challenged the prowess of Spence’s squad in a pickup game of basketball. Before the game had started, Nick Jenkins, Spence’s sergeant, had declared they were playing for the honor of the U.S. Army, period. No bets allowed.
Right. Like that was going to happen. Spence mopped his face with his T-shirt and watched as more than one Marine slapped a five or ten down on an outstretched hand. Nick watched for several seconds more before deliberately turning his back and walking away. What he didn’t see, he didn’t have to deal with.
Even so, there was something weird going on with the sergeant. He’d been acting oddly for a couple of days. If Nick didn’t shake off whatever was fucking with his mind soon, Spence and Leif would have to do a little two-on-one therapy, the kind that involved a few bruises and enough blood to show they cared.
“Nice shot, Wheels, even if I aged two years waiting for you to finally take it.”
Leif tossed Spence a bottled water and opened one for himself. He stuck the third one he’d brought in his cargo pocket as they both watched Nick disappear into the building. “Is the man still off his feed?”
“Yeah.” Spence poured half the water over his head before guzzling down the rest. Giving Leif a narrow-eyed look, he asked, “You sure you didn’t do something to piss him off?”
Leif shrugged and shook his head. “Not this time. Besides, that’s your specialty, not mine.”
Spence couldn’t argue with Leif’s assessment, although lately he’d been on his best behavior. No screwups, at least none he could remember. Besides, Nick wasn’t one to pull punches. If one of them had managed to offend their illustrious leader, he would have said so loudly, repeatedly, and colorfully.
In fact, thanks to Nick, Spence was half convinced the army had changed his name to Effing Idiot and Leif’s to Effing Asshole. Hell, he wouldn’t be surprised if they engraved it on his dog tags along with his blood type.
They meandered back toward the quarters they shared with the man in question. Spence had hoped winning the basketball game would improve Nick’s mood, but they found him sacked out on his bunk, his cap pulled down low over his face. He probably thought if he was asleep they’d leave him alone.
Fat chance. Leif tossed the bottle of water at Nick. “Incoming!”
Nick snagged the bottle out of the air right before it would have smacked him in the face. So much for him being asleep, even if he returned to the pretense right after he sent the bottle hurtling back at Leif.
Spence had to ask, “You okay, Sarge?”
Nick rolled over on his side, facing away from Spence. “For the last time, yes. Now either shut up or get out.”
With that one question Spence had exhausted his entire repertoire of touchy-feely stuff. He dropped down on his own bunk and dug out the goodies Callie had sent him. The box had come in the mail two days ago, but this was the first chance he’d had to open it.
Other than the basketball game, the last few days the squad had spent most of their waking hours patrolling the nearby town. All he could say about the experience is that it had been quiet. In some ways, that that was worse. Him at the wheel, Nick riding shotgun, and Leif on the big gun in back as they prowled through town just waiting for something to happen.
Sometimes it was quiet because the locals went into hiding when the insurgents had a special party planned for the Americans. And on other days, it was quiet just because. Not knowing which was which at any given time was a real bitch. Personally, Spence figured anytime they rode back into camp with all their body parts intact, even if bruised up and bloody, it was a victory for the flag, mom, and apple pie.
Speaking of home cooking, it looked as if Callie had been baking again. God, he loved her snickerdoodles. She’d also sent along some of his favorite granola bars, a box of microwave kettle corn, the past few issues of his favorite magazines, and five more DVDs.
A veritable treasure trove, which meant any minute now the vultures would start circling around. Sure enough, Leif was already staring at the box with pure greed glittering in his eyes. If Spence didn’t keep an eye on him, the sneaky jerk would steal half the cookies and all of the popcorn. The bastard always had a real jones on for sugar.
Leif sat down on the near side of his bunk, slowly maneuvering himself into range to make a quick grab for the goodies. “So, what kind did she send this time?”
Spence scooted farther away as he dangled the plastic bag of cookies dusted with cinnamon and sugar in the air. “Snickerdoodles, my favorite.”
Leif snorted as he leaned in closer, breathing deep as if needing to take a hit off the cinnamon himself. “Yeah, you said that last month when she sent you oatmeal raisin cookies and the one before that when she made you chocolate chip.”
Spence raised and lowered the bag and waved it from side to side. It was a kick watching Leif’s greedy eyes track the motion. “So true, my friend, but then the woman has always had a talent for baking. She learned from the best.”
He opened the bag and breathed deeply of the sweet smell. It sent him back in time to when he used to sit in the kitchen at Callie’s family home and sneak bites of cookie dough. Her mom would smack his fingers with a wooden spoon if she caught him, but she always made sure to send him home with a bag of cookies just like this one. No one at Spence’s house had baked anything except frozen pizza.
“So, are you going to share or not?”
If it had been Leif who asked, Spence would have put up more of a fight, but it was Nick. Spence grabbed a handful and carried them over to him. Nick nodded his thanks and turned away again. Spence shot Leif a “WTF?” look. Leif just shrugged and held out a hand for his share of the goodies.
Having dispensed as many as he was going to, Spence flopped back down on his bunk with one of the magazines. Even with the sports scores weeks out of date, he enjoyed keeping up with his favorite teams back home. Right now it was spring, so baseball captured most of the headlines.
He was an American League fan, while both Leif and Nick worshiped at the altar of the National League. The three of them had sat up many a night arguing long and hard about the designated hitter’s role in the game. Come football season, they’d find something new to fight about. It was all good.
Spence was never happier than when he was behind the wheel and driving at the near edge of crazy. Right now, he should be out of his mind with happiness, but not this time. Nick still wasn’t running on all cylinders. As long as they’d been serving together, each member of their trio had fulfilled his assigned part to play. Nick was the calm one, Leif worried over the details, and Spence was the one who took all the chances.
Somehow, when he wasn’t looking, it appeared he and Nick had traded jobs. And if Spence was being the sensible one, God help them all. At least for now, things were under control because they were stuck in between other vehicles in the patrol, playing follow-the-leader back to camp.
Evidently Nick felt differently about the situation. “Damn, I’m tired of eating everybody else’s dust. Turn at that next corner and cut over to the other road back to camp. The rest of the patrol will catch up with us eventually.”
Nick pointed up ahead to a small side street, the kind barely wide enough for their vehicle to fit down with only a foot or so of clearance on either side. And if any of the locals had their crap piled outside their house, not even that. What was the man thinking?
“Are you sure about that, Sarge? If we follow the planned route with the others for another couple of blocks, there’s a better road. Once we’re there, the dust should die down.”
He kept his voice even, hoping Nick wouldn’t see Spence’s comments as a challenge to his authority. Besides, they all know it was three kinds of crazy to separate from everyone else, even for just a few minutes. They might as well paint a cherry red target on their asses.
And even if they made it back in one piece, the powers that be would be waiting to rip the sergeant a new one for endangering his men unnecessarily. But these days it didn’t take much to set Nick off, and this was no exception.
His eyes turned ice cold. “Was there something about my order you didn’t understand, soldier?”
“No, Sarge. Clear as glass. Turning now.”
At the last second, Spence deliberately missed the turn and swerved back into line with the rest of their platoon. He pointed back toward a basket sitting near the entrance of the street.
“Sorry, Nick, but I was afraid we might hit that thing. God knows what’s in it.”
That much was true. The local insurgents used anything and everything to disguise explosives.
Even so, Nick was pissed. “There was plenty of clearance around that basket, Corporal. If you can’t drive better than this, pull over and we’ll switch places.”
Spence gritted his teeth and muttered, “Sorry, Sergeant. It won’t happen again.”
This time Nick didn’t bother to respond. Instead he focused on the line of vehicles ahead of them. Meanwhile, Leif leaned down long enough to pat Spence on the shoulder. Unfortunately, the motion caught their companion’s attention.
“Do you have a problem with my orders, Corporal Brevik?”
Leif flinched as if Nick had slapped him. “No, Sarge. I was about to ask Spence if he had any bottled water left.”
“We’re almost back to camp. The water can wait. Stay focused on the mission.”
They rode the rest of the way back to camp in grim silence. There’d been one tense moment before the patrol reached camp when a couple of men walked out of a house right in front of them. Leif immediately spun the gun in their direction, sending the locals scrambling back inside. Spence revved the engine, dashing past the building while Leif and Nick kept scanning the area looking for any sign of eminent attack.
Driving through the main gate into camp felt like dumping a fifty pound weight off Spence’s shoulders. They’d survived another one.
He stopped outside of their quarters and waited until Nick got out before speaking.
“Permission to refill the tank, Sarge.”
Nick didn’t even look back, he just raised his hand and kept walking. When he was out of sight, Leif climbed up front and dropped into the seat the sergeant had just vacated. Spence put the M-ATV in gear and drove away before Nick could change his mind.
Leif leaned back and closed his eyes. “I can’t believe he even considered leaving the rest of the convoy for just a few minutes. What the hell was that all about?”
Spence shook his head. “No idea, but I’m getting damned tired of him ripping my head off at least twice a day.”
He steered in and around the other vehicles and squads of men cluttering up the road. “He damn well better snap out of it soon.”
“I second that.” Leif sat up straighter. “On a brighter note, we’ve been invited to a movie tonight with those women from supply. A private showing, if you catch my drift. I promised to bring the popcorn, provided you haven’t eaten it all your own selfish self.”
Spence grinned at his friend. “No, I keep some squirreled away for just such emergencies. Sounds like fun.”
He pulled up in back of the line of vehicles waiting to gas up. “Think we should invite Nick?”
All things considered, Spence didn’t want to invite him, even if he felt guilty for feeling that way. It used to be the three of them were inseparable. But if Nick came, he’d most likely ruin the evening for everybody. On the other hand, if they didn’t ask him, he’d for sure spend another evening wallowing in this pity party he’d been hosting for himself.
Leif frowned. “Let’s wait and see what kind of mood he’s in after dinner. If he’s being a total ass, we’ll leave him home. No use in letting him screw up our free time, too.”
Spence hit the steering wheel with his fist. “Damn, I hate this.”
Leif shrugged. “Yeah, well, it’s not like he’s giving us any choice. I just hope he gets over it soon, whatever it is.”
And before Nick did something stupid and got himself or somebody else killed.
• • •
The three of them had spent the previous evening watching movies and eating popcorn in the company of some very friendly ladies. While the evening hadn’t exactly improved Nick’s mood, at least it hadn’t made it any worse. If Nick noticed that these days everyone tiptoed around him, he gave no indication of it. In fact, everybody did their best to avoid approaching Nick directly. Mostly, they would sidle up to Spence and ask him to play intermediary. While Spence understood why, it wasn’t as if his job description included the words “sacrificial lamb.”
Right now he needed a break from the unrelenting gloom that followed Nick wherever he went.
“I’d like to pick up a couple of things at the PX. Either of you want anything?”
Nick looked up from the report he’d been working on. “I thought you went there this morning.”
“I did, but the line was too long. I thought it might be less crowded now. It’s almost dinnertime.”
“Fine. Go, but don’t stay gone long.”
Leif rolled up off his bunk. “Maybe I’ll go with you.”
The two of them scooted out the door, hoping to make a clean escape. The door opened again before they were far enough away to get by with pretending not to notice. Spence looked back.
“Did you need something, Sarge?” he asked, hoping Nick hadn’t changed his mind about letting them go.
“Bring me back a couple of candy bars. You know the kind I like.”
“Thanks,” Nick said. Then he actually smiled before disappearing back inside.
Hell, Spence would buy every piece of candy on the whole damn base if it made Nick happy. He and Leif automatically picked up the pace, figuring to get back with the chocolate in a hurry to keep that smile on Nick’s face. It turned out Spence had been right about the shorter lines, so they were in and out in just a few minutes. On the way back, they squeezed in a second stop to pick up lattes. Nick liked those, too.
But as they started back, Spence heard staccato bursts of gunfire in the distance. Both men froze, listening hard. More shots. Damn, somebody was coming under heavy fire. They broke into a run.
As they turned the last corner heading back to their quarters, they spotted Nick outside barking orders. The two of them skidded to a halt just short of where he stood.
Nick looked grim. “Grab your gear. A supply convoy is pinned down on the far side of town.”
Spence tossed the coffees into the nearest trashcan and took off running with Leif right beside him. When they came back out, Nick was pacing as he listened to incoming reports.
They finished gearing up and piled in the M-ATV. Spence started the engine and barreled toward the gate, cutting into the line ahead of the rest of their squad. Nick jerked his head in approval as he monitored incoming reports. They all knew the drill; only the specifics varied from one time to the next.
Nick gave Spence the location and trusted him to get them there. Even if he hadn’t memorized every street in the whole damned town, the barrage of gunfire would have led him straight to the right place. He slowed their vehicle down at the next corner where a lieutenant flagged them down. He held up a map and pointed at a place a couple of streets over from their current position.
“The convoy was late returning because of a flat tire. That gave the bastards just enough time to set up a trap. They’ve got some of the men caught in a crossfire here and here,” he said, jabbing his finger at the map. “We have reports of shooters up on the rooftops, who keep shifting positions. Either that, or they’re running in packs today. My men are moving into position from this side. I want you to maneuver around to come at them from behind.”
“Will do, Sir.”
Nick held up his hand and moved it in a circle to tell the other vehicles behind them what to do. Spence swung out of line to hang a U-turn and then shot through the line of vehicles to a chorus of curse words from the other drivers. Too fucking bad. Right now every second counted.
If they weren’t up for a little balls-to-the-wall driving, let ’em get some training wheels. By the time they reached their assigned position, the street was completely deserted, which was never a good sign. Leif scanned the rooftops while Spence watched the doors and windows for any sign of the enemy.
Nick pointed to the closest building on the left. “There!”
As soon as Spence slammed on the brakes, Nick was out and running for the building while the other vehicles were still arriving.
Spence shouted, “Nick, slow your fucking ass down!”
No dice. Damn it, did the man have a death wish? He knew better than to charge off without adequate support, not to mention it wasn’t his job to be the one in front when they started busting in doors.
To make matters worse, Leif had already grabbed his own gun and went charging after the sergeant. At least the rest of the men had caught up with them. Spence ran back to the next vehicle. He yelled to make himself heard over the renewed shooting from the next street over.
“The sergeant and Leif headed toward that building. I’m going after them.”
He pointed at the nearest group. “You secure the street. Clear the houses on the left side first, but post lookouts all around. Watch that roofline because those bastards are moving around up there. Kelly, you and the rest are with me.”
Then he went after his friends, hoping they survived long enough for him to kick their asses for them.
• • •
Spence reached the door and peeked inside to make sure no one was waiting to open fire by way of a greeting. He slid across the threshold, keeping his back to the wall as he inched farther into the dim interior. Kelly followed close behind, taking the other side.
A movement had Spence bringing up the barrel of his gun, ready to fire. Son of a bitch, it was woman and two small boys. That didn’t mean they weren’t armed. He motioned for them to get down on the ground. The mother put herself between Spence and her kids and held up her hands, her dark eyes pleading with him not to pull the trigger.
He went with his gut that they offered no threat and kept going. No doubt Nick had picked this house because it offered access to the roof. Spence headed for the staircase, going slowly after leaning in far enough to take a quick look around. All clear. He started up the steps, back to the wall, listening hard for any sign of company.
Kelly waited until Spence signaled for him to start up the steps while two more men took their positions at the door. It was the same dance they’d all done a hundred times before.
Where the hell were Leif and Nick? The silence above him was ominous. He kept moving. At the top, he did his prairie dog imitation, sticking his head up long enough to do a three-sixty look.
The roof was empty. Nick and Leif had moved on, but where? Spence stepped out onto the roof, running low toward the waist-high wall that separated this house from the next one over as the rest of the squad fanned out behind him. Nobody there, either. Spence swung back to check the street below in case they’d already come back down. No dice. The rest of the men were moving up and down the street in a well-trained ballet, covering each other’s asses as they checked one building after another.
The need to find his friends was riding Spence hard. He headed across the rooftop to climb over the wall to the house that faced the other street. The gunfire was louder now. When Spence reached the street side of the roof, he risked a quick peek over the edge. Just as he did, he spotted a shooter on the roof of the building on the opposite side of the street.
The guy was too intent on firing at the trucks down below to notice he’d been made. Spence made sure the bastard would never make that mistake again. Moving on, he constantly swept his focus from side to side, back and front. No sign of Leif or Nick. When he reached the next roof, a familiar voice shouting out a warning.
Spence rushed forward just as another shooter popped up across the street. It was getting on toward sunset, making it harder to see clearly, but the next burst of fire revealed the shooter’s position. Spence pulled the trigger as he ran forward to the edge of the roof.
Sure enough, Leif had just exited the next building over, running low and trying to keep the truck between him and the enemy. Spence let out a sharp whistle. His friend looked up long enough to acknowledge Spence’s signal and then eased forward. Spence did his best to keep pace from above. He hoped like hell that Leif knew where the sergeant was, because he didn’t see him anywhere.