Thanks to everyone who entered my recent “Name That Heroine” contest. I had great fun reading more than 350 suggestions from readers. I’ve narrowed the selection down to Zosia or Sophia/Sophie, another version of Zosia.
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If you haven’t had an opportunity to enjoy the except from my new contemporary military romance series, keep reading for a sneak peek.
Aiden, crouched behind the boulders in the predawn darkness, whispering into the commo mike, directing his unit to surround the mud hut huddled beneath the shadows of the Safed Koh Mountains. His skin prickled with awareness, reacting to every sound in the freezing, still December night.
This snatch-and-grab was straightforward—standard OPS for his Delta team. Minimize collateral damage to rescue the American doctor out of Afghanistan before he disappeared into Pakistan, never to be heard of again, or he appeared on a jihadist YouTube video and it was too late.
The urgency for an immediate rescue of the MD from the Doctors without Borders saddled his team with two volunteer SEALs. His men were obliged to play nice with the SEALs, but Delta Force, the top of the military food chain, didn’t have “play nice” in their manual. Not ideal to try to blend his well-oiled Delta unit. But when did he ever get ideal?
One last time, Aiden scanned the rocky hillside above and the perimeter of the hut. His calm heart rate and even breaths reflected intensive training to control the adrenaline spikes.
The quiet stealth of his operators slipping into their positions, guided by their night vision googles, was shattered by the clipped tattoo of automatic rifles. The SEALs were under fire.
After the eruption of the SEALs gunfight in the rear, two Taliban, robes flying, burst through the front door, their outdated but still deadly Russian AK-40s ready to fire.
Intel from the drone surveillance had reported ten men guarding the hostage, leaving at least five unaccounted-for jihadists. He liked the odds a lot.
Positioned behind a rocky mound, Tony Bam Bam, fired his Stoner Sr-25 sniper rifle, taking out the two at the front door, providing the cover needed for Aiden to breach the hut, with Lewis and Ross following.
Keeping his AR-15 at the ready, Aiden entered the small space. A lone enemy, his AK-40 pointed at a man on the ground, didn’t hear Aiden steal up behind him, since he was occupied hitting the man with the butt of his rifle and shouting in Pashto for him “to stand up.” The downed man had his arms and hands wrapped over his head, trying to protect himself. Aiden grabbed the enemy from behind in a choke hold—tightening his forearm around the man’s throat until he quit struggling. Aiden silently dropped his dead weight onto the dirt floor.
The man on the ground rolled to his feet and darted for the corner of the room. Not knowing whether he was a militant grabbing a gun or the hostage diving for cover, Aiden aimed his assault rifle at the moving man.
“Are you Doctor Wilson?”
The man hovered in the corner. “I am. And who are you?”
At the same moment the din of the gunfire—the strike, strike, strike concussion of the AR-15s and the AK-47—erupted outside the hut. Based on the heavy AK-47 rally, the Intel had been off by a few in their count. Lewis and Ross raced outside to even the odds.
Aiden grabbed the doctor and threw himself over him, protecting him from the close barrage which was blowing holes in the walls and showering them with chunks of mud. Amid the deafening chaos, Aiden quietly directed his voice to the shaking man underneath him. “We’re going to get you out of here. Are you able to walk?”
Dr. Wilson’s body continued to tremble underneath Aiden, but his voice was calm. “Yes, yes, I’m okay.”
Aiden focused on the front door from the ground, his rifle positioned to take out anyone who entered, waiting for his team to report that the perimeter and the rear had been secured. The silence reverberated in his ears now the gunfire had ceased.
Receiving the all-clear, Aiden assisted the doctor, extending a hand to lift him off the sand floor. The small, bespectacled man brushed off his dark pants, and wiped away the blood dripping from his nose, and pushed his glasses back up. Doctor Wilson’s light eyes inspected Aiden earnestly. “I’m fine, but you must find the children.”
For the first time since the beginning of this operation, Aiden’s adrenaline surged and his steady heartbeat sped up into double time. There had been no Intel on children. “What children?”
“My translator’s two sons.”
Aiden should’ve known this snatch-and-grab wasn’t going to be easy as he had been promised. Nothing was ever easy in this stark, dusty, dispirited country.
“Where are they?”
“I’m not sure.” The doctor shook his head. “They were in the car when we were taken.”
“Where are your driver and translator?”
“They killed my driver, but I don’t know about the children or their father.”
Aiden spoke into his mike to the SEALs. “Jenkins, did you hear that? You and Parker search the back for the two children. Once my package is on his way, I’ll join you.”
The doctor put his hand on Aiden’s arm. “I will help you find the children. They are very young and must be terrified.”
The chopper was on its way, but it would be at least a ten-minute walk from the hut and, although Aiden admired the doctor’s courage, the man was shaking, one eye was swollen shut, his nose was still bleeding, and his lip was split open and oozing blood.
“Sir, you need to go with my men to the helicopter. I won’t leave the children.”
Aiden nodded to Lewis and Ross, who had come back into the hut. “Take him to our rendezvous point. The SEALs and I will bring the children.”
Aiden circled the hut and found a small alley directly behind the building, a rocky path ending at a smaller hut with the same dome-shaped roof. He swallowed hard against the rage-induced bile experience had taught him to expect. The children, who had no social media value, were most likely already dead.
Finn Jenkins, a cocky but skilled SEAL, walked toward him. “I’ve heard movement in the hut. It could be a trap.”
Aiden stopped and listened. Had he heard a soft muffle?
“I can handle this, sir.” Jenkins whispered and starting moving to the door.
Aiden shook his head. “Not necessary. Follow me. And, Parker, circle around the back.”
Aiden took a slow, deep breath to clear his head of the flashes of the many—too many to forget—scenes of unspeakable cruelty he’d witnessed. Soldiers risked capture and torture every day. But seeing children tortured and murdered affected even the most hardened, experienced men, and he was one hardened bastard.
With his AR-15 poised to fire, he opened the door slowly, doing an immediate visual of the dimly-lit space. Mats were scattered on the floor where the guards must have rested. Two boys huddled in the corner, their hands and feet tied together and hitched to a post. Alive. A small ray of sunshine in this skewed world where children and women’s lives were considered expendable.
A still man lay at the children’s feet, immobile, possibly unconscious. Aiden’s heart pumped hard and his breath stalled.
Did the sick bastards plan to use the children to lure them into a trap? The Taliban wasn’t against booby-trapping their victims as bombs. With Jenkins behind him, Aiden signaled to cover him while he approached.
Moving deeper in to the dark hut, Aiden spoke in Pashto. “We are here to help. We won’t hurt you.”
Keeping his rifle pointed at the man on the floor, he walked slowly toward the children. “I’m here to take you home. You don’t have to be afraid.”
In his heavy armor and night-vision goggles, and his over six and half foot size, he must have looked like a monster out of a child’s worst nightmare. He’d been told often enough that was one scary-looking dude—great for intimidating the enemy and unintentionally traumatizing the entire civilian population of Afghanistan.
The bigger of the two boys spoke in English. “Don’t hurt our father. He’s…”
“Your father?” Aiden focused on the man on the floor. “This is your father?”
“They beat him until he stopped talking.”
A plaintive cry from the smaller boy, “Is he going to die?”
Aiden looked down on the thin man who didn’t have any obvious evidence of a wired vest underneath his filthy robe. His swollen eyes were closed and his mouth hung open.
Aiden did a quick inspection of the terrified children. Both trembled, from both fear and the cold, since they were wearing only thin robes, and the room was frigid in the early morning hours. “Did they hurt you, too?”
“No, they made us watch them beat our father to show us what would happen if we help Americans.” His high-pitched voice quivered and tears rolled down his dirt-streaked face.
Aiden heard Jenkins mutter as he moved closer with his rifle pointed still on the probably-unconscious man on the floor, “Wish I had a chance to shoot all the fuckers.”
Aiden kneeled down, shoved his night goggles to the top of his head, and untied the boys’ hands and feet, while Jenkins bent over the father to assess his status. He didn’t need to remind Jenkins that the jihadist didn’t follow the Geneva Convention of humane treatment, and might have rigged the father with explosives to blow them sky-high to the promised paradise of Jannah.
Jenkins looked up at Aiden with a shit-eating grin. “I can die a happy man. I’ve been on a mission with Delta.” Then gingerly opened the front of the man’s robes
Aiden released the breath he hadn’t realized he had been holding when the unconscious man was clear. No devices, only major bruising and contusions on his chest.
To distract the children from their father’s injuries, Aiden spoke in a soft, re-assuring voice, “We’re going to make sure you and your father get home safe.” The older rubbed his wrists where he had been bound, than ran his hands up and down his scrawny arms to warm himself.
This wasn’t what he had signed up for when he had been inspired to fight Al Qaeda after 911.
Aiden pulled two Snickers bars from his jacket. Sometimes you needed good old American comforts to get through the shit storm of fighting bad guys. “You eat candy?”
The oldest watched Aiden warily. His younger brother’s lower lip wobbled, but his eyes widened in anticipation.
Aiden handed his secret stash to the boys. Tearing away the wrapper, the younger stuffed half the candy bar into his mouth. A boy after his own heart. Why take the time to chew?
The older boy examined the candy bar carefully before he took a large bite.
Jenkins stood after his exam. “He’s unconscious from the beating, but I find no obvious signs of bleeding. We need to get him to the chopper.”
“Then let’s get out of here.” Aiden nodded at Jenkins.
Parker, who’d been guarding the entrance, stepped in. “Sir, do you want me to carry the boys or walk point?”
When Jenkins lifted the father into his arms, the man gave out an agonized moan. Both boys jumped up and ran next to their father. The younger grabbed a hold of his father’s limp arm and pleaded in his high-pitched voice, “Father, wake up.”
Aiden leaned down to reassure the boys. “We’re going to take good care of him and both of you. We’re going to take you home in a helicopter.” Aiden pointed to Parker. “Take them to the bird.”
The oldest shook his head defiantly. “I don’t need to be carried. I’m eleven years old, but my brother needs help. He is only seven.”
His brother’s lower lip went out again. “I’m almost eight.”
Aiden nodded to Parker, who leaned down and lifted the slight boy into his enormous arms. “Works for me.”
Aiden had a sudden need to get the hell out of the hut. The little hairs on his neck lifted and his gut tightened. Aiden didn’t question his pressing need. He had learned many times over to trust his well-honed sixth sense. “Let’s get out of here.”
Aiden, hyper-alert with the sudden and unexpected adrenaline burst, walked out first and searched the area before signaling the men to move out with their victims. He scanned the hills above him and the area ahead. The older boy kept close to Jenkins, who carried his father. He heard the laughter of the younger boy in Parker’s arms when they cleared the alley and the first hut.
Aiden couldn’t shake the heightened sense of impending danger running up and down his spine, the same damn sensation he always got jumping out of a Blackhawk at 14,000 feet into total darkness and the dangerous unknown. He looked up at the hillside and again scanned the path ahead. Nothing. He closed the door, ready to move.
The deafening explosion was immediate, catapulting him like a Stinger missile into the air. He had only a moment to hope his enormous bulk would help protect the children from the scorching heat and pain that flashed through him, separating his mind from his body.
A dark voice thundered through his head. “You’re one big son of a bitch. Just my luck get stuck rescuing the biggest Delta sucker.”
The word “rescue” shot alertness into Aiden’s numb brain with the impact of a frag grenade. Aiden tried to hoist himself up off his stomach to assess the damage to his team, but he was immobile under a pile of sand, rocks and rubble. He spit the grit out of his mouth while he wiggled his hands and feet. Everything was moving and still attached.
His head felt ready to split in two, and his back had been trampled by a herd of elephants. With each reverberating word from the dark voice outside the rubble, and with each excruciating movement, he concentrated on assessing the extent of his injuries and the need to get to the bird.
“Don’t move, sir. I’m working on getting you out from under these rocks.”
As if he could move. “Jenkins?” Aiden’s voice boomed in his head like Black Sabbath at full volume.
“None other.” And then Jenkins muttered under his breath again about his bad luck and Aiden being the size of a humpback whale.
Aiden shook the dust from his muddled brain. “The children?”
“Parker carried them and the father to the bird. Sir, can you tell if anything is broken?”
“Nothing is broken. Just get the damn rocks off my back.” Aiden said nothing about the crushing pain and the weight keeping his breath shallow, jagged and labored. Nothing broken—except for a few ribs. Since he could move his feet and hands, no spinal injury. Possible concussion based on the heavy metal beat pounding in his head and the double vision.
“Are you going to be able to walk to the bird? Cuz you’re going to owe me if I have to carry your big Delta ass over this terrain.”
If his head weren’t pounding out of the top of his head like an exploding RPG, he’d find the situation hilarious. Jenkins wasn’t exaggerating. Aiden was the largest man in Delta. His six foot six inches size was both noticeable and memorable, and almost got him shut out of Delta, since his conspicuous “presence” was a major deterrent to blending into enemy territory.
Even though his head and ribs felt as if they were cracking apart, a laugh burst out of him. “As I’ve always maintained, SEALs aren’t trained for ground operations.” He’d never admit that SEALs had easily matched his Delta team’s pace during the four-hour trek over the cold, mountainous terrain to get to this isolated valley.
“What the fuck would you call hauling rocks and saving the Delta unit’s commander?” Jenkins was breathless from the exertion of dislodging the last rock off Aiden’s back.
“And I thought the SEAL’s motto of ‘yesterday was the only good day’ would help you buck up.”
Jenkins snorted “Yesterday I didn’t think I’d be carrying your sorry ass.”
“You’re a jackass, Jenkins. I knew I liked you.”
“Likewise, sir. And don’t think I won’t be expecting payback.”