Christmas with Hope
A companion piece for the Wounded Heroes series
Copyright © 2011 by Anne Patrick
ISBN 10: 1-61252-106-1
ISBN 13: 978-161252-106-0
Published in the United States of America
Content Editors: Shawna Williams & Sydney Morgan
Cover Artist: SelfPubBookCovers.com/nicolebcreative
KINDLE DIRECT PUBLISHING EDITION
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This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this ebook with other people, please purchase an additional copy for each person. All rights are reserved and it is illegal to copy, scan, or in any way mechanically or digitally reproduce this book for resale or sharing except for small passages for reviews and related articles. Requests for other uses should be directed to the author or publisher for written permission.
Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Christmas with Hope is a work of fiction. Names, characters, locations, and incidents are the products of the author‘s imagination and are either fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
This series is dedicated to all the brave men and women in our military, emergency services, and law enforcement agencies. Words cannot express my gratitude for your sacrifice and dedication to our country.
While researching for this series I enlisted the help of several members of our military and law enforcement agencies. I’d especially like to thank Neil Gussman and Tanya Rogers for their patience in answering all of my questions. I couldn’t have embarked on this journey without your help.
I’d also like to thank all my wonderful readers. I appreciate each and every one of you!
A bullet ricocheted off the concrete wall, narrowly missing Nick Cunningham’s head. Kneeling next to the door, he returned several rounds from his M4. Mortars and small-arms fire exploded throughout the neighborhood. It sounded like the Fourth of July. He searched the rooftop of the building across the road, where the insurgents lay well hidden, but saw nothing.
The mission was simple. Locate and eliminate a cell of insurgents embedded in the small village in western Iraq. But nothing was ever that simple in this unconventional war. As it turned out, the reliable tip that put this mission in motion appeared to be just a ruse to ambush Nick’s unit.
Thankfully, only one of his men was injured in the initial firefight.
He glanced over at Doc. The young medic was changing the bandage on their fallen comrade. Lucas’ gunshot wound wasn’t serious, but if they didn’t get him to a hospital soon they could lose him.
Another mortar exploded just outside the door, showering Nick with plaster and dirt. The abandoned school had offered the perfect refuge but, after four hours of continuous hits, the roof and part of the front wall were close to collapsing on top of them.
“Hey, Gunner,” Nick yelled into his head mike. “You got that radio fixed yet?” He’d been at it over an hour and Nick was losing patience.
Several seconds passed before the soldier answered, “I’m working on it.”
Nick glanced down the dirt road to their bombed Humvee, where Gunner and Mac were attempting to fix the radio. They were still receiving fire. Nick had to give them some reinforcement if they had any chance of radioing for help. “Crocket, come in here and keep the doc company. I’m gonna go see if I can’t speed things up a bit.”
“Hey, Lieutenant. You may want to hang back,” his radio crackled. “Sounds like we have company.”
Nick listened. He could barely hear the sound of chopper blades over the gunfire. “Miller, shoot a flare on top of that roof so they’ll know our location.”
Within seconds of the flare’s landing, four blasts demolished the building across the road. The percussion knocked Nick off his feet. Smoke billowed into the school. An eerie silence surrounded them.
Nick held his breath and ran to the other side of the room where Doc, Lucas, and Crocket were. Two of his other teammates joined him. Nick motioned to the wounded soldier. “Miller, help Doc. Snowman, you follow me. Crocket, cover our backs.” Nick took the lead, his M4 positioned in front of him.
A late afternoon sun beat down on them as Nick led the way toward their Humvee. He heard the sound of chopper blades and saw the two Black Hawks coming from the east. “Gunner, try and signal them for a pick-up. We’re coming toward you.”
A dog barked from one of the nearby houses. Nick motioned for his teammates to stop. He scanned the area quickly. The settling smoke from the burning buildings made it difficult to see.
They were within a few yards of the Humvee when an RPG launched from a nearby grove of trees. The helicopters maneuvered out of the way, then circled around and took out the small truck before its occupants could launch another. More gunfire erupted from a nearby building. Nick motioned for his group to take cover behind the Humvee. He squatted near the front end, searching the windows for the insurgents. He spotted one ready to take aim at the birds and fired off a half dozen rounds. Silence followed.
The Black Hawks flew over once more before hovering over the empty field behind them. Nick waited until one was almost on the ground before signaling to his men to evacuate. He stood guard while Snowman rigged the Humvee with explosives, then they ran to the first chopper.
The choppers were barely off the ground when the insurgents started firing on them again. The door gunner next to Nick returned fire as the bird tilted left and flew off. Nick looked back just as the Humvee exploded.
Less than an hour later, they were back on the ground. Nick helped Doc remove their injured teammate. They were met by two medics with a gurney. In the background, he heard the Black Hawks shutting down. Seconds later the cockpit door opened, and one of the pilots exited.
Nick walked over to him. “We’re going to need a lift back to our forward base.”
“Not until we’re refueled and re-armed,” said a female voice from inside the Black Hawk. No sooner had she spoken, a HEMMT 2500-gallon fueling vehicle drove toward the aircrafts.
Nick stepped to the door just as the pilot slid back her helmet’s visor. “We have another mission to fly before we drop you off, and I hate running out of fuel and ammo. It really ruins a person’s day.” She tossed him a smile as beautiful as her amber eyes.
“That was some maneuvering you did back there.” He’d flown in a lot of Black Hawks during his career, and her performance was as good as, if not better than, any of those pilots. It was obvious she’d had her wings for quite some time.
“Thanks.” She shifted her eyes to the panel of gauges between the seats.
He leaned inside the cockpit, offering his hand. “I’m First Lieutenant Nick Cunningham, Third Battalion, Seventy-Fifth Ranger Regiment.”
“You say that as if it’s supposed to impress us,” the co-pilot said from behind.
“Captain Hope Erickson, Twelfth Combat Aviation Brigade.” She shook Nick’s hand. “Don’t mind him. He’s a little cranky ‘cause he hasn’t had his turkey and dressing yet.”
Nick had almost forgotten it was Thanksgiving. His fourth spent in a war zone. He thought briefly of his family back home. His parents, brother, and sisters were probably sitting around the fireplace now planning tomorrow’s festivities. After a light meal of pizza or sandwiches, his mom and sisters would spend the rest of the evening baking in the kitchen.
“How bad is your guy hit?” Captain Erickson asked.
“Not too bad. He’s lost a lot of blood, but he’ll make it. How’d you know to pick us up?”
“When your commander couldn’t raise you on the radio he sent out an alert. We were in the neighborhood.”
He’d never been thankful for a firefight before, but he was today. “You know I once knew a Hope in grade school, back in Raleigh.”
She grinned. “Was she overweight with braces?”
Oh No! “Please tell me you don’t remember me.” Out of all the women in the world, she would have to be the one, who as a child, he and his buddies had teased on a daily basis.
“I see your taste in friends has improved.”
Aw man, she did remember. “So have my manners,” he answered with regret. “I’m glad you didn’t know who you were bailing out back there.” If she had, she probably would’ve been tempted to leave him and his unit in the hands of the insurgents. “So is this your forward operating base?”
“No. Camp Adder.”
“You’re kidding?” Camp Adder, located on Tallil Air Base in south-central Iraq, was a main resupply point. “My unit’s temporarily stationed there.”
His day had just gotten a whole lot better.
She opened her mouth to speak, and the co-pilot interrupted. “I hate to break up this charming reunion, but we need to get going.”
“Better get your men inside,” she told Nick.
Within minutes, the twin turbojet engines were screaming, and the huge rotor blades started to turn. Nick motioned for his guys, and they all climbed aboard. No sooner had he settled into his seat, the Black Hawk lifted slowly upward, then twisting to the right it banked up into the air, straightened out, and shot into the distance.
Facing the cockpit, Nick could barely see the captain as she piloted the craft like a seasoned veteran. He hoped once they reached camp he’d have the chance to talk to her some more, fearing if he didn’t he may never get the chance to apologize for his wayward youth. He had often thought of her through the years and always wondered if her sudden disappearance after the fifth grade had somehow been connected to all the abuse he and his friends dished out.
An hour later, the Black Hawks landed at an airfield in a familiar province west of the Iranian border. Nick knew the area because he was stationed there early into the war. A lot of reconnaissance missions flew out of Camp Delta. Last he heard, the First Armored Division was operating out of here, and it was home to unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles, otherwise known as UAV’s. These integrated unit assets provided timely, actionable intelligence to coalition forces throughout the operation theater.
An armored vehicle met his aircraft. Two soldiers wielding M4 rifles stepped out. The driver glanced around briefly before opening the door directly behind his. The gunner seated next to Nick slid the cabin door open and the two soldiers escorted an Iraqi military officer toward them. Nick recognized the man’s insignia as the rank belonging to a lieutenant general, who usually served as direct assistant to the head of Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Iraqi military.
Once inside, the gunner slid the door shut. Nick glanced to the cockpit just as an Apache helicopter flew over. He didn’t have to look to know there was at least one more. He’d seen these formations before. Whoever this guy was, he was precious cargo. Nick got the feeling his unit was in more danger now than before they were rescued.
The sun had barely dipped below the horizon when Camp Adder came into view. Twelve-foot high concrete barriers surrounded the almost thirty square mile area; groups of tents and buildings, along with Containerized Housing Units sat inside its perimeters.
Captain Erickson sat the bird down with ease as the Apaches disappeared from sight. Moments later, a Humvee arrived for their guest. Nick watched out the gunner’s window as the Iraqi officer was ushered to the vehicle. He and his men then exited the craft, followed by the two gunners and co-pilot. Nick hung back, hoping to talk to the Captain.
The push crew arrived and began removing the guns and tying down the aircraft.
“Are you lost? Do you need directions?” the co-pilot asked Nick.
Before Nick could answer, Captain Erickson came around the front of the chopper. She was much taller than he expected, at least five-eight. Her helmet was tucked under one arm, against her shoulder holster, and she carried her flight bag in her other hand. A caramel colored ponytail barely stuck out of the back of her jumpsuit. “Stop being so rude, Saunders.”
The co-pilot grinned and shook his head before walking off.
“I suppose I deserve it after the way I treated you as a kid.”
“That’s all water under the bridge, Lieutenant.”
“Good, then maybe you’ll let me buy you a latte or something.” Nick stepped back as a member of the push crew swept in and took her helmet. “You know, for saving our hides today.”
“Just doing my job. Besides, I need to help with post-flight then I have a debriefing at eighteen hundred.”
His debriefing would be over by then. “How about dinner? You’ve gotta eat.”
“I usually eat with my crew. But thank you. It was very nice seeing you again.”
“So that’s it… you’re blowing me off just like that,” he said with a smile. “You’re not even going to give me a chance to make up for the way I treated you in school.”
“You think buying me dinner or a latte is going to do that?” She moved to one side as two men from the push crew hurried past her.
“Guess not, but it’s a start. So what do you say?”
“No thank you. I really don’t have a lot of free time on my hands, and I don’t care to spend it talking about something that’s long forgotten.”
Nick had a hunch her grace was only a ruse to get rid of him. “All right. Well, maybe I’ll see you around on the base.”
“Stay safe, Lieutenant.”
“Yeah, you too.”
“Overweight and braces, huh?”
Hope smiled at her co-pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Brody Saunders. “Shut up and get busy. You’re not the only one around here who’s hungry.”
“The guy did seem sincere. And a little romance in your life wouldn’t kill you.”
Hooking up with the likes of Nick Cunningham might. She may have changed dramatically since the fifth grade, but she doubted he had. The fact that a mere smile from the dark-haired, blue-eyed, hunk could still send her pulse into overdrive was a clear indication she needed to keep her distance from him at all costs.
“The Captain’s right in playing it safe,” his crew chief said. “Military romances never work out. Look at you. You’ve gone through more girlfriends in two tours of Iraq than most men do in a lifetime.”
“Okay, so I’m a poor example.” Brody smiled at Hope. “But there are a few that have survived the war. Look at your roommate, the fact she could find a guy to put up with her is a miracle in itself.”
Hope was tempted to tell him that was no longer the case. Though he pretended not to like Kylie, Hope believed otherwise. Almost every conversation they had included Kylie’s name at some point.
“Speak of the devil,” Brody said.
Hope glanced over her shoulder. Kylie walked toward them grinning. “Guess who gets to spend Christmas in Kuwait?”
“Don’t be sore because you’re coming with me.”
“Are you serious? How’d you manage that?”
“They were looking for volunteers for a Christmas Day mission and I signed us up.”
“You did what?” Brody folded his arms, shifting his gaze between them. “It’s bad enough we had to fly today but—”
“Oh, calm down,” Kylie said, “It’s not like you had any plans.”
“I could have.”
“I mean other than playing video games in your CHU by yourself.”
Hope chuckled at the two. She wondered if either of them would ever admit they liked one another. “So what kind of mission are we talking about?”
“Don’t know the details yet. All I know is they need two Black Hawks.”
Hope and Kylie both flew a wide array of missions, including the tactical transport of troops, supply drops, and transporting VIPs. Seldom did they know the details of their mission until their pre-flight briefing. “For Christmas in Kuwait, I don’t care what we have to do.”
“Did you get a look at our passenger?” Jim Bison, also known as Snowman, asked as Nick searched for empty seats in the cafeteria. “How many lieutenant generals have you seen ferried around Iraq like that?”
None that Nick could remember. “I’m just glad we made it back to base in one piece. With that kind of security, you know he has people gunning for him.”
“Yeah, I was beginning to wonder if we weren’t safer back at that school. Wonder who he is, and why our government is going to such lengths to protect him.”
“Al Qaeda informant probably. Who knows?” Nick spotted a half-empty table in the corner. “There’s a couple over there.”
“So, are you hooking up with the lovely captain later?”
“Nah, she shot me down.”
Jim chuckled. “You’re losing your touch, man. What’s it been, six months since your last date?”
“Somewhere in that neighborhood. But unlike you, I’m looking for a relationship longer than a weekend… with someone who actually has ambitions.” He bit into his apple, savoring its sweetness. After three days of MRE’s, it tasted like heaven.
“You’re in the middle of a war zone, buddy. The only ambition most people have around is to not go home in a body bag.”
Still, he could dream of finding a woman who loved the army as much as he did and who wanted the same things out of life. He thought of Hope. It took a dedicated individual to be a Black Hawk pilot. Not only did a person have to be an officer, which meant ROTC, West Point, or four years of college and OTS, they had to score in the top one percent of the candidates. And be of the best physically, mentally, and emotionally just to make the first cut. That’s six years of a person’s life with only one goal in mind.
A firm believer that God placed people in our lives for a purpose, Nick was convinced he should continue his pursuit of the elusive pilot. And not only to apologize for his behavior when he was younger. He sensed an attraction there long before he knew who she was.
“You gonna eat your peas?”
Nick absentmindedly slid his tray toward his friend. “Mind if I borrow your bike?”
Jim shook his head. “Aren’t you going to eat?”
“I’ll grab something later. There’s something I’ve gotta do.” He grabbed his bottle of water and left.
The thirty-by-eight Containerized Housing Units scattered throughout the base resembled shipping containers you see on railroad cars or ships. They housed anywhere from one to three personnel depending on rank. Similar units nearby were used as bathrooms and showers. It was the same set-up as his living area.
Nick found the one assigned to Captain Hope Erickson and heard a familiar rock-n-roll tune playing inside. He knocked.
A pretty blonde answered the door. “Can I help you?”
“I hope so. I’m looking for Captain Erickson.”
“And you are?” she asked with an arched eyebrow.
“Nick Cunningham. Is this her unit?”
“Maybe. What do you want with her?”
“I just want to talk to her. We met earlier today.” Nick wiped the sweat from his forehead.
The woman grinned. “You’re the ranger she rescued?”
“The captain mentioned me?” he asked, trying not to sound too excited.
“Briefly.” She leaned against the doorjamb and folded her arms. “She said you were a jerk.”
He peered inside and saw no sign of the captain. “I am… or at least I was. Will you tell me where I can find her?”
She twisted her mouth to one side, considering him. “She’s at the gym… but you didn’t hear that from me.”
Nick changed out of his uniform and into the clean PT clothes he borrowed from another soldier. He hoped the accidental meeting would be worth the twenty bucks it cost him.
Hope was still in the weight room when he came out of the locker room. He considered his battle plan again. If she were still harboring ill feelings toward him, he would have his work cut out for him.
“Hey, Cunningham, I thought you worked out in the mornings,” a fellow officer in his platoon hollered.
Hope glanced up from the weight bench midstride. They locked gazes. If she was surprised to see him, she didn’t show it. She did two more reps before straddling the bench.
Nick’s carefully thought out plan just went out the window. Without a clue as to what he was going to say, he walked toward her.
Lieutenant Garret, on the weight machine next to her, smiled at him. “Heard you got yourself in a bit of a jam today… bad Intel?”
“Yeah, but thanks to Captain Erickson here, we all made it out alive.”
Lieutenant Garret glanced at Hope. “You were flying the bird that rescued them? I thought they only used women pilots to ferry supplies and VIP’s.”
She tossed him a smug smile, “Not in this war,” then grabbed her towel and walked off.
Nick quickly followed. “Bet you get a lot of that, huh?”
“I’m used to it.” She stopped at a treadmill and stepped on, draping the towel across her right shoulder.
Nick climbed on the one next to her. After programming his speed and incline, he began a brisk walk. “How long have you been flying?”
“Since I was fifteen,” she answered with barely a glance.
“I meant in the army.”
“Nine years. Did Kylie tell you I was here?”
“Who’s Kylie?” he avoided her question, hoping to keep his promise.
“Never mind.” She met his gaze. “What do you want, Lieutenant?”
He gave her his best smile. “For starters, I’d like for you to call me Nick.”
“There are rules against fraternizing.”
“We’re only talking. Besides, if I did have aspirations toward you in that capacity, that rule refers mainly to relationships between officers and enlisted personnel.”
She shook her head as she glanced away.
“Whoa… wait a minute, was that a smile I just saw?” he teased. When she refused to look at him, he stepped off the treadmill and moved to stand in front of her. “I was a horrible kid, I admit it. And I’m sorry.”
“Forget about it. It’s no big deal.”
“Why don’t I believe you?”
“Believe me or not, that’s your prerogative.” She grabbed the towel from her shoulder and stepped off the treadmill. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go.”
He followed. “Now you see; if you didn’t keep brushing me off, I might believe you.”
She paused at the door, turning to him. “Are you always this tenacious?”
“Yes. It’s one of my many attributes. Have coffee with me and I’ll share some of my other qualities.”
“Is that a yes,” he asked, hopeful.
“All right, I’ll have coffee with you. Not tonight, though. I have a pre-flight briefing at oh-seven-hundred.”
“Tomorrow night then… after dinner with your crew, I’ll meet you right here.”
“It’s a date then. Don’t forget.”
“It’s not a date, its coffee, and I won’t forget.”
Hope entered the barely lit housing unit and tossed her towel in the growing pile of dirty clothes. Although there was a laundry service on the base, a lot of soldiers preferred to do their own in one of the laundry trailers. It was Kylie’s turn to do theirs. “Not only are you a ratfink, you’re a pig.”
Kylie removed her headphones and rose from her bunk. “What?”
“I said you’re a pig. It’s your turn to do laundry, you know.”
Kylie chuckled before replacing her headphones.
Hope squeezed past her roommate’s bed to her own, then opened her locker in search of a clean bath towel. There wasn’t any. Picking up a nearby slipper, she threw it at Kylie. It landed on her stomach.
“Hey, I’m trying to get some sleep here.”
“There aren’t any clean towels.”
“Check the cubby hole next to the fridge.”
Luckily, there were some left. Hope grabbed one, along with clean clothes from her locker, and headed to the door. “Oh, and don’t think I won’t get you back.”
“You know what.”
Kylie grinned. “Hey, he looked desperate. And he is very cute.”
Hope shook her head as she reached for the doorknob.
“So are you going out with him?”
“We’re having coffee tomorrow night, but only to get rid of him. He’s the last thing I need in my life right now.”
“People change, Hope. You of all people know that. Give the guy a chance.”
“You’ve got a lot of room to talk. You won’t give Brody the time of day and you know he’s crazy about you.”
“All right, I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll go out with Brody if you’ll ask Nick to come with us.”
“You mean like a double date?”
“Yeah. Stu’s having a cookout Saturday, we can do it then. What do you say?”
“I’ll think about it.”
On the way to the showers, Hope thought of her earlier musings. She’d met lots of guys since grade school, but none had the effect on her that Nick did. Despite his cruelty, she’d had a major crush on him and always suspected his behavior came from wanting to show off in front of his friends. The truth was; she owed her weight loss to Nick and his friends. They gave her the motivation she needed to find a diet and stick with it. The self-esteem she gained from that experience gave her the confidence to believe she could accomplish anything she put her mind to.
Even to pilot her own Black Hawk helicopter.
The following evening, despite her anxiousness, Hope kept her promise to meet Nick for coffee. Dressed in her usual base attire of fatigues, she walked the one-third mile to the gym.
The moment Nick looked at Hope her tummy fluttered and her pulse soared. She took a deep breath and exhaled as he walked toward her.
“I was afraid you wouldn’t show,” he said with a gorgeous smile.
“Don’t think I wasn’t tempted,” she admitted.
“Well, I’m glad you’re here.”
As they walked, her head told her she was making a dreadful mistake in being there. If that was the case, why did it feel so right?
Not every base in Iraq had a Green Beans coffee shop, but thankfully, theirs did. They served great coffee and lattes. Nick held the door for her then casually placed his hand at the small of her back as they approached the counter. After placing their order and receiving their drinks, Nick led her to a table in the back.
“There’s been something I’ve wanted to ask you,” Nick said after a brief silence.
Hope gazed across the table at him. When he didn’t continue, she asked, “What?”
“I don’t remember seeing you around after middle school. What happened to you?”
“My dad was transferred to Maine.”
“Don’t you have a famous uncle who lives in Maine?”
“Yes. Kenneth Hawthorne. He’s a mystery author. How’d you know that?” She was surprised he knew anything at all about her family.
“You did a report on one of his books once.”
“And you remembered that?” She chuckled.
He shrugged his shoulders. “What can I say, I was impressed. I never knew anyone who was related to someone famous before. Does he still write?”
“Yes, from his little island in the Atlantic.”
“He owns an island?”
“No, he only lives there. It’s called Dauphine Island. It’s a really neat place, off the coast of Maine. I love going to visit him. When I would stay with him as a kid, he’d take me treasure hunting. We never found anything, but it was still fun.”
“Sounds like a magical place.”
“Oh, it is.”
“So, what made you want to join the service instead of becoming a treasure hunter?”
She laughed. “My first flight instructor was a former army pilot. He talked non-stop about the missions he flew. He opened a whole other world for me, and I’ve never looked back.” Hope took another drink of her latte and leaned back in her chair. The anxiety she felt earlier finally dissipated. “What about you? What made you want to join?”
“Watching too many war movies as a kid, I suppose. Turns out, it was the best decision I’ve ever made. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
“Do your folks still live in Raleigh?”
“Yeah, so do my brother and sisters. That’s another reason why the military was so appealing; I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life there.” He took another drink of his coffee, his eyes steady on her. “Your roommate seems nice, how long have you known her?”
“Almost six years.” Hope thought of their agreement. She’d never asked a guy out before and wasn’t sure if it was such a good idea. It was only a cookout, though, not really a date -- date. Besides, how else was she going to get Brody and Kylie together?
“I have something I want to show you I think you’re going to get a kick out of.” Smiling, Nick reached into his pocket and pulled out a photograph. “I think you’ll appreciate the irony.”
Hope took it and glanced at the large group of people standing in front of a brick building. She didn’t recognize any of them. “I don’t get it. Am I supposed to know these people?”
He chuckled. “It was taken at my last high school reunion. Check out the three large guys in the back row, on your right.”
Hope looked closer. She had no trouble spotting Nick standing on the end, but the guys standing next to him weren’t familiar. Then it dawned on her who they were.
“Tommy is the only one who’s still married. He’s in real estate and lives on the east coast. Greg and Jimmy are partners in a car lot in Raleigh. I don’t think either of them are very happy.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Handing the photo back to him, she met his gaze and smiled. “You were just being boys, Nick. It was a long time ago.”
“So it never really bothered you that we were so cruel to you?”
He seemed very regretful of his past behavior and that impressed Hope.
“Of course it did, but if you spend enough time in therapy, you can overcome just about anything.” She watched him lower his head and couldn’t help but laugh. “I’m teasing, Nick. The truth is, I owe who I am today to you guys. If you hadn’t given me such a hard time I probably wouldn’t have lost the weight.”
She took a drink and considered whether or not she should reveal anymore. “I’m not condoning your behavior. That type of bullying can be very detrimental to a person of any age, but in my case, it inspired me to change.”
“Then you forgive me?”
“Both you and your friends… a long time ago.” Is seeking forgiveness his only motivation for asking me out? She hoped not. “It took me awhile of course. Grace is a hard pill to swallow sometimes.”
“You see, this isn’t so bad.” He shot her one of his gorgeous smiles. “Good coffee, pleasant conversation—”
“No, it isn’t. Would you like to do it again?” The invitation slipped out before she even knew it. She held her breath anxiously, a part of her wishing she could take it back.
“I’d love to, Hope.”
“It’s not really a date… I mean not the type of date you’re probably used to. There’s a cookout on Saturday and Kylie, my roommate, has offered to go with Brody if you and I go with them.”
Still smiling, he asked, “And Brody is?”
“My co-pilot. You met him yesterday.”
“So you’re using me in your match-making antics.”
It was Kylie who was doing all the manipulating, she feared, but he didn’t need to know that. “Do you mind? There’ll be steaks, cheeseburgers, and hotdogs.”
“Use me all you want.” He finished his coffee and then stood. “Will you allow me to walk you to your CHU?”
“Sure.” She grabbed both empty cups and deposited them in the trash on the way out.
Midway to Hope’s unit, Nick glanced over at the lovely pilot. The invitation to accompany her to the cookout came as a welcome surprise. Hopefully, in the next four days, he could charm his way into her heart enough so that she'd be open to a little romance in her own life. In order for that to happen, he'd have to come up with an ingenious plan or two so as not to scare her off. Most of the pilots he'd met were adrenaline junkies who lived life on the edge. Hope, however, seemed more cautious -- at least in her private life.
“Thanks for walking me home.”
Nick scanned his surroundings; disappointed they had already reached their destination. “It was my pleasure. Thanks for having coffee with me. I enjoyed it.”
“Me too,” she answered with a smile. “Well, goodnight then.”
He smiled back. “Goodnight, Hope. Pleasant dreams.”
Nick waited until she was inside before he left. As he walked back to his own CHU, he found he couldn’t stop smiling.
“So how was your date?” Jim asked as soon as Nick walked in the door.
“Best cup of coffee I ever drank.” He moved to his bed and lay down, folding his arms behind his head.
“Oh, man. I’ve seen that look on a lot of guys, but never you. You just met the woman. What, are you nuts?”
“Maybe.” All he knew was he couldn’t wait till Saturday to see her again.
“Remember, we won’t be here long. They’ll be shipping us out soon.”
Nick let out a heavy sigh. His roommate was right. It’d be insane for him to get involved with Hope. They both had dangerous jobs that demanded their complete focus. Any lack of concentration could endanger both their lives and those around them.
“Hey, I’m not saying not to have a good time with her while you can. Just don’t get too carried away. We have at least another six months here in Iraq, you don’t want to spend it writing love letters to some woman you may never see again.”
Nick looked up just as Jim took a drink of his soda. “Do you always have to be such a downer?”
“Just pointing out the inevitable, my friend.” Jim grabbed a jacket from his locker. “You wanna go over to Crocket’s and play video games. He has a new one.”
“No thanks.” Their quarters were tight as it was, squeeze half a dozen over-grown kids in one and it was a nightmare.
As soon as the door closed, Nick took out his laptop from the cubicle next to his bed. After several seconds of waiting to get online, he checked his messages and then started an email to his mother. Hi, Mom. Guess what? I’ve met someone.
Tuesday’s morning briefing took longer than usual, and it was almost 0400 before Hope, Brody, and their crew chiefs headed to the airstrip. Their mission today was to take a brigade commander and his staff to three forward operating bases, covering over 400 miles of flying. They knew where and when they would refuel, where they would be eating, and what time they would be taking off and landing at each base. If everything went according to plan, they’d be back at Camp Adder by 1500 hours.
After loading their gear to the flight-ready aircraft, they went to breakfast with the other Black Hawk team they would be flying with. Black Hawks almost always flew in pairs, so that if one were to get shot down, or have mechanical trouble, the other could fly cover until recovery teams could get there. Today, Hope was flying with Chief Warrant Officer Tom Jenson and his crew.
“Okay if I take the lead today?” Jenson asked as he sat down across from her.
Although she outranked him and was usually the lead aircraft, she nodded her approval. She’d received some complaints recently about his tendency to put on a show for his passengers, from the other pilots flying in formation with him, and today would be a good day to see how serious the infractions were. As leader of Team Twilight, part of her responsibility was to ensure the safety of the pilots and aircraft personnel under her command. She took that responsibility very seriously.
Midway through her meal of Belgian waffles, Hope caught a glimpse of a familiar smile two tables in front of her. Nick nodded as she met his gaze. She nodded back. He sat with a group of men she recognized from the extraction at the desert village a couple of days ago. Were they about to leave on a mission too?
“I had an interesting call last night from your roommate,” Brody said from his seat next to her.
“Oh yeah,” she answered absent-mindedly.
“She invited me to a cookout Saturday.”
Hope looked at him and tried not to smile. “What’d you tell her?”
“After I almost dropped the phone, I said I’d go. I thought she and Tyson were together.”
“Nah, they split up over a month ago.” She took another bite of waffles and washed it down with the rest of her coffee.
“Why didn’t you tell me they broke up?”
“I didn’t think you were interested.”
When he didn’t reply, Hope grabbed her tray. “I’m going to the latrine. I’ll meet you on the airfield.”
Nick ditched his men and followed Hope. After realizing where she was headed, he waited next to the ATV he’d soon be trading for a Humvee for the day’s mission. Several minutes later Hope walked toward him from the direction of the latrines. She was wearing a khaki flight suit, with a 9mm strapped to her right leg. She looked ready for action.
She flashed him a stunning smile. “Good morning.”
“Morning. Would you like a lift to the airfield?”
“I’d love one. Thank you.”
“Busy day planned?” he asked in route.
He nodded. Since neither could talk about their missions, he changed the subject. “How long have you been in the sandbox?”
“I’m eight months into my second tour.” She turned in the seat to face him. “Have you been to Afghanistan yet?”
“Last year. Didn’t care much for it.”
“Me either. I suspect they’ll be sending me back, though. I heard on the radio this morning they had another car bombing that took out fourteen U.S. and British troops. Things are really intensifying.”
“When were you there?”
“Afghanistan was my first deployment. I’d just finished my training a month before nine-eleven.”
“So that’s where you really learned to fly,” he teased.
Her face lit up with a beautiful smile.
“Okay, flying in Afghanistan was pretty awesome, especially during the winter with range after range of snow covered mountains. We could fly through passes and do two-wheel landings on ridgelines. It was beautiful… and fun.”
“Did you ever receive any ground fire?”
“Everyday. Thankfully they were rotten shots.”
“What about now?” he asked as he pulled to a stop near the flight line.
“Not as much.”
He was glad to hear that.
A truck passed them, and she waved. Nick glanced over and saw it was the crew members she’d sat with at breakfast. She started to get out, and he snagged her elbow. “If you don’t have any plans tonight, and we get back in time, would you like to do something?”
“Can’t. I have an aerobics class tonight and a lot of paperwork to catch up on. Thanks for the lift. I appreciate it.”
“Anytime. Have a safe flight.”
She climbed out of the ATV and then glanced back with a smile. “Good luck to you and your team today.”
“Thanks,” he hollered just as a motorcade of black SUV’s passed, heading toward the two choppers. More than a dozen men and women exited the vehicles and climbed aboard.
Nick stood at the revetment walls and watched Hope do her pre-flight check and start-up. The sound of the turbo engines sent his pulse racing. Soon the tail rotors were spinning so fast it looked like they might pick the whole aircraft up from the back. He moved along the wall so he could watch her take off from directly under the flight path. Finding a dead air spot where he wasn’t being buffeted by the wind from the main rotors, he waited until Hope looked up. When she did, he saluted her. She returned the honor and slowly lifted the bird off the ground. It then twisted to the right, straightened out, and shot into the distance.
Watch over them Lord.
“Beautiful sight, huh?”
Nick turned at the female voice and saw Hope’s roommate walking toward him with her flight crew. “Yes, she is.”
Kylie smiled. “I was referring to the chopper.”
“So was I.” It wasn’t a total lie. Both bird and pilot were gorgeous. “You flying today too?”
“We’re on standby in case something goes wrong with one of the missions.” She handed off her flight bag to one of her crewmembers. “So are you making any headway with Hope?”
He almost mentioned the cookout on Saturday, but since he didn’t know all the details of Hope’s matchmaking antics he didn’t. “Not really. She’s not seeing someone else is she?” Surely if she were, she would just come out and tell him.
“No. She doesn’t date much. However, I suspect that could easily change if the right guy came along and it didn’t interfere with her career.”
He smiled. “Oh yeah?”
A light mist blanketed the windshield of the aircraft as Hope flew low over the tan, flat terrain. The thick green line of the Tigris snaked across it, heading south to the Persian Gulf. With her right hand grasping the cyclic control stick between her knees, that controlled the direction of the helicopter, her left hand held the twist-grip collective bar, which controlled the up and down motion of the helicopter and the engine speed. Her feet were just as busy as they moved back and forth on the rudder pedals that controlled the tail rotor, which allowed the helicopter to rotate in either direction. The constant movement of her arms and legs kept the chopper in the air and was the reason why Hope preferred flying choppers to airplanes. It was much more exhilarating.
She shifted her gaze from the instrument panel to Jenson’s aircraft flying in front of her on the right. Since their departure from the base an hour ago, his machine had launched counter active flares twice from its automatic threat-detection system. They were designed to detect the launch of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.
Was he just messing with his passengers or had his radar systems really picked up on enemy threats on the ground? It wasn’t uncommon. That’s why they were always on alert.
She listened to the chatter between her crew chiefs sitting directly behind her and Brody with their door-mounted 7.62mm machine guns. They were like her rear-view mirrors, scanning the sectors for any threats to the aircraft. Neither seemed alarmed.
Hope scanned the terrain again for possible threats. All she saw were blue and red farm tractors working the fields, a few isolated farm villages, and people walking along pathways who stopped to look up at the aircraft, shading their eyes against the sun. Occasionally they would wave.
Twenty minutes later, she sat down at their first destination. After shutting down the engines, she waited for the passengers to exit before she climbed from the cockpit. “Eric, run a systems check, please.” She wanted to make sure there weren’t any malfunctions before she had a talk with Jenson.
“You got it.”
While he did that and the chopper was being refueled, Hope grabbed a handful of paper towels and a bottle of Windex and cleaned the windshield of all the sand they had accumulated during the flight. She then did her pre-flight check.
Brody joined her at the tail of the aircraft and offered her a drink from his bottle of water.
“Thanks.” She took a large gulp and handed it back. “Do you want to take over the controls?”
“Sure. We taking the lead this time?”
“I’m thinking about it.”
Taylor jumped out of the cabin. “Doesn’t the guy realize he’s putting all of us in danger when he pulls those stunts? I’ve got a wife who’s expecting our first kid. I’d really like to make it home to them.”
Hope smiled at the young sergeant. The couple had married just a month before their deployment. “How is Amy?”
“Good.” He reached into his pocket and produced a photograph of his very pregnant wife. “She’s due next month. I wish I could be there with her when she delivers, but she understands.”
Hope handed him the photo. “I’m sure she does. And you’ll be there soon enough.”
Still smiling he went on about his work.
“Do you ever think about settling down and starting a family?” Brody asked.
She shrugged her shoulder. “Maybe someday.”
A few minutes later, Eric confirmed Hope’s suspicions. “Everything checks out fine ma’am.”
With a sigh, she looked at Brody. “This oughta be fun.”
Jenson was talking to one of his crew chiefs when she walked up to his chopper. “Sparks, give us a minute.”
Jenson turned to her, smiling. “What’s up?”
Hope had flown with more than her share of cocky pilots through the years. Two of them were now dead, along with their crew chiefs. “We’re taking the lead into Balad.”
“Because I won’t have this mission, or any other mission under my command, endangered by you launching flares that give away our location to possible enemy threats.”
“I was just having some fun. Everyone does it.” He grinned. “You should have seen the old man’s face when he got off. I thought he was going to kiss the ground.”
“You’re welcome to have fun under someone else’s command. I won’t put up with it on this team.”
“Okay, I’m sorry. It won’t happen again.”
“All right.” She offered her hand, and he shook it. “Have a safe flight.”
On the way back to her chopper, Brody met her halfway. “How about some coffee?”
She glanced at her watch. They still had an hour to kill. “Sure.”
“So how’d Jenson react?”
“He apologized and said it wouldn’t happen again.”
“He is a good pilot.”
“I know he is, but he keeps pulling crap like that, and he’s gonna get his crew killed. We have at least four more months of this tour left, and I don’t want to lose any more of our men.”
“So, that was some salute you received on take-off earlier.”
His attempt to change the subject was no surprise. He’d flown on the ill-fated mission that claimed those lives, and she suspected he was still dealing with the aftermath. To see four of your friends shot down right before your eyes wasn’t something you could easily forget.
“You should ask him to the cookout Saturday,” he said. “I bet he’d come.”
“I did, and he is.”
“Really? You mean you’ve actually got a date?”
She punched him in the arm. “Shut up.”
He laughed. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m really looking forward to it.”
So am I. She thought about Nick’s invitation earlier and briefly considered skipping her aerobics class. Nah, I don’t want to appear too eager.
Hope glanced up from her magazine just in time to see the light change on the washing machines, indicating it was time to add softener. Grabbing the bottle from the seat next to her, she added a cap full to each. Had it not been for the lack of clean uniforms, she would have out-waited her pig of a roommate. Re-using towels she could handle, but she had to have clean clothes.
“Ain’t laundry day grand?”
Hope looked over at the familiar voice and found Nick walking toward her with a duffle bag draped over his shoulder and a grin plastered across his face. For once she was thankful for her roommate’s procrastination.
“I could think of several other things I’d rather be doing,” she fibbed.
“Like flying over the desert looking for rangers to rescue.”
She smiled. “That would be one of them.”
Only two days had passed since their paths crossed, yet it seemed much longer. She’d thought of him often during that time and was looking forward to tomorrow night more than she wanted to admit. Kylie was right; Nick had changed. The schoolyard bully she once knew had turned into a respectable, kind, and very charming man.
“Would you mind some company?”
“Not at all, seeing as how I’m almost finished with my magazine.”
He glanced back at her chair, where the tabloid laid, covered up. “So what’s happening in Hollywood these days?”
“Nothing worth mentioning.” She picked up the magazine and tossed it into her empty basket. “Kylie really needs to expand her taste in literature.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call that literature, but I suppose it beats staring at four walls.” He dumped the clothes from the duffle bag into two washers.
“I thought men washed all their clothes in one washer.”
“My mother broke me of that habit in high school after I tie-dyed her favorite white blouse.”
Hope laughed. “Did she teach you to cook, too?”
“No, but I’m great with a needle and thread.” He sat down next to her and picked up the tabloid from her basket. “Let’s see what we have here.” He thumbed through a couple of pages. “Look, they’ve discovered another bat boy. And just when I thought they were extinct. Oh, and look here, Brad and Angelina are breaking up again.”
She snatched the tabloid, laughing, and tossed it back into the basket.
“Am I embarrassing you?” he asked with a grin.
“No.” She glanced around at the other half dozen soldiers in the trailer who pretended not to be watching. “You’re embarrassing yourself, and since I’m sitting next to you, I don’t want everyone thinking we’re both idiots.”
“All right, I’ll behave.” He sat up straight, crossing his legs.
She continued to laugh at him until he snagged her hand and pulled it to his broad chest. Butterflies took flight in her tummy, warning her she needed to be very careful. Tempted to sit there basking in the serene moment, she had to force herself to get up. “I need to check my clothes.”
Unfortunately, they were still going through their final rinse cycle. She heard him get up, and her pulse quickened. She turned just as he leaned against the washer next to her.
“I’m curious about something you said the other night.” He hesitated briefly. “What type of date do you think I’m used to?”
“I just meant… I mean I didn’t want you to think I was attracted to you or anything… That didn’t come out right, either.” Urgh. She shifted her gaze back to the machine. Why was it taking so long?
He chuckled. “Well, just so you know. I may be too forward at times, but I don’t play the field, Hope. You’re the first woman I’ve asked out in several months.”
Her washers stopped. “Okay, now if you’ll excuse me I’m going to go toss these in the dryer before I make an even bigger fool of myself.” She reached for a nearby cart, but he beat her to it. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome,” he answered, his amusement still heavy in his voice.
While Hope loaded her clothes into the dryers, Nick slipped over to the Green Beans and bought them lattes. By the time he returned she was folding her clothes.
“I wondered where you disappeared to.” She accepted the drink with a smile. “Thank you.”
“My pleasure.” He set his cup down and walked over to his washers. The lids were up, and his clothes were gone.
“They’re drying,” Hope hollered.
He rejoined her. “In that case, would you like some help?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “You can fold the towels and washcloths if you want.”
He grabbed a towel and folded it. For someone who hated to do laundry, he was having a pretty great time. Kylie’s idea was turning out much better than he expected. However, Nick would have some explaining to do if his roommate returned to find every sheet and towel in the trailer gone, along with his PT clothes.
“Without breaching national security, what are some of the type of missions you go on?”
Pleased that she was interested, he picked up another towel and folded it. “Mostly raids, similar to the one we were doing the day you had to rescue us. The Intel we get is usually more accurate, though. We also do search and rescue and recon missions.”
“Search and rescue as in downed aircrafts?”
“Sometimes.” He suspected she already knew that and was just making conversation. “Have you ever crashed?”
“Only during simulation.” She stopped folding and looked at him. “My team did lose an aircraft early into this tour, though. All four on board were killed.”
Nick had lost men under his command, too, so he knew the burden she carried. “I’m sorry. Were you a part of the mission?”
“No. I wish I had been.”
“I doubt you would have been able to prevent it, Hope.”
“Maybe not, but there’s nothing worse than being on the ground and getting the news you’ve got a bird down, and all you can do is wait for the news of whether or not they survived.”
He searched his mind for some type of response but came up blank. He wasn’t sure which surprised him more. The fact she was a soldier who’d undoubtedly risk her life for the men and women serving under her, or that she was sharing such a personal piece of her life with him.
“I think your dryers stopped,” she said, shattering the awkward moment.
He borrowed her empty cart and retrieved his clothes. When he returned, she was sitting on the counter eating a granola bar.
She smiled at him. “Want half?”
He held out his hand. “Sure.”
She broke off the top portion she’d bitten from and handed him the rest. “Sorry I rattled on a while ago.”
“Don’t be. I’ve lost men, too, Hope. I know how hard it is to move on and not think about them occasionally.”
“What?” he asked.
“Are you sure you’re a ranger? The only ones I’ve ever met were the brooding, silent type that reeked of danger.”
“What can I say? You bring out the best in me.” He tossed her a handful of towels. “Now, start folding.”
“So, does she suspect anything?” Kylie whispered to Nick after Hope disappeared inside their CHU.
“I don’t think so,” he answered, thankful for the mischievous roommate.
Kylie leaned out the door, her head hovering next to his. “You hurt her, and I’ll kick your butt.”
He saw Hope walking toward them and said the first thing that popped into his head. “Chips, no problem, I’ll bring two bags. Barbeque okay?”
Kylie grinned. “I’d rather have ranch.”
“Ranch it is then.”
Hope joined Kylie in the doorway. “Thanks for your help.”
“No problem. I’m glad I ran into you.” Seeing her get so flustered confirmed her attraction to him. He thought briefly of his roommate’s warning. Sharing love letters with this woman was more appealing than the thought of going the rest of his life wondering what might have been.
“I’ll see you Saturday.” She glanced over at Kylie. “At sixteen-hundred, right?”
“Can I bring anything else besides chips?”
“No,” Hope answered. “Stu usually has everything covered.”
“All right. You ladies enjoy the rest of your evening.”
“I hope your roommate isn’t too sore when he comes home to a sheet-less bed,” Hope hollered as he walked away.
Nick laughed. She’d known all along tonight was a setup, yet didn’t say anything. That had to be a good sign.
As soon as Nick disappeared around the concrete barrier, Kylie nudged Hope in her side. “I smell love in the air.”
“No. I think that’s the garbage dump you smell.” Hope left her in the door and went to put away the laundry.
“Oh, come on, Hope, admit it. You like the guy.”
“All right, I like him.” What wasn’t to like? He was handsome, with a killer smile that rocked her world. He loved the army as much as she did. And above all, he made her feel special and could make her laugh. “Happy now?”
Kylie smiled as she moved to the refrigerator. She took out two bottles of water and handed one to Hope. “So if you like him, why are you playing these head games with him. Why don’t you just come out and tell him so?”
“Because I’m not like you.” Hope unscrewed the lid and took a drink.
“What’s that suppose to mean?”
“You’re used to this sort of attention from guys. They flock around you like buzzards to road kill.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Hope, you’re a very attractive woman. I’m sure there are lots of guys around here who’d love to go out with you. It’s just that you—”
“You’re not very approachable. You don’t trust people. You think everyone has a secret agenda to hurt or use you.”
Kylie was right. Hope trusted very few people.
“You should be cautious, yeah. I mean there are a lot of men around here that are only after one thing, but not all of them. Nick, for instance. I’m getting very good vibes from this guy.”
So was she. There was only one problem. “He’s a ranger, Kylie. It’s an impossible situation. Not only does he have one of the most dangerous jobs in the army, he’s deployed on little notice, and it could be weeks or months before I’d see or hear from him.”
“That’s true, and we can’t have that. What, with your busy social calendar and all.”
“Oh, shut up.” With a grin, Hope splashed her with some water from her opened bottle. “Why don’t you make yourself useful and help put this laundry away?”
“Are you wearing your hair up?” Kylie asked.
“Yeah, why? Do you think I should wear it down?”
Hope removed her scrunchie, then slipped her M9 into her side holster and looked in the mirror. For once she wished she could wear something other than fatigues to a cookout.
“You look great.” Kylie handed her a pair of sunglasses, before opening the door. “And you couldn’t ask for a more perfect day.”
Hope followed her out into the late afternoon sunlight. The only good thing about winter in Iraq was the mild temperatures that never dipped below freezing. Today they’d hovered in the low seventies.
Nick met them as they rounded the concrete barrier surrounding their living area. He held up a sack. “Got ‘em. One bag of ranch, as requested, and a bag of barbeque.”
“You gotta love a ranger. They always come prepared,” Kylie said with a jab to Hope’s ribcage.
“By land, sea, or air, we lead the way.”
“Well, lead on, handsome,” Kylie said, “Next row, first trailer from the end.”
A large group of soldiers had already gathered on the deck of fellow pilot, Stu McIntosh’s unit. Hope spotted Brody and their crew chiefs and nodded her greeting.
“All right, the twilight ladies are here,” Stu hollered. He stood in front of a large grill filled with burgers, steaks, and hotdogs. Music blared from a small boom box sitting on the steps of his trailer. A small group of male and female soldiers were dancing nearby.
Nick looked at Hope. “Twilight ladies?”
“Twilight is the name of our team because we prefer flying at night.”
“Have fun kids,” Kylie said before deserting them. She walked over and snagged Brody by the hand and started dancing.
“Looks like you’ve accomplished your goal,” Nick said.
Hope was on the verge of telling him it wasn’t that difficult when Stu joined them. “Don’t be shy you two. Get on out there. I’ll holler when the food’s ready.”
Nick wrapped his hand around hers. “It’s been a while, but I’m game if you are.”
No sooner had they joined the group of dancers, the music switched to a slow song. Instead of offering his other hand, Nick placed his arms around her waist leaving her no other alternative than to place hers on his shoulders. Less than a minute into the song, he dipped her backwards, forcing her to clasp her hands around his neck. When he smiled down at her, she knew that’d been his goal.
One slow tune led to another, and it wasn't long till Hope relaxed in his arms. She was surprised how good of a dancer he was. He'd no doubt had lots of practice. Hope had too, just not with someone she was so attracted to. She reflected on the past week -- all the chance meetings -- the long talks -- and realized her mission to avoid falling in love with this man was failing horribly. What was even more alarming was she didn't care. She enjoyed being with him, and that was the only thing that mattered.
The latest song came to a sudden halt, and Stu yelled for everyone to grab a plate. He then restarted the CD, but at a much lower volume.
Hope reluctantly stepped from Nick’s arms and reached for his hand. “We better hurry if you want one of those steaks.”
He squeezed her hand gently. “I’d rather have something else.”
Hope met his smoldering gaze. Her pulse soared. No man had ever looked at her like this. She knew then, without a doubt, her heart belonged to him. Forcing herself to breathe, she anticipated his next move.
She didn’t have to wait long.
Nick let go of her hand and draped his arm around her shoulder, then guided her around the side of the CHU. With his hand now at the back of her neck, he smiled at her. “Do you know every time I look at you, you take my breath away?” He wrapped his other hand around hers and drew it to his solid chest. “And I’ve wanted to do this since the moment I saw you in that cockpit.”
Without hesitation, Hope met his lips and gave fully to the gentle, yet urgent, exploration of her mouth. Her free hand slid up his muscular back, pulling him closer and molding their bodies together. He turned loose of her other hand and caressed the side of her neck. She heard voices nearby but gave them no mind. As far as she was concerned, no one else existed.
Nick ended the kiss and smiled down at her. “You’re going to make it awfully hard for me to sleep tonight.”
Hope smiled back, glad that her body wasn’t the only one experiencing such emotions. “I think maybe we should go eat now.”
With twelve-foot-high blast walls surrounding their trailer homes, a person could only see up, which was fine with Nick. The night sky in Iraq was amazing. He spotted Orion’s belt and sword so clearly it appeared the mythical warrior could step out of the sky and right onto the base.
“This is why I love to fly at night.”
He peered down at Hope. Her smile spoke a thousand words. That was what he loved most about her -- her passion. It was disturbing how much they were alike. It was like he'd found his kindred spirit. A part of him he never knew existed.
Flying wasn’t the only thing Hope was passionate about. She also liked to kiss, and they had done plenty of that tonight. The revelation that she was interested in him proved bittersweet, though. Earlier in the day, he’d received orders to deploy on a mission that would separate them for weeks.
Nick felt horrible he’d waited until now to tell her, but he couldn’t put it off any longer. He took her hands into his and looked down at her. “Hope. There’s something I need to tell you.”
“If you have a girlfriend back home, I’m going to pull out my gun and shoot you.”
He laughed. “No. There’s no girlfriend…Well… at least there wasn’t until tonight.”
She smiled at him.
“I should have said something sooner, but I—”
“You’re being transferred.” She was no longer smiling.
“No. Deployed on a mission. We leave tomorrow.”
She let go of his hands and wrapped her arms around him. “Be safe, okay.”
“We will.” He lifted his hands to her shoulders and pushed her back gently. “We should be back by Christmas. Will you spend it with me?”
With a sigh, she answered, “I can’t. I’ll be in Kuwait.”
“For how long?”
“I think just for the day. I’m not sure.”
He wrapped his arms around her and she rested her head on his chest. “I sure am glad you were the one flying that bird last week.”
Hope chuckled. “Yeah, I never will forget the look on your face when you realized who I was.”
He leaned his head back and out of the corner of his eye he saw a falling star. “Quick, make a wish.”
She laughed at him.
“Fine, I’ll make one.” He closed his eyes. “I wish for Hope to spend Christmas with me.”
She elbowed him in his stomach. “The wish won’t come true now, silly.”
“Well, I guess that leaves New Years Eve.”
“It’s a date,” she said and met his lips.
The next three weeks dragged by. Hope had little trouble keeping her mind occupied most of the time. Missions kept her in the air on an almost daily basis. A transition was taking place in the operating theater. Troops were being reassigned, and many were leaving Iraq for the states. Transporting these men and women to the plane that would be taking them home was the type of missions Hope loved most. Soon they would be reunited with loved ones.
She thought of her own family back home. Since her home base was in Germany, it’d been two years since she last saw her parents. Although she talked to them often on the phone or corresponded by email several times a week, it wasn’t the same. If things went according to plan, her tour would be up in eight to twelve weeks, and her parents were going to spend their vacation in Germany with her. She couldn’t wait. She had lots to tell them.
Hope looked at the picture of Nick and her taped to the wall next to the bed. Kylie had taken it without her knowledge the night of the cookout. Nick had one too. She thought of that night often -- had even dreamed about it.
God, she missed him.
The door of the trailer opened and Kylie came bouncing in with Brody. “You decent?”
Hope glanced up from her laptop screen. Fortunately, she was underneath the covers. “Thanks for asking beforehand. Hi, Brody.”
“Are you ready for tomorrow’s mission?”
“Yeah,” she answered soberly. Tomorrow was Christmas Eve. Nick should have been back by now. Had something gone wrong? She forced herself not to think about that. Surely if something had happened, someone on the base would know.
“I can’t believe we’ll be spending Christmas in Kuwait,” Brody said. “Any word on what we’ll be doing yet?”
“We’ll be delivering equipment and supplies to four areas in the northern and eastern providences, with an estimated flight time of eight hours, then into Kuwait. We fly back here the day after Christmas with some VIP’s.”
“Cool.” He took Kylie’s hand. “You ready to go, babe?”
Hope smiled at the happy couple. They were almost inseparable now days. She noticed Kylie had put on a jacket. “Where are you off to?”
“We’re going to Green Beans for lattes,” Kylie answered. “You wanna come?”
The last latte Hope drank was the one Nick bought her the night they did laundry together. “No thanks. One of us should get some sleep tonight.”
“Show Time isn’t until fourteen-hundred hours. We’ve plenty of time to sleep,” Kylie argued. “Sure you don’t want to come with us?”
“Nah. I’m going to call home here in a little bit.”
“See you tomorrow,” Brody said.
“All right. You guys have fun.”
After they’d gone, Hope looked at the picture of Nick. With her index finger, she caressed his handsome face. Please let them be safe, Lord.
Nick watched the sun slide slowly toward the horizon. It was Christmas Eve, and they were still hours away from Camp Adder. Their mission in Al Kut was a huge success. More than four dozen Iranian-backed Shiite insurgents, including two high-ranking officials, had been captured or eliminated and a large cache of weapons confiscated. Just as important, none of his men had been killed or injured.
He wondered if Hope had already taken off on her mission. He hoped not. He didn’t want to go another day without seeing her. The photograph he had tucked in his pocket, next to his heart, had sustained him through many sleep-deprived nights. But he longed to hear her voice, hold her in his arms again, and kiss those luscious lips of hers.
“You ready to head out?” Jim asked from the driver’s side of the Humvee.
“Let’s go. I’d like to make it to camp before Hope leaves for Kuwait.”
Jim chuckled. “You’re in deep trouble, my friend.”
“Just shut up and drive.”
Hope shifted her gaze from the instrument panel in front of her to the terrain below. It was a dark night, with not much of a moon, so night vision goggles were a must. They’d made their last drop off and soon they’d be in Kuwait. She listened to Eric’s plan to find a hot babe and Taylor’s teasing that he wouldn’t know what to do with her once he found her.
Hope and Brody looked at one another and shook their heads. “Kids,” he said.
“What are your plans, Captain?” Taylor asked.
“I plan to catch up on my sleep and then I’m going to pay my respects to KFC and Baskin Robbins.”
The guys laughed.
“What about you, Sir?” Eric asked of Brody.
“Baskin Robbins sounds pretty good. I might just take my hot babe and buy her a banana split,” Brody answered back.
Hope heard the familiar thump of a counter active flare launched from the aircraft’s automatic threat-detection system. She glanced over at Brody, and they both looked out the windshield just as a bright ball of fire flashed in front of them on her left. “Enemy fire. Breaking right.” She pushed down on the right pedal, moving the control stick at the same time. The chopper rolled to the right, then straightened out.
Another flare launched. Hope felt another midair explosion.
“I’ve got tracer fire coming from the hillside. Multiple sources,” Eric reported. He pounded away at the ground below them.
“Twilight thirty-seven to command, we’re under fire. I repeat we’re under fire from multiple sources. RPG’s and small-arms fire from the east. We’re engaging.”
“Twilight thirty-seven, this is command. What is your location?”
She gave their coordinates as she continued to fly in a southerly direction.
“Roger that, thirty-seven.”
“We’re hit!” Kylie’s voice came over the radio.
Hope’s adrenaline soared. “Twilight thirty-seven to thirty-six; how bad is it?”
“I’m getting a lot of vibration in the pedals. I think they clipped my tail rotor. Over.”
Not good. Out of all the things to go wrong on a chopper, that was one of the worst.
“Affirmative strike,” Taylor said. “There’s smoke coming from the tail.”
Hope scanned the terrain below. Aside from a few trees, it was mostly flat and uninhabited. She didn’t like the thought of putting down with the enemy so close, though. “Twilight thirty-seven to thirty-six; are you able to fly out of the hot zone?”
“I’m working on it,” Kylie answered.
“Are we clear to circle around?” Hope asked of her crew chiefs.
“Affirmative,” Taylor answered.
Kylie’s chopper came into view. It rocked back and forth in front of them on the left, and it was losing altitude. The rotor was still moving, but it looked like it could come off at any time. If they were going to land they needed to do it now.
Another RPG fired from the hillside, behind Kylie’s aircraft. Its white streak narrowly missed its target, engaging the decoy flare instead.
“I’m losing control,” Kylie reported. “We’re going down.”
Hope flew past the crippled chopper and Brody fired two hellfire missiles at a truck parked along an embankment to the east. Taylor and Eric blanketed the hillside with rounds from their door-mounted machine guns.
Hope saw another truck rolling toward the first one. “Eleven o’clock,” she advised.
Brody fired two more missiles. Pieces of both trucks littered the terrain. She scanned the area around the debris and toward the downed chopper for any further threats and saw no movement. Smoke billowed from the crippled bird, hindering Hope’s vision of the cockpit doors.
Eric gave her confirmation. “Targets eliminated to the east.”
Was there any more on the other side of the hill? Hope looked at the downed chopper again. There was still no movement. She had no choice. She had to get them out of there. “Command, this is Twilight thirty-seven. Thirty-six is down. We’re moving in for recovery.”
“Roger that, thirty-seven. Advise if you need medevac.”
Hope moved in position near the aircraft and started her descent. Eric and Taylor kept her abreast of any obstacles in the path of the blades or tail rotor. The terrain where she’d chosen to sit down was mostly flat.
As soon as the wheels reached the ground, Brody opened the cockpit door. “Eric, with me. Taylor, cover us.”
Hope looked out her window and saw the gunners were out. They, along with the co-pilot, were trying to extricate Kylie. Since the chopper was tilted on its side, they’d probably have to remove the window.
“Command to Twilight thirty-seven. What is your situation?”
“We’re on the ground. Thirty-six is intact on its side. Request additional air support and medevac.” She knew you could never be too careful, and the chopper would have to be destroyed once they cleared out of there.
“Roger that thirty-seven. Air support and medevac in route.”
While Taylor stood guard outside the aircraft, Hope searched the hillside in front of her for further threats. The seconds that slipped by seemed like hours. She had no idea if her best friend was alive or dead.
A flash of light on the hillside caught Hope’s attention. “Taylor, where are the infrared binoculars.”
Taylor scrambled backside and handed them to her. She flipped up her night vision goggles and peered through the binoculars. Another truck sped toward them on the hill from the north. Before she could say anything Taylor started firing his weapon toward the south.
“We’ve got small arm fire coming from the tree line.”
“Never mind that, we’ve got a much bigger problem.” She reached up and shut off the engines. “We need to get the hell out of here, now!”
“Grab your pack and let’s go!” She disconnected her headset cord, unlatched her harness, and scrambled out of the cockpit.
Taylor moved toward her, still firing. “I’ve got your back.”
With her 9mm in hand, Hope ran as fast as she could toward the crash site. She heard a loud swoosh. “Incoming,” she screamed, diving to the ground.
“Renegade two-five-four, you read?”
“Renegade two-five-four, go ahead,” Nick answered the call.
“Renegade two-five-four, we’ve got a downed Black Hawk receiving enemy fire near your location. Need immediate search and rescue over. Stand by for coordinates.”
Nick wrote them down. He immediately thought of Hope.
“Roger that. Do we have air support in the vicinity? Over.”
“Affirmative two-five-four. Apache’s are in route and medevac is standing by.”
“Were the birds part of the Twilight team out of Camp Adder? Over.”
After a brief silence, the man answered, “Affirmative.”
Nick slowly lowered the mike. Lord, please watch over them.
“The Black Hawk is one of the safest helicopters made,” Jim said. “They’re made to withstand impact as well as enemy fire.”
Nick had seen what an RPG could do to aircraft if it was a direct hit, though. Even if they did survive the crash, the ammunition from their 9mm’s and M4’s wouldn’t last long.
Pieces of burning metal lay within inches of Hope and her ears were ringing. “Taylor. You okay?” She was afraid to look back.
“I think I wet my pants,” he answered from close behind. “Other than that, I’m okay.”
Hope grinned. Rolling onto her side, she saw what was left of her aircraft. Only the tail section had survived.
The enemy continued to fire randomly at the crash site from the tree line to the south.
It was dark, so the enemy couldn’t really see anything except for the burning aircraft. It gave Hope and her teammates an advantage. What concerned her more were the insurgents on the hill. Both aircrafts were flying without lights, and yet the enemy scored two direct hits. They were either very lucky, had night vision capability, or they had heat-seeking missiles. She didn’t like any of those options.
She rose to one knee scanning the tree line through the binoculars. All she saw were trees. “Brody.”
He ran to her. “Are you guys okay?”
“We’re fine.” She glanced over her shoulder. Eric was right beside him. “How bad is it?”
“Kylie’s got a broken ankle. Jenson and the crewmembers just scrapes and bruises. They’ve put out the fire, and they’re immobilizing her ankle now.”
“They need to hurry. We need to find a ditch or canal for cover. There’s no telling how long it’ll be before air support gets here and I don’t want to be standing next to their chopper if the insurgents take it out, too.”
“Jenson said he saw an irrigation ditch about fifty meters northwest. You want to try for it?”
“Sounds good. Eric, switch places with me.” She handed him the binoculars. “I don’t think they can see us, but keep low anyway.”
“How’d they hit us if they couldn’t see us?” Eric asked.
“I’m guessing heat-seeking missiles.”
Hope walked with Brody to the front of Kylie’s chopper. “Do we have a working radio?”
A backpack dropped on the ground in front of her, barely missing her feet.
“Sorry,” Jenson said from the cabin door. “Sparks has one, but he hasn’t been able to get through to anyone.”
“We moved her around to the other side.” Jenson tossed out another backpack then jumped from the chopper. “You know they’re gonna try and box us in.”
“I know,” Hope answered. “Gather as much ammunition and supplies as you can and let’s head to that irrigation ditch you saw.”
Brody pitched in to help, and Hope moved to the other side of the chopper. She found Kylie with her eyes closed, leaned against the right front wheel that was buried in the sand. “How you holding up?”
“I’ll be okay. This isn’t the way I was hoping to spend Christmas Eve, though.”
“At least we’re alive.”
Hope knelt down and took her hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. Though Kylie didn’t express it, Hope knew she was scared. Hope was too. They couldn’t think about that, though. They had to stay strong and hold their position until help arrived. “We need to move out.”
“All right.” She wrapped her arm around Hope’s shoulder and attempted to stand. “Oh God, it hurts.”
Kylie’s crew chief moved in to assist. Draping Kylie’s other arm around his shoulder, he looked over at Hope. “There’s pain medication in the first aid kit. I tried to give it to her, but she wouldn’t take it.”
“I’m saving it for later. I have a feeling it’s going to be a long night.”
“No, it won’t. Help is on the way,” Hope said with as much conviction as she could muster.
“We’re a long way from any forward operating base. A lot could happen in an hour.”
“Come on, we better get out of here.”
With the gunners covering their backs, Brody and Eric carried Kylie, while Hope, Taylor, and Jenson led the way to the irrigation ditch.
“How are we on ammunition?” Hope asked Jenson.
“Worse case scenario; half an hour.”
Hope prayed it wouldn’t come to that, and held tight to her belief that help would be there soon.
“We need to move to higher ground,” Taylor suggested. “The radio is useless in this valley.”
“We don’t have the firepower to risk that,” Jenson argued. “We don’t know how many there are, or if they have anymore RPG’s.”
“He’s right,” Hope agreed. “We take shelter and only fire at targets we can hit.”
A few minutes later they reached the dry drainage ditch. The gunners and crew chiefs stood guard over the north and south sectors while Hope and the other three pilots covered east and west. For the next twenty minutes, the eight of them exchanged gunfire, sporadically, with the enemy.
Mini explosions and more gunfire were heard on the hillside above them. Hope stood next to Jenson on the east side of the trench. Whenever she’d spot a target through her night vision goggles, she fired.
“I’ve trained for this for years,” Jenson said, “but I never thought I’d actually be in this situation.”
Neither had Hope. She was glad she called home yesterday. “We’re going to be fine.” Despite her optimism, anxiousness grew in the pit of her stomach. If air support didn’t arrive soon, they could all die.
With infrared binoculars, Nick could see the smoldering remains of one chopper blown to pieces. Several meters away, the other lay on its side. There was no movement around either aircraft. Had they been killed on impact? Were they taken prisoner? Some could still be alive, waiting for help.
He felt nauseous. Please let her be okay, Lord.
Forcing himself to focus on the mission, he shifted his gaze on the advancing team. They’d already taken out more than a dozen insurgents embedded in the small hillside above the crash site. He went over their strategic plan in his mind again. According to their last transmission, the Apaches should be arriving any minute. His team would then move in and search for survivors.
“Crew personnel have been located,” one of his men reported through Nick’s earpiece.
He held his breath, fearing the worse.
“They’ve taken cover in a drainage ditch north of the downed aircraft. They’re engaging with enemy fire. We’re moving in.”
“Negative, Snowman. Hold your position,” he instructed soberly. He didn’t want to place his guys in the path of a misguided missile from the approaching Apaches. “Report coordinates of enemy fire and prepare to target.”
He prayed his decision wouldn’t cost any lives.
Hope spotted more insurgents several meters in front of her. “Three more at one o’clock.” She only managed to get off two rounds before her clip was empty. Jenson continued to shoot while she loaded her last clip. She heard bullets peppering the ground in front of them and ducked.
“I’m hit!” Taylor hollered from a few feet away.
Hope hurried to his side and sank with him to the ground.
“I’m all right.” Taylor tried to get up.
Hope pushed him back down. “I know you are. Just let me have a look.” Blood seeped from his shoulder wound. She turned him slightly in her arms and saw another patch of blood on his back, near his collarbone.
“Jenson. Let me have your backpack.”
He shook it off and kicked it toward her.
She found the first aid kit and ripped open a package of gauze with her mouth. She then shoved a handful inside Taylor’s uniform and applied pressure to the wound. In the distance, she heard the familiar thump, thump of helicopter blades and glanced up in time to see a laser beam coming from the south aimed at the hill above them. Two missiles came barreling from the sky toward the hill and exploded on impact. A barrage of 30mm rounds from its M230 chain gun followed. The second Apache did the same.
They all cheered.
Small-arms gunfire followed, lasting several minutes. Complete silence was followed by a flare, alerting them they were about to be rescued.
Jenson knelt at her side. “I’ll take over.”
Kylie hobbled to Hope and hugged her. She then hugged Brody.
Hope let out a long sigh. It was finally over.
A few minutes later, two Humvees rolled into the crash site. Hope and her teammates climbed out of the ditch and greeted their rescuers with smiles. Through the approaching group of army rangers, Hope spotted a very familiar face. She ran to him.
Nick picked her up in his arms and twirled her around. Then lowering her to her feet, he hugged her tight. “I suppose this makes us even,” she said.
“You scared the hell out of me.”
She stepped from his arms and looked up at him. “I’m all right. I’m glad you came when you did, though. I was almost out of bullets.”
“How are they doing?”
She followed his gaze to Kylie and Brody, who sat huddled together on the ground. “Kylie broke her ankle on impact and Taylor has a shoulder wound. We’ll need medevac.”
“They’re on their way. What happened, Hope?”
“We were on our way to Kuwait for the last leg of our mission and started receiving enemy fire. Kylie’s tail rotor was hit and she crash-landed. Brody and I thought we’d neutralized the enemy and went in to evacuate. Then I spotted another truck on the hill and knew I’d better do something quick. So I shut her down and ran like crazy.” She shook her head. “Talk about a close call. My ears are still ringing.”
Nick pulled her into his arms and hugged her again.
“I’d like to know how they got their hands on heat-seeking missiles.”
“I’ve got a pretty good idea.”
She leaned back in his arms and looked up at him.
“We raided an Iranian-backed militant group near Al Kut today that had some in their possession.”
“You were in Al Kut? We refueled at Camp Delta.”
He smiled at her. “Maybe that’s a sign.”
She smiled as Brody’s question a few weeks ago came to mind. “Maybe it is.”
Hope saw the crewmembers of the medevac lift Taylor onto a stretcher. She hurried to catch up. Placing her left hand on his shoulder, she smiled down at her teammate. “Looks like you’re gonna be there for that delivery after all.”
Taylor grinned. “Yes, ma’am.” He reached up and squeezed her hand. “It’s been an honor to serve with you, Captain.”
“You too, Sergeant.” With her free hand, she saluted him.
He saluted her back as they loaded him into the chopper.
“Well, don’t think you’re getting rid of me that easily,” Kylie spoke from behind.
Hope turned just as Kylie stepped from Brody’s arms. She hugged Hope. “According to the doc it isn’t a bad break, so I should be back in business in no time.”
Hope smiled. “Glad to hear it. It’d be pretty boring around here without you.”
Kylie laughed. “I’ll see you in a few weeks.”
Brody helped her aboard the aircraft, and then he and Hope stood together and watched it lift from the ground and dart off into the dark sky. Another Black Hawk stood by, waiting for Hope and her teammates.
Nick came over and draped his arm around her shoulder. Brody smiled at her before walking to the chopper.
“Guess this means you won’t be spending Christmas in Kuwait?”
“Afraid not. We’ll all have to be debriefed back at Camp Adder.” She turned and wrapped her arms around his waist. “Looks like you got your wish after all.”
He tilted his head to one side. “Well, not quite. At least not all of it.”
“What do you mean? Your wish was to spend Christmas with me.”
“Yeah. But there was a second part I didn’t tell you about.”
She smiled. “What was it?”
He hesitated briefly. “That we would spend the rest of our lives together.”
Her heart pounded as hard now as it had during the firefight with the insurgents. “We barely know one another and you’re already proposing marriage?”
“Does that frighten you?”
“Not in the least,” she admitted before eagerly meeting his lips.
About the Author:
Anne Patrick is the author of more than a dozen novels of Romance, Mayhem & Faith, including the award-winning and bestselling Wounded Heroes series, Fire and Ash, and Ties That Bind. Her heroines are usually strong willed, witty, and often very opinionated…combinations that usually land them in situations where death seems imminent. When she’s not working on her next novel, she enjoys spending time with family and friends. She makes her home in Kansas.
Dangerous Deception – a short story
Reservations for Two
Ties That Bind
Out of the Darkness
Fire and Ash
No Greater Love
A Familiar Evil
Journey to Redemption
Kill Shot – Wounded Heroes Series, Book One
Trespasses – Wounded Heroes Series, Book Two
Betrayal – Wounded Heroes Series, Book Three
Secrets – Wounded Heroes Series, Book Four
Vengeance – Wounded Heroes Series, Book Five
Murder at Black Lake
To learn more about Anne, please visit her website: http://www.annepatrickbooks.com
She loves to hear from her readers!
Hope Erickson, a Black Hawk pilot, and Nick Cunningham, an army ranger, renews their acquaintance on the battlefields of Iraq. He was a bully while she was the chubby girl with braces he and his friends picked on in school. Hope has changed though, and Nick wants a chance to convince her so has he. Will they risk their hearts to one another or does fate have other plans in store for them?