About the Author
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Captain DJ Hawkins heard his buddy Colin's words the same instant he spied the bright red-and-white postal box. He hopedjust as he knew Colin hopedit was from his sister Addie. Getting a closer look, he saw that the return address confirmed it. Yes. Cookies.
The box rattled and Colin reached over and tried to swipe it. No way. DJ wasn't sharing. Not yet, anyway. Not until he'd stuffed himself to the gills, and then only maybe.
Stowing the last of his gear, DJ ripped open the box, yanked out the plastic bag Addie had wrapped the cookies in and stuffed one very broken, very delicious peanut butter chocolate chip beauty into his mouth. He sank to his bunk in pure bliss.
Just to torment Colin, he groaned aloud in near ecstasy. For a minute or two he was no longer in this godforsaken hole in the world, waiting for the next enemy attack. He was a five-year-old whose big sister made the world's best cookies.
"You gonna share?"
"Not a chance." DJ laughed. He could feel the disappointment rolling off Colin. "Don't pout about it."
He tossed the plastic bag to Colinit wasn't as if the crumbs could get any more busted up.
"She should just pack a spoon." Colin reached into the bag and scooped out a handful of the sweet, gooey mess.
Most days DJ really did love his life. He hadn't joined the military with the notion that he'd stay safe all the time. He'd figured out a long time ago that he wasn't a stay-at-home, family kind of guy. He'd watched his older siblings shoulder too much responsibility after Dad's death. He'd seen the life go out of them when they were just kids. He would never let that happen to himself.
But that didn't keep him from missing his family.
The care packages helped. And his three sisters were great about sending themcookies, toothpaste and really bad books were the norm. His two older brothers managed to send emails every now and then. He laughed at the image of either Wyatt or Jason baking. Yeah, their expertise ran more in the area of picking out a bag of Oreo cookies.
Expecting the package to include a letter, DJ wasn't disappointed, though the feminine handwriting didn't look familiar. For an instant he wondered if he'd gotten the right package.
His taste buds confirmed these were Addie's cookies, though. Plus, his name and his last stateside address, Mom's house, were clear on the envelope. Then he noticed Addie had written on a little yellow sticky note and stuck it on the outside. "This came in the mail. Thought I'd send it along." Yep, it was his.
He tore open the seal, surprised in this day and age of email and computer-printed letters to see the old-fashioned lined school paper. Several drugstore-printed photographs fell out.
Slowly, he unfolded the letter and stared at the date. Two months? This had been sent, or at least written, two months ago?
The words flowed in pretty curls of blue ink.
DJ, You probably don't remember me. I don't know why you would. It was only one week. A single week in your life that completely altered mine. I can't blame or regret it though it saddens me to think of it that way.
It's time you know. You have a son. I've stuck in pictures of him. He looks like you. So much like you. You'll see. But that isn't the purpose of this letter.
His name is Tyler. He's in Texas. I can't do this anymore.
The name Tammie was scrawled across the bottom of the page, the ink smudged.
He stared at the pictures. What the ? A boy and a familiar young woman smiled at him from the dozen images.
Distant, banished memories rushed in. Eighteen.
He'd been a grand total of eighteen years old. Fresh out of high school, prepping to head to basic training in two months. He and three buddies had packed a car and headed to the Gulf Coast beaches of Florida. He couldn't recall why they'd picked Florida. Someone's harebrained idea.
Two weeks of no school, no parents and no commanding officers. Heaven. Pure heaven.
DJ's memories, foggy and age-worn, flickered. He recalled the pretty blonde, too much beer and a long night on a sandy beach. He smiled. Those carefree days seemed so far away.
Picture after picture. His mind raced. How long had it been since he'd been with Tammie? Eight nine years? The baby photos didn't show him the resemblance, but the others Three years old, four, six, eight
DJ's vision narrowed and nearly went black. The whole world moved in slow motion around him. The tent flapped in the wind and the scrape of blowing dirt against the canvas sounded like a lion fighting to get in.
Despite the desert heat in this outpost, a chill shot through him, icicles instead of sand particles cut across his heart. This wasn't possible.
He had a kid?
A kid he hadn't even known about? He scooped up the pictures scattered across his bunk. As he stared at the boy with the wide grin, he couldn't deny it. The boy looked exactly like him at that age.
My God. The words in the letter tumbled through his mind over and over again.
What the hell was he supposed to do now? His brain was mush half the time these days, what with the long hours, the heat and all the energy he gave his job. He couldn't wrap his mind around any of this.
"Hey," Colin said around a mouthful of cookie as he lounged on his bunk. "What gives?"
DJ paced, his eyes staring at the childhis childin the pictures. His heart pounded and the desert heat washed over him. Words? He was supposed to be able to say words? Think words?
His stomach revolted and Addie's sweet cookies threatened to return to the world. He couldn't speak. He simply shoved half the photos into his buddy's hands.
"What the ?" Colin looked first at DJ, then back at the picture and back at DJ again. "Whoa!"
DJ cursed again. What was he supposed to do now? He needed to get back to the base and see if he could get ahold of Wyatt, or Jason, or Addie. Someone. Tylerwas that his name?was in Texas. They needed to find himhe needed to see his son.
He looked up just as his commanding officer, Major Dixon, walked into the tent, a cloud of dust on his heels.
The frown on the older man's face didn't bode well, and DJ knew he wouldn't get the chance to call home anytime soon. He stuffed the pictures and letter back into the envelope and shoved it all into the cargo pocket of his uniform. He had to go to work now. But later
Meanwhile, halfway across the world
Tammie Easton dropped the tattered curtains back in place. The old, fragile lace didn't so much waft as thunk against the frame. Vaguely, she wondered if Cora had ever had them cleaned. Looking around at the tiny, old house, Tammie shook her head. Of course she hadn't had them cleaned. Cora could barely afford to feed herself.
Even though the curtains hung over the window, Tammie could still see what was happening across the street.
Tyler, her son, at all of eight years old, the only person who mattered to her in the world, was leaving. Never mind that she was the one who'd set all this in motion. Never mind that she was sending him to live with his dad's family to keep him safe. Never mind any of that. Her heart hurt and she doubted it would ever stop. Even if no when she got him back, she'd never forgive herself for sending him away.
The images blurred, and she blinked furiously to clear her eyes. She couldn't bear to miss even an instant of his life. She might never No, she reminded herself again, she would see him again. She was coming back. He'd be with her again. Soon. She'd promised him.
Footsteps came up beside her, and Tammie glanced down briefly to see the diminutive older woman come up beside her. Cora patted Tammie's arm and gave her a warm hug. "You're doin' the right thing, hon. He'll be fine."
"I know. I'm the one who's a wreck." Tammie wiped her eyes and watched as the man she knew was Wyatt Hawkins helped Tyler into the passenger seat of a big black pickup truck. He was taking Tyler home with him since DJ was deployed overseas.
Maybe she should have waited. But she knew the answer to that, tooshe couldn't have waited. And she'd sent DJ a letter before learning he was overseas. Doing it all over againwriting a letter to his brotherhad torn her apart. Tammie had thought she and Tyler had escaped when they came here to Texas. But the other night someone had broken into the apartment she'd just moved them into. Nothing was missing. The intruder just tore the place up, looking for something. Just as they had at the last two places.
That's how she'd ended up here with Cora.
She looked down at the coworker who'd become her friend. "I'm sorry to put you in the middle of all this."
"Don't you go apologizin' again. I told you, that's why we got Rufus." The old coon dog lifted his head at the sound of his name. "And Bubba." Bubba was the twelve-gauge shotgun Cora kept propped up beside the front door. She didn't need one at the back kitchen door, as it was nailed shut with easily a hundred tenpenny nails.
Tyler loved Rufus, and the dog lavished love on the boy every chance he got.
Tammie hoped Wyatt had animals for Tyler to play with. He loved animals. Her mind filled with all the images of things her son loved. Dogs and cats. Horses. Stories about monsters. Video games. And snuggling while she read to him on cold rainy days.
Could she actually die from the pain of her broken heart?
The truck's taillights glowed, and Tammie leaned closer to the window to watch until they vanished around the corner at the end of the block. Finally, Tyler was well and truly gone.
Tammie lost it. Burying her face in her hands, she gave in to the sobs. Cora rubbed Tammie's shoulder, making all the soothing noises that people made when they didn't know what else to do.
They were on the hunt. This was the province where intel had placed the terrorist cell they'd been tracking for months. It was right in DJ's backyard. The team had assembled quickly with Dixon's ordersnot surprising since they stood at alert around the clock. Now, slowly, methodically, the four-man team moved through the backstreets of the small town DJ knew intimately, having lived here for over a month.
Silence was thick. A strange silence, unlike the norm of a small town. In the middle of the night the few residents who remained were, hopefully, asleep and tucked away safe.
Safe? DJ would have laughed if it weren't so important to maintain that silence.
He knew the other men were nearby, moving slowly, quietly like him. He sensed rather than heard or saw them. Even with the night-vision goggles they were mere shadows.
A trickle of sweat slid down the center of DJ's back, like a finger of foreboding.
Something was off, but he couldn't identify it. This operation felt different. With the next step, he acknowledged it. Life, work, the mission wasn't differenthe was different.
The sharp edges of the photos had dug into his thigh all the way here. Twice, a bump in the road had thrown him into the edge of the truck, and the packet. A sharp reminder of all he had to lose.
Where was Tyler? DJ glanced at his watch. Probably just sitting down to dinner? Where? With who? If Tammie couldn't do this anymore, had she dumped him somewhere?
He had a son. Over and over again that thought bounced around in his brain. He wanted to see him. Hear what his voice sounded like. How tall was he? The pictures gave little in the way of reference points.
DJ had promised long ago that he wouldn't let himself be bogged down by family. Not like the other guys who carried pictures of girlfriends, wives and kids. Distractions. Enemy leverage. Vulnerabilities to be exploited.
Focus! He mentally swore and blinked to shift the gears in his mind. He had a job to do. The others needed him to be 110 percent.
Footsteps broke the silence and, thankfully, jerked him back to sanity. He shut out everything except his awareness. The others did the same.
Silence returned. Too silent. DJ stood, his finger on the trigger, sensing the others on the team moving into position. No one else on this side. Nothing.
The sound of hasty footfalls broke the night, shattering the quiet. Shots rained down. The shadows disappeared, finding cover.
Images flashed in DJ's mind of a little boy's smiling face. His eyes burned. No. Not acceptable. He forced the faces of the men around him into his mind. Tyler was part of the why of their missionthe shadows with DJ were the how.
Silence returned. No sounds of pain or injury. Shadows moved. One, two, three. All here. All whole. DJ breathed an instant's relief.
Seconds later, noise erupted everywhere around him. DJ dropped to the ground, knowing he'd crawl out if he had to. Wouldn't be the first time.
Gunfire broke the night and tufts of dirt and pieces of rock shot up into the air. He felt the sting of a dozen cuts across his face.
No. Not now. He didn't know if he said the words aloud or not. A soft click echoed through the streets.
"Oh, shit!" DJ froze.
The air shifted and time slowed. The roar behind him shattered the quiet. A ball of fire shot up the street. Language, his and others', blistered the night.
Searing pain tore a scream from his throat and ripped DJ from his feet. His back, his shoulder, his legs roared with agony.
Light surrounded him, and in the glow, he saw a pair of startled eyes. So far away. So damned far away. DJ tried to speak, but the heat stole his words and burned in his gut.
The night returned. Pure silence. Nothing but pain engulfed him.
"Tyler!" A name that sounded strange in this land, so far from home, echoed down the deserted streets. A name DJ whispered into the darkness that took him.
And then the nothing was simply blank.
Two months later
Mornings were the worst. DJ lay there, listening to the ranch come to life, not moving, because once he moved, reality and pain came back. For those first few minutes, he could pretend that he was still normal.
And then he'd do something stupid, like breathe, and the pain would shoot through him with a knife's vengeance.
He cursed, long and loud, before forcing his body into a sitting position and swinging his legs over the edge of the bed. He didn't know how long he sat there trying to convince himself that getting up was a good idea.
"Dad?" A small voice came through the door, reminding DJ that he didn't really have a choice. DJ closed his eyes and let the sweet sound rattle around in his head. He didn't think he'd ever get tired of hearing Tyler call him Dad.
It had taken months to build a relationship with his son. Tyler had called him DJ at first.
"Yeah?" he croaked, then cleared his throat. "Just a sec." He grabbed the jeans he'd tossed over the back of the captain's chair that now sat in his room, and yanked them on with the chair's support.
The sturdy chair had been his father's and the extra leverage the arms provided was a huge help when his scarred legs didn't want to cooperate. Half-dressed, he called, "Come on in, buddy."