Major Aaron Bricewick jerked his head up, biting back a gasp.
Had a sound wakened him, or was it just pain that had brought him to consciousness?
He lay still in the dark, straining to make out any further noise. It must be night; he couldn’t hear the muted sounds of vehicles.
The third night in this basement cell.
This night there’d been no bread and water.
Though the sounds of his captors made his heart race and his stomach clench, this silence was unnerving. Even the occasional movement on the floor above him had stopped. Had his captors fled? Or were they out wreaking havoc elsewhere?
He flinched at the scuttling sound of his only company. Though he’d never seen the rats, his mind now conjured up images of them crawling on and over his lifeless body.
He shifted. The clinking of the chain attached to his right wrist sounded unnaturally loud. He placed that hand against the floor and pushed himself to a sitting position, swallowing the groan as best he could.
He reached for the jug he knew was beside the door, but the fingers of his left hand were stiff and swollen, and he had trouble gripping it.
“If you don’t give us what we want, we’ll take you apart piece by piece!”
The voice in his head was the one called Rashid—the only terrorist in this group who spoke English.
Would Aaron have done it if he could? Hack into the system and give up military intelligence? He was no Navy SEAL or Army Ranger or Special Forces operative trained to withstand interrogation and torture. He was a computer guy, for God’s sake.
But he hadn’t had to make that choice. He’d been locked out of the computer system, probably the moment the higher-ups realized he was missing. He’d tried explaining this to Rashid and his henchmen, but there was no rationalizing with terrorists.
Instead, Rashid had calmly picked up a club, informed Aaron he intended to kill him—and smashed both the computer and Aaron’s hand.
He’d never known pain like that.
It was Scott who’d torn strips from his own clothes, his lips moving in silent prayer as he fashioned a makeshift bandage for Aaron’s broken fingers. He, too, had been interrogated, but as a civilian contractor, he had no military rank—a fact that seemed to make him less of a target for the terrorists’ ire.
Which was a good thing—if there was any good to be found in this situation—and it had become Aaron’s mission to keep that spotlight off Scott.
Oh, God, what had the terrorists done with them?
He swallowed the bile that pushed into his throat; throwing up again would only make things worse. Private Cheryl Young had only been his clerk for four months; she didn’t know anything that would be of value to the terrorists. He’d tried to protect her, too, but had it done any good?
God, if you’re there, protect them. Hell, protect me too, if you really do care about sinners.
He raised the water jug to his lips, but it was empty. He let it fall to the ground, then dropped his head against the cold wall at his back.
He had regrets about his life: his estrangement from his father… not being there when his mom and stepfather died… the woman he should have married and made a life with.
Memories played as if on a reel as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Holly in Duluth, snow falling soft and white against her black earmuffs, laughing at his first attempts to ski. Holly running on the beach in Hawaii, her tawny hair tossed by the wind. That impossibly small bikini and those long legs wrapped around him as they made love there in the surf…
Aaron’s eyes flew open.
That’s not the rats.
He strained to hear something more.
Yes, there it was again.
His breath caught in his chest. Were these sounds good or bad? Were the terrorists coming to finish him off?
God, give me courage. The prayer came easily to his overwhelmed psyche.
The sounds were louder now.
His body tensed.
He jerked at the unmistakable sound of a door being kicked in, then again with the second Bang! when it hit the wall.
Sudden light blinded him. “Major Bricewick?”
He didn’t recognize the voice, but it was definitely American. Profound relief rendered him mute.
“Oh, my God!” Another voice—one he recognized.
“Scott?” he croaked.
Scott was alive!
“Get the flashlights out of his face.”
More figures and voices filled the tiny space. Dim light bounced off the walls and someone knelt beside him. Swore. “Hand me the cutters.”
“Hang in there, Sir.” He felt hands on his forehead, his neck, his back. The weight fell from his wrist.
“Major.” It was that first voice again. “We’ve got to get you out now. Can you make it?”
Hands grasped his arms and pulled him to his feet. White-hot fangs tore through his legs and he cried out.
No. I will not pass out!
His rescuers braced their arms under his knees and around his shoulders, forming a human sling. They carried him up a stairwell and across a darkened yard, each step jarring nerve endings that screamed in agony.
Oblivion beckoned… and then, suddenly, the dull thud of doors, the low growl of a motor, and the sway of a moving vehicle.
Words flowed over and around him:
“Need an IV.”
Focus. He needed to focus. “Scott?”
“I’m here, Aaron.”
“Cheryl… is she…?”
“She’s okay.” Scott’s voice was fading.
“Mister Olson was able to lead us to both you and Miss Young.” It was that second voice again—the one who’d cut the chain.
Scott. Scott had saved them…
He struggled to form words.
“You’re gonna be okay.” Scott’s voice broke. “It’s over, Aaron.”
Aaron clung to those words as American soldiers laid him on a gurney. His last memory of Afghanistan was of helicopter blades spinning above and an oxygen mask closing over his face…
Holly Rossiter waved at Nick through the glass door of Miss Val’s Daycare.
She’d have driven across town for Miss Val; instead, she only had to walk three blocks to her job at Holbrook Military Medical Center.
As a single parent, it was hard to understate the peace of mind that came with knowing her four-year-old son was within walking distance. The fact that she could cover those blocks in comfort—even in the winter—still surprised her even after four years of living in California.
The distinctive whop-whop-whop of helicopter blades passed overhead, and she looked up, shading her eyes against the ever-present California sun.
She watched the chopper approach the helipad on the roof of the hospital, wondering if it was carrying another torn-up soldier—another customer for the prosthetics and orthotics department.
She’d been ecstatic about the opportunity to do cutting-edge prosthesis work at the unique private-public campus that was Holbrook, even though it meant moving from Minnesota. Helping amputees put their lives back together wasn’t an easy job; it had its share of heartbreak—but when a veteran overcame struggles and found new purpose, it was magical.
When Holly’s cell phone rang, she dragged her eyes off her computer. Was it really 12:15 already?
She smiled when she saw her friend’s name on the screen. “Hey Sam!”
“Hey, do you have time for lunch?” Samantha said.
Holly had been so immersed in her latest design she hadn’t even thought about food. “I wish I did, but I’ve got a patient at one and I’m still working on the drawing.”
“I know how it is,” Sam said. “Maybe tomorrow.”
“Sure,” Holly said. “By the way, I saw the military chopper on your roof this morning.” Samantha worked across the skyway on one of the patient floors.
“Injured Army officer transferred from Landstuhl,” Samantha said. “Rumor is he was held by terrorists. You might want to pull him up—he’ll probably be a client of yours. The docs don’t know if they can save his legs.”
Holly opened the database on her computer. “What’s the name?”
“Briceton… no, wait… Bricewick. First name: Aaron.”
Holly nearly dropped the phone.
It couldn’t be.
But how many Aaron Bricewicks could there be? Especially ones who’d made a career as an Army officer? At least she assumed he was still in the Army…
Holly found her voice long enough to bid her friend good-bye, then sat staring at her computer screen, where she’d input the letters B-R-I-C-E.
She still remembered their first kiss on New Year’s Eve at a friend’s party. Remembered even more clearly the night, a week later, when they became lovers. She’d never felt such an instantaneous connection to another person—not even Todd.
She hit the ENTER key, and there it was: Major Aaron Bricewick had had surgery at Landstuhl Air Force base in Germany before being transferred to Holbrook, where he’d undergone immediate fasciotomy surgery on his legs. The latest update indicated he’d come out of surgery with both legs still attached, but was listed in critical condition due to infection and sepsis.
Holly sucked air into her lungs. Sepsis was serious stuff—and usually only happened if the patient was left untreated for a long period and/or in filthy conditions.
She kept reading, the words “untreated occipital fracture” and “gangrene” jumping off the screen.
Gangrene. A future amputation was definitely a possibility, although the doctors were obviously trying their best to avoid it.
Holly didn’t usually put much stock in hospital gossip, but what if it was true this time? What if Aaron had been tortured?
Holly let the air out of her lungs slowly. Did she dare assign herself as Aaron’s prosthetist? It was a sure way to know what was happening to him—and she really wanted to know.
She had to know.
She typed her name in the field labeled “P&O.” She’d figure out what to tell her boss later; for now, she was going to make full use of the hospital rumor mill and their computer system to find out what had happened to Aaron.
Am I hearing voices?
Aaron strained to understand the murmurs, but they were too quiet to hear above the beeping sound. Was he in the command center?
He’d been in a car… or was it a helicopter? Disjoined thoughts flittered just out of his reach.
Wait—he’d been in Afghanistan—
Dread clutched at his belly.
He pried his eyes open, wary of pain.
It didn’t come. Instead, he felt oddly detached from his body.
He was in a hospital room. An IV snaked to his wrist. His left hand was wrapped in gauze. A monitor beeped overhead somewhere. A blanket covered his legs.
More vague recollections teased his sluggish brain. An explosion. Gunfire—
“I see you’re finally awake.”
His heart slammed into his chest.
“It’s okay, Major.” The voice belonged to a buxom woman in lavender scrubs with a pale complexion and garish red lipstick. “You’re safe here.”
“Where…?” His voice sounded like it hadn’t been used in weeks.
“You’re in the intensive care unit at Holbrook Military Medical Center in Los Angeles,” she said.
Los Angeles. He was in the US! But—
“You gave us a bit of a scare when your fever spiked to 104,” the woman said. “But I think you’ll be moved to a recovery room shortly. How are you feeling?”
He swallowed, his throat tight and scratchy. “I’ve had better days.”
“I’m sure you’ve got questions,” she said. “I’ll answer what I can, but your superior officers want to debrief you first.”
A dull ache bloomed behind his eyeballs; he didn’t want to think about superior officers and debriefings.
“Is there anything I can get you?” she said.
He shook his head, and she left.
The door to his room was sliding glass, and the nurse had left the curtains open (no doubt to keep a closer eye on him). His gaze was drawn to movement outside the pane, where a dark-complexioned brunette was speaking with the nurse.
His heart skipped a beat.
It couldn’t be; his mind was playing tricks on him. Too many drugs…
The brunette turned her head and looked directly at him—and a jolt of electricity swept through him.
I know those eyes.
She pushed through the door, and he watched her approach in a state of shock.
Her lips moved, and he realized she’d said his name.
He finally found his voice. “Holly?”
“You’re shocked to see me,” she said.
Shocked? Hell, he was speechless. It was as if she’d stepped out of his dreams. His past. What does one say to a lover you haven’t seen in twelve years? And in this, of all situations?
He noticed the access badge clipped to her pocket. “You… you work here?”
“I’m an orthotics and prosthetics specialist,” she said.
It took his brain a moment to grasp what she’d said. “That sounds… impressive.”
“It’s my calling,” she said. “But we can talk about that later. Right now I’m going to let you rest.”
“Don’t go,” he said, even as he felt the tug of medications doing their best to take him under.
“I’ll be back,” she said. “I work here, and you’re not going anywhere for a while. You really need to rest now.”
Was she a hallucination? Would she still be there when he woke?
He couldn’t fight the drugs; his eyes drifted closed.