Invaluable skills came with bloody faces and dead objectives that left Colton Neeley wishing he could rub his eyes raw. Those same skills were the reason Uncle Sam had denied his request for an early exit from his commitment with the Marine Special Operations Command/Team. And the same reason he couldn’t muster enthusiasm for his friend who’d been granted his freedom.
“Never thought you’d get out.” Colton slumped back against the wood slats of the lawn chair, watching his four-year-old daughter, McKenna. She sat on the fifty-foot dock that stretched over the private pond. She tossed a pink lure-tipped line into the water as his dad helped.
“You and me both.” Beside him, his partner and MARSOC buddy Griffin Riddell sat with his elbows propped on his knees. “What about you? Thought you wanted out.”
“Denied.” The word felt like a weight around his gut. Colton shifted his gaze to the water rippling around Mickey’s bobber. “Eleven years wasn’t enough for Uncle Sam. Said my sniping and recon skills were too invaluable.”
Griffin whistled. “Man, after what you went through in Fallujah, I half expected them to toss you without so much as a thank-you-verymuch.” His grunted. “How you doing with that?”
Colton picked up his soda and took a swig. “S’pose I’ll be all right.” He glanced over at the grill. Probably should get up and flip the meat in a few.
“Two months as a hostage. That don’t just disappear, know what I’m saying?”
Oh he knew all right. More than knew. Though Colton didn’t want to remember, the mention of that city and what happened snapped faces into his mind like a flickering silent movie, bringing with it phantom pains in his spine and legs.
“What about the flashbacks?”
“Daddy, look!” McKenna’s mouse-like voice squeaked as she giggled. With his father next to her, she held up the end of her fishing line. “I caught a seaweed.” Another giggle.
“Save it, Mickey,” he called toward the pond, where his daughter sat between his mom and dad on the short pier. “We’ll grill it.”
She batted white-blond hair from her face as her papa took the rod. “Daddy.” The cutest scowl tugged at her fair features and blue eyes as she planted her hands on her hips and turned to him. “You can’t eat it, silly. It’s a weed.”
He chuckled as she and his mother baited the line, while his father pointed out that if they’d use real worms, they’d catch something besides weeds. Naturally, Mickey and his mom ewwed out the option.
Though Colton’s attention never left his family, the patient, waiting gaze of his buddy burned through Colton’s resolve. He shook his head, knowing he wouldn’t get out of answering that question. About the flashbacks. Fallujah. The girl. . . “I see that kid’s face every day and every time I look at Mickey.” The brown eyes. The misinterpreted trust.
Clearing his throat, he sat up straighter. “Started therapy last week.” He shrugged, scrounging for hope that this would be over soon. “Like the counselor. Joined an experimental group for a new med—seems to be working.”
“Going all the way, huh?”
“I want to be whole. Get out there and play with Mickey and forget that two months of captivity almost paralyzed me, that the hum of a light isn’t my brain getting fried.” He roughed a hand over his face. “Forget it, man. This is the Fourth. We have a barbecue.”
Colton pushed out of his chair and strode to the covered patio, where plumes of heat rose from the gas grill. As he worked the steaks and burgers over the cast-iron grate, he let the tendrils of smoke carry off the depression and haunting images. As the meat finished cooking, he stood in silence, soaking up the laughter of his family and guests, Griffin and his ten-year-old nephew.
Ten minutes later, they gathered under the covered porch to munch on the cooked-to-perfection corn on the cob and meat. Once their bellies were full, they leaned back and sighed as the fans circled lazily overhead.
“Now, that was a meal,” Griffin said as he clamped a hand on Dante’s shoulder. “You need to learn to cook like that.”
Dante grinned. “Yes, sir. Grandpapa would love it.”
Gathering plates and dishes, Colton’s mother waved them off. “Y’all go on and enjoy your time. Colton, get the sparklers for McKenna and Dante while I clean up.”
The blond wonder jumped up and down, squealing. “Yes, Daddy! I love them! Please—please—please?” She threaded her hands in mock prayer.
“All right, darlin’.” He rustled her hair. “I’ll be right back.” He stepped into the dark night and headed to his truck, where he’d left the small bag of sparklers. Reaching behind the front seat, he cocked his head and groped for the fireworks. As his fingers grazed the bag, which scooted farther out of reach, he spotted his Remington 700.
Regret choked him. He paused and leaned against the seat. Hung his head. God. . .please. I just want a clear mind. With a final grunt, he snatched the bag and slammed the door shut on the truck and on his shaky thoughts. “All right, Mickey, here we go.”
Bouncing from the back porch toward him, she squealed. “Dante, look, look! Daddy got sparklers and poppers—my favorite.”
A noise screeched through the night.
His heart jack-hammered at the familiar sound.
He dove to the side. Hearing hollowed out, he blinked. A dusty road spread before him. Shouts pervaded the Iraqi street. Men darted for cover. Colton scrambled, feeling the weight of his gear on his back.
“Take cover,” he shouted to his team as he rushed up against a building. Spine pressed to the wood, he reached for his radio. Gone. He cursed. Under attack and no backup, no airstrike. He searched the street, his mind pinging.
Movement to the side flared into his awareness. Instincts blazed. He grabbed his weapon—but it wasn’t there. Oh God, no! He patted the ground, his hearing still muffled by the first IED detonation. Where’s my rifle? Where’d it go?
“What?” he shouted, searching for his weapon.
Kaboom! Pop-pop-pop. Multi-colored flashes lit the bloody day. Colton scrambled for cover beside the Humvee. He scoured the dust and smoke for his team. Where were they? He glanced over his shoulder—then remembered the Remington.
As he rushed to the back door of the Humvee, another blast shoved him against the steel. Oof!
Yanking open the door, he noted civilians on the other side of the Humvee and hoped they stayed clear of the violence erupting around them. He didn’t need to find another foot—or any other body part— during cleanup. He lifted his weapon and only then realized it was empty.
Sound from behind yanked him around.
A white-haired man rushed toward him.
“Get back!” Without his weapon ready, it’d be hand-to-hand. But he wasn’t letting his weapon go. No way would someone find him with his pants down. Not here. He wasn’t going to die in Iraq because he didn’t have his gun. They did that to the civilian contractors. But not to him, not to a MARSOC sniper.
“What are you doing? Don’t do this.”
When the haggard man rushed him again, Colton drove a hard right into his face. The old man flew back and slid across the hardpacked earth. Colton quickly eased a slug in and chambered the round.
Crack! Boom! Pop-pop!
He ducked, and when he came up, a girl with wide brown eyes appeared out of the dust. His heart rapid-fired. No. Couldn’t be. He’d killed her already. The villagers had used her as a suicide bomber—then captured him and nearly killed him. No way, no how was he going back there so they could drive a thousand volts through his body.
He dropped to a knee and lined up the sights.
The girl drew back and yelped. “I’m scared.”
Why was she speaking English? He shrugged. They’d trained the children to gain confidence and intelligence. He’d fallen prey once. Won’t happen again.
“Maa-i-khussni, not my problem,” he said, all too familiar with the way the radicals worked the American soldiers. Soldiers who were here trying to help.
“Cowboy, it’s”—Boom! Crack-crack-pop!—“girl.”
“Don’t care, man. I’m not letting them take me again.” Sweat slid down his temple into his eye. He blinked—
Wait! Her eyes. How had they changed from brown to blue? He shook his head to dislodge the disparity. The heat. Had to be the heat. Using his upper arm, he swiped away the sweat. Realigned the sights. His heart rate ratcheted when more civilians emerged around the girl.
“Ambush!” He lowered his head and peered through the scope. Focused on nailing the shot, holding his position. Considered the elements.
“Colton! No!” a familiar voice shouted.
But they didn’t know. Hadn’t been there.
“Marine, stand down! Stand down!”
His finger slid into the trigger well.
It’s a girl. A little girl.
And they’d used her to get to him, to extract information and kill him. Never again.
Why are her eyes blue? No, not blue. He was seeing things. They were brown, and he wasn’t letting this happen again. No remorse. Gently, he let his finger ease back on the trigger.
Forgive me, Father, he prayed silently, as he did with every kill.
A tremendous weight slammed into him and knocked him sideways. Crack! As the weapon’s recoil registered, so did the fact that he’d lost his gun. He went flying. Hit the ground—hard. Thud! Stars sprinkled through his eyes. The edges of his vision ghosted. His ears popped. He howled at the pain. Blinked.
Night? Why was it night?
Again, he blinked. A man almost as dark as the sky behind him loomed over him. “Legend?” Aches radiated through Colton’s body, leaving him disoriented. “What. . . ?”
Screams and cries suffused the night.
Something ominous clouded Legend’s face. He straddled Colton, pinning his arms to the sides. “You with me, Cowboy? You here?”
“What are—get off!”
“Where are we?”
“What do you mean?”
“Where are we? Answer me, Marine!”
Qualms squelched by Legend’s drill sergeant voice, Colton paused. “My ranch.” A horrible, horrible feeling slithered into his gut. The events crashed in on him. The screaming. The little girl in Fallujah. Blue eyes. “No!” Everything in him went cold. For a split second, he locked gazes with Griffin, then jerked his head to the side. Strained to see.
A half-dozen feet away lay his Remington 700. Beyond, his mother and father huddled over—
“McKenna!” The pounding roar of his pulse deafened him.
The small huddle shifted. His parents parted, and Mickey sat up. Colton squirmed, but Griffin held him down. “Get off me now, or so help me God—”
His buddy shoved off and cleared the path. Scrabbling over the dirt drive, Colton pushed the weapon out of reach and dove toward his daughter. When she saw him coming, Mickey screamed—and lunged for his mother.
Her rejection punched him in the gut. He sat, stunned. “Mickey.” His voice cracked. He reached for his beautiful, precious four-year-old with a trembling hand.
Liquid blue eyes came to his as his mother let out a sob again, pushed to her feet, and rushed up the steps into the house with McKenna.
Colton dropped back, numb. I almost killed my daughter. A half moan trapped the air in his throat.
“Son?” Blood dribbled down his father’s chin.
Did I. . .punch him? Appalled at himself, Colton pushed his father away. Stumbled to his feet. Staggered to the barn. I almost killed my daughter. Arms and legs felt as heavy as cannons. He couldn’t tell between reality and the nightmare of captivity. Couldn’t tell the difference—he gasped for air—between his own daughter and an insurgent’s pawn.
He swayed. The heady scent of the barn lured him inside. How. . . how could he do that? Lose grasp on reality like that? He gripped the half wall of a stall. Gripped it tight. Wood dug into his hands. What’s wrong with me? He shook the wall. Shuffled back—and drove his heel through the wood. It splintered and swung inward.
A horse shifted aside and nickered in protest.
Colton spun around and grabbed his head. Anger burned to rage. Seeing Mickey’s stricken face. Knowing what he’d almost done. Almost put a sniper bullet through his daughter’s tiny frame. The impact alone would have ruptured every major organ in her body.
Colton wobbled. Hot tears streaked down his face. His knees grew weak, and he stumbled. Fell and dragged himself to the wall. With his back against the steel of the barn, he again held his head. A demoniclike growl clawed through his chest. Tears slid over his cheeks.
“God, where are You?” He rammed his elbows into the steel. “Why? Why. . . ?” His fingernails dug into his scalp, wishing he could gouge the memories from his mind. He growled—sobbed. Banged his head. He let out a loud, stuttering moan, still shrouded in disbelief and pure agony.
A hand clamped on his shoulder. Griffin. He’d been the voice in the flashback, ordering him to stand down.
Humiliation cloaked Colton in a suffocating fabric. “I told them. . . .” He groaned. “I told the Brass I had to get out.” He smeared the tears away, then wiped his hand down his jeans. “I need time. . . .” The memory of Mickey’s terrified expression strangled his words. His chin quivered. “To heal up.”
Shoes shuffled and crunched against the dirt and hay.
Colton rubbed his face and shuddered as he looked up. When he saw his partner crouched in front of him, he wanted to say something—anything that would explain how he’d become some monster who couldn’t tell the difference between pure innocence and a girl with a bomb strapped to her chest.
Fingers threaded, Griffin took a deep breath, then pointed his fingers at Colton. “I met a man not long ago who can get you out.”
Wariness wedged into Colton’s ability to believe his partner. “No way. I’m locked in.”
“Not only get you out but give you the time you want.”
Colton shook his head. “Stop messing with me. I can’t take jokes right now.”
“No joke.” White teeth shone against Griffin’s ebony skin as he smiled. “I tell this guy I need you, he’ll get you out.”
“Need me? For what?”
“I’ll give you all the time you need to get your mind back where it should be.” Griffin straightened and towered over him. “But then you're going to be part of a very special team.